After 5 years – what?

This is my last weekly blog for the moment on organisation design. Simply counting up the number posts, about 450 (early on I wrote more than one a week), since I started in September 2008 doesn't yield much in the way of information. It shows I've been reasonably disciplined and productive to keep at it.

So I've just spent an hour or so cruising my own website and getting distracted by stuff that once caught my attention and has totally slipped from my memory. I'm intrigued by some of the titles and content. I've just sent off for another copy of the article 'organisational horseholding' that I mentioned back in 2008. The URL is defunct and I can't find my copy. I think I picked it up before I had a Dropbox account so it is probably on one of my external hard drives. (Dropbox was established in 2007).

I haven't paid any attention whatsoever to any site analytics but today I just checked. I have been getting around 1100 visits per month over the last year and between a third and a half are repeat visitors. When I said a couple of weeks ago that I was going to stop writing at the end of the year I was surprised by how many people contacted me to say how much they'd enjoyed it and it had given them useful information. That gave me pause for thought and I wondered if I should a) say I was taking a sabbatical and would be back 'soon' or b) say I'd changed my mind and would continue. But I'm not going to do either. I'm going to do something different.

Someone asked what I'd gained from the blogging experience. I imagined myself filling in a performance review or personal development form on the topic and giving some narrative on what goals I'd met or success criteria I'd achieved in the course of the 5+ years. But my blogging has not been about 'performance' (and most of my readers will know that I am not a fan of performance management systems), it's been about my enjoyment of writing and my curiosity on stuff related to organisation design. So why am I giving up on it?

Recently, I read a great sentence in the novel Americanah. The main character, Ifemelu, is a blog writer who reflects that 'the more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false'.

Like Ifemelu I've used the blog for observations on what I see going on. In doing this I've discovered that the main value of it is to develop my own thinking through writing. For me it's a powerful learning tool that I thoroughly enjoy – why else the books, articles, and papers?

Over the five years I've been writing it I was mainly an external consultant working with a variety of organisations. Now I have a permanent role as a UK Civil Servant – still in the organisation design field but within a sector I know not much about – not least because I've lived so long in the US – and one of the things I'm rapidly learning is that government is a sector very different from the private sector.

This is where I'm discovering that what I've known about organisation design from past experience isn't sufficient in current experience. I don't feel 'naked and false' like Ifemelu but I do feel that to do the job effectively I must accelerate my learning about government. It's not enough to read Civil Service World, the Gov.Uk blogs, and The Economist sections on Britain and hope to soak things up. I haven't got time for this kind of approach. I need to study UK government in a more intense and systematic way, and this is what I'll be doing instead of writing the blog.

I have managed to overcome my instinct to enrol for a 2-year part-time MSc in politics. Instead, I've enrolled in a term of weekly evening classes which I hope I take more seriously than the last set of evening classes I did which was GCSE Maths. (I also hope that I understand politics more than I understand maths). And I'll supplement this with the London School of Economics series (free) on British Government.

My question is – can I reinvent myself as a civil servant who successfully helps re-design government? How would you set about this task? Should I blog about the re-invention experience? Let me know.

Tower Bridge gives advice to a young person

There's a concept enshrined in law, and cleverly drawn in the film 'The Corporation' that describes how in the US in the mid-1800s corporations emerged as a legal "person." The film uses diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and some standard diagnostic tools (Hare, 2003) of psychiatrists and psychologists to assess the personality of a corporation revealing that the operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social personality: "it is self-interested, inherently amoral, callous and deceitful; it breaches social and legal standards to get its way; it does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism." The conclusion is that the corporation is a psychopath. (Abott, 2004).

Whether all corporations are psychopathic, and whether this is an inevitability given the legal frameworks that they operate within is a matter of debate, opinion, and reflection.*

Tower Bridge, London is a physical entity. It was opened in 1894 having taken 8 years to build after a process that started in 1876 with a design competition in which there were 50 entries. I can just imagine the meetings, conflicts, agreements, pessimism, optimism and all the various ins and outs that finally brought the bridge into operation.

Tower Bridge is also an organisation or corporation. Think of a) the design competition b) the whole construction process c) the day-to-day running of it spanning 120 years. Getting it from paper to its iconic, yet practical state is no mean feat to orchestrate. I visited it for the first time last week – I was wearing my London tourist hat for the day – but seeing the exhibition and walking the walkways I wondered about the personality of the Bridge. It doesn't come across as psychopathic. In fact the opposite and it was a surprisingly energising visit: terrifying to step out on the glass walkway, amazing to look at the vast engines, glorious seeing the various views of London from the top span, and thought provoking in seeing the history of it.

