Construction: Expansion/Contraction

As some things contract, others expand and vice versa. Like the ‘exploration’ I came across (photo above), we are all part of a landscape intervention that is expanding and contracting to accommodate a variety of site conditions.

The last two weeks in the UK, where I am, have been stunning in the expansion of some aspects and the contraction of others.  We are all exploring ‘site conditions’, and adapting to them organisationally, individually and collectively/societally.   I agree with a colleague who emailed saying, ‘I feel a shift in the collective consciousness which can hopefully be for the good of society and nations as a whole’.

Another colleague sent me the link to an excellent blog from Otto Scharmer, Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action.  One of his eight lessons is that ‘If the coronavirus crisis has brought home anything, it’s that we — each of us, separately and together — can change the system. … our mindful behavior is needed to avoid a breakdown of the system.’  We need to change the system, not break the system.

The system is inevitably changing – and it’s our responses to those changes that I’ve been noticing and experiencing in the last couple of weeks.

At all three levels (organisationally, individually and collectively/societally) I’ve noticed and experienced expansion of:

Neighbourliness:  There are signs going up on trees around my block, in the lift in my flat and Nextdoor has a new feature: ‘Find neighbours who can help or offer your support to those in need on the Help Map’.  If you don’t know nextdoor, it’s worth a look.  It’s an on-line ‘neighbourhood hub for trusted connections and the exchange of helpful information, goods, and services.’ You join for your postcode/zip code area. In the ‘About’ section it says, ‘We believe that by bringing neighbours together, we can cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighbourhood they can rely on’. Traffic in my neighbourhood has sky-rocketed.

Community spirit: Akin to neighbourliness, I’ve noticed a sharp rise in community spirit – a kind of ‘we’re all in this together’.  There’s a lovely piece on this in ‘The Atlantic’ that reads ‘We are witnessing people everywhere, acting mostly independently but all together, shutting our country down—a move that ensures millions will face a massive, incalculable economic hit—to give the weakest among us a better chance against the novel coronavirus. We are each sacrificing our daily routines—our gyms and coffee shops and offices—to keep health-care professionals from becoming overwhelmed… It is a collective act of almost unprecedented community spirit, a fundamental statement of how we stand together as a species.’

Creative thinking:  There are some wonderful ideas.  I love the #campathome from Northumberland Scouts, and the bingo from balconies.  More seriously, the BBC has some good links for ‘The School of Mum and Dad

Certain job roles:  Some sectors are expanding their workforces in response to the new landscape.  The NHS is calling on retired medical staff to step forward to cover and Tesco (a supermarket) is recruiting 20k people:  ‘The supermarket is just one of several taking on around 50,000 staff between them over the next 12 weeks to cope with the surge in demand as people prepare to self isolate’.

I’ve noticed and experienced contraction of:

Food, grocery and household items: as peoplepanic buy.

Community face to face gatherings:  school, music, talks, sports, churches, pubs, restaurants, many many retail shops are closed for the moment.

Security of ‘normal’ routines: these are breaking down as people’s lives are disrupted, but there’s quite a bit of info on the importance of structure and routines for maintaining mental health, for example, Get Dressed and Set Goals and The Power of Routines in Your Mental Health

Certain job roles: some sectors are being particularly badly hit.  The film and entertainment sectors are two.  An article in Forbes lists a whole lot of others.

I’ve noticed and experienced exploration of:

Social distancing:  I’ve now been involved a book club (over Zoom), group Skype/Teams calls – social and work, and we’re a few of us are about to try a cinema trip – thanks to Netflix+google hangouts, and I’m also doing a virtual 5k run.  There’s an excellent discussionof social distancing with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki who says, ‘Social distancing has been vital to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But it’s important that people remain connected – otherwise a long-term mental and physical health crisis might follow the viral one’.  He thinks ‘we should begin by reframing what we’re doing right now. “Social distancing” was the wrong term to begin with. We should think of this time as “physical distancing” to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while being apart. In fact, I encourage all of us to practice “distant socializing.” Ironically, the same technologies we often blame for tearing apart our social fabric might be our best chance, now, of keeping it together.’

Learning that looking after your mental health is important/urgent:  the UK’s Mental Health Foundation has two tip sheets for managing your mental health in current times  Looking after your mental health while working during  and Talking to your children about the coronavirus pandemic and there’s a very good info piece with lots of links from The Independent.

Really getting to grips with remote working (office, school work… ):  There’s a lovely story on how BBC radio and TV hosts are keeping their shows on air from home and my own colleagues are working out things like how four people working from home can each have their own workspace, how to work with toddlers/children around and how to effectively use all the available technologies.

