Organisation design and the five crises

With signed contract in hand, I’ve decided that 1 August, 2020 is the day I begin writing the third edition of my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design.

The corollary of that decision is that the blogs I write in the coming months will follow the book writing flow and may not be weekly but more spasmodic.  I have to keep up a disciplined pace on the writing – the submission date of the draft is end May 2021.

Last September asked my blog readers whether I should write a third edition.  I was in two minds about it. What tipped the balance in favour of writing it was the coronavirus – Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19’s impacts have triggered, exacerbated and/or highlighted the five concurrent global crises we are now living with:  health, economic, humanitarian, political and climate.   Both individually and collectively these crises are forcing organisational rethinks and redesigns.   I can’t think of any organisations which are untouched by one or more of them ways not experienced or thought about pre-Covid.

This makes the third edition and exciting and challenging task.  I’m wondering how to pitch it at a level that is helpful to managers.  Think about some of the design implications they are facing in relation to the five concurrent crisis:

Health:  As we don’t know how Covid-19 will play out,  we are assuming we will have to maintain social distancing and remote working for some months or possibly years.   With this in mind organisational decision makers are redesigning their physical layoutsremote working policies, and grappling with questions similar to ones this organisation asking:

  • Should we institute a business travel policy that anyone returning from a business trip cannot come into the office for 2 weeks?
  • Should we tell people who usually come to the office by public transport to travel by car or bike instead?
  • Should we allow staff who travel to foreign countries on holiday (even ‘green’ ones) back to the office within 2 weeks of their return?

Design questions on this include:  How do we design safe workspaces?  What systems and processes may need redesign for remote working?  What are we assuming about work location and the design of work?

Economic:  Oxford University economist Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, says ‘The need for new economic thinking is most evident than ever. I’m planning a series of video blogs exploring the coronavirus crisis through the lens of Doughnut Economics.’  In her twitter thread on the blogs she quotes Buckminster Fuller “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

One existing model that may be becoming obsolete is that of the Rational Economic Man.  Watch a delightful rap puppet video between three students and their economics professor.While the professor argues that Economic Man – a rational, self-interested, money-driven being – serves the theory well, the students counter that a more nuanced portrait reflecting community, generosity and uncertainty is now essential. A musical puppet adventure challenging the heart of outdated economic thinking ensues.’    Supposing organisation leaders and designers rejected the Rational Economic Man what new design thinking, approaches and models would we develop that rendered our old approaches obsolete  and helped to create new types of thriving businesses.

Humanitarian: Humanitarian assistance is ‘intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after man-made crises and disasters caused by natural hazards, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur.’

The IPPF points out that:  ‘While most countries are currently struggling to respond to COVID-19, the pandemic poses a particularly dire threat in fragile and humanitarian settings. An estimated 1.8 billion people live in fragile contexts worldwide, including 168 million in need of humanitarian assistance.’  Covid-19 is having an immense impact on the operation of humanitarian organisations.  “In humanitarian response, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19,” Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, executive director of the think tank HERE-Geneva, wrote in late March.’

But an analysis from The New Humanitarian suggests that ‘as the crisis born of this global pandemic has evolved, some of the promises of deep transformation in a humanitarian aid sector that has long resisted reform have proven overly optimistic – at least so far.’ The analysis offers ‘13 ways the pandemic may change the future of humanitarianism – and the forces of resistance that may get in the way,’ and asks the question:  How do you think COVID-19 will transform the humanitarian aid sector?

Political:  The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, as of July 15 2020, has recorded election postponements in 62 countries and eight territories, with a total of 108 election events postponed.  They note that ‘Countries are also grappling with how to modify election procedures to minimize the risk for COVID-19 transmission, or change the system for voting completely to avoid the need for voters to physically go to the polls.’   These imply a whole range of re-designs of voting systems.  At the same time, Covid-19 is having a serious impact on trade, trade treaties and supply chains.

The WTO writes that ‘New trade measures are being taken by governments every day in response to COVID-19. If the different actors engaged in supply chains are not aware of these new requirements, they can struggle to adapt to the new conditions, thereby risking unnecessary disruptions. For example, exporters and importers need to know about new procedures and regulations affecting exports and imports, newly introduced export restrictions, tariffs, taxes and regulations, and new customs rules and transportation regulations.’ This shifting political context will continue to have organisation design implications.

Climate:  It’s cheering to read that ‘A new analysis of policies designed to promote economic recovery following the global coronavirus pandemic has led the experts to recommend ten concrete measures that will slow global warming while creating new jobs. … A group of more than 30 UK universities, formed to help deliver positive outcomes at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26), have highlighted the fiscal recovery policies that promise to bring both short-term high economic impact and long-term structural change to ensure the UK meets its 2050 climate goals.  I’m wondering how many organisations will factor climate change action into their redesigning their operations as a response to Covid-19.

As I have conversations with organisation design colleagues on the way the practice is evolving as these crises evolve, I’m wondering how much of the book I’ll need to re-write completely.   Do you think organisation design practice is evolving at a speed necessary to design in the context of these five current and concurrent crises?  Let me know.

‘Bring your whole self to work’

In August I start training for a new career.  I’m planning to be a celebrant and my  pre-course start assignment is to write the story of my life in 500 words – within 15 words either way.  The instructions say,  ‘You can write in any style you like, and you can use the first or third person. We will ask you to read part (or all) of your life story aloud as a public speaking exercise, so please don’t include anything you would prefer to keep private.’

This is proving a hard task.  I’m wondering what the story of my life is, and how do I tell it in just 500 words?  I’ve had a couple of goes at it from various angles and now I’m skimming ‘how to’ guidance and discover there are many books on how to write your life story which I don’t have time to read as I have to submit mine next week.

What makes it hard is there isn’t one story.  When I visited my daughter in Beirut I bought a string of prayer beads.  There are 33 beads on it and for some reason as I was thinking about my life story I remembered the beads and wondered if I had 33 life stories.  I found I had – it was easy enough to list them out – my life as a teacher, my life as a student, etc.  They are all ‘me’ at all times – there isn’t a part that I don’t carry with me, though there may be parts that I prefer to keep private.

Mulling this over, led me to remember the poster at work i.e. in the physical office I used to go to, not my new Zoom screen home workplace. The poster proclaims that the goal is to be an organisation ‘where everyone feels able to bring their whole self to work and perform at their best. One that can attract, develop and retain the most diverse talent. Where openness, honesty, challenge and innovation are encouraged and valued.’

In a blog I wrote last year, I said, ‘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?’

The phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ is particularly odd, in my view.  Who doesn’t bring their whole self to work?  What bits do they leave somewhere else?   I could leave bits out of my written life story but when I go to work, I am automatically bringing my whole self.

