BUSINESS OUTCOME MANAGEMENT

One of the greatest challenges for any company is the execution of strategy or the realisation of benefits from the implementation of large change programs. Frequently, the reason isn’t organisational resistance to change, a difficulty that is commonly referred to. Rather it is for a more serious reason: managers and management teams focusing dogmatically on what they are doing rather than what they want to achieve. This causes managers to narrow their thinking and, in effect, operate at a more junior level. They “can’t see the wood for the trees” and the return on investment from their time is diminished.

The more senior a manager, the more they  need  to  work  within  a team to achieve the business objectives. Irrespective of how siloed the organisation is, the silos have to come together eventually. The lower in the organisation that this cross-departmental engagement occurs, the better.

A major inhibitor to  cross-departmental  engagement  is  the  absence of common purpose. Frequently managers believe they are working cooperatively but when pushed they have difficulty explaining the interdependencies between the initiatives they are all working on. This is because they are working towards completing initiatives, rather than delivering outcomes.

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Initiatives are the activities managers and staff are engaged in. Outcomes are the result of one or more initiatives.

Consider the technology salesperson. Their role is to approach prospective customers and convince them that their technology solution will improve the prospects’ business operations.

For example, a CRM (customer relationship management) salesperson will state, “Buy my CRM software and you will have happier customers and improved revenues.”

BOM 4

Anyone who has implemented a major piece  of  software  will  know how flawed this scenario is. The truth is that once you implement a technology solution, all you have is a database of names and files.

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To achieve the benefits promised by the CRM salesperson, the company must implement a range of complementary initiatives. The collective output of these initiatives will deliver the desired outcome.

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The approach of interlinking initiatives and outcomes is known as Business Outcome Management. It is fundamentally different from traditional approaches to project planning in that the emphasis is almost entirely on the outcomes required.

The principle is the same as it is for ball sport players in the sense that it is better to be where the ball is going to be rather than where it is.

Business outcome management is a methodology that assists management teams to establish a common purpose. It  produces  two  deliverables. The first is a two-dimensional mind map that graphically displays the outcomes and initiatives and the second is a document that transposes the map into a business plan.

The importance of having a two-dimensional mind map cannot be overestimated. When discussing the importance of business outcome management with my clients they generally point to a range of documents or a single thick document and say they have it covered. At this time I ask them what the relationship is between their various documents, or how page x relates to  page  y  in  a  single  document. The point is that documents are “three-dimensional,” making it exceptionally difficult to know or visualise the multiple many-to-many interrelationships that exist in a single document, and between documents.

A two-dimensional mind map surfaces the interrelationships  and explicitly reveals how a single business outcome is dependent on multiple initiatives. It highlights relationships that are not immediately obvious in a document. The following is a simple example of the concept. Initiatives are represented as a square and outcomes as a circle. Risks can be included as a different shape.

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The graphic details the basics of implementing a change program. The entire “island” is labelled change management.

For larger projects and programs of work, the map will comprise of multiple “islands,” each representing initiatives and outcomes of similar intent and strategic focus. They provide  an  additional  dimension  to the map and assist the process of aggregating the relationships found in traditional documents into an easier-to-read format. Each “island” is labelled to provide context for the outcomes within the island, and collectively these labels are the executive summary of the program of work. Each island will have its own owner, a manager who is responsible for ensuring all the outcomes in the island are achieved.

800 (3)

Initiatives are written in the format: verb/noun. For example: “document the business process” or “administer  a  customer  survey.”  Outcomes are written in the past tense. “Staff morale has improved” or “customer requirements are understood” or “shareholder value has increased.” Using the past tense is important as it assists managers to clearly articulate the desired outcome.

Focusing on achieving the outcome encourages the manager to avoid tackling a project with a checklist mentality, as it is almost impossible to document all the initiatives required to achieve an outcome.

If you were focusing on initiatives you would work on “review and agree upon the business plan” and once completed you would consider that the business plan was reviewed and agreed.

