Book report: Primed to Perform – The fire watchers


Reading notes by Yan Tougas

Fire watchers were those cave dwellers who were charged with ensuring that the fire kept burning, back when no one knew how to make fire.  They had the most important job in the clan.

In organizations with high ToMo, the last thing you want is lose the culture.  You need people whose responsibility is to keep the culture (fire) alive (burning). HR departments are almost never perceived to be the custodians of adaptive performance.  Most organization don’t have all the keys to culture.  When they have one or more keys, they are owned by different people who don’t coordinate their efforts.  There are no fire watchers to keep the culture burning hot.

The job of a fire watcher can be broken down along six dimensions:

The mandate. The focus of the fire watchers is to build a culture and a system for continuously improving adaptive performance in every role in the organization.  They must study how their organization benefits from adaptive performance and learn where VUCA (1) threatens the overall strategy or (2) creates a competitive opportunity.

Adaptive performance metrics. Use the ToMo factor.

Budget and ROI.

Spending roughly 1% of your total compensation expenses on ToMo could hire 1 fire watcher for each “village” (see chapter 13).

Spending 2% to 5% of total compensation could create career paths, leadership training, tools, and more to support a high-ToMo system. Often, this is not additional spending, rather part of existing programs for leadership training, process improvement, etc.

With controlled experiments, we can quantify the dollar value of each point of ToMo gained.

The team.

Fire watchers should be led by a chief culture officer reporting to the CEO.

Team comprises core members and rotational members.

Core members include HR and other functions that hold culture keys.

Rotational members include natural ToMo leaders from every major job category.  Two-year stint.  Successful rotation should be part of the career ladder.

Collectively, the team should have ownership of all the keys to culture. This solves the coordination challenge.

For the fire watcher manifesto, click here.

Apprenticeship and skill building. Culture officers must be given the training and support they need to learn these skills.

Habits. Constant optimization requires a process.

Building a culture requires more than checking boxes.  You need to use all the keys properly.  The keys are not additive but synergistic: 1 + 1 = 5.  For example, on a scale of -100 to +100, having a confident at work can increase the ToMo factor by 3.  Having the ability to experiment can increase it by 16.  Having both increases it by 46.  That is significant.

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