How do you change what it is that people value in a system?

At the breakfast briefing I was at last week, I heard John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service  ‘discussing the current {UK} Civil Service transformation agenda and offering his reflections on how the Civil Service and Private Sector can respectively learn from one another.’  During his talk, he posed the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’

Hearing it, I remembered the time when I was working on an office move.  We were asking (‘making’?) senior individuals to give up their individual offices – a perk of seniority – and work in open plan spaces.   One man was appalled at this idea, asking me ‘How will people know that I am important?’  He valued his own office as a symbol of ‘importance’.

I was amazed.  I hadn’t had my own office in years, I was used to roving around to find a hot desk or sitting in a cafe or working from home or other location.  I valued the flexibility and ability to meet people I wouldn’t meet if I were in my own private space.

However, that incident led me to look more closely at why we want to change what people value, what they value, and how do you change it if that’s what seems to be needed by leaders.

Change and transformation programmes typically involve a lot of clashes between what leaders value and what employees do.  For example, employees value having a job, leaders value automating the work .  Employees value a permanent contract, leaders value contingent labour, etc.  We want to change what people value in order to resolve this clash (in favour of the leader).

Manzoni talked about various aspects of transformation that he is involved with – they’re common to much of transformation work and they usually involve clashes of what people value. He mentioned:

Moving from hierarchy to flattening the organisation that erodes a grading structure or career ladder that people have often struggled up

Changing to regard expertise over generalists (or vice versa) that under-estimates the sense of professionalism and pride people feel in the role that they have done up to now

Relocating work which often involves more virtual/remote working that  bites at the social network and sense of community, or local identification that people enjoy about work

This ‘transformation’ activity, sometimes thoughtlessly, attacks what people value in an organisation.  Their response, which often comes across to leaders of the transformation charge, as resistance then stalls the process.  Hence the question, ‘How do we change what it is that people value in a system?’

In our office move case, it was clear that people valued private space which wasn’t on offer in the move scenario.   Typically, what happens next in this type of clash is activity of one type or another in which leaders try and ‘get’ people to ‘buy in’ to whatever the leader values at the expense of what the employee values.   The language and intent can feel coercive or manipulative.  See a Fast Company article How to Get Employee to Buy in to an Exceptional Culture

‘Getting people to buy in’ is hardly the stuff of most organisational values, and, I haven’t found lumping ‘people’ together a very productive route when I’ve been asked how to ‘get’ people to ‘buy-in’.  People value different things.  Some people in the office move loved the idea of giving up their private space because they’d felt isolated and looked forward to joining their team and colleagues in open plan, others took it as an opportunity to try out the various types of work spaces newly available freeing themselves from the idea of being tethered to a fixed desk.

I find a better approach is to try and understand the reasons why people value what they do and whether there are value substitutes that can be made or whether we (the transformation team) can adjust to respect what they value.   In the office move having a private office was a sacred cow to several people, albeit for different reasons:  for some as a symbol of power and for others as a symbol of their expertise, lawyers, for example, strongly valued the principle that they should meet their clients in their own private office.

In the office move case, I commissioned a team of academics to come in and look at the symbolic aspects of power and status.  Their research and findings helped us think through a range of ways of managing the potential loss of what the CEO called ‘private real estate’.

I’ve found the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’ to be one with no answer, many answers, and no right answers even if you think you have an answer.   As with anything complex what people value is contingent on situation and circumstance.  Behavioural economics has various theories on what people value which may help.  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good read that offers insights on what people value and why.

Over the weekend I read Stuart Heritage’s article on the stresses of parenting small children, what he values now – time to think,  a respite from the relentless grind, etc.  is not what he’s likely to value when his children are grown up.   He sees that too and has what could be a sage answer to the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’   (You’ll see I’ve made an edit to his statement): ‘Figuring this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of parenthood and change and transformation projects are a mess of short-term firefighting. When the time comes, when basic autonomy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoulders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s become my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.

What’s your take on the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’  Let me know.

Image: Flickr user John Lustig

Middle managers – why the label?

This week I was facilitating a workshop on middle managers’ roles in orchestrating organisational change.  A role which ‘entails directing (and redirecting) resources according to a [strategy] policy or plan of action, and possibly also reshaping organizational structures and systems’.

We were discussing what skills middle managers need and what factors inhibited or facilitated their role in what Heyden et al see as the two aspects of change:

Change initiation which ‘entails the ‘spark’ for change through activities such as identifying, articulating, and outlining an opportunity for change, formulating the initial business case, emphasizing its urgency, and securing key budgetary and resource commitments.’