As we were walking around being tourists and a propos of nothing my companion suggested I write a blog piece on 'advice to a young person entering the workforce'. This seems like an exercise fraught with cliche (be persistent, resilient, a life-long learner, etc) and anyway there are countless wonderful words and ideas on advice to a young person from those who give commencement speeches to ra up students in US universities.

In thinking about the topic a different tack came to mind. I could think of Tower Bridge as a quasi-person: 18 years in gestation – eagerly awaited by Londoners and Queen Victoria, finally 'born' in 1894 to great fanfare, and then adjusting over time to its environment – continuously learning to be in the world.

I wondered what advice Tower Bridge would give to a young person entering the workforce? I imagined, not the psychopath of 'The Corporation' but the opposite, a vibrant, wise, mentor-like figure telling its story: 'I have spanned many generations and many interests. I have bridged commerce and education. I have tied north and south. I have connected old technologies with new technologies over and over. I have my place. Many have supported me in my life and I am grateful to them for this. … '

It seemed to me that a young person entering the workforce could do well to listen to Tower Bridge speaking. They'd get realistic advice on being purposeful, bridging divides, staying connected to new ways of doing things, trying things out, managing multiple goals, getting on with it, not showing hubris, and being grounded.

For example:

TB on competition
When I opened the only competitor pedestrian bridge across the Thames in London was London Bridge. (There were some railway bridges). Now there are several bridges that people can walk across and another planned, but they still flock to me to see my exhibitions, bridge raising, and events.
TB Advice: stay aware of the competition for whatever it is you are aiming for – be nimble and innovative.

TB on construction techniques – It took eight years, five major contractors and the relentless labour of 432 construction workers to build me. There were no Health and Safety regulations at the time and 10 workers died – I don't remember the number of accidents.) Now, any work that needs doing to its fabric is done using all sorts of modern construction technologies and deaths and accidents in the course of construction are almost unheard of.
TB Advice: Learn new processes, develop better ways. Don't be afraid to try things out – the old ways aren't necessarily the best ways.

TB on fabric technology – the glass walkways recently installed on my upper level are only feasible now because glass technology has improved – they have replaced sections of my wooden walkways.
TB Advice: use the new technologies and be aware of their ability to reinvent the tried and tested.

TB on power technology – I am a 'bascule bridge' with two raising parts that lift to let boats through. When I opened the raising mechanism was steam powered but in 1976 the power source changed to oil and electricity rather than steam. But my original engines are gorgeously maintained in pristine condition.
TB Advice: be aware of your heritage, cherish it yet move on.

TB on role changes – 'stokers' used to lug the coal to fire up the steam engines. That role has disappeared now. Instead I have 'customer service' staff clutching i-pads showing people the view down from the glass walkway as the bridge opens. So if visitors are not actually on the walkway for an opening they can still visualise it via the i-pad.
TB Advice: what you trained as isn't what you'll stay doing. Keep re-investing in developing new skills.

TB on innovation; I don't know what Queen Victoria would have made of it but our main income generation comes from hiring out the walkways for events. One of my own guides hired it himself for his wedding reception and I gave him a very decent staff discount.
TB Advice: think differently – what other ways can you use your capabilities?

Is your organisation a psychopath or a wise mentor? What advice would it give a young person entering the workforce – or what would they learn if they observed it in action? Let me know.

*NOTE: these first two paragraphs are adapted from Chapter 5 of my book on Organisational Health.

Abott, M. (Director). (2004). The Corporation [Motion Picture]. Canada.
Bruhn, J. (2001). Trust and the health of organizations. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Hare, R. (2003). Hare Psychopathy Checklist–Revised: . Retrieved April 28, 2012, from Multi-Health Systems

This is my penultimate blog. Last one next week.

Caught between styles

Not much in the stuff about matrix organisations seems to cover what it feels like to be a subordinate to two or more managers with very different styles of management, each competing for an employee's work and time.

Jay Galbraith, for example, writing on the structure of matrix organisations talks about types of matrix structure: Two dimensions, like products and functions. This type is a solved problem. Three dimensions, like functions, business units, and countries. This type is far more challenging and encounters cultural differences. Four or more dimensions, which arise when serving global customers. This type is the cutting edge.