I was discussing the phrase, by email, with Chris Rodgers, earlier this week.  He says, ‘Good luck in pursuing your challenge to the “bring your whole self to work” mantra. As it continues to gain momentum, we can expect a plethora of books, programmes, diagnostic tests and the rest to appear.

From my perspective, this is another superficially attractive concept that shows little or no understanding of the complex social dynamics of organization.  … People can’t do anything but ‘bring their whole selves to work. However they turn up, their actions are always reflections of their whole selves.  An individual’s sense of self is a relational phenomenon. It is being perpetually (re)constructed in the moment of their ongoing interactions with other people (both actual and imagined). People, that is, whose own sense of self is similarly being formed and reformed in the midst of their own interactions. There are no pre-existing “true selves” waiting to be discovered, “brought to work,” and applied “authentically”.

Crucially, too, people don’t only bring their ‘whole self’ to work all of the time, they also ‘bring along‘ everyone with whom they have an important relationship. You might recall, from our past exchanges, my notion of people’s “personal frames of reference” through which they strive to maintain all of their important relationships in an acceptable state simultaneously. Maintaining this imaginary and socially constructed frame intact is a key factor affecting people’s in-the-moment participation.

The real challenge, then, is one of managers enabling people, individually and collectively, to contribute their time and talents to the full. Doing so in the light of what is actually emerging; the constantly shifting power relationships amongst those involved that are enabling and constraining their actions; and the political dynamics that are continuously in play, as they and others seek to deal with the different interests, intentions, interpretations, ideologies, identities, and so on.’

What Chris says is very similar to what Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick University, says in a (free) Futurelearn course I am doing called  ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick has a book with the same title.   A reviewer says about it, ‘You probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths.’

It’s a view shared by Chris Rodgers who says, ‘I do agree with his [Chater’s] basic premise that the mind is ‘flat’, in the sense that there is no processing going on in our unconscious as a precursor to our conscious thinking and acting. Nor do we have a store of memories, in the sense that this notion is ordinarily understood.  Instead, our memories, thoughts and actions are constructed (and/or reconstructed) in the moment. Crucially, though, these tend to follow the patterns of our past sensemaking. That is, these are based on precedent rather than principle, as Chater also points out. As regards our memories, I talk about our re-membering of the past (i.e. putting it together afresh each time from our current vantage point). This draws on the Stacey/Griffin/Shaw notion of the “living present”.

Similarly, Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book ‘Wherever you go there you are’, says, ‘you carry your head and your heart, and what some would call your karma, around with you.  You cannot escape yourself, try as you might’.

Agreeing with the notion that you can’t not bring your whole self to work, I’d like to see the phrase  dropped from organisational vocabulary.  (Understanding that you can, however, sensibly choose what to keep private about yourself).

Instead of meaningless phrases, let’s focus on the goal to be organisations ‘that can attract, develop and retain the most diverse talent. Where openness, honesty, challenge and innovation are encouraged and valued.’    And in Chris Rodger’s words address the real challenge, ‘managers enabling people, individually and collectively, to contribute their time and talents to the full.’  (See also this London Business School blog on the topic).

Do you think the phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ should be dropped?  Let me know.

Image:  Extract from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51

Diversity in info curation?

Each month I get the European Organisation Design Forum Newsletter, available to their members.  (I’m on the newsletter’s ‘Curatorial Board’.  The board member role is to suggest/select articles, books, podcasts, videos etc for inclusion).

I seem to now be on high diversity and inclusion alert because l noticed that all the contributions for the June newsletter were from white, western males.  It’s not a huge number of contributions each month but this month’s led me to wonder what we might be missing as a profession if our information, research and ‘look to figures’ are predominantly from that category.

Curious, I logged onto the EODF website (member’s area), I took a look at the Resource Library, ‘one of the most comprehensive collection of Org Design resources in the world, organised by 9 key themes.’  FYI, the themes are Agile organisations, Holacracy, Re-organisation and re-design, Change management,  Strategy and leadership, Collaboration, decision making and job design,  Structure and operating model,  HRM, culture and organisation development,  Emerging trends.

I picked the theme ‘Structure and Operating Model’.  There are 32 items in it.  16 are classified as ‘articles’, and 16 as ‘blogs’ (two of the blogs are + video).  Discounting the 6 blogs listed that I wrote, leaves 26 items.

Naming the authors gives us the following (some items were co-authored)  Bram, Ben Dankbaar, Sergio Caredda, Joost (two blogs) , George Romme, Aaron De Smet + Sarah Kleinman + Kirsten Weerda,  David B. Yoffie ,   Annabelle Gawer + Michael A. Cusumano, Barry Camson, Jack Fuller, Michael G. Jacobides + Martin Reeves, Ranjay Gulati, Adam Pearce, Zhang Ruimin, David Hanna, Yve Morieux, Nicolay Worren (two blogs) , Andrew Campbell, Dov Seidman, Pim de Morree, Gary Hamel +  Michele Zanini,  Simone Cicero  (two blogs),  Michael Bazigos + Jim Harter, Art Kleiner.

There are 29 authors in total with 3 articles co-authored with women.  There is no woman writing an article as a sole author.  I don’t know what gender each author identifies with as this is not stated so I’ve taken the names (and in some cases seen accompanying photos) which leads me to assume that of the 29 authors there are 4 women, there is one Chinese and one Indian American author.  I believe all the others are white males.   That’s 80% of the authors on this theme of organisation design are white males.

I’m taking that theme as representative of the others – so I’m lacking a rigorous, larger sample evidence base – but from observation and my knowledge of the field the theme does feel representative.   The organisation design field is dominated by white male speakers/writers for it.  And as I frequently suggest articles for inclusion I’m contributing to the domination of that category.

Presumably, but I don’t have data to back up this presumption, the fact that the ‘voice’ of organisation design is dominated by white, western males, reflects a deeper imbalance of ethnicity, gender, and (possibly) culture in the work that we do?   (On culture the writers of the articles I looked at are either American or European apart from Zhang Ruimin who is Chinese).

There’s not an easy answer to the question how to address the imbalance.  Other disciplines are asking the same question.  For example, a  recent film ‘Picture a Scientist’ ‘tells the stories of three female scholars, revealing the systemic and structural nature of gender discrimination and harassment in academic science. The film shows how intersections of sexism and racism shape experiences differently for white women and for women of color and how implicit bias both generates inequity and prevents us from noticing it.’

And the American Economic Association, on June 5th issued a statement saying that “we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.”  As the author of the article on this says, ‘Openness to more diverse groups of people and ideas should enhance the profession’s understanding of the world. Barriers to entry are not only unfair, they could undermine healthy competition in the marketplace for ideas.

It’s time to examine whether there is implicit bias in the way we talk about, record, research and practice organisation design and whether this is undermining ideas, generating inequities, and limiting our understanding of the organisational worlds where we do our work.

