Shall I write a third edition of my Economist Guide to Organisation Design?

Although I’ve promised my family that I will never write another book, I feel the temptation to contemplate the idea.  First – why did I make that promise?  Because the package of writing – books, blogs, tweets –  working full-time (and with additional work sometimes) and sustaining family and related social commitments is something I’ve tried and realised is too demanding.  Family and related social commitments are more important to me than a book.  They deserve more than knowing I have churned out another 100 words, or a chapter.

Second, why am I feeling the temptation to write another book.  Well, I enjoy writing on organisation design. Each week I find myself writing a blog on the topic and I’ve done that for the last 10 years.   Actually, (in case anyone looks at the archives on my site) it’s 11 years but in 2008 I only wrote 8 in the year.  It was 2009 that I got into my blogging stride, so I count ten years –  if it were a marriage, I’d mark it with an anniversary gift of tin or aluminium.

And in the vein of enjoying blog writing, I seem to be trying to convince myself that it’s not really another book I’m contemplating, it’s rather a kind of extended blog.  Easy enough then? Especially since it wouldn’t really be a new book.  Rather, the third edition of my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design.  And it’s not just me contemplating it, the publisher has contacted me saying they are thinking a third edition would be timely and asking if I’d be interested in writing it.

I noticed in the course of the phone call with the publisher that the words ‘No, definitely not’, seem to have dropped from my vocabulary – I made an attempt at saying ‘no’ without using that word.  I said – ‘I couldn’t even begin to start before August 2020’, to which the response came ‘we’ll work around your schedule’.  Ultimately, I finished the call saying, ‘I’ll think about it.’ Which is what I am doing – along with wondering why I’d shelved the ‘saying no’ skills I learned during months of assertiveness training, many years ago.

My thinking is running along the lines of rather aimlessly listing pros and cons, except that the pro list only has one item – it gives me the opportunity to update the book for readers, and the cons list has many items, including:  it will take large chunks of time which I could be using with family/running/reading novels, I’ll have to do a ton of research, it doesn’t square with my plan to go cold turkey on all things organisation design, the terrain is moving too quickly for a book to have any value, it’s a vanity project …

Pros and cons feels like an unsatisfactory decision making tool as the items have different weights and trade-offs.  Out of curiosity I looked at the second edition of the book to see what my younger self has written about decision making.  I’m surprised to see five pages on the topic (234 – 239).   They’re followed by a shorter section on problem solving where there’s a quote from Laurence J. Peter author of The Peter Principle that strikes a chord: ‘Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them’.  I’m not sure whether solving the problem of writing the third edition of a book is complex or whether I’m converting a simple ‘yes/no’ into something more complicated.

Reading the quote, I remembered an article on the Cynefin framework as a decision-making tool: ‘The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.’   I briefly wonder how I can apply this to my question, and then think I’m getting side-tracked.  However, it has suggested to me that a discussion of the Cynefin Framework, not in the second edition, would be useful to include in a third edition of an organisation design book.  (Oh, dear – have I decided without deciding?)

Maybe the second edition, published 2015, still has a shelf life?  Certainly, the participants on an organisation design programme I was facilitating this week thought so, and we referred to it throughout the 2-days.  And a November 2019 review of it by Sergio Caredda says ‘it is evident that there is an effort to have a contemporary view on the topic of organisational design, including most recent trends and ideas’.

But I think four years after publication things have moved on.  Casting an eye over my blog titles, since book publication, I see a lot on more on critical thinking, power and politics, ethics, data/AI, collaboration and involvement than is in the book.  So maybe it is time to revise it.

As I’ve been thinking, Winnie the Pooh appeared.   He says “When you are a bear of very little brain, and you think of things, you find sometimes that a thing which seemed very thinkish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

Whether or not to write a third edition of the book is very thinkish inside me.  But I’ll let the thought into the open and have other people look at it.  Do you think I should write it?  Let me know.

Image: Number three wall art

Experts and generalists

Jonathan Miller died this week (27 November 2019).  One of his obituaries notes,  ‘One of the most intelligent people of his generation, he came to public attention first as a comedian, then as a television presenter and theatre and opera director, with work as a writer, broadcaster, lecturer and art historian on the side.’

Another says, ‘As a comedian, TV presenter, satirist, stage director, man of medicine and all-round intellectual … He had wise words on almost any subject under the sun. His big failing, somebody once said, was that he was interested only in everything; his curiosity, and his ability to formulate ideas in cascades of language around it, knew no bounds’.

