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Are You Trying to Make Your Organization Better by Tinkering?

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By Steve Moran

I was recently having a conversation with a good friend of mine who was doing some consulting work with a really broken senior living organization. This particular organization at one time did some amazing, perhaps even world changing things, but they have failed to adapt over time.

They are not yet losing money but are very close to dropping below the breakeven line. It is a sad kind of tail.  

It is an organization that could be fixed, but it has the wrong leadership. It once had strong leadership but current leaders got through a really tough process of attrition outlasting everyone else. They are nice people who have wonderful hearts but they are not the folks to take this organization to the next place it needs to be.  

Here is the problem, the leaders and the board know there is a problem. The board does not want to hurt feelings or have hard conversations even though they know the ship is leaking and will inevitably sink.  

It is hard to know exactly what the leadership thinks, it is possible they actually know they are the problem but it is really scary for anyone to say, “I am not up to the task”. I know this well, because I have been there and each time I only made a move after someone was willing to have a hard conversation with me (or just fire me).  

Tinkering

So what they are doing and what ends up happening way too often in organizations is that they tinker with little things hoping they will stop the leaks and that the tinkering will actually somehow repair the problem. It never works.

Tinkering is actually only good for two things:

1. Squeezing a little more life out of something that is clearly dying.

2.  Taking something that is really exceptional and fine tuning it to get an even higher level of performance.

Think of #1 above as being like owning a car that is on it’s last legs. If you are really trying to be frugal, you might do some tinkering with the idea that tinkering will get you another five, ten or fifteen thousand miles all the while knowing the car is GOING TO DIE. This can be a smart decision.  

On the other hand, thinking that tinkering will fix the car is clearly foolish thinking.   

High Performing Organizations

It turns out that in high performance organizations tinkering can be a great way to soar to even higher levels, except in those kinds of organizations, we tend to call it fine-tuning. This is when doing little things makes all the sense in the world and can reap huge benefits.

Quit Tinkering

I have lots and lots of conversations with senior living professionals who work for organizations that are perhaps not dying, but not doing all that well. Too frequently they tell me stories about how their leadership is tinkering hoping for better results. I understand the sentiment, it feels a lot safer. You are doing something, which is better than doing nothing, but the question really is, will that tinkering really fix big problems. Likely not.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is a major overhaul, which in senior living means a change in leadership personnel, a change in direction, or a change in methods.

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