Lowest common denominator

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on October 13, 2010

In organizations that fail to hold individuals accountable for performance, decision-making seeks the “lowest common denominator”-the easy and immediately painless decision-to preserve unity and conformity. The price is pursuit of the best solution. In an interview several years ago, FedEx Founder, Chairman, and President Frederick W. Smith illustrated this principle with a reference to the 1940 American war film about aircrews, “Twelve O’clock High,” starring the late actor Gregory Peck.

Although Mr. Peck is generally associated with tough-guy characters, in Twelve O’clock High he plays the role “of a very feeling man who has command of a unit, and he can’t get the job done,” Mr. Smith related the storyline. “He tries to be too good, and it works against his purpose. Peck comes in with a cold dose of discipline. The lesson is if you don’t hold people to a high standard, organizations will gravitate to the lowest common denominator.”

Either Mr. Smith or the USA Today reporter who interviewed him got the plot of the movie somewhat mixed up. Mr. Peck’s character-Brigadier General Frank Savage-replaced a commander who had grown so close to his men that his first priority was to preserve their lives, not win the war. The result was catastrophic on multiple levels. His men suffered from low morale because their unit was performing so poorly compared to others on bombing missions of Nazi Germany-occupied France. And the unit-hastily assembled and put into service-was still suffering heavy casualties.

If you don’t remember the film-or more likely, haven’t seen it-you may be thinking the plot is predictable, assuming Gen. Savage leads the unit to glory. That’s partly right, but the general himself breaks down when one of his best combat commanders is killed during a risky run. A man Gen. Savage had severely disciplined to demonstrate a higher standard for the group when he first arrived takes the general’s place and leads the unit to a successful bombing run.

Mr. Savage’s fate is actually unclear, but in the novel on which the movie is based, he’s promoted and given command of the Second Air Force back in the United States, presumably because he is credited for turning the unit around despite his temporary catatonia. The movie demonstrates another principle of management: that leaders often pay a heavy personal and professional price for holding their people to high standards.

In government, it’s not surprising that decision-making seems geared toward the lowest common denominator. Because it is. In 1988 political scientist Fritz Scharpf gave this process a name: joint decision trap. Dr. Scharpf wrote in a scholarly paper that intergovernmental bodies-such as the European Union-settle for the lowest common denominator because they have the best chance of being approved, given that they have little perceived negative impact on any individual government.

Group decision making isn’t always a bad thing. In The Knowledge-Creating Company, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotake Takeuchi describe three styles of team organization: Relay, Rugby, and American Football. The Relay style is quickly dismissed, but the benefits and drawbacks of the Rugby style collaboration deserve and get more attention. Benefits include short development cycles, little conflict, a measurable result, short lead times and high quality.

But the negatives are alarming, and foremost is groupthink leading to the lowest common denominator to preserve harmony. This style can also lead to inefficiencies as a result of socialization, and low tolerance for risk taking. It’s hard to set performance targets. The authors conclude that a modified Rugby style-American Football-makes more sense in part because leaders are accountable and specialized teams performing very specific purposes make up the larger team.

The ultimate purpose, of course, is high-performance teams that achieve dramatic results. Regardless of the nature of the organization-public company, start-up, non-government organization, or government-breakthrough results are achieved when motivated teams are led by inspired but demanding leadership. While good intentions are nice, when uncoupled from accountability they lead to unintended and disastrous results, as many real-life commanders and executives alike can attest.

When government leaders fail, it’s easy to blame others-particularly predecessors and perceived critics-but leaders must be held accountable for their successes and failures to achieve potential. One other thing is certain: trying to please competing influence groups and keep the peace is an undertaking that will not end well. And it is likely to end especially badly when teams and individuals within those groups perform poorly and are not held accountable.

Unless playing to the lowest common denominator is actually the plan. If it is, you know what to expect.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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