An analogy to illustrate organisational culture

We’ve been discussing organisation culture and trying to get across the idea that organisations don’t have one culture, they’re a patchwork of culture within an overall frame and we should both expect and plan for that.

In my book on Organisation Culture, I illustrated the natural variation in culture across business units, teams, and locations by using an analogy.  Here’s the section from the book.  (I’ve adapted it a bit).

One way of getting to an understanding of organisation culture is to consider it as analogous to something else – climate and weather is a good analogy.  Following the Koppen Climate Classification System the world is divided into 5 major climate zones (analogous to an organisation).  Within each of the zones are sub-zones (analogous to an organisation’s business units, or functions).  Within each sub-zone are the daily weather patterns (analogous to teams within business units/functions).  Climate and weather are inseparable from each other.

NASA explains the difference between weather and climate as

 ‘Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long periods of time.

The difference between weather and climate is that weather consists of the short-term (minutes to months) changes in the atmosphere. Most people think of weather in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, visibility, wind, and atmospheric pressure.  In most places, weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season.

Climate, however, is the average of weather over time and space. An easy way to remember the difference is that climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with pop-up thunderstorms.’

Using this analogy, you can see that an organisation level you could label the culture. You might say, for example that it is collaborative:  the rewards, metrics, other infrastructure elements may act as a framework to reinforce collaboration.  Within this framework, the way business units reflect collaboration may feel different from one unit to another.  Further even within one business unit at the team level day-to-day levels collaboration will vary – just as the weather does.

The climate/weather analogy is helpful when thinking about organisational culture because it represents culture in two-time measures – longer term and short term/immediate – and it paints the picture of local differences or patterns of culture within an overall set of patterns.

This climate/weather example illustrates how people make sense of the world around them by responding to patterns that they experience over time.  People make judgements, even in the absence of weather forecasts, on what clothing to wear and what accessories to take (hat, umbrella) by looking at the sky, feeling the air temperature, listening to wind noise, seeing the light level, noticing what other people are wearing, and so on.  They are making these decisions based on their experience of weather patterns.  This works well when they stay in the same climate zone, because the weather patterns vary only within certain parameters.

For example, in the UK we know that in January it’s a good idea to carry a hat, gloves, scarf and umbrella even if we don’t know that we’ll use each of them every day.    If we go to a different climate zone, that we’re not familiar with, we have to respond to different weather patterns and it’s much harder to make good choices on what to wear or bring in case of weather variation, as this blogger shows:

‘Before living in San Francisco, I definitely had no idea what to pack for a trip to San Francisco. It’s California, so it must be warm, right?

Wrong. There’s a little thing those of us who live here call Karl. He’s the fog that engulfs our city, bringing winds and low temperatures. The fog that covers the sun and inspires countless weekend getaways to wine country. He’s the reason why you’ll find hundreds of unwitting tourists snapping selfies on Fisherman’s Wharf in freshly bought San Francisco hoodies.’

Living in one climate people learn to make sense of the day to day weather.  Similarly, in organisations people make sense of an organisational culture by picking up the patterns of the organisation – things like what type of person gets promoted, how offices are allocated, what gets noticed, who talks to whom … . Where these patterns can be discerned across the whole organisation (equivalent to a climate zone) they are usually reinforced in policies, performance management systems, common visual symbols or décor and so on. And these may vary somewhat by sub-zone/business unit level.  At the ‘weather’ level – within a team the patterns are local (as in weather) depending on the nature of the work, the personalities of the managers, and so on, but can be really hard to get to grips with.

The experience of a long-serving executive moving from the marketing department to the strategic planning department of the same organisation illustrates this.  She made the comment “Marketing was very gregarious and outgoing. Here it is unbelievably intense”. She found this change difficult to adapt to commenting. “It was a gruelling experience at first.  I nearly gave up several times. What saved me was knowing at the broader level how the organisation worked and knowing where to go to get things done.”  This executive’s experience of the climate of the organisation helped in her initiation to local ‘weather’ conditions.

People who move from one organisation to another (as from one climate zone to another) have to get to grips with not only the climate-level change but also the local/team ‘weather’ patterns. And this can be very hard indeed.

Another executive, recruited from outside but to the same organisation as in the previous example, when asked six months into the role if he felt attuned noted:

“Not completely. I want to bring some fresh things in.  But I’ve had to adapt.  I’ve had to learn to fit into the culture and accept some of its strangeness if I’m going to be accepted.  For me there’s a bit too much consensus and discussion: meetings for two hours are not what I’m used to.  But I need to be careful. I need to understand why people do what they do. I’m confident enough now at the whole organisation level, but the local departmental differences are still worrisome to me”

Thinking of organisational culture as climate zone, sub-zone and weather which are interlinked and inseparable means we can recognize and work with local variations.  It gives the idea that an organisation does not have a single ‘culture’ but has patterns of culture swirling within a frame. It also suggests that trying to change the culture in the short term may have little impact on the overall patterns in the longer term.  On the other hand, they may, in the same way that a local volcanic eruption, or cutting down a forest, can have both an immediate effect on the weather and a longer-term effect on the climate.

