Ten questions

Most Tuesdays, work permitting, I take a writing class at my local adult education centre.  The first part of the class is a 20 minute or so writing assignment.   Although I didn’t make the class last Tuesday (work commitment) Paul, the tutor, sent me the task.

Based on The Guardian’s Q & A in which ‘Public figures supply the answers to our searching questions’, Paul sent a list of 18 questions with the instruction: ‘Answer 10 of the questions with single sentences and then pick one to write on it for 10 mins.’

Thinking about the assignment, I realised that each week, at the end of my blog, I ask a question.  So, rather than using Paul’s list, I decided I would take 18 of my questions and, as instructed, answer 10 of them with a single sentence, then pick one of them – one of the 10, I think, but he’s not here to clarify that – to write about for 10 minutes.  Paul is very strict on timekeeping and we all obediently stop writing when he calls time, so I’ll do the same.  (Normally I spend at least twice as much time looking at interesting links as I do writing.)

I decided to take the first eighteen weeks of 2018 – which took me to Mid-May – and use those questions.  (If you want to look at the related blog, go to my website and filter by month/year).   I’ll answer 10 of them with one sentence.  Here goes – I’ve listed the 18 and put my chosen ten in bold, with my answers in italics:

  1. What organization design knowledge do you think is provisional?  I’m not sure we have organisation design ‘knowledge’ only theories, practices, assumptions, and methods.
  2. What’s your view on gratitude as a business capability?
  3. What masterclasses would you offer organization designers?
  4. Do you think science fiction can inform organization design?(There’s another sci-fi question a couples of weeks later so I’ve omitted the second one).  Yes, definitely and it should as it offers the prospect of states beyond those we typically imagine in an organisational setting.
  5. What’s your view on the HR BP role?
  6. What’s your view on hostile design?I think there’s an unfortunate tendency for organisation designers to be ‘servants of power’ rather than ‘owners of power’ which in many cases does result in hostile design.
  7. Do you think employees need to share organizational values?No, I did think that at one time, but I have changed my views on organisational values which often times are not adhered to even by those who promulgated them in the first instance.
  8. What toolkits are in your [OD] toolkit?
  9. What are you making sense of this week? I’m trying to work out how we can measure the additive impact, if any, of planned change on people’s normal day to day workload.
  10. How would you assess the degree of complexity in a business function and what is manageable for one Director?
  11. What do you think you can expect as you move from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role? (Or vice versa) A very different power dynamic – an internal consultant, regardless of expertise, can only influence while an external consultant – also regardless of expertise – is viewed as authoritative and worth paying attention to.
  12. What are your project do-ability criteria? My main criterion is to have a very good project manager working with me, because without one the whole piece of OD work could easily remain at the design stage and never make it into implementation.
  13. Do you think that the outcomes of OD & D work can be identified and then converted into useful proxy measures to show ROI? Yes, I’m sure they can and I’m still not sure quite how to do that –  it’s something that I’m still working on.
  14. What are your OD sacred cows?
  15. What’s your view of business v digital transformation?
  16. How would you, or are you, bridging the academic/practitioner organization design gap to help ensure elegant organization design?
  17. How do you think advancing technologies will impact organisation design? Yes and we are already seeing that both in the way we ‘do’ organisation design and on the way organisation designs are changing.
  18. It’s very easy to ‘unsee’.  It is less easy to stop unseeing, but I think to stop unseeing is a skill to be practiced. What’s your viewing on unseeing and stopping unseeing? Unseeing is not noticing what is happening in the context and being alert to the possibilities, challenges, opportunities, understanding that really seeing would offer – too much of organisational life is blinkered by assumptions and legacy.

Now I get 10 minutes to write on one of them and I’ll put the links in afterwards.  It’s 15.03 timer is set!   The question of hostile design is one that becomes increasingly relevant as working contracts change and technology encroaches more and more deeply into the design of organisations.   Take a look at the gig economy,  zero hours contracts, employees having microchip implants (albeit voluntarily at this stage), and human job roles being superseded by automated processes. One of our design dilemmas is how to work with the increasingly complex tech/human interface.

In the CIPD workshop I posed 4 scenarios (thank you Paul Levy for letting me use them) one of which was ‘organisation designers working in a world where they are facilitating cyborgs, developing implanted employees, meeting inside the matrix and led by robotic leaders’.  This may sound far fetched today but we see the seeds of it already e.g. in cyborgs , implanted employees, and robo work-allocators.  Tech can feel/be hostile to people – look at the twitter trolls where the tech is mediating the hostility, but this doesn’t have to be the case. How do we design organisations that manage the tech human interface in a way that values the humans?

Ok – that’s 10 minutes of pure writing.  Now I’m going to go back and put in links to some of the points in the 10 minutes worth.

If you were given this list of 18 questions which one would you choose to spend 10 minutes writing on?  Let me know.

Image Just Questions 10, Mark Fearn

What about critical thinking?

