What triggers organization design work?

 (Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organization Design: the Practitioner’s GuideThis is the second – from Chapter 4)

Organization design work starts in many different ways. Sometimes a practitioner is presented with a new organization chart and told to ‘make it like this’; sometimes it can be a casual conversation that results in a piece of work; at other times, it can be a feeling or statement that something needs addressing (an opportunity or a problem); and frequently it can be a planned piece of work developed out of a particular strategy – for example, a merger. Sometimes it is the practitioner who starts the conversation: ‘Does this need design work?’, and sometimes it is either the client or someone else in the situation who raises the question.

Almost without exception, behind the question ‘Does this need design work?’ is a changed, changing, or predicted-to-change organizational context. It is this context of change that is the trigger for design work. The question ‘Does this need design work?’ enters someone’s consciousness either as a reaction to a changed context or as a recognition of a current context in flux or as a prediction of an about-to-change context. In the example below, a consultant was approached by a board member of a multisite educational organization in the Middle East. The consultant summarized their discussion as follows:

‘You are clear that the Institute does need to change. It is federally funded and has a commitment to operate efficiently, offer a high-quality educational experience to students, and create ecosystems of innovation and entrepreneurship that help take the region into twenty-first-century growth and productivity. The government has stated that your emphasis now has to be on building future-facing capacity, capability, and hard and soft skills in the local workforce in order to reduce reliance on expats. What you are looking for, at this point, is support in:

  • Taking the agreed strategy and, from it, developing an implementable operating model and OD
  • Developing the detailed implementation plans with success metrics
  • Executing the plans and measuring the benefits realized by the new operating model and OD
  • Ensuring that Institute staff, students and stakeholders understand the need for change, how it is to be achieved, and their role in making the change successful. [/]

In this example, the conversation on design work was triggered by the recognition of a political and economic context currently in flux, resulting in the need to create ecosystems of innovation and to reduce reliance on expats by building local capability.’

In most cases, organization members are able to identify current and short-term context changes, but they have a harder time with long-term horizon scanning. However, this is what is most likely to sustain an organization’s existence and keep it thriving. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is well known for his rare skill in holding a long-term perspective, which has led to Amazon’s huge success. Amazon is continuously designed and redesigned with the long-term perspective in mind. Every year Bezos reissues his 1997 letter to shareholders stating his position on long-term thinking. The full letter is long, but its main point is that Amazon cannot realize the potential of its people or its companies unless it plans for the long term.

The desire to work to short-term around OD work is attributable to several factors, including the requirement to hit quarterly earnings targets, lack of management or leadership time to reflect and discuss a longer-term future, constant ‘firefighting’, being rewarded only for immediate results, and/or not caring about the future of the organization because current decision-makers will not be part of it.

Short-term design can be useful to help address an immediate problem – providing the problem is solved and is not just the symptom of the problem. Often, though, short-term decisions on design can compromise longer-term value and bring the risk of having to ‘unpick’ the work and redo it (See: Silverthorne, 2012).

One of the roles of an organization designer is to help clients and other stakeholders understand the risks of responding only to short-term triggers and to understand the value of taking a longer-term view. Ron Ashkenas, consultant and author, offers three points for developing and then optimizing designs that have a longer-term horizon (5–15 years).

‘1    First, make sure that you have a dynamic, constantly refreshed strategic ‘vision’ for what your organization (or unit) will look like and will achieve 3–5 years from now. I’m not talking about a strategic plan, but rather a compelling picture of market/product, financial, operational and organizational shifts over the next few years. Try to develop this with your direct reports (and other stakeholders) and put the key points on one page. This then serves as a ‘true north’ to help guide key decisions.

2    Second, make sure that your various projects and initiatives have a direct line of sight to your strategic vision. Challenge every potential investment of time and effort by asking whether it will help you get closer to your vision, or whether it will be a building block to help you get there. Doing this will force you to continually rebalance your portfolio of projects, weeding out those that probably won’t move you in the right direction.

3    Finally, be prepared to take some flack. There may be weeks, months or quarters where the results are not on the rise, or don’t match your (or analysts’) expectations. Long-term value, however, is not created in straight lines. As long as you’re moving iteratively towards the strategic vision on a reasonable timeline, you’re probably doing the right things. And, sure, you can always do more. But just make sure that you’re doing things for the right reasons.’