He’s familiar to me as throughout my life his different work has threaded through, in TV, theatre, music.  I still remember going to his National Gallery exhibition, ‘Mirror Image: Jonathan Miller on Reflection’

His story is relevant because this week I’ve in several different forums I’ve noticed a common theme of experts versus generalists.

Baroness Wolf, talking about the UK’s Civil Service says, ‘If an incoming government was serious about central government reform, as a prerequisite for systemic change, what might that mean?’ She discusses 3 reforms

‘how the machinery approaches its role and responsibilities; how people are trained, appointed and promoted; and who is involved in policy formation and delivery. None involves razing the civil service to the ground, but all would make a difference.’

Talking about how people are trained and promoted Baroness Wolf says, ‘the civil service, in my experience, continues to value ‘general skills’ over specific expertise to an excessive degree.  … Whitehall simply does not value knowledge nearly enough. It expects everyone who succeeds to be good at management, able to swap areas and departments effortlessly, and to be simultaneously pleasant and incisive. These demands mean that those with ‘spiky’ profiles — and those who really know the areas — are often buried far deeper than they should be.’

The point about people who know being buried, is often the case.  But in my experience rather that the people being buried, it is their expert knowledge that is buried as, in many bureaucratic hierarchical organisations, career progression means moving from an expert role to a managerial role.   People who want to ‘get on’ may well sacrifice their expertise.

Does this matter?  Baroness Wolf suggests it does.  I think so too.  I think organisations would do well to value expertise and reward and career progress it accordingly.  (But that doesn’t mean that they should sacrifice all generalists).

One of the questions related to expert versus generalist that’s come up this week, relates to organisation design and development (see my blog on the relationship between the two).  I was invited to a discussion on  whether the communities of  the European Organisation Design Forum, the Organisation Design Forum, the Organisation Design Community,  socio-tech communities, requisite organisation practitioners, Organisation Development Network Europe, Organisation Development Network,  etc. should/could be better connected with each other.  The purpose of this is, I think, in order to deepen knowledge, and grow expertise.  (Though I will find out more on this in a conversation happening next week).

Deepening knowledge and growing expertise is essential in both organisation design and in organisation development.  It is easy to adopt a methodology or some models and think you have expertise.  Peter C. Brown et al, authors of Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, note that, ‘The illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know.  Being accurate in your judgment of what you know and don’t know is critical for decision making’.   The issue with generalists is that they are often working with an illusion of mastery.

Jonathan Miller, in spite of his prodigious breadth of activity, and long list of achievements, wasn’t secure in his lack of deep expert knowledge, ‘Theatre people saw him as a dilettante. Music critics were quick to capitalise on his admission that he could not read a score. Miller himself, although he held many academic posts, felt a fraud when attending medical conferences, where his knowledge was outstripped by that of dedicated professionals’.

In Make it Stick (well worth reading) you can read example after example of methods of gaining deep knowledge and being able to apply it creatively, and innovatively from a sound base.  Going into organisations time after time we need deep knowledge in order to apply it wisely into the different situations we meet.  As Brown says, ‘Mastery in any field, from cooking to chess to brain surgery, is a gradual accretion of knowledge, conceptual understanding, judgment and skill.  These are the fruits of variety in the practice of new skills, and of striving, reflection and mental rehearsal.’

A second event that came up on the expert v generalist question was in a discussion with an expert organisation design colleague bewailing the fact that ‘anyone round here thinks they can design their bit of the organisation’.  And, indeed in many organisations I’ve worked in that has been the case.  I’ve noticed that lack of knowledge and expertise in organisation design leads to a lot of mistakes.

A few of the common ones are:  People change the org chart as a quick response to a perceived problem – when they haven’t investigated what the problem is, they don’t take a systems view so miss the linkages and interdependencies that are critical to design effectiveness, they design around named people and not sound design principles, they haven’t got an articulated purpose or strategy to translate effectively into design requirements.

The results of this generalist approach to design are expressed in a well-known quote  ‘we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.’

In general, I’m in favour of the idea of joining communities, I’m not in favour of losing the specialist skills of organisation design (or development), in a more generalist ODD approach.

So, there are a couple of questions I’m noodling now:

Will our continuous development of organisation design depth of knowledge and expertise be aided by greater connection with more practitioners in related fields or will that lead to a dilution of depth of knowledge and the illusion of mastery?

How do we encourage organisational leaders to take a critical look at their organisation’s career paths, whether they do value/reward either experts or generalists to the detriment of one or other group?

What’s your view on these questions?  Let me know.

Image: Jonathan Miller

The tenth test of organisation design

The Nine Tests of Organisation Design, developed in 2002 by Michael Goold and Andrew Campbell of Ashridge Strategic Management Centre (as it was known then) is well known in organisation design circles.

