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CEO’s Can Learn a Lot from Prisons, Or at Least the Best Ones

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The biggest challenge to any business (or prison) is managing behavior.  People are who they are and do what they want to do despite our best efforts to corral them into a form that will serve the business.  It isn’t that they don’t support the business goals but they have their own patterns and habits; and without a real behavior strategy in place, even the best employees can only be moved a tiny bit from their normal course.  They change when they are interested in changing, not on the timetable required by whatever business initiative is being engaged.  The larger the organization, the more employees, the more difficulties a leader has aligning all of those behaviors to execute the business strategy.  Prison‘s deal with the same issues and in the most progressive designs, with non-violent prisoners, behavioral science is finding some answers that directly apply to business.

The Falkenburg Road Prison for non-violent prisoners in Tampa Florida was completed in 2003.  It is widely considered one of the most successful facilities based on its low incidence of behavioral issues. The first strategic decision made at Falkenburg was to utilize what is known as direct supervision, where the guards are placed inside the containment area for inmates. Criminologist Norman Johnston did a series of research studies looking at both violent and non-violent behavior issues. He found that direct supervision with face to face interaction of guards and inmates, significantly improved behavior. We are biologically drawn to relationship creating and strengthening and when the inmates had a relationship with the guards, they began behaving in the ways that would strengthen that relationship.  This research begs us to question the CEO office that is on the top floor in the corner, inaccessible to employees.  A business leader who manages by wandering around (a successful practice known as MBWA) or a
physical layout like the new Glaxo Smith Kline offices in Philadelphia where the CEO sits in the middle of the open office environment, will be more successful in driving behaviors because more employees will have a face to face relationship with the leader and, through our normal biological patterns, will want to engage in the behaviors that will strengthen that relationship.  Direct supervision as it is known in prison design translates to direct leadership engagement in business.

The second strategic decision at Falkenburg Road was to utilize anthropological research on group size, again tapping into our natural desire to strengthen relationships.  It turns out that across all cultures and even into related animal primates, we bond best in groups of no more than 8.  This is our family, our posse, our most trusted group of friends.  In these groups peer pressure will establish behavioral norms without any rules, regulations, or leaders. Interestingly, when 3 or 4 of these smaller groups are combined into an “extended family” group of no more than 24, the peer pressure effect is maintained.  Finally when those groups of 24 are combined into a “village” a leader is needed but we continue to see the behavioral norm effect.  At about 150 (Dunbar’s number – the estimated limit of active social connections we can manage) we hit the maximum for behavior modification based on group size.  At the Falkenburg Road Prison, the beds are arranged in groups of 4, then each alcove has four of those for a total of 16, then four alcoves for a total of 64. Nested group size works for behavior modification.  I find it quite interesting that the floor plans of the recent Google offices in Zurich and Dublin, have open plan rooms each fitting roughly 6-10 desks.  It looks like someone in business is paying attention to this research!

In business, this strategy of nested group size can be applied to the organizational structure, work teams, departments, facilities layout, and even advisory boards that break into committees.  A business leader who manages by wandering around, building face to face relationships with individuals in the smaller groups, will get more of the behavior they need from those groups, and we know that will translate up as those groups combine into extended families, then an entire village, then groups of villages.  There are a number of strategies that help to drive behavior but these two prison design strategies, direct supervision and nested group size, create a framework for relationship building that tap into our natural desire for social alignment.  Who knew we could make better organizations by looking to design strategies for the most successful prisons?


Kristine Woolsey is a transitionist, using behavioral strategies to 
help businesses meet the future and manage change.  Find out more at www.kristinewoolsey.com.

About Guest Blogger

This post is courtesy of a guest post from a contributor to CEO Blog Nation. CEO Blog Nation is a community of niche blogs for entrepreneurs, startups and business owners. For more information on contributing a guest post read here: http://ceoblognation.com/guest-post/
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