Change execution which ‘is about realizing change plans through activities such as day-to-day adjustments, rolling out initiatives, aligning activities with stated objectives, translating overarching goals into periodic milestones, and giving sense and direction to change recipients.’

Kiehne et al take the view that middle managers face both ways in initiating and executing change and are ‘key players for making strategy work. They are both a source of knowledge for senior management to develop and formulate a strategy as well as a vital element in selling high level strategic plans to lower levels in the organization and even translating it and putting it into context so that working level employees can make sense of high level strategic directions’.

This viewpoint highlights the role of middle managers as arbiters and interpreters between two layers of a hierarchy, seeing ‘the vision at the top of the organisation and the pain at the bottom.’  Scott Adams, offers an alternative image of this, describing middle managers as ‘the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives’.

Whether they are interpreters, arbiters or glue, the role puts them in an uneasy position, rendering them, according to another researcher, ‘vulnerable and insecure’, having a ‘current identity of being a talented, technical professional dumped into a lonely world of endless pressure from above and suffocating people management issues from below.’

Building on this bleak picture, Boston Consulting Group says ‘Middle managers frequently … do not have the support of senior managers or effective levers to do their jobs and provide assistance to their employees’, and the CIPDs’, 2018 UK Working Lives Survey finds that, ‘At a broad level, poor well-being at work is most often experienced by middle managers, which may be a sign of the dual pressures of working with organisational strategy and day-to-day deliverables.’   The actual figures presented for middle managers are:

31% reported feeling overloaded

27% believe their work negatively affects their mental health

26% suffering with anxiety or depression within the last year

24% said they feel under excessive amounts of pressure

The discussion on these figures took an interesting turn.   Rather than seeing them as confirmation of the bleak picture of a squeezed and stressed managerial level, several in the group thought that the figures were actually rather good.  They felt that if things were as dispiriting as the various researchers’ findings, the figures would be much higher.   They began to contest the research – granting that the middle manager role is challenging but, in their experience, not more than managerial roles at lower or higher levels. The label of a middle management group that merited special attention slipped as someone pointed out that every level of manager faces both upwards and downwards.

With this backdrop, we turned to the list of roles middle managers typically play in the change process.  As interface between bottom and top levels they:

  • Communicate and transmit information from the bottom to the top level,
  • Exercise the role of defender (championing alternatives, guiding and promoting, defending, presenting alternatives to top management);
  • Take on the role of synthesizer (categorizing ideas, selling these ideas to top management, combining and applying the information, synthesising it);

And as interface from the top to bottom level they:

  • Act as facilitator (protecting and promoting adaptation activities, sharing information, guiding the adaptation, facilitating learning and adaptability);
  • Become an implementer (implementing deliberate strategy, reviewing and adjusting, motivating and inspiring as a coach).

Participants pointed out that all those roles are also played in the ‘day job’ – they are not specific to initiating or executing change.

So now we had the ideas that middle managers may or may not be unduly stressed, and the roles they play in their work are not specific to planned change work.   With these ideas we looked at Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis’s 4 quadrant model of middle managers’ roles in culture change.

The model proposes four types of managerial role in culture change.  Someone’s position on the matrix depending on the organisation culture and amount of control managers feel they can exert on the change:

Quadrant 1: Yes managers:  happy to go along with anything proposed by top managers and enjoy the ride.  ‘These middle managers are happy to fulfil requests from senior leaders. They regard themselves as lucky as, after all, their circumstances are beyond their capacity to influence.’

Quadrant 2: Effective change agents:  ‘working effectively both with senior leaders and with staff as positive change agents – sometimes initiated by senior leaders, sometimes initiated by staff and other times initiated by themselves.’

Quadrant 3: Change resistors: ‘In these circumstances, the middle manager aligns with staff (who are often negative) and typically they are at odds with senior leaders – sometimes explicitly, other times in a more subversive way.’

Quadrant 4: Embattled change agents: ‘This is a tough context as middle managers are often buffeted by senior leaders whose actions thwart their attempts to improve the work environment. In their belief that they can and do influence the culture, middle managers attempt to stay in touch with the issues as perceived by staff while struggling to do anything about them.’

I was proposing that middle managers should be aiming to be in quadrant 2 where they are able to influence the change in a supportive culture.   If they’re not headed in that direction Simpson and du Plessis say ‘we think there is value is digging a little deeper into the issue. For example, are middle managers feeling as though they are in Quadrant 4 where their attempts at change are being constrained by a negative culture without support from senior leaders? Or do middle managers have a victim mentality where everything is the fault of others?’