In their article introducing the tests they describe them as ‘Less an intellectual triumph than a practical checklist for addressing the most important issues, our framework is grounded on some basic principles. The first and most important, the fit principle, embraces four drivers of fit – product-market strategies, corporate strategies, people and constraints. The other good design principles are the specialisation principle, the co-ordination principle, the knowledge and competence principle, the control and commitment principle, and the innovation and adaptation principle.’

And in their HBR article on the tests they say, ‘This set of tests helps you establish the right amount of hierarchy, control, and process—enough for the design to work smoothly but not so much as to dampen initiative, flexibility, and networking.’

I find the tests useful in my work and always present them in my organisation design training programmes. Earlier this year, I was working with a group and who had some questions around them – related to new technologies/approaches e.g. AI, blockchain, agile, cyber security. They wanted to know if the 9 tests were going to be updated.  I asked Andrew for his views, and he responded,

‘These technologies are no more significant or organisationally influential than the steam engine, the plough, the telephone or the computer. Yes, they have an impact, but one can use the same logic for dealing with them as for any technology.

Agile is a bit different because it is a form of matrix organisation (multifunctional skills, each with their own home functions working as a single team with lots of self-management and lots of “ways of working”). So agile is one of the matrix options: others being the two-boss matrix, the project matrix, the front back closed structure, the front back open structure, etc. Like all matrix structures it is a way of balancing “specialist cultures”, “difficult links” and “accountability”, with agile being a little more “flexible” than most other matrix solutions and a little less likely to create “redundant hierarchy’.

He went on to say, ‘This is not to say that I consider the nine tests as a finished tool. I am always looking for additional tests and better ways of expressing the existing tests. In a McKinsey version of the nine tests, they had a Cost Test: Is the design affordable and cost competitive?’

In support of Andrew’s desire to improve the tests, the handout he uses for teaching today, involves quite a bit of language change from the original, designed to make the tests relevant at any level in the organisation from a low level team to a multi-business organisation.

However, this week I’ve been pondering an additional test – the equality test. It’s front of mind because equality came up many times during my week, starting with a discussion with a lawyer colleague on the UK’s Equality Act 2010 which ‘legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society’.

A key measure in the Act – the public sector Equality Duty – ensures that all public bodies play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all i.e. considering all individuals when carrying out their day-to-day work – in shaping policy, in delivering services and in relation to their own employees.

Specifically requiring:

  • eliminating discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;
  • advancing equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;
  • fostering good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.

Although the Equality Duty applies only to public sector bodies, the Act also states that ‘A person who is not a public authority but who exercises public functions must, in the exercise of those functions, have due regard to these matters.

The concepts inherent in the Equality Act seems to be gaining ground in other forums. A bit later in the week I was reminded of the meeting, in August 2019, of the US Business Roundtable when ‘Breaking with decades of long-held corporate orthodoxy, the Business Roundtable (comprising nearly 200 chief executives, including the leaders of Apple, Pepsi and Walmart) issued a statement on “the purpose of a corporation,” arguing that companies should no longer advance only the interests of shareholders. Instead, the group said, they must also invest in their employees, protect the environment and deal fairly and ethically with their suppliers.’

The New York Times commenting on this says, ‘The shift comes at a moment of increasing distress in corporate America, as big companies face mounting global discontent over income inequality, harmful products and poor working conditions.’

The NY Times reminder was followed by several other equality prods. I read in this week’s Economist’s the story that ‘Virtual reality continues to make people sick, And women more so than men’– the point being that ‘tech design bias needs fixing’.

I also read about Julian Richer, transferring 60% of his shares, in Richer Sounds, into a trust that passes the baton of ownership to the chain’s 531 employees.

And I discussed with colleagues facial recognition and cv scanning bias. We already know, as MIT researchers say, that ‘Bias can creep in at many stages of the deep-learning process, and the standard practices in computer science aren’t designed to detect it. … [AI] technologies affect people’s lives: how they can perpetuate injustice in hiring, retail, and security and may already be doing so in the criminal legal system.

Organisation designers are not immune from bias, and I wonder how much we think about our equality or equality duty (irrespective of sector) in our design work, and whether if we did, it would be a contributory factor to a well-designed organisation. When I was thinking on this, I remembered that years ago my daughter (a public sector worker) sent me a note about the three equals:

Equal treatment– e.g. a rich white man should not be given quicker access to treatment than a poor woman. This follows the principle of respect for persons.