Trying to work out what’s going on (sensemaking): An article from Design Week is interesting on this topic.  One of several people quoted is Jo Barnard, founder of product design company Morrama ‘design studios frequently work collaboratively.  I’ve always been of the belief that sketch sessions, project reviews and design crits are best carried out in person. … There is also a potential problem of loneliness and impact on wellbeing, as creatives are forced to work remotely. Despite its challenges — and it is perhaps too early to identify all of them — this could be a chance to rethink how designers work.’

What I think could be a silver lining in all this (see the blog from the Oxford Ethics Group on coronavirus silver linings) is that it could be a chance to re-construct, rethink and change our social and other systems for the better.

Leandro Herrero asks the question: ‘What if we did that? What if we treated the coronavirus pandemic as a chance in a lifetime to surprise ourselves, surprise our colleagues, surprise our clients, surprise the market with our new ‘us’. Not survived, and tired, and happy to still be running, but unpredicted and unexpectedly better, fantastic, enhanced by a serious multiple.’ In his view ‘It’s doable.’

What’s your view?  What are you seeing being constructed, expanded, contracted explored?  Let me know.

Image: Construction: Expansion/contraction

The current future of work

Checking my library record I find I read Severance, by Ling Ma in December 2018.  It’s a dystopian novel in which ‘Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine: her work, watching movies with her boyfriend, avoiding thoughts of her recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents. So, she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps the world.’  The book’s New Yorker reviewer tells us that the plague ‘that has befallen the globe is called Shen Fever—it is believed to have originated in Shenzhen, China, the world capital of electronics manufacturing—and it is contracted through the inhalation of  ‘microscopic fungal spores.’

I remembered it, as I was thinking about the impact of coronavirus on work and working patterns.   It struck me that now we are thinking that the future of work is as much about epidemics and crisis as it is about technology, but it’s the impact of technology that has been the focus up till now.   And not just the speculative future but the current future.  In William Gibson’s words, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’.  And this week, the phrase rings particularly true.

During the week I got almost 50 emails from various organisations on their responses to coronavirus.  Holland & Barrett, for example, in rather stilted corporate-speak, says, ‘Amid the developing coronavirus situation, I wanted to take the time to reassure you of the actions we are taking as a responsible health and wellness retailer at this time.’ The specific changes mentioned are: ‘Cleaning in our stores has been intensified, with our teams requested to regularly sanitise their hands, and to maintain distance when working with customers, including encouraging customers to use contactless payments where possible. Sampling activities have also been temporarily suspended as an additional precautionary measure. …’

Marriott Hotels starts by reminding us of their core value, ‘For more than 90 years, Marriott has lived by a core value established by our founder, JW Marriott, Sr., to “take care of our guests and associates.” This enduring value guides us as we face the difficult challenge of responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19), which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on Wednesday.’

They then offer empathy, ‘Our hearts and thoughts go out to the people who have been affected by this unprecedented event and we appreciate the healthcare workers, local communities, and governments around the world who are on the front line working to contain this coronavirus.’

Before moving on to the business specific responses: ‘we have been adapting our cancellation policy over the past several weeks to the evolving nature of this epidemic. Today, we are updating our policy to provide our customers the most flexibility we can offer during these challenging times.  … we have made some important updates to our loyalty program to provide greater flexibility when planning future travel.’  They close warmly – ‘Whenever you travel, we are waiting with open doors and open hearts to serve you’.

Bank of America is brisk ‘We are prepared and ready to help. As the situation with coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to develop, our entire team is ready and standing by to support you. You rely on us every day for your financial needs, and we’re going to continue to provide reliable access to the important services you count on.’

Various running events, I’ve registered for,  have been cancelled or curtailed.  Gothenburg half marathon organisers let us know mid-week that the event is cancelled.  ‘Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon has been canceled for May 16, 2020 …  This is a very complex situation with many people involved. We hope you understand that we now need more time before we can give you new information about this situation.  As you understand we get a lots of questions about what will happen. Right now the information above is what we can give you. As soon as we have more information, we will share this with you.’

I won’t go on with giving more examples but reading through them, many questions come to mind:

Comms – what tone is ‘right’ for communicating with customers/stakeholders.  Who should the comms come from (some I have are signed CEO others remain anonymous)?  What should it say/not say?

Business design changes – what is going on behind the organisation’s scenes to rapidly respond to the emerging situation in terms of things like policy changes, legal clearances, maintenance of fiscal prudence, risk mitigation tracking, business process changes – specially to supply chains, promotional literature, training for staff, performance target changes …?  How easy and quick is it to make these types of changes?

Prioritisation – how are staff being reassigned at very short notice?  How is work being repacked to enable remote/virtual working?  What new skills have to be rapidly developed?  What skills are there which could be used but aren’t yet?  (Are people doing forward planning on a scenario basis for business continuity?).  Who is developing prioritisation criteria?  What is being dropped for the time being?  How is business continuity being compromised/maintained as people get redeployed onto other work or ways of working?