The climate/weather analogy worked in our discussion – what do you think of it?  Let me know.



Work below the waterline

If you’re working with people who are being ‘restructured’ and are now in the process of transitioning to the new structure, it’s worth looking at the report The impact of restructuring on employee well-being: a systematic review of longitudinal studies.  I remembered it in a meeting I was in recently where we were discussing the movement, due to a restructure,  of people from one part of the organisation to another.   The conversation stuck at the practical logistics – number of people, letters they would get about their move, dates, new reporting lines/managers, and so on.  There was no discussion of their feelings, emotions, experiences of being moved, although someone noted that many people had left knowing that they would be moved and voting with their feet on it.

Co-author, of the report just mentioned, Karina Nielsen reminds us that ‘Restructuring is a significant characteristic of working life in both private and public companies and a large part of the working population will face one, but probably more restructuring events in their career. It is therefore important to understand the effects of restructuring and the impact of the way the process is managed on employee well-being, in order to reduce the negative effects for employees who continue to work at the organisation afterwards’.

She continues, ‘Our findings show that it doesn’t really matter whether people are laid off or not, it still has a negative impact. Those employees who stay on at the organisation might have to do tasks they are not familiar with and they don’t necessarily get the training. They need other competencies.’

These more negative responses are harder to deal with, and are often side-lined or ignored, as conversations stay focused on the way things are ‘supposed to be’.  Just as was going on in the meeting I was in.  But ignoring them is a risk. The tangled mass of informal systems, processes and interactions that frequently contravene, sometimes contradict, and often overrule what is supposed to be, the formal systems, are what can make or break a restructure.

A common way of visualizing this ‘supposed-to-be + tangled mess’ is as an iceberg. Dan Oestreich, in his blog At the Water-line explains: ‘The top part of the iceberg represents the visible, formal aspects of an organization, such as the stated goals, the technologies, structures, policies, and services of an enterprise. Below the water-line are the covert or so-called “hidden” aspects of an organization, the beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, feelings and values that characterize the real-world interactions from which an organization is also built. If the top of the iceberg represents “the way we say we get things done,” the bottom and larger part is “the way we really get things done.”  ‘

What is usually discussed and informs the ‘way we say things get done’ – is the above the waterline stuff: for example, written charts and hierarchies, role descriptions, strategic plans, disciplinary and other procedures, workflow maps, etc.

What is not discussed as much, is ‘the way we really get things done’ the below-the-waterline stuff of feelings, emotions, values, norms, interactions (positive and negative) and day-to-day ways of doing things.

The deeper the elements below the waterline, the harder it is to see, interpret and work with them. However, everyone is aware of the many different groups of people engaged in collaborations, conflicts and conversations to define the agenda of the organization and, in doing so, shape its course of action.  As one writer says:

Some cultures are more open than others when it comes to expressing inner thoughts and feelings. Most situations have a ‘subtext’ of unspoken thoughts – the kind of conversation we are accustomed to keep inside our heads.

This was illustrated in the film Annie Hall, when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton meet at a party and the verbalized conversation between them is subtitled with their private, internal thoughts. Needless to say, the open conversation and the private ones are quite different, but it is interesting how their non-verbal communication reveals some of their inner thoughts.

Of course, there are inner thoughts which it is better not to reveal, but often it is the inner conversation which directs our actions, and for that reason we need to find ways of expressing the subtext openly, and encouraging others to reveal theirs.

Although it is possible to force through a change without acknowledging these inner conversations, the consequences are usually disruptive and hard to handle. It is in the transitioning phase – when the movement from/to is happening – that the below-the-waterline of the organization is the most powerful.

Successful transitioning from current state to planned state requires looking below the waterline – surfacing and working with it.  Without open discussion defensive behaviour, blocking, non-compliance and other potential showstoppers are likely to emerge.

There are some techniques and tools you can use to to do this.  Two that I use are:

Peter Senge’s ‘Left Hand Column’ activity, which is helpful in workshops.