It’s important to keep communicating to stakeholders, as Bezos does, the reasons for taking a longer-term approach and to be continuously designing the organization.  It helps to back up the communication with narrative and quantitative information that ‘provides a holistic picture of the business, describing the economic, environmental and social performance of the corporation as well as the governance structure that leads the organization. By embedding environmental, social and governance (ESG) data into financial reports, a company achieves an effective communication of its overall long-term performance’ (Silverthorne, 2012).

People in organizations weak at horizon scanning, future thinking and forecasting can look for help in various quarters. As Thomas Frey, World Future Society, points out:   ‘Since no one has a totally clear vision of what lies ahead, we are all left with degrees of accuracy. Anyone with a higher degree of accuracy, even by only a few percentage points, can offer a significant competitive advantage’

Whether your perspective is short-term or long-term, the thing to bear in mind is that:

‘Any organizational structure should be temporary. Organizations have no separate existence; they function as tools of the business. When businesses change their priorities … then organizations must be changed, sometimes even discarded. That is why it is so wrong to encourage employees to identify with the organization – they need to identify with the business. If you are a Bedouin, it’s the difference between the tent and the tribe. As for building an organization, I think [Henry] Mintzberg got it right when he suggested that two things must be settled – the division of labor and co-ordination after that. But again, any division, any organization is always temporary.’ (Corkindale, 2011)

Do you think organization design is triggered by changes in the external context?  Let me know.

Image Hot topic: trigger points – myth or magic?

 

A leader’s role in organisation design and development work

(Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organisation Design: the Practitioner’s GuideThis is the first – from Chapter 9)

Leaders play a critical role in three ways in relation to organisation design and development (OD & D) work: stating and explaining the ‘why’ of design or development; supporting people in making sense of the context that the OD & D work is responding to; and telling the stories of how it is going. Here I discuss these three aspects.

There is no value in doing OD & D work if the ‘why’ of doing it is not clear to people. Too frequently, unfortunately, the ‘why’ is not obvious – ‘if things are going nicely, then why change them?’ is a common response to proposed OD & D work. Reasons for doing OD & D work that are rather vague, for example, to be more adaptable’, ‘to be fit for the future’ or ‘to be more competitive’ are not enough to convince people that the value to be gained from OD & D is worth the effort.

It is an organization’s leaders to state the ‘why’ do an OD & D piece of work in words that are meaningful to stakeholders so that stakeholders understand how the new design will affect them.

Simon Sinek, who wrote a book ‘Start with Why’ , says that a ‘why?’ statement has two parts: first, a part that clearly expresses the unique contribution and second a part that conveys the impact of an organization. For example, the UK has a Financial Conduct Authority. Why? ‘To make financial markets work well so that consumers get a fair deal’. The organization’s contribution is ‘to make financial markets work well’ and the impact is ‘so that consumers get a fair deal’

Taking the same approach to an OD & D piece of work in the Financial Conduct Authority, asking the question, ‘Why do OD & D?’ might result in a statement like ‘To make our business quicker at identifying and responding to European Union regulatory changes so that citizens are well informed and prepared when the changes happen.’

A leadership team that spends time really thinking through the question ‘Why do OD & D work?’ – focusing on its impact on the work and the workforce – makes a big difference to the speed at which work can progress.

Explaining the ‘why?’ of  OD & D work helps people make sense of what is going on. Leaders often see more of the context, and have more of the ‘puzzle pieces’, than people who are focused on doing a particular task or role. Having access to the ‘bigger picture’ puts leaders in a good position to make sense of complex environments for themselves.  It is then the leader’s responsibility to help employees understand the ‘why’ make sense of it and put it into their own words so that within a short space of time a reasonably consistent and common view emerges of the reasons for the OD & D activity.

Sense-making is an important part of OD & D work.   People typically become anxious in situations that they are not expecting, or that come across as uncertain and ambiguous. They look to leaders to interpret and make sense of the situation for (or with) them. Failure to do this on the leaders’ part leads to heightened anxiety and multiple individual interpretations of the situation.

Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Leadership Center at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains how leaders go about sense-making:

This sense-making ability is a particularly important predictor of leadership effectiveness right now. … It requires executives to let go of their old mental models and some of their core assumptions; to take in data from a wide variety of sources; to use the information they have to construct, with others, a ‘map’ of what they think is going on; and to verify and update the map – in part by conducting small experiments that provide the organization with more information.

Researcher Sally Maitlis found that leaders approach their role of supporting collective sense-making in one of four ways:

  • Guided, where they are ‘energetic in constructing and promoting understanding and explanations of events’;
  • Fragmented, where leaders are not trying to control or organize discussions but allowing stakeholders to generate alternative pictures;
  • Restricted, where leaders promote their own sense of what is going on with little stakeholder involvement; and
  • Minimal, when both leaders and stakeholders await some other interpretation of the issues.

If leaders of OD & D work take a combination of guided and fragmented sense-making approaches then stakeholders are more likely to feel involved in the design process. This is tricky to handle. The guiding sets the framework and the outlines; the fragmenting allows for local or individual interpretation within the framework.

Explaining the ‘why?’ and guiding stakeholder sense-making can be supported by storytelling. Be aware that although stories can be an effective and inspirational tool to make sense of what happens in organizations, or to inspire, provoke or stimulate change they can also be used to mask the truth or to manipulate.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her Ted talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’,  reinforces this point, saying: ‘Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ She follows this by warning of the dangers of a ‘single story’ or (as a common organizational phrase has it) ‘one version of the truth’. (This phrase originally came from the technology world, in relation to having a data warehouse that was the single source of organizational data.)

Adichie goes on to say:

‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another’. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’

For her, ‘many stories matter’ – a single story does not illustrate a complex situation. When telling stories, leaders should recognize that there are many possible stories about the same situation. Effective leaders, who are good as storytellers, neither abuse their power nor tell a single story. They tell many stories – drawn from guided and fragmented sense-making – and they tell these stories from a position of equality and respect, illustrating organizational complexity, a diversity of views, and their own responses to uncertainty. Stories told this way – that explain the why, and acknowledge uncertainty and anxiety – help to build confidence in, and an emotional connection to, the new design. They also demonstrate authentic, transformational leadership.

What would help your organisational leaders do effective OD & D work?  Let me know.

Image: Jane Ash Poitras

Designing OD & D learning: the criteria

What would you put in a 5 day internationally appropriate organisation design and development training programme, aimed at practitioners who have a basic view of the disciplines and who want to extend their skills, knowledge and confidence in these?

My task is to develop the outline for such a programme, and now I’m taking the first steps, eating my own dog food – as the saying goes – in doing this.

The first step, according to my new book (Chapter 4), is ‘Starting’ – blindingly self-evident yet easier said than done.  Each of the actions (recognising the triggers for the design work, meeting the client, agreeing the contract, finding out the context, getting commitment for the work, writing the case for it, starting the stakeholder engagement and risk management) takes time to complete.  In our case, they began 5 months ago in February.  However, we’ve now completed them and we’re into the ‘Designing’ phase.

This phase starts with the design criteria and I’ve roughed them out for the programme.  I’m now incubating them pending improvement and discussion, but here’s what they currently look like – with some questions I’m pondering shown in italics.

The course design must:

1              Be clear and simple in language, style, and content in order to work for people who do not have English as a first language.

(Note to design team: how will we test this?  Do we need a text analyser,  or someone specialized in English as a second language on the design team? Will we allow for activities to be conducted in the native language although the course will be in English – or will it be?  Could it be designed to be delivered in other languages – how would we train facilitators?)

 2              Show the relationships between organisation design, development and change management clearly throughout the 5 days in order to demonstrate that although they are independent disciplines they are interdependent in design work.

(Note to design team: we discussed 2 days of design, 2 days of development and one day of integrated case study, but is this right?  It feels too compartmentalised – maybe we need to show interdependence almost from the start, once we’ve discussed the different theoretical frameworks of each. There’s lots of info in Chapter 2 of my book we can draw on).

3              Balance the required level of theory with relevant/pragmatic practice and application in order to meet the needs of both the accrediting body and the day to day practitioner.

(Note to design team:  this needs thought.  Are we going to follow the 10:20:70 approach – or is it too ‘folklore to formula‘? We don’t want to spend too much time on the theory/theoretical frameworks as we know people want a ‘how-to’ guide but we do want to be academically rigorous and thoughtful).

