Bones, beans, and gold coins

Imagine a look alike Las Vegas casino but in Johannesburg. Now imagine around 70 organization design consultants sitting in there in one of the artificially lit hotel conference rooms working through an eclectic program of presentations, exercises, flag twirling, journey mapping, world café, and other things beloved by 'interventionists'. I was one of the 70 at the New Africa Organization Design Forum Summit there. My task was to talk about the myths of organization design. At points I found myself asking myself 'am I seriously part of this community?' this question perhaps brought on by the ODD sessions. I finally worked out that ODD was an acronym (organization design and development) and not intended to be a descriptor so clearly I was confused there, but maybe not.

The program veered from the sedate, and the 'I've heard this a thousand times before', to the wacky in unpredictable sequence, each session with its own specific language and vocabulary that required a jargon buster (unfortunately not provided). Similarly it veered from participants being seated and listening attentively to a presenter with power points to scrabbling on the floor picking up the bones and beans that John Ballam sowed amongst us in his superb method of shaking us out of our known worlds of 'adaptive systems', 'holistic thinking' 'new paradigms', 'mental models', and so on leading us towards 'shamanism', 'healing', 'energy fields', 'the consistency of the unseen', and 'fractals'. His mix of theatre and chaos theory started with his own chanting, dancing and sowing and finished with all participants doing a short stomp dance with pelvic wiggles. (Odd or not? Form your own views).

The overall theme for the three days (one pre-conference) was to discuss "Aligning Organization Design and Culture to Accelerate Performance and Adaptability in the Three Horizons of Work". In case you're wondering what the 'three horizons of work are' here goes:

I. Hierarchical: Innovations in Core/Mechanistic Design
Typical structure: Hierarchy / Vertical structures
Decision culture: Controlled, authority cascaded from top, directed
Culture of change: Push-Control & Predict,conformity with prescribed culture
Best fit change method: Waterfall, strategic planning,supports status quo,
Design leaders and methods: Galbraith; Star Model, Jacques; Requisite Order, Fredrick Taylor; Mechanistic

II. Participatory: Innovations in Emerging/Humanistic Design
Typical structure: Hierarchy / Cross functional Vertical and Horizontal
Decision culture: Delegated authority from top to select teams, feedback loops influence decisions
Culture of change: Push / Pull-Proactive, engage, transfer knowledge,learning, co-created culture
Best fit change method: Engagement events and initiatives, shifts the status quo and power relations
Design leaders and methods: Axelrod; Conference Model, Emery/Weisberg;Search, Lukensmeyer; AmericaSpeaks, Owens; Open Space

III. Individual Accountability Innovations in Experimental / Organic Design
Typical structure: Flat / Networked, Circles, Fluid, focus on roles not structure
Decision culture: Distributed to all levels based on accountabilities, all make relevant decisions through dialogue
Best fit change method: Pull-Sense & Response to real time stimuli,transparency, emergent culture
Real time & built into operating process, vertical structure fades, focus shifts to results vs. structure
Design leaders and methods: Adaptive Organizations: Winby; Decision Accelerators, Robertson; Holacracy, Ressler; Results Only Work Environments

The bulk of the participants were from South Africa and worked in government, and a goodly proportion of the speakers were North American consultants. With this combination I came away with a mixed bundle of stuff. There were some good questions raised.

One that I found intriguing was 'How does the national culture of South Africa support the organization development work that you are doing?' This led to a discussion on what the South African values are: 'Ubuntu' – I am because we are – was one value that doesn't mesh with the 'what's in it for me?' attitude that I meet in my American work, similarly the South African value of 'walk together and not apart', makes one think collaboration, a value reinforced by viewing the history of apartheid exhibition in the hotel I was staying in (coincidentally the same day that someone emailed me the Malvina Reynolds song, 'It's not nice' ). 'N Boer maak n plan' was another value people mentioned. This one is about dealing pragmatically with things that go wrong. Another was 'lekgotla' which is a forum for discussion and dialogue.

Having also just been in China I wondered about the Chinese values that might contribute to organization design work. Do national cultures mean working differently even in multinational organizations? Why is organization development and design work so North American based? Noble Kumawu, from Ghana, co-author of Global OD: A Model for Africa and the World, and CEO of OCIC International started to address that question.

Taking a view that questioning is the precursor to doing things differently (and hopefully better) I am now pondering national cultures, shamanism, and a whole raft of phrases that caught my attention: "Get rid of the heroes', 'selling an energy field' (not a BP or Shell thing but the psychic energy around organization development), 'find your organizational voice', 'courage is not the absence of fear but the control of it'.

I've added to my already extensive Amazon wish list with Howard Gardner, John D. Caputo, Angeles Arrien, Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins, and Julian Jaynes, all now on it. I also met up with several people to continue the conversations with. So could I go back to work and 'add value' (the CFO might ask) to my organization having invested the time and money in attending? It's possible but exactly how to measure that is still a question mark. I'm comforting myself that several speakers (and participants) felt that measures and models were old school so I may not go down the track of contortions of proving it to myself or the CFO.

The gold coins? On inspection they proved to be plastic tokens, I think someone must have brought them in from the gaming tables or slot machines. They too were scattered about but on the tables not the floor. I just hope they're not symbolic of organization design or development work that promises a lot and yields little.