Acting like a corporate anthropologist – developing and using skills in systematic ‘on the ground’ observation and ethnographic methods to comment on what’s going on.  Ways of doing this include:

  • being and staying aware of responses to transitioning through feedback mechanisms like ‘pulse checks’ of morale, motivation and productivity (note these may record what people think they ought to say not what they want to say);
  • aiming to understand what is going on through dialogue, interaction and empathy;
  • working responsively to select and use appropriate tools and techniques that help people in transitioning;
  • monitoring what is working and what is not, and adjusting accordingly;
  • assessing how people are using technology and other tools in the course of the work day;
  • enquiring how workers extract meaning (or not) from their work;
  • noticing where conflicts arise and what causes them;
  • ‘valuing the continuous process of people’s day-to-day interactions’ as they come to terms with the transitioning phase – that is, the informal conversations, the political realignments and the role of informal leaders;
  • And, as Chris Rodgers says, ‘stimulating and participating in meaning-making conversations, and seeking to mobilize the actions of people around important emerging themes during this period’

Key to mobilizing support from below the waterline, Nielsen (mentioned earlier) finds, are ‘the characteristics of the restructuring process, such as fairness of procedures, communication and change management [which] in general have been found to have an impact on worker well-being. Some groups of workers react less negatively, for example if they have more chance of influencing the process’

Much of the ‘noise’ about the design goes on below the waterline of the organization. Taking the anthropologist’s perspective and using their skills gives organisation designers and line managers the chance of finding out what is actually going on, developing interventions, and evaluating the intervention process and its impact on the effectiveness of transitioning to the new design.

How do you work ‘below the waterline’ in restructures you are involved in?  Let me know.

NOTE:  This piece is an edited extract from Chapter 7 of my book, Organization Design the Practitioner’s Guide.


Image: The Sculpture Coralarium. Sirru Fen Fushi, Maldives, Jason deCaires Taylor


Blog comments and treasure troves

Happy New Year.  It’s January 1, and traditionally time for making resolutions and commitments.  (I got stuck in wondering what the difference is between a resolution and a commitment and found this interesting sounding book, The Logic of Commitment).

Thinking about resolutions, my mind wandered to my very frequent thought that I must/should/ought to respond to people who comment on my blogs.  Each of my blogs ends with the invitation, ‘Let me know’, and often people do.  I get comments posted on LinkedIn, on my own website and through emails.   I read them all, they’re helpful to me at least, and I appreciate getting them.

I feel churlish and anxious in not replying to the public ones – though I invariably reply to email comments.  There’s really only one reason I don’t reply: I don’t have enough time to give each one a thoughtful response.   And a quick ‘thank you for your comment’ response, doesn’t seem sufficient.

Now, I’m wondering if I should I resolve (or commit) to respond to any comments I receive in 2019, (and what to do about all the ones I haven’t responded to in 2018 and before that) or alternatively stop saying ‘Let me know’, or switch off the comment box and not feel the churlishness (but also lose the value in the comments) or come up with something else that isn’t quite so binary.

To see what others do I took a look at HBRs most popular 8 articles this week.  Only one of the 8 had no comments. The rest had between 3 and 16 with an outlier one which had 25.  Blog authors varied in whether they responded or not.  Most did not. Only 2 of the 8 blogs had a response from the author in which they were responding to a posted comment.

Then I looked at what the prevailing advice is.  There are lots of differing views on the pros and cons of responding to comments. A well-balanced piece discussing disabling the comments feature, with data to support, asks the question ‘With no clear consensus from the content marketing community, how are you supposed to decide what to do with the comments on your own blog?’ and concludes ‘Since blog comments don’t have a huge effect on your traffic, they don’t have a huge effect on your revenue either. …  Comments can be used to further relationships with your existing readership, provide social proof, or to elicit feedback. … it is completely up to your own personal preference [whether you disable comments or not].’

An idea I have, that is somewhere between not responding to any, responding to some/all, or switching off the comments feature is to take an arbitrary date – maybe a month after I’ve posted the blog and at that point draw on all the comments to synthesise/interpret them in relation to the blog topic. And that activity might become a blog topic in itself.

I came across a piece in the Journal of Organisation Design that does that, for a suite of journal articles: ‘An Interpretative Synthesis in Three Themes’ where author Richard Burton says ‘I was asked by JOD to monitor the discussion and identify the broad organization design themes that emerged [from the inaugural issue of the Journal of Organisation Design]’.

Maybe doing that for each blog that had a reasonable number of comments would be useful to organisation design practitioners (and others)?

Aiming to get to my view on the answer to this question I took a look at the 52 blogs I wrote during 2018 – one per week.  I post each one on my own website and on LinkedIn.  Looking only at LinkedIn, the blogs that got both the most comments and the most views were:

The blog Agile: is it hype? got a higher number of comments, but not as many views as some other blogs – 29 (265).

