Designing competency frameworks

I’m sceptical of the core competency frameworks in general.  They often seem to me to be over-engineered lists of a mix of skills, behaviours, and other attributes.  Frequently there is little obvious link to the delivery of the organisation’s strategy or values.  Note I am less sceptical about specific technical competencies to indicate skill in a field (e.g. architecture, nursing, or UX design)

Take the OECD’s (2014) set which divides competencies into technical competencies: specific to a discipline or field of practice and core competences.  Technical competencies are the ‘requirements to successfully perform a given job’ and in their case ‘are defined in job vacancy announcements.’

Their core competencies, on the other hand – those everyone should have – are described in a booklet.  OECD lists and describes fifteen core competencies  grouped into three clusters: delivery-related, interpersonal and strategic, and 5 levels (related to type of role).  Level 1 is roles including ‘assistant’ and ‘operator’, level 5 includes Heads of Function and Directors, giving a total of 75 statements.  This form of competency framework is common.   I’ll take the OECD one as an example of why I am sceptical:

The OECD competency ‘Analytical Thinking’ at level 1 lists:

  • Distinguishes between critical and irrelevant pieces of information.
  • Gathers information from a variety of sources to reach a conclusion.

And at Level 5 lists:

  • Is sought out by others for advice and solutions on how to best interpret and use information.
  • Discerns the level of pressure or influence to apply in each aspect of the analysis in relation to the broader context.

My scepticism on this sort of thing is based on my view that the items on such lists are:

  • Subjective e.g. a Director – Level 5 –  may not be able to distinguish between critical and irrelevant information(a Level 1 competency) and who is judging what is critical or irrelevant?
  • Not relatable to role or level e.g. an assistant, Level 1,  may be sought out by others for ‘advice and solutions on how best to interpret and use information’. (A Level 5 competence)
  • Not indicators of job performance as the context will influence the ability to deploy (or not) the competence.
  • Not conducive to being ‘levelled’ by role. Any role may require different levels of competence so an assistant my require some of the competence listed at Director level.  For example, what assistant does not have to handle ‘difficult on-the-spot questions (e.g. from senior executives) listed in this framework as a level 5 competence?

But these frameworks have lots of defenders.  Take a look, for example, at the SHL Universal Competency Framework or the UK’s CIPD Competency FrameworkFactsheet.

(I notice that the SHL (2011) info says firmly that we need to distinguish between the words ‘competence’ and ‘competencies’, because ‘it is unfortunate that two very similar words have been used to describe two very different constructs. It is essential that there is a clear distinction between these two terms.’   The CIPD (2020) explains that ‘In the past, HR professionals have tended to draw a clear distinction between ‘competences’ and ‘competencies’. … More recently however, there’s been growing awareness that job performance requires a mix of behaviour, attitude and skill, and the terms are now more often used interchangeably.’)  In this sort of distinction you start to see the difference between core and technical competences.  In some cases frameworks mesh these.  See, for example, the Actuarial Competency Framework.

One person who does not defend core competency frameworks is Marcus Buckingham, who says:

  • ‘Competencies can’t be measured. So, your scores (or the scores you give your team) and all the data around how much of a certain competency a person possesses are completely made up.
  • No single person possesses all competencies. When you study people who excel at a certain job, although as a group they may have all of the competencies that are supposedly required, no one person has all of them.
  • There is no data that shows that people who acquire the competencies they supposedly lack outperform the people who don’t. So even if we could accurately determine that you are lacking a specific competency, having you take a learning and development course to plug that gap will have no effect on your performance. Well-roundedness does not predict higher performance, and it’s better to be sharp in one or two key areas instead of well-rounded.’

The topic of competency frameworks came up this week as an organisation asked me for advice on them.  They had questions related to links between the framework and delivery of strategy and values, whether they needed core as well as technical competences, how to communicate the competences to the workforce in a simple and easy to use way.

What I’ve found is that organisational values are a very good basis against which to judge employee behaviour, attitude and contribution – assuming that you have chosen values that support delivery of your business strategy.  And last week I listened to Yancy Strickler saying much the same thing.  He is the founder of Kickstarter, and he was talking about ‘the values the company created, which helps guide the way Kickstarter attracts and hires talent and constructs and operates its business’.

Marcus Buckingham is also of the view that core ‘competencies are simply values. They should be written on a wall, not attempted to be measured and learned. If you want your team to be goal-oriented and customer service-focused; express them as values, create stories around them, celebrate the heroes who demonstrate them – bring these values to life.’

The organisation who I was discussing competency frameworks with have five values on which to judge an employee’s contribution.  Many organisations are now ‘values based’ – Ben and Jerry’s is a classic example as is Patagonia

I suggested that those in organisation I was talking with re-think their core competences, instead focusing on the values – not as a measurement tool in the traditional sense but to gauge whether people are going to be, in Patagonia’s terms, not a culture fit, but a ‘culture add’.  Patagonia’s values-based approach ‘to evaluating potential hires [is one] that arises from the company’s unwavering and ironclad commitment to its mission. And it’s a reminder to every organization that they are hiring human beings, not skill sets or even experience.’

For other aspects of workforce management – career development, technical progression, management/leadership development – I suggested they introduce technical competences by job family.   For an excellent example of a technical competency framework for designers look at Jason Mesut’s approach.  (Note that it also includes some core competencies).

To recap – I don’t think most core competency frameworks i.e. items listed in progressive order by level achieve their intended outcome of supporting individual or organisational performance management or enabling, in Mesut’s words. ‘a clear way of objectively promoting or compensating people fairly …  or providing clarity of what a long-term career in the organisation might look like or giving scarce and fickle talent a reason to stay.’   A better approach is to develop technical competency frameworks based on job families and for core competencies do not have a framework by lists and levels. Use only the organisation’s values and give clear and engaging messages that employees are expected to live the values in their daily work.

What’s your view on a traditional core competency framework?  Let me know.

Image:  Global competencies

Into white spaces

‘Black people need to be able to get into white spaces.  … Otherwise another four years comes and everyone’s doing another protest.’ (Aba Amoah, quoted in What next?’).

Reading this statement, reminded me of a book I read years ago by Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart.   The blurb reads, ‘This was the book that first detailed an approach that bridged the gaps between organization strategy, work processes and individual performance.’

Two decades later came an updated version White Space Revisited: Creating Value Through Process.  This edition ‘goes beyond a mere revision of that [first] ground breaking book and refocuses on the ultimate purpose of organizations, which is to create and sustain value.’

The white spaces that Rummler and Brache discuss – organisation strategy, work process, and individual performance, can (and do) harbour racism, exclusion, and sustaining of value through exploitative or demeaning practices.