I was amused by the statement on the two dimensions 'this type is a solved problem' and then his view that 'organization structures do not fail, but management fails at implementing them correctly'. First, even two dimensional matrices are not a 'solved problem' – ask anyone who works in them. Second because it implies that if a matrix structure 'fails' (and I ask myself, by what criteria?) the entire management team comprises duff managers who can't make a matrix work.

Although some may say that the world actually is populated with duff managers I don't think that is the case. It's rather like saying 'teaching would be lovely if only there weren't students'. (A phrase I heard many times when I was a teacher). The management and managers are integral to the structure and there'll be some people who are better at working in and with the structure than others.

In fact, working within a matrix structure is somewhat like being in a school situation. Students are used to having multiple teachers (managers) and being accountable to them for different pieces of work. Strangely, in some government organisations I've worked in – even those without a matrix structure – the day-to-day language reinforces the notion that we're all learners in a school by talking about 'the exam question', or asking 'what is the homework? And even 'who is marking the homework?'

Remember some teachers you would work hard for – probably for a variety of carrot/stick reasons – and others who you would do the minimum for? In my case the reasons for this were much less to do with the intrinsic interest of the subject matter or my own capability and much more to do with the teacher's style, communication skills, ability to treat us as individuals and not a lumpen mass, etc. Some of these styles are clear in these delightfully different teaching situations here. Looking at these I wondered what teacher I would learn the most on the topic from and do best work for if I was in his/her classroom.

It's similar in a matrix management situation if you're the person with multiple managers. Some you can do great work with and others you can't. In a recent work example I was talking with some team leaders who'd been working with staff who'd come from a different site to their teams. After several weeks the team leaders received the performance reviews of their new team members. Several were stunned to find that the people they rated as top performers had been rated by their other manager(s) as bottom quadrant performers.

I won't go into the discussion about performance rankings and the impact on self-image and productivity but there's (another) good paper on it by Iwan Barankay from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. If you're a subordinate to two managers it's not a done deal that you would get the same performance ranking from each (even if they were communicating with each other, which isn't always the case).

I got into this small investigation on management style in a matrix context when we were discussing whether to set up project teams or have single reporting lines in a more functional structure. Inevitably people brought their own experiences of matrix management to the table. Consistently the stories were not about being a manager among two or more of a subordinate but were about being the subordinate to the different styles of two or more managers. Questions arising from the stories included:

  • How do you work with someone who insists on micro-managing you while the other person is a 'let you get on with it type'?
  • How do you handle the manager who trusts you to work at home and the one who thinks you are shirking if you're not in the office?
  • How do you interpret the 'cascade' of the same meeting that both managers went to but bring back competing information from and/or present it from differing slants? (This one reminds me of a radio programme I once heard where the wife and husband were in different rooms talking about their wedding day to an interviewer. It was hilarious as the stories from each differed on a host of counts including location, weather, where the reception was, etc.)
  • How do you not become the buffer between two managers who manage you but who don't get on with each other?

And so on. As I said, the stories weren't about managing subordinates who had other managers. I found this intriguing and let me to wonder whether we should be doing better work on developing the skills and style for managing subordinates in a matrix. (Yes).

I also wondered whether well-established hierarchical organisations have the ability to effectively introduce matrix structures. I think this is hard and agree with the blogger who says that 'the skills required to effectively navigate the matrix are different than those needed to succeed in the old, hierarchical organizational model.' It's probably even more difficult when it is not a structure being introduced across the organisation but only in patches.

So what if you are in the situation of having two, or more, managers but are in an organisation where the styles and skills for matrix organization management are in short supply? I've come across a couple of useful pointers. One from Forbes 'How to work for more than one boss and stay sane' and the other an HBR blog post offering, among other tips, some do's and don'ts:


  • Be on the lookout for the most common challenges of having multiple bosses so you can proactively handle them
  • Keep a positive attitude and remember that the conflicts are most likely because of the situation, not because of you
  • Find out which of your bosses is responsible for making the decisions that affect your career


  • Try to speak on behalf of one boss to the other -— try to get them to talk with each other if possible
  • Keep your workload and task list a secret from any of your bosses
  • Push for transparency if your organization doesn't reward it

What are your experiences of management style in a matrix set-up? Let me know.

NOTE: I am giving up writing this blog at the end of the year. So have two pieces left – thoughts on what these should be about are welcome.

