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Positive Business, Positive Results: An Open Invitation

The term 'positive business' refers to the application of this vision to the world of business — the belief that organizations can be reimagined to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

April 22, 2014
Related Topics: Organizational Culture, Mission Statements, Corporate Culture, The Latest, Talent Management, Workplace Culture
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Positive Thinking April 2014

Everyone has moments of greatness that stay with us for years, but why is it that those instances seem so fleeting?

Isn’t it possible to create a structure or apply processes that will allow us to have and celebrate more professional moments of greatness on a regular basis? Just think of the benefits this would not only bring to the individual workers, but also to the organization itself.

The term “positive business” refers to the application of this vision to the world of business — the belief that organizations can be reimagined to achieve extraordinary outcomes for shareholders, employees, communities and the environment. Many global businesses and innovative emerging companies have reimagined the way they organize and manage various aspects of their organizations, which entails everything from recruiting and workforce management to operations and legal to sales and marketing. These forward-thinking companies realize that, just like people, their organizations experience moments of greatness. These moments can be amplified in a virtuous cycle.

I invite you to envision positive business in your own organization and offer some ways to consider applying these practices across various functional areas and business processes.

Positive Business Conference

From May 15-17, 2014, the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan will host its first Positive Business Conference. There will be twenty inspiring and practical workshops on applying Positive Business to different functions of the organization, including sessions led by Professors Wally Hopp and George Siedel. Ten business leaders will share specific positive practices that they have baked into the business, including Bob Fregolle and Fred Keller. Immediately following the conference, there will be a meeting of the Great Work Cultures initiative, for those who want to actively shape the future of positive organizations.

An Invitation to Reimagine People Processes

Can you think of a particularly positive organization? Positive organizations, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you are picturing a larger company like Whole Foods Market Inc., renowned for the empowering practices it employs for its “team members” (workers are not called “employees” here). Maybe you are picturing a local, “small giant,” like Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. On a recent visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, President Barack Obama lauded the approach to management and leadership that has grown up at what Inc. magazine called the “coolest deli in America.” 

What are some of the characteristics of these workplaces? Maybe it’s that leaders focus mostly on the things their people do well, rather than just correcting the things they do badly. Maybe it’s that employees connect a deep sense of meaning to their work. You probably came up with many other connotations in that mental exercise. The same thought process can be applied to the entire organization.

The industry standard recruiting process is to receive many résumés and cover letters, and then filter them to a candidate pool. Companies then conduct one or more rounds of interviews, and a reference and background check is conducted on the lucky candidates. Yet, as many of us know from painful experience, no matter how great a candidate seems through the interview process, we never really know how that person will work out in the job for weeks or even months.

By contrast, at companies like Menlo Innovations, which builds custom software, a large group is offered the chance to learn about the company through a paid trial. In multiple steps, people are paired with existing team members for a short, intense burst of collaborative work. Those who make the cut are paid to work as contractors on real projects for the company.

Beyond just technical skills, candidates Menlo are exploring whether they have a good cultural fit with each other. Eventually, once a candidate and team have had a chance to decide whether they choose each other, the new employee is selected. As Menlo’s CEO Richard Sheridan writes in his book “Joy, Inc.,” all of this is done in a way that is designed to create positive experiences for the candidates and do valuable work for the company, irrespective of whether a full-time job offer is ultimately forthcoming.

What about creating job descriptions? The industry standard is to describe in a long set of bullet points the responsibilities to be fulfilled in this role, as well as desired qualifications. While it is now almost 15 years since Gallup Inc.’s Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman showed the importance of managers adapting their approaches to each individual employee, corporate America (and the corporate world, in fact) has still not evolved past a one-size-fits-all approach to job descriptions.

A recent multiyear study, however, has shown that job crafting — processes for shaping one’s own role to align with personal values, interests and strengths — can facilitate a significant uptick in performance and engagement that remains over six months after the initial intervention.

As Brian Welle, Google Inc.’s people analytics director, said, “The job-crafting exercisehas enabled team members to more clearly define how their values, strengths and passions connect to what they do on a day-to-day basis. This insight has really helped people identify who they are and tap into what is most important to them at work, which has made a tremendous difference for us.”

This same approach can be extended to just about every organizational process, not just people development.

An Invitation to Reimagine Organizational Functions

Another way to think of the corporation is as a collection of functions. Each of the functions can be considered individually as a way to take a closer look at how positive business practices play out in organizations.

As those of us who have undertaken a strict diet in our own lives know, lean living can be a stressful experience. Cue crankiness, fatigue, irritability — these are all symptoms that often have personal and systemic parallels in organizations put under stress.

Implementing lean production practices has been the industry standard for improving operations processes for over a generation now. The goals of reducing waste and variance in the system are systematically and rigorously pursued. Yet, implementing lean principles and practices can often be a draining experience for those involved. What if the approach to implementing lean were re-imagined to achieve its desired outcomes of reducing waste and variance, while not just maintaining the energy and engagement of those involved, but actually enhancing it?

Wallace Hopp, a business professor at the University of Michigan, has written extensively about how “managing the stress on the system” was one of the original tenets of lean production, but somehow got lost in the rush to reduce waste and variance. What adjustments might need to be made to make lean conducive to thriving, not just efficiency?

When we think of the law in organizations, we think mostly of risk mitigation, not value creation. To work optimally, though, the equation needs to be balanced.

“Efficient work systems can make jobs stressful, tedious and dehumanizing. They can also make jobs enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding,” Hopp said. “It all depends on how they are implemented. Positive lean achieves efficiency via work systems that energize and motivate workers, which in turn amplifies the productivity gains of traditional lean methods.”

Applying positivity can be effective in externally facing roles, too. Consider Sales: Procter & Gamble Co.’s chief customer officer, Bob Fregolle, has reoriented his $82 billion/year organization around principles of radical transparency, as well as relationship- and trust-building between his salespeople and their customers. The principles underlying Fregolle’s strategic bet are, on face value, consistent with research. In his book “Give and Take,” Adam Grant, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, cites research across a wide range of industries that shows openness and advice-seeking are much more persuasive in influencing scenarios, such as sales, than are pressuring tactics, flattery or trading favors.

But surely positive business cannot apply to support functions, right?

Wrong.

When we think of the law in organizations, we think mostly of risk mitigation, not value creation. To work optimally, though, the equation needs to be balanced. “Preventive law and positive law are two key elements in strategic planning. Unlike preventive law, which focuses on preventing or, at least, controlling legal risks, positive law emphasizes the value creation function of law,” explains George Siedel, a business professor at the University of Michigan. “In combination, these two elements offer businesses an opportunity to seize competitive advantage.”

We have seen the same principles apply to other functions — accounting, marketing, strategy and finance— to great effect. Is your department an exemplar of positive business?

Both organizational functions and their people processes can be reimagined in ways that are good for business and encourage people to thrive as human beings. No more of what Cascade Engineering founder and CEO Fred Keller calls “lazy thinking.” It is not good enough to just stop once you figure out how to meet the needs of just one stakeholder. Positive business requires you to keep going until you find integrative solutions that create great outcomes for all.

Positive business is an invitation to participate in creating something better for all. Change is not easy. Achieving this will require reimagining the functions and processes of organizations. Although referring mostly to product development, the late Steve Jobs famously said, “Everything around you was made up by people no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

So, too, with organizations. You can change them and influence them, and you can build your own business that makes a positive difference in the world.

Chris White is the managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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