Leadership – how are business design changes being tracked and co-ordinated?  How is decision making being changed to respond to local conditions in an emerging context?   How are leaders managing the competing interests of various parties?

Well-being – how are the workforces concerns being addressed?  What are the plans for helping them through the coming months in the event of school closures, lockdowns, job insecurity, etc.?

There is an increasing deluge of information on handling these types of questions.

Some to consider are:  Harvard Business Review’s  series of 17 articles on various aspects of coronavirus including Lead Your Business Through the Coronavirus Crisis and  8 questions employers should ask about coronavirus.

McKinsey has got a very good briefing on the topic, COVID-19: Implications for business

Corporate Rebels has stories of seven companies who have thrived through a crisis

And if you’re looking for hope in the time of coronavirus read the heart-warming stories in Positive News.  It includes the story of ‘Quarantined Italians [who] have been singing and playing music from their balconies to express solidarity and suppress boredom during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown’,

An important point to bear in mind now is that made by Thomas Jefferson ‘He who knows best knows how little he knows’, We know that the current future of work is changing, is uncertain, and is unpredictable.  We know that we don’t know all we would like to about coronavirus.

Let’s acknowledge how little we really do know beyond this, and hope that we know that  dogmatic certainty, knee-jerk reactions and panic are likely to be a riskier strategies than ones of continuous, reflective, critical, collaborative learning about the situation and thoughtful but rapid trying-out new adaptations to your business design as the context emerges.

What are the specific business design changes you’re making in order to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic?  Let me know.

Image: From wraltechwire

Thinking about the design of mandatory learning

Most of us are lukewarm, at best, at the thought of the mandatory learning courses required in organisational life.  For some reason they rarely hit the priority list.  I’ve just received a reminder to do one (of nine) where I’m ‘non-compliant’ and I’m not feeling motivated to leap into action on it.

People involved in organisational learning and development in the UK, like The Royal College of Nursing, in their very good guide on the topic, say that,  ‘Mandatory training is learning deemed essential for safe and efficient service delivery and personal safety. It reduces organisational risks and complies with local policies and/or government guidelines.   It varies depending on the needs of the workforce; the type of service and risks encountered; insurers’ standards; and the governance and legal frameworks in place, including country specific requirements.’  Generally, this means there are some learning courses that people have to do, like it or not.

The list of mandatory learning topics, vary depending on industry sector and organisation, but typically they include:  Diversity & Inclusion, Responsible for Information, Health and Safety, General Data Protection Regulations Essentials, Cyber Security, Counter Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Health and Safety Awareness, Display Screen Equipment.  (As an example, see those usually found in healthcare and social care environments here).

Although I’m not racing to do the mandatory course I have been emailed about, this week I have, in fact, done what feels very like mandatory learning:   I’ve learned the Latin names of ten conifers, and I’ve learned to keep my hearing aids in their box when I am not wearing them and, like many of us, I also received strong public messages offered through various channels on washing my hands often and thoroughly, and that now seems mandatory. (More on these further down).

What’s the difference between the mandatory learning I’m not motivated to do and the mandatory learning I am motivated to do?  Why is the public messaging on hand washing seeming to have an effect – if the run on soap and hand sanitizer is a good measure?

I am asking the question because I’ve been observing an on-line discussion on it, initiated by someone asking how to increase their organisation’s completion rates.  They are wondering whether/how to ‘enforce’ compliance and completion.

Before we go back to the three things I’ve experienced as mandatory learning this week, there are four assumptions I’m making.

  • we are required to do mandatory learning because it is felt – by learning & development professionals – to be either useful or necessary (or both) to our job performance
  • having done the learning course, we and/or others will be able to notice a positive performance outcome
  • we are not being required to do it mainly in order to fulfil the organisation’s mandatory learning target.
  • the known benefits of mandatory learning (to the learner and the organisation) are a good return on investment for the effort put into a) designing and delivering the courses b) monitoring and reporting on uptake and compliance c) encouraging increased uptake and compliance (For an example of toolkit for monitoring and evaluating learning and development see this one from Essex Safeguarding Adults Board).

With these assumptions in mind, let’s go back to my three examples.  I’m willingly learning the Latin names of 10 conifers because I’ve just started an RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture course.  It’s a continuous assessment and, each week, we are required to identify 10 plants.  We have to get 100% right on this ‘ident’ as we call it. Any mis-identified get added to your next week’s go.  You fail the course if you don’t get through the ‘ident’.  Thus, learning the ‘ident’ is compulsory if I want to pass the course – and I do.

My failure to keep my hearing aids in their box when I was not wearing them, resulted in my losing one, and now having to pay a very hefty amount to replace it.  (It’s somewhere between my house and where I am currently working).  I feel obliged to spare future dents to my bank balance by integrating this painful learning into my daily practice.

