The Dangers of Categorical Thinking

‘Your mind is a categorization machine, busy all the time taking in voluminous amounts of messy data and then simplifying and structuring it so that you can make sense of the world.’    I stopped to think about this sentence in an article I was reading in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review – The Dangers of Categorical Thinking, by  Bart de Langhe and Philip Fernbach .

The reason I stopped on the sentence was because I’ve often thought that the categories and categorisation tools/models/frameworks we use in organisations and organisation design make nonsense of the world rather than sense of the world.   I started to list some of the one I’ve come to consider more nonsensical in the course of my working life:

  1. 9-box grids
  2. Myers Briggs (and several other similar inventories).
  3. McKinsey 7-S model  (and other organisational systems models, including the Galbraith Star Model )
  4. Various 4 x 4 matrices e.g. Boston Box, Eisenhower matrix,
  5. Competency models of various types.
  6. RACI charts that attempt to categorise who should be responsible, accountable, consulted with, or informed about something.
  7. Phase or step models of change, design, development e.g. Kurt Lewin’s unfreezing, changing and refreezing, appreciative inquiry, design thinking (emphasise, define, ideate, prototype, test)
  8. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  9. Grading systems that often with learning/development. (‘You can’t take that training because it’s not for your grade’).
  10. Typologies

Thinking more about these, for most of the above methods of categorising stuff I’ve initially found them useful – they simplify things, but I’ve found there are too many instances when they don’t seem valid.  In using them and with more experience I’ve relegated them to the ‘nonsense’ pile, because organisational life is not simple.  Trying to categorise, say the ‘competence’ of someone or categorise aspects of  ‘style’ (McKinsey 7-S model),  imposes unhelpful, artificial boundaries that can hamper considered ‘design’.

As the HBR authors say, ‘For a categorization to have value, two things must be true: First, it must be valid. …  Second, it must be useful.’   They rightly say ‘In business we often create and rely on categories that are invalid, not useful, or both—and this can lead to major errors in decision making.’    Looking at my list above they’ve mostly reached the nonsense pile because I no longer see validity and/or use in them.

A FutureLearn course I’ve just started (Make Change Happen ) tells learners that ‘ we see the world through our personal experience and beliefs. And we make assumptions all the time based on those beliefs.’

The educators view is that, ‘we must recognise our own power, influence, attitudes, and behaviours.  We must have a good awareness of self. This includes an awareness of who we are, what drives our thinking, our power, prejudices, and values, and understanding what privileges we have or don’t have relative to others. It includes an awareness of the role our different identities, such as gender, race, class, age, disability, and sexuality have on our attitudes and behaviours and those of others. None of us are ever really objective. What we see and what we do is dependent on who we are, our background, personal experiences, social stereotypes, and cultural context.’

When we categorise stuff we are doing so from within the frame of those dependencies.   There’s delightful evidence of this in writings about ‘wunderkammern’ or cabinets of curiosities, that started to emerge in mid-sixteenth century Europe.  They were collections—combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines and the way they were categorised was ‘a contradiction’ and a reflection of certain assumptions and cultures:

While wunderkammern marked an encyclopaedic and objective approach to nature, the wonder and curiosity that they inspired also preserved a sense of mysticism that mirrored religious beliefs. An excellent example of this contradiction lies in the collector’s treatment of an object such as a piece of coral. How should this curious thing be defined and categorized? Because few people were familiar with coral in its natural environment, they invented definitions based on their personal ideologies. Therefore, the question of how to define coral could be approached from a medical, superstitious, scientific, or purely aesthetic point of view. Some used coral as a treatment for anaemia; others kept it as a talisman against being struck down by lightning, or the evil eye; naturalists debated whether to classify it as mineral or animal; and finally, those with an eye for aesthetics simply arranged it based on its brilliant red hue. Clearly, there was no one correct way to execute a cabinet of curiosities; the personal level of choice involved in collecting was representative of the range in scientific and religious values at this time.’

Today’s categorisation of coral is also not clear-cut either:  we find that ‘Scientists generally divide coral reefs into four classes: fringing reefs, barrier reefs, atolls, and patch reefs’ also, ‘The three main types of coral reefs are fringing, barrier, and atoll.’ And in an interesting article on mapping coral, ‘Dead coral (DC) is listed as an additional category instead of being categorized as rock. ‘

Coral categories serve as an illustration of the dangers of categorising.  As the HBR authors say ‘Categories lead to a fixed worldview. They give us a sense that this is how things are, rather than how someone decided to organize the world. John Maynard Keynes articulated the point beautifully. “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas,” he wrote, “but in escaping from the old ones.”’

The HBR authors suggest categorising ‘can lead you to compress the members of a category, treating them as if they were more alike than they are; amplify differences between members of different categories; discriminate, favoring certain categories over others; and fossilize, treating the categorical structure you’ve imposed as if it were static.’  (I ask myself if these four dangers of categorising are, themselves, categories?)