I re-read A Big Issue and all the comments it got. It’s about systems thinking.  I followed all the links and references people commenting have put in.  It turns out to be a treasure trove of views, ideas and references on systems thinking from a diversity of perspectives. The trove includes:

On Pete’s blog, Bruce Kay – someone following the discussion and commenting himself – summarises the discussions saying, ‘Thank you all for a very entertaining and illuminating discussion on the merits of Systems Thinking. In the following paragraphs I captured some notes … ‘

Also, Pete fostered the discussion by responding to every comment in supportive and questioning ways which kept it going.

My conclusion to this limited research is that thoughtful comments provide a rich source of additional information/resources on a blog topic.  Someone fostering the discussion by responding to and extending each comment adds richness. (I’ve done this when I’ve been teaching on-line courses but not seen it done before on blogs).  If there are sufficient comments it might be worth synthesising and interpreting them.

I’m still thinking over how I should approach the comments on my own blogs.  Any ideas?  Let me know.

Image: No comment graffiti

Organisations are political systems

Participants on the last couple of organisation design programmes I’ve facilitated have asked questions about managing the politics of design work, specifically the various types of power plays inherent in it.

I touch on this in my book, saying: ‘Organizations are political systems and the political arena can be murky. …  Navigating the organizational politics and the political dynamics often means that OD practitioners face compromises, tensions or ethical dilemmas that force them to ask themselves whose interests they are being asked to serve, and managing the consequences of their answers.’

In a blog I wrote,  ‘Do organisation designers need political skills?‘ I note that ‘in order to navigate the political arenas … practitioners need finely honed political skill, defined as the ability to effectively understand others at work, and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organizational objectives.  Politically skilled people ‘combine social astuteness with the capacity to adjust their behaviour to different and changing situational demands in a manner that appears to be sincere, inspires support and trust, and effectively influences and controls the responses of others’ (Ferris et al. 2007).’

I wonder now if organisation designers do pay enough attention to organisational politics and honing their skills to work with/handle the politics.  As I’ve been pondering the participants’ questions and wondering how to respond in a way that is helpful to them (and me), I remembered Gareth Morgan’s metaphor and discussion on Organizations as systems of political activity.

He makes the point that ‘politics occurs on an ongoing basis, often in a way that is invisible to all but those directly involved’.   He describes politics as the way people handle ‘relations between interests, conflicts and power’.

Most of the participants on my organisation design programmes work in large bureaucratic, hierarchical private and public sector organisations.  From Morgan, we learn that ‘when we talk about organisations as bureaucracies … we are characterizing the organization in a particular style of political rule.’  Bureaucracy being ‘rule exercised through use of the written word, which provides the basis for a rational-legal type of authority or ‘rule of law’.

As I was mulling over the ideologies and politics of bureaucracies an update came my way leading me to Gary Hamel’s talk on Busting Bureaucracy at the 2018 Drucker Forum.  He quotes a survey finding: ‘76% of respondents said political behaviors highly influence who gets ahead?’ (For more on this see What we learned about bureaucracy from 7000 HBR readers).  He tells us ‘bureausclerosis – an excess of bureaucracy—too many layers and too many pointless rules—robs OECD economies of $9 trillion per year in lost economic output. The indirect costs of bu­reau­cracy—friction conformity, insularity, rigidity, apathy, politicking are likely to be even higher.’

Hamel has long been advocating against bureaucracies – still the dominant form organization structure/org chart.   In a 2014 HBR article, Bureaucracy Must Die, he says ‘It is the unchallenged tenets of bureaucracy that disable our organizations—that make them inertial, incremental and uninspiring.  To find a cure, we will have to reinvent the architecture and ideology’.

On architecture he argues: ‘A formal [bureaucratic] hierarchy overweights experience and underweights new thinking, and in doing so perpetuates the past. It misallocates power, since promotions often go to the most politically astute rather than to the most prescient or productive.

On ideology he asks ‘So what’s the ideology of bureaucrats?’ And he answers ‘Controlism. Open any thesaurus and you’ll find that the primary synonym for the word “manage,” when used as verb, is “control.” “To manage” is “to control.’

He then makes the point that to find a cure ‘To find a cure, [for the problems associated with bureaucracies] we will have to reinvent the architecture and ideology of modern management — two topics that aren’t often discussed in boardrooms or business schools.’

I think he’s right on this.  I’ve rarely participated in or brokered an organisation design discussion that openly asks what political ideology we are designing our organisation’s architecture to/with, how we feel about the way we design power in the organisaton, or what alternatives to both we could consider.

If we do not challenge/discuss the dominant organisational ideologies and architecture are we simply colluding with those in organisational power positions?   Is organisation design inherently a political activity? Sharon Varney in a blog Organisation Design without Drama implies it is saying ‘One of the problems surrounding organisation design is a reluctance to call it what it is. Sure, there are lots of sensitivities around organisation design work. But reaching for politically acceptable euphemisms doesn’t help.’