When I saw June’s line-up of white, western male articles in the EODF newsletter, I suggested to the Curatorial Board that we could agree some principles for article inclusion, that would encourage a broader range.  A colleague responded, ‘Lovely idea Naomi, also when I think of inclusion of gender/ethnicity, I think we must highlight our EODF/ODF members works and writings. This also means cross cultural. Sometimes we go to the same well too often.  Our articles and readings should be broadly inclusive and representative of our hopes and professional experiences.’

So now I’m wondering what principles for inclusion would work to present some broader perspectives on organisation design.

One, I think is around language used.   I read an interesting blog, ‘Terminology: it’s not black and white‘ The NCSC now uses ‘allow list’ and ‘deny list’ in place of ‘whitelist’ and ‘blacklist’.  And wondered if there are there organisation design terms or article language we should think about?   As an aside, when I first went to live in the US (from the UK), the US language use, and US sports terms as management speak left me feeling baffled at points.  And I remember having to explain ‘donkeys years’ to a colleague.   Are colloquialisms and some of the terms in common use in management articles excluding?

Another is about assumptions – perhaps we could choose articles and then critique or comment on the assumptions implicit in it.  For example, one of my assumptions, I often discuss with people in the Middle East and China whom I work with, is that organisation design should be a collaborative, involving process with a range of workforce members and other stakeholders.  Typically, their view of how organisations should/do organisation design doesn’t assume this.  So, a principle could be that each article comes with someone’s critique or observations on the implied assumptions in it.

A third principle could be to ask for suggestions for article/blog/podcast inclusion from the community of readers (or broader community).  On this principle there would be no standing Curatorial Board selecting articles but an open call or running list that people contributed to and the selection made by a rolling panel of people.

Differently we could look to the stated mission of the ODF ‘We are organization design practitioners who share knowledge, create community, and promote excellence in practice to help organizations around the world become more effective, successful, and inspiring.’   Or the EODF’s which is to be ‘a professional organisation design community that catalyses insight and inspiration for impact’.   And check that each item in the newsletter supports the achievement of those missions – with someone’s explanation of why they think it does.

What principles do you think we should adopt in selecting items for the monthly newsletter?  Let me know.

Image:  Beneath the Surface

Talking about organisation charts

How would you answer this question?

‘I’m working with a client and thinking about whether their Business Partners (e.g., HR, Finance, Supply Chain etc) should report:

  1. Solid line back to the centre (maximising consistency and capability etc) and dotted line to their customer i.e., Operations  – or
  2. Solid line to their customer (i.e., Operations) (maximising customer service) and dotted line back to their Function.’

Someone asked me it the other day.  Here’s how I responded: ‘There isn’t a quick ‘right’ answer.  What are they trying to achieve?  What is the work? What arrangements will make the work more meaningful to the job-holder?  What are the measures that will evidence that a solid line maximises either consistency or customer service?

There are multiple other variables in the mix.  The quality of the relationships is one.  For example, the HRBP reporting as a solid line to their customer may not get on with that person.  Capability is another – an inexperienced HRBP may not have the skills to maximise customer service.

Does it have to be one or other?  Could some functional business partners report with a solid line to the functional head e.g. finance BPs, and other BPs e.g. HR report with a solid line to the customer.  Taking a mixed approach by function you could see (perhaps) which method gave better outcomes and what were the variables to consider?’

My answer may not be satisfactory to the questioner as it doesn’t give anything more than further questions.  But too often I see people reach for an organisation chart ‘solution’ to an issue, problem, or opportunity.

One reason for this may be that they equate an organisation chart with the phase ‘organisation structure’ and/or ‘organisation design’, and think that by changing the reporting lines and roles they are redesigning or restructuring.  This is not the case.  A traditional organisation chart is simply a visual representation of job roles into hierarchies, layers and spans.  Changing these elements clearly does change things but it is not a good starting point for design, redesign, or restructure.

In the article 10 Principles of Organisation Design, authors Gary Nielsen et al using the word ‘structure’ as a synonym for organisation chart rightly tell us to ‘Fix the structure last, not first. Company leaders know that their current org chart doesn’t necessarily capture the way things get done — it’s at best a vague approximation. Yet they still may fall into a common trap: thinking that changing their organization’s structure will address their business’s problems.’

Organisational structures are neither represented or organisation charts nor are structures simple.  They are much more complex and not, perhaps, amenable to a simple visual representation.  (See my blog ‘What I talk about when I talk about structure’).

Richard Karash’s blog ‘How to see structure’, describes structure as ‘the network of relationships that creates behaviour.’ Saying, ‘The essence of structure is not in the things themselves but in the relationships of things. By its very nature, structure is difficult to see. As opposed to events and patterns, which are usually more observable, much of what we think of as structure is often hidden. We can witness traffic accidents, for example, but it’s harder to observe the underlying structure that causes them.’

If you think that an organisation’s structure is represented on an organisation chart then think again.  Go even further in your thinking, consider the possibility that an organisation does not need a chart at all in the way we traditionally have one.  Aaron Dignan’s article The Org Chart is Dead explores some ideas around this, suggesting that ‘The problem with the not-so-modern org chart is that it presupposes that people generally hold one role, have one boss, and that both of those states are semi-permanent, at least in-so-far as the chart is worth printing and distributing.’

He rightly says that this is not the case as things are changing so fast in most organisations.  His view is that. ‘If Facebook is the social graph, we need an equally elegant solution to the organizational graph. This tool would be a living, breathing org chart — a dynamic network — combined with what I’m calling “GitHub for organizations.”’

A concept that is akin to this social graph are the ‘desire lines’ that urban planners work with, described by Robert Macfarlane, quoted in a Guardian article on the topic,  as “paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”; he calls them “free-will ways”.

Similarly, Andrew Furman, a professor in interior design and architecture at Ryerson University in Toronto who has spent years looking at desire lines, says they illustrate “the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path”. In a heavily constructed city, there are “rules as to how public and public-private spaces are used”, he says. Desire paths are about “not following the script” … An individual can really write their own story. It’s something really powerful if you do have that agency to move.”

We may not want to go that far in an organisation but there are perhaps parallels in concepts of self-organising teams, and emergent strategy that suggest that rather than depict hierarchies, reporting lines, layers and spans we pick up on Dignan’s idea of ‘git hub for organisations’.

I wonder if the remote working, at least for white collar workers, triggered by Covid-19 heralds the end of the hierarchical organisation chart and its representations of command and control in various forms.  Interacting solely via technologies seems to having some impact on levelling hierarchies and allowing people close to the work to make decisions about it.