My proposal was challenged by participants – some arguing that being in quadrant 3 – the change resistors – was organisationally useful.  They felt that middle managers in this quadrant could be signalling that the change strategy was at odds with the reality of capacity to deliver it and keep the business running at the same time.  People supporting this view added that the managers in this quadrant could, legitimately, be protecting their staff from extra work pressures.

Similarly, other participants felt that quadrant 1, being the yes manager was a good place to be.  They felt it made life easier for the manager – assuming manager capability to engage employees in supporting the change – as the manager could more simply plan the change into the work without having to think too much about it, these participants felt it was a more stable environment for employees.

Participants agreed that quadrant 4 was a difficult place to be. Many of them had been in it and described it as ‘banging head against brick wall’ – resulting in them moving to either quadrant 3 (resistor) or quadrant 1 (yes manager).   They didn’t see this as failure but rather a pragmatic reassessment of where to put their energy.

Then somebody made the point that this role of change agent was not specific to middle management but part of every manager and leader role.

At this point I saw the middle manager label slip completely. They are neither unique in facing up and down, nor in being stressed in their work, nor in taking a role of change agent.

Do you think ‘middle managers’ need their own label?  Let me know.

Image: The god janus

Matrix structures: the pessimism advantage

Matrix oganisations have been loved and hated in varying proportions over the years.  They are problematic because their key feature, involves managers in two reporting lines: ‘vertically’ often along functional lines and also ‘horizontally’ (laterally) along project, product, client or geography lines.   The intended purpose of this dual reporting is to increase lateral co-ordination at the levels below the leadership team.

However, Nigel Nicholson, in How Hardwired is Human Behaviour? noted that: ‘[Matrix management] has proved to be one of the most difficult and least successful organizational forms. The reason?  Evolutionary psychologists contend that matrix forms are inherently unstable due to the conflicting pulls toward too many centers of gravity. People are instinctively drawn toward commitment to one community at a time, usually the one that is closer and more familiar to them. Thus, when a modern businessperson is asked to report both to her regional boss and to a product manager, she is typically drawn to the regional boss because he is physically closer to where the employee works and to what she knows best. Similarly, when a manager “belongs” to a function and a project, her allegiance to the function – her primary assignment – usually prevails. The dual loyalties required by matrix management are difficult to sustain in the long term.’

Because the idea of working as a matrix organisation is gaining ground in some work I am doing, I’ve just re-read the HBR 1990 article Bartlett and Ghoshal article Matrix Management: Not a Structure, a Frame of Mind Surely the date is wrong?  It could have appeared in this month’s HBR and would have been just as welcome and informative.  There’s no aging in the statement: ‘Today the most successful companies are those where top executives recognize the need to manage the new environmental and competitive demands by focusing less on the quest for an ideal structure and more on developing the abilities, behavior, and performance of individual managers.  Change succeeds only when those assigned to the new transnational and interdependent tasks understand the overall goals and are dedicated to achieving them.’

Continuing with HBR, the more recent, 2016, Vantrappen and Wirtz article Making Matrix Organizations Actually Work says much the same thing.  That in order to achieve good lateral co-ordination you need soft wiring and hard wiring.  Bartlett and Ghoshal (1990) describe this as the formal structure (basic anatomy) together with the soft elements of ‘organizational physiology—the systems and relationships that allow the lifeblood of information to flow through the organization, and a healthy organizational psychology—the shared norms, values, and beliefs that shape the way individual managers think and act.’

‘Actually work’ is a phrase associated with a classic book on matrix organisations.  Jay Galbraith, in his book Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work maintains that they do.   Phanish Puranam, writing an obituary of Galbraith, who died in 2014, recalls how Galbraith ‘laid out the problems with the pessimistic rhetoric about matrix structures (“utter nonsense!”), and how the label itself was being bandied about without any precision.’

Now, our organisational challenge is to make the matrix organisation idea ‘actually work’.  My task is to follow the optimists on the matrix structure and mindset rather than the pessimists.   I am, unfortunately, rather more drawn to the pessimists.  Luis Goncalves, blogging on the topic, for example, talks about the political in-fighting, the goal conflict, the blame culture, and the management issues. He bluntly says that a ‘matrix organisation harms your company’.

Research from McKinsey, Revisiting the Matrix Organization (2016) follows the bleaker outlook, finding that matrix organisations ‘may create uncomfortable ambiguity for employees … the structure gives rise to a lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, and who reports to whom’ and that ‘Most employees in matrixed organizations, according to the survey, aren’t terribly engaged with their jobs.’

