The Key to Organizational Discipline

Usually when we think of discipline, it’s deeply personal and not that much fun.

One kind of discipline involves punishing others. For example, as a parent, I may discipline my misbehaving child.

Another kind of discipline punishes ourselves. We exercise self-discipline when we turn down dessert, get up earlier than we want to go jogging in the rain, and save for retirement instead of splurging on luxuries.

Yet without the discipline to make a plan and stick to it, we can’t reach our goals. This applies whether the goals are personal or organizational; goals are meaningless if we aren’t taking the action required to achieve them.

Most organizations lack discipline. It takes discipline to clarify and communicate goals across a team, and even more discipline for all the individuals in the group to stick to the plan and do their part as time goes on.

When you operate at the organizational level, the type of discipline that leads to punishment for doing the wrong thing comes into play when someone either lacks the skills or the willingness to do their job. In situations like these, discipline looks like corrective action, or coaching, or training, or getting fired.

On the other hand, when the people in the group have the right skills and a willingness to do the job, a failure in organizational discipline looks like a problem with accountability. For reasons we often ascribe to weaknesses of character, the people we work with just don’t seem to follow through with the agreed upon strategy. They appear to lack that second flavor of discipline – self-discipline – to stick with the program and complete their tasks. We cajole, we threaten, we push and we pull, but things just don’t change.

Those people. Grrrr.

Manager pulling employee by a rope
Rules, bribes, punishment, constraints – not the best way to create discipline and alignment in a team.
FWIW: Amy is not actually one of those people.

A More Enjoyable Concept of Discipline

“Discipline is remembering what you want.”

David Campbell

This is one of my favorite quotes, although I always remember it as:

“Discipline is simply remembering what you really want.”

My mug is awesome uglyI painted the modified version of this quote onto the coffee mug I use at the office, and even planned to get a “remembering” symbol tattooed on my left wrist. (Like a sort of an owl with elephant ears. You know, because owls symbolize our deeper wisdom, and elephants remember. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it.)

I love this quote because it isn’t wallowing in all the martyrdom I’d always associated with discipline. Here, discipline is about doing the things that help you get what you really want! That’s way more enticing than the version of discipline centered on punishment. I’m not particularly motivated to deny myself small pleasures (cupcakes! sleeping in! yes, please!), but I am motivated to achieve something even more rewarding, like staying fit so I can wrestle my teenage boys.

The actions I need to take (or not take) aren’t any different, but the reason for them is. I’m being disciplined so I can get something awesome!

And if discipline is “remembering what you want”, then all we have to do is figure out what we want (what we really want) and remember it. Simple!

What an Organization Really Wants

This also gives us a path towards organizational discipline. A healthy organization won’t rely on punishment or self-sacrifice to operate with discipline. Instead, a healthy organization will be one where everyone remembers what the organization wants, connects with it personally, and acts accordingly.

At the organizational level, we “figure out what we really want” through strategic planning. We clarify our vision and mission. We outline BHAGs, Objectives, and Key Results. And we design our organizational culture and reward systems so that when the organization achieves its goals, everyone involved gets something they personally really want too.

Those organizations that can keep their goals clearly in sight, that have the discipline to stick to their plans and hold each other accountable for achieving their key results, have a distinct advantage over those who cannot.

As David Maister outlines in Strategy & the Fat Smoker: Doing What’s Obvious But Not Easy, most organizations lack this discipline. He points out that most strategic plans look remarkably similar. We all want to be more profitable, we all know good customer service matters, we all want to trim out wasteful distractions. Most groups have little problem describing “what they really want”, but afterwards, all of that strategic thinking gets filed away until it’s time to pull out the plan and re-do it again the next year. In the interim, people get back to their routine and tackle whatever seems most urgent at the moment.

It’s the remembering that makes it so HARD!

Discipline is remembering what you want. But the thing is, we just don’t remember very often.

We don’t remember to get up and stretch every 20 minutes when we’re working, even though we really want to prevent backache and eye strain. And no way do we remember the details from that strategic plan. Something about excellent customer service? New sales maybe? A study by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney found that only 29.3% of employees could correctly match their company to its publicly espoused strategy.

If the people in your organization cannot remember what the plan even was, it’s literally impossible for them to have the discipline required to implement it.

It’s not our fault that we can’t remember. It’s how we’re made.

We can’t always remember what we want because we’re busy, we’re distracted, and our lizard brains just aren’t designed to hold on to our our higher aspirations when facing all the seemingly urgent and tantalizing tidbits that come our way.

Conscience whispers, but interest screams aloud.

J. Petit-Senn

If you follow psychology research, you know about decision fatigue. Experiments show that each of us has only a limited capacity for decision making. In other words, our willpower, such as it is, acts like a muscle that gets tired after repeated use. It doesn’t matter what we believe or how important the decision we face right now might be. After we’ve made a bunch of decisions, we exhaust the higher logical part of our brains that “remembers what we really want”, and the part that developed when daily survival was the big worry starts to take over. We eat more than we should. We drink that extra beer. At work, Facebook. Lots of lizard-brain Facebook.