This week I’m facilitating a workshop at the CIPD conference I submitted the presentation and materials a few weeks ago and now I’m looking at them to develop thinking I had then. (One of the issues of living in the VUCA world is that it’s very easy to forget things in past given the swirls of more things coming in).   Anyway, I’m relieved to see that I mention critical thinking and reflection as two of the necessary OD & D/change skills needed.

Critical thinking and reflection seem to me to be in short supply in many organisations.  In two forums last week I came across the puzzlement OD&D consultants feel when they realise that their clients are not interested in any ‘lessons learned’ discussion on projects. (See this article on organisational learning .  The consultants were equally puzzled by clients looking for ‘the answer’ when, in most cases, there isn’t one but several possible answers.  Each of these possible answers has pros and cons which require thoughtful discussion on what trade-offs to make in order to arrive at a wise choice given current understanding of the situation.  Sadly, the consultants said they didn’t feel that clients would invest time in this type of discussion, and several of the consultants said they wouldn’t feel confident challenging the client on this.

The question that came out of those forums was – how do we encourage critical thinking in organisational life?  It’s the right question to ask, I think.

I just read an article ‘Elon Musk is raising an important question about job titles:

‘This week, in a classic Muskian publicity stunt, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, announced that he no longer had a job title at the electric-car manufacturer.

He had deleted his honorifics from his Tesla bio page, where he previously had been listed as chairman, product architect, and CEO, he said in a tweet . “I’m now the Nothing of Tesla. Seems fine so far,” he wrote.’

Many of us have heard of Elon Musk, seen reports of his tweets and behaviour, and formed an opinion of him.

In the same article reporting Musk’s action the author mentioned the Brightline Initiative’s Strategy@Work conference.  At this, Roger Martin outlined his view of several major shifts in the way we organize, or ought to organize, work.  ‘Let’s get rid of jobs,’ he told the audience, and instead give everyone a portfolio of projects.’ Someone in the audience asked Martin if this would just be a recipe for chaos.  ‘His response, in a nutshell: Companies already operate in chaos. They’re sprawling and multi-layered, communications break down between levels and departments, strategy becomes meaningless.’

Martin’s statement offers first, a challenge to the conventional idea of jobs (I’ve assumed a link to job descriptions and titles here, picking up on Musk’s action) and second makes a provocative point that companies operate in chaos.

It’s easy to respond to both Musk’s and Martin’s points with an immediate view, an opinion, or a soundbite response to either of these points. (See, for example, the responses to Musk’s tweet).

It’s much less easy to think, as the Foundation for Critical Thinking urges,  ‘open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, assumptions, implications, and practical consequences’.  It’s hard to explore open-mindedly Elon Musk or Roger Martin’s views if we cling on to our assumptions – the taken-for-granted beliefs about the world.

In their cases we might hold assumptions that job titles, and jobs/job descriptions matter, and that organisations are not chaotic.  As Stephen Brookfield says ‘Assumptions give meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do’.  He makes the point that we instinctively resist challenging our assumptions – ‘Who wants to clarify and question assumptions she or he has lived by for a substantial period of time, only to find they don’t make sense?’   (See also his article So exactly what is critical about critical reflection?)

In organisational life we are often busy leaping on or off burning platforms, looking across for blue oceans , trying to recolour ourselves teal and following north stars.   This activity not only doesn’t leave much time for critical thinking and reflection but also may well work against our own best long-term interests.

In his book ‘The Answer to How is Yes’ Peter Block shows that many standard solutions and improvement efforts, reinforced by most of the literature, keep people paralyzed. He ‘offers a new way of thinking about our actions that helps free us from being controlled by the bombardment of messages about how we should live and act’.

Both holding onto assumptions and jumping on bandwagons are blocks to critical thinking, and much of ‘normal life’ also omits critical thinking.  In the view of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, ‘much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.’

Given the context in which key socio-economic and earth system trends are ‘going exponential – for better and worse’.  (See the UN Global Compact Project Breakthrough )  we can’t afford shoddy thinking, but even as we recognise this we seem unable to do anything about doing enough criticial thinking in day to day organisational life to bring the adaptability, responsiveness, creativity, innovation and resilience to handle the exponential, messy, complex, and ‘deep craziness’ that we’re now in.

For well argued reasons why much more critical thinking is essential, listen to a BBC radio programme where ‘Mariella Frostrup and a panel of expert contributors discuss the value of critical thinking and how to nurture it in children and young people’.

As the BBC programme says, there is evidence that critical thinking skills can be learned and developed and there are many routes to this.  The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a series of miniature guides to it as well as a number of related resources.  FutureLearn offers short, free on-line programme Logical and Critical Thinking,  Coursera has Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age  Or rather than a coures, look at the five TED talks related to critical thinking.

Earlier this week a John Scharr quote dropped into my in-box.

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

We need deep critical thinking to create and make good paths.  Do we have enough critical thinking going on in our organisations?  If not, how do we get enough?  Let me know.

Image:  Critical Thinking, Ricardo Colugnatti


Agile: is it hype?

In January 2014 I wrote a blog ‘Designing for Agility’. I’ve just re-read it to see if/how my thinking has shifted since then.  I’ve been prompted to do this because, this week I again heard myself saying again that ‘agile’ – as applied to organisational design and effectiveness – is a massive hype that has, as the authors in one article point out, ‘entered the business lexicon like few other terms in recent memory.’