However, if I look on the optimistic side of being a pessimist I can take the view that pessimism will lead me to examine the risks and downsides closely in order to avoid them as we head towards a matrix structure, thus pessimism becomes advantageous?

My pessimist/sceptical lens may lead me to closer critical reflection on the report from Hanover Research, Best Practices in Matrix Organizational Structures which offers potentially helpful questions to start us down the path of making the matrix actually work.

Echoing the hard/soft or anatomy/physiology/psychology of other writers on matrix organisations, this report’s authors preface their question set with the point that ‘matrix organization structures reflect the reality of today’s external and internal business complexity…but the matrix structure itself solves nothing—it is the way people operate the structure that makes the matrix organization succeed or fail.’  Their advice is ‘After deciding to adopt a matrix structure, particular consideration should be given to the following questions:

  • How do we operate effectively with responsibility and accountability without authority?
  • How do we manage expectations of multiple bosses?
  • What is the best way of dealing with ambiguous and shifting reporting lines?
  • How can we best influence those separated by distance/time/culture?
  • How do we manage communications?
  • How do we manage conflict?
  • How do we develop routine relationships?
  • How do we clarify role specifications/performance objectives?’

Rather than taking a pessimist view,  and getting stuck in thinking a matrix structure is unlikely to work, I could use the questions to ask ‘if [we did …]  then … ‘.

However, it’s easy to sink back into pessimism as the report says, ‘Successful implementation requires shifting the organization’s culture, addressing the important function of emotional intelligence, and providing comprehensive training for both leaders, [managers] and employees alike.’  No mean task in this.

For example, the ‘comprehensive training’ advocated requires considerable resource investment.  There is the practical skill development, related to the formal organisation, that leaders require e.g. setting two-manager objectives, assigning accountabilities and there is emotional skill development, specifically in what were found to be four competencies in leaders successful in matrix roles: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.  ‘Influence and conflict management capabilities help leaders to build consensus around a common purpose and deliver the collaborative solutions that the matrix requires. Empathy, on the other hand, enables leaders to develop a better understanding of their counterparts’ perspectives and their customers’ mindset. Self-awareness allows leaders to summon the patience to manage the complexities of the matrix. Three additional skills noted in this same article as critical are ability to build loyalty, trust and interpersonal relationships.

My pessimistic bent suggests that the resource investment will not be easy to get but then I ask myself ‘What are the innovative and creative ways of solving that problem – perhaps the TRIZ framework could help here?’.

Do you see a pessimist advantage in getting a matrix organisation to actually work?  How would you tackle the matrix challenge?  Let me know.

Image:  Antony Gormley, Matrix II 2014

The tyranny of metrics

When I read a review of Jerry Muller’s book, The Tyranny of Metrics, I immediately ordered a copy from my library.   I went to collect it the other day.

Risking the charge of confirmation bias, I nodded approvingly to myself when I read on page 3, ‘And gaming is only one class of problems that inevitably arise when using performance metrics as the basis of reward or sanction.’  As Muller points out ‘The things that get measured may draw effort away from the things that we really care about.’

Jonathan Harris, in his wonderful artpiece, Data Can Help Us, (image for this blog) also points this out in a series of provocative sentences, for example:  Data ‘will help educators make excellent standardised tests, but will it help us embrace different standards of excellence?’ (Here I had a brief pause to check if data is/are singular or plural) Harris warns us of the dangers of abandoning timeless decision-making tools like wisdom, morality, and personal experience in favour of data converted into numbers.

Similarly, Muller notes that ‘The most characteristic feature of metric fixation is the aspiration to replace judgement based on experience with standardized measurement’.

It’s not that numbers are ‘wrong’, it’s that converting data into meaningful numbers that are useful and could produce good outcomes is not easily done, as a good example in an HBR article Know the Difference Between Your Data and Your Metrics illustrates.  The authors say ‘As we learned, there is a difference between numbers and numbers that matter.’

I was drawn to Muller’s book because I work in a field, organisation design and development, where it is almost impossible to identify what numbers might matter – assuming that it is sensible to even try to reduce organisation development or organisation design to a metric, or set of metrics.   If I am asked to suggest meaningful metrics that might show that what OD & D practitioners do produces value (and for whom) I find it hard to offer anything with confidence.