Neither book mentions or addresses these types of ‘white spaces’ that have come into even starker focus since 25 May when the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked on-going anti-racism protests in many countries.

Power is another of these white spaces and last week I wrote about sources of power in organisations, but did not mention it as a ‘white space’.  @EmRoseBaz commented on this as follows: ‘Hi Naomi, I love your work, but writing about power structures in organisations without talking about race and white supremacy is a big omission (whiteness confers power). See @georgeaye ‘s post on power in design (and every western org’s diversity stats!)’

It’s a good challenge. I hadn’t read George Aye’s article, and did so.  It’s a terrific and rich read with resources, ideas, and stories of Aye’s experience of the intersect of power,  organisation design and social justice.

He asks – ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  And answers, ‘Let’s start by understanding that power is an underlying hidden mechanism in any human relationship. Everyone has a certain amount of power, and there’s always someone who has more than you and someone who has less than you. Let’s start with 3 simple sets of questions.’ The sets’ headings are ‘check your privilege (as a designer)’, ‘what’s your role (in transferring power)’ and ‘fire up your curiosity (by asking better questions)’, each set has three questions.

The links between organisational power – who holds the various types, how/where/when they deploy it – and racism are undeniable and yet, I feel racism is so complex and multifaceted, that looking at it only through this power lens won’t reveal other important aspects that organisation design could help address.

I’ve been mulling over and discussing this, not for the first time, with both organisation design and other colleagues – of various ethnicities, race and background – and with family members.

The conversations have covered power of various types, whether BAME (black, Asian and ethnic minorities) is a useful category, organisational language, recruitment and career progression, and performance management, societal treatment and day to day experiences.

The intersect between BLM and Covid-19 has also been part of the discussions.  That intersect offers a chilling illustration and some insights into black inequalities that organisation designers could/should consider.  For example, a 21 April 2020 New Scientist article notes that:

‘The most recent figures compiled by the UK’s Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre suggests that of nearly 5000 people critically ill with covid-19 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whose ethnicity was known, 34 per cent were from BAME backgrounds. But people from such groups make up only 14 per cent of the population of England and Wales.’

The article suggests several factors for this, saying: ‘It’s not about people’s biological make-up. It’s about the conditions that are created due to racialised policies, and how that’s impacted communities over time. For example, poorer, more disadvantaged people – who are disproportionately from ethnic minorities – are more likely to have underlying health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity that put them at increased risk of covid-19’.

The article also cites racially biased algorithms and the types of jobs people do that may preclude social distancing. ‘In the UK, 18 per cent of black people work in caring, leisure and other services that are either essential or jobs that can’t easily be done from home. In the US, less than 20 per cent of black or African-American people can work from home.’

Additionally.  ‘Studies have found that people from BAME groups may be treated differently because of healthcare professionals’ unconscious bias … This creates a system of advantage based on race.  We have to take that into account when thinking about why we’re seeing differential impacts of covid-19.”

So, in this one article you can see:  racialised policies, implied access to types of work (and education that allows/limits that access), biased algorithms, unconscious bias, wage differentials and environmental conditions.  Reading the Public Health England report COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities  reveals more detailed info.

Back to Aye’s question,  ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  As I said, his article has excellent suggestions.   And beyond his, we can pick up on five questions (four of them discussed in the Economist article, The Great Awakening):

  • Where are the white spaces in our organisation? (This one is not in the article)
  • What is the evidence that blacks and other Asian and minority ethnicities are disadvantaged in our organisation?
  • How much can we do in our organisation to address this and how much do we have to encourage our organisational members to lobby in society as a whole
  • What impact does racial disadvantage, as reflected in our organisation, have on our organisation’s performance, credibility, and past/current/future reputation?
  • What can we do to improve matters?

As I reflect on these and continuing talking with colleagues on them, we will be working on our responses.  Meanwhile, this week I am reviewing the resource materials from a FutureLearn course I did last year Make Change Happen, considering again the tenth test of organisation design (the Equalities Test) that I proposed we introduce last year.  and listening to Afua Hirsch’s Audible podcasts We Need to Talk About the British Empire.

How will you answer the five questions above?  Let me know.

Image:  Business and race in America, The Economist

Covid 19: Power structures or power sources

The Johnson and Scholes cultural web is one that many in the organisation design/development field will be familiar with.  A full explanation of it is in G. Johnson’s chapter ‘Mapping and re-mapping organisational culture’ in V. Ambrosini with G. Johnson and K. Scholes (eds), Exploring Techniques of Analysis and Evaluation in Strategic Management, Prentice Hall, 1998.

It’s one that is well used.  Mindtools summarizes it, saying it comprises ‘six interrelated elements that help to make up what Johnson and Scholes call the “paradigm” – the pattern or model – of the work environment. By analysing the factors in each, you can begin to see the bigger picture of your culture: what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs to be changed. The six elements are:

  1. Stories – The past events and people talked about inside and outside the company.
  2. Rituals and Routines – The daily behavior and actions of people that signal acceptable behavior.
  3. Symbols – The visual representations of the company including logos, how plush the offices are, and the formal or informal dress codes.
  4. Organisational Structure – This includes both the structure defined by the organization chart, and the unwritten lines of power and influence that indicate whose contributions are most valued.
  5. Control Systems – The ways that the organization is controlled. These include financial systems, quality systems, and rewards (including the way they are measured and distributed within the organization).
  6. Power Structures – The pockets of real power in the company. This may involve one or two key senior executives, a whole group of executives, or even a department.’

Discussing this model with colleagues last week, led me to suggest that instead of ‘Power Structures’ we consider ‘Power Sources’ as that enables thinking of power in the multiple ways Gareth Morgan describes in his chapter in his book Images of Organization

Morgan says, ‘Power is the medium through which conflicts of interest are ultimately resolved.  Power influences who gets what, when and how.’  He goes on to say ‘the sources of power are rich and varied, providing those who wish to wheel and deal in pursuit of their interests with many ways of doing so’.  He then lists and discusses fourteen sources of power.

  1. Formal authority
  2. Control of scarce resources
  3. Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations  (On this one Morgan says, ‘The tensions surrounding the process of organisation design and resdesign provide many insights into organisational power structures’.)
  4. Control of decision processes
  5. Control of knowledge and information
  6. Control of boundaries
  7. Ability to cope with uncertainty
  8. Control of technology
  9. Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of informal organization
  10. Control of counter organizations
  11. Symbolism and the management of meaning
  12. Gender and the management of gender relations
  13. Structural factors that affect the stage of action
  14. The power one already has (personal power)

When I’m talking about Morgan’s sources of power, I add in a fifteenth – ‘Reputation and credibility’.