I’m taking the advice of the public health messaging because I can understand the reasons for it, and see it as a sensible and easily do-able measure that contributes to helping stop the spread of a virus.

Using my experience, albeit an example of just one, there are five aspects to consider that I think are applicable to the design and delivery of mandatory learning:

  • Motivation (What engages the learner  enough to make them want to learn the topic?)
  • Meaningful outcome (Does the decision to learn whatever it is have an outcome that the learner considers meaningful?)
  • Timing (Is this the right moment for the learner to do the learning?)
  • Penalty (What happens to the learner if they don’t learn? This assumes that taking a  course equals learning the intended thing and we know what they have learned)
  • Existing knowledge (Does the learner actually need to take the course? Is it providing new learning?)

My experience over several decades of working life suggest to me that mandatory learning doesn’t take full account of these user factors.

Thinking about this I wondered whether we could try user-centric design as method to help us find some answers to the question of increasing take-up.  Sergey Gladkiy says, User-centered design (UCD) is an optimistic approach to invent new solutions. It starts with human beings and ends with the answers that are tailored to their individual needs. When you understand the people you are trying to reach, and then design from their perspective, you come up with unusual answers. UCD is both how you are thinking and what you are doing. It is all about building a deep empathy with the individuals you’re designing for. Generating heaps of ideas and building a bunch of prototypes. Sharing what you’ve got created with the people you’re designing for. Failing and trying again. And finally putting your innovative solution out in the world.’

Beyond UCD there are other design approaches we could bring to bear on the question.  So now we are thinking of running a hackathon-type event, inviting people with expertise in different design methodologies/disciplines to work for a day with the learning/development professionals plus others, including those who the mandatory learning is aimed at i.e. the users, and seeing what happens. Who knows we may come up with innovative, implementable proposals.

How would you tackle the question ‘How do you increase uptake of mandatory learning’?  Let me know.

Image:  Strong hearts are mandatory

What’s going on?

Mannie Sher, Principal Consultant, Tavistock Institute in a video (28 mins), describes the start of a consulting assignment.  He says, ‘It begins when I get a call from a chief executive or a director to say can you come and talk to us because we are having some challenges in our organization around change … and when I receive this invitation to come and talk to an organization my question is, why are they asking for an intervention what is the problem?  So, I need to understand the client system – I need to understand the organization, I need to understand its objectives, I need to understand what its products are I need to understand what sector it operates in, I need to understand its legal base … also I need to try and understand what are the concepts what are the ideas that move this organization. I come as an outsider into the organization with very little knowledge but I have some ideas of what I want to find out’.

Aiming to understand what Sher calls ‘the client system’ is the first activity phase of most organisation design, development, agile and other methodologies.  There are different words and phrases for this, like ‘discovery’, or ‘assessment’, or ‘diagnosis’, or ‘empathize/define’, often they imply a systematic process, usually involving different types of data gathering.

To my mind, this data gathering is in 3 phases:  before meeting the client, in the initial meeting(s) with the client, once the contract is agreed.

Before I go and meet the client, I normally do ‘desk research’ i.e. gather a certain amount of data via publicly available information.   Years ago I found a useful checklist that I adapted and I use it to get a good basic profile of the organisation.  (It’s from Competitive Intelligence, Chris West).  I find it helpful to also look for other information that goes beyond the facts and figures – talking with people who know the organisation or have worked in it, either in real conversation or using sites like Glassdoor, and reading articles, about the organisation/its field of operation that have appeared in newspapers/business journals.

When I meet the client, I use questions similar to those suggested by Peter Block, when asked, ‘What are the four or five most important questions a consultant should ask before deciding to accept a client engagement?’

His response was, ‘There’s one, and then there are five others. The first is, “What is your contribution to having created the very thing you want to see changed?” If people think it’s others who need to change—direct reports, peers, board members, etc.—it’s going to be bumpy going until they come to realize that they’re creating the world they’re inhabiting.

Then there’s a whole set of questions regarding how you confront people to acknowledge their own role in the problems they wish to have solved. There are questions to help them honestly examine their own behaviors. A good question is, “What doubts do you have about the way things are going?” Or “What’s the resentment you have that nobody knows about?” is another good question. “What gifts are you trying to bring to this situation? What deficiencies do you notice that should be filled?”   In helping the client explore and discover – you are gaining an understanding of the territory you are being asked to operate in.’

Once you agree to take on the work there’s generally a systematic period of data gathering.

There’s a useful table providing an overview of the major methods used for collecting data during evaluations here.  The same website has an excellent summary of how to do an organisational evaluation and diagnosis and you can hear how one consultant conducted this type of assessment in this short video.

