Monday, October 20, 2008

Analogy #215: Slacker Terrorists

Here’s a story you’ll probably never hear—a story about slacker suicide bombers. Imagine if you will, suicide bombers who are indifferent to their task—not caring if they show up or not.

They come late to the meetings to learn how to make the suicide bombs, because they’re not really into the task at hand. Even though their bosses have set a date for when they are to perform their suicide mission, they say they’ll get around to it later. They only half-heartedly care about the greater mission of the terrorist group to which they belong. If it weren’t for the paycheck, they wouldn’t show up.

No, I don’t think there are very many slacker suicide bombers out there.

There may not be many slackers in the ranks of suicide bombers, but there sure are a lot of them in the ranks of business. According to the Gallup organization, it is estimated that unengaged employees cost the US economy about $300 billion a year. They claim that about 17% of the workforce is “actively” disengaged. Each of these employees cost their employer about $13,000 a year in lost productivity.

To some extent, the quality of one’s strategy is irrelevant if the bulk of your employees are indifferent to it. Therefore, a strategy needs to be more than just needs to inspire.

This blog will look at terrorist organizations to see what we can learn about creating inspired and engaged employees.

The principle here is that effective organizations mentally and emotionally engage their employees. As I’ve said earlier, dedicated patriots are more effective than mercenaries, who only fight for the money (see blogs “Soulless Capitalism” and “Sweat is Swell”).

Terrorists seem to do a very good job of creating this attitude. Not only are they willing to work hard for the cause, but die for the cause. These terrorist are willing to sacrifice a great deal for the cause. How much sacrifice do your employees want to give to the cause?

Here are a few things we can learn from terrorist organizations to create that engagement:

1) Create a Great Cause
People are not willing to die for a small cause, but they will do remarkable things for a great cause. Employees will be far more engaged if they feel like they are a part of a great and mighty movement, bigger than themselves. Mission statements can be an important tool to communicate that great cause.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Sure, it’s easy for a terrorist organization to extol a great cause. They’re fighting for freedom, eliminating oppression, furthering their religion. But all my company does is sell widgets. Where’s the great cause in that?”

Well, if you can’t find the great cause, don’t expect the employees to find it. There is a great cause out there for almost every company. Part of your job is to find it and then make it the common great cause for the organization. If you don’t supply a great cause, employees may conclude that their only mission is to make the boss wealthy at their expense. Now that has slacker written all over it.

Google could have said that their job is to make advertising more effective (ho-hum, yawn). Instead, their mission is to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Now that’s something to get excited about…to be the first to conquer knowledge and give it to the world in a way that betters everyone.

ADM could have said they sell food-based chemicals. Instead, their great cause is to “unlock the potential of nature to improve the quality of life.” How’s that for inspiration?

Even someone like Avery Dennison, maker of stickers and labels, was able to find a greater cause in all that: to enable and transform the way consumers and businesses gather, manage, distribute and communicate information.

A bland statement like “optimizing shareholder value for our shareholders” is about as inspiring as cold oatmeal. The younger portion of the workforce is especially interested in working at inspirational companies. If you want to tap into this talent pool make sure you wrap your company’s work around a great cause.

2) Keep the Organization Small
It’s hard to feel like a nameless, faceless cog in a giant impersonal machine when the organization is so small that you know everyone by name (and they all know you). Small groups create more of a family-type atmosphere. And people will go to great ends to protect their “family.”

Terrorist cell groups are often very effective because they are intentionally kept small. Once they get to a certain size, they are split up in order to stay small. It’s hard to slack off when you know that everyone in the small group is depending on you. There is no place to hide.

Many successful companies do a good job of capturing this idea of keeping groups small. Some experts say that effective organizations stay under 200 people. Once you start approaching that size, split up the organization. Create a network of small companies, rather than one giant behemoth.

3) Spread the Glory
Terrorists are in the business of creating heroes. Everyone who works hard for the cause is a hero. They write songs about the great heroes of the cause. If you die for the cause, you bring honor to your family and perhaps are rewarded yourself with 50 virgins in the afterlife. Stories of great heroism become integral to the culture.

There’s no law that a company can have only a limited number of heroes. Making heroes is not like handing out slices of a pizza, where you can run out of slices if you pass them out too quickly. You can have an unlimited number of heroes. Don’t be stingy with the praise of heroics.

And don’t just give the praise to folks at the top. Spread the glory out into the front line troops. It doesn’t cost a lot and it creates tremendous engagement.

4) Demonize the Enemy
Terror groups are great at depicting their opposition as evil incarnate. “Death to Satan” can be a great motivator. The desire to beat the competition becomes more emotional and convicting when the competition is painted as an evil foe. Just as a great cause makes you want to work hard for your company, painting the competition as the enemy of that great cause makes you want to work even harder to stop them.

In the early days, when the founder of Best Buy was trying to build his company, he saw the much larger Circuit City as his enemy. In conversation, he always referred to it as “the Evil Empire.” And over time, Best Buy overcame that “evil empire.”

I know of many other firms companies that have also used the demonizing of their opposition to engage the troops.

5) Live the Cause
Decades after the revolution, Fidel Castro still wore army fatigues. Castro understood that if he stopped living the cause and started looking like he was living the life of decadence, the followers of the cause would stop following. Followers expect their leaders to live a life consistent with the cause. Hypocrisy will lead to a counter revolution.

Appearance is very important. Companies like Patagonia and W.L Gore have impassioned employees in part because they see that passion so integral to the lives of their leaders. It is real and genuine. It’s not just a slogan. Live the cause in a way that your people can see it in who you are.

You just don’t hear about slacker suicide bombers, because only impassioned and engaged followers will desire the life of the suicide bomber. Terrorists have done a good job of building passion into their followers, and you can do the same. Follow their tactics of creating a great cause, keeping the organization small, spreading the glory, demonizing the enemy, and living the cause. Integrate this into your strategy and you will become a much greater organization.

People talk about the problems of finding and recruiting great talent. Terrorists seem to do a pretty good job of recruiting. In fact, once they get all the factors we talked about running smoothly, the recruiting almost takes care of itself. People flock to those types of organizations.

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