Equal opportunity-the removal of disadvantage in competition with others e.g. a translator might be arranged for a Bengali speaker so that she can have the same opportunity as an English speaking service user to explain needs and receive information. This may require additional resources, positive action, or changes in government policy.

Equality of result– disadvantages are removed altogether- e.g. to provide care for old people in a residential home is expensive. to give the same outcome for a poor person who can’t afford to pay and a rich person who can, social services might pay for the poor person, or the state might provide free high-quality care for all to avoid stigmatization. This may require structural changes in society-challenging certain people’s rights to wealth, property and power.

I know that there are economists, philosophers, other discipline experts in the field of equality, fairness, social justice, and so on. I am not one of those. However, I wonder whether these three equals, or something like them, would form a good basis for devising an equality test for organisation design work.

Should organisation designers be interested in equality? Do we need an equality test? Let me know.

Image: A group of artist, Freddy Tsimba’s, statues made from spoons. He says he finds his inspiration in the suffering experienced by many communities in his country – DRC. Copyright: Pascal Maitre/Panos Pictures

Make change happen

I’m on week 5 (of 8) of the the FutureLearn course I’m doing, ‘Make Change Happen’.  It’s a fantastic learning programme, making the point that, ‘If we want to make lasting social and political change we must understand power dynamics, systems and influencing strategies that can shift the status quo.’  Although aimed more at social, community and development activists, most of it is equally applicable to organisational design work.

It points learners to a variety of tools and resources.  Some I already knew about and some are new to me.  Here are the ones, so far, that I’ve noted as helpful/usable for organisation designers.  (You can’t jump ahead in the course, so I don’t know what resources will be coming in the next three weeks).

Power mapping: The course leaders say that, ‘Power mapping is a tool which can help to identify who you need to influence, who you could reach out to for support, and who you could work alongside. These will be individuals or organisations with an interest or concern in your problem or issue. They may be institutional decision-makers, influential people and groups, or they may be the people who will benefit from the change’.   The course gives one template to map onto, and looking further afield I found a useful ‘how to’ guide ‘Power Mapping Your Way to Success’ with various ways, including the way given in the course, to do the mapping and a good question set to use in the process.

Campaign canvas: Inspired by the Business Model Canvas, the Campaign Canvas, from MobLab, covers 12 questions/elements, including:  How can we create the change?  What do people need to do?  What do we need to do?  It’s users say ‘By working through each element of this canvas you will ensure your bases are covered for a solid campaign.’

I quite often use the Business Model Canvas, printed out in A0 poster size, in workshops using post-it notes to fill in the thinking and discussion for each box.   I like this Campaign Canvas and I’m going to try it out in a planned change I’ve just got involved in.  (I also liked MobLab’s statement ‘We envision an equitable, peaceful and sustainable world achieved by changemakers who continually integrate the best available strategies, tactics and tools into their campaigns.’)

The change analysis tool: locates change processes in four quadrants (Boston Box style) that all influence each other.  The programme leaders say, ‘It’s a useful way to analyse an issue or problem, guiding you in what questions to ask to understand it better, to recognise if change is already happening, and steering you in how you can foster change in a number of different ways. It presents a model of how change can happen.

The top two boxes, or quadrants, deal with individual change. The top left is about change within the individual, like awareness of our rights or our own confidence.

The top right is the individual’s access to resources to make change happen. The bottom two quadrants represent changes that happen in society as a whole or within the system.

Bottom left is focused on changing people’s attitudes on issues or social norms that influence behaviour and practises more widely.

The bottom right is about changing laws and policies within formal institutions whether at local level or national and global.

All four of these quadrants are important for change to be significant and sustained. Different individuals and activist organisations will have different strength in influencing in each of the quadrants. Evidence shows that if action is taken within multiple quadrants, change will come about more quickly and be more lasting.’

The one in the programme is a simplified version of this, free/downloadable, one from Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships

Four expressions of power framework:  This was a new tool for me, and I enjoyed thinking it through and wondering when I could try it out.  It talks about 4 types of power:  Power within, power with, power to, power over.

There’s a detailed explanation of it from Powercube which says, ‘The most commonly recognized form of power, ‘power over’, has many negative associations for people, such as repression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. Three alternatives – ‘power with’, ‘power to’ and ‘power within’ – offer positive ways of expressing power that create the possibility of forming more equitable relationships. By affirming people’s capacity to act creatively, they provide some basic principles for constructing empowering strategies.’