Thinking about the context and events now and of the last few months.  I’m watching all 15 sources of power playing out in organisations and in society and it’s notable that the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have amplified some of them.

Three that caught my attention during last week are:

Control of boundaries – the clearest one, for those now remote working, is the boundary between work and home life.  A recent newspaper article comments:  ‘Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared. … Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.’

In our discussions on culture last week for some the feeling of work overload came up, for others – those home schooling or working in shared accommodation, there’s an anxiety, for example, about appearing unprofessional when a child or dog bursts into Zoom view, or having flat mates hear sensitive information.  There are endless tips on controlling  current work/home boundaries but as one article says, ‘Very few guides, though, take into consideration the nuances of home life and the barriers different setups can impose on simply getting the job done.’

Observing the amplification of this source of power I wondered who it ‘belonged’ to.  Does the employer wield it as it raises some questions around job design, design of performance management, design of wellbeing and duty of care processes?  Or does the employee wield it in controlling (or not) his/her calendar and domestic responsibilities, or is it wielded by both parties (or other parties?)

Control of knowledge and information.  On this Morgan says, ‘power accrues to the person who is able to structure attention to issues in a way that in effect defines the reality of the decision-making process.’  In the Covid-19 crisis ways of handling information and knowledge vary from transparency (about what we know and don’t know) to deliberate decisions to censor or with-hold information, see, for example, an article from the Brookings Institute, Knowledge is power: Lessons learned from Italy’s coronavirus outbreak and also Nicholas Christakis video, Covid-19: social networks in which he talks about how health behaviors are contagious through social networks and the dangers of using formal/positional power to force with-holding of information. Among other examples, Christakis’s mentions the example of the Chinese doctor who tried to raise the alarm on Covid-19.

In the current situation where decisions are being made in a context of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) it’s important to have access to, and use,  several trusted sources of data and expertise. (See Which Covid:19 data can you trust?’).  It’s also wise to exercise critical thinking on the information and knowledge you do have access to.

Ability to cope with uncertainty.  Morgan suggests there are two types of organisational uncertainty – environmental uncertainty and operational uncertainty.  Most organisations are now in both types of uncertainty. Seeing some organisations being able to wield this power and others failing utterly (read Sinking, Swimming and Surfing)  begs the question of how to design for weathering uncertainty – on this take a look some of the plethora of advice on designing organisational resilience e.g. McKinsey’s Navigating to the next normal: The first 100 insights

Do you think that power sources would be a more useful exploration than power structures in working with the Johnson and Scholes model of organisational culture?  Which of Morgan’s power sources have you seen amplified in the current situation?  Let me know.

Image: Gary Klein, Mapping the Sources of Power, The knowledge and abilities that come with experience.


When to stop a project

If  “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” as Michael Porter famously said in a seminal HBR article, then the essence of execution is truly not doing it. That sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives.’ HBR Too Many Projects

 What’s been going on in the last few months is a colossal disruption to strategies, plans to execute strategies and executing strategies.  As a 30th May 2020, Economist article, Lonely Planet, says, ‘The old rules have gone out of the window’ and new strategies are being developed and implemented but in an unfamiliar and unknown context.  The article is discussing the hotel, airline, tourism industries, saying ‘the shape of sectors from restaurants to hotels and luxury goods (which are often bought while people are on holiday), will depend on what tourism looks like when it is allowed to resume. Hotels and airlines are using the upheaval as an opportunity to rework how they function. Families are rethinking how and where they can safely take their holidays. Many of the changes will last only until a vaccine for covid-19 appears. But some will stick. How people start to travel in 2020—or 2021—will shape how they travel for years thereafter.’

The article describes the travel, hotel and tourism industry as ranging from ‘the abysmal to the apocalyptic’.  Industry leaders are trying to work with priorities such as, ‘making things easier to clean and reducing touchpoints that will change the economics of providing travel services’.  Other changes include what ‘Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s boss, calls travel redistribution: people taking trips to out-of-the-way places rather than the usual metropolises.’  Or ‘Even more striking, many people booking properties within 50 miles (80km) of where they live, with the majority within 200 miles. Being able to drive home is useful if lockdown conditions change suddenly.’

The Economist article points out that, ‘Not all these changes will be universal. People have diverse tastes, different reasons to travel and varying appetites for risk. … the in-flight experience may change much less in the long term. … Crucial things—such as the middle seat on airplanes—will not disappear. Airlines are clear that it would destroy their business model, which requires around two-thirds of seats to be filled to make a profit.  Observant travellers will notice tweaks.’

Not all industries and sectors are as massively disrupted as travel, hotel and tourism but many are operating in similar conditions of uncertainty.    This uncertainty means making choices and decisions on which existing projects to continue with which to stop altogether, which to put on hold, which to rein in and which to continue.  (It also means determining what projects to initiate and how to switch/allocate resources to do that).

There are no easy answers, but I was asked to provide formal guidance for people in the OD & D arena trying to make decisions on pre-Covid 19 projects – what criteria should inform their advice on whether to stop, hold, rein in, continue projects that were in hand.   What came out of my research and thinking about the situation is this:



Thoughtful and sensitive management of organisational change projects supports an organisation’s business performance, enables their staff to work safely, helps enhance the organisational reputation and makes the organisation a good place to work.

During this period of covid-19 uncertainty, project managers and key stakeholders need to carefully consider:

  • The criteria for stopping or pausing a planned change project (and by implication the criteria for continuing with it)
  • The methods for keeping the decision to halt a project under review
  • The process for re-starting, maintaining a pause, or permanently stopping a change project


This guidance applies to all organisational design/development/change projects where OD & D practitioners are the key stakeholders and/or advising key stakeholders.  The guidance frames the conditions in which a change project should be continued, paused, or stopped completely.

It does not apply to major programmes or to projects and programmes that have no significant impact on the OD & D sphere of interest.


There is no general suspension of planned projects at this point.  But many are changing shape/scope as they prioritise covid-19 response.   This is a time of significant disruption that requires careful judgement calls and a balancing of immediate needs with longer term goals and objectives.

It is likely that as we move out of business continuity/crisis mode into recovery, we will be in a future that is different to the one the change was planning for pre Covid19.

Thus, we must consider the ‘fit’ of the change project in a future that we cannot currently predict or outline in the same way we felt we could pre covid-19.

