Top-Down Performance Initiatives and Promise Chaos

Brobingnagian top-down designs left a lot to be desired.

Many of us, especially coming from Engineering and MBA backgrounds, are entrenched in a management science paradigm that says operational data should flow up for analysis, then improvement initiatives should be designed by senior management and implemented down through the organization. Aided and abetted by the information technology industry, this has been business’ mantra for decades.  The results have not been particularly laudatory and the prognosis is worse.  Initiatives come, a temporary bump in some aspect of performance occurs, then performance either plateaus or regresses, even in seemingly unrelated measures. There are a variety of breakdowns underneath these failures, one of the biggest being something I call Promise Chaos.

Promise Chaos

We all are motivated by our concerns to take action.   If our child is sick, we take her to the doctor. If we want to develop new skills we find teachers and undergo education.  In order to take care of our concerns, we routinely make and fulfill promises to ourselves and others.  In our personal lives, we may have relative autonomy in promise-making and fulfillment.  Even so, we can often feel like we are trying to fulfill more promises simultaneously than we are able.  We get stressed out, and we may drop the ball on a promise, adding to someone else’s stress and doing no favors to our reputation.

At work, we are also motivated by an array of concerns – satisfy our customers, win new business, reduce the cost of doing business, and stay safe from internal politics.  Unlike our personal lives, our work lives are characterized as roles within a complex network of conversations.   We typically have very limited autonomy over our promise-making. Even as we continually fulfill promises already made, our customers, bosses and executive teams make added requests bringing forth new promises and consequent demand for fulfillment by us.

Troubles can manifest when our promise-fulfillment load is at or near our self-assessed maximum capacity.     What happens when we are pushed beyond maximum capacity?  Either we find a way to increase our capacity, or we triage our promise fulfillment – some promises get renegotiated, deferred or forgotten.  Most empathetic people do not feel good about themselves in this position, and the negative mood that can result can diminish promise fulfillment capacity.  That’s not a good feedback loop.  Articles on corporate stress and burnout suggest that maximum capacity may be the norm… meaning any equilibrium in our promise-fulfillment is precarious at best.  When an individual or team is extended beyond their promise fulfillment capacity, their performance declines and/or becomes erratic, jeopardizing the enterprise’s well-being.  This is Promise Chaos.

Management Science and Top-Down Initiatives

To generate a top-down initiative, executive leadership interprets data coming from operations and designs initiatives to improve the enterprise’s results.  That’s the simple part.  Unfortunately, humans do not live as purely Cartesian Beings.  We need to remember that all human action occurs in conversations for possibilities and action.  We are fundamentally Linguistic Beings.  From a Linguistic Being perspective, executive leadership teams are stewards of the enterprise’s entire conversation network and all of the promises and promise fulfillment in it.  That is a huge responsibility, though never articulated on executive position descriptions. There are few organizations where leadership is even conscious of this critical responsibility.

The executive role in an enterprise features a superficial abundance of autonomy over promise fulfillment. After all, executives design initiatives and delegate them for execution.   The executive follows up, but is not personally impacted by the promise fulfillment demands created their initiatives.  This can create a false sense of organizational promise fulfillment capacity.  After all, how do you (do you?) keep track of all the promises being fulfilled by all of your reporting structure?  Do you have any objective measure of how near to capacity the background level of promise fulfillment is?  Or are you relying on opinions from your senior managers along the lines of “of course my group can handle this new project.”

When top-down initiatives roll downhill into operations, contributors and unit managers may be heavily impacted by incremental promise fulfillment demands – enough to tip them into Promise Chaos, a turbulent condition where “something has to give”.  Promise Chaos can exist within a person individually, but bigger consequences arise when Promise Chaos manifests in many interconnected people at once.   As each person deals with their own Promise Chaos, the possibility of mis-coordination expands.  Suzy keeps fulfilling an old Promise A and defers fulfillment of the New Initiative’s promise X.  But Brad does just the opposite… the net result can be a serious degradation in the fulfillment of both promises. Old equilibria in the enterprise’s promise fulfillment are disturbed or blown up.

Breakdowns in Trust and Alienation –  Enterprise Disease

Occasionally, a new top-down initiative will be mandated that customer-facing contributor and unit manager staff recognize as directly harmful to customer satisfaction.  They are faced with a lose-lose choice of hurting customer relations or failing to comply with management’s direction.  Worse, if top-down initiatives misfire repeatedly, contributors and unit managers become generally distrustful of executive leadership… “they don’t have a clue what really goes on around here!”  New initiatives are met with cynicism and fail earlier and earlier.  The end result of growing distrust is alienation and a perverse organizational mentality resembling the game “Whack-a-Mole.”    Employees and customers suffer.  Eventually, so do shareholders.

The Bottom-Up Prescription

Contributors and unit managers have the best basis for understanding and delivering to customer needs and desires.  Notably successful organizations like Toyota are based on bottom-up opportunity identification, design by experiment and a concise set of fundamental and consistent operating practices. The senior executive role is transformed from omniscient conductor to steward, champion and coach/enabler of these practices.   Leading practitioners like Dr. John Kenagy with his Adaptive Design methodology have proven repeatedly that the bottom-up approach consistently and dramatically outperforms it’s top-down counterpart, with particularly compelling contrasts seen in complex, chaotic environments like hospitals.  Combining Adaptive bottom-up tools with the “molecular” instruments of Conversation-Driven Business focuses the enterprise on its highest value work and provides the entire team with the ability to anticipate, identify and correct fundamental breakdowns including Promise Chaos.


You can always choose to design your future.  Strategic Venture Consulting’s Conversation Driven Business(TM) can help you anticipate, identify and correct fundamental breakdowns like Promise Chaos, sustainably increasing your enterprise’s effectiveness and measurable results.

(c) 2013 Strategic Venture Consulting / Robert Kimball all rights reserved.

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