In 2014, when I wrote the blog, I don’t think I heard/read the words agile/agility as much as I had by 2016  when I was reading that agility has become a ‘meaningless buzzword …  It’s another word business leaders use to sound dynamic and edgy (often while laying off staff), like disruptive, innovative or even intrapreneur’.

Another two years have passed and the rate of usage of the words agile and agility seem  to be still shooting up.  Is it even more meaningless now?  Are there degrees of meaningless-ness?  Has the hype has overtaken good sense?

One of the issues around the meaninglessness is because definitions around agile/agility ‘remain loose, situational, informal, confused, and sometimes non-existent.’ (Chris Worley’s words). This lack of definition is one of the issues that makes me uneasy about the agile  ‘movement’.

Lucy Kellaway, takes a sideswipe at agility in her (2009) FT management guff column, saying,  ‘The latest Harvard Business Review contains an 11-page article telling us that the best way to survive financial meltdown and global recession is to be like Muhammad Ali when he met George Foreman for their Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire. What the renowned boxer’s performance teaches us about thriving in turbulent markets is that we must all be agile and we have to absorb blows. The point is helpfully summarised by various charts, diagrams and a two-by-two matrix with agility up one side and absorption along the other.’

Agile may be a meaningless buzzword,  the definitions may be loose, and it’s easy to knock the movement, even so, the intent of it is worth looking at.  It is intended to act in the spirit of the 2001 12-principles Agile Manifesto. However, that’s where another of the issues lies.   There’s a tendency to take aspects of the agile methodology and principles – which were originally devised for a better way of developing software – and try to apply them in a wide range of business contexts and situations, in the hope that by the application of the selected principles the organisation will be(come) more adaptable and responsive to the operating context.

However, as a McKinsey podcast points out ‘that agile is not a menu of things from which you can cherry pick … you need to think of them in a holistic way. You can’t just cherry pick a few of them … it’s a system.’   Saying you’re ‘doing agile’ if you are running daily ‘stand-ups’ is not going to make an organisation ‘agile’.

The band-wagon effect of wanting to be or do ‘agile’, reminds me of similar attitudes to TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, Continuous Improvement, and other methodologies which have emerged over the decades and which were each the ‘flavour of the month’  at some point.  (See a comparison of TQM, Six Sigma and Lean here)

Agile is of the same stock as these – not only because it is a ‘flavour of the month’ but also because it has a similar intent to all these methodologies in aiming to build the adaptability and responsiveness necessary to do well in the emerging context through   plan-do-check-act types of cycle (in agile, often called ‘test and learn’).

In also has roots in other methodologies.   A colleague, asking me what I thought of agile, offered his views: ‘From my fragmented research it seems there is a link [to agile] between ideas from old school socio-technical systems, participative methods, self-managed teams, and distributed leadership (though rarely acknowledged) … fashionably re-packed.’  And in another conversation I had on agile, socio-tech was mentioned as having some similarities to agile.

I am not saying that we should not aim to be adaptable and responsive, to put the customer first or to give workers more autonomy and discretion.  All of that is laudable but it is not new or specifically ‘agile’.   In fact, I don’t think there is much about ‘agile’ that we haven’t discussed, seen, worried about or worked with before, agile is not new or different.  It is well-packaged to look new and different.

Another example, take the recent McKinsey article Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-century organizations, in which the authors discuss nine new leadership capabilities:  Shifting from reactive to creative mind-sets, fostering innovation/collaboration/value creation, helping teams work in new ways, design thinking and business model innovation, applying the principles and practice of agile organisation design, shaping an agile organisational culture.  (We discussed the article on last week’s Organization Design Forum, Global Conversation –  you can register to join these regular global conversations that discuss articles listed in the monthly newsletter).

To me, adjusting for the language of the time, these capabilities are pretty much the same as Deming’s 14 principles of management (published 1982) or the leadership traits that Peter Drucker talked about in his long career.  I can’t really see anything about the capabilities that is ‘new’ or specific to ‘agile’.   Although, if pushed I could agree that ‘design thinking’ is ‘new’ at least in this context, but hardly ‘new’ in the history of design.  (On Design Thinking see a view from Natasha Jen, Design Thinking is Bullsh*t).

If the leadership capabilities and the methodological concepts around ‘agile’ are not new, then what is it that ‘agile/agility’ is promising that we are so entranced by?  In our focus on the buzz we have not examined closely what the promise is and, more importantly, whether it can be delivered on by ‘agile’.   I think we think the ‘agile’ promise is that it will enable us to cope with the utterly different context (geo-political, social, economic, technological, etc) that we face.  And we can’t resist that promise.

In an excellent piece (thanks Stefan for sending it to me), Dude you broke the future, sci-fi writer, Charlie Stross tells us how he used to be able to write good sci-fi by a recipe of ‘90% of the next decade’s stuff is already here today… another 9% of the future a decade hence used to be easily predictable … it’s the 1% of unknown unknowns that throws off all calculations.’ He continues saying, ‘’But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.’