Generally, consider stopping or pausing a change project if one or more of the criteria below apply:

  1. The project’s objectives cannot be met within the budget and timescale
  2. The project can be completed but it will not create or deliver the intended benefits in the immediate and/or possible future
  3. The organisation/business unit’s assumptions have changed i.e. from ‘normal’ to covid-19 mobilisation and it may not be the “right” project to work on right now, given competing priorities for time, knowledge, skills, other resources, etc.
  4. The context has changed and will continue to be in a state of change for some time and it is felt/decided that the ROI or benefits expectations will not be met either now or in the possible future
  5. The schedule has slipped significantly or is likely to shift significantly and it will incur additional costs to bring it back to a completion schedule
  6. There are delivery difficulties beyond the capabilities of those working on it to manage e.g. remote working complications, team member redeployments, team member sickness etc
  7. Key people have left the project or are likely to leave the project through furlough or redeployment to other/covid-19 work.
  8. There has been a significant change in the organisation/business unit’s interest and strategy and this is likely to continue for some time
  9. The key sponsor has moved on leaving a sponsor vacuum
  10. The impacts of the change on people could cause undue stress and overload as they may already be stressed by covid-19 conditions


Think about your organisation.  What guidance would you give on projects that were in train pre-Covid-19 and may (or may not) be relevant currently and in the immediate future?  Let me know.


What are we exploring?

‘An explorer can never know what he is exploring until it has been explored’  (Bateson, 1972, p. xvi).

Karl Weick in his paper Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations says, ‘Crises are characterized by low probability/high consequence events that threaten the most fundamental goals of an organization. Because of their low probability, these events defy interpretations and impose severe demands on sensemaking.

The less adequate the sensemaking process directed at a crisis, the more likely it is that the crisis will get out of control. That straightforward proposition conceals a difficult dilemma because people think by acting. To sort out a crisis as it unfolds often requires action which simultaneously generates the raw material that is used for sensemaking and affects the unfolding crisis itself. There is a delicate trade-off between dangerous action which produces understanding and safe inaction which produces confusion.’  (Listen to a recent Talking About Organisations podcast in which Weick discusses ‘Disasters and Crisis Management’)

I’m noticing the increasing number of exchanges that seem to be around exploring and sensemaking in this current Covid-19 situation.  Some have been in conversations, others have dropped into my email in-box from colleagues.  This week the topics of exploration include:  psychological safety, journaling, physical and virtual worlds and trust. Here are some extracts from the email exchanges

Psychological safety

Email: ‘I am doing an online course on psychological safety and find the subject fascinating in relation to culture. I am keen to get the conversation going with leaders and managers with the support of a toolkit and resources.  Whilst I have found some material, are you aware of anything current on TED Talk or resources that I could draw on please?’

My response:  I guess your on-line course (whose is it?) mentions Amy Edmondson?  She’s done many articles – see HBR list here and TED talks – see this one on building a psychologically safe workplace.

I wonder if the Covid-19 context makes it even harder to feel psychologically safe?  See this NY Times article.  (Thanks to Asher Rickayzen for sending the link) and also another  Amy Edmondson piece, this time an audio interview on the impact of covid 19 on psychological safety,  and this info from Gartner on improving psychological safety in a time of coronavirus.

There’s another slant that argues that providing or seeking safety is not always a good thing.  See When Safety Proves Dangerous, which discusses the point that Not everything we do with the aim of making ourselves safer has that effect. Sometimes, knowing there are measures in place to protect us from harm can lead us to take greater risks and cancel out the benefits.’


Email: ‘I’ve been journaling throughout and kept a bit of a journey in the first few weeks, plotting behaviour and what I saw and heard. What I felt and others said they felt.  Quite interesting how as a nation we moved through panic buying to clearing out, then baking to fence painting. Current trends I see socially are boxes at the bottom of drives offering items free to take away – maybe a result of too much clearing out and no charity shops open?’

My response:  I too am journaling and your mentioning of it prompted me to ask myself when I started, which was when I was still living in Chiswick and I left there in 2003.   My initiation into journaling was through Julia Cameron’s book, the Artist’s Way, in which she talks about Morning Pages (writing 3 pages every single morning, which I’ve been doing since then).

Coincidentally Asher Rickayzen mentioned morning pages in a piece on Anxiety he wrote, saying,  ‘What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions (about what the future could look like). What I’m seeing is a bias to action …  I’ve noticed … the lack of conversation about the anxiety we are feeling and I connect this with the bias to action. … This is a peculiar lesson I have learned for myself about anxiety through adopting the process of morning pages; anxiety is not necessarily easy to spot nor are the ways in which we try (often subconsciously) to free ourselves from the inner discomfort it brings.


Info:  ‘One of the things that strikes me in a number of organisations I work with is that the crisis has trumped underlying assumptions about trust; suddenly call centre staff who pre-crisis couldn’t be trusted if out of sight from their managers have been completely trusted to work from home. The question for me is whether this shift in trust is reversed in future.  I’m also interested in how do we build trust in the Zoom world?’

My response:  Your question is great.  Trust is, I think, particularly highlighted at this point in the covid-19 crisis.  There’s an excellent blog by Charles Green that seems right for now, too – To live outside the law you must be honest. You really need to read all of it to get the full argument he makes but this section gives a flavour,To live outside the law doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.  …  That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance.’

Jericho Chambers (a consultancy focused on purpose and trustworthiness) is running a series of webinars,  Business After the Virus,  each related to exploring aspects of trust and purpose, that I’m listening to.  They also do a podcast Trust Delusion.

Physical world and virtual world

Email: ‘These questions are on my mind:

  • What is the impact of lack of communal physical space going to have on our creativity and innovation?
  • How can we make the virtual world emulate the physical world in terms of community, serendipitous interaction, opportunity to read the social signals?
  • How can we make the physical world emulate the virtual world in terms of distancing and personal safety?’

My response:   I don’t have any answers to these questions.  Most of us are exploring and learning as we go, trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.   For example, I’m intrigued to see how supermarkets have adapted their physical layouts and customer processes so quickly.  And lots of guidance on this has been generated equally quickly .  See for example GMB’s (a trade union) Social Distancing Guidance for Retail Workers or the British Retail Consortium’s advice.  The guidance doesn’t however cover the changes social distancing in shops may make to cusomer/retail assistant interactions or buying patterns. (Though I think the move to on-line shopping will contine).

Many culture journalists/article writers are musing on your questions too.  I enjoyed a March piece in the NY Times, which ends optimistically ‘it’s also possible that after spending years using technologies that mostly seemed to push us apart, the coronavirus crisis is showing us that the internet is still capable of pulling us together.‘  And the business press is similarly investigating your questions – see an FT article ‘How is the world’s mass homeworking experiment going?’

Other topics I’ve been exploring with colleagues this week are, resourcefulness, learning organisation, time, employee values, delivery models.

What topics are you exploring and trying to make sense of?  What impact this have on the way you approach organisation design?  Let me know.


Image: Exploring the Comfort Zone, Peter Dorey.

