Catalytic Mechanisms
(Collins)

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What are Catalytic Mechanisms? Description

Catalytic Mechanisms are simple managerial tools, originally described by Jim Collins, which can help organizations to turn goals into results.


In an article in the Harvard Business Review in 1999 entitled "Turning Goals into Results: The Power of Catalytic Mechanisms", Stanford Professor James C. (Jim) Collins, co-author of best-selling books "Good to Great" and "Built to Last" outlines the crucial link between Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (a concept from "Built to Last") and performance - a link he calls catalytic mechanism.

Catalytic mechanisms are the crucial link between objectives and performance - they are a galvanizing, non bureaucratic way to turn one into the other. They are the devices that translate lofty aspirations into concrete reality. They make big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs) reachable.

Based on research, Collins notes five characteristics that separate catalytic mechanisms from traditional managerial devices:

  1. A catalytic mechanism produces desired results in unpredictable ways. Unlike traditional systems, procedures and practices - which may lead to bureaucracy and mediocrity - catalytic mechanisms let organizations achieve greatness by allowing people to do unexpected things, to show initiative and creativity, to step outside the scripted path.
  2. A catalytic mechanism distributes power for the benefit of the overall system, often to the great discomfort of those who traditionally hold power.
  3. A catalytic mechanism has teeth. In contrast to lofty aspirations, a catalytic mechanism puts a process in place that all but guarantees that the vision will be fulfilled.
  4. A catalytic mechanism ejects viruses. In contrast to traditional controls that are designed to get employees to act in the right way, catalytic mechanisms help organizations to get the right people in the first place, keep them, and eject those who do not share the company's core values.
  5. A catalytic mechanism produces an ongoing effect. Unlike electrifying off-site meetings, exciting strategic initiatives, or impending crisis, a good catalytic mechanism can last for decades.

Collins cites examples from 3M, W.L. Gore, HP, US Marine Corps, Nucor, public education, government, as well as from his own teaching and consulting practice. Most space is given to Granite Rock, a company founded around 1900, that set itself the goal of achieving a reputation for customer service. One of the catalytic mechanisms that Granite Rock put in place was the simple practice of 'short pay' - the bottom of every Granite Rock invoice reads "If you are not satisfied for any reason, don't pay us for it. Simply scratch out the article, write a brief note about the problem, and return a copy of the invoice along with your check for the balance." Since instituted, short pay has had a profound impact on the company. It serves as a warning system, providing hard-to-ignore feedback about the quality of service and products, and it impels managers to relentlessly track down the root causes of problems in order to prevent repeated short payments.


Origin of Catalytic Mechanisms. History

Research by Collins.


Usage of Catalytic Mechanisms. Applications

  • Strategy implementation.
  • Organizational effectiveness.

Steps in the Catalytic Mechanisms. Process

As guidelines for creating Catalytic Mechanisms, Collins gives a few rules:

  1. Don't just add, remove. Break the natural inclination to add new initiatives, new systems, new strategies, new priorities, and new catalytic mechanisms. Taking something away can be as catalytic as adding something new.
  2. Create, don't copy. You can get good ideas by looking at what other organizations do, but the best catalytic mechanisms are idiosyncratic adaptions, if not wholesale creations, for a unique situation.
  3. Make use of money, but not only money. Research shows that only about half of catalytic mechanisms use money. To rely entirely on money reflects shallow understanding of human behavior.
  4. Allow your mechanisms to evolve. New catalytic mechanisms sometimes produce unintended negative consequences and they need correction. And over time catalytic mechanisms may lose their strength and they may need to be reinforced.
  5. Build an integrated set of catalytic mechanisms. One catalytic mechanism is good; several that reinforce one another as a set is even better. That's not to say that a company needs hundreds of catalytic mechanisms - a handful will do.

Strengths of Catalytic Mechanisms. Benefits

  • Simplicity.
  • Leveraging employee creativity and motivation.

Limitations of the Catalytic Mechanisms. Disadvantages

  • Relies more on creativity and idiosyncrasy than planning or methodology.

Assumptions of the Catalytic Mechanisms. Conditions

  • Too much planning and bureaucracy is not good for you.

Book: Jim Collins - Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't -


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Example of Catalytic Mechanism

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