The Single Organizational Discipline With Unmatched ROI

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“We’ve seen in excess of a 300% increase in output, with essentially no increase in inputs. And our people are happier.”

This sounds like a testimonial in the business management version of a get-rich-quick infomercial. But it’s not. It was spoken by a Harvard Business School professor almost a decade ago when interviewed about his contribution to a publication in the school’s Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit, Research Paper Series. What was the research about? In a word: integrity.

What do we mean by integrity?

Yes, integrity will create greater quantifiable business and financial outcomes. Before we get to how, let’s first consider what we mean by integrity. We’re not referring to the kind of integrity related to “doing the right thing” — refusing to accept bribes or manipulate financial reporting. Sure, that’s important.

But there’s the more fundamental integrity in the form of simply doing what one says they will do, when they say they will do it. This kind of integrity isn’t a moral or ethical concept. It’s a factor of “functional performance” as illustrated the branch of engineering referred to as structural integrity.

Structural integrity is concerned with ensuring that a structure (read: organization) or one of its components (read: individual) is fit to operate (read: perform) under expected circumstances, as well as some level beyond.

If you build a bridge, will it bear the weight? If you build a skyscraper, will it stand high winds? If you build a rocket ship, will it tolerate intense acceleration, heat and atmospheric pressure? There’s no “right or wrong” here. No morality, no ethics. Just performance to functional expectations.

If you build a team, will it bear the responsibilities and deliver the results it’s expected to? That depends on the integrity of all the individuals in the team. After all, with a bridge, a faulty beam can bring the whole thing down. A singular fault in a heat shield panel will destroy the rocket ship (as well as its occupants and mission).

Before examining how integrity pragmatically impacts results, we may want to agree that when a leader makes a request or sets expectations, reporting staff who don’t object are, by default, accepting (in other words: expressing, saying, committing) that they will do that which is asked of them. Let’s work under the agreement that — even if it’s the best practice for the manager to actively gain that explicit alignment — it’s the responsibility of those under a manager to actively express that they are not committed to an expectation or request, if they have hesitations of any sort.

Related: Test Your Structural Integrity

What’s the impact of integrity?

Consider what it might be like if:

  • Everyone showed up to the meeting with all the necessary preparation, as you asked when inviting the participants?

  • Or if they were fully present and engaged instead of multi-tasking on Slack, as requested when the meeting kicked off (or better: as a cultural norm).

  • What if, as agreed upon at the beginning, the group came to a final decision by the end of the meeting?

  • Or what if the follow-up meeting to truly arrive at that final decision happened by the end of the week (as discussed) instead of being delayed because of [fill in the blank with the latest reason]?

A 300% increase in output sounds quite realistic if you apply this to hundreds of circumstances, thousands of times per week, 52 weeks per year. What does this look like for code releases? Product launches? Marketing campaign timing? Recruiting goals? New comp plan rollouts? Sales quota achievement? How does it improve execution at large, and thus top- and bottom-line results? Employee morale and retention? Investor returns?

If anything, to have integrity, an organization and its individuals must actually invest in less as a result of saying “no” more often, to ensure they’re not over-committing and under-delivering. More effective prioritization will need to happen. Practices to create visibility on commitments and results will be necessary. Hustle to deliver on commitments when unforeseen complications arise will be required. But as stated at the top, to receive such vast outputs that this kind of operational and individual integrity creates, these inputs are relatively negligible (if not table-stakes for any organization to survive to begin with).

Related: The Importance of Integrity: Now More Than Ever

What might you do?

Improving organizational integrity is a significant undertaking and not a four-step process. We’re talking about what often amounts to a cultural shift and upgrade, which will require very specific, pragmatic and consistent actions. It will require change management. It will require time and patience. But it will absolutely pay off.

With that said, here are four steps you can take to begin your journey:

  1. Start from the top-down: Discuss with your leadership team the concepts reviewed herein. Highlight the need to reinvest in building “integrity muscles,” making integrity more than just an abstract concept but an operational reality. Then gain explicit commitment from everyone in your leadership team that you will do whatever is necessary to pragmatically operationalize integrity.

  2. Create new meeting norms: Meetings are the time and space in which organizations get work done. Create the habit of beginning every meeting by committing to a desired outcome, and reserve 5% of time at the end of every meeting to answer the question: Who will do what by when?

  3. Use technology: Adopt a platform to help you establish and sustain your new integrity practices. Work management systems like ClickUp, Asana or Monday can help you document those actions committed to at the end of every meeting, assign owners and due dates, leverage automated reminders and generate easy views or reports to create the visibility you need for accountability.

  4. Get help: Find a consultant you can partner with to help you create a pragmatic plan for implementing this cultural and operational shift, to help you with the usual derailers and best practices, and to keep you accountable in executing on your plan.

Related: What Stops Organizational Change From Sticking, And How to Change That

Integrity is the fundamental value an organization (and all individuals within it) must strive to uphold. Without it, any intention to see accountability in execution, and therefore exceptional results, is just that: an intention. But by continually improving integrity — “a mountain with no summit” — an organization can see outsized returns.

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