One reason for this is that the metric required is often a monetary return-on-investment one (dollars or pounds).   However, a monetary unit is a different unit of measurement from what are sought as outcomes of the piece of work which could be, for example, increased collaboration, aligned leadership, a ‘one-team’ culture, etc). We expect that if the input is in money – cost of time to design and deliver the work, that the outcome will also be in money.

In any instance where the input unit is not the same as the output unit we are not comparing like units.  Sticking with money as an input unit, we could try and convert the outcome to units of money, but these would be proxy measures.  They distort how we see the outcomes.  There are several factors contributing to the distortion, among them:

  • we don’t know that there is a direct cause/effect relationship between the OD & D work what we are looking for in results
  • the conversion to like units is not easy to do – what are the proxy metrics of ‘aligned leadership’, for example, that would give us a monetary value?
  • interventions don’t create outcomes – they may create a different context that enable something to change – but it may not be what is expected.

Toby Lowe, a researcher on managing performance at the UK’s Newcastle University is clear that, ‘The simplification required to measure and attribute ‘outcomes’ turns the organisation and delivery of social interventions into a game, the rules of which promote gamesmanship, distorting the behaviour of organisations, managers and practitioners who undertake it.’

I collected Muller’s book a day or two after coming back from the ODNE conference where I spoke on the sacred cows of organisation development:  a sacred cow being an organisational or societal norm that is accepted without question.  (Until it is questioned – for example votes for women came about after challenging the sacred cow that only men could vote).

One of the ‘sacred cows’ I offered for discussion was ‘Organisation development activity can deliver tangible business results’, asking participants to consider what would happen if we did not give up this sacred cow, and what would happen if we did give it up.  There was some debate on what ‘tangible’ results are, and a lot of debate on the issues around ‘proving’ the ROI of the OD & D work.

Too late to share in the conference, I find that Gerry Muller offers a thoughtful 10-point checklist on how to approach the use of performance metrics.  He notes, before presenting the list, that ‘measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured, whether rewards and penalties will be attached to the results, and to whom to make the measurements available.’  (Judgement is not measurable.)  Here are the checklist items with a summary quote from the fuller explanation that Muller gives:

  • What kind of information are you thinking of measuring – ‘measurements attached to human activity are not reliable unless the humans agree with the goals of the measurement’.
  • How useful is the information? ‘the ease of measuring may be inversely proportional to the significance of what is measured’.
  • How useful are more metrics? ‘the fact that metrics is helpful doesn’t mean that more metrics is more helpful’.
  • What are the costs of not relying on upon standardized measurement? ‘Are there sources of information about performance, based on the judgement and experience of clients?’
  • To what purposes will the measurement be put? ‘Here a key distinction is between data to be used for purposes of internal monitoring by the practitioners themselves versus data to be used by external parties for reward and punishment’.
  • What are the costs of acquiring the metrics? ‘Information is never free, and often it is expensive in ways that rarely occur to those who demand more of it’.
  • Ask why people at the top of the organisation are demanding performance metrics. ‘Sometimes [this] flows from the ignorance of executives about the institutions they’ve been hired to manage.’
  • How and by whom are the measures of performance developed? ‘Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up … from direct experience’.
  • Remember that even the best measures are subject to corruption or goal diversion. ‘There are inevitable drawbacks to all schemes of measured reward’.
  • Recognising the limits of the possible is the beginning of wisdom. ‘Not all problems are solvable, and even fewer are solvable by metrics.’

Do you think that the outcomes of OD & D work can be identified and then converted into useful proxy measures to show ROI?  Let me know.


Sacred cows make the best burgers

‘The relevance of organisational development has never been more critical, given the complex issues facing communities, organisations and wider society. This raises the question of how we as OD practitioners can play a role beyond that which we do currently.’  This statement introduces this year’s European Organisation Development Network conference which takes place 25, 26 April 2018.

Without thinking too much about it, several months ago I agreed to speak at the conference.  I can’t quite remember how we got to the topic of my presentation ‘Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers’ but it’s a title of a business book on change readiness by Robert Kriegel and David Brandt that I read years ago.  It opens by telling readers to round up sacred cows –  the well-worn or outmoded beliefs, assumptions, and practices that inhibit organisational change and prevent responsiveness to new opportunities.

Here is my starter list of five sacred cows of organisation development that, in my view, merit discussion on whether they should be rounded up or whether they have continuing value.