The report she co-authored The Palace: Perpectives on Organisation Design suggests that a stakeholder analysis should identify the political structures in the organisation and how the exercise of power might stymie a re-design’ and discusses (section 8.1) the bureaucracy/adhocracy swing, quoting from Margaret Wheatley ‘In our desire to control our organizations, we have  detached ourselves from the forces that create order in the universe. All these years we have confused control with order. So what if we reframed the search?’

If bureaucracies are about the politics of power and control, should we go along with the ideas that we should be ‘busting them’?  How would we start a conversation on this with the very people in/with power who seek either to control or to maintain control, and who, for the most part, are the ones who commission organisation designs and redesigns?

As Hamel asks ‘When a Global 500 chief like A.G. Lafley, twice CEO at Procter and Gamble, says, “The CEO can see opportunities others can’t,” who’s going to say “rubbish?” Or when the former managing partner of a prestigious consulting firm declares that it’s up to a handful of top executives to “shape the destiny of the business … while others have their heads buried in operations…,” who’s going to say, “no, you have it backwards; it’s the people on the edge who are best posi­tioned to see the future coming?”’

As he says ‘Unless we are willing to be .. honest and forthright, we’re part of the problem, not the solu­tion.  But before challenging others, we need to challenge ourselves. In what ways are we still paying allegiance to the bureaucratic confederacy?’

As we design and re-design organisations whose ideologies and architectures are we in thrall to and how can we challenge it and ourselves on this? Do we need to develop better political skills?    Let me know.

Image: Bio-inspired political systems


Bridging the gap between strategy design and delivery

Last week I completed a Coursera programme getting a cheerful email saying, ‘Congratulations – we mean it! Take a moment to reflect on your hard work and enjoy your completion of Bridging the Gap between Strategy Design and Delivery. You’ve earned it.’

I can’t remember now how I came across the course, offered through the Brightline Initiative a ‘non-commercial coalition of leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and delivery’ and Coursera.

I wasn’t looking for a programme but it must have been mentioned in something I read and it piqued my interest on a few counts, and then I let myself register by mentally leaping the gap between time I think I have to spend things on and time I actually have to spend things on.

My rationale was three-fold: first, that I’m in the middle of writing some online organisation design course materials and wanted to compare the Coursera approach to the FutureLearn one.  This was my first Coursera experience but I’ve taken several FutureLearns.

Second, I’ve noticed that there often seems to be a gap between purposefully designing something and then putting it into action.   Coursera quotes some statistics on the strategies designed but not realised.   They don’t mention the opposite gap of doing something without having any clear purpose or strategy for doing it, for which I’ve discovered a brilliant word – coddiwompling. This means proceeding purposefully in an unclear direction.  It’s become a favourite word with colleagues.

Third, the notion of ‘designing strategy’ was also something I wanted to explore as I’ve been reading that people are not good at designing strategies and better strategies are designed as a continuous process  of strategising rather than an annual or periodic design event.

I set off on this 5-week journey armed with my usual kit of scepticism, curiosity and lack of time. I wasn’t coddiwompling as my purpose was clear – complete the course.  My delivery strategy – do a bit each day.

Course design and delivery:  I though the course is well designed and engagingly delivered with a mix of readings, video interviews, and case studies, all downloadable for future use.  (The videos are not but their transcript is and many of the videos are available even if you’re not a course member.)   Learner interaction is fostered via, polls, ‘test your knowledge’ quizzes, encouragement to join the discussions, and green ticks + progression charts.  I found it easy to keep going.

The course ‘text’ – a chunky compilation of 25 HBR articles on aspects of strategy and strategy execution – will be a good reference source.

I liked that I could work through it on my phone making following the course easier to fit into my schedule.  The feature saying ‘this element works better on a computer’ explained why some things couldn’t be done so easily on a phone.

On the downside, I couldn’t find out how to engage with the course leaders.   I tested out the Contact Us function – with an admin point I couldn’t find in the FAQs so went to the chat.  My first question there was ‘are you a chatbot or a human being’.  I got the answer from Joseph that he was human.  (Would a chatbot say the same in answer to that question?) I also got the answer to my real questions – how long to I have access to the course for after completion? (Indefinitely) and why isn’t the course showing up in ‘my completed courses on my account?’ (Technical glitch that engineers are aware of and working on).