‘Power with’ has to do with finding common ground among different interests and building collective strength. Based on mutual support, solidarity and collaboration, power with multiplies individual talents and knowledge.  ‘Power to’ refers to the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world. When based on mutual support, it opens up the possibilities of joint action, or ‘power with’. ‘Power within’ has to do with a person’s sense of self-worth and self-knowledge; it includes an ability to recognize individual differences while respecting others. ‘Power within’ is the capacity to imagine and have hope; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfilment.

As well as the specific tools the course mentions other resources.  A couple I’ve browsed and bookmarked for future use are:

From Mindfulnextlinks to resources in three categories strengthening individual resilience, strengthening organisational resilience and disruptive ideas. I found myself cruising the disruptive ideas links, stopping to read ‘why a ‘not to do list’ is what most of us need’.

A clear and short (5 minutes) systems thinking video – explaining systems basics, from Oxfam.  With it is a link to a free, downloadable 24-page guide to systems thinking designed for the change and development community.

The Beautiful Rising toolbox– this is an excellent and comprehensive toolkit.  It’s well worth taking time to browse it. It’s in in five sections: stories, tactics, principles (read, Beware the Tyranny of Structurelessness), theories (Artivism captured my attention) and methodologies (in this section there’s a slightly different take on the power mapping tool.   Each of the five sections contains resources, ideas, case studies, etc.

Do you think organisation design work is a form of social/political change? Would you use these tools?  Let me know.

Image: Course outline from Futurelearn, Make Change Happen

Organisation design slogans

‘In all activities, train with slogans’, was on the card I randomly picked from my pack of Pema Chodron’s Compassion Cards.  They’re based on lojong (“mind training”) teachings from The Great Path of Awakening by the nineteenth-century Tibetan teacher Jamgön Kongtrül the Great, and, in Chodron’s words ‘are organized around seven points that contain fifty-nine pithy slogans that remind us how to awaken our hearts.’   During November I’m picking one per day to reflect on at points during the day.

This particular card, rather than heading me towards ‘awakening my heart’, pointed me towards the slogans I use when I’m talking about organisation design!  (This is similar to the findings of an interesting research article, that organisational mindfulness as a ‘popular as a stress reduction technique’, misses the tenets of the original practice.)

I wondered if I had enough slogans to make an organisation design card deck, but found not.  I do, however, use slogans.  Five that I say repeatedly in organisation design courses I facilitate, and also deploy in my own work are:

  • Follow the work: this relates to identifying the work activities necessary, in the order that makes sense, to deliver the desired outcome.
  • Fix the structure last not first: this means once you know the work activities and some of the attributes of these volume, skill level required, frequency then you can start organising in a way that enables the work to get done.
  • Roles not people: this is about thinking about the work, skill level and so on BEFORE, you start to think about the individual who is going to do it.
  • All models are wrong some models are useful: this means stay sceptical about the latest hype, Boston box, 6-points to success, etc. Use models, prescriptions and ‘benchmark data’ judiciously.
  • Think ideal not future: this suggests not trying to paint a ‘future’ but to consider the ‘ideal’ (your ‘ideal’ home is much easier to describe than your ‘future’ home – which is an unknown).

The day of the slogan card, someone who’d been on one of my courses, emailed me saying:

‘I have a question about org design to get your guidance on if I can.  How, in practice, do you separate people from positions in organisation design?

I’m working on a reorg at the moment where we have worked through the activities to get a logical structure which aligns to the department’s purpose and deliverables and are now at the stage of thinking about people to fill the jobs.

Although the principle of ‘think about the job, not the people’ is great in theory, my experience currently and from the past tells me management (and indeed HR) struggle with the implications of this, to the extent where the people considerations often inform the structure.

My current experience is working with a VP where our theory of the org design says one thing but, in the VP’s words, ‘being pragmatic, we can’t have that person reporting into them or leave this person without a job because of the repercussions’. How do you deal with this situation where the design comes up against the practicalities of what it means for people, and is it actually pragmatic or useful anyway for a client to try and separate the two?’

It’s a useful question, and one that I frequently get asked. It instantly challenges my slogans ‘follow the work’, ‘fix the structure last not first’ and ‘roles not people’.

But, it’s natural and right that leaders want to think about the people they’ve got and how they will accommodate them into any new design.   And also, that people want to think about ‘where’s my job?’

The point is not to be completely purist and ignore these responses, but to get a long way into the design – usually I suggest emerging with three options of high-level designs with their proposed structures (org chart), before you start to think about the individuals.  Q5 Partners has an excellent 3-minute video, Forget Personality, explaining the rationale for this.