And it’s here that I am alarmed.  I see us jumping on what appears to be a very attractive, agile band-wagon.   Who can resist the McKinsey metaphor, ‘as a gardener, the agile leader might pay attention to creating the fertile soil and environment that will enable growth and creativity to flourish.’?   The metaphor sounds lovely, aspirational even, and that is where we are stuck at the superficial non-critical level of agile’s promise.  We are not thinking deeply and talking reflectively and collectively about the ‘deep craziness’ in which we are living.

This ‘deep craziness’ is one where are lured by the metaphor of ‘creating fertile soil’ and faced with the reality of, ‘A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that calls for a shift away from destructively intensive agriculture.’

Everywhere we look we see multiple world-issues  of this scale that we are ill-equipped to respond to.   

Is what we talk of and practice asAgile’ the route to handling this level of challenge?  Is it hype or does it hold a real and realisable promise?  Let me know.

The #EODF18 Conference – Tasting Menu or Mezze?

Strangers to the world of organisation design, might have thought that The European Organisation Design Forum Conference, in Budapest, last weekend (19 and 20 October) offered an eclectic tasting menu – ‘a set menu of smaller plates [that] requires your chefs to flex their creative muscles to develop a multi-course culinary experience.’

Like a tasting menu, the 2-day set programme consisted of sample portions of many different organisation design concepts, approaches, tools and ideas, served in several courses [forums] for a fixed price [conference fee] under the banner ‘Designing for Business Ecosystems

There are different views on whether tasting menus are a good idea. On the one hand they enable chefs ‘to dazzle their guests with their skills, ideas, inspirations (and egos) … each bite-size course showcasing a skill, an innovation or an idea’.   And on the other hand, they can be ‘an off-putting “straitjacket” for guests’.

Comments from people I talked with at the conference reflected both views and yet, regardless of view, also reflected an energy about the ‘menu’.   Partly, this was because there were two tasting menus options offered simultaneously – much as an omnivore and a vegetarian can enjoy a tasting menu together – in our case a tech one and a human one.

  • On the tech menu we experienced, among other tastes, sli.do, quantified, networkapp, Colony – ‘a platform for open organisations built on the Ethereum Blockchain,  – #Connectivity – on how you can map connectivity.
  • On the human menu one we were offered ‘who’s in the room and what connects us?’ a deep democracy activity, open space sessions, Nora Bateson on ecosystems, playback theatre, and random coffee pairings.

At points the tech and human menus intersected – Karel Foltyn, Amazon’s Head of HR, MEU, giving a keynote over Skype, described some of his world, telling us how digitalization and global connectivity supports diverse teams of humans and robots enabling them to work together.

This presentation was, in spite of lots of testing beforehand, a little clunky in its tech delivery, which since all of us had experienced similar, we were good natured about.  I laughed when, the following day, someone sent me Tom Fishburne’s wonderful cartoon on digital transformation which neatly illustrated that none of us can yet rely on tech to delivery what we hope it will.  I can’t remember if it was in this session or another one that all the lights failed and we were treated to an instant pop-up array of light points from people’s smartphone torches.

People had very different reactions to the use of sli.do and quantified to ask questions, put points to the keynote speakers, and with the networkapp, find their way round the conference programme and notices.  As with a tasting menu – some felt the ‘strait jacket’ of tech, instead wanting the personal connection with people rather than a tech mediated connection.  Others felt these apps showcased ideas that we could experiment with and learn from.

The human sessions similarly evoked mixed reactions.  For some, the deep democracy action-session proved a bridge too far.  (Deep democracy is ‘the principle behind a community building process that hears all voices and roles, including our collective experiences of altered states, and subtle feelings and tendencies. It is a principle that makes space for the separable, the barely speakable and the unspeakable’).  For others it was a powerful experience that provoked insights and awareness.

Thinking again on the conference and how participants interacted with its diverse elements I am now wondering whether the conference ‘chefs’ (organisers) had artfully designed less of a prescriptive tasting menu and more of a mezze – ‘a collection of small platters where a guest can edit their experience to a certain extent – swiping hummus with a piece of kobez bread from here, sampling a crisp falafel from there’.

I recall the ‘Law of Two Feet’ was up on the main wall “If, during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they can go to some more productive place.” People who didn’t want to stay in one of the scheduled sessions wandered out to the meeting areas to chat, work, drink coffee, eat something from the splendid variety of delicious food offered throughout the two days.

Four of the scheduled sessions were run as 8 parallel 45-minute open spaces each with a   conference participant hosting a topic they wanted to talk about and others showing up to discuss it with them.  The range of topics was wide – probably over 30 offered – with participants wandering between them and/or sticking with the ones that caught their interest.

And then there were awards – not the Great British Bake Off, but similar idea – for the best organisation design article – over 1000 votes polled from EODF members on this.  Three articles were shortlisted, from a longlist: Boosting Performance Through Organization Design, How to Create an Agile Organisation, and 10 components that successfully abolished hierarchy.  Here, you can see the 3 article authors giving us tasters of their articles, and find out who the winner is.