4         Provoke participant (and facilitator) inquiry, reflection and conscious awareness of what they/we are learning and what insights are being revealed about their OD & D work in order to provide opportunities for applied learning and continuous professional development.

(Note to design team:  Critical reflection, on the theory and practice from an ethical and professional standpoint is essential.  Research shows that ‘‘learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection—that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience … [and] the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater perceived ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy). Together, these results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”  How can we build reflective elements into the design?  What form would these take?  How much do we think practitioners also have to be able to ‘teach’ reflective skills to clients who want a quick ‘solution’ to OD & D issues?)

5           Be readily adaptable to the VUCA environment in a range of international contexts and cultures in order to equip participants with up to date, relevant skills for their work.

(Note to design team: We briefly discussed how we could make this work well – a modular approach, supplementary materials, ‘slot-in’ case studies and examples for the different countries, etc. – and will continue this discussion. We didn’t discuss but we can talk next time about how we keep up to date on the use of new/emerging technologies in organisations and how these are impacting organisational operations e.g. AI doing work allocation instead of managers doing it.  On this, see ‘Should there be a computer on your organisation chart?‘.  These technologies are also increasingly being used in ‘doing’ organisation design/development work.  There’s a good article, by David Green, that looks specifically at organisational network analysis (ONA) who references a podcast on this topic that I just listened to.  It’s an interview with Michael Arena , author of a new book Adaptive Space. Keeping the programme continuously fresh and relevant over the coming 3 years or so is a challenge we’ll have to meet).   

 6           Offer a range of organisation design and development methods and approaches in order to demonstrate that there is no one right way or prescription to shape the design or development of an organisation.

(Note to design team:  Are we going to introduce notions of service design , design thinking , agile, lean, customer experience design , other types of design?  If so, how much weight will we give them?  If not, are we missing opportunities for ‘joining-up’ or connecting a wider design community that exists in most large organisations?)

The criteria listed have to work within certain non-negotiable constraints.  Constraints we have considered so far – the length cannot be extended beyond 5 days, the target participant group is the ‘doers’ of design work – those who will see it through implementation and evaluation, the programme assumes a basic knowledge of some of the theories that underpin organisation design e.g. systems theory, complexity theory, contingency theory.  It also assumes some knowledge of organisation development e.g. theories of change, culture, behaviour.  In other words, it is not an introductory course.

Once we have nailed down the non-negotiable constraints and the design criteria we can start on a high-level programme design.

What would you have as design criteria?  What do you think of those listed above?  Let me know.

Image: Organization Design Forum 2×2 Practitioner Landscape

About

Looking at those ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, which I was doing to construct an org design case study, leaves me wondering who they are directed at. They contain useful, perhaps factual, and certainly carefully chosen information that presents aspects people in External Comms Departments want other people to know.  But it’s not clear which people they are targeting – researchers, analysts, investors customers, employees?  Thus, in general, an organisation’s ‘about’ page tells a thin, partial story.

In some aspects the ‘About’ page is like an organisation chart.  It has some information but is significantly incomplete – an organisation chart doesn’t tell you what the organisation is ‘about’ and neither does the ‘About’ page.   As an example, compare two banks’ ‘About’ opening paras:

Triodos Bank is a global pioneer in sustainable banking, using the power of finance to support projects that benefit people and the planet. We believe that banking can be a powerful force for good: serving individuals and communities as well as building a more sustainable society’.

HSBC is ‘one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organisations. We serve around 38 million customers through four global businesses: Retail Banking and Wealth Management, Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets, and Global Private Banking’.

Although these paint very different pictures of each organisation and hint at different pre-occupations and organisation designs, they both miss what I think is a key feature of ‘Aboutness’ –  the feelings, behaviours,  experiences and human-ness that includes stories,  anecdotes and conversations illustrating answers to questions like  ‘What does it feel like to work in this place?  How do our customers experience our products and services?  How principled are we in what we do?  How do we relate to each other?  What makes us laugh?  How do we look out for each other’?