They offer four ways of avoiding the dangers.  The most interesting of these is to ‘schedule regular “defossilization” meetings’; ‘holding regular events in ‘which you scrutinize your most basic beliefs about what is happening in your industry. Is your model of the customer landscape still relevant? Are customer needs and desires changing?’   This could work if we avoided categorising the people who should attend these events.   A random selection would (probably) work better than selected invitees – see Matthew Syed’s new book Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking on this.

The HBR article concludes: ‘Categories are how we make sense of the world and communicate our ideas to others. But we are such categorization machines that we often see categories where none exist. That warps our view of the world, and our decision making suffers. In the old days, businesses might have been able to get by despite these errors. But today, as the data revolution progresses, a key to success will be learning to mitigate the consequences of categorical thinking.’

What categorical thinking are organisation designers subject to?  How do we mitigate any negative consequences of this?  Let me know.

Image: Coral ID

Zoom from ignorance to omniscience

‘His qualifications for writing The Body are even, fewer, but because he knew almost nothing about his subject, he had to explain everything from first principles, as much to himself as to his readers.  It is this that makes Bryson … a hero to all feature writers.   Our job is to zoom from ignorance to omniscience, but we can aspire to do so with only a fraction of Bryson’s clarity, readability and humour.’  (Andrew Billen, reviewing Bill Bryson’s new book The Body).

I read this review yesterday, having just come back from an organisation design workshop I was facilitating, where someone told the story of engaging expensive consultants to come into the organisation to develop a new design for one of the business units.  After almost 6 months of work the consultants, who’d worked with the internal consulting team, presented their proposals to the Director who said ‘that’s good work, but I think we’ll do it this way instead’.  Apparently, he’d seized the existing organisation chart and just re-drawn the lines and boxes in a slightly different configuration.

This bore no relation to the consultants’ proposals, nor acknowledged the work that had gone into involving staff/stakeholders in developing a design where the organisation chart was one outcome of a careful and reflective assessment of what was needed to resolve the issues.

Nevertheless, positional power ruled, and people started to get an implementation plan together for the leader’s ‘design’.  3 months later he’d left the organisation and his new org chart, along with the expensive consultants’ reflective design was no more.  The issues remained along with the de-motivation that the leader had generated.

This story came after the conversation I’d had earlier in the week with an internal consultant from one of the biggest, global tech companies.  He’d been talking about the difficulty of getting sensible, worked through, collaborative proposals for improvement through the power system.  Expertise and involvement gave way to individual positional power and similar ‘we’ll do it this way instead’ in the stories he told.

These stories of power trumping expertise are both familiar and dispiriting and I think it’s a more common experience for internal consultants than for external ones.  Indeed, one member of the workshop I mentioned earlier, told a story of someone who’d left the organisation because she felt her expertise wasn’t valued.  She’d joined a major consultancy and returned to the same organisation and experienced a quite different reception now she had the badge of external credibility.

In Flawless Consulting, Peter Block discusses the ‘important differences between internal and external consultants’.  In his view ‘The difficulty of being a prophet in your own land is overplayed and can be used as a defence, but there is some truth in it.’

I don’t think it is over-played.  My observation and experiences are that expertise is under-valued compared with positional power and I’m beginning to wonder whether the leaders in most organisations zoom from ignorance on matters of organisation design towards obtuseness and heel-digging, rather than to omniscience.  (Please tell me I am wrong).

In fact, I asked an internal consultant turned external consultant, whether he thought ‘organisation design as a ‘discipline’ has had its day?  Someone asked me a few weeks ago, whether I thought it had and I’ve been thinking on it.   What’s your view?’  His response was: ‘I think organisation design still has legs. We are doing a lot to join up design with the other aspects of transformation to develop good people-centred approaches to transformation. I think there is more demand than ever for that kind of work. My view was always that org design projects need to pay attention to the cultural, leadership and change impacts from day one. Buyers in the market seem to be appreciating that more. So, the good org design people will stay busy, but the mechanistic approaches will hopefully die off.  I still see too many examples of poor design causing problems, or poor design process causing problems. The design skill set still needs investment’.

However, maybe I’m predisposed to focus on the negative things in this case. Because my feeling, that organisation design expertise is under/not valued, was endorsed when another member of the group I was working with asked me how you could short-cut the ground-work of organisation design (finding out what’s going on in the context, whether what’s presenting as a problem is the real problem, whether organisation design is the issue and not something else, etc).

She asked because she was working with a leader who thought doing this kind of work was a waste of time and they should ‘just get on with the re-structure’ i.e. changing the lines and box configuration on the organisation chart.

What is it about an organisation chart that leaders tend to seize on and alter and think they are ‘designing’, without reference to any knock-on effects on work-flow, information flows, system, processes and interdependencies?  And without any expertise in organisation design methods and practices?

Searching for an answer to my question – is expertise under/de-valued? I remembered the infamous quote from UK politician Michael Gove. He ‘refused to name any economists who back Britain’s exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.’