I had my own course on the menu in being awarded the Paul Tolchinsky Award – a true honour and a privilege, and had a lot of fun telling my story and watching it being immediately recreated and given artistic shape and meaning by the Playback Theatre Performers.  (If you want to know more on Playback Theatre techniques look here, but briefly it’s ‘an interactive form of improvisational theatre in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot’).  I also enjoyed the graphic artist’s, Szilard Strenner from Grafacity,  ability to convert this, and each other session, into an amazing visual.

Nora Bateson’s session felt like a tasting menu in its own right as she introduced us to mesmerising concepts and ideas, enticed us to imbibe new words – symmathesy,   transcontextual (the inter-relationships that integrate complex systems), warm data – and urged us not to ‘commit the violence of reductionism’, a point that led me to the thought that we were missing conference debate on thornier issues.  These were hinted at in some of the 1 to 1 conversation but not in any groups, at least not in any of those that I participated in.

Maybe next year we will make space for ‘the barely speakable’, for example, how are we designing in situations of resource scarcity, of job precarity, of surveillance, of political repression and examine what responsibility we should take to tackle these types of organisational/societal challenges?

Putting that thought aside for the moment, all in all, I now see the conference as a delightful mezze/taster menu fusion.  It worked beautifully at many levels (real chefs take note).  People I spoke with left feeling well-satisfied but not overfull.  Thank you organising team – you cooked up great.

Readers: What makes a well-designed conference for you?  Let me know.

Image: Lima Floral & The Palomar: One-off tasting menu experience

Futures and horizons

Do you believe that you are now owning the last car you will buy?  Maybe that sounds improbable, but a piece on the UK’s BBC website argues the case quite well, saying ‘The central idea is pretty simple: Self-driving electric vehicles organised into an Uber-style network will be able to offer such cheap transport that you’ll very quickly – we’re talking perhaps a decade – decide you don’t need a car anymore.’

Someone sent me the article knowing that I was facilitating a workshop at the CIPD conference in November on OD&D and Change Skills to Drive New Business Models, and integral to the workshop is the idea that to help our organisations adapt into the future, we, OD & D practitioners, must keep future focused and develop horizon scanning skills.

Although there’s some overlap and debate between the terms futures, foresight and horizon scanning within the research/academic literature, in general, discussions of futures and foresight provide ‘a conceptual framework for a number of forward-looking approaches to informed decision making that includes long term considerations.’ (FAO 2013).

Keeping future focused is tricky but Philip Tetlock, in his book Superforecasting, reassuringly tells us:

  • The future can indeed be foreseen, at least in the near term. An analogy is weather forecasting – you may feel confident that you’ll need an umbrella this Thursday, but not that you will or won’t need one at a point in 2023.
  • Some people are much better at it than others.  The ‘foxes’ who ‘know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery”, are much better at forecasting than the ‘hedgehogs’ those who know one big thing, and ‘aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, and display bristly impatience with those who do not get it.
  • Forecasting is not a divine gift, but a skill that can be practised and improved. Tetlock offers an, online course,  Superforecasting Fundamentals that I’m tempted by but will stop myself registering (as I’m practicing paring down the amount of stuff I do).

An alternate to the course is the excellent resource The Futures Toolkit, ‘designed primarily as a resource for those who are new to futures thinking but should also prove useful to more experienced practitioners’.  It introduces futures thinking and offers a toolset ‘for gathering intelligence about the future, exploring the dynamics of change, describing what the future might be like’…

One of the tools in the kit is horizon scanning an approach used to identify early warnings of  potential threats, risks, emerging issues and opportunities, from the immediate up to 12 months away to explore how these trends and developments may combine and play out and what organisational impact they may have ‘allowing for better preparedness and the incorporation of mitigation and exploitation into … decision making processes.’  (What is Horizon Scanning, 2016).

Because horizon scanning is more about early warnings i.e. short term forecasting it can be used to help answer a question Tetlock asks:  ‘Is it a worse error to fail to try to predict the potentially predictable or to waste our time trying to predict the unpredictable?’ Consistent and continuous horizon scanning can stop the error of failing to predict the predictable, and what you do predict is likely to be more accurate if you are a fox thinker than a hedgehog thinker.

But we can’t stop at only looking at early warnings.  What about longer-term forecasting?  An extension of the single horizon scanning model is the Three Horizons model described as ‘a simple, intuitive way to encourage a conversation about the challenges in the present, our aspirations for the future and the kinds of innovation we might need in order to address both at the same time’.

  • The first horizon ‘describes the current way of doing things, and the way we can expect it to change if we all keep behaving in the ways we are used to.’
  • The third horizon is the future [long way out] system.  It is those new ways of living and working that will bring new patterns in existence.  It is transformative.
  • The second horizon is the transition and transformation zone of emerging innovations that are responding to the shortcomings of the first horizon and anticipating the possibilities of the third horizon’.