Last week when I was pondering ‘About’, I was also acting as a guide to a friend who was visiting the UK for the first time.  I took her to various places to give her a flavour of ‘about UK’. (Read the BBC version here.)  Heaven knows what she now thinks the UK is ‘about’ but we had a good time and she gave up the idea that we all ate buttered crumpets and drank tea from bone china teacups at 4:00 p.m. every day, sitting in Cotswold cottages with Farrow and Ball wallpaper.  (Possibly these ideas were gleaned from some other ‘About Britain’ page?)

In the course of the week, I (we) met four people who were all volunteer workers in their respective organisations.  Philip, an ‘ambassador’ (according to the badge he wore) was very amusing in his telling of Blickling Hall’s history, Margaret, a volunteer encouraged us to participate in Blickling’s ‘The Word Defiant’ participative art installation. Roger educated us, in the most delightful way on Cromer’s RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) station and Shelia co-hosted the Freedom from Torture, Write to Life group’s summer party.

They told us the ‘party-line’ story that they were there to tell – for example, Philip talked about the history of Blickling Hall, told us why some of the buildings had chimneys and some didn’t and gave us various other info snippets.   The fun thing was he did so in an uninhibited, involving, humorous way that left us asking each other if in his non-volunteer role he was a comic actor or had been an eccentric history teacher (or both) – he gave people a toffee if they could answer one of his questions correctly.

In telling their ‘required’ story the volunteers also told different story about their organisations – almost as an unconscious variant of that left-hand column right hand column exercise.  Margaret, for example, said that ‘Head Office’ was expecting the volunteers to encourage Blickling House visitors to interact with the Defiant activities ‘Head Office thinks it’s a good thing so we have to do it.’   She expressed amusement tinged with bemusement as visitors, prompted by her in a kind, considerate, way busily redacted words from a copy of a page of Northanger Abbey to create a sentence about their experience of the exhibition from the words they left visible.

Roger was amazing in his knowledge of the RNLI and a passionate supporter of its principles.  He loved the way, as he put it, the organisation is run as efficiently as possible in a pragmatic/common sense way that gets the best from people.  He was a real champion of its value to communities and societies.

And Sheila was adamant that she wasn’t the Write to Life group’s ‘co-ordinator’.  She said she supported and facilitated what the group wanted to do, but it’s ‘their group.’

What I found strking about the four was they didn’t have any of the aura of  ’employees’. They loved what they were doing and that’s why they did it.  (Notice they are also not subject to the same organisationational stuff as employees, which may be what makes a difference).

Each gave us a rich and human glimpse of their organisations – a very different take from the sterile and impersonal ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, or many employees give in the course of delivering ‘the customer experience’. All four were hugely enthusiastic, energetic, and involved in their first-hand ‘abouts’ of their organisations and the bit they worked in.  They were upbeat, positive, and dedicated to serving what they saw as the clear purpose of their organisations.

Contrast their attitudes with what Jeffrey Pfeffer would have us believe in his new book ‘Dying for a Paycheck’.  This ‘maps a range of ills in the modern workplace — from the disappearance of good health insurance to the psychological effects of long hours and work-family conflict — and how these are killing people’ or a similar book by David Graebner, Bullshit Jobs which examines the question, ‘Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need?’

Neither book celebrates the joy of working that the volunteers demonstrated.  So now I’m wondering if volunteer work is ‘about’ enjoyment, purpose and contribution while paid employment is about meaningless jobs? It can’t be as clear cut as that.  Surely the people on the payroll of the RNLI, Blickling Hall, or Freedom from Torture don’t feel they are in bullshit jobs.  And what about people who are in paid jobs but are also volunteers in other organisations, or who participate in employer-led volunteer schemes?  How do they feel about working in the different contexts?

What is it about volunteers and their work that makes them about advocating for their organisations in a way that being a paid employee doesn’t?   If we could capitalise on their enthusiasm and commitment would our organisations, and their ‘about’ pages start looking and feeling like great places to work.  What can we learn from the volunteer experience that we could apply to our employed workforce?  Let me know.

Image: Stained glass window, Cromer Lifeboat Station

 

 

Think Banking

The phrase ‘think-tank’ is relatively familiar.  What a think-tank does, according to The Economist is ‘aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking. Academics grind out authoritative studies, but at a snail’s pace. Journalists’ first drafts of history are speedy but thin. A good think-tank helps the policymaking process by publishing reports that are as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as journalism. (Bad ones have a knack of doing just the opposite.)’

But my interest today is not in think-tanks but in think banks.  Not the actual Think Bank accounts ‘mainly for customers with poor credit histories or who have struggled financially’ which changed its name in 2012 to Think Money,  but a think bank in terms of your own investment in your thinking.

Imagine we each had a think bank account.  We could then build up the capital gained from reflective conversations, questions and reading that were not aimed at ‘getting the world’s business done, or baking bread, or flying aeroplanes’.  Simon Blackburn in his book Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy argues for the value of ‘reflecting on concepts and procedures and beliefs that we normally just use’.

Invested in well, our individual think bank accounts would have the same outcome as a think tank – a rigorous and accessible point of view/thought process that we could draw on, as Blackburn says, ‘when the going gets tough: when the seas of argument rise, and confusion breaks out’.

During last week I added three things to my think bank account. I’m not sure when I’ll draw on them but they’re there and maybe getting interest.  The first was on ‘additionality’.  That was a term new to me but it made perfect sense as the discussion unfurled.  The person I was talking with defined additionality as calling into being what didn’t exist as part of something and being able measure what value it added to the original thing.

This led me to looking up additionality, and I found a more formal definition than my colleague’s in the Additionality Guide, ‘Additionality is the extent to which something happens as a result of an intervention that would not have occurred in the absence of the intervention.’   The Guide itself offers ‘a standard approach to assessing the additional value of interventions’.

So now in my think bank is info on additionality to mull over + 3 questions to prompt reflection:  What does this Guide offer that could help us measure the effectiveness of organisation design work?  Is subtractionality (I’ve coined this word, I think) as useful a concept as additionality i.e. is what we take away in our organisation design work e.g. policies, or reduction of levels of hierarchy, a value add and thus additionality?  What else can I learn from concepts of additionality?

The second thing that I’ve added to my think bank is from the pull-out section in the Economist: ‘The World if’.  It’s an annual pull-out asking us to imagine various future possibilities.  (Take a look at the 2016 edition that ask the question ‘If Donald Trump was elected’ which came out several months before he was.)

This year there are 10 ‘If’s’ all worth reflecting on.  One that I’ve added to my think bank is ‘If companies had no employees’.  The scene is set in July 2030.  when ‘companies that embraced the shift away from having employees have reaped big gains. They no longer need to pay people to be in the office when demand is slack. They can find the worker with the perfect skills for a task, not just someone willing to have a go. Because individual workers’ output is finely measured, and their proficiency at completing a task becomes part of their online profiles, no one can be lazy and get away with it. Productivity growth has accelerated since the mid-2020s.  Many workers have also benefited. For those with sought-after skills, it can be far more lucrative to flit from contract to contract than to work for a single firm.’

How likely is this scenario, I’m wondering?  At the moment, I think it’s likely and I should be designing organisations to head in this direction, but maybe I should leave the question lying for the moment – banking it for when I have time and information to examine it more closely.  As a thought though – it could form a very good basis for a leadership discussion – if the leaders were willing to give time to it. Many find it difficult to give time to a reflective discussion, even if they know the value of doing so – you may be able to persuade them with some useful tips from How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection.

The third thing I added to my think bank account was a question:  What effect do protests have?  This was prompted by seeing the placards of the Homes and Communities Agency Unite workers beginning a strike over pay,  seeing the tens of thousands in London attending the anti-Trump demonstration, and reading, again in ‘The World If’,  If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated.  A group of us – with varied views – were wrestling with this question and it’s one that’s again relevant to organisation design – could organisational protests spark organisational change and redesign?

There seems to be some evidence that they can spark policy change – but maybe only in the wider societal context? (Think LGBT, or gender equality, for example).   Or maybe there isn’t any real evidence?  I’m not sure, and again it’s in my think bank for investing in further.

Those were the three major deposits into my think bank this week.  But I made a couple of smaller ones.  After a tech conversation I had with someone, he sent me info on Digital Humanism which sounds worth investing thought into as we work with more and more organisational technology and automation.

I got into a further discussion on why we have difficulty with systems thinking (ref my blog last week) and I’m still investing in that one.  Then I read a review plus sample chapter of Matt Haig’s book Notes on a Nervous Planet.  In the book he talks about fear and the way it manifests in society.   Fear is often present in organisations – particularly in risk averse cultures where people fear doing the wrong thing even if there are organisational mantras like ‘fail fast and learn’.  This led me to a question, what to do when I observe that tension in play?

So quite a few think bank deposits this week to ponder, reflect on, and invest in for future returns.  What have you added to your think bank this week?  Let me know.

PS    Thanks to James for the concept of a think bank.

Image: Ancient Roman Banking

A big issue

John Bird presents a stirring case for tackling poverty.  ‘To me the really big thing in the world today that needs to be done is that we have to stop seeing things as ‘things in themselves’. We have to stop being separators of life into categories. That if you want to solve poverty, which I am rantingly struggling to do, you can’t separate poverty out into separate things. You have to hit poverty square in the eye. You have to give a cocktail of solutions to it, like you might zap a cancer. Yet the world is always dividing poverty up into different parts: literacy, housing, work, wellbeing, health … the world of thinking, of society, of government, always breaks things up into things’.

This ‘thingifyíng’ of issues – trying to tackle them separately rather than interdependently, collaboratively and/or as complex problems is a big issue – because people in organisations I work with ‘get’ interdependence in theory and understand that linear and cause/effect thinking won’t address re-ordering the tangle of variables that constitute the ‘design’ of the organisation.  Yet they are unable to work with this in practice and continuously retreat to the organisation chart as the way to solve many organisational issues.  (See a Q5 Partners short video Forget Personality: a thinkpiece of restructuring teams, that warns against an ‘org chart first’ approach, and goes down well when I’ve shown it).

I’ve had several different conversations during the past week on interdependence and the tendency to ‘thingify’.   Various possibilities were put forward for the inability of organisational leaders to engage with complex, interdependent and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments.  Among the reasons we discussed for the tendency to reach for the organisation chart, three came up in all the conversations:

1.  The ‘tyranny of metrics’ (see my blog on this)  that is performance targets that attempt to measure elements of a system’s performance, rather than the outcome of the performance.  This frequently leads to gaming behaviour as organisational members try to reach the target rather than the intended outcome.  An example of this is described in Max Moulin’s article Flawed targets and the ambulance service – is there a happy ending? which leads to questioning, ‘traditional assumptions about measurement, impact, and relationships’.  There’s also a recent report that looks at flawed performance targets in the public sector A Whole New World — Funding and Commissioning in Complexity.

2.  Believing that organisation design work is complicated rather than complex.  David Snowden, explains the difference: ‘In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.’  Organisations are complex.  Trying to redesign them as if they are complicated doesn’t work.

3.  The almost impossibility of changing the infrastructure, systems and processes that have been set up over decades to reflect a mechanistic/deterministic view of an organisational universe.  As Professor Karen Carr  states: ‘The challenge is to implement a systems world view from within organisations that have evolved from deterministic world views. … making it difficult to take a systems approach. Issues such as health, training, leadership and information management are addressed within different partitions …. Finding a way to get these different areas to interact in an organic manner is in itself a problem, given the [organisational] political, social and economic contexts.

Other reasons we discussed for the lack of systems thinking included: power dynamics (‘my bit is ok, why should I worry about yours?’), financial/resource constraints leading to prioritising some parts over others without thinking through the consequences, and short-term thinking – ‘let’s fix this fast and now’, and not knowing how to apply systems thinking.

Going back to the issue of tackling poverty, John Bird tells us, ‘We cannot simply carry on in this brainless, unconverging bit here and bit there’, and it’s the same for organisational issues.  How do we then create the conditions for systems and complexity thinking to become a natural part of the way we look at problems?

Answering this question as if it were a complicated problem yields a bits and bobs answer for example, send leaders and managers on systems thinking programmes (look at the Open University’s courses Systems Thinking in Practice,  or discuss and then pin up the poster Habits of a Systems Thinker,  show David Snowden’s video ‘How to organise a children’s party’ that shows ‘the promise of complexity theory for organizations and government alike’.