I then came across a book review of The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols.  The reviewer, Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, says that ‘Nichols’ focus is on the US, but the parallels with similar nations are myriad. He expresses a deep concern that “the average American” has base knowledge so low it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed”, passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong”. And this is playing out against a backdrop in which people don’t just believe “dumb things”, but actively resist any new information that might threaten these beliefs.’  Having read the review, I instantly bought the book.

Maybe what I’m observing is part of a societal trend away from valuing expertise. Ola Rosling,co-author of Factfulness and president of the foundation Gapminder,  ‘is dedicated to exposing common misconceptions about the world and promoting a fact-based viewpoint’. He says that ‘we need to realise that we are ignorant about our ignorance.’  But that is easier said than done.

Herrero Leander makes a point that ‘we are all traders of comfort’, saying ‘Each of us carves out the world around by areas of comfort. Within that area, ‘our certainty’ is high.’   He asserts that ‘The financial analyst, the trader, and the risk manager think that what they do is something concrete, evidence driven and not that complicated. The HR specialist, the psychotherapist and the designer would not touch those areas and declare them opaque and unintelligible.’ His view is that we seek comfort.

On this argument, it may be that leaders are uncomfortable with the way organisation designers do their work and we should make efforts to help them feel comfortable about it.  This somewhat echoes Nichol’s view (as reported by the reviewer) that experts should:

  • Strive to be more humble.
  • Vary their information sources, especially where politics is concerned, and not fall into the same echo chamber that many others inhabit.
  • Be less cynical. Here he counsels against assuming people are intentionally lying, misleading or wilfully trying to cause harm
  • Be more discriminating – to check sources scrupulously for veracity and for political motivations.

Do you think organisation designers’ expertise is undervalued?  Could we do more to help our clients zoom from ignorance to omniscience?  Let me know.

Image: Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance, with Consort, 1522-50, Nepal – New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art

Supporting a micro organisation design

I’ve been in discussion for a while with a client who wanted further support with her micro organisation which she decided to expand by about 25% and expects the expansion to have significant impact on other organisational members.  She’s a pretty demanding client with clear views on how things should be done but over time we’ve built up a trusting relationship realising as consultant, Michael Johnson notes, ‘When you’re in an environment where you’re having substantial change in the organization, there will be natural conflict. There will be times when the consultant does not perform, and times when the organization also fails to meet expectations.’

So, I felt reasonably confident that on this next assignment I’d be ok.  She was a little vague on assignment start dates – plus or minus a couple of weeks, and she said she might call me up suddenly.  I wondered if I’d be able to drop everything and come at very short notice.

Fortunately I’d put contingency plans in place and the call came last Friday.

I’m now engaged in my new assignment, supporting my daughter’s family of new-born, 2, 9, and 13 year olds. (New-born is the only girl.  We don’t know yet what her pronouns are – for the moment we are using she/her).

It’s not the typical consulting assignment, for a start it’s 24 hours a day – well beyond the maximum weekly working hours allowed, it involves very frequent lifting of heavyish  weight (13 kg)  with no way of enforcing a no lifting policy and it’s a hotbed of competing priorities that are all clustered only in the top left hand box of the Eisenhower matrix  (urgent & important).

Life since Friday 27 September has been a whirlwind of washing up, washing machine filling, hanging wet clothes, folding dry clothes, putting clothes on people, taking clothes off people (here people = children), running to the supermarket, making tea and toast for various, going to and from a) childminder  b) primary school, becoming a wet-wipe addict (bums, faces, surfaces etc – not the same wet-wipe), unblocking sinks – me one, plumber second one, ensuring correct items are in back-packs: football kit, table tennis kit, reading book, homework book, drinks, snacks, permission slips  … Plus lots of other things and the joys of disturbed nights – Friday night sharing my bed with the 2-year old and the 9-year old.  (The 13-year old was away – sensibly – at a Woodcraft Folk camp). Saturday night sharing my bed with the 2-year old from 03:00 – 06:30 when I got up and he stayed soundly asleep.

A couple of hours into the first night I remembered my own parenting assignment when someone sent me the The String & Octopus Guide to Parenthood.  It’s 12 simple tests for expectant parents to take to prepare themselves for the real-life experience of being a mother or father.

Test 3 is: ‘To discover how the nights will feel, walk around the living room from 5pm to 10pm carrying a wet bag weighing approximately 8-12 lbs. At 10pm put the bag down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep. Get up at 12 and walk around the living room again, with the bag, till 1am. Put the alarm on for 3am. As you can’t get back to sleep get up at 2am and make a drink. Go to bed at 2.45am. Get up again at 3am when the alarm goes off. Sing songs in the dark until 4am. Put the alarm on for 5am. Get up. Make breakfast. Keep this up for 5 years. Look cheerful.’

The 12 tests should be mandated for grandparents (as they will have forgotten what their first experience of parenting was like).