  1. Organisation development is a distinct discipline requiring specialist skills, attributes, practitioner training. There is little to suggest that OD is a ‘distinct discipline’.  In Revisioning Organization Development: Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice, for example, the authors ‘are trying to open up the possibility that there are different enough forms of OD in terms of theoretical and philosophical premises, and not just practice technologies or underlying values, to warrant closer inquiry and recognition in the official literature(s) of this field. Right now, in most academic and practitioner publications there is only one, monolithic OD, presumed to be practiced using variations of the same foundational premises. In our experience, this leads to confusion and misunderstandings especially when people without much theoretical background try to combine, for example, objective diagnosis with self-organizing ’ Backing this up, Linda Holbeche, a writer in the OD field,  suggests that OD is a ‘scavenger discipline …  an eclectic field that borrows from many other disciplines and theories’. (Impact, Issue 26, February 2009).
  2. Organisation development activity is for the betterment of organisations and organisational members. There are several who argue that OD is coercive – think of the language of ‘getting’ people to do things, or ‘changing mindsets’.  An article by Marie McKendall, The Tyranny of Change: OD revisited, exemplifies this point of view.  The abstract reads:  ‘The premise of this paper is that planned organizational change, commonly known as organizational development, induces compliance and conformity in organizational members and thereby increases the power of management. These consequences occur because organizational development efforts create uncertainty, interfere with the informal organization, reinforce the position of management, and further entrench management purposes. These consequences occur regardless of the intentions of management and regardless of whether the goals of the organizational development intervention were achieved. Instead of examining these consequences, practitioners and theorists have engaged in self-deception and depoliticized the practice of induced organizational change by creating a field known as Organizational Development.’
  3. Organisations can be ‘developed’. The implied question in this sacred cow is whether there is a single organisational entity that can be developed or whether it only that individual members of the organisation can be developed (assuming you think they can). Their collective development contributing to whole organisational development.  Derek Pugh devised an OD matrix – a conceptual framework for understanding and diagnosing what change is necessary in an organisation, what methods to consider, and which directions to go in initiating the change process, which seems to suggest that whole organisations can be ‘developed’.
  4. Organisation development activity can deliver tangible business results. There’s a commonly heard statement – a sacred cow in itself, perhaps –  that 70% of change intervention fails.  Attributing an ROI to OD work is not easy to do.  (Does anyone do it?).   Yet in his article ‘Do 70 per cent of all organisational change initiatives really fail?’ Mark Hughes ‘highlights the absence of valid and reliable empirical evidence in support of the espoused 70 per cent failure rate.’  However, in rounding up that sacred cow, Hughes fails to provide any valid and reliable empirical evidence that change initiatives actually do deliver tangible business results.   A report by Liz Finney and Carol Jefkins, Roffey Park, Best Practice in OD Evaluation, says ‘We approached our research aware that there are many practitioners in the field of OD who believe that its systemic nature makes it hard to measure; some hold a world view that says it’s inappropriate even to try. Some talk about the evaluation of OD interventions as a ‘holy grail,’ perhaps implying that to seek it would be a hopeless quest. Evaluation is something which is often overlooked, avoided, or included only as an after-thought when an OD intervention has already taken place.’ In the absence of no evidence of OD success can we provide evidence that it delivers business results?
  5. Organisation development practitioners share humanist, democratic and ethical values. A special issue of the journal Organization ‘reveal[s] the shifting, ambiguous and inherently political arena lying beneath and beyond the bland cliches, pious nostrums and simplistic recipes that are the stock in trade of organizational change management.’  The author points out that the financial demands inherent in much organisation development work (headcount reduction, mergers, efficiency gains, technology implementation, etc), often with the requirement to make these financial gains speedily, conflict with the humanistic, democratic and ethical ‘practice values’ that, in Cheung-Judge’s/Holbeche’s words give organisations and OD work ‘a rudder and bearing’.

I have a reserve list of five more sacred cows but I’m hoping that the above will spark a  conversation.  To facilitate this I’m asking four questions adapted from a Cartesian quadrant –  What happens if we accept the sacred cow?  What happens if we don’t accept the sacred cow? What won’t happen if we accept the sacred cow? What won’t happen if we don’t accept the sacred cow?

What are your OD sacred cows?  Let me know.

Image: Attack on the sacred cow,  Andriy Zholudyev

Business and digital transformation

There’s something in the power of three that is a call for action.  In this case to do something about three questions I got more or less together on ‘transformation’ Well, not quite together.  The first one I got almost a month ago and did nothing about, but yesterday two more arrived thus invoking the power of three.

The first one was: ‘Do you have any good links to Business Transformation Programmes reading or anything you’re doing that would serve as an intro.  I think it will be recommended that we buy in some consultancy but my instinct is we can probably do it ourselves with selected support?’

