Treadmill is the first of what we call the decline-side stages of the Predictable Success model. What is interesting about this decline-side designation is most businesses are still growing when they enter Treadmill. The problem is, a business in Treadmill has begun to lose or even suppress the visionary risk-taking that brought it this far. It is often so subtle that most within the organization don’t even notice, and those outside of the organization (especially stockholders) will likely be happier than ever. What no one realizes is that the fate of the entire organization is decided in Treadmill.
Getting into Treadmill
You’ll likely remember from these articles on Whitewater and Predictable Success that an organization reaches Predictable Success by adopting systems and processes across the organization. These systems and processes balance out vision and creativity, harnessing their value and capitalizing on it at scale. Doing this allows the organization to deliver consistent quality, even in the face of complexity, and reach its maximum growth potential.
Staying in Predictable Success is all about maintaining this tension and pulling on everyone in the organization to truly innovate. Still, the gravity within the organization is pulling hard.
Whitewater feels really bad, and Predictable Success generally feels really good. And, having experienced both leaders in the organization will push to avoid falling back into Whitewater. Knowing that systems and processes got them out of Whitewater, what do you think they do when problems and difficulties arise in the organization?
They increasingly look to systems and processes to save the day. And it works. New systems are implemented, and old systems are upgraded, gaining new efficiencies and eliminating problems each step of the way. Processes for production, communication, sales, and support all mature. The result is a much more efficient organization. And this is a good thing, right?
There is nothing inherently wrong with efficiency, but gains in efficiency can come at the cost of effectiveness when overvalued.
What then happens within the organization is these ever-expanding systems and processes get out of balance and start to stifle visionary risk-taking.
Form starts to edge out function. Face time is more important than delivering; filling out checklists is more important than what the checklist was intended to achieve. The organization is for the first time in its history over-processed.
And that is how organizations find themselves in Treadmill. Left unchecked, this progression toward systematization will not only continue but accelerate, forcing the organization past the point of no return and into the penultimate stage of the Predictable Success lifecycle, the Big Rut.
However, if leadership can recognize the threat, they can still reverse course and pull the organization back into Predictable Success for years or even decades.
Getting out of Treadmill
If you look at the model depicted at the start of this article, you will notice that Treadmill is depicted as a squiggly line. This is because Treadmill doesn’t feel comfortable, especially for Operators and even more for Visionaries. There is a growing rift that has to give way. The organization either has to get back to Predictable Success, or the Visionaries have to go (or be quiet).
Fortunately, this very problem is the warning flag that allows the business to recognize it has drifted and return to its proper course. That flag is typically waved in the hands of the Visionary. At some point, he or she has had enough. Recognizing systems and processes are great, but out of control, they fight to bring the risk-taking and innovation back and reignite the entrepreneurial spark in the organization.
If you can catch it in time, there is a high degree of success for the Visionary who’s willing to fight to lessen these processes and get the organization back into winning form. Here are the strategies we recommend to make this process as quick and painless as possible.
Set an example for risk-taking at the top: Dr. Edwin Louis Cole once said, “The characteristics of the kingdom emanate from the characteristics of the king.” Your organization will never take more risk than its leaders. This is why an innovation department will not keep you out or get you out of Treadmill. To get to and stay in Predictable Success, you need an innovation organization, and for that, you need innovative leadership.
Focus on the front line: One byproduct of the Treadmill organization’s hyper-focus on efficiency is a loss of focus on the front-line. They work harder to solve their problems than they do to solve the (changing) problems their customers face. Visionary risk-taking is the exact opposite. It allows danger to the organization for the sake of offering the solution the market actually wants. Knowing what the market wants requires top leadership to tune into the customers’ needs. There is no better way to understand the customer’s needs and assess their experience than to have senior managers spending time right on the front lines.
Change who and how you hire: In Treadmill, the lowest hanging fruit and the first step you’ll take is almost always in how you hire. Treadmill organizations can get stuck in one of these poor hiring practices. They either hire reactively, continually scrambling to fill open positions OR they over systematize the process, favoring the addition of technically sound processors and synergists. Who place nice with us over the visionaries and operators who are more likely to shake things up and cause some trouble along the way. In either case, the organization will benefit from a more proactive approach maintaining a pipeline of quality candidates representing all four leadership styles.
Leverage growth-centered performance assessments: As I mentioned in this article on staying in Predictable Success, organization-wide goal-setting programs are one of the best ways to encourage innovation across the organization. Performance assessments in Treadmill companies often do the opposite. They are either missing altogether or are so focused on avoiding failure that they almost surely work against creativity and ingenuity in the organization.
Create an opportunity for movement within the organization: In the Predictable Success world, we call this deployment. There are two forces at play here. First, one of the primary sources of lethargy is an employee holding one position for too long. Second, our cultural value for flexibility and mobility is increasingly shortening our time employed by any one company. Employees are increasingly looking for new and interesting work. Both of these forces can be overcome (or leveraged) by increasing the availability of lateral and vertical movement within the organization. Keeping talent and institutional knowledge within the organization and keeping everyone fresh as well.
Refocus and refine training: With great hiring and active deployment programs, you will want to ensure your training systems effectively and efficiently equip its employees with the knowledge and skills they need to achieve productivity AND cultural fit. I recommend a mixture of classroom, digital, and on-the-job training. External sources like industry associations and seminars are a great option as well.
Implement mentoring and coaching programs: In addition to training, you should consider implementing mentoring and/or coaching programs. When done right, these programs are a benefit to everyone involved. Teachers learn more by having to process their knowledge enough to teach it, and they can get new life from working alongside newer (and often younger) colleagues. Learners gain greater access to the institution’s knowledge and culture. Don’t worry about over-systematizing these programs. They can be as formal or informal as you want.
Treadmill is the first step toward a decline within an organization. While it may seem great on the outside, there is pain inside the organization as it shifts away from its visionary roots, and systems and processes take first place.
Fortunately, you can still get back to Predictable Success using the right strategy to reignite and refocus the organization.
If you think you are in Treadmill but aren’t quite sure, I’d like to encourage you to take the free Lifecycle assessment at https://bit.ly/Lifecycle-Quiz to find out for sure and to see around the corner at what is next for your business!