It’s not quite a normal day in the office, but it does bear some striking similarities:

  • I’ve substituted wet wipes for post notes, and unblocking sinks for getting a committee paper through the clearance process.
  • I’ve applied multiple conflict management techniques – easily transferable from adult leaders to children (but they don’t always work!)
  • I use Trello in my daily organisation design work and I’ve added a new board for the family.
  • I’m multi-tasking with what feels like one hand tied behind my back – the office scenario is something like taking a phone call while photocopying and looking for another ream of copy paper simultaneously, the domestic equivalent is the baby in one arm, dressing the toddler with the other, with What’s App on speaker phone telling the mother what’s going on.

Beyond the day to day similarities, I’m asking myself if the thirty or so years that I’ve spent in organisation design helped now I am in this particular assignment.  Yes, in theory,    I’m considering advising, for example:

  • Applying some agile methodology principles.  Take a look at the Agile Practices for Families: Iterating with Children and Parents which could systematize and standardize things.
  • Reviewing their performance management system to make it transparent, simple, effective, consistent and reinforcing of their purpose.
  • Getting the right (in this case, physical) structures that will aid performance/productivity – more coat hooks, a specific place for like objects e.g. all balls in the ball box, etc.
  • Assigning clear roles and accountabilities , particularly for repetitive processes like washing up.  I considered the RACI matrix but I’m not a great fan of it.

As in several assignments I’ve been involved in over the years, getting agreement to implement is tricky given the usual short term daily pressures.   In this case, the organisational scenario is incredibly like test 5 in the String and Octopus Guide:

Get ready to go out. Wait outside the loo for half an hour. Go out the front door. Come in again. Go out. Come back in.  Go out again. Walk down the front path. Walk back up it. Walk down it again. Walk very slowly down the road for 5 minutes. Stop to inspect minutely every cigarette end, piece of used chewing gum, dirty tissue and dead insect along the way. Retrace your steps. Scream that you’ve had as much as you can stand, until the neighbours come out and stare at you. Give up and go back into the house. You are now just about ready to try taking children to childminder/school.

Even if we did implement, there’s no guarantee that implementing the changes would benefit the organisation – assuming we could measure the benefits.   Transformation could fail for several of the reasons Kotter mentions:

  • Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency – the family’s functioned quite well enough so far so why bother changing (although adding the additional child may force urgency and create the ‘burning platform’)
  • Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition – we may be able to mandate a specific place for like objects but we need to get all family members to agree to put them there (with a good reason to)
  • Not Systematically Planning For and Creating Short-Term Wins – Kotter points out that ‘Without short-term wins, too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those people who have been resisting.’  Short term wins for differing ages poses a challenge equal to that of trying a ‘one size fits all’ employee win.

But with or without implementation in the same way that work brings rewards as well as frustrations, my current assignment is hugely rewarding and minimally frustrating.   With thanks to my employer for enabling the (grand)parent leave to do this.

Are families micro-organisations? Can you use organisation design principles with them?  Let me know.




Designing a listening organisation

Over and over, we hear, talk, and read about ‘learning organisations’.  It was Peter Senge, who popularized learning organizations in his book The Fifth Discipline, describing them as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”  (Watch a short video by Peter Senge explaining the concept here).

One morning last week, I read about a new book by Stephen Martin & Joseph Marks: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, And Why.  The Financial Times, citing it as book of the month (September), says ‘In Messengers, business columnist Stephen Martin and psychologist Joseph Marks explore the reasons why we are more likely to listen to celebrities — like Keegan and Botham — than to experts. Outlining eight fundamental traits they explain how these underpin every aspect of daily social interaction and determine: “Who we listen to. What we believe. And what we become.” Supported by numerous studies and examples, this zeitgeisty book shows how our innate deference to factors such as beauty and status over evidence and expertise make it “scarcely surprising that we live in a world awash with ‘fake news’”.

Several meetings later in the day, I realised I’d been noticing how little listening was going on in the meetings and who it was people were listening to.  People were speaking what Krista Tippett calls ‘competing certainties coming with a drive to resolution’.  With higher postional status people being listened to more than those with lower positional status (but more expert status).  Tippett says that this ‘cultural mode of debating’ is about wanting ‘others to acknowledge that our answers are right’.   It comes with the organisational jargon of ‘getting people on the same page’ or ‘one version of the truth’ or ‘common ground’ – all phrases which I’ve heard several times this week.

Tippett notes that ‘We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about.  This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.’

Given the pressure now to design organisations where you can ‘bring your whole self to work’ (more on this phrase in a future blog), and where there is a stated emphasis on diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, it is critical that develop listening skills.  Rachel Naomi Remen – advises,  ‘The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.’   Tippett thinks ‘it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew’.

Research points to the role of listening in producing positive interaction outcomes. For example, effective listeners:

  • Enable uncertainty reduction and information management
  • Generally, project more positive impressions than ineffective listeners
  • Are perceived to be more trustworthy, friendly, understanding and socially attractive
  • Produce more satisfying (i.e., rewarding) interactions between, for example, patients and their physicians, real estate clients and their agents, protégés and their mentors, and between wives and husbands

There is no shortage of information on developing individual listening skills which may be usefully offered as part of employee/leader development.