Gap between purposefully designing something and then putting it into action:  We learned in week one that the gap between strategy design and delivery is alarmingly common: ‘When asked what percentage of their organizational strategic objectives over the previous three years was not being met because of flawed or incomplete strategy implementation, 90% of the executives responded that their organization had failed to meet all of their strategic objectives. And this is because they don’t implement well.’  (The sceptic in me wants to know if the survey that yielded this information has been validated and is reliable, but as I said, I couldn’t find a way to interact with the educators).

The course content is designed around 10 Guiding Principles that ‘We have crafted … to help leaders shrink the costly and wasteful gap between strategy design and delivery.’  The authors make some bold claims about the Principles: ‘They safely guide leaders and teams toward the right decisions, practices, and processes. They enable organizations to counter threats and seize opportunities.’  For them the Principles are ‘both a moral rule and a basic truth. Practices can change, business models are disrupted, technology evolves, but principles do not change’.

Hmm – I’m not sure that the statement ‘Promote team engagement and effective cross-business cooperation’ (Principle 6) is a moral rule, but it is something we talk about a lot at work.  In fact, all of the ten principles seem like basic good management to me. What manager is not constantly trying to ‘Dedicate and mobilize the right resources’ (Principle 3) – in order to counter the threat of not meeting his/her objectives?  Again, I wouldn’t put it in the ‘basic truth’ bucket, more the ‘common sense’ one.  However, collectively the 10 are a good enough reminder to any manager (or strategy developer/designer) that once they’ve designed something, they should then deliver it, and the case studies (including Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, ING, BCG, Emirates) would be useful in design/delivery workshops.

Designing strategy:  The thread running through the strategy design discussions is that it’s a process not a product and that delivery is part of the process.  Listen, for example to Tendayi Viki, Benneli Jacobs and Company who, talking about Principle 9 ‘Fail fast to learn fast’, argues ‘managers and leaders should be thinking about strategy as a process of sensing and responding to the market. So, we shouldn’t view strategy as a single process where we come up with our strategy and then we just implement it regardless of what’s going on around us. …  It’s really important to view strategy as … a vision or a set of hypotheses. And then when we make decisions, and make investment decisions, we view those investment decisions as experiments to test our strategic hypotheses. And every now and again, maybe every quarter, as leaders, we get back together and review whether our strategy is actually still working and whether our strategy is actually adaptive to the world that it’s operating in.’

In a similar vein, Roger Martin, of the Rotman School of Management tells us that ‘the vast majority of strategy in the business world now is not useful. Yet we let it off the hook and say, the big problem is strategy execution. We just didn’t execute that strategy.  No, that was a dumb strategy– vacuous.’  He approaches strategy though getting answers to 5 questions that cover both design and delivery as a single process.

The key message I got from the programme was that strategy design and delivery is/should be a single and continuous process.  I think that lesson could be learned in less than five weeks.  But overall I enjoyed the programme and got some value from it.

Inevitably, having completed the course I was asked to take a survey on my experiences and asked if I would recommend it.  Has what I’ve said about it piqued your interest?  Let me know.

Image: 10 Guiding Principles


For nearly 3 years I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers.  SiloSmashers’ mission is to ‘set out to change how government agencies and corporations manage programs — and smash silo operations’.  Their view is that ‘Working in silos creates isolation and obstacles to effective communication and collaboration across agencies and corporations — reducing efficiency and hampering progress.’

When I was doing a clear out last month – 9 days of clearing 27 items, apparently a feng shui activity that will change one’s life – I found my SiloSmashers’ business card and some of the materials I developed and used there.

Coincidentally, last week, someone asked me if there would be any mileage in running a training programme on silo smashing. Whether silo smashing has returned to change my life, I don’t know but I decided to ask myself if a silo smashing programme would attract participants.

Silo smashing is recommended to bust the downsides of the ‘silo mentality’ – defined as the ‘mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company.’  That implies a wilfulness about the issue of cross silo collaboration, which I don’t think is necessarily the case.

Silos get built through things like the traditional bureaucratic vertical hierarchies (look at any traditional organisation chart and you’ll see a  visual of silos), the performance management systems that encourage competition over collaboration, the reward systems that reward individuals over teams, cultures that emphasise command and control rather than self-direction and autonomy,  IT systems that ‘don’t talk to each other’ and physical layouts (like a single business unit on one floor).  You can probably name other organisational elements that encourage silo working.  It’s not necessarily a ‘mindset’ of wilful behaviour of the people in the silos (although in some cases it might be).

Although there’s much written on breaking down silos e.g. To Build Your Business Smash Your Silos, or 5 Ways to Destroy the Pesky Silos in Your Organization, or Breaking Down Silos to Achieve Strategic Agility or Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (see her talking on the topic here)  silos are not necessarily a bad thing.

As the authors of Dealing with Market Disruption: Seven Strategies for Breaking Down Silos remark, ‘Conventional wisdom holds that silos are a flawed business construct: a legacy of command and control leadership symbolizing outmoded and inefficient management. In truth, silos help establish boundaries and maintain order — and allow professional teams to operate in a focused, specialized way.

If we talk the language of agile squads, tribes, guilds, chapters, we are not far from the concept of silos.  How different is a ‘tribal mentality’ from a ‘silo mentality’?

Commenting in a Tweet, @mrcruce, July 31, 2018, says ‘Instead of ‘eliminating’ divisions, or ‘blowing up’ silos…. let’s use metaphors about bridging, connecting, unifying, transcending, collaborating across borders…. connecting all of the groups within an organization in a coherent way so that they all work seamlessly together.’

This is a sensible approach that could blend the virtues of silos (and tribes) with the virtues of connectivity and collaboration and it is possibly a more achievable, and less disruptive method, than opting to smash the silos.  In ‘Don’t Break Your Silos – Push Out the Silo Mentality’ the writer’s view is that silos need ‘ventilating’.  He points out that, ‘Grain silos keep different types of agriculture separate, but they do not keep them in a vacuum, instead there are openings, which allow air to get in.  Ventilating the silos is not a simple task and the main difference between breaking and ventilating them is that the focus does not disperse. In order to ventilate the silos in your company, you need to boost the sharing culture within and build bridges between the different silos, by which the information can cross freely from one to another.’

Connecting silos where and when appropriate, using carefully re-designed organizational systems and processes to manage the connections effectively in ways that develop a culture of connection and collaboration is the topic of several blogs (and books – See Patrick Lencioni, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars).  One writer summarises the many who advise on how to do this:

  • Develop a unified vision and providing people with a clear purpose and ultimate common goals.
  • Boost the sharing culture and encourage environments of necessary transparency
  • Build bridges between the different silos, through which the information can flow freely. ‘Whether it’s going to be by creating cross functional teams, holding regular meetings between departments or finding a way of your own. This is all to improve collaboration, communication, and trust between teams.’

This is all easier said than done but a good starter is the five questions from a Fast Company article:

  1. What priorities do you or your department have that are not aligned with another’s?
  2. Put yourself in the place of the other silo–what would make that silo realize that your need was a priority?
  3. What information do you or your department have that could be useful to others?
  4. What information or assistance do you need from another silo that you are not getting?
  5. In what areas would increased collaboration and giving up some autonomy be more beneficial for the organisation than maintaining your individuality?

Margaret Heffernan tells a lovely story that illustrates a forum in which the five questions above get addressed:

‘When it came time to draw up the company’s annual budget, each department head drew up a budget for that department — but then had to explain it so cogently to one colleague that the colleague could defend it at the leadership team meeting. The chief technology officer would argue the case for marketing, the head of sales spoke on behalf of operations, customer care explained technology’s needs. The impact of this simple exercise was profound. Everyone had to see the whole company through eyes not their own.’  

And a second one about an executive who ‘told me about the silos of his business: geographical regions and technical functions found it hard to connect and trust one another. He’d asked that each make short films about one another. He wasn’t expecting anyone to invest much effort in the project but went to the trouble to gather the entire company in a cinema to watch what they’d made. The outcome startled him: movies of immense passion, inventiveness and humor that delighted, motivated, and inspired the whole company.’

These stories illustrate that taking inventive steps to build social connections go a long way towards bridging silos.  But in themselves they are not sufficient. There have to be clearly communicated reasons for connecting and formal reinforcement of it with systems, processes and common platforms that track and enable connection.   (See how the Estonian government manages a platform that is common and appropriately siloed).   Additionally there has to be what Rob Cross describes as boundary spanning leadership which requires skills in systems, system dynamics and network thinking and connecting.

Given all the above info, it seems to me that we could easily develop a programme on Silos – not smashing but connecting.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Sam Bates Silo Artist

Too many projects, too much change

I may have mentioned that I’m taking a 5-week Coursera course, Bridging the Gap between Strategy Design and Delivery, developed by the Brightline Initiative. I’m going to write more about it when I’ve completed it but meanwhile one of the module topics I studied this week is particularly relevant to some work I am currently doing.

It’s about projects and change.  Perry Keenan of BCG talks about the ‘increasingly artificial split– between running the business and changing the business’.  (You can watch the four minute video here)

He talks about the issues with too many initiatives, saying ‘Arguably, it is in fact easier to add an initiative than it is to stop one because there’s a lot of connection – political, emotional, historic– a set of factors which means it’s not easy to stop initiatives. It’s often not easy even to slow them down.’  He goes on to advise, ‘If you’re going to add in new initiatives, then be very thoughtful about what it means for the initiatives that you already have in play and the demands that you’re placing on your people. Once again, we all too often, in theory, assume that there is an infinite pool of highly capable people available to deliver the strategic initiatives. It’s a finite resource. And therefore, it has to be managed in a very definitive way.’

This chimes with an article I read in the Harvard Business Review, Too Many Projects. It opens saying ‘it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives, even when they don’t align with new strategies. Instead, leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.’  The article cites six further reasons for why this change overload occurs

  1. Impact blindness:  executive teams can be oblivious to the number and cumulative impact of the initiatives they have in progress.
  2. Multiplier effects: leaders have a line of sight into their own groups’ initiatives but a limited view of other groups’ activities. Because functions and units often set their priorities and launch initiatives in isolation, they may not understand the impact on neighbouring functions and units
  3. Political logrolling: Executives tend to be strongly invested in some “signature” projects and may garner resources for them through implicit agreements to support their peers with their projects
  4. Unfunded mandates. Leaders want a project to happen but don’t have the resources to put to it. Instead just adding it to the ‘business as usual work’.
  5. Band-Aid initiatives; this is a proliferation of initiatives designed to solve a problem, but without address the root causes of the problem in the first place
  6. Cost myopia; leaders fail to estimate, or underestimate the human cost of multiple initiatives on performance, motivation, morale, stress and so on.

In case you don’t know whether your organisation has too many change projects/initiatives, there is a 17 item yes/no questionnaire – one of the questions, for example, is ‘Does the organization lack processes for quantifying impact and prioritizing initiatives? Yes/No.’   The instructions read, ‘The first step in dealing with initiative overload is to honestly assess and acknowledge the [overload] problem. Ask yourself the questions below to gauge whether your organization is at risk. Then total up the yeses—those are red flags. If you have more than four, you may need to better manage the number or timing of initiatives.’

Since most of us completing the survey scored at least 10+ it served to confirm what we already knew (or at least, felt), that we are at risk and need to better manage the number and timing of initiatives.

The difficulties lie in converting a strong feeling that we are at risk into evidence proving that we are, and then doing something about it.  Both Keenan, and the HBR authors highlight the problem and the impact of the problem, but don’t specify or hint at any practical guidance on mitigating the risks and/or stopping the overload.

One of the things we are feeling is a risk is discussed in an article The Long-Term Damage from Juggling Too Many Projects – it notes that ‘Scrambling to shift scant resources in order to meet deadlines can have a chaotic ripple effect.’  That ripple effect is not just on the timeline and delivery schedule of competing projects and ‘business as usual’ but also on the people involved.

That’s the area I’m interested in.  I’m wondering if there’s a way we can look ahead to forecast the likely project load on people and take steps to even out the flow, slowing it down, speeding it up, or moving resources in a planned way and not a reactive way.  It’s necessary as in our case many people are doing project work alongside their ‘day job’.

I want to create a ‘heat-map’ that forecasts what one writer describes as ‘change collision’:  ‘Change collisions occur when there are multiple changes hitting individuals or a team of people over a common timeframe. Often, change collisions are a small number of high impact changes. In some cases, however, these collisions may be a high volume of low impact changes that didn’t garner attention until understood in the aggregate. Keep in mind that other “rhythm of the business” activities, driven by the organization’s calendar of events, should be taken into account as well when considering the volume of change activity.’

Talking with colleagues on the issues of project overload led to a number of interesting, still open, questions:

  • What’s the tipping point between projects that remain manageable and the point of overload?  How could we recognise it?
  • Is project overload to do with leadership and communication as much as the demands of the projects themselves?
  • How do we reconcile change due to project delivery and implementation and change in ‘business as usual’?  Does one feel more overloading than the other?  Or is it the combination that causes overload?  (In our case many people are doing project work alongside their ‘day job’.)
  • Is something we call ‘too much change’ related to projects, the general operating context changing, other factors changing and is the source of the ‘too much change’ feeling identifiable (and does the source matter?)

We are interested in the human indicators of overload and began to develop a list of metrics that we could track and link back to the project plans.

People suggested a range of other measures that fell into four impact categories: resilience, successful delivery outcomes, work/culture and resource.  For example, in the successful delivery category,  if we the rise of reports in bullying and harassment coincides with some project delivery target(s) is there any connection to investigate?  Or on in the resource category,  if we saw a sudden spike in people working weekends and logging overtime is there too little resource on the project?

Right now, we are playing around with the ideas of how to measure this cumulative impact of projects and associated change with a view to gathering data to test some of our ideas and convert them into an evidence based heatmap.

How do you measure the cumulative impact of change on your workforce members, and how to you use it to smooth the change flow?  Let me know.

Image:  Overloaded