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Source Manager's Journal: New Year's Resolutions

It is becoming common wisdom that New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time, a one-week feel-good exercise that is forgotten by February 1. Join the gym. Lose weight. Be a better person. Blah, blah, blah. But is the common wisdom correct? Lots of people do stick to their resolutions, especially if they are serious and have put some sort of system in place. Others may “relapse” in one of many ways, but they are trying to do something positive. They have used the hook of the new year to try to break some pattern or do something new.
Organizational New Year’s resolutions can play a similar useful role. Organizations are dysfunctional mostly because they are made up of people who bring all of their quirks, biases, misplaced beliefs and idiosyncrasies in the door with them every day. Over time, some of these become organizational norms, part of the culture, the “way that we do things here.” Some of these norms are good and some are bad. In other instances, organizations – just like people – get in a rut and just repeat what they did yesterday over and over again.
A New Year’s resolution is a tool for reinforcing the good and getting rid of the bad, but only if it is done in the right way. Just like the individual, the organization that says it is going to do something and then doesn’t do it pays a price. That price is usually increased cynicism and unwillingness to risk trying something else. So how can we do it right?
Since it is a New Year’s resolution and not some big planning or change initiative, I would keep it simple, keep it light but substantive, and try to make it enjoyable. It may be worth considering two resolutions, one related to serving customers, clients or the public and the second to improve something in the work environment.
As with all resolutions, the trick is sticking with it and keeping the train from falling off the track. The starting point is to pick something that is doable in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t try to lose 50 pounds in two weeks. Second, pick things that can show measurable progress in a short period of time. When people have some sort of physical injury, they often give up on physical therapy. The problem is not that physical therapy doesn’t work, it is that it doesn’t produce any measurable improvement before the person gets discouraged. Create small, visible interim goals that can be celebrated as little victories.
Here’s an example. In any customer-, citizen- or client-service area, identify one extra thing that can be done for each person with each contact, something that will make them remember the business or agency as one that went out of its way. This is a nice example and it sounds simple, but it takes commitment, communication and simple systems to make it reality.
Our resolutions typically break down because we succumb to the temptation to go back and repeat our old behaviors and norms. We need some tools and structures to help us get over the hump. This is the next important stage in the journey to a successful New Year’s resolution. First, we need ownership and commitment. Involving people and making it fun will enormously increase the chances that next December 31, everyone will say, "Hey, we did it! Let’s do something else for 2008."
Once there is buy-in, clearly defining what everybody is going to do differently is the next critical step. Then, the key: ongoing support for the effort to prevent it from drifting off into irrelevance. The beginning of wisdom is to understand the experience of the past. Why do resolutions fail? Largely, because there are no effective tools for breaking our current habits. In this case, the tools should be simple. In some ways, gimmicks are useful. The important thing is to keep our resolutions visible and alive. Notices, ticklers, and different forms of support are all useful in keeping us doing the new thing.
Without making too big a deal of it, successfully achieving a couple of resolutions will have different benefits. It will make people feel better about their work. It will improve customer service, whoever the customer is. And – maybe most important – it will make a dent in one of the most common organizational ills: stagnation and loss of dynamism.
Finally, there is a cumulative effect. Just think about what would happen if every business, every government office and every other agency in the territory successfully achieved just two resolutions. It wouldn’t be the achievement of eternal happiness, but it would represent visible positive change.
Happy New Year
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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