However, as the report Creating An ‘Architecture Of Listening’ In Organizations notes:

‘there is little focus on organizational listening … Organizations such as government departments and agencies, corporations, NGOs, and non-profit organizations have thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of stakeholders – whether these are citizens, customers, shareholders, employees, members, patients, or ‘consumers’ generally. Therefore, organizations need to be capable of large-scale listening. 

Organizational listening is long overdue for close study because of (1) this lack of focus; (2) because of its importance in addressing the widely-discussed ‘democratic deficit’ in politics, the lack of trust in government, corporations and institutions, and social inequities; and (3) because organizational listening involves particular challenges and requirements.’

Large scale organisational listening has ‘policy, cultural, structural, human resource, systems, and technological dimensions’.  The report is firm, saying it cannot be achieved ‘simply by adding a listening tool or solution, such as automated software applications, listening posts, or a tokenistic ‘have your say’ page on a Web site. Effective organizational listening requires an architecture of listening, designed into an organization and be deployed in a coherent complementary way, comprising eight key elements’

  1. A culture of listening;
  2. Policies for listening;
  3. Addressing the politics of listening;
  4. Structures and processes for listening;
  5. Technologies for listening;
  6. Resources for listening;
  7. Skills for listening;
  8. Articulation of listening to decision-making and policy making

These eight elements are described as an ‘architecture of listening’ because they need to be designed into an organization and be deployed in a coherent complementary way.   The report argues that the potential benefits from designing a listening organisation, for governments, business, professional practices, and society include:

  • Reinvigoration of the public sphere and civil society through increased citizen participation and increased trust in government and institutions
  • Increased trust in business and improved reputation and customer satisfaction, leading to more sustainable businesses
  • Increased business productivity and efficiency through motivated engaged employees
  • Increased social equity including attention to the voices of ignored and marginalized groups
  • More ethical and more effective approaches in political communication, marketing communication, public relations, corporate communication, organizational communication, and other public communication practices.

Each of these elements is discussed in the report, which then warns: ‘With the eight elements of an architecture of listening in place, organizations are in a position to undertake the work of listening. Organizations should make no mistake; large-scale listening is work. Declaring a policy of listening and inviting feedback, comment, and input are only the beginning.

The concluding paragraph of the report talks about listening across borders, saying:

‘Not only are borders geographic, but they exist as political and ideological borders. Communication is the primary mechanism for breaching borders without unwelcome incursion. But communication across borders must involve open, ethical listening, not simply intelligence gathering or selective listening to serve one’s own interests. We hear often of ‘communication breakdowns’ and the tendency is to believe that these are caused by not making a case (i.e., speaking) well enough. But rarely are communication breakdowns caused by a lack of talking; they are usually the result of a lack of listening. Today we have the skills and technologies to listen to the universe. But often we don’t listen to people around us.’

This rings true about what I’ve been observing recently.  The borders are there within organisations as well as across organisations and societies.   There are ways of breaching them but it takes a will, courage and perseverance.   But it’s worth the effort.  Krista Tippett offers insight on the human value of designing listening organisations saying:   ‘listening  invites searching – not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree;  but what is at stake in human terms for us all.’

She quotes Frances Kissling who says ‘You’ve got to put yourself at the margins and be willing to risk in order to make change.’

Do you think organisation designers will take the risk of designing listening organisations?  Let me know.

Image: The Politics of Listening

Designing Empowerment

Many words and phrases in organisational use puzzle me.  ‘Bring your whole self to work’ is a current one, as is ‘empowerment’, and ‘resilience’.  They’re possibly ok as concepts, but what do they mean in practice and what are the organisational design implications of them.

Empowerment caught my attention this week as I was with a leadership team talking about organisational culture.  They felt they wanted a ‘culture of empowerment’.

First a definition.  According to the Business Dictionary empowerment is:

‘a management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.

Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction. ‘

Explicit in the definition is the ‘gift’ of empowerment.  The idea of ‘giving’ empowerment means that there may be situations in which empowerment is not given.  The definition does not cover the motivation for giving the gift, nor the recipient’s response to it.

Leandro Herrero explores some of this aspect in one of his Daily Thoughts.

‘The ‘expectations muddle’ of empowerment has different shapes and flavours:

  1. I expect you to do something but you don’t think you are empowered to do.
  2. I empower you to do something (I have decided it is good to empower you) but you don’t want to be empowered (too much responsibility?)
  3. I am told that delegation is good, so I delegate, but call it empowerment. But I am just passing the monkey on to you.
  4. I empower you, you think I am abdicating.
  5. I don’t have permission to do, or I think I don’t have, I feel I am not empowered, but you never thought you needed to give me permission.
  6. You are empowered! Here you are! Take it. What? (Is he ok?)
  7. Empowering you means you need to behave as if you were the owner of the business (does it mean I can have your bonus?)
  8. We are all empowered, for goodness sake, just take accountability for things!
  9. I am empowering you to be empowered, but not too much, because I will lose control.
  10. I am told to let it go, so I am empowering you, but you don’t believe me for a second, because you know me. So I may have to do something more than just saying it.
  11. You are empowered. Please report to me weekly on the hitting of milestones, number of KPIs and times you took a break.
  12. I can’t empower everybody, it would be a disaster.’