Uncertainty and leadership alignment

I’m re-reading the Susan Jeffers book Embracing Uncertainty to get a top-up dose of how to do it.   It’s a struggle right now, and this was highlighted for me as I read in the Economist on 2 May that smokers seem less likely than non-smokers to fall ill with Covid-19 and then I read in the New Scientist 23 May  smokers are actually at a higher risk of dying from Covid-19.   Which should I go with?  One/other, wait …  As I’m not a smoker it probably doesn’t matter either way(s) but the point is what we read one day/week is different the next day/week.

Uncertainty is the theme of the times and there are some who are better at living with it than others. ‘Scientists are accustomed to talking about ranges and living with uncertainty. The public might find that harder. As the first meeting of Sir David’s online committee got going, commenters were enthusiastic about “this effort to disseminate the science, rather than the spin”. But, once it became clear that the panellists had differing views and were not about to offer up a ready-packaged solution, the tone changed. “Please Mr Modeller!” went one comment. “Just answer the questions.”’ Economist:  Of white coats and grey suits

Those of us who are not scientists are often both uncomfortable with uncertainty and ill equipped to manage this, as behavioural scientists observe.   (If you want to know more on this, listen to a great podcast,  Behavioural Science in the Context of Great Uncertainty,  one in LSE’s public event series – COVID-19: The Policy Response.

And the Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in modern history, bringing with it a crisis of uncertainty. And yet, as Rebecca Knight author of a recent HBR article says, this crisis of uncertainty is ‘not necessarily unique. Similar to other crises, such as 9/11 and the global financial downturn, workers feel scared and worried.’  She quotes Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication as saying, ‘Uncertainty triggers fear. People are freaking out and wondering, ‘What does this mean for my company, my job, and my future?’”

Knight’s asserts that, ‘Your role [as leader] is to project confidence and strength.  Even though the situation is fast-moving and you don’t have perfect information, you need to be honest about what you know … task one is transparency …  explain to your team, here’s what we do know, here’s what we don’t know, and this is what we are doing to close that gap.’

And there’s the rub.  It maybe relatively easy for one leader (or manager) to be transparent and honest, but it is several degrees harder when a leadership team is involved.    I’ve been in many recent meetings and discussions where people are anxious about the lack of leadership team member alignment.  They’re seeing leaders who are not ‘joined-up’, not speaking with ‘one voice’, not behaving and acting as a united team, and not being able/willing to be transparent and honest about what they do and don’t know.

This despite the obviously  heightened craving for leadership team/executive team member alignment, which is, says Jack McGuiness, ‘when all members of the team work in sync to accomplish a common purpose.’ He explains further, ‘More specifically, an aligned leadership team debates well, proactively supports each other, is laser focused on what is most important, and is committed to learning and improving.’

Supporting the case for leadership team alignment, authors Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and  Samantha Howland discuss a leader’s ability to align in their article in the Harvard Business Review, it is one of the  ‘six skills that, when mastered and used in concert, allow leaders to think strategically and navigate the unknown effectively’.  The six are:  the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.

On ‘align’ they say strategic leaders must be ‘adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas. This requires active outreach. Success depends on proactive communication, trust building, and frequent engagement.’

Knowing what ‘success depends on’ and then developing them and deploying them means overcoming 5 attributes that, in my observation, hinder a leadership team member’s ability to align with other team members.

  • Looking fixedly through their own metaphor – unable to acknowledge there may be others (see the duck/rabbit image above).
  • Binary thinking.  On this see an article on the ‘brutal dilemma’ of lives versus livelihoods
  • Putting their own, or their business unit/organisation’s interests above the common good. (See this old but still relevant article Power an Politics in Organizational Life).
  • Not listening attentively and not questioning assumptions and not thinking ‘I may be wrong here’ (see the tool I mentioned last week on critical thinking)
  • Bringing one or more behavioural biases to bear.  On this one Tom Davenport wrote an excellent article, saying ‘Decision-making becomes most important in times of crisis, and this certainly is one of those times. But it also becomes more challenging, too, during periods of stress and most difficult when future outcomes are uncertain — which describes the current period as well. One reason is because cognitive decision biases are likely to appear in highly changeable, high-stress environments, influencing decisions in damaging ways.’ He then discusses 9 biases which he thinks are coming into play now.

However, because of the profound levels of uncertainty, even those with high level alignment skills  will find it challenging right now.  Which leaves me wondering whether the plea for ‘leadership alignment’ that I’m now hearing in various circles is remotely possible.  Is the only thing that a leadership team could be aligned on, a statement –  one on the lines of ‘We don’t know. Things are uncertain.’?

For many leaders saying ‘we don’t know’ feels risky.  And taking that risk is, in my experience, a necessary step.  Leaders are people too, like their workforce members, leaders are feeling the uncertainty.  Alongside this they can also feel and project the confidence and strength advocated by Knight.  Leaders (and workforce members) are not powerless in uncertainty.

Neither are organisation design and development practitioners.  We could, right now, be:

  • Creating the conditions for dissent/reflection, meaningful discussions and collaborative sensemaking, perhaps using techniques like Polarity Mapping that someone last week alerted me to, or the tool Adaptive Action that I mentioned, also last week.
  • Encouraging leadership team members to look at and overcome, individually and collectively, the attributes that are hindering alignment
  • Supporting them in developing the confidence to say ‘we don’t know and this is what we’re doing to work through things’.

How important do you think leadership team alignment is in these uncertain times?  What are you doing to encourage it if you think it is important?  Let me know.

Image: The duck-rabbit drawing was first used by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899 to make the point that perception is not only what one sees but also a mental activity

Covid-19, organisation design for next steps: toolkit

Someone emailed me saying he was helping an Exec team ‘bring coherence to their crisis response and recovery planning, using the opportunity to accelerate some of their future organisation design.’

This coincided with a discussion I was having, with some others, around the idea of simple, relevant toolkit that we could have available within a couple of days to help leaders do just that (‘bring coherence … design’ ).

I set to work using some of the tools and ideas we’d discussed.  Here’s the basic outline that I’ve sent to my colleagues to consider – my comments to them in italics:

Covid-19 design for next steps:  toolkit

Intro: (on the lines that I think we are all now becoming utterly familiar with) There is no going ‘back’ to as we were, the future is completely unknown and uncertain.  At this stage everyone – including leaders – must recognise, accept and be clear that in choosing current and future organisation designs there is no right answer that will ‘solve’ the problems or give us the opportunities this crisis presents.  (This is quite a step for people who want ‘the answer’ or certainty).  We simply have to to work for the good of all, learn as we go, be open to others views and experiences, and be comfortable in not having the answers.

