Behind the gloss

I'm involved in a project to drive service up and costs down. Part of the 'costs down' bit is reducing the numbers of people in the workforce and simultaneously reducing the costs of the estates portfolio – we're looking for fewer, cheaper buildings. It's a common enough scenario and one faced by many organisations. The UK Post Office is a case in point. Since 1981 the number of post office branches has dropped from around 23,000 to its current 11,500, with, I'm assuming a simultaneous drop in the number of directly employed staff and the number of subpostmasters (97% of all post office outlets are sub post offices, run by private business people: subpostmasters).

The Post Office issues an Annual Report and their website presents their Strategy 2020. In these documents you'll find clear information on their plans which includes reducing their estates by putting more post office branches in shops, developing their digital services, having longer opening hours in many of their extending their product and service range, and so on. Their three values: Care, Challenge, Commit, underpin and inform the way they do things. There is a clear and strong story to tell on where they're trying to get to and how they're going to do it. What's not presented is the behind the scenes work that has gone on to get to this believable 'good news' story.

I haven't been involved in the Post Office redesign and transformation but it's clear that it hasn't been the smooth ride that the glossy documents present. A Sunday Times report says that:

Humility and patience were certainly in demand last year [2013] as the Post Office's management fought an epic tug-of-war with its unions. The Communication Workers Union called no fewer than 12 strikes, saying staff felt "alienated" by a programme of cuts and branch closures and describing the board as out of touch. The National Federation of SubPostmasters, which represents the Post Office's 8,000 independent store managers, criticised a multimillion pound bonus pot set aside for executives as "morally reprehensible". The strife threatened to derail Royal Mail's float. It ended in April only when the two sides agreed a pay rise of up to 7.3% for the company's foot soldiers. Even after the ceasefire, the Unite union attacked the company's "flawed" strategy and said its 93m GBP operating loss this year painted a "sorry picture of mismanagement". "A union has a lens to look through, which sometimes is different from the one we look through here," Paula Vennells, CEO, replies mildly. "We sat down and worked hard — literally, retail is detail. We worked through different jobs, working hours, pay scales and we managed to change the way some post offices work so we could take staff hours out and create a fund to give people a pay rise."

The kind of picture perfect presentation v the messy reality and muddling through is common to all organisation designs and transformations. But for some reason the messy reality of arguments, different perspectives, coalition building, and power plays are not usually revealed in the case studies and reported as an integral part of the path to get to the glossy document – perhaps one reason why the TV drama House of Cards is so wonderfully addictive because it shows totally believably the 'tale of high-level government dysfunction populated by double-dealers who hold their aces under the table'. And why 'The Office' TV series has such enduring appeal as it hilariously exposes the emotions and behaviours anyone who has worked in an office experiences.

The more I see 'transformation' efforts in play, the more it seems to me that organisation design is all about these human interactions and behaviours and hardly at all about the numbers, formal strategies and plans. It's about how people express and act on their perspectives and how they interact as they do this. Chris Rodgers calls this the 'muddling through' approach which he is firm is 'the only thing that they [leaders] can do, given the social complexities of everyday organizational life.'

In one of last week's meetings I saw this muddling through in play. Up to now some people have been 'fretful' – there hasn't been a good enough story to tell about a) what the estates/workforce target is that we have to meet by the given date and b) how we would achieve it if we did know. But in that meeting a numbers guy presented 'the facts', expressed in financial terms, gap to close, numbers of staff employed how many could be affordable, and so forth. There followed a discussion on 'the way forward' which was supported by a planning 'framework', and the glowing results of a pilot study. A write-up of the meeting could indicate (indeed has) that we were conducting a formal, rational analysis of these facts, conducting step-by-step decision-making, with fully aligned agendas and the 'next step' is to seamlessly translate these decisions into programmable action 'on the ground'.

But another cut on this would give a very different interpretation, one of vigorous discussion involving different interests, strong individual beliefs about the 'right' way to proceed, various coalitions lining up on the agenda items, competing values, a variety of negotiating/influencing styles, the value placed on previous experiences, roles the individuals played – and switched from/to, the way points of view were expressed – the linguistic tics, the body language (in this case lots of crossed arms and some leaning back in chairs smoothing hair), the interplay of the different intentions and interactions resulting in something that was unpredictable in advance – even though we had formal 'desired outcomes' (but not 'undesired outcomes').

What I'm wondering is how these dynamics can be 'used' more effectively in our work on 'the story' of the emerging transformation. As I said earlier, Chris Rodgers suggests that 'despite the formal rhetoric, rituals, and routines of organization, based on assumptions of scientific rationality, predictability, and control, managers still spend most of their time doing the only thing that they can do: They muddle through.' He sees the need to this muddling through with 'purpose, courage, and skill'. It's an intriguing proposition. Can these qualities be learned or taught? Although we have emerged from the meeting with the glossy email write up what's hidden is the messy reality of it. Discussing the purpose, courage, and skills that were, or could be, displayed in the meeting and learning more about their complex interplay might make for a 'better' outcome.

Is this just wishful thinking? Does the gloss express the 'real' organisation emergence, or do we have to look behind the gloss to enable different possibilities and organisational forms to emerge? What's your view? Let me know.