In our discussions we concluded that leadership team members needed to come to some agreement on what empowerment ‘looks like’ and situations or contexts where they want to give the gift of empowerment to employees.

As an example, I told the story of Pret a Manager that asks the baristas to give away a number of free coffees per week ‘Pret employees tell me that the freedom to give a free coffee is immensely empowering. It injects a random act of kindness into the day. It gives delight and hurts not.’  But the giveaways come with some controls – a limit to the number of giveaways, an expectation that the barista won’t consistently give the same person a free coffee, etc.  Empowerment comes with controls.

Eric Flamholtz, an academic, points out that ‘control over an organization can be exercised through many mediums’.  He defines an ‘organizational control system as a set of mechanisms – both processes and techniques – which are designed to increase the probability that people will behave in ways that lead to the attainment of organizational objectives. The ultimate objective of a control system is not to control the specific behavior of people per se, but, rather, to influence people to take actions and make decisions which in their judgement are consistent with organizational goals’.

So, once the realm of empowerment is agreed, then what controls have to be designed to enable, require, or expect employees to accept the gift of it (and what are the penalties if they don’t?).

There are various views on the categories of organisational control systems.  Sticking with Flamholtz for now, he presents a useful framework ‘for understanding the nature, role, functioning, design, and effects of organizational control systems’.  He discusses five control processes: planning, operations, measurement, feedback and evaluation-reward. ‘Each of these individual components of the core control system is itself a system, while at the same time functioning as a sub-system of the overall core control system’.  To design the control system that results in the desired behaviour he discusses what control systems must do:

  • They must be able to motivate people to make decisions and take actions which are consistent with organizational objectives.
  • They must integrate the efforts of several different parts of an organization. Even when people are trying to act in the organizations’ best interests, they may find themselves working at cross-purposes.
  • They must provide information about the results of operations, and people’s performance. This is referred to as, ‘autonomy with control.’
  • They must facilitate the implementation of strategic plans.

Another view on control systems is from Robert Simons who proposed four types:

  • Diagnostic control systems allow managers to ensure that important goals are being achieved efficiently and effectively.
  • Beliefs systems empower individuals and encourage them to search for new opportunities. They communicate core values and inspire all participants to commit to the organization’s purpose.
  • Boundary systems establish the rules of the game and identify actions and pitfalls that employees must avoid.
  • Interactive control systems enable top-level managers to focus on strategic uncertainties, to learn about threats and opportunities as competitive conditions change, and to respond proactively.

Others categories control systems in other ways, but the basic idea is that if we want to gift empowerment then a) we have to know within what parameters and b) design and establish controls that enable it within the parameters.

What both Simons and Flamholtz’s articles do is tackle the formal aspects of control systems.  The ‘gift’ of empowerment is designed within a controlling framework/system.   Simon, for example, says ‘Senior managers intentionally design beliefs systems to be broad enough to appeal to many different groups within an organization: salespeople, managers, production workers, and clerical personnel.’

What neither writer does is address the emotional/feelings aspects that underpin Herrero’s ‘expectations muddle’.

In his article ‘The growing role of informal controls: does organization learning empower or subjugate workers?’ academic, Laurie Pant, notes that ‘under uncertainty, when the goals and means of accomplishing goals may be unknown, control assessments shift to outcomes (did we achieve the objective?) or to judgements (is there a consensus that things are being done right?), at this point, he says, ‘informal controls such as group norms become especially important.’  How clear the informal controls are or are not will inform the  attitudes to and expectations of empowerment.

What are the formal and informal controls around empowerment in your organisation? How are you designing control systems to curb or encourage empowerment?  Let me know.

Image: Raúl León Alvarez, Autoprision

Storytelling and organisation design

There’s a lovely Heritage Centre at Nant Gwtheyrn where I was staying last week.  One of the wall posters says ‘We love a good story in Wales’, which continued my thinking about storytelling.

It had been prompted the previous week when I’d been at a 90-minute storytelling session led by RADA Business  (The business arm of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).  It was a great session, and I jotted down the facilitator’s list of ‘what stories need’ (I think I got it all).

  • Conflict
  • A hero (not necessarily a person)
  • The given circumstances (where we are, context, time/place, here/now)
  • High stakes that create tension (it must matter)
  • A choice
  • A consequence of the choice
  • The end – something has changed.  The journey ends at a different place to the start.  We know what has changed along the way.
  • The structure of a story comes from choice, consequence, change

Storytelling in organisation design crops up from time to time. One is in ‘The Palace: Perspectives on Organisation Design’,  from the Institute of Employment Studies, ‘ The story begins:  ‘Once upon a time not that long ago and not that far away, there was a large palace… The Palace was ancient and large, having been built up over very many years, and experienced numerous modifications over its long history….’

