By Patrick Lencioni. Jossey-Bass, 2012
You can read Patrick Lencioni’s lifetime of work in one thin volume, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. He’s assembled his ideas in one place without using the fables so familiar in his other books. His premise: “The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by lost leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it . . . The health of an organization provides the context for strategy, finance, marketing, technology, and everything else that happens within it.” He reminds us it’s not enough for an organization to be smart, it must also be healthy.
The Advantage is a guidebook—almost a step-by-step guide—to applying his four disciplines model in any organizational setting. It focuses on presenting organization health a simple, integrated, and practical discipline. The structure of the book:
- The Case for Organizational Health
- The Four Disciplines Model
- The Centrality of Great Meetings
- Seizing the Advantage.
The Case for Organizational Health
It doesn’t do much good to read the book unless you buy into the premise. The first 15 pages ask for that buy-in. Organizational health is about integrity—understood as wholeness. Lencioni suggests “an organization has integrity—is healthy—when it is whole, consistent, and complete, that is, when it’s management operations, strategy, and culture fit together and make sense.”
He points out that organizations constantly search for a competitive advantage in the arenas of technology or knowledge, even though these advantages are short-lived and unsustainable. We search in these areas because we are convinced of their utility. But we need simply reframe the question on a personal basis and ask, what good is some special personal quality in our lives if we are sick? How will that quality overcome an illness that will eventually disable us?
Lencioni is not against intelligence. Yes, by all means, be smart: but an organization will thrive when it enjoys minimal politics and confusion, high morale and productivity, and low turnover among those people who match the culture of the organization. Technical advantages in areas like finance, marketing, and even strategy are fleeting and incremental when compared to wholeness and health, which are capable of generating on-going vitality. Smarts are simply a
business commodity; Health is systemic and genuinely unique. It’s not that intelligence isn’t desirable, just that it provides no long-term advantage. Lencioni chooses health over intelligence. In fact, he says, “Health begets—and trumps—intelligence.”
Organizational health creates an environment where flaws can be admitted and discussed, and thus avoided. It creates a setting where mistakes can be recovered from quickly because political standing is not highly valued. Health is a multiplier of intelligence and adaptability. Forget business profiles in Forbes where some boy wonder has reinvented the business wheel. In our information age everyone will have the new wheel schematics in days, if not hours.
So, what does an organization have to do to be healthy?
The Four Disciplines Model:
1. Build a Cohesive Leadership Team
Lencioni uses the word disciplines because teamwork is not a virtue: it’s a choice. Learning to play nice together is a strategic decision.
“An organization doesn’t become healthy in a linear, tidy fashion,” says Lencioni. “It’s a messy process that involves doing a few things at once, and it must be maintained on an ongoing basis in order to be preserved.”
These four disciplines are effective, memorable, and most important, achievable. They constitute four individual chapters in the book.
This chapter is a concentrated restatement of Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He emphasizes the difference between a team and a working group. (A working group is like golfers who add their individual scores together. A team is like basketball players who enhance one another’s functions and strengths.) Teams embrace collective responsibility for the win or the loss: one cannot say, “Even though the team lost, I scored 42 points, so it was a good day’s work for me.”
Teams require a manageable size (8-9 is optimal), which fosters communication instead of serial advocacy in meetings. If a team is too large, each member will become an advocate of his or her idea because there’s a danger of their viewpoint being lost in the crowd. Team membership is
based upon competency and is not a substitute for lack of recognition or income: “the only reason that a person should be on a team is that she represents a key part of the organization or brings a truly critical talent or insight to the table.”
Healthy teams exhibit five behavioral principles: trust, constructive conflict, commitment, accountability, and results. It turns out these are issues of character. Lencioni fleshes out what these behaviors look like in practical terms with real-life examples from functioning businesses and from actual consulting settings. Explaining these five behaviors takes time and space, but he does so with wit and humor, which keeps the book accessible and readable.
These principles are not for the weak at heart. Lencioni decries the “Wuss Factor” in many organizations, reminding us that while these behaviors are achievable, we are required to exhibit humility and courage in pursuit of them as lifestyle disciplines.
2. Create Clarity
More than high-minded mission statements or the blather common in business books today, Lencioni suggests organizations can truly create clarity of vision (and function) when their leaders ask six critical questions:
- Why do we exist?
- How do we behave?
- What do we do?
- How will we succeed?
- What is most important, right now?