Anyone working on designing their current and future organisation design, needs to be:

  1. Using collaborative strategies with multi-disciplinary teams
  2. Practicing holistic and systems thinking rather than linear or mono-dimensional thinking
  3. Redefining ‘success’ as no longer doing things in the right order, but rather doing enough of the right things at the same time.
  4. Identifying the many possible entry points for interventions, launching multiple parallel interventions and learning in ‘real time’ to ensure the appropriate sequence and mix of activities.
  5. Accepting that outcomes are not right or wrong. They are simply better/worse or good enough/not good enough. (The determination of outcome quality is not objective.)  (I’ve adapted this from some work I did on wicked problems).

To help you in your designing here are some immediately usable tools and resources.

There are six themes, each with two tools.

Each theme has a short description and each tool is presented in the same way:  Why this tool? How to use it (instructions).  What to do with the output. Links to relevant information/resources.  (For now, I’ve just sent you the theme descriptor, together with the tool names.  Once you’ve ok-ed the basic idea I’ll work up:  why this tool, the instructions, what to do with the output, relevant info sources. NOTE:  I have some of the tools – the non-hyperlinked ones, others will be developed from the hyperlinked info.)

Themes and tools

Operating context:   During uncertain times, it can feel like everything is uncertain or unstable.  These two tools will help you assess the context –organisational, societal, financial, etc. that are taking place due to Covid-19 and answer the questions What future outcomes do you have a fairly clear view of?  What outcomes are you not certain of at this time?  Where uncertainty lies, what do you know about the possible future outcomes?

Operating models (business, target):  It’s easy to rush into action trying to get things ‘back to normal’ or to the ‘new normal’.  Spending time to consider what’s been learned so far in response to Covid-19 – what’s worked well what hasn’t, what you’d like to keep that you’ve newly put into operation and also to reflect on your pre-Covid operating strengths and weaknesses.  Going ‘back’ no longer seems like a good option. (See, for example Move Fast and Try Not to Break Things.)   Consider carefully what your new operating model should be.

Value Chain mapping:  Principle 3 in the article 10 Principles of Organisation Design (Well worth reading. Will go in additional resources)  is ‘Fix the Structure Last not First’.  This is an instruction ignored by many as they head to re-jig the organisation chart.  A better approach is to map your value chain i.e. the set of activities that an organization carries out to create value for its customers.  The Covid 19 situation has probably seriously impacted it.  Use this map to examine all of your organisation’s key activities, and see how they’re connected. The way in which value chain activities are performed and the way the organisation is structured to perform the activities determines costs and affects outcomes.

Covid-19 redesigns offer an opportunity/challenge to rethink your value chain and structure to deliver it effectively and efficiently.  a good description of value chain analysis is here.

Restructures:  types of structures.  Determining your structure (aka organisation chart) means thinking about your value chain, business processes, culture you want to foster, etc.  Different structures ‘do’ different things e.g. encourage or discourage collaboration, enable quick or slow decision making, build silos or recognize interdependencies, etc.  Redrawing your organisation chart on the back of an envelope or after a brief discussion in a leadership team is neither a responsible approach to organisation design, nor is it likely to achieve the intended outcomes.

  • Tool 7: Structure comparisons
  • Tool 8: Questions to ask about structures (Both these tools are in my book. There’s a whole chapter in it on structures.)

Assessing your organisation design:  If you have arrived at a proposed design, or designs, then before rushing into it take the time to conduct a thorough impact analysis of the design(s) on the existing organisation to confirm whether your design solution(s) can be implemented effectively.   The impact analysis is not just a tick box exercise, it involves critical thinking on the proposals.

Leading organisation design:  It’s important leader of organisation design have honed skills in scepticism and critical thinking.   The infodemic on Covid-19 and its implications on our organisations and their operating context is hitting us hard and there’s no shortage of consultants offering advice.

This crisis has been/is being so profound that it has created, and is still creating, the necessity to think differently.  Leaders absolutely have to seize that opportunity.   There are two main mindsets we can navigate this crisis with: growth and fixed. Having a growth mindset is now an essential.

What’s your view on this quick toolkit for now.  Is it useful, relevant?  What tools are in your current Covid-19 organisation design toolkit?  Let me know.

Image: Systemic Design Toolkit

Organisation design for remote working

The Organisation Design Community recently launched a podcast series, Making Remote Work. So far they’ve recorded around 12 episodes and have invited one guest per episode.  I got an email from them earlier last week saying, ‘Now we are thinking of creating a panel as well (it is more engaging and conversations tend to flow better) and would love to have you as part of it if you would like to.’

The email continued, ‘Until now, on the podcast we’ve had only 2 [organisation design] practitioners, the others have all been academics. We have touched on various subjects – leadership, teamwork, coordination, cooperation, history of remote, negotiations, values, transparency. We have not yet touched on Organization Design for Remote Work. Would this be something you would like to talk about?’

Having replied with something on the lines of ‘Thanks for the invitation, yes, that would be great’, I’ve spent the last couple of days wondering about the phrase ‘remote work’.

It’s easy to think it’s about the common response to the current coronavirus pandemic.  Companies are asking employees to work from home, rather than going to an office or workplace.  As Dave Cook says in his article,’ Many of us have had little choice but to resort to remote working in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is just days since Google, Apple  and Twitter were making headlines by ordering their employees to work from home, but you could now say the same about lots of companies.’

Clearly, there is that forced aspect of remote work – additionally, there are other ways of considering the phrase ‘remote work’.  For example, it could refer to:

  • Work that is done in a specific physical workspace location but which is digitally delivered in real time e.g. telesurgery  or robotic surgery  or drone warfare.
  • Work done physically on a work site but where the workers are remote from their homes and families e.g. astronauts, or construction workers.
  • Work that is done in ‘virtual organisations’, designed to have no, or minimal, physical space but where the workers are doing a variety of jobs, physically remote from other workers, but linked through technologies.   These virtual organisation employees may or may not work from ‘home’, e.g. Uber drivers work from their cars,  while workers at social media management company Buffer, ‘a fully distributed team of 85 people living and working in 15 countries around the world, may work from home, coffee shop, …’
  • Working conditions and/or culture, on or off a physical site that promote a sense of feeling remote e.g. distance from frontline to leader, or lifestyle of garment maker to customer of garment.    This is sometimes reflected in the language of ‘HQ doesn’t understand what’s going on’ or ‘ivory tower executives’ or in pay scales – a recent UK example is the £54m bonus payment. (Ocado delivery drivers can expect to earn £21k per year, taking each one of them 2,570 years to earn the equivalent of £54m).

