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Organizational Excellence Is About Being Perfect Together

When organizations work well, they allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That's because they can be powerful vehicles for combining our strengths in a way that makes the whole far greater than the sum of the parts.
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The effective large organization is one of the most important human accomplishments. There are few greater satisfactions than being part of an effort that makes a contribution and a difference that none of us could do alone. If we want of be part of something extraordinary, we usually need to partner and work with other people.

When organizations work well, they allow ordinary people to do extraordinary things. That's because they can be powerful vehicles for combining our strengths in a way that makes the whole far greater than the sum of the parts. As individuals, each of us brings both strengths and weaknesses to the group effort. The special power of highly effective organizations is they render our weaknesses insignificant by combining only our strengths and creating collective excellence. As long as there is a diversity of strengths, each of us can do what we do best and not have to devote either time or worry to the things we don't do well. Perhaps that's what the late Peter Drucker had in mind when he observed that the unique purpose of an organization is to make strength productive.

The wonderful thing about effective organizations is that we do not have to be individually perfect to succeed. We just have to be perfect together. Thus, the closest most of us ever get to perfection is when we mutually experience the benefits of each other's strengths. Unfortunately, few workers experience this level of human engagement because most organizations are not designed to make strength productive. Perhaps that explains why, in Deloitte's most recent Shift Index report, they found that only 11 percent of people are passionate about their work.

The typical organization is not designed to leverage collective strength. Instead, it's built to leverage individual intelligence. Most business leaders continue to ascribe to the belief that the smartest organizations build top-down hierarchies and give the people at the top command-and-control authority over the people at the bottom. They assume when hierarchical leaders give directions to the rank-and-file, the employees will behave smarter than they otherwise would on their own. When the prime value of an organization's operating system is compliance, it's not surprising that few workers experience passion in the workplace.

However, the danger with leveraging individual intelligence is that nobody is perfect. Everyone has weaknesses as well as strengths. When companies are organized to leverage individual intelligence, the individual weaknesses of senior leaders become problematic--and sometimes even fatal. Perhaps, this explains why the traditional focus of performance appraisal tools has highlighted not only strengths and accomplishments, but also key weaknesses, which are usually referred to as opportunities for improvement. These supposed opportunities often become the prime emphasis of the appraisal process. That's because when the few have the power to shape the work of the many, we can't afford for those few to have any weaknesses. Striving for perfection is viewed as an individual phenomenon.

Unfortunately, individual perfection is an unattainable pursuit. While we can perfect our strengths--whether it's athletic ability, a knack for numbers, a beautiful voice, or the gift of persuasion--very few, if any of us, can perfect our weaknesses. If someone is tone-deaf and can't carry a tune, she is never going to become an accomplished singer. That's reality and not an opportunity for improvement.

In the past few years, the Gallup organization has been on the forefront of aligning with reality by emphasizing the importance of building individual strengths rather than improving individual weaknesses. Their popular StrengthsFinders tool has struck a chord with innovative organizational practitioners and has had a large impact on how we view the relationship of the individual and the organization. Gallup understands that perfection is not an individual pursuit, but rather a collective achievement.

Today's best-run organizations, such as Google, Wikipedia, Linux, Zappos, and Whole Foods, understand this wisdom. That's why, in building their organizations, they don't leverage individual intelligence by building top-down hierarchies. Instead, they build collaborative networks designed to leverage collective intelligence because they understand that organizational perfection happens when ordinary people do extraordinary things by being perfect together.

Rod Collins is the Director of Innovation at Optimity Advisors and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books, 2014)