Didier Elzinga,  CEO Culture Amp, quoted in an HBR article,  believes that the shift to remote work will have profound implications for the organizational culture of big companies, especially when it comes to giving distributed teams autonomy to make their own decisions.

During the Covid-19 crisis his company has been holding a daily meeting with about 20 leaders ‘where they run through a deck of the latest information related to the crisis, which is then published on an open channel on Slack. Once they gave people the data they needed to contextualize their decisions, Elzinga and his team made an exciting discovery. Leaders were more comfortable distributing authority and allowing teams to make their own informed decisions, without wasting time chasing down information and approvals.’  Given the context and the data people can find their own paths and make the right decisions.

Here’s a suggestion:  Let’s divorce the concepts of organisation structure from its linkage to an organisation chart and formal hierarchies, instead looking at structure through a systems thinking lens in the way Karash describes.  Let’s then consider whether we need an organisation chart in any traditional form at all, and think about new forms of organisation ‘charts’, maybe dynamically depicting the desire lines of an organisation’s functioning rather like the ‘organisational github’ that Dignan talks about.

If we did this would we then be better able to design healthy organisations which avoided the maintenance of hierarchical structures which, Margaret Heffernan’s words produce perverse outcomes.’?   Let me know.

Image: Desire lines

Designing competency frameworks

I’m sceptical of the core competency frameworks in general.  They often seem to me to be over-engineered lists of a mix of skills, behaviours, and other attributes.  Frequently there is little obvious link to the delivery of the organisation’s strategy or values.  Note I am less sceptical about specific technical competencies to indicate skill in a field (e.g. architecture, nursing, or UX design)

Take the OECD’s (2014) set which divides competencies into technical competencies: specific to a discipline or field of practice and core competences.  Technical competencies are the ‘requirements to successfully perform a given job’ and in their case ‘are defined in job vacancy announcements.’

Their core competencies, on the other hand – those everyone should have – are described in a booklet.  OECD lists and describes fifteen core competencies  grouped into three clusters: delivery-related, interpersonal and strategic, and 5 levels (related to type of role).  Level 1 is roles including ‘assistant’ and ‘operator’, level 5 includes Heads of Function and Directors, giving a total of 75 statements.  This form of competency framework is common.   I’ll take the OECD one as an example of why I am sceptical:

The OECD competency ‘Analytical Thinking’ at level 1 lists:

  • Distinguishes between critical and irrelevant pieces of information.
  • Gathers information from a variety of sources to reach a conclusion.

And at Level 5 lists:

  • Is sought out by others for advice and solutions on how to best interpret and use information.
  • Discerns the level of pressure or influence to apply in each aspect of the analysis in relation to the broader context.

My scepticism on this sort of thing is based on my view that the items on such lists are:

  • Subjective e.g. a Director – Level 5 –  may not be able to distinguish between critical and irrelevant information(a Level 1 competency) and who is judging what is critical or irrelevant?
  • Not relatable to role or level e.g. an assistant, Level 1,  may be sought out by others for ‘advice and solutions on how best to interpret and use information’. (A Level 5 competence)
  • Not indicators of job performance as the context will influence the ability to deploy (or not) the competence.
  • Not conducive to being ‘levelled’ by role. Any role may require different levels of competence so an assistant my require some of the competence listed at Director level.  For example, what assistant does not have to handle ‘difficult on-the-spot questions (e.g. from senior executives) listed in this framework as a level 5 competence?

But these frameworks have lots of defenders.  Take a look, for example, at the SHL Universal Competency Framework or the UK’s CIPD Competency FrameworkFactsheet.

(I notice that the SHL (2011) info says firmly that we need to distinguish between the words ‘competence’ and ‘competencies’, because ‘it is unfortunate that two very similar words have been used to describe two very different constructs. It is essential that there is a clear distinction between these two terms.’   The CIPD (2020) explains that ‘In the past, HR professionals have tended to draw a clear distinction between ‘competences’ and ‘competencies’. … More recently however, there’s been growing awareness that job performance requires a mix of behaviour, attitude and skill, and the terms are now more often used interchangeably.’)  In this sort of distinction you start to see the difference between core and technical competences.  In some cases frameworks mesh these.  See, for example, the Actuarial Competency Framework.

One person who does not defend core competency frameworks is Marcus Buckingham, who says:

  • ‘Competencies can’t be measured. So, your scores (or the scores you give your team) and all the data around how much of a certain competency a person possesses are completely made up.
  • No single person possesses all competencies. When you study people who excel at a certain job, although as a group they may have all of the competencies that are supposedly required, no one person has all of them.
  • There is no data that shows that people who acquire the competencies they supposedly lack outperform the people who don’t. So even if we could accurately determine that you are lacking a specific competency, having you take a learning and development course to plug that gap will have no effect on your performance. Well-roundedness does not predict higher performance, and it’s better to be sharp in one or two key areas instead of well-rounded.’

The topic of competency frameworks came up this week as an organisation asked me for advice on them.  They had questions related to links between the framework and delivery of strategy and values, whether they needed core as well as technical competences, how to communicate the competences to the workforce in a simple and easy to use way.

What I’ve found is that organisational values are a very good basis against which to judge employee behaviour, attitude and contribution – assuming that you have chosen values that support delivery of your business strategy.  And last week I listened to Yancy Strickler saying much the same thing.  He is the founder of Kickstarter, and he was talking about ‘the values the company created, which helps guide the way Kickstarter attracts and hires talent and constructs and operates its business’.

Marcus Buckingham is also of the view that core ‘competencies are simply values. They should be written on a wall, not attempted to be measured and learned. If you want your team to be goal-oriented and customer service-focused; express them as values, create stories around them, celebrate the heroes who demonstrate them – bring these values to life.’

The organisation who I was discussing competency frameworks with have five values on which to judge an employee’s contribution.  Many organisations are now ‘values based’ – Ben and Jerry’s is a classic example as is Patagonia

I suggested that those in organisation I was talking with re-think their core competences, instead focusing on the values – not as a measurement tool in the traditional sense but to gauge whether people are going to be, in Patagonia’s terms, not a culture fit, but a ‘culture add’.  Patagonia’s values-based approach ‘to evaluating potential hires [is one] that arises from the company’s unwavering and ironclad commitment to its mission. And it’s a reminder to every organization that they are hiring human beings, not skill sets or even experience.’

For other aspects of workforce management – career development, technical progression, management/leadership development – I suggested they introduce technical competences by job family.   For an excellent example of a technical competency framework for designers look at Jason Mesut’s approach.  (Note that it also includes some core competencies).

To recap – I don’t think most core competency frameworks i.e. items listed in progressive order by level achieve their intended outcome of supporting individual or organisational performance management or enabling, in Mesut’s words. ‘a clear way of objectively promoting or compensating people fairly …  or providing clarity of what a long-term career in the organisation might look like or giving scarce and fickle talent a reason to stay.’   A better approach is to develop technical competency frameworks based on job families and for core competencies do not have a framework by lists and levels. Use only the organisation’s values and give clear and engaging messages that employees are expected to live the values in their daily work.