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However, if you take a broader view, then you could only consider the business plan to be “reviewed and agreed upon” once all the indirect contributing initiatives were taken into account.

The indirect initiatives that contribute to “business plan reviewed and agreed” are:

  • Induct work package resources in project approach
  • Agree activities in scope and document approach to each
  • Establish change management program to mitigate risk
  • Review and agree risks to project
  • Agree approach to business planning
  • Socialise business planning approach
  • Prepare business plan
  • Review and agree business plan

These initiatives are part of two different strategic groupings (islands) but they all still contribute to the outcome and the manager who is signing off the business plan will expect to see contribution from all of those initiatives.

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An important insight is that if a decision is made to delete or not complete an initiative, the impact of its absence can now be traced to those outcomes that relied on the initiative being successfully completed.

To prepare a business outcomes roadmap requires a workshop of four parts.

Part one is to agree the “endgame”—the flag on the hill. This is the medium-to-long term objective for the company or, if it is for a major project, then it is a statement of what the project will achieve. It should be a “big statement” but equally one that is achievable.

Example: “A culture of delivering excellence is implemented and a collaborative unified management team that is the envy of the industry is established.”

The second part of the workshop is to discuss the current issues facing the business. This is because managers and staff frequently cannot discuss the future without first explaining the problems they face in doing their job. You have to give them the chance to “put their baggage down.”

Part three of the workshop is to capture intermediate outcomes, those outcomes that must be realised in order to achieve the end game.

Part four is to capture the initiatives collectively required to deliver the sub-outcomes.

The methodology for collecting the data is important and it starts with the room selected for the workshop. The room should be set up without a table and the chairs should be arranged in a semicircle or similar. This assists people to “open up” in the workshop.

Each person is given a felt-tip pen with a broad point and a pack of post-it notes. Part one of the workshop can be completed on a white board through normal facilitation techniques.

Parts two to four will follow the same approach. The facilitator requests that the participants write one issue, outcome, or initiative (depending on the session) on a post-it note and to keep producing post-it notes until they have exhausted everything they have to say on the topic.

While the participants are writing down their thoughts, the facilitator should walk between them collecting the completed post-it notes and placing them randomly on a wall or window. As the notes are placed, the facilitator should read aloud a selection of the notes. This will stimulate the thinking of the participants.

When everyone has written down everything they have to say, and the facilitator has stuck all the notes on the wall, then the participants will be asked to sort the notes into groups. The rule for this part of the workshop is that the participants must work in silence. They cannot discuss their thoughts on the grouping. Once everyone is happy, the participants take their seats. At this time the facilitator will review each group and agree on a title for the group. These groups will later influence the “islands” in the mind map.

When all three mini workshops are complete, the workshop is over.The facilitator types up the workshop and prepares the business outcomes mind map. This will include de-duping the lists. The issues list does not make the map. Rather it is used to validate that everything that is included in the map will address the issues. Microsoft Visio is a good application for preparing the mindmap.

An important feature of this approach is that the outcomes are collected independently of the initiatives. This means there is no direct link between the outcomes and initiatives. When the map is prepared, the author must draw their own conclusions on which initiatives are related to which outcomes.

Once the map is prepared, it is critiqued by all or a subset of the participants from the original workshop. It may take two or three iterations until the map is agreed upon by all.

Viewing the map for the first time can be quite confronting for the participants. The best personal example of this was when I presented a map to a group of executives in the aviation industry. When they first saw the map, the room descended into chaos as each manager tried to find their department or function in the  map.  When  they  couldn’t, they turned on me. I explained that each of their functions was spread out through the map and that they had to work as a team to deliver the endgame. It was a significant moment and once the emotion died down, they really embraced the concept. Later the managing director wrote to me to say that they were 27% up on the budget as a direct result of the workshop. He was ecstatic.

Once the map is agreed upon, it needs to be turned into a document. This document has two parts.

Part 1 focuses on outcomes and part 2 on initiatives. The layout is as follows.

