Avoid the Beethoven mistake

Companies that have the most agility and resilience create differentiation. This requires responsive organizations that effectively anticipate changing (market) conditions and adapt organically. For this to be possible, a number of principles apply. These relate to employees, teams, departments and the way in which they work together. To become more responsive, a culture and behavioral change is often required. It is often assumed that realizing this change is closely related to structures and processes. But nothing is less true.

The Beethoven Mistake
In his book “Our Inner Ape”, biologist Frans de Waal discusses the relationship between the behavior of great apes and humans. He explains that for a long time people’s morals were explained by religion or culture and not by nature. Because by nature people would have no morals. But we now know that even great apes have a moral sense. According to De Waal, the earlier assumption arose out of confusion: because natural selection is a cruel and ruthless process of elimination, it was argued that it must produce cruel and ruthless creatures. In other words: the process is confused with the result. De Waal calls this ‘The Beethoven mistake’: Beethoven composed great and unparalleled music. You wouldn’t expect such a person to be unkempt and sleazy and living in a dirty and smelly house. Yet that was the case.

Confusion of process with result
In doing so, De Waal points out a fallacy that is often made in change projects: the tendency to develop structures or processes in the assumption that the intended behavioral change will arise naturally from this. But processes and structures are inconclusive about the success of cooperation between people.

Why is that?
Processes and structures work according to the laws of logic. You can set up a mechanical production process in such a way that the quality is statistically almost perfect. Six sigma is based on it. But people function according to ‘psychologica’ with their motivations, conditionings and (unconscious) beliefs.

As a result, collaboration in organizations is always a bit of a ‘black box’. You make agreements about objectives, responsibilities, tasks, way of working, et cetera. But just like with a football team, it is not yet certain how the match will develop and what the exact result will be. The outcome is largely determined by responsiveness: how events and setbacks along the way are dealt with.

Responsiveness and motivation
Effective behavioral change occurs when teams are given the space and freedom to determine the implementation of the plan themselves, based on a shared vision and goals. People are motivated to do this when their work matches their ambitions (am I doing what I want to do?) and talents (am I doing what I can do?). It is important that there is room for personal interpretation and a certain degree of autonomy.

Motivated employees connect easily, take responsibility and come up with solutions to problems themselves. As the production manager of a factory once put it: “If I let the employees focus on delivering the products to our customers on time, they are smart enough to order the necessary parts on time.”

Breeding ground to inspire change
It works the same way with behavioral change: the task of management is more facilitating than guiding. Aimed at the right breeding ground for change. One that brings people together and inspires change.

This requires managers to let go of control of the process and focus on the motivation of the people in the team and their mutual relationships. Employees need growth and inspiration and derive their meaning from the extent to which they are challenged and contribute to success. Not following processes ‘as such’. Successful managers understand this and focus on the emotional dynamics between people. As a result, they bring people together and create the right atmosphere. The creativity and connection that arises as a result often produces astonishing results. It is not without reason that there is increasing interest in working with self-managing teams.

Realizing the unique potential
In nature, the simple rule is that organisms exist by surviving and reproducing. How they accomplish this is left open. That is why nature has such a great diversity. The same law applies to responsive organizations: successful behavioral change ties in with the unique potential of an organization and can take many forms. Good processes and structures are of course helpful, but not decisive. Or, as De Waal puts it: ‘the process does not specify the path to success any more than the interior of a house in Vienna tells us what kind of music is coming out the window’.

Responsiveness and the communication dilemma

Personals advertisement
“Man, 39, is looking for a girlfriend to share joys and sorrows with. I am sporty, I have humor and I like good food with a good glass of wine and a nice conversation. “

What’s wrong with this ad? It conveys what the advertiser in question thinks the partner of his dreams wants to read and therefore hardly shows what kind of person he really is. The keywords with which that happens – like sporty, humor, good glass of wine … – are so generic that it will be almost impossible to get the correct image for the advertisement. If someone responds, it will be out of curiosity rather than a convincing feeling that this is really the one. The chance of a good “match” has been significantly reduced.

Suppose the person had written the following about himself: “Because I believe in a healthy mind in a healthy body, I lift weights and study philosophy (the 19th century, John Stuart Mill is a particular favorite). I am a fan of Seinfeld, I love red Bordeaux and prefer to walk through the woods early in the morning.” Now a more concrete picture of the person in question emerges – because generic terms such as ‘sporty’ and ‘humor’ are made specific. This makes the unicity of the sender more visible and increases the chance that the ad will catch on with the right potential life partner.

Personals ads in business…
Unfortunately, a lot of business communication gets stuck at the level of a personals ad. All too often, a connection is made with fashionable and generic terminology that sounds good, but says little about the organization. And that is often a lost opportunity, because every organization is unique. And that unicity appeals to certain types of leaders, employees and customers.

To test it, I invite you to study the job advertisements in any medium. See how often you come across generic terms that are not made specific: good communication skills, open, professional. These terms mean something different in different organizations and in different situations. For example, the term ‘academic level of thinking’ is charged differently for a scientific research institute than for a company that markets consumer products. “Open” means a different kind of informality for an advertising agency than for an asset manager at a merchant bank. The disadvantage of the use of generic terms is that they lead to “hail shooting” and a waste of time, money and attention.

Communication dilemma
Convincing communication, internal and external, is always authentic. Do you want to convince by communicating in the way you think it appeals to your target group? If you organization has encounters success and there is a lot of positive things to say, then that is of course no problem. But organizations struggle with numerous issues, events and plans that do not go (completely) according to plan, but about which clarity is desired. Especially internally. “What are we really doing in the field of sustainability?” “Why is there still no clarity about our reorganization?” “How do we deal with these unexpected setbacks?”

These are all questions to which certain – internal and external – target groups – would like a clear answer. But what if that answer is not (yet) there? Or if arriving at a solution is even more difficult than expected?

Attractive and credible
Responsive organizations usually have little trouble with authentic communication. They face the facts, act on them, and rely on their own strength. By consistently and clearly showing who they are, they avoid the communication dilemma. Their message is genuine, natural and powerful. And it automatically becomes attractive and credible for the target group. That strengthens the bond and reputation with their target groups. Especially when there is not only good news to report.