Additionally, if you allow consideration of individuals who want/need roles to drive the organisation chart you’re taking a high-risk approach:

  • You may be compromising your customer/user experience by not taking a service design approach that ‘helps us to understand, improve or rethink end to end services, starting with the user’.
  • You may miss opportunities for efficiency and/or effectiveness gains if you focus on what you want to give an individual or individuals.
  • You may be accused of favoritism, unfairness or lack of transparency in why your new organisation chart is the way it is.

Organisation design involves decisions and choices that inevitably involve politics.  If we take the view that designing around an organisation’s people rather than designing around its work or its customers, is not ‘pragmatic’, as the person who emailed me said, but ‘political’ then we have a possibility of exploring the politics of the decisions and choices being put forward.

A fellow org designer believes ‘you can’t ever eliminate the people/politics part of organisation design’, and I agree with him.  Similarly, Dianne Lewis, in her old but useful 2002 article ‘The place of organizational politics in strategic change’ notes, ‘Political motives will also sometimes drive change and political tactics will always be used in some measure in the implementation of change. We therefore need to see these tactics in both positive and negative ways and not try to eliminate them altogether.’

This is good advice as all design is political.  We can’t eliminate the politics in organisation design work.  They are usually front and centre of the inevitable trade-offs, resistance to, or acceptance of,  your design options even if this is not explicitly acknowledged.  They impact the choices and decisions you make around the chosen design and the way you implement it.

Recognising that politics are inherent in organisation design choices and decisions, acknowledging this and discussing the impact and implications can be hard to do but it is better to talk about it than not to.  (Not talking about it risks derailment further down the line).

A fellow organisation designer, talking on this said, ‘it is all about trade-offs, do you put more priority on workflows and a structure that better supports strategy or one which is more inclined to be accepted by people, and has less people repercussions?  Certain scenarios will have one trump the other, and the dialogue on the politics is what it’s all about.’

Additionally, politics play significant part in the method of actually doing the organisation designing – choices around top down design, bottom up design, participative design, etc are situational and can be potentially be made with the conscious aim of shifting the political dynamics or reinforcing them.

I need another slogan – Recognise the politics:  this means accepting that we are working in a political landscape and we must keep an open questioning, reflective inquiry on it.  I don’t think we do enough of that.

What’s your view on the politics in organisation design?   Do you have a slogan on it?  What organisation design slogans to you work with?  Let me know.


Exhaustion and wholeheartedness

The Pride of Brexit’ – a sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor is a response to  Brexit.  In his words, ‘The three wretched lions frame Brexit as an act of gross national flagellation. Situated on the shores of the English Channel, surrounded by the iconic white cliffs, they are washed up, exhausted, emaciated and dying. In London they stand as monuments to our delusions, disfigured by the toxic language of Brexit and its main protagonists.’   Regardless of your views on Brexit the exhaustion they portray is soul-piercingly tragic.

Organisations are not immune to similar societal delusions and toxicity.  The film The Corporation depicts some as psychopathic.  The film’s Economist reviewer notes that, ‘Like all psychopaths, the firm is singularly self-interested: its purpose is to create wealth for its shareholders. And, like all psychopaths, the firm is irresponsible, because it puts others at risk to satisfy its profit-maximising goal, harming employees and customers, and damaging the environment. The corporation manipulates everything. It is grandiose, always insisting that it is the best, or number one. It has no empathy.’

One of the common harms done to employees in a toxic, psychopathic organisation is burn-out.  We hear a lot about this and are warned to look for symptoms of it.  Burnout,  included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11),  as an occupational phenomenon is defined as:

“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

(In many UK organisations feelings of exhaustion and burnout are probably exacerbated by the Brexit context, as one article suggests ‘Beyond the workplace, we live in an age when society itself seems to be burning out, with austerity, rising poverty and the uncertainty caused by Brexit pushing people to and beyond their limits).

The Economist reviewer of The Corporation claims that, ‘Human values and morality survive the onslaught of corporate pathology only via a carefully cultivated schizophrenia: the tobacco boss goes home, hugs his kids and feels a little less bad about spreading cancer.’

People who are in that position are clearly unable to ‘bring their whole selves to work’, a mantra that we are increasingly hearing – and one that I think has troubling aspects.  It may work in some organisational circumstances, but not in others.  A Financial Times writer expressed in a blog, on the topic, the view that, ‘It is fatuous to encourage people to behave in the office just as they do at home.’

If we are suffering from exhaustion and burn-out, and feel unable or unwilling to bring our whole self to work i.e. we do not feel in a position to express what we feel, then what?

As serendipity has it, almost the next email I opened had a quote from David Steindl-Rast,  ‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’  This intrigued me and I looked it up.