Yesterday, I got: ‘What’s the difference between digital transformation and business transformation?’

Also, yesterday (from a completely different source) came: ‘We are currently doing a strategy/org design project for the IT function of a pharma company. We are not finding relevant/compelling org design/operating models to help them move to the next level as the company takes baby steps towards digital transformation. Any suggestions or sources for such information?’

Before launching into a response, I looked to see if I’ve written about transformation before.  Yes, five times – the first time was in 2010:

I scanned what I’d written to see if I still agreed with my past self or not, and what links and info I could glean from those blogs on the three questions.  In re-reading these I felt as if between 2010 and now the ‘transformation’ field has risen to bandwagon status but may almost be at its peak. I’ve just seen the first article (probably of many) explaining ‘Why so many digital high-profile digital transformations fail‘.

In one way it seemed redundant to write another blog on the topic but I’ve found that there’s always a learning or development of ideas in the thinking/writing process and in a way, I can hardly avoid transformation.

I’m writing this in Dubai.  It’s an immersive transformation experience.  Every time I come I see the city transforming.  The latest new thing is the Dubai Frame – an edifice/experience showing a glossy version of the past, present and future of this transformation  from desert village to global player in 50 years.  A quick look at the Smart Dubai website or skim of the World Economic Forum article, ‘How digital technology is transforming Dubai’ gives a feel for the scale of the transformation ambition.

In this city of transformation, I’m wondering whether there’s any agreed organizational definition of ‘transformation’.  What do people mean by the term – what is the common ground on its usage?  Scott Anthony, in an HBR article, has a good stab at answering this.  He describes transformation as:

  • operational – doing what you are currently doing, better, faster, or cheaper
  • core – doing what you are currently doing in a fundamentally different way
  • strategic – ‘This is transformation with a capital “T” because it involves changing the very essence of a company. Liquid to gas, lead to gold’

As he points out ‘Defining what leaders mean when they drop the word transformation matters, because these different classes of efforts need to be measured and managed in vastly different ways.’

For my first questioner – the one who asked for an intro to business transformation a good intro step would be to have the discussion on what leaders mean by the word.  Once they’ve agreed, then some choices can be made on whether to proceed with support from external consultants or on a DIY basis (or mix of both).

The second question was ‘what’s the difference between digital transformation and business transformation?’  Jaret Chiles comes up with a suggestion that met with approval from the group I’m working with this week. He suggests that:

  • Business transformation encompasses the cultural shift and business processes driven by changing market demands; i.e., the company’s culture of change and business drivers.
  • Digital transformation encompasses the tools and processes implemented to support business transformation; i.e., applications.

Confusingly though, some organisation’s use put ‘digital’ and ‘business’ together to form the phrase ‘Digital Business Transformation’.  IMD a management school, for example, has a Global Center for Digital Business Transformation and a report from Deloitte that caught my eye ‘Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation’ – partly because I believe this should be the case, but often isn’t –  has a section in it titled The Culture of Digital Business Transformation.   Maybe putting Digital+ Business together is right in the cases where businesses are transforming through the application of digital technology.

The third question was about operating models for digital transformation.  Operating models are another much discussed topic but a series of 6 articles on Digital Transformation from Insead Knowledge helps by starting with discussing a 10-point framework (operating model?) for digital transformation.   Alongside the framework comes a recommendation for describing it the process as a digital ‘journey’ and not a digital ‘transformation’, again a hint that the word ‘transformation’ has had its management-speak day.  (Other articles in the series include resistance to digital change, culture and supporting structures).

What’s your view of business v digital transformation – where would you point people wanting an intro to business transformation or a digital operating model?  Let me know.

Image: Palm Jumeirah, and the World, Dubai

Hands across the divide

Weeks ago, Jim sent me three questions that he’s posing to various organization design/development practitioners and some leaders he knows.

  • What is the involvement – ideal and actual – of your most senior leaders in the organisation design work you carry out?
  • What conceptual and practical understanding of organisation should they really have in order to make the right contribution?
  • How would you typify the level and content of the understanding they do have – and how do you try to equip/help them to make the contribution they should?

I haven’t yet got around to answering them, but they suddenly leapt back into mind when I was on a recent call with some members of the Organization Design Community (ODC) where we were discussing three topics.