But this fairly systematic approach to find out what’s going on may not be the most appropriate way to do things.  Increasingly, I go along with Edgar Schein’s notion that:

‘having a diagnostic period followed by intervention is absolutely not the way this process works at all. It works with the recognition that the very first response I make to a client on the phone or over lunch or whatever is already an intervention which produces some information for me which is diagnostic which leads me to another intervention in what I say and it’s that sequence of back and forth intervening and getting more information … hinging on genuine curiosity that enables us to get to a relationship,  where together we will not figure out what is the solution to a problem but rather what is a next adaptive move that the client can make to begin to deal with what’s worrying him or her so the adaptive move as a notion of what to do really replaces the whole concept of intervention because we’re intervening all the time but as we get more personal we can develop together something that will be an adaptive move that will in turn change the situation that will require the next adaptive move so that it is much more of an improvisation and iterative process’.

Taking this improvisation approach to finding out what’s going on, in order to understand and help,  means making a number of choices, Sher describes some of them:

 ‘I’ve got to make a choice who do I speak to and who will let me speak to them:  the chief executive, directors, operational managers, the board, the customers, the competitors,  then  I have to make a decision,  if it’s a large organization, on how many people [to talk with].  Improvising like this  requires, in Peter Block’s words ‘Courage … Especially courage mixed with kindness’. And in Sher’s view, it requires the ability to make ‘very quick and very accurate judgements … [on the] assumptions and unspoken motivations that influence the behavior of the organization’.

It also means recognising your own motivations, assumptions, and biases in approaching the work.  Consultants bring all of this to the consulting project. I also think they have to bring a degree of scepticism, Steven Novella suggests that ‘there isn’t any definitive or ultimate knowledge … but we can grind out knowledge about the world that is sufficiently reliable for us to treat it as provisionally true and act upon it. … we can slowly and carefully build a process … of making our best effort to know what’s really real.’

In trying to understand an organisation and help it work better I think we need to recognise that it is not an easy task and we cannot say we know how to do it.  I leave you with Douglas Adams’s words (I’ve replaced one of them can you spot it?).

‘There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the organisation is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.’

How do you find out what’s going on in an organisation?  Let me know.

Image:  what’s going on … here?

Leaders and decision-making

Recently I got this email:  ‘I think our leaders make poor decisions because although accountability demands it, our world is too complex for those at the top to really grasp all of the information they need. Are you aware of any organisations employing range of different methods of collective decisions?’

I answered the following day, with :

‘Good to hear from you.  Do you know Cynefin Framework, take a look at David Snowden’s work (his article, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, attached)?  Without going into any detail, there’s a lot of work going on about complexity, leadership and decision making.  Also attached is an interesting article, Taking Organisational Complexity Seriously, by Chris Rodgers.

Briefly, many organisations are stuck in a model (in my view) where hierarchical leaders a) think they should know the ‘right answer’ b) that there is a ‘right answer’.  Complexity doesn’t work like that.  In order to make soundish decisions you have to have a very diverse range of perspectives/expertise/hierarchical levels in the room (and listen to them/work with them).’

Answering your question more specifically, take a look at this blog that mentions several companies making decisions a different way.’

Having answered the question, I continued to think about it. It made me think further, because there isn’t any easy way to answer it, without tackling several aspects:  decision making processes, accountability, complexity, information flows/availability/reliability, individual v collective decisions, context for the question, context for the decision making.   Even tackling those aspects doesn’t make any usable answer much easier to arrive at.

Looking at Harvard Business Review, it seems that decision making is a topical discussion.  Since December 2017 there’s been:

How Systems Support (or Undermine) Good Decision-Making, by Ron Carucci, Feb 2020

Navigating imposed innovation: A decision-making framework by Amir Bahman Radnejad and Oleksiy Osiyevskyy, January 2020

10 Ways to Mitigate Bias in Your Company’s Decision Making by Elizabeth C. Tippett October 21, 2019

Keeping Humans in the Loop: Pooling Knowledge through Artificial Swarm Intelligence to Improve Business Decision Making by Lynn Metcalf, David A. Askay, Louis B. Rosenberg August 2019

Organizational Decision-Making Structures in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Yash Raj Shrestha, Shiko M. Ben-Menahem, Georg von Krogh August 2019

What AI-Driven Decision Making Looks Like, by Eric Colson, July 2019

Briefing Sheet on Common Biases in Group Decision Making, by Hannah Riley Bowles, Logan Berg, Alyson Gounden Rock, Sam Skowronek June 2019

Avoiding Disruption Requires Rapid Decision Making, by George Stalk Jr., Sam Stewart, April 2019

A Good Meeting Needs a Clear Decision-Making Process, by Bob Frisch, Cary Greene, March 2019

Why AI Will Shift Decision Making from the C-Suite to the Front Line,  by Alessandro Di Fiore, August 2019

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work: Human-AI Symbiosis in Organizational Decision Making, by Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, July 2018

3 Ways to Improve Your Decision Making, by Walter Frick, January 2018

A CEO’s Decision Making Is Shaped by Whether Their Parents Were Immigrants, by  Duc Duy Nguyen, Jens Hagendorff, Arman Eshraghi, March 2018,

When to Decentralize Decision Making, and When Not To, by Frederic Wirtz, Herman Vantrappen, December 2017

In roughly the same period McKinsey offers eight articles on decision making.