It comes from poet David Whyte. He says:

‘There was a time, many years ago, working at a non-profit organization, trying to fix the world and finding the world didn’t want to be fixed as quickly as I’d like, that I found myself exhausted, stressed and finally, after one particularly hard day, at the end of my tether, I went home and saw a bottle of fine red wine I had left out on the table that morning before I left. No, I did not drink it immediately, though I was tempted, but it reminded me that I was to have a very special guest that evening. That guest was an Austrian friend, a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, the nearest thing I had to a really wise person in my life at that time or at any time since. We would read German poetry together—he would translate the original text, I read the translations, all the while drinking the red wine. But I had my day on my mind, and the mind-numbing tiredness I was experiencing at work. I said suddenly, out of nowhere, almost beseechingly, “Brother David, speak to me of exhaustion. Tell me about exhaustion.” And then he said a life-changing thing. “You know,” he said, “the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest.” “What is it then?” “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’

This story led me to look at ‘wholeheartedness’.  (defined as the state of being whole hearted, i.e. fully or completely sincere, enthusiastic, energetic).   Maria Popova, talking about Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston talk says Brown  ‘deconstructs vulnerability to reveal what she calls “wholeheartedness”: The capacity to engage in our lives with authenticity, cultivate courage and compassion, and embrace — not in that self-helpy, motivational-seminar way, but really, deeply, profoundly embrace — the imperfections of who we really are.’

Apparently Brene Brown’s ‘current research focuses on authentic leadership and wholeheartedness in families, schools, and organizations’.  (I hope this research does not go the way of ‘resilience’, ‘happiness’, and ‘mindfulness’ to be monetized by consultants).

As I was thinking about wholeheartedness, someone sent me a link to a National Geographic piece ‘If Birds Left Tracks in the Sky, They’d Look Like This’, telling the story, and showing the photos,  of ‘Barcelona-based photographer Xavi Bou’ who hasspent the past five years trying to capture the elusive contours drawn by birds in motion, or, as he says, “to make visible the invisible.” …  He calls the project “Ornitografías,” This current work, he says, combines his passion and his profession. “It’s technical, challenging, artistic, and natural. It’s the connection between photography and nature that I was looking for.’

Years ago I read a book Shop Class as Soulcraft . The author, Matthew B Crawford, has a PhD in political philosophy and, at the time of writing the book, owned and operated an independent motorcycle repair shop.  His descriptions of this work with all its frustrations, problems and joys are a delight to read’ .  (Read the piece that the book grew out of here)

The stories of Bou and Crawford both illustrate for me wholeheartedness in action.

Now I’m mulling over if and how you can move from exhaustion to wholeheartedness either individually or collectively.

For individuals feeling exhausted and burned out, are the feelings situational and there are other places in their lives where they can be wholehearted?  If yes, does the wholeheartedness they feel in one dimension help manage the exhaustion in another, or is exhaustion all consuming?

If their exhaustion is a symptom of burnout brought about by organisational conditions then is there something designers can do to change the organisational conditions?  Can organisations change from creating burnout to developing wholeheartedness and,  if so, what would it take?  I don’t know, but some possibilities might be:

What’s your view/experience of exhaustion and wholeheartedness?  Do/would design strategies help exhaustion move to wholeheartedness?  Let me know.

Innovation and path dependence

One of the sessions I went to at the European Organisation Design Forum conference, on Saturday, was led by Elise Kissling. She ’s described in the conference info as ‘passionate about creating learning teams and organisations that deliver radical innovation’.  At the point she wrote this she was at chemical company BASF.  Five weeks ago, she left to start up SkyNative to execute an innovative method of bringing daylight into rooms that don’t have windows.

The session was was still about BASF but less about the program and learning platform program she designed and launched ‘for market driven innovation’ and more about the difficulties of getting innovations adopted and into the mainstream of the organisation.  She spoke bluntly and bravely on this.  She began with the definition that she likes of innovation which comes from the Cambridge Dictionary  Innovation:  a new idea or method, or the use of new ideas and methods.   It was getting the innovations into use that caused her, finally, to move on and have a go herself with SkyNative

BASF barriers to innovation implementation that she mentioned were:  inability to find the leader(s) who would decide to implement or take on the innovation, sudden strategy changes,  turf wars (‘don’t touch my EBIT’), ‘this idea is too far from the business’, ‘these are just little ideas that don’t fit together’, ‘implementation is too complex’.