It’s a delight to read, with most of the story elements in the bulleted list, and anyone working in a bureaucracy will recognise the barons ‘being in charge of sectors or wings’ and ‘at times’ being ‘more focused on settling their scores with other barons than watching out for their common enemy outside the wall’.  Making me laugh each time I read the story is the ‘Group Architecture Touchstone Document conjured at great expense, by some wizards called McKinsey, decreeing how the barons should work together’.

The story of an old palace is used, very successfully, ‘to consider the challenges of design in a complex and highly connected world, where organisations are expected to be agile and innovative, work globally in a seamless way, and continually engage talented employees through an attractive employer brand.’

I’ve also enjoyed Dee Hock’s story of designing Visa’s leadership .His story begins: ‘There was a time a few years back when for one brief moment the essence of leadership was crystal clear to me. Strangely, it was after leaving Visa and moving to a small, isolated ranch for a life of study and contemplation, raising a few cattle. I was attending to chores in the barn, comfortable and secure from the wind howling about the eaves and the roar of torrential rain on the tin roof. Through the din, I became aware of the faint, persistent bellowing of one of the cows’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Faster, Shorter, Cheaper May Be Simple; It’s Never Easy‘,  the story of how Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff redesigned one of IKEA’s processes which became the prototype for others. This chatty case study, has all the elements of a story, and the section on ‘The Meeting’ has emotional resonance for me  – Weisbord and Janoff report: ‘A jarring surprise for us was the promised flowchart. We anticipated a detailed systems map. What we found on the wall was a simple diagram with three circles on it. We looked at each other. “We can’t get there from here! ”We were starting from scratch after all. People were already filing in, many having just flown half way around the world. Despite the bare-bones flowchart, we saw no choice but to proceed with our original plan and hope for a breakthrough.’

I wonder if we underplay storytelling in the design process.  There is masses of information and practice tips on storytelling but not so much applied specifically to organisation design, beyond the ‘tell a compelling story’ that leaders are urged to do when motivating people to change or undertake a ‘transformation journey’.

I’ve noticed that when I’m facilitating organisation design training programmes people like the stories I tell about my day to day design work.  What I don’t do as much is apply storytelling into my design processes.   Now I’m thinking that I will do more of it and see if brings any different/positive dimensions.

A research article Design Process and Organisational Strategy: A Storytelling Perspective, suggests it would have ‘substantial value’.  The researchers found that storytelling in design work:

  • develops a sense of community and shared experience
  • helps people to construct meaning in a situation or context
  • achieves or aids change and fosters a cultural shift
  • offers new knowledge and different perspectives/interpretations
  • brings emotions and feelings into play

The same researchers developed and tested a Design Storytelling Impact-Approach Framework,  incorporating both visual and verbal stories.  Their testing found that ‘storytelling that uses familiarity has proved to have positive relationships with constructing meaning and critique of design concepts. Storytelling that uses imagery has proved to have a positive relationship with altering perceptions and critique of design concepts. Finally, storytelling with a higher degree of audience involvement in authoring is positively linked to developing a deeper understanding of the design concept.

An example of using storytelling in service design is described in the article Storytelling Group – a co-design method for service design: ‘Storytelling Group combines collaborative scenario building and focus group discussions. It inspires service design by providing different types of user information: a fictive story of a customer journey is created to illustrate a ‘what if’ world, users tell real-life stories about their service experiences, users come up with new service ideas, and they are also asked about their opinions and attitudes in a focus-group type of discussion.’

The authors describe it as ‘a quick start for actual design work but still includes users in the process.’ This approach could equally be used in organisation design.

In the Journal of Organisation Design, there’s an article, Constructing M&A valuation: how do merger evaluation methods differ as uncertainty and controversy vary?, with a section devoted to storytelling in the M & A process.  In the section we are told that ‘stakeholders construct and tell stories in support of their goals. Subgroups with the strongest combinations of concrete and intuitive stories tend to win the debate about the [M & A] deal.

The author of another research article that has applicability to organisation design, Storytelling in Organizations: The power and traps of using stories to share knowledge in organizations, tells and interprets several short stories, concluding, ‘Cases like these illustrate why storytelling is so effective in a variety of domains. Stories can be a very powerful way to represent and convey complex, multi-dimensional ideas.  Well-designed, well-told stories can convey both information and emotion, both the explicit and the tacit, both the core and the context (Snowden, 2000).

Do you use storytelling in your organisation design practices and processes?  What impact does it have on the design outcome?  Let me know.

Senior responsible officers and project sponsors

Someone asked me the other day how many projects a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) could realistically be responsible for.  He’d been looking at a list that showed a small number of people being repeatedly named as the SRO for a large number of projects.  One person being SRO for 6 projects, and this on top of their normal ‘day’ job.

An SRO is a peculiarly UK public sector role, first recommended for IT enabled projects in the McCartney Report in 2000.  Current Guidance on SROs published in July 2019 states that:

Strong leadership with clear accountability are key elements of successful project delivery. The requirement to appoint a senior responsible owner (SRO) for a programme or project has been established in government for over two decades, and is now mandated in the government functional standard for project delivery. 