The complexity of simplicity

Someone suggested that as one of my last four blog pieces – I am stopping writing them at the end of this year – that I write about simplicity. I'm not sure what the reason was for this so don't have any clues on a focus. But because it was in my mind I started noticing things which could give me a slant on the topic.

For example, I got an email this week from someone saying: "I know we say this on an almost daily basis but we've got to try to start pushing people away from the traditional mode of doing things!… Senior meeting first, month later a further meeting to get to the nitty gritty of the offer, then back to head honcho(s) for approval, likely further discussion, maybe a million papers/proposals in between!"

The ongoing need for head honcho 'sign off' and time taken to work through the many iterations and control points referred to in the email above are probably good candidates for simplification. A simplified process could drive decisions down to the lowest level, achieve good enough rather than un-needeed excellence, etc.

An email from someone else challenged the complexity of the recruitment process, 'which is slow and inflexible', and enquired how it could be simplified in terms of the forms required to complete, the interview framework, and the time taken to get from position approval to candidate in post.

And then I got another email asking what employment policies I would like to see in place and listing eight ideas. That particularly struck me as three years ago I wrote a blog piece that took a look at types of policies and the case for consciously reviewing them and retiring those now irrelevant or constricting. I noted then that both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron had taken up the cudgels against red tape. Cameron setting up the 'red tape challenge' and Obama issuing an executive order both initiatives aimed at simplification. The UK's red tape challenge is still alive and making good statements. In January 2014 David Cameron announced that 'The coalition is planning to scrap or amend more than 3,000 regulations from the "serious to the ridiculous".' That's excellent news. However, in most instances I've observed that making statements about simplification is a whole lot easier than getting to the goal of simplicity: maybe my observations are flawed.

But I don't think they are. Each week I read Leo Babauta's blog. He writes on Zen habits which 'is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives'. This week's is 5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays. If I wanted to simplify my life over the holidays how would I answer Leo's question three, 'What can you limit yourself to?' He tells readers to, 'Take a minute to look at the various areas of your life right now, and see if you can limit each one: have a limit on your tasks each day, a limit on meetings or parties, a limit on requests you can say yes to, a limit on how much time you spend on email or social media, a limit on how many hours you work. Set arbitrary limits and force yourself to make choices.'

In fact, I am trying to achieve work simplicity by 'limiting work in progress' – the lovely Kanban phrase. It's not an easy task to determine what aspects to limit and what to focus on because it involves conversations and discussions with various parties each with 'their own intentions, prejudices and assumptions' and with 'power relations [that] are often significantly skewed in favour of those in formal authority'. (For more on the topic of organisational complexity and leadership read Chris Rodgers, excellent paper Taking organisational complexity seriously).

If individuals find it hard to achieve simplicity in their lives how easy is it for an organisation – comprising multiple individuals to simplify? Ron Ashkenas, a Harvard Business Review blogger, argues that 'Over the past several years we have heard hundreds of managers talk about the negative impact of complexity on both productivity and workplace morale. … Agreeing on complexity as a problem is one thing, but doing something about it is quite another.' He then offers a 'simple' seven-step simplification strategy.

What I enjoyed about the seven-steps was that like Leo Babautas's 5 questions each is a complex task to address. Step 3, for example tells us to 'Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. One of the keys to simplification is to figure out what's really important (and what's not), and continually reassess the priority list as new things are added.'

How easy is that? Choosing what to limit myself to is not a one or two minute exercise. Scale this up – how does a leadership team, aiming to prioritize, 'figure out what's really important'? Usually it's a fairly arduous and sometimes acrimonious process of making trade-offs, assessing risks, balancing stakeholder needs/wants/interests and deciding what compromises might have to be made: it's not a rational process it's much more on the lines of 'ongoing conversations and interactions through which organisation is enacted ahead of the conventional focus on the formal 'trappings' of organisation such as policies, systems and procedures, etc.' (Chris Rodgers again)

Designer, John Maeda, wrote a book 'Simplicity' describing 10 laws (reduce, organize, time, learn, differences, context, emotion, trust, failure, the one) which have gained a huge following. It's worth a read because the ten simple words and a short (100 page) book mask a journey during which Maeda 'discovered how complex a topic simplicity really is.'

Steve Jobs voiced a similar view 'simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple but it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.'

What's your view on simplicity is it also complexity? Let me know.