Kissling noted that these types of barriers contributed to a high failure rate in their innovation work.   Her statement is echoed in an HBR article, the authors say ‘To catalyze innovation, companies have invested billions in internal venture capital, incubators, accelerators, and field trips to Silicon Valley. Yet according to a McKinsey survey, 94% of executives are dissatisfied with their firms’ innovation performance.’   (Unfortunately, there is no link to the quoted McKinsey survey, and I can’t find the survey that has it.  Does anyone have the link?)

Listening to the talk,  the concept of path dependence crossed my mind.  It’s a concept that I don’t think we give enough thought to in organisation design work, and especially when we use words like ‘transformation’, or ‘agile’.

In An Essay on The Existence and Causes of Path Dependence (2005), the author, Scott E Page, discusses it.  He tells us that, ‘Path dependence in its loosest sense means that current and future states, actions, or decisions depend upon the path of previous states, actions, or decisions’.   He then explains (in mathematical detail) ‘within a dynamical systems framework’,  what this means ‘using two broad classes of models.

He says, ‘I base the first on dynamical systems and the second on choice theory. These models help to reveal the causes of path dependence. The proximate cause of history mattering differs in the two classes of models. In the first, history has force. The past exerts sway over the present. A decision to prohibit women from voting effects how women see themselves in relation to men. When, given the vote, women cannot escape all effects of their past denial of rights. In the second, the cause is more direct. A decision to provide social security for the aged lowers the economic and political costs to extending those benefits to orphans and the infirm. When written in the dark lead of mathematics, the line between forces and externalities appears crisp, but that is not so. Cognitive attachments are externalities in our heads, …  and externalities between choices change the incentives for making subsequent choices. Changes in incentives can be equivalent to changes in force.’

I interpret this, from an organisation design perspective, to mean that older organisations are only able to transform, or innovate as far as their history allows.  McKinsey make a telling point, that seems to support this notion, ‘It’s no secret: innovation is difficult for well-established companies. By and large, they are better executors than innovators, and most succeed less through game-changing creativity than by optimizing their existing businesses’.

In a later paper  (2016) that considers path dependency and game theory Scott E Page argues ‘that institutional performance is path dependent, and that patterns of behavior—culture—drive this path dependence.’ It’s a dense, mathematical paper, drawing on game theory.  One of the classes of games he discusses is ‘Coordination Games: In coordination games individuals choose one of two actions: to follow tradition or to innovate’.  In these games, highest payoffs are achieved when players manage to play the same action as their opponent. These games can capture technological choice as well as coordination on social norms or language, or situations in which societies fail to adopt an innovation for cultural reasons, such as the United States continued use of the English system of weights and measures.’

As Kissling was speaking, I looked up BASF to find out when it was established – April 1865.  So, a lot of history!  (You can see annual reports from then to now here), assuming the theory around path dependency is applicable to organisations – and it looks that way to me – it may be at least a partial explanation of why innovation appears to be difficult in BASF as well as in other well-established organisations.  They are governed/constrained, among other things, by their past choices and decisions.

If this is the case, are large organisations never going to truly transform or innovate?   It depends.  Authors, Sydow, Schreyogg, and Koch, of another paper Organizational Path Dependence: Opening The Black Box, explains organisational path dependence as a process that (1) is triggered by a critical event leading to a critical juncture; (2) is governed by a regime of positive, self-reinforcing feedback constituting a specific pattern of social practices, which gains more and more predominance against alternatives; and (3) leads, at least potentially, into an organizational lock-in, understood as a corridor of limited scope of action that is strategically inefficient.

Kissling’s method of breaking out of BASF’s organisational lock-in has been to leave, and attempt innovation in a new (start-up) organisation.  But is there a way that BASF’s path could be changed? The framework of path dependence, offered by Sydow, Schreyogg, and Koch, ’offers insights into the possibilities and limitations of breaking out of organizational path dependence. In particular, path breaking requires a thorough understanding of the social mechanisms driving the path process. Understanding these mechanisms, in turn, provides a platform for developing path-breaking interventions.’

Haier, established 1984, is a good example of an organisation that has used path-breaking interventions to stay innovative.  The company is one of two – the other is Cemex – analysed in the book Energy and Innovation: Structural Change, which notes that ‘the concept of path dependency is critical when analyzing the rise of innovative organizations in emerging economies, as most of them are locked-in at stages that lack innovation capabilities’.  Haier and Cemex are ‘two companies in emerging economies that broke out from this path dependency to create strong innovation capabilities, catching up with global leaders in their industries’.

From what I heard about BASF – it is showing little sign of breaking out of path dependency.  I wish Kissling well in her new venture, and recommend – if she hasn’t already – that she investigate path dependency to avoid lock-in as she designs her new organisation.

Do you think learning about path dependency would be useful for organisation designers?  Let me know.