And so, in response to these divergent preferences, organizations tend to adopt strategies to encourage, discourage, or guide the way employees work. These strategies—which management scholars call “behavioral control mechanisms”—include the incentives, quotas, and detailed protocols that are so common in many workplaces.
Leaders—and the consultants they hire—go to great lengths to develop these control mechanisms. However, the level of energy and capital invested in these facilities does not necessarily predict their effectiveness.
What must organizations do to ensure their success? New research from the Kellogg School of Management suggests that part of the answer may lie in making sure these aren’t top-down directives. Instead, leaders should bring employees into the process early, at the conception stage.
This was the main finding in an ethnographic field study that Gillian Chow, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, held at a world-renowned Canadian hospital. In the 18 months of field research, Chown interviewed and shadowed workers and managers, attended trainings and participated in executive meetings. He mainly focused on developing a new protocol called the daily preparation meeting.
He was surprised to find that when management-imposed protocol didn’t fit a given team’s needs or didn’t help it achieve its stated goal, workers didn’t turn into boxes, aimlessly going through the motions. Instead, they either refined and adapted it, or started from scratch by going back to the goals that led to the new routine and brainstorming a replacement.
Overall, Chown discovered a disposition process that was more collaborative than she would have expected based on existing research on workplace dynamics. The protocol he observed was not unilaterally handed over by management or rejected by employees when it didn’t work for them. It was probably co-created by these groups.
“I think it’s really cool, because it shows the types of innovation that’s possible in the design and implementation of organizational controls,” he says.
Picking up speed in the daily preparation meeting
Chown chose to study a hospital system in part because before getting her doctorate, she worked as a management consultant specializing in health care organizations. He also knew that it can be particularly difficult to implement new routines in a health care organization because of the high level of autonomy that doctors and nurses enjoy, and the fact that their managers do not always share their expertise.
“I wanted to go in and understand how change happens in this very complex context,” he says.
During Chown’s time embedded at the Canadian hospital, she oversaw the introduction of a new, mandatory daily preparation meeting at five of the hospital’s outpatient clinics.
The goal of the hospital’s top leadership was to improve the quality of patient care. The new routine required employees to attend a 15-minute morning meeting led by their managers, in which they would plan the day and address any upcoming challenges. The meetings, intended to be highly standardized, were guided by a list of questions on the daily preparation sheets.
As it turned out, the structure of the daily preparatory meeting would not remain standardized for long.
In all five of the units studied by Chown, the implementation of these mandated meetings became a process of co-creation, as she defines it, between management and workers.
The co-creation he saw in each clinic unfolded consistently in two stages, Chown found. First, the clinic teams learned about the protocol. Then, with guidance from the program managers tasked with implementing it, the teams brainstormed together about whether and how the new tool might fit into their specific environments—and achieve the desired results within them. Chown writes that her research “highlights the critical importance of reflective activities in co-creating organizational control mechanisms.”
Adaptation or Permutation
Although all clinics engaged in a co-creation process between managers and employees, their results varied from there. Only two clinics plus a subgroup in a third incorporated a version of the daily preparation meeting for ongoing use. Chown describes these groups as following what she calls an “adaptation path” because they made only minor changes to the protocol as presented by leadership — tweaking the questions on the daily prep sheet, for example.
On the other hand, the other two clinics plus the remaining subgroups in the third clinic decided not to proceed with the mandatory daily preparation meeting. Instead, each of the groups implemented a mechanism of their own design aimed at achieving the underlying goal of improving patient care. For example, one clinic decided that its hectic patient schedule was the biggest obstacle to improving care. A better way to address this challenge, they decided, would be to introduce other protocols: a weekly preview, a program review, and a clinic board. Chown labels this “withdraw the original and start” approach as the “transmutation path.”
“I was amazed by the existence of this transmutation pathway,” says Chown. He expected that employees would abandon the new routine when they found it unsuitable for their unit. “Instead, I saw this attempt to step back and say, ‘Okay, what are we trying to accomplish?’ They returned to the goals of the mandated control mechanism, which was to improve patient care.”
Chown stresses that her findings are unlikely to translate to every type of workplace. First, he notes, although they had many different ideas and preferences about implementation, the hospital’s leadership team and clinical care teams shared the core goal of prioritizing patient care. In a different context, such as a call center, he says, it may be less effective to ask employees to help devise their own incentive structures or quota systems, since employees and managers are less likely to share a perspective that is driven from sending for their work.
Furthermore, the expertise of doctors and nurses cannot be shared by their managers. In health care and other organizations with a workforce dominated by knowledge workers, such as high-tech industries, this makes it even more necessary for managers who develop behavioral controls to work with the employees who will implement them.
In these contexts, “the ability to implement controls that can succeed may depend more on the knowledge of front-line workers than on the brainstorming of a manager or consultant,” says Chown.
A process to catalyze future success
Chown’s research was an ethnographic inductive study—a study designed “to explore the ‘how’ and ‘why’ things happen within organizations, rather than the outcomes,” she explains. Thus, it did not assess the effectiveness of the different groups’ protocols. But she hopes that future work will build on her findings by taking this question into account.
However, Chown’s findings suggest that protocols, quotas, incentives, and other behavior control mechanisms designed by managers are likely to be better adopted if they solicit the feedback of experienced workers early in the process. He emphasizes that while brainstorming with employees, it’s important for managers to ensure fidelity to the core goals that drive the protocol.
“There will necessarily be tension between standardization and customization,” says Chown, “and managers need to make sure they stay true to the overall purpose of the project.”
Allowing and encouraging employees to shape or co-create behavior controls can mean more work for managers, Chown acknowledges. But he believes the extra effort is worth it.
First, employees are likely to feel empowered by having a hand in this co-creation. What’s more, he adds, this kind of collaboration can allow leaders and managers to begin to see failure as a stepping stone to even greater successes.
“My research shows that this enforcement mandate can act as a catalyst,” says Chown. “It created space for group meetings and brainstorming. Thus, although in some cases the daily preparation meeting was a “failure”, the teams actually implemented new protocols of their own making. And that’s success.”