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Mission And Vision Dictated Will Always Fail.

Updated on April 21, 2014
Cardiff University main building.
Cardiff University main building. | Source

Lessons from Cardiff University.

I will remain indebted to my tutors at Cardiff University. What I learnt about education and training, learning and development, staff development and staff appraisal, organisation design and organisation behaviour, was nothing less than a journey of personal transformation for me. The net result was a paradigm shift in my thinking.

There are two quotes from Dr. Alan Dowler that are continually in my thinking:

"Mission and vision dictated will always fail" and "To be effective, a top-down strategy requires a response from the bottom-up".


With these statements in mind why is it that many, if not the overwhelming majority, of our political, business, health and education leaders still believe their strategies can be implemented without gaining and maintaining the willing cooperation and active participation of everyone concerned?

The failures and shortcomings of the "top-down" approach, espoused and reinforced by Scientific Management (aka Taylorism), have been well documented for over 70 years:

  • The top-down approach only works well in a stable and highly predictable environment.
  • The top-down approach does not facilitate change.
  • The top-down approach stifles communication, team work and problem solving and it kills creativity and innovation.

So why are we still trying to get things done using this "system" paradigm?

A paradigm is like a mental map.
A paradigm is like a mental map. | Source

The system paradigm.

We can think of a paradigm as being our mental model or mental map. A paradigm is a way of thinking that we always rely on to make sense of what is happening and what needs to be done to be successful.

The system looks like this:

  • People at the top who tell others what to do but don't listen.
  • People in the middle where there is often conflict between those who uphold the system and those who see the needs of people.
  • People at the bottom where many have given up any hope of a different future.

The system works like this:

  • Hierarchy.
  • Formal use of power and authority.
  • Routine and mechanistic ways of getting things done.
  • Predominance of one-way communication.

The system has been around for millennia, it can be seen throughout history. I can't think of a nation or people group that has come to power or prominence in the world without the system as its paradigm. Therefore, the system mindset is connected with success.

A production line is a perfect picture of the system at work.
A production line is a perfect picture of the system at work. | Source

Production line thinking.

A perfect picture of the top-down approach at work is a production line, in which people are recruited, trained and rewarded to perform the smallest possible tasks as efficiently as possible.

In this system, suitably educated and trained "professionals" do all the thinking, planning and decision making.

In effect "workers" (and I would include front line managers and supervisors) are treated as cogs in a machine. In this "machine" model of work organization, people are treated as cogs in a machine.


The system wants to treat people like cogs in a machine.
The system wants to treat people like cogs in a machine. | Source

Cogs must be used wisely.

There's a great deal of scientific and engineering expertise that goes into designing and making cogs. Cogs are made (structured) for very specific purposes, they are designed and built to handle a specific load. They must also have the correct lubrication.

If cogs are overloaded and not lubricated correctly they will break.

What are some of the things we here people talking about today in relation to their work? Firstly, they are expected to do more with less. Secondly, the organization does not respect them as individuals and does not fully recognize and reward their efforts.

Ensuring people are not overloaded, that they are sufficiently respected, recognized and rewarded, will go a long way to preventing problems and difficulties in the workplace.

Consultation and participation.

Consultation and participation can be thought as giving people a voice and a choice. The top-down approach doesn't like this concept at all. It is far too "chaotic". But here is a powerful example of how consultation and participation can really turn our thinking upside-down.

A high school implemented a consultation and participation strategy by forming a school council. At that time, the education authority and the school were putting all their efforts, time and resources into improving school attendance rates and academic outcomes.

After a few short meetings of the school council, the pupils had a list of a few things they wanted to see improved in their school.

Top of their list was safe, clean washrooms with locks on the cubicle doors, and an adequate supply of toilet paper and soap.

Also at that time, the local health authority was becoming concerned about the rapidly increasing number of high school students experiencing urinary tract and bowel infections, most like brought on by not going to the washroom frequently enough.

Efficiency is doing things right (increasing attendance and academic outcomes). Whereas effectiveness is doing the right things (improving washroom facilities).

I hope that from this one example alone, we can see that when it comes to any kind of change strategy, consultation and participation has the potential to get right to the heart of the matter and can also go a long way to gaining and maintaining the willing cooperation and active participation of everyone concerned.

The benefits of giving people a voice and choice include:

  • Improved communication, teamwork and problem solving skills.
  • Improved motivation and self-confidence.
  • Acquisition of new knowledge and development of new skills.
  • Changed attitudes and behaviors.

However, it is highly unlikely that consultation and participation can be effective without education and training. It will mean an investment of time, effort and resources of everyone concerned, from the top to the bottom.

People at the bottom will need to learn how to speak up and people at the top will need to learn how to listen.

"Before we can change what we get we must change what we do. Before we can change what we do we must change who we are". Derek Couzens.

If it were possible for people to change behavior by just being told to, the world would be a different place today.
If it were possible for people to change behavior by just being told to, the world would be a different place today. | Source

Changing who we are.

If people could change behavior by being told to, the world would be a different place today.

The harsh reality is behavior change takes time, effort and resources. Many organizations today are not willing to invest in everything required. They want to sacrifice effectiveness for efficiency.

For mission and vision to become reality. for a top-down strategy to be effective, the following will need to occur:

  1. A thorough investigation of training needs and an accurate description of new behaviors required.
  2. Investment in quality education and training.
  3. Creating an environment where learning and development can take place on an ongoing basis.
  4. Staff development and staff appraisal processes must be highly effective.


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