A Wake Up Call for Catalytic Mechanisms

  • Last night, around 2 am, my wife and I were awakened from our slumber by a beeping sound. It probably took two or three beeps to register, then we were both awake, and irritated enough, to realize it was repeating in a pattern. This wasn’t some rogue electronic device chirping out a random message, but an annoying and consistent message, requiring attention. Groggy as we were, we soon realized the culprit: a smoke detector battery that needed, no it demanded, to be changed. Have you ever noticed these things always decide to go off in the middle of the night?

After the inevitable waiting game, each of us hoping the other would take care of it, we gave in, stumbled out of bed, and went in search of the incessant beeping. On the way down the hall, a thought slowly began to make its way into my consciousness, no small feat considering both my brain and body were protesting this unwanted intrusion into my sleep. The thought became clearer and more resonant until I said out loud, “This is a catalytic mechanism.” My wife responded with about as much enthusiasm as a marble statue of her might, so I repeated my somnolent insight: “This is a catalytic mechanism. The smoke detector!” The beeping continued but I was oblivious now, totally absorbed by my stunning discovery. As we located the beep and my wife secured a fresh battery, I continued: “The smoke detector going off like that forced us into action. There was really no alternative – we had to get up and change it or suffer the negative consequences, in this case being robbed of a good night’s rest.”

Of course catalytic mechanisms don’t just apply to late night battery changes. Jim Collins, who originally wrote about this topic several years ago, believes they are crucial for any organization that wants to move beyond bureaucratic exercises in pursuit of their goals and described them as the ‘crucial link between objectives and performance.’[i] They can take many forms but the common denominator is a process or procedure that forces people to take direct action in pursuit of an important objective. Collins cites the case of Granite Rock, a California company that supplies materials and products to the construction industry. When you think of a rock company, and really who isn’t constantly doing that, I doubt you conjure up images of world-class customer service. But service at a level exceeding what you might expect at Nordstrom was exactly what the leaders of Granite Rock proposed to achieve. To do that they could have written vision statements, created an exciting communication campaign, or devised some complex service initiative, but in the end, they chose one simple process; short pay. At the bottom of every invoice, the company issued appeared a note reading: “If you are not satisfied for any reason, don’t pay us for it. Simply scratch out the line item, write a brief note about the problem, and return a copy of this invoice along with your check for the balance.” This is a truly catalytic mechanism. Any time a customer chooses not to pay the entire invoice amount it propels Granite Rock into action, digging deep to discover why the customer chose not to fully pay and doing everything in their power to fix the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Employees are provided with a crystal clear signal that anything less than world-class service won’t be tolerated.

It takes courage to initiate a catalytic mechanism because a well-constructed version will possess sharp teeth and produce legitimate consequences for the organization should they consistently fall short. The upside, however, is worth the risk. A catalytic mechanism has the power to motivate entire organizations, wow customers, and create sustainable results. I encourage you to look at your own strategy and strategic objectives through the prism of a catalytic mechanism. What process could you put in place that would force you to move beyond the corporate rhetoric and turn your dreams into reality? What’s beeping in your world?


[i] Jim Collins, “Turning Goals Into Results: The Power of Catalytic Mechanisms.” Accessed on March 8, 2012 at http://caplix.com/pdf/Turning%20Goals%20Into%20Results.pdf

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