  • The challenge of the bridge between academics and practitioners
  • The new world of organization design
  • The practical aspects of bridging the gaps between academics and practitioners

I then got a suggestion from someone else that an organization design programme I’m involved with go through the ODC Accreditation process.  Looking at the requirements for this, I learned that:

‘To receive ODC accreditation, a provider’s design course or workshop must meet a set of requirements. These requirements have been jointly developed by leading academics and professionals in the field of organization design. Twenty-two minimum core requirements are contained in three categories:

  • Design Concepts and Principles
  • Design Types
  • Redesign and Change

My first thought was that twenty-two is a lot of ‘minimum core requirements’ but I let that pass as I’m practicing with a meditation tape that tells me ‘it may be a thought, but you don’t have to think it’.

I moved onto other thoughts which I did begin to think – they revolve around Jim’s questions, the ODC conversation, and the accreditation requirements.  What the three have in common are some reflections and questions around the relationship between theoretical concepts and practical application of organization design, and who needs to know what in order to make an effective, informed and value-add contribution to organization design work.

My experience of working with leaders is that, for the most part, they are very impatient with, not to say dismissive of, anything that smacks of theory or academia.  When leaders do organization design work it is still largely based on fiddling around with an organization chart, moving people and reporting lines with little to no reference to design concepts/theories.  (I got a terrific sketch the other day of the ‘make it like this’ variety.  I’m tempted to put it as the image for this blog but won’t).

Happily, I’ve met a few exceptions to this type of leader – usually they’re people who’ve taken courses in organization behaviour or similar, and equally happily I’ve met other leaders who start off with a ‘make it like this’ mindset but are willing to be curious to learn why lines and boxes are not ‘design’ and taking the lines and boxes approach is very unlikely to result in the outcomes they are looking for.

Done thoughtfully, with a knowledge of systems, complexity and behavioural theory, organization design is ‘the ultimate edge … is so critical that it should be on the agenda (along with a professional designer) of every meeting in every single department’ says Tom Peters, (co-author of In Search of Excellence) He goes on to say that ‘Design, like lifestyle, is one of the few differentiating factors, and companies that ignore the power of elegant and functional design will lose.’

Elegant design is not the result of adjusting an organization chart or looking purely in terms of ‘structures’.  It is the result of line-managers and OD consultants – who might be internal or external to the organization:

  • understanding what people on the ODC phone discussion called ‘the framing theories and related skills’ for organization design. (These framing theories and related skills come from academic research).
  • interpreting and converting the framing theories and related skills from a theoretical, research perspective and language to practical and pragmatic design tools and frameworks
  • applying these skilfully and thoughtfully into on the ground organization design work
  • working with academics to refine the theories and develop new theory from careful evaluation of the outcomes of the original thinking.

Making this happen in practice is the challenge.  Here are four ways of joining hands across the divide between academics and business people to the mutual benefit of both.

1.  University research departments partner with an organisation or organisations to conduct research on a specific topic. This could be initiated either way through a ‘call for participation’.  I have done this successfully on three occasions. For example, I commissioned one of the pieces of work described in When the Bases of Social Hierarchy Collide: Power Without Status Drives Interpersonal Conflict 

2.  Someone in each business organization could be the named co-ordinator of relevant research, its dissemination, and its practical application.  I haven’t yet worked in any large organization where there is a comprehensive database of employees taking academic programmes or a method of capturing the dissertations they do and assessing their value in terms of extending or applying their research.  Doing this could result in  cadre high value-add scholar-practitioners developing in the  organization.  See To wear many different hats: how do scholar-practitioners span boundaries between academia and practice?

3. Academics and line managers could work together to discuss how the theoretical research can be converted into practical application and what organizational issues would benefit from research and theory development. This could happen on executive programmes, for example, as one of the activities or learning sessions.  This was a suggestion made on the ODC phone call.

4.  Academics could take their own work and develop it into to a practical tool for application. For example Andrew Sturdy, and Nick Wylie wrote an academic paper Transformers, enforcers, specialists and independents which aimed to ‘identify, describe and evaluate the different ways in which formal collective change agency is structured in specialist units inside 25 diverse organisations.’

The theoretical framing of the paper is based on and developed from Sturdy et al’s earlier research work, see for example Management as Consultancy and Beneath and Beyond Organizational Change Management: Exploring Alternatives

From their paper (Transformers … ) Sturdy and Wylie developed a very short, practical, ‘how to’ guide – Managing Change without the use of external consultants: how to organize consultant managers.  It’s easy to grasp but grounded in theory.  I’m using it as a discussion tool with line managers and executive teams as we consider establishing a change function.

How would you, or are you, bridging the academic/practitioner organization design gap to help ensure elegant organization design?   Let me know.

Image  Hands Across the Divid© Copyright zoocreative and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence