Fontainebleau and Downtown Calcutta

You want me to take initiative. You want me to cooperate, voluntarily, with others around me. You want me to learn continuously and bring the benefits of that learning to my work, to my job, to the company, to its success. How do we get into those behaviors if around me it is the smell of the place you create?

If you’d asked these questions to your organisation, you would find the below interesting.

Sumantra Ghoshal in an article written shortly before his death, dwells on revitalising people and “the smell of the workplace”. He illustrates how organisations wading through those slog overs of satisfactory underperformance with controls that constrains, could revitalise its workforce with stretch and discipline.

Generally, adults do not change their attitude. They do so only in response to profound personal tragedy, profound personal grief. Otherwise, things happening in office, trying to get manufacturing competitive advantage etc, do not change attitudes – not of adults.

That being the case, we have a problem. I really believe, revitalising manufacturing, revitalising a business, revitalising a company, takes, among other things, the revitalisation of people.

He compares the smell of Downtown Calcutta and the Fontainebleau forest in France and explains why most large companies in India end up creating “Downtown Calcutta” inside themselves.

So every year, in July, I used to come to Kolkata for almost a month. Why July? Because that is the only time my children had a sufficiently long break. The whole point was to keep them in touch with my parents. Think about it — downtown Kolkata in July. The temperature is over 100F with humidity of 98%.

The reality was that I felt very tired during most of the vacation. Most of it I spent indoors and a lot of it simply in bed.

I used to live in Fontainebleau. It is a pretty little town, 40 miles south of Paris. What makes it outstanding is that around it is the protected forest of Fontainebleau, which is one of the prettiest forests in all of Europe. You enter the forest in spring, with a firm desire to have a very leisurely walk and you cannot.

There is something about the smell of the air, about the trees, that will make you want to run, jog, jump up, catch a branch, to throw a stone, to do something. You will find that even though you entered the forest to have a leisurely walk, you are doing something else — and that is the essence of the issue of revitalising people.

Sumantra explains how management creates Constraints and Control…..

What is the smell when it is a part of a large organisation? Constraints. Top managements — you — are very wise, have lots of information, have good people. So, by products, by customers, by markets you create great strategies. You also work very hard — sixteen hours a day, eighteen hours a day. You take all the decisions, know exactly what needs to be done.

But what does this mean for those working in the shop, in the factory, sixteen levels below you? How does your hard work boil down for me? Constraints — that’s what comes down to me.

All the systems that top management create — human resource systems, manufacturing systems, planning systems, budgeting systems — each by itself is totally justified.

However, collectively, what does it feel for me, sixteen levels below, down in the factory floor? That I have to comply. All those systems hang like a black cloud over me. So I start asking myself, why does my boss exist? Not just my boss, why does the entire management infrastructure exist?

As far as I am concerned, they exist for one reason and one reason alone — to control me. To ensure that I do not do the wrong thing.

The job becomes a contract. The budget is a personal contract, transfer prices are contracts, relationships between colleagues and departments and divisions are all contracts.

That is the environment – constraint, compliance, control, contract – that is the smell of the place. And yet what is the behavior top management wants from me?

instead of Stretch and Discipline, along with Support and Trust

This is the point where Stretch begins: beyond the immediate ability to achieve. It is enormously worthwhile, it gives an enormous sense of pride.

Stretch is the antithesis of constraint; as opposed to compliance, there is discipline. This is not to say we don’t need systems — not at all. 3M, one of the companies I find fascinating, has a rigorous system; Intel has rigorous systems, Richard Sheffield, a small company as is it, has rigorous systems.

and illustrates how, in Philips

A determined management team that inherits a ‘Downtown Kolkata in Summer’ syndrome can transform the place into a ‘Fontainebleau Forest in Spring’ in a reasonable period of time.

That is the real challenge before top management. True competitive advantage is the tremendous unused potential in our people. Our organisations are so constructed that most employees are asked to use 5% to 10% of their capacities at work. It is not a matter of hours or effort. It is the capacity.

You can read the full article at Rediff. What is the smell of your workplace?

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