These are each very different types of ‘remote work’ but across them are some common themes where we could/should be designing.  The themes are:

Perceived, and felt, fairness – which could include the explicit design of pay systems, and the implicit value placed on workers by their organisations and societies.  It’s fairly obvious that in the current situation, typically the higher paid knowledge workers are working ‘remotely’, often from home and the lower paid frontline workers are keeping society’s oils wheeled in the day to day – caring for the sick, making food deliveries, serving in essential retail outlets.  An opportunity to address, is the divide between knowledge (remote) and front-line workers reinforced by pay differentials and perceived value to society.

Cultures of community and belonging – an HBR study conducted in 2017 of 1,100 employees found that remote workers feel shunned and left out whether that is the same now that more people are working remotely I don’t know, but given the explosion of articles on managing remote teams I suspect so.

Interpersonal interaction design – this may be a new area in organisation design  but I have seen many articles on issues of building trust and relationships  in an only on-line world – for example, this National Geographic one ‘Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.’ If more of us are going to be working online away from the day to day/face to face contact with colleagues then we need to think carefully about ways to replicate the value of this.

Designing for innovation and creativity – Look at the many articles on MIT’s building 20 for example or why living in a city makes you more innovative and you’ll see that putting people randomly together fosters innovation and creativity.  An organisation design challenge for now is how to develop equivalent types of physical space that encourage this, whilst maintaining some of the norms of distancing we may be required to adopt. See the British Council for Offices briefing note on Covid-19 and a similar guidance note from the  British Retail Consortium.

System and process design – in a 25 April article The Economist notes that ‘The pandemic is liberating firms to experiment with radical new ideas.  Some of these will persist after the crisis passes.’   I’m seeing the systems and process redesigns they discuss happening in organisations I am working with.  I think these new designs will, as The Economist suggests, persist. They include:

Organisations being ‘forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome analysis paralysis’, this requires redesign of decision-making processes, delegation and authority levels, as well as changes to funding streams and budgetary controls.  They illustrate with the example of Sysco ‘a big American food-distribution firm [that] built and entirely new supply chain and billing system to server grocery stores in less than a week.’

Emboldening managers to change risk management systems in order to try out, at speed, risky new ideas ‘on larger groups of customers.’   Many organisations are swiftly designing and introducing rapid prototyping/testing systems for example Nike’s ‘deft digital pivot’ to online shared workouts or HP’s ‘acceleration of 3D as a service’.

Experimenting with new distribution channels– ‘Google has expanded the use of its Wing drones to deliver medicines and other necessities in rural Virginia’,  while Uber has rapidly expanded its Uber Eats delivery business.

Redesigning supply chains– COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of complex global supply chains built on lean manufacturing principles.

Command and control processes changing in ways as yet unclear – some aspects becoming much more authoritarian others becoming more open and transparent for example, investing in open-source software or engaging customers in open-innovation efforts.

How are you thinking about ‘remote’ and do you think the pandemic will change organisation designs and the way we design organisations?  Let me know.

Image:  Virtual team building activities

Normal or not?

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’  This Winston Churchill quote is just right for now.   We are not at the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 crisis.  It is going to be with us, perhaps for our lifetimes or longer, as other infectious illnesses are.

Virologist, Guido Vanham, in a World Economic Forum interview said,  ‘It [Covid-19] will probably never end, in the sense that this virus is clearly here to stay unless we eradicate it. And the only way to eradicate such a virus would be with a very effective vaccine that is delivered to every human being. We have done that with smallpox, but that’s the only example – and that has taken many years.’

So, I’m surprised by the number of meetings I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks in which people are talking about ‘going back to normal’, or ‘the next normal’ or ‘the new normal’, in ways suggesting that they are planning to ‘tweak’ their world view and their organisations a bit,  and in doing this things will be much the same as they were during 2019 or even up to early 2020.

This is a mistake.  We have had a wrenching global shock both individually and collectively.    Organisations are reeling from it, very few will be able to go back, or forward, to any form of ‘normal’ that looks anything like the pre Covid-19 crisis.

We know, and are experiencing, the  covid-19 pandemic, which, as the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reports, ‘has led to society-wide lockdowns across the world, bringing all but commerce and services deemed most essential to a sudden halt, large portions of countries sheltering at home and unemployment spiking.’    As a result of the Covid-19 measures, the IMF, in its latest World Economic Outlook, forecasts the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

To examine this forecast, in April this year, the EIU, launched the Global Business Barometer, which will be updated monthly. The launch survey was ‘Based on an initial online survey of 2,758 executives from 118 countries, fielded from March 26th to April 6th’.  Respondents were asked ‘questions ranging from their outlook on the global economy and investment plans to operational and risk management strategies.’ The findings make grim reading.

The EIU states, ‘the world is not going to suddenly spring back and continue as though nothing has happened. Forty percent of executives we surveyed answered it would take “less than a year” from the outbreak for their business to recover. That is cheering and we hope they are proven prescient. But 46% of those surveyed believe it will take between 1-2 years and 10% believe it will take 3-5 years. The former seems realistic, the latter disastrous.’

The EIU comments, ‘Few if any industries will be spared from the impact of covid-19 and the various policy responses to it. Some will be much harder hit than others. Tourism and travel is an obvious example, as is the consumer goods sector (outside of food and other essentials). With many factories shuttered across the globe, supply-chain disruptions and demand cratering, manufacturing is also forecast to experience significant pain in the short to medium-term.’

Leandro Herrero, in his inimitable way is clear ‘We need to feed-forward. Not feed-back. We don’t need a thermostat. We need a compass. Move North or East or West or South, but never back to normal. Because normal is not waiting for us.  …  The so called ‘new normal’ (this thing is sticky) is for creators, makers, builders. Not for decorators of the same old room. Not going back to the pot of paint to finish the ceiling, that was left behind.’

His is a call to move on from our paradigm of ‘normal’ that is not waiting for us.  Others suggest similarly.  For example, the UK Guardian notes,

‘The global impact of the coronavirus pandemic poses a fundamental question: is this one of those historic moments when the world changes permanently, when the balance of political and economic power shifts decisively, and when, for most people, in most countries, life is never quite the same again?

Put more simply, is this the end of the world as we know it? And, equally, could the crisis mark a new beginning?

Genuinely pivotal global moments, watersheds or turning points (pick your own terminology) are actually quite rare. Yet if the premise is correct – that there can be no return to the pre-Covid-19 era – then it poses many unsettling questions about the nature of the change, and whether it will be for better or worse.’

What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions.  What I’m seeing is a bias to action to get things ‘back on track’, in much the same way as they were pre-Covid-19.

The numerous ‘R’ words from management consultants are not helpful in encouraging time for thought.  For the most part, they are based on a ‘normal’ management 3 – 5 step frameworks.  For example, McKinsey’s advice to leaders in early April was to think and act across 5 horizons: resolve, resilience, return reimagination and reform.