The lizard brain operates in scarcity mode, and firmly believes that:

The trouble with resisting temptation is it may never come your way again.

Korman’s Law

Discipline and the Trough of Despair

Discipline is simply remembering what you really want.

Ok, so we’ve let go of the martyrdom bit, but now there’s a new problem. First, we live in an information dense world that’s constantly changing, making it pretty hard to remember anything for too long. Second, sometimes a version of myself shows up that really wants a pint of Chunky Monkey ice cream, and that version of me is pretty good at making the case for non-discrimination between alter-egos.

So I’ve connected with discipline as something “simple” that gives me what I really want, and I can’t quite do it. Cue the self-loathing!

Doesn’t that sound about like how you feel when your leadership team pulls up your old strategic plan and sees all those unmet goals? Or when you look at failed projects, failed products, and lost business and see that your team never actually did what they intended to make them succeed?

We feel bad because we didn’t have the discipline to follow through. And we didn’t have the discipline, because in the heat of the moment, we couldn’t always remember exactly what it was that we were meant to do – or if we did remember what, we couldn’t remember why – that this wasn’t just some idea imposed on us, but rather something we really want.

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage — pleasantly, smilingly, non apologetically — to say “no” to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. The enemy of the “best” is often the “good.”

Stephen Covey

The problem isn’t with starting that fire of a “bigger yes”. The problem is that we don’t remember to feed it, and so it goes out.

Epiphany: A New Perspective on Discipline

Two years after painting this quote on my mug, it finally clicked. There is an approach to discipline, on both the personal and organizational level, that helps us stay true to our higher goals and treats our poor lizard brains with the kindness they deserve.

If the point of discipline is to achieve something we really want, and the practice of discipline comes from remembering what we really want, then:

The key to discipline is to make it
super easy to remember what you really want.

In other words, if you want to achieve organizational discipline, you must make it easier for everyone to remember the higher goal.

To do this, you’ll need a process for everyone to regularly connect to and remember the vision and mission (the “what you really want” as an organization) and the systems to support that process.

The systems you use must match the goal. As a personal example, I added the free “Time Out” app to my computer, which reminds me to regularly take a short break away from my computer. When I use it, my hips aren’t too sore and my eyesight isn’t blurry at the end of the day. The app reminds me of what I really want – to feel good after working all day – and then I get it! It doesn’t even feel like traditional discipline.

The challenge is not “How can we improve discipline in our organization?” (hard! unfriendly!) but instead “How can we make it really simple to remember what we’re trying to achieve?”

This is one of those small shifts in perspective that lays the foundation for meaningful change. I mentioned my “Time Out” app, and how it helps me feel better at the end of the day. What I didn’t mention was that I’ve had this app for years, and I turned it off for most of that time. Before I made the connection that the app’s job is to help me get something I want every day, I’d seen it as one of those good-for-you things you’re supposed to do, but that mostly became an annoying interruption. Remembering what it helps me do that I want now – not using it because some pundit said I’m supposed to or to avoid some amorphous future consequence – entirely changed my personal habit.

Use process to support organizational discipline

The Key to Discipline: make it easy to remember what you really want

Process is an organization’s way of remembering of what it really wants and for codifying those habits that lead to success. Best known methods, standard methodologies, a regular meeting pulse – these are the foundations of organizational discipline precisely because these are the ways that an organization can set up reminders everyone can share.

If you have always thought process was something only big companies and bureaucrats could love, I invite you to re-examine that notion.

The processes and systems you need will depend on your goals. For most organizations, the process will involve one or more regular team meetings. You may even have a standing team meeting in place that you can tweak to suit. Whatever else you might cover, make sure your meeting helps everyone remember your organizational goals.

As part owner and manager of a small business, this shift in perspective helps me better understand how to structure the work we do. We already have a well-established communications infrastructure, and a cadence of regular meetings specifically designed to keep the team aligned and work moving along. But we only review our progress on the strategic plan together every 6 weeks or so. That’s not often enough to make it stupid easy for everyone to remember what we really want as an organization.

Going forward, we’ll be reviewing our processes and our goals together. Where we have a goal that we’re not making enough progress on, we have to ask ourselves – Do we really want this? and, if so, How can we make it crazy simple to remember the things we need to do to make it happen?

We now have a perspective on process design and organizational discipline that we can embrace together. We know the job of the process is to serve us and help us get what we want. We can be ruthless about changing out a process that doesn’t serve, and enthusiastic about trying new processes that will, because we know process isn’t a goal in itself or a way to schackle the team. It’s just a tool.

A tool that helps us remember and get what we really want. How cool is that?