For outcomes:

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The idea is to list all the initiatives that contribute directly or indirectly to each outcome. The “person accountable” refers to the outcome, not the initiatives.

For initiatives:

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This table relates all outcomes to a single initiative. This is important as it informs the owner of the initiative about which outcomes are dependent on their activity being successfully completed. The R.A.C.I. table describes who will own the initiative (accountable), who will deliver the initiative (responsible), who will contribute to the delivery, and who should be informed of progress.

This is a powerful methodology and the results will improve with practice.

PERCEPTION: IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK

Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans…  If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown in communication … and there is the real illness.”

I read the above quote by Philip K. Dick and it reinforced how relevant perception is to change management and the importance of what we say and allow others to say.

This was first highlighted to me when I was working with IBM on the Mercedes-Benz South Africa business transformation project. In the early part of the project we spent considerable time collecting data, the bulk of which was qualitative. I asked the seasoned project manager on what basis we could rely on qualitative data to make far-reaching recommendations. His reply was: if enough people repeat something to be true, then it is true, irrespective of the facts. In other words, perception is reality.

The primary agenda of any change management program is to deliver a change in behaviour. This is equally true for very large programs such as national “Don’t Drink and Drive” campaigns to small localised programs, internal to a business, such as how to code an invoice properly. In all cases people only change when they perceive the need to change, and it is the change manager’s role to socialise a message that will create this perception at the individual level and within the crowd.

It is not difficult to determine the view of the crowd as people will readily repeat what they perceive to be a commonly held truth. It is considerably more difficult to reliably determine how an individual perceives the world as their views are coloured by an unlimited range of personal circumstances to which the change manager is not privy. Consequently, it is a waste of time to try and change an individual’s foundation perceptions.

Rather the change manager should focus on managing how individuals express their perception of the work environment and the changes within it.

The importance of managing perception is represented by the dip in the graphic.

Change curve (2)

Every business transformation project shakes up the organisation. People become uncertain and routines are disrupted. This will cause organisational performance to decline, as represented by the dip, before targeted improvements are realised. As people become disrupted they lash out in their language.

Statements such as “nothing works here” or “management are idiots” or “why bother, nobody cares” become increasingly common and indicate a low level of engagement. The less engaged a person is, the more they will resort to using sweeping statements instead of taking the time to consider what is truly bothering them before they speak. These types of statement only serve to widen and deepen the gap and make the change program appear more confronting than it actually is.

Without intervention, and without a message to the opposite, there is a real danger that the sweeping statements of an individual become the view of the crowd. It must be true if everybody is saying it. Consider a new hire stepping into that environment. What else could they realistically believe?

The change manager cannot change how a person feels. However, the change manager can change the way people express themselves.

Instead of condoning or ignoring sweeping statements such as “this software is useless” ask staff to be specific with their complaints. Persist until they come up with a specific concern like “I can’t print a copy invoice.” That is the real problem. Encouraging individuals to replace sweeping statements with specific statements will cause them to actively think about and engage with the issue. When people speak differently they allow themselves to think differently and they start to perceive the world differently. This tends to reduce emotion and exaggeration. In addition, when people know that they will be called out on a broad generalisation, they tend to become more circumspect in what they say. Eventually they may even behave differently.

From a change management point of view, it is far better for staff to know that they cannot print a copy invoice than to believe the software is completely useless. Then, when they are complaining to other staff, they will be accurate and specific, not vague and inaccurate. The crowd becomes infected with the truth, which is, in this case, that you can’t print a copy invoice, rather than by broad inaccuracies about perceived deficiencies in the software.

Only when a person changes the way they express themselves, will they really be able to change the way they perceive their work environment, and subsequently change the way they present themselves in the work environment. Occasionally you will hear that someone has had a real change of attitude. What this really means is that their language has changed, from negative to positive. When people say positive things their colleagues will respond positively.