The roadmap is not the journey

Roadmaps have preoccupied us this week. They have a kind of talismanic quality. Ours is showing us what we are going to do each year to 2020 to lead the organisation to success. It seems that if we have the roadmap then we'll know where we are going. I love the way that one consultancy firmly says that:

Roadmapping is a powerful technique – pioneered by Motorola in the 1970s – for planning an organisation's technological capabilities to ensure they meet its commercial or strategic goals. … Roadmapping can help you arrive at a shared vision of your organisation's future and an understanding of the key steps needed to realise that vision.

If only it were that simple. I doubt that Motorola's own roadmap showed the strategic goal of losing $4.3 billion from 2007 to 2009, and then being divided into two independent public companies. Clearly, some pioneers can get lost, and others can succeed even without a roadmap. Lewis and Clark are a good example of the latter. They were two leaders who, with a small organisation, traversed North America in the early 1800s in search of the northwest passage. They had a rough 'direction of travel' but no map. Part of their brief was to map as they went along.

'On April 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery … headed west. On their maps, the land that Lewis and Clark were headed toward was indicated by a vast blank space and the word 'Unknown'.

It would be a brave organisational leader that said he/she was leading into the 'unknown' but isn't that, in fact, the case. In our case we are in the 'direction of travel' towards the '2020 vision'. The phrase 'direction of travel' is one I hear repeatedly in my current organisation and we have multiple projects that are heading towards 2020. Even so, we are not assured that our direction of travel is towards the same 2020.

Most of the projects have their own roadmap and, so far, we haven't checked whether they all have the same 2020 neither have we tried to 'brigade' them into 'alignment'. (Two other words we use a lot). Thus we may be heading towards the intriguing possibility of a multiverse of 2020 each looking different from the other. (A multiverse is a hypothetical set of infinite or finite possible universes sometimes called parallel universes – the film Sliding Doors illustrates.

I like the idea of the multiverse. It allows for the fact that we don't know whether to base a 2020 organisational roadmap on the road of steady state, the road of break-up, the road of joint-venture, the road of head honcho change followed by abrupt 180 turn, the road of unknown competitive forces striking, the road of colossal budget cut, the road of mandarin whim, etc, etc. (Or more, plausible, all of these in some form or other). I'm of the view that a single roadmap does not allow for the unknown. It implies ordered milestones being passed as travellers journey down a forecast route in a predictable universe. Read Philip Tetlock on forecasting and you may change your views on its value.

Even if we could agree a single destination point that doesn't mean there is only one way to get to it. Any chosen route is only one of several possible routes to an agreed destination. Lewis and Clark were not participating in a competitive challenge at the time but these are now becoming fairly common. The Google Lunar X-prize is one such example. Eighteen teams have the same goal – to 'develop a robot that can successfully land on the moon's surface, travel at least 500 meters and then, transmit images back to Earth'. This type of challenge opens up many routes to a same destination – a precept that organisational leaders could benefit by reflecting on.

It's easy enough to see that real roadmaps, or sat nav systems serve a purpose. They guide you from point A to point B on a journey that many have taken before. Even so, everyone knows that they are not always accurate – there's a roadsign near me telling drivers to ignore their GPS instruction and apparently this type of sign is becoming common.

This illustrates, as all travellers know, that roadmap is not the journey. Lewis and Clark's direction of travel route (broadly west across the US) does not show grizzly bear encounters, starvation, loss of supplies, extreme weather conditions, difficult bargaining rounds, topographical barriers, sickness, constant rain, or the 'gloomy' Christmas Day with a dinner of 'stringy elk meat and roots'.

Omitting to consider the journey as an integral part of a roadmap is the most significant reason to question their value. If roadmaps are developed and then 'implemented' without due regard to the human element they're pretty much doomed: it's the people that make it (or abandoning it) work.

Many journeys are successful without roadmaps. If you are in the process of developing a roadmap consider the value it is likely to bring if you don't also factor in the other element of the journey and the peole taking it. Often the map is only a single and sometimes minor factor of many in setting off towards somewhere. Lewis and Clark's task was to develop the map as they travelled. To do this, and before they started the trip, they built their knowledge and skills about their task, collected stuff they thought they would need on the trip, got authorisations to make decisions as they went and carefully selected expedition members.

In our case we are working roughly in the direction of 'on-line, digital'. Maybe we do need do roadmap but maybe we could take the Lewis and Clark approach of developing the map, or several maps, as we go along knowing that, in military comander, Colin Powell's, words: 'Organization doesn't really accomplish anything. Plans don't accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don't much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.'

What's your view of roadmaps and journeys? Let me know.

