Here is the main reason that organizations are inefficient and prone to making errors: subordinates know the processes best and can propose solutions to problems they see, but those in higher positions ignore or decline the proposals. Three-quarters of the solutions proposed by subordinates were shot down in the healthcare team studied by Patricia Satterstrom, Michaela Kerrissey, and Julia DiBenigno in a study recently published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Despite this, their research has a message of hope for subordinates who want to solve problems in their organization.
Why be hopeful if those in higher positions are so likely to dismiss solutions? The reason is simple. Good ideas don’t just die – the proposer and others on the team remember them and keep them alive, and many more solutions than the fraction that are immediately accepted eventually find their way into the organization. Indeed, members of this organization were so devoted to improvement that they used a variety of mechanisms to push through solutions to problems they saw.
Let me talk about two simple mechanisms here, out of the many documented in the paper. The first is persistence. Those who identify a problem and find a solution don’t just shut up forever after being ignored or put down. The solution is clear to them, and people in higher positions ignoring subordinates is commonplace in organizations, so it makes sense to bring up the solution whenever possible – preferably after there has been another event showing that the problem remains serious. As you might expect, persistence works. It was the second-fastest approach to solving problems in this study.
So, what was the fastest one? The answer will make sense to many who are familiar with organizations in research or practice: coalitions, or what the authors call allyship. Once a good solution has been voiced, other subordinates may decide that they too think it is better than the current way of doing things and that the people resisting change need frequent reminders that there is a better way of doing things. Coalitions work for multiple reasons. One is political: even an employee in a higher position has difficulty resisting solutions that many others favor. There is also a simpler reason that is especially effective. An informal coalition of people who support a solution will affect others’ thinking because they will argue for its benefits, and their arguments gain weight because multiple people say the same thing.
Persistence and coalitions are simple approaches to driving solutions through a resisting organization, and they are not the only ones that can be used. So, does that mean everything is good, and we don’t have to worry about whether organizations can improve? Well, not exactly. The first problem is that the initial decline of most solutions is consequential because it significantly delays their acceptance and implementation. In this research, only coalitions/allies were able to push solutions through in less than a year (on average); all other approaches took a year or more.
The second problem is that this study focused on a healthcare organization, with proposals from patients, receptionists, and nurses being declined by doctors. Given that healthcare organizations are in the business of saving and improving lives, I can think of many forms of organizations in which the subordinates will be less motivated to push superiors to accept solutions. I can also think of many forms of organizations in which the people in higher positions – managers – are less in touch with the actual work processes than doctors in a hospital. Still, this research gives us hope that solutions will happen, along with some ideas of how and when they happen.