The same can apply to the group, but to achieve it the change manager needs to introduce a common vocabulary, a company lexicon. It will promote an environment where individuals use the same words for the same things. That way everybody knows what is meant when statements are made. Conversations should get shorter and the disquiet caused by miscommunication should be reduced. Introducing a common vocabulary is exceptionally difficult. It requires that the change manager has the vocabulary to start with and a mindset that realises that change management is not just about training people in a technical skill.

I recognise, that despite the change manager’s best efforts, it is impossible to get everyone in an entire organisation to change the way they speak. The best mitigation is to introduce scorecards. Using a scorecard moves the conversation from subjective perceptions about what happened to factual data. It should cause the conversation to start with a discussion on actual business results rather than a particular person’s behaviour, or more importantly, the manager’s perception of the employee’s behaviour.

I close with the thought that trying to manage perception is similar to standing in a hall between two mirrors. Each mirror reflects the other and this continues until each mirror appears to have an infinite number of reflections in it. These reflections represent the perceptions two people could have of each other. To know which two “perceptions” are active in the conversation is impossible.

 

THE RISK OF RISK MANAGEMENT

Last year I published an article on Governance and a number of people wrote to me, critiquing the article over its failure to adequately include risk as a separate item in the frameworks I was using. Their point was that while risk management is an integral and mandatory discipline for executive management and company directors, it is sufficiently important for it to be addressed as an item in its own right.

I agree with this point of view but am not convinced that risk management is something separate from the day to day running of the business. To be fair I don’t think the people critiquing my article intended that risk be separated from the business; rather their view was that it is a specific discipline and it requires special emphasis in the business. This is particularly true as the operational time horizon shifts from tactical to strategic for the more senior levels of management in the organisation. This includes directors.

At the senior levels, the strength of the focus on risk is so strong that risk is frequently governed through a stand-alone committee (risk or risk and audit committee) or through a specialised role such as chief/senior/global risk manager.

The problem is that best practice (of any sort) embraced at senior levels, frequently does not filter down to the operational level. And when it comes to risk management this schism remains unchecked by the advisory community (consultants etc) and tactical risk plans seldom, if ever, adequately reference the strategic risk frameworks that are used at the senior levels in the organisation.

The majority of the tactical risk management plans comprise of the same elements; Identify and Assess, Evaluate, Manage and Measure.

Risk methodology

While the verbs may change from model to model and author to author, the intent remains consistent between the various models.

The standard approach at the tactical level is to hold workshops to identify and assess and evaluate the risks facing the business or project. Comprehensive lists of risks are produced.

My view is that these workshops fall foul of the principle that – you don’t know what you don’t know – and it should be expected that important risks will be missed. This is the risk of risk management.

It is impossible to remove the problem of, you don’t know what you don’t know, but it is possible to mitigate it if you change where you start, and you don’t start with Identify.

My recommendation is that the preparation of a tactical risk management plan should start with an articulation of company culture and a reaffirmation of the risk appetite of the business. Risk appetite can be defined, as the nature and extent of risk a company is willing to take in order to meet its medium to long-term strategic objectives. To have clarity on risk appetite, demands that the business understand exactly what business it is in and whether the business strategy is aligned to the business itself. For example, the major food retailers are not really in the business of selling food. Rather they are in the treasury business. Every day they collect millions in cash deposits and therefore have no problems with accounts receivable. On the other ‘side’ they pay suppliers slowly. Their true business is to invest and grow the funds in between.

Confirming there is a common understanding of the company culture is important. The simple definition of culture is – the way we do things around here and the risk appetite should be aligned to the culture. Obviously a high risk appetite will not fit a company with a highly conservative culture.

Risk appetite is different to risk tolerance in that risk tolerance defines how much of each risk type the business will accept. It is the risk parameter for each risk type. Risk tolerance allows the risk appetite to be broken down into measurable components.

Risk appetite

I am not suggesting that the team preparing a tactical risk management plan should start with redefining the culture in the company. Rather they should make sure that everyone agrees what the culture is and make sure they fully understand the risk appetite and associated tolerances for the business.

At the tactical level, the ‘Identify’ activity then becomes an exercise in aligning identified tactical risks to the short-term tolerance levels. This will ensure the tactical risk management plan is aligned to types and areas of risk the company is willing to embrace as risk tolerance is informed by risk appetite. It also encourages the completeness of thought around tactical risks. A quick review for ‘widows and orphans’, between the tolerances and the tactical risk plan, should quickly identify missed or non-aligned risks.

Using risk tolerance means that you already have the parameters for your risk model. This does not mean that the parameters at the tactical mirror those of the strategic level, but there should be some obvious alignment.

From a risk management point of view you are now in a strong position to identify and assess, evaluate and manage risks.

The manage step can be complex and the title is misleading. A more fitting title would be ‘Protect’ as in how does the company protect itself against risk. There are three primary defences:

  1. Self-insure
  2. Transfer risk – external insurance
  3. Reduce it. Operational response

Risk

These three choices should be used concurrently. The weighting between each ‘protection’ option is determined by the risk appetite, the specific risk under consideration and the time horizon associated with that risk.

By way of example, consider reputational risk. There is little point taking internal or external insurance against reputational risk as once it manifests you can’t undo it. You can’t un-sink a cruise liner or un-crash a crashed IT server. Insurance money will help pay for the PR campaign required to rebuild the reputation and other associated costs such as liability payouts or consequential legal fees. But these are different risks, not reputational risk. When it comes to reputational risk, prevention is the preferred option. The same applies for employee safety.

The concept of risk prevention is also a misnomer. You do not want to prevent risk as to achieve anything in business requires a certain amount of risk. To prevent a cruise liner sinking you would not go to sea. Rather the intent of risk management is to reduce risk in terms of frequency, likelihood, and consequence. That is, reduce the frequency of having to face the risk, the likelihood of the risk materialising and the impact to the business should it materialise.

Self-insure and risk transfer are predominately financial decisions and will not discussed further.

Effective risk reduction comes from using an appropriate risk framework and relating it to the business processes and to the control points within the processes.

Linking risk to process

This model extends to reference the process manager and the process owner should these roles be different.

The importance of relating risk to process cannot be overstated. The definition of risk appetite is ‘the nature and extent of risk a company is willing to take in order to meet its medium to long-term strategic objectives’. You have to take risks to be in business and the products and services of the business are delivered through the business processes. Therefore risk and business process can never be separated.

POLICY AND RULES – SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT

Recently I was asked what I considered to be the difference between rules and policy.  I gave my stock answer – rules cannot be changed, policy can. There was a group of people listening and they almost unanimously said – “what, of course you can change a “Business rule”.

I went on to defend my position by stating – you can repeal a rule and issue a new one. The original rule has not changed; rather it is no longer in force. A new rule has been issued and it is separate from the previous rule. Conceivably the original rule can still be reissued and both rules will be in force at the same time.

Policies by contrast can be changed and the ‘edges’ of policy are not as defined as a rule.

Policy and rules are similar in that they both set out to guide behaviour. They differ to the extent that they allow the individual to make the final decision as to how they will behave.

The key attribute of a rule is that is must be precise. You are either complying with it or not.  Consider the rule – you must stop at a red traffic light. There is nothing ambiguous about this rule. You either stopped or you didn’t. You are not allowed to interpret the rule. When the fire alarm sounds above your desk, you do not get to decide whether you leave or not; you get up and go. (I admit that when it comes to fire drills, I frequently break this rule).

Policy is often written up in an equally prescriptive manner. Most companies have a policy on bribes along the lines of; no employee will accept or offer a bribe. This statement is as prescriptive as a rule. In fact I would call it a rule that is frequently called policy.

Policy sets the parameters that define how you will behave in a given situation.  An example; staff are permitted to dress in business casual on Fridays. This policy does not explicitly define what business casual is leaving it up to the individual to decide what is appropriate.  A further example is – sales managers may spend $XX a month on business expenses. The policy does not define how the allowance should be spent, or on what.

In both examples, it is assumed that the individual will – do the right thing- and will behave in accordance with the values and objectives of the company. With rules, this freedom is removed and the individuals’ behaviour is prescribed.

This distinction is important when establishing organisational procedures. A procedure tells you how to do something. Typically a policy covers the entire procedure and provides the parameters of permissible decisions on what’s appropriate behaviour when executing the procedure.  Rules generally apply to specific tasks within the procedure and cannot be interpreted.

Despite the implication of the oft used phrase – policies and procedures – both policy and rules exist separately from procedures and have a one to many relationship with procedures. This means that individual policies and rules can be associated with multiple procedures and procedural steps respectively.

Establishing rules is reasonably straightforward as the language of rules is ‘native’ to managers. We are all comfortable expressing constraints on behaviour in terms of single statements. “You will….”, “You must…”, “You cannot….”. Even when we intend to establish policy statements we typically express them as a rule.

There is no easy methodology for establishing policy.  As a guideline, the role of policy is to:

  • translate values into operations
  • reinforce compliance with legal and statutory responsibilities
  • set standards, and
  • improve the management of risk.

A good place to start is with rules. Write down the rules that will apply to the area you wish to establish policy for. Then bundle similar rules into groups. These rules become the parameters of the policy statement. Read each rule in a group and write a business statement that covers all the rules in that group. This is your policy statement. Given that the statement is trying to cover all the rules in the group, it will by necessity, be appropriately vague.

Another method is to take a specific problem area in the business that you wish to manage with improved policy and establish a table that aligns policy with procedures and rules. Having these three items in one table quickly surfaces issues where policy is written as a rule and rules as policy.

By way of example.

The business issue is to reduce the risk of poor decision making on tender submissions.

Policies and Rules table (3)

 

The first policy statement uses the word ‘accurate’. This is a relative term. The rules define how accuracy should be interpreted.

The second policy statement uses the word ‘complete’. This is also a relative term. The rules define how completeness should be interpreted.

Completing the table should deliver relevant and useful policy statements.

In closing I will say; the real difficulty is managing the policies and rules once they are published. The last column in the table is ‘consequence’ … when it comes to rules and policy, if you are not prepared to manage them, do not bother establishing them.

MALICIOUS COMPLIANCE – THE SMILING SERPENT

I was talking to a colleague last week over a beer. He was full of ‘disgruntle’ as he related the story of his day. Basically it went like this…

I have been working on this IT project for months, doing long days and occasional weekends. This morning I arrived at 10.15am. In front of everyone the project manager shouted at me that the project hours were 8.45am to 5pm and that I should make sure my timesheet reflected my late start. Not only was I embarrassed by the reprimand, but the project manager gave me no credit for the fact that I never left the project before 6pm – ever.

I asked him what he was going to do about it. He answer was simple – “I will work the project hours, no more, no less. Then when the project is not delivered on time, it is the PMs fault, not mine”.

At the time of writing, he has been true to his word. Working what he calls short days.

I reflected on his story and I recognised that at some point in our professional lives, we have all stood in front of a manager receiving a dressing down. Outwardly we maintained our professional demeanour, while inwardly we were seething. The situation for which we were reprimanded may have been our fault, but our motives were honourable. We were working in the best interests of the project and colleagues. In our mind the reprimand was just wrong.

After such a reprimand it is quite human to leave the manager’s office with a mindset of – stick it buddy, if you don’t want me to ‘X’, then I won’t. It’s ‘by the book’ from here on in.

For most of us the emotion subsides fairly quickly and we get on with our job recognising that we can’t please all of the people, all of the time.

The problem is that there is a minority group who do not forgive and forget quite so easily. For these people their chagrin runs deep and they cannot readily bounce back from a reprimand. These people take their ‘by the book’ vow to heart and they consciously set out to change their behaviour for the worse. Next time the manager asks them to do something they follow the instruction to the letter, entirely aware that what they were asked to do is not what the manager actually wants. They know full well that following the instruction to the letter will be counterproductive to the manager’s intent and for that reason alone, they do exactly that.

