Wednesday, May 9, 2007

NPR - Norms I

I was thinking the other day about social norms. We assume they apply to everyone, but we are totally mistaken. If you ever travelled outside the US or lived aboard for some time, you understand social norms vary with the country, society and culture. We mistake social norms for human norms. And why the thought?

Well, for one I'm a fringe person. Years ago we had a boss who loved Total Quality Management (TQM) when it was a fad by many in senior management, and the USGS decided to implement it. They chose several State Offices to test it. They had to test it in several small to large offices because the USGS is historically a traditional and conservative agency with a very hierarchial management system. Despite what people think of it as a great scientific agency, it's a very top-down management agency for policy and politics, which results in mid- and lower level manager wielding a lot of power.

Anyway, TQM is where you work in teams and come to concensus decisions in support of management's decision. The problem is that it automatically creates conflicts between the employee teams and management. While managers love to make decisions whether or not they or their decisions are liked or accepted by the staff, TQM mandates the teams have some input and authority with managers and in those decisions. A good TQM manager will take the team's results into their decisions.

That said, the first thing TQM training requires is individual appraisals. You see the concept looks at employees as concentric circles, the small inner circle of trusted advisors, the larger circle of staff, and the thin outer ring of fringe people. The middle circle of staff are the employees who generally go along with rules and abide by decisions. They make excellent "team" employees. But they lack one essential part of TQM.

The fringe employees (usually about 5% of the staff) are the ones who question authority, ask the reasons about decisions, raise hands in meetings with questions, and more importantly, are the innovators of an organization. The fringe people are the ones where most often new ideas and directions arise because they don't feel constrained by rules and policies. And the rarely play office politics.

Well, this isn't saying that all fringe people are good, some are just curmudgeons or anarchists, but that's another story. The TQM trainers showed most advances from an organization come from the fringe, and when accepted by the inner circle becomes accepted by the middle (go-along) circle. In short the fringe aren't the social norms but the human norms, being innovative and creative as individuals.

And as the situation would have it, I'm a fringe person. And why I always had problems with authority, but that's also another story. It's also why I gave up giving ideas to management. They would either be ignored, while the private sector blew by the USGS in the same endeavors, or transferred to team people to develop into marketable projects. Some fringe employees were accepted by management because they played better politics or were "scientists" PhD's with credentials. Me, I was just a staff technical manager who cared more about our public service than our science.

Anyway, it showed me that being a fringe person, outside the work norms had it benefits and problems. It's where I spent most of my career, when I got in to middle management and technical support. I broke out of my staff identity into a fringe person. The USGS Website in Washington wouldn't be as popular (number one among State Offices) without my fringe thinking (most of which was adapted from the private sector Web pages.

And I left the USGS with a list of ideas to improve their products to the public, but that's another story too. And I'll stay a fringe person throughout my life. It's more fun.

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