What’s your view on a traditional core competency framework?  Let me know.

Image:  Global competencies

Into white spaces

‘Black people need to be able to get into white spaces.  … Otherwise another four years comes and everyone’s doing another protest.’ (Aba Amoah, quoted in What next?’).

Reading this statement, reminded me of a book I read years ago by Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart.   The blurb reads, ‘This was the book that first detailed an approach that bridged the gaps between organization strategy, work processes and individual performance.’

Two decades later came an updated version White Space Revisited: Creating Value Through Process.  This edition ‘goes beyond a mere revision of that [first] ground breaking book and refocuses on the ultimate purpose of organizations, which is to create and sustain value.’

The white spaces that Rummler and Brache discuss – organisation strategy, work process, and individual performance, can (and do) harbour racism, exclusion, and sustaining of value through exploitative or demeaning practices.

Neither book mentions or addresses these types of ‘white spaces’ that have come into even starker focus since 25 May when the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked on-going anti-racism protests in many countries.

Power is another of these white spaces and last week I wrote about sources of power in organisations, but did not mention it as a ‘white space’.  @EmRoseBaz commented on this as follows: ‘Hi Naomi, I love your work, but writing about power structures in organisations without talking about race and white supremacy is a big omission (whiteness confers power). See @georgeaye ‘s post on power in design (and every western org’s diversity stats!)’

It’s a good challenge. I hadn’t read George Aye’s article, and did so.  It’s a terrific and rich read with resources, ideas, and stories of Aye’s experience of the intersect of power,  organisation design and social justice.

He asks – ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  And answers, ‘Let’s start by understanding that power is an underlying hidden mechanism in any human relationship. Everyone has a certain amount of power, and there’s always someone who has more than you and someone who has less than you. Let’s start with 3 simple sets of questions.’ The sets’ headings are ‘check your privilege (as a designer)’, ‘what’s your role (in transferring power)’ and ‘fire up your curiosity (by asking better questions)’, each set has three questions.

The links between organisational power – who holds the various types, how/where/when they deploy it – and racism are undeniable and yet, I feel racism is so complex and multifaceted, that looking at it only through this power lens won’t reveal other important aspects that organisation design could help address.

I’ve been mulling over and discussing this, not for the first time, with both organisation design and other colleagues – of various ethnicities, race and background – and with family members.

The conversations have covered power of various types, whether BAME (black, Asian and ethnic minorities) is a useful category, organisational language, recruitment and career progression, and performance management, societal treatment and day to day experiences.

The intersect between BLM and Covid-19 has also been part of the discussions.  That intersect offers a chilling illustration and some insights into black inequalities that organisation designers could/should consider.  For example, a 21 April 2020 New Scientist article notes that:

‘The most recent figures compiled by the UK’s Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre suggests that of nearly 5000 people critically ill with covid-19 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whose ethnicity was known, 34 per cent were from BAME backgrounds. But people from such groups make up only 14 per cent of the population of England and Wales.’

The article suggests several factors for this, saying: ‘It’s not about people’s biological make-up. It’s about the conditions that are created due to racialised policies, and how that’s impacted communities over time. For example, poorer, more disadvantaged people – who are disproportionately from ethnic minorities – are more likely to have underlying health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity that put them at increased risk of covid-19’.

The article also cites racially biased algorithms and the types of jobs people do that may preclude social distancing. ‘In the UK, 18 per cent of black people work in caring, leisure and other services that are either essential or jobs that can’t easily be done from home. In the US, less than 20 per cent of black or African-American people can work from home.’

Additionally.  ‘Studies have found that people from BAME groups may be treated differently because of healthcare professionals’ unconscious bias … This creates a system of advantage based on race.  We have to take that into account when thinking about why we’re seeing differential impacts of covid-19.”

So, in this one article you can see:  racialised policies, implied access to types of work (and education that allows/limits that access), biased algorithms, unconscious bias, wage differentials and environmental conditions.  Reading the Public Health England report COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities  reveals more detailed info.

Back to Aye’s question,  ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  As I said, his article has excellent suggestions.   And beyond his, we can pick up on five questions (four of them discussed in the Economist article, The Great Awakening):

  • Where are the white spaces in our organisation? (This one is not in the article)
  • What is the evidence that blacks and other Asian and minority ethnicities are disadvantaged in our organisation?
  • How much can we do in our organisation to address this and how much do we have to encourage our organisational members to lobby in society as a whole
  • What impact does racial disadvantage, as reflected in our organisation, have on our organisation’s performance, credibility, and past/current/future reputation?
  • What can we do to improve matters?

As I reflect on these and continuing talking with colleagues on them, we will be working on our responses.  Meanwhile, this week I am reviewing the resource materials from a FutureLearn course I did last year Make Change Happen, considering again the tenth test of organisation design (the Equalities Test) that I proposed we introduce last year.  and listening to Afua Hirsch’s Audible podcasts We Need to Talk About the British Empire.

How will you answer the five questions above?  Let me know.

Image:  Business and race in America, The Economist

Covid 19: Power structures or power sources

The Johnson and Scholes cultural web is one that many in the organisation design/development field will be familiar with.  A full explanation of it is in G. Johnson’s chapter ‘Mapping and re-mapping organisational culture’ in V. Ambrosini with G. Johnson and K. Scholes (eds), Exploring Techniques of Analysis and Evaluation in Strategic Management, Prentice Hall, 1998.

It’s one that is well used.  Mindtools summarizes it, saying it comprises ‘six interrelated elements that help to make up what Johnson and Scholes call the “paradigm” – the pattern or model – of the work environment. By analysing the factors in each, you can begin to see the bigger picture of your culture: what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs to be changed. The six elements are:

  1. Stories – The past events and people talked about inside and outside the company.
  2. Rituals and Routines – The daily behavior and actions of people that signal acceptable behavior.
  3. Symbols – The visual representations of the company including logos, how plush the offices are, and the formal or informal dress codes.
  4. Organisational Structure – This includes both the structure defined by the organization chart, and the unwritten lines of power and influence that indicate whose contributions are most valued.
  5. Control Systems – The ways that the organization is controlled. These include financial systems, quality systems, and rewards (including the way they are measured and distributed within the organization).
  6. Power Structures – The pockets of real power in the company. This may involve one or two key senior executives, a whole group of executives, or even a department.’

Discussing this model with colleagues last week, led me to suggest that instead of ‘Power Structures’ we consider ‘Power Sources’ as that enables thinking of power in the multiple ways Gareth Morgan describes in his chapter in his book Images of Organization

Morgan says, ‘Power is the medium through which conflicts of interest are ultimately resolved.  Power influences who gets what, when and how.’  He goes on to say ‘the sources of power are rich and varied, providing those who wish to wheel and deal in pursuit of their interests with many ways of doing so’.  He then lists and discusses fourteen sources of power.

  1. Formal authority
  2. Control of scarce resources
  3. Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations  (On this one Morgan says, ‘The tensions surrounding the process of organisation design and resdesign provide many insights into organisational power structures’.)
  4. Control of decision processes
  5. Control of knowledge and information
  6. Control of boundaries
  7. Ability to cope with uncertainty
  8. Control of technology
  9. Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of informal organization
  10. Control of counter organizations
  11. Symbolism and the management of meaning
  12. Gender and the management of gender relations
  13. Structural factors that affect the stage of action
  14. The power one already has (personal power)

When I’m talking about Morgan’s sources of power, I add in a fifteenth – ‘Reputation and credibility’.

Thinking about the context and events now and of the last few months.  I’m watching all 15 sources of power playing out in organisations and in society and it’s notable that the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have amplified some of them.

Three that caught my attention during last week are:

Control of boundaries – the clearest one, for those now remote working, is the boundary between work and home life.  A recent newspaper article comments:  ‘Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared. … Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.’

In our discussions on culture last week for some the feeling of work overload came up, for others – those home schooling or working in shared accommodation, there’s an anxiety, for example, about appearing unprofessional when a child or dog bursts into Zoom view, or having flat mates hear sensitive information.  There are endless tips on controlling  current work/home boundaries but as one article says, ‘Very few guides, though, take into consideration the nuances of home life and the barriers different setups can impose on simply getting the job done.’

Observing the amplification of this source of power I wondered who it ‘belonged’ to.  Does the employer wield it as it raises some questions around job design, design of performance management, design of wellbeing and duty of care processes?  Or does the employee wield it in controlling (or not) his/her calendar and domestic responsibilities, or is it wielded by both parties (or other parties?)

Control of knowledge and information.  On this Morgan says, ‘power accrues to the person who is able to structure attention to issues in a way that in effect defines the reality of the decision-making process.’  In the Covid-19 crisis ways of handling information and knowledge vary from transparency (about what we know and don’t know) to deliberate decisions to censor or with-hold information, see, for example, an article from the Brookings Institute, Knowledge is power: Lessons learned from Italy’s coronavirus outbreak and also Nicholas Christakis video, Covid-19: social networks in which he talks about how health behaviors are contagious through social networks and the dangers of using formal/positional power to force with-holding of information. Among other examples, Christakis’s mentions the example of the Chinese doctor who tried to raise the alarm on Covid-19.

In the current situation where decisions are being made in a context of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) it’s important to have access to, and use,  several trusted sources of data and expertise. (See Which Covid:19 data can you trust?’).  It’s also wise to exercise critical thinking on the information and knowledge you do have access to.

Ability to cope with uncertainty.  Morgan suggests there are two types of organisational uncertainty – environmental uncertainty and operational uncertainty.  Most organisations are now in both types of uncertainty. Seeing some organisations being able to wield this power and others failing utterly (read Sinking, Swimming and Surfing)  begs the question of how to design for weathering uncertainty – on this take a look some of the plethora of advice on designing organisational resilience e.g. McKinsey’s Navigating to the next normal: The first 100 insights

Do you think that power sources would be a more useful exploration than power structures in working with the Johnson and Scholes model of organisational culture?  Which of Morgan’s power sources have you seen amplified in the current situation?  Let me know.

Image: Gary Klein, Mapping the Sources of Power, The knowledge and abilities that come with experience.


When to stop a project

If  “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” as Michael Porter famously said in a seminal HBR article, then the essence of execution is truly not doing it. That sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives.’ HBR Too Many Projects

 What’s been going on in the last few months is a colossal disruption to strategies, plans to execute strategies and executing strategies.  As a 30th May 2020, Economist article, Lonely Planet, says, ‘The old rules have gone out of the window’ and new strategies are being developed and implemented but in an unfamiliar and unknown context.  The article is discussing the hotel, airline, tourism industries, saying ‘the shape of sectors from restaurants to hotels and luxury goods (which are often bought while people are on holiday), will depend on what tourism looks like when it is allowed to resume. Hotels and airlines are using the upheaval as an opportunity to rework how they function. Families are rethinking how and where they can safely take their holidays. Many of the changes will last only until a vaccine for covid-19 appears. But some will stick. How people start to travel in 2020—or 2021—will shape how they travel for years thereafter.’

The article describes the travel, hotel and tourism industry as ranging from ‘the abysmal to the apocalyptic’.  Industry leaders are trying to work with priorities such as, ‘making things easier to clean and reducing touchpoints that will change the economics of providing travel services’.  Other changes include what ‘Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s boss, calls travel redistribution: people taking trips to out-of-the-way places rather than the usual metropolises.’  Or ‘Even more striking, many people booking properties within 50 miles (80km) of where they live, with the majority within 200 miles. Being able to drive home is useful if lockdown conditions change suddenly.’

The Economist article points out that, ‘Not all these changes will be universal. People have diverse tastes, different reasons to travel and varying appetites for risk. … the in-flight experience may change much less in the long term. … Crucial things—such as the middle seat on airplanes—will not disappear. Airlines are clear that it would destroy their business model, which requires around two-thirds of seats to be filled to make a profit.  Observant travellers will notice tweaks.’

Not all industries and sectors are as massively disrupted as travel, hotel and tourism but many are operating in similar conditions of uncertainty.    This uncertainty means making choices and decisions on which existing projects to continue with which to stop altogether, which to put on hold, which to rein in and which to continue.  (It also means determining what projects to initiate and how to switch/allocate resources to do that).

There are no easy answers, but I was asked to provide formal guidance for people in the OD & D arena trying to make decisions on pre-Covid 19 projects – what criteria should inform their advice on whether to stop, hold, rein in, continue projects that were in hand.   What came out of my research and thinking about the situation is this:



Thoughtful and sensitive management of organisational change projects supports an organisation’s business performance, enables their staff to work safely, helps enhance the organisational reputation and makes the organisation a good place to work.

During this period of covid-19 uncertainty, project managers and key stakeholders need to carefully consider:

  • The criteria for stopping or pausing a planned change project (and by implication the criteria for continuing with it)
  • The methods for keeping the decision to halt a project under review
  • The process for re-starting, maintaining a pause, or permanently stopping a change project


This guidance applies to all organisational design/development/change projects where OD & D practitioners are the key stakeholders and/or advising key stakeholders.  The guidance frames the conditions in which a change project should be continued, paused, or stopped completely.

It does not apply to major programmes or to projects and programmes that have no significant impact on the OD & D sphere of interest.


