Groping to the Top

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Groping, according to that master wordsmith Webster, means to feel about blindly or uncertainly; to feel one's way. Few CEOs, and certainly none at the helm of home building production machines, accept this problem-solving mode from their managers. Much more common, and certainly more preferred, is a set of corporate guidelines, procedures and processes to ensure a consistent outcome.

April 01, 2004

Groping, according to that master wordsmith Webster, means to feel about blindly or uncertainly; to feel one's way. Few CEOs, and certainly none at the helm of home building production machines, accept this problem-solving mode from their managers. Much more common, and certainly more preferred, is a set of corporate guidelines, procedures and processes to ensure a consistent outcome.

Alone, neither groping nor rigid guidelines get any organization to peak performance. What the billon-dollars builders highlighted in this issue do so well is blend what appear to be incompatible approaches. Skillfully combining the right amount of process with an appropriate amount of groping results in a corporate culture that protects the outcome without stifling innovation.

Too often, however, one or the other dominates in an office, at a community, in a division or throughout an organization. Groping without any structure or accountability might produce innovation, but the more likely outcome is chaos. Meantime, too much "this is the corporate way" thinking results in predictable outcomes that drive away the people with ideas to turn the expected into the extraordinary.

How do you balance two opposites? Carefully. But for a better answer, look to the examples in the industry and in this issue. This year's No. 1 GIANT, D.R. Horton, balances authority and autonomy this way. Within its far-flung operations, depth of knowledge keeps the company on the critical but profitable edge, with two or three experienced people per slot for key areas such as land acquisition, purchasing and construction. Regional presidents reinforce the network, scouting land opportunities and market trends and strategizing with division presidents and corporate. Computerized networking helps corporate spot problems and opportunities. At least annually, all senior managers gather for learning and comparison sessions.

In the timeless book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, author Gordon MacKenzie describes the paradox of imposing order while asking for innovation: "While the heart of a company sings the virtues of creativity, the company's intellect worships the predictability of the status quo and is, thus, adverse to new ideas. ... The consequence is that on any given day, umpteen people in an organization, responding to the official corporate invitation, come up with fresh methodologies or original products. Then those ideas, by the nature of their newness, are deemed fundamentally unseemly by the same authority that asked for them in the first place."

Free the frustrated idea-mongers trapped in your corporate net. The rewards outweigh the risk.

Heather

hmccune@reedbusiness.com 630/288-8190

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