Responding to context

I was on a flight last week reading the European Wall Street Journal. The front page (October 31) had a great photomontage showing that

1. Truck maker Scania plans to pare production by as much as 15%, beginning in November.
2. Volvo intends to scale back truck manufacturing next year.
3. PSA Peugeot Citroën plans to suspend production at a plant in Slovakia. The company also said it would lay off 6,000 workers, mostly in France.
4. Liquor maker Diageo restructured its European operation by centralizing certain functions and shifting investment away from Western European markets.
5. Saab Automobile agreed to sell Saab to Chinese companies Pang Da and Zhejiang Youngman for $141.9 million, following a two-year struggle to turn the company around after decades of losses.

On the next page were a further set of news items:

6. BT Group said it will complete the rollout of its fiber broadband network to two-thirds of U.K. premises by the end of 2014, one year earlier than originally planned.
7. Yahoo has been exploring a potentially tax-free way to dispose of its roughly 40% stake in the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba.
8. Google announced the creation of about 100 online video "channels" on its YouTube website that will have new original programming involving celebrities such as the singer Madonna.
9. Meg Whitman is moving to stabilize H-P after 14 months in which the company removed two CEOs. Some seem to think her efforts are working, so far.

All of these major shifts in company strategy were attributed, for the most part, to the financial turmoil and the aftermath of the recession going on in Europe at the time. Reading this I wondered what was going on behind the scenes. The companies mentioned all presumably have strategists, organization design and development people, and line managers all geared up and ready to implement on the strategic change in direction.

Or do they?

Later in the week I facilitated a webinar for the Human Capital Institute on the ten myths of organization design. In the scene setting piece I mentioned the WSJ piece, commenting on the range of business strategy decisions and asking the participants, predominantly HR practitioners:

What is your response to this type of news item:
a) As a reader?
b) As a line manager in one of those organizations?
c) As an organization designer/consultant working with one of those organizations?

Then asking: Do these strategic business decisions require an organization design piece of work?

To my mind each of the strategic decisions requires an organization design/redesign series of activities and a commonly question came up from one of the participants – why is it that we get asked to implement on a decision that has been made, without having had input to the original decision?

This participant wanted to know what kind of questions to ask to demonstrate that his involvement earlier in the strategy decision making process would be helpful. This is a tricky one because once the decision has been made the options are more limited. In this case the types of questions that are useful run on the lines of :

Context questions.
This includes an awareness of what's happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences. Sample questions include:

• What is going on in this situation?
• What else do I need to know? What information is missing?
• How do I go about getting the information I need?
• What about this situation have I seen before? What is different /dissimilar?
• What's important and what's not important in this situation?
• What are the risks and rewards in this situation?
• How quickly to we need to act?

Assumptions questions
This involves analyzing assumptions about the situation as well as examining the beliefs that underlie choices. Sample questions include:
• What has been taken for granted in this situation?
• Which beliefs/values shaped any assumptions?
• What assumptions contribute to the way we are handling this situation?
• How can we challenge our assumptions to come up with other, potentially better responses?

Exploring questions
This involves thinking about and imagining other ways of looking at the situation, Sample questions include:
• What are two different responses to this situation?
• Are there others who might be able to help us develop more alternatives?
• Of the possible actions which are most reasonable?
Why are the others not as reasonable?
• Are there other resources that need to be mobilized?

A better route, that gets you into the dicussions earlier, is to develop organizational skills, political savvy, and business knowledge so that you are in the position of flagging things going on in the environment that are likely to require an organizational response. This means taking action yourself to keep up to speed. Things that I look at include TechCrunch, Science Daily, The Economist, Fast Company, McKinsey Quarterly, Strategy+Business, Harvard Business Review, WSJ, and the business pages of the FT and NY. Yes it's a lot but it does mean that I can be active in saying 'these are the things going on in the context that we need to be ready for when they hit us'.

How do you keep up to speed? How do you get in on the strategic decision making process?

Different point: I came across an excellent website with two training modules one on organization structure and one on organization design. Take a look – they're well worth it.

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