Amplify Strengths Instead of Fixing Weaknesses

IGN-Illustration-Positive Deviants.jpg
By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Strengths contribute everything; weaknesses contribute nothing. Such was the conclusion of the brilliant Peter Drucker after decades of consulting with some of the world’s best companies. Another equally brilliant Peter — Peter Block — deduced the same things after years of studying the dynamics of company performance. Block learned that capabilities have more power to change an organization than deficiencies. Only focusing on what’s wrong with an organization leads down a path diminishing marginal returns.

In fact, Block observes, most people and companies are the product of a lifetime of working on deficiencies. And what has that produced? A vast sea of marginal performers.

Think of it this way. Is your role as a manager or supervisor to remind your colleagues of what’s missing, or what’s possible? There’s a lot more to be learned by observing what Block calls the “positive deviants” of the organization than dwelling on the shortcomings of the so-called negative underperformers.

 Where there are peaks there are valleys

“Fixing” people is for the most part a waste of your time and energies. There is no such thing as the “well-rounded” professional, and the dreaded performance review is dreaded in large part due to expectations of 360-degree perfection. People who have exceptional strengths also have exceptional weaknesses. If you were fortunate enough to hire a young Steve Jobs, you would be making a severe mistake if you forced Jobs to focus on fixing his weaknesses instead of contributing his strengths.

Even the iconic David Ogilvy acknowledged his inability to be good at everything. In a memo to his senior managers he wrote:

“Long ago I realized that I lack competence, or interest, or both, in several areas of our business. So I hired people who are strong in those areas where I am weak. Every one of you is strong in some areas, weak in others. Take my advice: get people alongside you who make up for your weaknesses.”

If you run a company, a department, or a team, instead of fixating on what your people can’t do, make the most of what they can do.  During a particularly dark phase of American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decided he needed to replace the top leadership in the Union Army. Lincoln wanted to appoint Ulysses Grant, who had shown much success as a commander of forces. But Lincoln’s cabinet members warned that Grant was a drunkard and therefore unfit for the Army’s top job. “Perhaps he drinks a little too much” Lincoln acknowledged, “but he knows how to win battles. If I knew his brand of whiskey, I’d send a barrel to some of our other generals.”

The underutilized strength vs. the overscrutinized weakness

The most effective professionals understand that instead of squandering their energy obsessing about the weaknesses of the firm and its people, organizational effectiveness comes from identifying the competencies and proficiencies that are not being fully utilized within the company.  As observers like Block and Drucker have established, it’s much more likely that your firm will progress successfully into the future by capitalizing on what it already does well than trying to fix flaws that have been chronically resistant to change.

This is essentially the difference between being problem-minded or opportunity-minded. Imagine an experiment in which two similar firms take two divergent approaches to improve the revenues and reputation of their companies. For this two-year experiment, Firm A drills down on fixing below-average areas of organizational performance, identifying and counseling problem people, and developing service areas where the firm has historically lagged. Firm B, on the other hand, devotes its organizational energy to identifying the unmet needs of clients, the underserved areas of the marketing value chain, and developing entirely new revenue streams for the organization. Which firm do you think will have achieved the most – in terms of revenues and reputation – in the two years?

“People who have exceptional strengths also have exceptional weaknesses.”

Does this mean you should completely ignore chances to make your firm and its people better? Of course not. The third and final Peter I’ll quote in this piece – Peter Senge – has demonstrated that continual learning is one of the distinguishing characteristics of prosperous organizations. Senge believes most efforts to change companies and their people run directly into interpersonal and cultural issues embedded in the prevailing system that resist change. Better to cultivate what he calls a “learning organization,” where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured and people can expand their capacity to create new and different results.

For many years I had a sign on my desk reminding me to stay true to Drucker’s stark advice: “Starve the problems. Feed the opportunities.” With only so much time and energy available to us, this is the essential choice we make each and every day.