Mechanisms with Teeth

Imagine a large gear. It has teeth that take hold. Movement is incremental, one grind forward at a time—consistent and persistent. In his article, “Aligning Action and Values” (June, 2000), Jim Collins describes how effective organizations create concrete mechanisms—”mechanisms with teeth”—to align behaviors with values. The same is true with vision. We need mechanisms with teeth to align behaviors with our vision; we need deliberate practices that translate vision into reality.

Vision is necessary, but not sufficient
It is incredibly powerful for leaders and their teams to visualize the future that they want to create and then compare that with the way it is today. The difference between what we want and what is creates tension. Leaders use that tension to activate movement forward.

We have a three-step process:

  1. We start with imagining and describing the future we want to create.
  2. We get clear on the way it is right now.
  3. We take action to move from where we are to where we want to be.

This is an iterative, ongoing process—not a one-and-done event.

For many of us, however, it turns into a one-and-done event. We carve out time to work on the visioning process, but we are then thrust back into the chaotic world we are operating in. We feel crushed by the weight of urgent tasks, crises, and never-ending, last-minute changes. We forget about the vision. We stop being candid about current reality and the lack of alignment with our vision. We lose momentum.

Does this sound familiar? What can you do about it?
This is where mechanisms with teeth come in. These are things that we decide to do consistently, no matter what—behaviors, practices, habits, rituals—which over time move us from where we are to where we want to be. Given the competing priorities and urgent tasks that conspire to take us off course, a great mechanism with teeth creates structure and exerts enough force to galvanize action.

Examples can be helpful. Here are three:

Example 1: Let’s say, for example, that central to your envisioned future is having focus as an organization. Imagine a future in which every leader knows the organization’s top priorities and they work together proactively to excel in the things that matter most. Current reality, on the other hand, feels chaotic and confusing with lack of clarity around what matters most and lots of last-minute changes. What might a helpful mechanism with teeth be?

It is crucial to note that what works is context dependent. You and your team will need to custom-design mechanisms to work best in your context.

Ideas to spark your thinking:

  • Work together to develop a vision that includes naming the organization’s top priorities. Instead of it being a one-off event, put “Priorities Review” on the calendar as a quarterly practice—part of the way we do business.
  • Build a few minutes into your team’s already existing weekly meeting to revisit the vision and contrast it with current reality. Be candid and leverage the tension to activate commitment and action. Everyone knows this conversation is coming every week. That is a mechanism with teeth!
  • Give employees permission (and authority) to say no to last-minute changes.

Example 2: Let’s say, for example, that central to your envisioned future is cross-silo collaboration and integration. Imagine a future in which people across your silos communicate, share ideas, and really believe that they are better together. Current reality, on the other hand, is that leaders are focused down and in, and people in one department or silo rarely share ideas with people outside their group. When silos do have to work together, they almost never conduct any kind of after-action reviews (AARs) to learn from their experiences together. What might a helpful mechanism with teeth be?

Ideas to spark your thinking:

  • Require leaders in one silo to work for some amount of time in another silo. Build this into the leader-development progression in the organization.
  • Deliberately create cross-silo project teams with challenging deliverables that can only be achieved by working together.
  • Trigger an After-Action Review (AAR) anytime that two or more elements are involved in a project or operation together. During the AAR candidly review what happened, what they want to sustain, and what they want to improve for next time.

Example 3: Let’s say, for example, that central to your envisioned future is increased employee wellbeing. Imagine a future in which people find their work to be meaningful and engaging; they work hard, yet also take time for restorative rest. Current reality, on the other hand, is that leaders are experiencing high levels of stress, health issues are rising, and burnout is becoming more common. What might a helpful mechanism with teeth be?

Ideas to spark your thinking:

  • Amplify opportunities to do work that is meaningful to individuals. For example, “10% time” allocated to whatever project the person wants to work on. Build this into quarterly employee-mentor conversations.
  • Invest in on-site exercise facilities, classes, and nutrition. Establish a norm of regular group fitness activities, healthy meals, and team competitions.
  • Integrate resilience training into the new employee onboarding process.

Conclusion

Think of a set of mechanisms with teeth as the strategy for achieving your vision. If you do these things consistently over time—like clockwork—you will create the shifts you are looking for. These practices or structures drive specific behaviors that are aligned with your vision and values. They build habits into the day-to-day rhythm of the organization and make sure you are doing the things that matter most.

Life is incredibly busy. Without mechanisms with teeth mapped to each part of your vision, time will get away from you; before you know it, weeks and months will have passed, and your vision will only be words on paper.

For Reflection

  1. What are examples of mechanisms with teeth you already have in your organization?
  2. What part of your vision is just words on paper right now and needs a mechanism with teeth?
  3. Brainstorm some ideas with your team and design a set of mechanisms with teeth that will move you forward, consistently and persistently, one incremental grind at a time.

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