Good decisions don’t have to be slow ones, May 2019, by Iskandar Aminov, Aaron De Smet, and Dan Lovallo

Want a better decision?  Plan a better meeting, May 2019, by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost, and Leigh Weiss

Three keys to faster, better decisions, May 2019, by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost, and Leigh Weiss

Effective decision making in the age of urgency, (Survey) April 2019

Decision-making: how leaders can get out of the way, June 2018,  by Iskandar Aminov, Aaron De Smet,  Kanika Kakkar

Keys to unlocking great decision-making,  April 2018, by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost

Decision making in your organisation: cutting through the clutter (Podcast) January 2018, Aaron De Smet, Leigh Weiss.

Untangling your organization’s decision making, June 2017, by Aaron De Smet, Gerald Lackey, and Leigh M. Weiss

I didn’t go beyond these two journals/sites, but I’m guessing that, in that time frame, there are hundreds of other blogs, articles, points of view, etc on decision making.

Clearly, you can read, listen, and watch a lot about decision making but does that help answer the original question I was posed?  The HBR and McKinsey approaches are generally looking for a 3-keys-type easy response.  (I quickly glanced at MIT’s Sloan Management Review list of decision making articles which are much the same as HBR and McKinsey’s)

I’m not convinced by this desire for an easy response, but I decided to follow suit and sifting through the above seems to reveal three themes that might be worth pursuing (none of them go far down the complexity route which is a failing):

  • Leaders aren’t always best placed to make the decisions
  • AI could be used as a decision support tool
  • Biases influence decisions made

Leaders aren’t always best placed to make the decisions.  In the piece Decision Making How Leaders Can Get Out Of The Way, the point is made that  ‘Layers of management often can slow actions with special initiatives, unnecessary upward reporting, status updates and the like. … In organizations where competent people possess clarity of intent, maintaining control only slows decision-making and limits agility. Senior leaders should focus on what only they should do, such as setting intent, making strategic choices and removing roadblocks.’   To support effective decision making we could ask – are the right people making the decisions with the good information to hand?

AI could be used as a decision support tool – yes, and beware the seductive sellers of AI decision making systems, As Kyle Dent in Techcrunch (among many others) points out, ‘AI developers make decisions and choose trade-offs that affect outcomes. Developers are embedding ethical choices within the technology but without thinking about their decisions in those terms. … The most basic assurances of algorithmic accountability are not guaranteed for either users of technology or the subjects of automated decision making.’  To support effective decision making we could ask – are we putting too much faith in our automated organisational decision-making processes (e.g. cv sifting)?  What is our response when they are challenged or questioned?

Biases influence decisions made – yes, both human biases and AI biases.  See a research article on this Cognitive bias, decision styles, and risk attitudes in decision making and DSS, ‘Humans often make less than optimal decisions from a rational viewpoint … decision aids can reinforce biases or improve the way that a person thinks about a situation. … The way that information is presented and the way that analyses are conducted also impact the amount of cognitive resources and information gathering that a person requires in a situation’.   To support effective decision making we could ask – how do we recognise and over-ride our own cognitive biases?

How would you answer the question on leadership and decision making?  Let me know.

Image:  The Myths of Decision Making, Joi Murugavell

Job crafting: is it about fitting in and getting on?

A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting where we were talking about job crafting.  An excellent article, by Catherine Moore, drawing initially from Berg et al 2007, explains that ‘Job crafting is about taking proactive steps and actions to redesign what we do at work, essentially changing tasks, relationships, and perceptions of our jobs. …   . The main premise is that we can stay in the same role, getting more meaning out of our jobs simply by changing what we do and the ‘whole point’ behind it. ‘

Part of our discussion was on the nature of job descriptions and whether all jobs are, in fact, crafted by the job holder to a greater or lesser degree.  We wondered whether we, as job holders are consciously or unconsciously crafting our jobs, to make them ones where, in Moore’s words, ‘we still can satisfy and excel in our functions, but which are simultaneously more aligned with our strengths, motives, and passions.’   She says that, ‘Unsurprisingly, it [job crafting] has been linked to better performance, intrinsic motivation, and employee engagement’.

As we were talking, I was reminded of my PhD thesis ‘Fitting in and getting on: a study of the organisational socialisation of senior managers joining an organisation’.  The research was sponsored by British Airways who, as the abstract says ‘had noted a number of business costs associated with senior managers who joined the organisation from outside. The aim was to find a way of reducing the costs and improving the joining experience for these individuals in a way which got them to high performance quickly.’