There is no general suspension of planned projects at this point.  But many are changing shape/scope as they prioritise covid-19 response.   This is a time of significant disruption that requires careful judgement calls and a balancing of immediate needs with longer term goals and objectives.

It is likely that as we move out of business continuity/crisis mode into recovery, we will be in a future that is different to the one the change was planning for pre Covid19.

Thus, we must consider the ‘fit’ of the change project in a future that we cannot currently predict or outline in the same way we felt we could pre covid-19.

Generally, consider stopping or pausing a change project if one or more of the criteria below apply:

  1. The project’s objectives cannot be met within the budget and timescale
  2. The project can be completed but it will not create or deliver the intended benefits in the immediate and/or possible future
  3. The organisation/business unit’s assumptions have changed i.e. from ‘normal’ to covid-19 mobilisation and it may not be the “right” project to work on right now, given competing priorities for time, knowledge, skills, other resources, etc.
  4. The context has changed and will continue to be in a state of change for some time and it is felt/decided that the ROI or benefits expectations will not be met either now or in the possible future
  5. The schedule has slipped significantly or is likely to shift significantly and it will incur additional costs to bring it back to a completion schedule
  6. There are delivery difficulties beyond the capabilities of those working on it to manage e.g. remote working complications, team member redeployments, team member sickness etc
  7. Key people have left the project or are likely to leave the project through furlough or redeployment to other/covid-19 work.
  8. There has been a significant change in the organisation/business unit’s interest and strategy and this is likely to continue for some time
  9. The key sponsor has moved on leaving a sponsor vacuum
  10. The impacts of the change on people could cause undue stress and overload as they may already be stressed by covid-19 conditions


Think about your organisation.  What guidance would you give on projects that were in train pre-Covid-19 and may (or may not) be relevant currently and in the immediate future?  Let me know.


What are we exploring?

‘An explorer can never know what he is exploring until it has been explored’  (Bateson, 1972, p. xvi).

Karl Weick in his paper Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations says, ‘Crises are characterized by low probability/high consequence events that threaten the most fundamental goals of an organization. Because of their low probability, these events defy interpretations and impose severe demands on sensemaking.

The less adequate the sensemaking process directed at a crisis, the more likely it is that the crisis will get out of control. That straightforward proposition conceals a difficult dilemma because people think by acting. To sort out a crisis as it unfolds often requires action which simultaneously generates the raw material that is used for sensemaking and affects the unfolding crisis itself. There is a delicate trade-off between dangerous action which produces understanding and safe inaction which produces confusion.’  (Listen to a recent Talking About Organisations podcast in which Weick discusses ‘Disasters and Crisis Management’)

I’m noticing the increasing number of exchanges that seem to be around exploring and sensemaking in this current Covid-19 situation.  Some have been in conversations, others have dropped into my email in-box from colleagues.  This week the topics of exploration include:  psychological safety, journaling, physical and virtual worlds and trust. Here are some extracts from the email exchanges

Psychological safety

Email: ‘I am doing an online course on psychological safety and find the subject fascinating in relation to culture. I am keen to get the conversation going with leaders and managers with the support of a toolkit and resources.  Whilst I have found some material, are you aware of anything current on TED Talk or resources that I could draw on please?’

My response:  I guess your on-line course (whose is it?) mentions Amy Edmondson?  She’s done many articles – see HBR list here and TED talks – see this one on building a psychologically safe workplace.

I wonder if the Covid-19 context makes it even harder to feel psychologically safe?  See this NY Times article.  (Thanks to Asher Rickayzen for sending the link) and also another  Amy Edmondson piece, this time an audio interview on the impact of covid 19 on psychological safety,  and this info from Gartner on improving psychological safety in a time of coronavirus.

There’s another slant that argues that providing or seeking safety is not always a good thing.  See When Safety Proves Dangerous, which discusses the point that Not everything we do with the aim of making ourselves safer has that effect. Sometimes, knowing there are measures in place to protect us from harm can lead us to take greater risks and cancel out the benefits.’


Email: ‘I’ve been journaling throughout and kept a bit of a journey in the first few weeks, plotting behaviour and what I saw and heard. What I felt and others said they felt.  Quite interesting how as a nation we moved through panic buying to clearing out, then baking to fence painting. Current trends I see socially are boxes at the bottom of drives offering items free to take away – maybe a result of too much clearing out and no charity shops open?’

My response:  I too am journaling and your mentioning of it prompted me to ask myself when I started, which was when I was still living in Chiswick and I left there in 2003.   My initiation into journaling was through Julia Cameron’s book, the Artist’s Way, in which she talks about Morning Pages (writing 3 pages every single morning, which I’ve been doing since then).

Coincidentally Asher Rickayzen mentioned morning pages in a piece on Anxiety he wrote, saying,  ‘What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions (about what the future could look like). What I’m seeing is a bias to action …  I’ve noticed … the lack of conversation about the anxiety we are feeling and I connect this with the bias to action. … This is a peculiar lesson I have learned for myself about anxiety through adopting the process of morning pages; anxiety is not necessarily easy to spot nor are the ways in which we try (often subconsciously) to free ourselves from the inner discomfort it brings.


Info:  ‘One of the things that strikes me in a number of organisations I work with is that the crisis has trumped underlying assumptions about trust; suddenly call centre staff who pre-crisis couldn’t be trusted if out of sight from their managers have been completely trusted to work from home. The question for me is whether this shift in trust is reversed in future.  I’m also interested in how do we build trust in the Zoom world?’

My response:  Your question is great.  Trust is, I think, particularly highlighted at this point in the covid-19 crisis.  There’s an excellent blog by Charles Green that seems right for now, too – To live outside the law you must be honest. You really need to read all of it to get the full argument he makes but this section gives a flavour,To live outside the law doesn’t mean you’re a criminal – but in Dylan’s meaning, it does mean you’re an outlaw. You operate in part outside the narrow proscriptions of the law; you find affirmation by others of your actions by grounding them in broader principles.  …  That’s ultimately what makes others trust you. We live our daily lives by universal principles that others recognize as legitimate as well. We don’t trust people whose ‘ethics’ amount to rote checkbox compliance.’

Jericho Chambers (a consultancy focused on purpose and trustworthiness) is running a series of webinars,  Business After the Virus,  each related to exploring aspects of trust and purpose, that I’m listening to.  They also do a podcast Trust Delusion.

Physical world and virtual world

Email: ‘These questions are on my mind:

  • What is the impact of lack of communal physical space going to have on our creativity and innovation?
  • How can we make the virtual world emulate the physical world in terms of community, serendipitous interaction, opportunity to read the social signals?
  • How can we make the physical world emulate the virtual world in terms of distancing and personal safety?’