Now (May) they propose: recovering revenue, rebuilding operations, rethinking the organization, and accelerating the adoption of digital solutions.  (OK – no final ‘R’ word).

Bain – also in April – has Protect, Recover and Retool.  While Accenture’s advice for the Covid-19 crisis (that could have been given at any point in the last decade) is to ‘establish long-term strategies for greater resilience. Apply lessons learned … to create a systems and talent roadmap that better prepares your company for future disruptions.

  • Define long-term transformation strategies that prioritize and address antiquated applications, architectures and infrastructure, highly manual processes and underfunded cyber resilience.
  • Self-fund your transformation through small incremental programs that drive efficiency and free up capital.
  • Leverage ecosystem partners to shift to an asset-light model and mitigate vulnerable dependencies, choosing partners resilient to global risks.’

If we are reaching a turning point in containing the Covid-19 pandemic then it is time to recognise that this is as Churchill said, ‘perhaps the end of the beginning’ but the beginning of something that doesn’t relate to any prior ‘normal’.

Geoff Mulgan put the opportunity well in his piece How not to waste a crisis. He says:  ‘The next few months will bring intensive learning on how to manage the crisis, as well exit strategies. But we also need to start planning for the peace. What new methods can be adapted from the crisis? … What new ways of thinking has it thrown up?…  we should never waste a crisis. An incredible amount of thought, creativity and commitment is going into the responses around us right now. But how can we harness some of that for longer term [positive] impact?’

Similarly, economist Milton Friedman noted:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Do you think this is the end of the beginning and should we avoid any thinking about ‘normal’ as we have known it?   What ideas have you got lying around that will produce real change?  Let me know.

Image: Li Zhong: Mercury Company in Full Production, April 2020


Cathedral thinking – are we capable and willing?

In March’s Gardener’s World magazine Monty Don tells of the friends who introduced him to the concept of ‘cathedral thinking’.  He says, ‘You may be aware of this, but just in case you haven’t come across it before, the argument for cathedral thinking is that just as medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build  – involving generations of craftsmen devoting their entire lives to the task, despite having no chance of seeing the finished work – so we should plan and participate in work that benefits future generations and the world at large, rather than ourselves and our own narrow interests and lifespans.’

Monty Don has just planted a three-acre wood.  He explains, ‘We’ve called it George’s Wood because it is intended for him, my grandson – and his grandchildren – rather than my son and his wife, let alone Sarah or myself.’

Rightly, he asks the question how do you translate this benefit for future generations, if you don’t have 3 acres available to plant but simply a ‘normal (smallish) back garden attached to a normal (smallish) house’?

He proposes that we do this by ‘thinking and acting bigger than our lives, beyond the restrictions and constraints of our garden, our street and the limited world that inevitably we all inhabit.  … An awareness that we’re all connected and part of the bigger world is a huge liberation and means that sometimes we can think big – cathedral big – in our own backyards’.

The coronavirus pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to really think through how we want to approach the future – whether we want to take a short term, quarterly results perspective or the longer, cathedral, view, thinking big – armed with a moral compass pointing at what is good for society and what is the right thing to do.

My hope is that we aim for cathedral thinking,  going for the longer view and bigger thinking and this week I listened to four webinars with speakers expertly putting the case for just that.

The first was The upside of pestilence: how the virus will humanise our organisations, one in the excellent London Business School series ‘Leading through a pandemic’, the speakers were Dominic Houlder and Jules Goddard, co-authors of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader.

They make the case for teaching leaders philosophy – ably debunking any suggestion that this is a ‘dispensable luxury’.  They remind us that Peter Drucker said, ‘Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing’. In their view deciding what is right is a question of philosophy.

Their hope is that  effective leaders will use this crisis to develop resourceful humans – beyond human resources, building on three sources of capital:  physical capital – the sources of production, social capital – including trust, collective intelligence, reciprocity, genuine dialogue, and moral capital – meaningfulness, the conditions conducive to leading a fulfilled life, a sense of our own agency, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity and belonging.  They ask us to reflect, for our organisations, on the question, ‘how might the moral capital of the enterprise be measured and enhanced?’

The second was Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future an LSE discussion with Mervyn King and John Kay, authors of a book with the same title.

They argue that contemporary approaches to dealing with uncertainty rely on a false understanding of our power to make predictions, leading to many of the problems we experience today. Nevertheless, we have to make decisions in conditions of radical uncertainty, where we can neither imagine all possible outcomes nor assign probabilities to future events. So, we crave certainties which cannot exist and invent knowledge we cannot have.  (Chapter 1 of their book opens with the Leo Tolstoy quote ‘All we can know is that we know nothing.  And that is the sum total of human wisdom’.)  They distinguish between puzzles (solvable) and mysteries (what we don’t know).  In their view, asking the question ‘what’s going on here?’ is not a simple or banal question but the start of a reflective process, starting from a premise that we don’t know and our models may not work.

The  third webinar, was Margaret Heffernan talking in the Jericho Chambers series ‘Life After the Virus’.  In this one – Uncharted: how to map the future together,  Margaret was talking with others on her message to ‘resist the false promises of technology and efficiency. Instead, mine our own creativity and humanity – give ourselves the capacity to create the futures we want and can believe in.’

In an opinion piece for Jericho Chambers, she talks specifically about cathedral projects, saying they ‘take more than a lifetime to complete … they are conceived in uncertainty’ She gives an example, ‘CERN is a modern cathedral project, even though it was designed to discover things that might not exist, using technology no one knew how to build, on a timescale that was impossible to define at budgets nobody knew how to draft. Mired in uncertainty, it both produced enormous breakthroughs in physics and has thrown off dozens of inherently unpredictable innovations, including the worldwide web. Not planned. Never predicted.’

I also heard Margaret speak with the RSA on ‘How to map the future together in this discussion she said,  ‘I would dearly, dearly love to think that this crisis will provoke, experimentation and openness to new ideas in a way that will enhance our democracy that is the best hope I can think of coming out of this.’ (She is a strong advocate of deliberative democracy).

The fourth was another Jericho Conversation Stakeholder v Shareholder Capitalism.  Panellists debated the question ‘Will a better, more responsible capitalism emerge from the crisis – or will the heat be on to return to “shareholder value” and the maximisation of profit and returns?’

The discussion is a useful mix of optimism and pessimism on what will come out of the crisis.  Panellists hoped that it would bring a better society and offered some thoughts on how this might be fanned into life – as Jane McCormick pointed out ‘none of us has all the answers. New partnerships and fresh thinking will be required – government, business and civil society working together’.

How are you and your organisation approaching the future – is it through ‘cathedral thinking’?  If not should it be and if so, how can we foster it?  Let me know.

Image: Quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery Wartime Writings 1939-1944