This dogmatic adherence to the exact instruction given, rather than to the intent of the instruction is termed – malicious compliance.

From a business or project point of view, malicious compliance is a treacherous form of corporate sabotage. It can be very difficult to identify and even more difficult to treat. It can manifest in many ways including; adhering strongly to shift start and stop times, not contributing to a discussion when you know the answer unless you are asked a direct question, exaggerated responses to instructions, working strictly to the agreed standard or preparing reports you know to be unnecessary or irrelevant.

Failure to identify malicious compliance can set a project back months or as I have seen in some cases, derail the project altogether. This is especially true if the ‘bad apple’ is a leader in the group. Example; If the leader starts to work to the standard hours then it won’t be long before the whole group is following suit. Equally if the leaders attitude goes unchecked, it won’t be long before the whole group is grumbling and questioning the authority and leadership of the (project) manager. This can force an unplanned change of management as that becomes the only option to bring the situation back to normal. This in turn could unfortunately reinforce the negative behaviour of the employee or group and it may be some time before management is able to get the balance of power back.

The trigger for resorting to malicious compliance will vary by individual and includes everything from an individuals need to implement a machiavel private political agenda of destabilisation to those who are suffering change fatigue and need to resort to doing the minimum just to get by.

I consider those who are machiavel to be a smiling serpent. They smile to your face while sabotaging your project. They have perfected the art of hiding in the open.

For an employee to be maliciously compliant requires the employee’s manager to know that the employee could do a better job if they wanted to. It is a case of ‘can but won’t’ as opposed to ‘can’t and won’t’. The difference between the two is motivation. The formers motivation will always be negative and the latters could be neutral or positive.

Most people cannot ‘maintain the rage’ for long and generally do not require remedial action beyond possibly having a chat with them after the emotion has passed. For this majority, bouts of malicious compliance should be seen as part of the process of building corporate experience and maturing as a professionals – Learning that you can get angry and then get over it.

For the few that do persevere with malicious compliance there are three remedies:

  1. Discuss outcomes and show belief in the person.
  2. Give short instructions.
  3. Critically listen to the employee.

Moving the discussion to outcomes forces the staff member to answer the – so what – question.

“You fulfilled the instruction – so what. What did you achieve”?

Forcing the employee to confront their contribution, or lack thereof, is a powerful means of communicating that malicious compliance cannot produce satisfactory results and that obvious and continued mediocrity cannot be ignored by either party. Both need to take action.

By definition, malicious compliance is a conscious choice. The employee chooses to behave in this manner. Therefore, they can choose to relax their stance as well. In remedy 1 above, I mention that the manager should show belief in the person. This is especially important when the employee cannot see a way out of the situation they have created. By accepting their justifications at face value and showing belief in them as a person, the manager allows the person to ‘save face’. This gives the person room to move, to adjust their behaviour without having to fully admit fault. It should lead to the return of an acceptable level of output and behaviour.

As part of the addressing the issue, the manager should give the employee short and simple instructions where the deliverable is easily identifiable and within a short timeframe. This allows the employee to build success upon success and to receive positive feedback frequently. It will help to mitigate any self-esteem issues the person may have.

Equally, these two remedies will provide the manager with the sufficient case study material should it become necessary to begin a job transfer or termination procedure. Because – if you can’t change the people, then change the people.

The third remedy is to critically listen to the employee. If the employee is a person with obvious skills and talent who is in effect dumbing themselves down to conform to the instructions, then the manager must evaluate who is the dogmatic party. This is particularly true when a manager is dealing with a highly experienced technical person. In this case the manager may not fully understand the technical answers given to their questions and therefore they inappropriately instruct the technician into a course of action the technician knows to be wrong. The technician is unable to get the manager to understand the error in the instruction so they throw up their hands and say – “It’s not my problem, I will do what I am told”.

With thanks to Kailash Krishnan for his comments on the early draft.