The outcome of the study, summarised in a leaflet I produced (see cover above) to explain it, ‘provided evidence that the relationship between fitting in (socially) and getting on (high-performance) was strong, confirming results of previous studies. However, this study extended previous academic research by finding that the relationship is not straightforward. It is complex, contingent on a range of factors, and continuous throughout a person’s membership of an organisation.’

My PhD came to mind, I think, because it was about how people successfully shape their roles and how the roles shape them in order for them to fit in and get on.  Essentially, how they job craft.

Out of the research I produced a series of twenty checklists, all addressed at senior new joiners to an organisation (not those promoted from within).   Here’s an example of one – ‘New Joiner: fitting in and getting on’ that I found by Googling.   Other titles included ‘Developing your network’, ‘Handling the politics’, Making an impact’, ‘Handling workplace relationships’ and ‘Adjusting your style’.  Ten were published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), who I see in 2013 updated them.  I’m not sure if they’re still available from – I’m finding out.  In today’s language the checklists were designed to help them job craft.

However, when I was researching, the term ‘job crafting’ was not around.  It seems to have originated in 2001 in a paper by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton,  Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work, published when I was already writing up.   Wrzesniewski and Dutton discuss three aspects of job crafting: task – shaping what you do, relationship – shaping your interactions, cognitive – shaping your attitudes.

Going back to the job-crafting discussion.  It triggered three thoughts for me:

  • Job crafting – all three aspects – is part and parcel of today’s work world, it’s not just for new joiners.
  • It’s not only the job holder doing the crafting in response to things, but also things crafting the job for the job holder.
  • Job crafting would bring more all-round benefits if it was integral to performance management discussions.

Job crafting is part and parcel of today’s work world.  New joiners are almost by default crafting their roles, as my research found.   But I don’t think it is just new joiners who are job crafting.  Particularly around the task aspect of jobs, almost everyone is crafting – new technologies, new products and services and new ways of doing things all require people to re-think the ways they do their jobs.

Or maybe not, read the story of one Amazon warehouse operative and see how little ability he has to craft the task or the interactions. Even the possibility he could craft his attitudes to the job is sharply limited by the apparent lack of choice to be doing it in the first instance.  The story illustrates the effects of an inability to job craft on someone’s motivation and mental/physical health.  (See a related story of Phil, a train cleaner).

It’s not only the job holder doing the crafting in response to things, but also things crafting the job for the job holder.  In a report, on new CEOs BCG notes that ‘In today’s turbulent, globalized, and high-tech business world, large organizations have acquired complexities unimaginable to earlier generations.’  The report offers 5 things CEOs should be doing, in effect to craft effective jobs.  The thing is that this turbulence is not just affecting senior executives, new or otherwise, but almost everyone.

Take an example from this week  ‘JCB, the British digger maker, has cut working hours and suspended overtime for 4,000 UK employees after the coronavirus outbreak prompted a shortage in parts coming from China.’  The external context is having a significant impact on the JCBs jobs – they are being crafted by default.

Technology changes also act to craft jobs differently, but read the case of a journalist who took a proactive approach of asking the question of some technology companies ‘What could their technologies do to automate me?’ She ends the article saying, ‘It’s not that workers have nothing to fear from automation, but rather that companies will have a fair amount of choice over what they want to do with the extra efficiencies that technology will bring. …  You have to use technology to do what you want to do.  … The more you know how to use the technologies and the more you understand what you want, the better the world will end up being.”   I read the article as being a case study in thinking through how technologies can to help craft meaningful jobs.

Job crafting would bring more all-round benefits if it was integral to performance management discussions.  An article from QZ this week  – The Performance Review of gets its annual performance review’ is scathing on the once a year approach that many companies still take to performance reviews.   It says, ‘Arguably, the most daring and effective reinventions make so many changes that the original tradition is unrecognizable. … I would advocate to retrain the Performance Review for the role of Weekly Check-In, [which has] lower stakes and [is] strategically more appropriate for today’s fast-changing business environment, the Weekly Check-in is five times more likely to produce meaningful feedback for employees, says Gallup. Its subjects are also three times more likely to feel engaged at work.’ Enabling an employee to discuss their job in a weekly check-ins, allows for a discussion of crafting it in a way that makes individual and context sense.

How is your job being crafted?  What room do you have to craft it?  Is job crafting part and parcel of today’s work world enabling you to fit in and get on while feeling engaged and productive?  Let me know.

Mergers and identity theft

LONDON, Jan. 23 1973 ‘A merger of the British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways into a new airline was announced today by the British Airways Board. The board, which runs BOAC and BEA, both state‐owned, said it was going to phase out their names and replace them with the single name of British Airways.’  New York Times

It’s a curious thing to read.  It’s so bare in its announcement.  But a year later came the news that: ‘On March 31, 1974, BOAC and BEA were merged to formally establish British Airways. The combined entity began operations together on April 1. … 1974-77 was a difficult period of time due to all regional divisions in the integration.’

I joined British Airways more than 25 years later, yet colleagues were still ‘them and us’, on BEA and BOAC.  Long servers knew which airline each had come from and retained the cultural norms and attitudes of ‘their airline’.   Over the years, I’ve noticed the strength of cultures, and it doesn’t have to be at an organisational level.  Try merging two teams and you risk getting cultural dissonance.   Look at a more recent example in the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger.

As McKinsey notes, Cultural factors and organizational alignment are critical to success (and avoiding failure) in mergers. Yet leaders often don’t give culture the attention it warrants—an oversight that can lead to poor results. Some 95 percent of executives describe cultural fit as critical to the success of integration. Yet 25 percent cite a lack of cultural cohesion and alignment as the primary reason integration efforts fail.’

McKinsey defines ‘culture as the outcome of the vision or mission that drives a company, the values that guide the behavior of its people, and the management practices, working norms, and mind-sets that characterize how work actually gets done.’

What McKinsey doesn’t mention is the link between culture and identity which I think is a critical factor.  A merger could be felt as a form of identity theft, and I wonder if exploring mergers from the perspective of identity would be useful in making them more successful.

This idea came to me as I read Tim Harford’s book, Messy.  In it, he says, ‘Attempting to put two tight-knit teams together in a single organisation can present the organisation’s leaders with a severe headache’.  He goes on to discuss the 1954 Robbers Cave experiment.

The goal of this study was, in the words of Maria Konnikova, the writer of a Scientific American article, ‘multifold: to see how quickly group identity could become established among strangers, how fixed or flexible that identity was, how it would play out in competitive settings with other groups, and how the group conflict dynamic could be mitigated after the fact.’

It turns out that in the experiment the two groups could be harmonised up to a point, but as Konnikova says, ‘Alas, it’s easier to bring together eleven-year-old boys in a camp, who have everything in common save for an arbitrary group designation. It’s tougher to do so in the real world. Subsequent studies have shown just how easily groups are formed, on the most arbitrary of bases —and how hard they can be to unform. As the stakes rise, as the diversity increases, as the group identification becomes based on something more than a random division into cabins, so too does the difficulty of unraveling the enmity increase. … Groups form easier than they fall apart.’

As groups form, they develop a group identity.  I was struck by an 8 February 2020 article, on a UK football team West Ham titled ‘West Ham’s culture and identity are slowly being stripped away as Man City prepare to pile on the pain’.  The byline reads, ‘Relegation is a serious threat this season but the biggest concern for West Ham fans is the direction in which the owners have steered the club off the pitch’.  The story is that the owners persuaded supporters to believe, on a ‘shonky sales pitch’, that moving from their original stadium to a new one ‘was the path to a better future’.

The outcome of this is ‘a sense that supporters could live with defeat and disappointment on the pitch. What they cannot stand is having their identity taken away. [Manchester] City may tear them apart on the pitch tomorrow but West Ham’s owners are stripping the culture away from the club. That will do more lasting damage than any relegation.’

The article links the well-researched field of culture and identity.  (Google scholar lists 4 million items on the search term).   The West Ham move is not a merger, but it seemed to me that, as in a merger, the strength of identity, at both group and individual level is a force to be reckoned with.   To me, this article implied a form of identity theft.

Going down the identity theft route a bit, the research articles I found all showed a connection between the theft of identity and the emotional toll it takes.  For example: ‘This exploratory study examined the psychological and somatic impact of identity theft and coping methods utilized by victims. … The majority of participants expressed an increase in maladaptive psychological and somatic symptoms post victimization. … The results from this study suggest that victims of identity theft do have increased psychological and physical distress, and for those whose cases remain unresolved, distress is maintained over time.’ 

A bit more digging about and I uncovered a 2018 research article, Individual and Organizational Identities in Merger Contexts: A Boundary Perspective.  It’s a fascinating article, examining individual and group identity in terms of boundary theory.   One of the researchers eight propositions discusses the relationship between individual identity and the merged organization’s identity.  Here again, it comes close to the notion of identity theft – the authors quote at a group level: ‘These situations of seeing our company’s identity being violated kept accumulating’.  And at an individual level: ‘The company born from the merger made me a bit uncomfortable because it no longer has anything to do with me. It doesn’t look anything like me; it isn’t a place I would choose to work today.’

The authors of this paper report that ‘This was the first study to explore the interface of the boundaries between individual and organizational identities in merger contexts’ and, like them, I’m left wondering whether mergers could be more successful if, in merger situations we took close account of the possibility that group and individual identity are important factors that are not usually considered in the planning and activity surrounding a merger.

If we don’t do this, we risk people feeling a similar distress to that felt in individual identity theft.   What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image:  Identity theft