Answering the question as if it were a complex problem yields other responses.  Donella Meadows offers some thinking on how to do this in ‘Dancing with Systems’ (warning:  this is not written in standard management speak)  and in another Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Perhaps the most useful response to the question ‘how do we encourage organisational leaders to engage with complex and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments?’  is to do so in both a complicated and a complex way.  Maybe then we would see system thinkers emerging and a big issue would be resolved.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Systems thinking 101

Who is the client, and do you need one?

‘Start where the client is’ is something I suggest to people who ask what they should do if someone hands them an org chart and asks them to ‘make it like this’.   In fact, it’s my stock response to any similar questions:  common ones are, ‘what happens if the client just wants the answer without any assessment on background work’ or ‘how do you challenge a client who doesn’t value org design expertise?’.   With the phrase, I usually give people a handout adapted from Stephen Brookfield’s article on Four Critical Thinking Processes.  This offers some questions for the consultant to start a discussion with the client.  For example, the first of the four critical thinking processes is: ‘Get some context. Decide what to observe and consider. Related questions help gain awareness of what’s happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences.’ Questions include:

  • What is going on in this situation?
  • What else do I need to know? What information is missing?
  • How do I go about getting the information I need?
  • What about this situation have I seen before? What is different /dissimilar?
  • What’s important and what’s not important in this situation?

This supposes that there is a client.  But now I’m wondering if organisation design work inevitably needs ‘a client’.   It’s a useful challenge to myself as on the organisation design programmes I facilitate, we spend a fair bit of the first part of the first session discussing, in relation to a short case, the question ‘Who is the client for this piece of organisation design work?’

In real life the client is often not who we (the consultants) think it is.   I’ve been caught out several times in my career by writing a proposal or accepting work from someone without checking carefully enough on his her client ‘credentials’.    I’m still learning to ask whether the person asking me to do the work and who I think is the client:

  • Has got any necessary permissions, support, or backing of the person or team who can make the actual decision whether to proceed with the work or not.
  • Will identify a back-up client in the event that he/she (the original client) ‘disappears’. (In her book The Business of Consulting Elaine Biech provides a checklist of questions for consultants to consider after the first meeting with the client.  Questions include:  Did I determine the primary client?  Did I determine the secondary client and stakeholders? Did I evaluate the client’s expertise and ability to support the effort [over the period that it will take])?
  • Has a plan for managing conflict and disagreement – this especially applies if the client is not a single individual but a leadership team.

Getting this information is critical whether you’re an internal or an external consultant but internal consultants may be able to do organisation design work without having a client – by just starting some design work either by themselves or with the participation of an interested and willing group.

Years ago, I read Debra Meyerson’s book Tempered Radicals.  In the preface she says ‘Tempered Radicals, are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations.’  Later, she notes that, ‘Tempered radicals are likely to think ‘out of the box’ because they are not fully in the box. As ‘outsiders within,’ they have both a critical and creative edge. They speak new ‘truths’.  She tells us ‘They are quiet catalysts who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the ground work for slow but ongoing organizational and social change.’   The book has many examples of people who ‘under the radar’ have changed the shape of their organisations.

As I struggled and failed to find ‘the client’ for a piece of design work that is recognised to be organisationally essential by a body of people I remembered the lessons of the Tempered Radical and realised that I could, and should, start it without a ‘client’.  It is work that I can do from my consultant role using, in Meyerson’s words: ‘several strategies to create change that run the gamut from very quiet and cautious to more explicit and strident.’ I can act by ‘subtly calling into question taken-for-granted beliefs and work practices’.  Acting on my experience (and Meyerson’s reinforcement).  ‘It is everyday acts [that] can create ripples that lead to significant change … a single atypical action sets the stage for others to follow’.

Re-reading an interview with Meyerson I am strengthened by her reinforcing view that sees organizations ‘as organic and evolutionary, which means they are changing all the time. If we think of organizations that way, little nudges in the system can change the network of relationships, stimulate learning, and affect how work gets done. It means that small actions actually matter and that people can provoke change from many places within the organization.’

Seeing (reading) again what I already knew but had suppressed in the conformity of looking for the client I am starting the work with no client but some confidence.  I’m also wondering if I will change my stock response from ‘start where the client is’ to ‘start where the organisation is’.

Do you think you need a client for organisation design work? Can design be done without one?  Let me know.

Image: The Shadow People