The fact that the role is now mandated demonstrates its (potential) value.   In the private sector the term ‘senior responsible officer’ is not used, but all the private sector projects I’ve worked on have a ‘sponsor’.   Comparing the role of the SRO and the more familiar, to me, role of the sponsor, I found that they are pretty much identical.

The SRO ‘is ultimately accountable for a programme or project meeting its objectives, delivering the projected outcomes and realising the required benefits. He or she is the owner of the business case and accountable for all aspects of governance.

The sponsor ‘is accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs. … As owner of the business case, the project sponsor is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the benefits. So, the sponsorship role covers the whole project life cycle.’

Assuming that the roles are the same, is there anything that can be learned around either SRO or sponsor capability and capacity to take accountability for projects that could be usefully applied, irrespective of role title?  As there’s far more written about SROs than sponsors I’ve stuck with SROs but the info is equally applicable to sponsors.

I found the Office of Government Commerce 2009, Bulletin 5, Lessons Learned: The SRO Role in Major Government Programmes.  It  highlights ways in which to make the SRO role more effective, saying:  ‘In summary, the SRO role can be made to work more effectively by addressing a number of factors, including:

  • Better understanding of the role
  • Selection of the right people to act as SROs
  • Giving SROs real accountability and business authority to resolve issues
  • Ensuring SROs have relevant delivery skills and experience, including commercial awareness
  • SROs dedicating sufficient time to the role
  • Improved continuity of the role through the project life-cycle
  • Improved tools, guidance and development opportunities for SROs
  • Provision of adequate supporting resources.’

Ten years on, this list seems, in my experience, to be just as relevant today and also applicable to project sponsors.   The list also helps answer my questioner who has recognised an issue with SROs having too little time to dedicate to the role, and lack of selection of SROs against specific criteria for the projects they are now being held accountable for.

The document The Role of the SRO, published in July 2019 gives a comprehensive picture of what is expected from an SRO and the relationships of this role to others in a project/programme.  It also discusses the time required to do the role and the skills needed.

In a similar, but chattier, vein the booklet (44 pages) The Art of Brilliance – written by SROs for SROs charts the five challenges SROs face and how to overcome them.  The burble tells us that the book ‘unpacks the behavioural characteristics of highly successful leaders of transformation to help move your professional performance from ‘good to great’.’  It is really worth reading, with each of the 6 chapters structured similarly:

  • The typical challenge facing SROs drawn from the breadth of behavioural insights drawn out from the research to support SROs in addressing the challenge.
  • Research based techniques that provide practical advice for SROs throughout the course of their work.
  • Case studies from other SROs and the private sector
  • Red flags that each SRO should watch out for in the delivery of the programme.
  • Nudges to encourage the SRO to focus on really critical issues.

Sponsors, in any sector, would learn from this book that one SRO described as a ‘pocket sized coach’.

What all the various info on SROs does is emphasise that being an SRO (or sponsor) is not an add on to a ‘day job’.  It is a demanding role that requires special skills and a project/programme delivery focus. Axelos provides a description. ‘An SRO must be someone who can:

  • broker and build strong relationships with stakeholders within and outside the programme/project environment and network effectively within the broader organization and beyond.
  • deploy delegated authority to ensure that the programme/project achieves its agreed objectives with appropriate oversight, dependent on the size, risk, complexity of the programme/project environment and capability.
  • provide ad hoc direction and guidance to the programme/project manager and team as required.
  • acknowledge their own skill/knowledge gaps, seek appropriate guidance and structure the programme/project board and programme/project management teams accordingly; ensuring the right people, with the right skills, with the right capabilities and personalities appropriate for the organizational culture are available when required.
  • give the time required to perform the role effectively but also the support and guidance to build the right capability in the programme/project team to enable an effective [project] organizational structure.
  • negotiate well and influence people, particularly important skills that enable SROs to lead with authority.
  • be aware of the organizational strategies and direction and how it affects the programme/project and if necessary, make informed decisions in terms of readiness for the next phase/stage. Noting success is not only defined as the delivery of a customer desired tangible product or service within time, cost and quality parameters but also prematurely closing a programme/project that is no longer aligned to strategic intent or likely to deliver the financial and quantifiable benefits to the user knowing that the investment saved can be better spent elsewhere to deliver strategic intent.
  • be honest and transparent about a programme/project progress. This is someone who not only scrutinizes progress report information but also holds the programme/project manager to account. The SRO role exists not only to receive information but to enable checks and balances to occur by being proactive and to probe evidence by asking questions. This is important irrespective of the value of the programme/project. SROs need to continually understand why resources (people, funds, assets, materials and services) are being invested and what the desired outcomes are.

I don’t know if there is any certification or reputable training programmes for would be (or current) SROs/sponsors, none appear when googling, but if there were, I think participants would quickly learn that they can’t be responsible for multiple projects, and that being responsible takes time and skill.

What’s your view of the SRO/sponsor role?  Let me know.

Image: From The Art Of Brilliance