My response:   I don’t have any answers to these questions.  Most of us are exploring and learning as we go, trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.   For example, I’m intrigued to see how supermarkets have adapted their physical layouts and customer processes so quickly.  And lots of guidance on this has been generated equally quickly .  See for example GMB’s (a trade union) Social Distancing Guidance for Retail Workers or the British Retail Consortium’s advice.  The guidance doesn’t however cover the changes social distancing in shops may make to cusomer/retail assistant interactions or buying patterns. (Though I think the move to on-line shopping will contine).

Many culture journalists/article writers are musing on your questions too.  I enjoyed a March piece in the NY Times, which ends optimistically ‘it’s also possible that after spending years using technologies that mostly seemed to push us apart, the coronavirus crisis is showing us that the internet is still capable of pulling us together.‘  And the business press is similarly investigating your questions – see an FT article ‘How is the world’s mass homeworking experiment going?’

Other topics I’ve been exploring with colleagues this week are, resourcefulness, learning organisation, time, employee values, delivery models.

What topics are you exploring and trying to make sense of?  What impact this have on the way you approach organisation design?  Let me know.


Image: Exploring the Comfort Zone, Peter Dorey.

Uncertainty and leadership alignment

I’m re-reading the Susan Jeffers book Embracing Uncertainty to get a top-up dose of how to do it.   It’s a struggle right now, and this was highlighted for me as I read in the Economist on 2 May that smokers seem less likely than non-smokers to fall ill with Covid-19 and then I read in the New Scientist 23 May  smokers are actually at a higher risk of dying from Covid-19.   Which should I go with?  One/other, wait …  As I’m not a smoker it probably doesn’t matter either way(s) but the point is what we read one day/week is different the next day/week.

Uncertainty is the theme of the times and there are some who are better at living with it than others. ‘Scientists are accustomed to talking about ranges and living with uncertainty. The public might find that harder. As the first meeting of Sir David’s online committee got going, commenters were enthusiastic about “this effort to disseminate the science, rather than the spin”. But, once it became clear that the panellists had differing views and were not about to offer up a ready-packaged solution, the tone changed. “Please Mr Modeller!” went one comment. “Just answer the questions.”’ Economist:  Of white coats and grey suits

Those of us who are not scientists are often both uncomfortable with uncertainty and ill equipped to manage this, as behavioural scientists observe.   (If you want to know more on this, listen to a great podcast,  Behavioural Science in the Context of Great Uncertainty,  one in LSE’s public event series – COVID-19: The Policy Response.

And the Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in modern history, bringing with it a crisis of uncertainty. And yet, as Rebecca Knight author of a recent HBR article says, this crisis of uncertainty is ‘not necessarily unique. Similar to other crises, such as 9/11 and the global financial downturn, workers feel scared and worried.’  She quotes Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication as saying, ‘Uncertainty triggers fear. People are freaking out and wondering, ‘What does this mean for my company, my job, and my future?’”

Knight’s asserts that, ‘Your role [as leader] is to project confidence and strength.  Even though the situation is fast-moving and you don’t have perfect information, you need to be honest about what you know … task one is transparency …  explain to your team, here’s what we do know, here’s what we don’t know, and this is what we are doing to close that gap.’

And there’s the rub.  It maybe relatively easy for one leader (or manager) to be transparent and honest, but it is several degrees harder when a leadership team is involved.    I’ve been in many recent meetings and discussions where people are anxious about the lack of leadership team member alignment.  They’re seeing leaders who are not ‘joined-up’, not speaking with ‘one voice’, not behaving and acting as a united team, and not being able/willing to be transparent and honest about what they do and don’t know.

This despite the obviously  heightened craving for leadership team/executive team member alignment, which is, says Jack McGuiness, ‘when all members of the team work in sync to accomplish a common purpose.’ He explains further, ‘More specifically, an aligned leadership team debates well, proactively supports each other, is laser focused on what is most important, and is committed to learning and improving.’

Supporting the case for leadership team alignment, authors Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and  Samantha Howland discuss a leader’s ability to align in their article in the Harvard Business Review, it is one of the  ‘six skills that, when mastered and used in concert, allow leaders to think strategically and navigate the unknown effectively’.  The six are:  the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.

On ‘align’ they say strategic leaders must be ‘adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas. This requires active outreach. Success depends on proactive communication, trust building, and frequent engagement.’

Knowing what ‘success depends on’ and then developing them and deploying them means overcoming 5 attributes that, in my observation, hinder a leadership team member’s ability to align with other team members.

  • Looking fixedly through their own metaphor – unable to acknowledge there may be others (see the duck/rabbit image above).
  • Binary thinking.  On this see an article on the ‘brutal dilemma’ of lives versus livelihoods
  • Putting their own, or their business unit/organisation’s interests above the common good. (See this old but still relevant article Power an Politics in Organizational Life).
  • Not listening attentively and not questioning assumptions and not thinking ‘I may be wrong here’ (see the tool I mentioned last week on critical thinking)
  • Bringing one or more behavioural biases to bear.  On this one Tom Davenport wrote an excellent article, saying ‘Decision-making becomes most important in times of crisis, and this certainly is one of those times. But it also becomes more challenging, too, during periods of stress and most difficult when future outcomes are uncertain — which describes the current period as well. One reason is because cognitive decision biases are likely to appear in highly changeable, high-stress environments, influencing decisions in damaging ways.’ He then discusses 9 biases which he thinks are coming into play now.

However, because of the profound levels of uncertainty, even those with high level alignment skills  will find it challenging right now.  Which leaves me wondering whether the plea for ‘leadership alignment’ that I’m now hearing in various circles is remotely possible.  Is the only thing that a leadership team could be aligned on, a statement –  one on the lines of ‘We don’t know. Things are uncertain.’?

For many leaders saying ‘we don’t know’ feels risky.  And taking that risk is, in my experience, a necessary step.  Leaders are people too, like their workforce members, leaders are feeling the uncertainty.  Alongside this they can also feel and project the confidence and strength advocated by Knight.  Leaders (and workforce members) are not powerless in uncertainty.

Neither are organisation design and development practitioners.  We could, right now, be:

  • Creating the conditions for dissent/reflection, meaningful discussions and collaborative sensemaking, perhaps using techniques like Polarity Mapping that someone last week alerted me to, or the tool Adaptive Action that I mentioned, also last week.
  • Encouraging leadership team members to look at and overcome, individually and collectively, the attributes that are hindering alignment
  • Supporting them in developing the confidence to say ‘we don’t know and this is what we’re doing to work through things’.

How important do you think leadership team alignment is in these uncertain times?  What are you doing to encourage it if you think it is important?  Let me know.

Image: The duck-rabbit drawing was first used by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899 to make the point that perception is not only what one sees but also a mental activity