Knowing what horizon scanning is, and how it links to futures/forecasting is one thing – knowing what horizons to scan and how to scan them is another.   How do you actually horizon scan?   I do it via five main paths:

  • Scanning a range of magazines, journals, and newspapers for general coverage. The ones I skim read have changed over the years, but I find I’m still consistently and thoroughly reading The Economist, New Scientist, and The Atlantic.
  • Subscribing to daily/weekly email newsletters for focused coverage again I get several – some examples:
    • Tech: MIT Tech Review, Geekwire,  Information Week in Review
    • Science:  Science Daily
    • Business: Strategy+ Business, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review
    • Innovation:  Stanford Social Innovation Review, Open Data Institute
  • Looking at blogs and other info on specialised websites.  I have a lot bookmarked (I must pare them down) but I find I look most at the long now which has thought provoking blogs, as does the Practical Ethics blog – the latest is ‘should vegans avoid almonds and avocados?’  Workplace insight has info on workplace trends, and shaping tomorrow which is an ‘AI-driven, systems thinking model that delivers strategic foresight and anticipatory thinking in real-time’.  The big consultancies track ‘megatrends’ in various ways, See PWC’s example here.
  • Reading reports and surveys from various sources – think tanks, professional bodies, government and public sector organisations.
  • Talking to people and going to events – if you’re in the UK the Royal Society of Arts has excellent events – which are often livestreamed or available as web and pod casts if you can’t get to the event itself.

What happens with this scanning activity?  The idea is to apply it into your organisation design thinking.  For example, suppose we won’t need to own a car anymore in ten years (and the early warnings are pretty evident on this)?  What impact will that have on insurance providers?  Car manufacturers? Car maintenance outlets?  Car retailers?  Organisational benefits – if you offer a car as one or offer mileage payments?  Commutes to work?  People who drive cars for a living?  Software developers?  It’s likely that the reach of self-driving cars will extend to all organisations.  How could/should you start factoring it into your design work now?

My view is that horizon scanning is an essential skill for organisation designers.  Do you agree, if so how do you do it? Let me know.

Image: Economist, Unclouded vision

Worrying about employee engagement

There are things about employee engagement that worry academics and researchers.  They are, on the whole, sceptical of the concept and urge caution in taking on board what management consultants and others offer as engagement advice, tools and promises.

For example, McLeod and Clarke in their 2011 Report to Government –  Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement, say that ‘Early on in the review, when we spoke to David Guest, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Human Resource Management at Kings College London, he pointed out that much of the discussion of engagement tends to get muddled as to whether it is an attitude, a behaviour or an outcome or, indeed, all three. He went on to suggest that “… the concept of employee engagement needs to be more clearly defined […] or it needs to be abandoned ”.

I’ve been trawling research articles to get more of a handle on what it is that worries the academics, given that, as McLeod and Clarke say, ‘there is too much momentum and indeed excellent work being done under the banner of employee engagement to abandon the term’, (and the accompanying activity).

John Purcell in a ‘Provocation Paper’ Disengaging from Engagement, puts it succinctly, ‘The problem is not just one of defining what engagement is but the way it is being used, with implications for the study and practice of employment relations and HRM.  He makes the point that ‘Boiling engagement measures down to one score is particularly worrying.’ (And explains why in the paper).   Purcell discusses two types of employee engagement:

  1.  ‘Work engagement relates to an individual’s psychological state of mind while at work. Work engagement is seen as a ‘positive, fulfilling work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption’.  Purcell makes the point that ‘What emerges [from a description of an engaged employee] is a profile of a person so engrossed in work that it can only ever apply to a minority of employees’.   He discusses several concerns with work engagement, including unconvincing attempts to link work engagement to organisational outcomes, such as labour turnover and performance, the way workers who are not fully engaged are described in negative terms, the dangerous reduction of work relations to individual attributes and failings, and the influence of positive psychology on the types of measures used to test engagement and the way the surveys are often designed.
  2. Employee or behavioural engagement that ‘relates to the managerial practices that appear to be linked to employees becoming engaged. There is usually explicit reference made to social exchange theory and reciprocity, especially to ‘perceived organisational support… The difference between behavioural (or employee) and work engagement is nicely put by Truss (2014): employee engagement ‘is an approach taken by organisations to manage their workforce, rather than a psychological state experienced by employees in the performance of their work; is more relevant to HRM and employment relations; “doing” engagement, rather than being engaged’.  However, employee/behavioural engagement also raises concerns for Purcell.  He is concerned with difficulties in showing conclusive and causal evidence between engagement and performance, lack of an agreed definition of employee engagement, use of a composite score that ranks organisations, and within them, down to the level of the individual line manager.

Other researchers raise similar warnings about engagement (without differentiating in quite the same way,  between work and employee engagement).  In their paper The Meaning, Antecedents  and Outcomes of Employee Engagement: A Narrative Synthesisthe authors report that ‘Out of 5771 items identified in our search, only 172 empirical studies met the quality threshold, suggesting that a great deal of what has been written about engagement could be described as incomplete or under-theorized, leaving considerable scope for further development of the field.’

Confirming this, research presented in  The Meaning and Measurement of Employee Engagement: A Review of the Literature tells us that ‘Employee engagement is an emerging topic that has gained considerable attention from human resources professionals and researchers who posit engagement as a key driver of organizational success. Nevertheless, there exist mixed definitions of the construct and ambiguities in its theoretical underpinnings. This confusion in turn presents problems for both the measurement of the construct and its use when implementing and evaluating strategies aimed at building employee engagement. Such disagreements also raise questions about the reliability and validity of extant measures of engagement, and hence their value to both academics and practitioners.

A further paper Exploring Different Operationalizations of Employee Engagement and Their Relationships With Workplace Stress and Burnout makes the point that ‘Many empirical studies of employee engagement show positive relationships with desirable work-related outcomes, yet a consistent understanding of the construct remains elusive (Saks & Gruman, 2014 ). We propose that this lack of clarity is leading to an increased risk that employee engagement is becoming overly generalized and that, as a consequence, its utility in both theory and practice is compromised.’

Summarising the research quoted above, along with other articles I scanned, there is a common view that there’s confusion and lack of clarity around engagement.  This results in academic researchers’ worrying about:

  • How we understand concepts of engagement.  It is evident that different researchers conceptualise engagement differently – Purcell, for example talks about work and employee engagement, others blur these boundaries.  The differences in conceptualizing engagement give rise to different definitions of the term – McLeod and Clarke, quoted at the start, found 50 ‘engagement’ definitions.
  • The lack of context in which we examine engagement.   Several researches commented on how little contextualisation there is in engagement discussions.  They pointed out that different contexts will reflect ‘engagement’ differently.  For example, I did not come across research that looked at the national/cultural differences related to either work or employee engagement (although it looks as if the UK organisation Engage for Success is interested in looking at this).  It is very likely that different national cultures have different norms, assumptions and values around engagement.
  • The normative values and assumptions we ascribe in asking questions on engagement. In the quest for employee engagement, and the amount of news coverage and opprobrium heaped on supposedly disengaged workers we appear to be making an assumption that engagement is good, and non-engagement or disengagement is bad. Take this example, from an article in Forbes: ‘These “actively disengaged” employees wander the halls like ravenous zombies, eager to spread their contagion throughout the organization. No matter how idyllic your workplace culture is, these workers will always pose an imminent threat. That makes identifying and removing them a matter of workplace productivity life and death’.

As Purcell points out, ‘It is disingenuous to portray work in the positive glow of engagement without recognising the very different experience of many who fail to be [psychologically] engaged often for very good reasons. Problems of job insecurity, zero hours contracts and real pay reductions for many do not get recognition’.

  • The question of who or what has power and agency in relation to engagement. If we think that engagement is ‘associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work’ then where does the power and agency lie in ‘doing’ and getting engagement and being engaged?  There are multiple players and factors in the power/agency mix – players include managers, leaders who want to achieve a certain ‘score’, job designers, and employees.  Factors include performance and reward systems, disciplinary and grievance procedures, levels of autonomy and decision making accorded to people and physical work environments.  All of these have a part to play in both psychological and behavioural engagement.

Having looked at some of the research and considered what worries academics and researchers, I’m now wondering if in the day to day search for employee engagement we’re stuck in unexamined clichés and stereotypes of what engagement is and why we are interested in it.   How many organisations spend member time conceptualizing, defining, and contextualizing engagement for their specific organisation, I ask myself?

Perhaps we should be using the research to ask different questions about engagement to arrive at different perspectives on it, in ways that address the academics’ worries, improve practitioner understanding in ways of ‘doing’ engagement and deliver better outcomes as a result of both.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Designing resilient teams

I’ve been working on a series of 4 x 20-minute on-line, in-house, masterclasses (see my related blog) on team resilience.

Their focus is on the design aspects of team resilience not the development aspects.  The design aspects are the ‘hard’ or formal organisational elements that are easy to describe and capture in words.  They are the structures, systems and business processes that help deliver the organisation’s products/services.  ‘Hard’ elements include policies, structures, decision and authority rights, governance.  This handout, Four elements of Nadler and Tushman model.HO1 helps explain.

These masterclasses are not about the development aspects of team resilience.  The development aspects are the ‘soft’ or informal organisational elements that are difficult to describe and capture in words.  They include behaviours, interpersonal relationships, culture, and lived values.  (I maintain that design and development are very distinct and different disciplines although they inter-relate at points).  See Exhibit 1 in this article that illustrates.

Here’s a summary of each of the four masterclasses. They each follow the same 3-part format:  What’s the idea?  How does it work?  Try it out.

1              Designing resilient teams

What’s the idea? The idea is that teams can weather disturbances (positive and negative) like team members moving out or joining, sudden unexpected deadlines, technology glitches, and so on, if they are designed to do so.  The things that make for resilience can be seen in ecological systems.   Steven Forth explains this in his piece What Makes for a Resilient Team. The C S Holling article he mentions Resilience and Stability in Ecological Systems gives a much more detailed  (23 dense pages) explanation.  But summarises saying:

‘A management approach based on resilience … would emphasize the need to keep options open, the need to view events in a regional rather than a local context, and the need to emphasize heterogeneity.  Flowing from this would be not the presumption of sufficient knowledge, but the recognition of our ignorance; not the assumption that future events are expected, but that they will be unexpected. The resilience framework can accommodate this shift of perspective, for it does not require a precise capacity to predict the future, but only a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take’.

How does it work? Six principles for team design come from this perspective:

  • Have overlapping skill sets on the team
  • Have lots of overlapping connections
  • Be open to new people and ideas – (discuss the design aspects of this)
  • Design good connections outside the team (both inside the organization and outside)
  • Have access to a ‘bench’ that can step in and refresh the team’s skills
  • Develop team autonomy through decision, delegation and authority rights

Try it out Assess your own team’s composition against the six principles.  Agree how you can develop team resilience using the six principles.  (Note Steven Forth has a useful graphic to illustrate).

2              Restructuring teams (changing the organisation chart)

What’s the idea? The idea is that managers trying to solve a problem tend, first,  to look at an organisation chart and shift people around it, rather than looking at the work, the skills needed to do the work, and finally the people who could do the work.  A Q5 Partner 3-minute video thinkpiece explains clearly why a chart-based approach to solving a problem is not going to work.  An organisation chart only tells us certain things.  It does not tell us, for example, how the work flows, where the handover points are, or what the linkages are between teams as the work flows – all part of designing effectively. See the handout What does an organisation chart tell us and not tell us

How does it work?  Restructuring teams begins with thinking about what it is you are trying to solve and deciding whether or not it is a design issue or something else.  Once you think it is a design issue the next step is agreeing the work your team is there to do (the purpose), developing some design criteria, mapping the activities that comprise the work of your team as it flows through the team, clustering the activities in a way that meets your design, criteria, developing design options, determining the linkages within your team and across to other teams, testing your options before planning to implement the new design.

Try it out In a team meeting watch the video Got a wicked problem? First tell me how to make toast (9 minutes).  Discuss how the ideas in this are applicable to the issue you are trying to address.  Assuming it is a design issue use your insights to follow the steps in the para above.

3              Designing collaborative teams

What’s the idea?  The idea is that collaboration does not happen just by chance.  Collaboration structures can be designed by using models of collaboration combined with the different stages of design methodology.

How does it work?  Collaboration can be expressed in four modes (Note collaborative projects often use more than one of the modes during one project in order to achieve the desired goal).

Open & Hierarchical Anyone can contribute but the person, company or organisation in charge of the project decides which ideas or solutions to develop.

Open & Flat There is not an authority who decides which innovations will be taken further because anyone can contribute in the process and use delivered results.

Closed & Hierarchical The participants have been chosen by the authority who also decides which ideas will be chosen and developed.

Closed & Flat The group of participants chosen by an authority share ideas and make the decisions and contributions together.

Using a four-phase design methodology – discover the problem, define the problem and solution ideas, develop and refine the solution ideas, deliver the solutions – ask questions by phase.  For example, in the discover phase ask: what is the challenge?  Who are the stakeholders? Do you know who you want to collaborate with (closed) or do you need to allow anyone to contribute (open).  Can only selected people join the decision making in this phase (hierarchical) or can anyone participate in making decisions (flat)?

Try it out: Identify a problem or opportunity your team is working one. Use the methods outlined to arrive at a collaborative structure that you can test.

4              Designing for remote team members

What’s the idea? If you are in a ‘team’ then there is an underlying assumption that some or all of the work you do requires working with others in your team to produce something – a paper, a policy, a design, a customer outcome, or similar.  People who work in teams that comprise some face to face members and some remote members, or teams that comprise only geographically dispersed members often have difficulty in forming a cohesive, high performing team that effectively delivers the desired outcome.  Paying attention to designing a supportive context for remote team members helps address issues of isolation, lack of community, and heading off-track.  Implementing design solutions for working with remote coworkers results in better work and healthier communication with everyone.

How does it work?  Designing a good working environment for remote team members involves:

  1. Agreeing how to capture and store information that everyone needs access to.
  2. Adjusting face to face methods and techniques for team community building to make them appropriate for remote workers.  Moodthy Al-Ghorairi suggests ‘hold a Slack channel meeting where all key players in a project get to speak directly to each other. For multilingual teams, gmail and Workplace may be better options because of the auto-translate feature. Use systems that make it easy for team members to communicate frequently with each other to avoid misunderstandings and missed cues.’
  3. Expecting and planning for asynchronous discussions and having the tools for doing this effectively (this includes teaching people to use the tools, expecting them to use them, and developing on-going learning tips for using them to full advantage)
  4. Keeping team goals and tasks firmly in everyone’s view – some teams find Trello effective for this but there are multiple other options.

Try it out:  Identify what Moodthy Al-Ghorairi, calls ‘a single source of truth for documenting procedures, workflows, how-to’s and on-boarding. Use a group password manager to manage logins. Set up a Slack bot for repeatable questions (status reports, who’s up for pizza on Friday) or turning conversations into shared knowledge easily.’ Agree how you will use it to develop team performance.

What design masterclasses would you offer in a series on team resilience?  Let me know.

Image: Resilience, Lily Gordon