- Who must do what?
“None of these is novel per se,” says Lencioni. “What is new is the realization that none of them can be answered in isolation; they must be answered together. Failure to achieve alignment around any one of them can prevent an organization from attaining the level of clarity necessary to become healthy.”
If a cohesive leadership team can rally around these questions while avoiding jargon or “shmarmy language” they will drastically increase the likelihood of creating a healthy organization. Lencioni devotes considerable time and space to walking through not only the importance of these questions, but also practical
methodology for achieving usable answers. The six questions progress from purpose to practice, and he argues the order is important. Practices divorced from an understanding of purpose will not generate sustainable organizational health. “Core values,” a term so popular in businesses today, must find their way into concrete practices, otherwise the members of an organization sniff out mere marketing hypocrisy and lose respect for the leadership team that fails to live by the code. Nor should the code be concerned only with the core: an organization can aspire to other values, and also grant “permission to play” in a manner that leverages the unique strengths of team members.
The last three questions are not lower-order questions: they exist in concert with their predecessors. The answers to questions 4-6 create strategic and identity anchors that reinforce the hard-won clarity wrung from the first three questions. The message is that values apart from practices are worth little.
3. Overcommunicate Clarity
Lencioni presents the analogue to the old marriage joke where the husband says, “I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.” He suggests that a three- page email distributed after a leadership meeting is as ineffective as the non-emotive husband who fails to reinforce his love. Over communicate. In Lencioni’s view, there is no such thing as too much of this good thing.
Business leaders—who have been trained to avoid redundancy—may protest, but great leaders “see themselves as Chief Reminding Officers.” Messaging is not an intellectual process, it is an emotional one. Repetition signals to team members that their leaders are serious, authentic, and committed to what they are saying. All the leaders must join in the process: “Effective communication requires that key messages come from different sources and through various channels,” and no channel is more effective than the cohesive voice of each member of the leadership team. Lencioni uses the phrase cascading communication: a concerted, timely, unified effort from each member of the leadership team—structured, but still interpersonal. Says Lencioni, “when employees in different parts of an organization hear their leaders saying the same things after meetings, they actually start to believe that alignment and clarity might be possible.”
4. Reinforce Clarity
It already sounds redundant, doesn’t it? Yet the difference between discipline three and discipline four is the difference between word and deed. Organizations reinforce clarity when “every human system—every process that involves people—from hiring and people management to training and compensation, is designed to reinforce [the message].” An organization has to institutionalize its culture with bureaucratizing it, that is, find the balance between too much and too little structure.
Lencioni discusses each step in an individual’s corporate life—from hiring to orientation to performance management to compensation and rewards to firing—and demonstrates how healthy organizations reinforce clarity. As with each of the previous sessions, his examples are drawn from real life organizational settings as well as consulting encounters. Each of the four chapters ends with a checklist that can be applied in nearly any organization.
The Centrality of Meetings & Seizing the Advantage
If you’ve read his Death by Meeting, you will recognize this section as a practical guide to Lencioni’s 2004 book. If you have not read that work, you will receive the benefits of a concentrated recap in this chapter of The Advantage. “No action, activity, or process is more
central to a healthy organization than the meeting.” That’s right: meetings. Lencioni uses a client’s leadership meetings as his primary evaluation tool before beginning the consultative process.
We hate meetings because they are a confused stew thrown together by bad cooks. But meetings, properly conceived and executed, can reinforce relationships, accountability, and organizational effectiveness. Lencioni recommends daily check-in meetings (ten-minute affairs conducted face- to-face and standing up); Weekly staff meetings (the bread and butter of effective leadership); ad hoc topical meetings (necessary in all walks of corporate life); and quarterly off-site review meetings (the life-giving and vision-casting meeting capable of invigorating a team worn down by the grinding wheel of daily business). Practical advice and solid coaching tips abound, all of which reinforce the central idea of The Advantage, that organizational health is within the reach of those willing to embrace the disciplines.
Seizing the advantage boils down to a “ridiculously simple” statement for which Lencioni steadfastly refuses to apologize: “the person in charge of an organization’s leadership team is crucial to the success of any effort to build a healthy organization . . . I can’t help but believe that many leaders still don’t fully understand it.”
CEO, proprietor, principal, or pastor: the buck starts there. “At every step in the process, the leader must be out front, not as a cheerleader or a figurehead, but as an active, relentless driver.”