NOTE: At the end of this year I am stopping writing the blog. If you have a topic you'd like me to write about contact me. I'd be happy to consider it.

No silver bullet

Last week I said I was giving up writing my weekly blog at the end of the year. I invited readers to suggest ideas for the last six. Here's one that Kris suggested: 'We have been engaged by a client for "change management services", albeit along with design services and transition services. I believe we should embrace a change philosophy, and then use that as a framework to deliver. Others think that change services is merely a twist on our lean capability and our transition capability. I feel strongly there are significant differences between project management and change management and we should not consider this a "slam dunk" assignment. Although, we shouldn't create work for ourselves and I also think we should not re-invent the offering each time. Do you have a position on this?'

What Kris is asking about boils down to should companies have an off-the-shelf change 'methodology' for their work that is repeatable across clients and their issues. I remember when I first joined PriceWaterhouse in the pre PWC days of the early 1990s we had a huge 2 volume change methodology that detailed what consultants should do to solve a problem in a step by step way. It was slimmed down and in 1994 published as a book Better Change (still available but not in print). The blurb on the book reads 'The most important challenge in corporate America today is managing change successfully. Better Change is about doing just that with proven method, with intelligence, with sensitivity. Written for business leaders who understand that their company's prosperity depends on successful transformation … Large-scale change management is a special discipline, there are too many interacting factors, too many foxholes to approach it in the spirit of "business as usual." Before setting out on a bold change program, or before attempting to pull a straying change program back on course, you will serve your cause well by absorbing the message of Better Change.'

That was 20 years ago and the sentiment is pretty much what you can read on any recently published book on change management. For example, 'A critical area of competitive advantage is the ability of organizations to lead rather than follow changes in the market. This means having the ability to roll out the right changes quickly and reliably in a way that delivers a return on investment. Managing Organizational Change [published 2014] brings together all the different roles and functions within an organization that a leader has to manage effectively to ensure successful and sustainable organizational change. Centred around the Cycle of Change Model, it provides a practical yet reflective overview of the four things you have to have (culture, capacity, commitment and capability) and the six things you have to do (direct, drive, deliver, prepare, propagate and profit).'

Business Dictionary defines 'methodologies' as a system of broad principles or rules from which specific methods or procedures may be derived to interpret or solve different problems within the scope of a particular discipline. Unlike an algorithm, a methodology is not a formula but a set of practices. I think this is a useful definition because it distinguishes between a methodology that is 'A method, procedure, process, or rule used in a particular field or profession; a set of these regarded as standard.' And a 'formula' that gives right answers or 'the answer' 'In a formula, the same set of inputs always produces the same output(s).'

Unfortunately, there is often confusion between the two. Consulting companies typically sell methodologies as 'formulas' which will give the right answer to a business issue, challenge or problem. They are not selling the notion that application of the methodology may yield an answer – one of many possible answers and one that may not be the right or best answer.

However, that observation does not help Kris work out whether a framework for change management would be useful. Would looking at theories of change management yield a useful framework?

Theories of change management are many. Type 'theory' in the search box in the Journal of Organizational Change and in the first 10 results of 289 you get: Lewin and complexity theory, practice theory, improvisation theory, action theory, grounded theory, valuation theory, quality theory, duality theory, social theory. Further, as one academic says the theories 'are often contradictory, mostly lacking empirical evidence and supported by unchallenged hypotheses … and an arguably fundamental lack of a valid framework for organisational change management.' So that's not really helpful either.

Turning to the Institute of Change Management's Master Level Competence Framework for Change Managers I find under the first competency 'Facilitating Change', the module 'Principles of change' which requires masters to 'Understand and apply the principles, types and stages of change and develop approaches to suit the situation. Understand the tools, methodology and models to draw on when facilitating change.'

That's useful up to a point because it suggests a level of pragmatism when approaching change management. (Or maybe I'm reading between the lines here). Pragmatism is helpful because, there is no silver bullet on change management.

That doesn't mean that having some guidance in which to help clients do something differently isn't helpful. I think it is. I favour a principles based approach. A couple of years ago I developed one based on the idea (not, I'm sorry to say, a rigorous and tested theory) that 'we recognize that organizations are not rational entities amenable to the application of mechanistic change management formula or methodologies. Rather they are social/political systems based on shifting coalitions, conversations, and perceptions of experiences. At the root of successful organizational change lies maintaining employee engagement and individual commitment to the new deal that the change offers them, our approach involves guiding the changing enterprise to craft an evolving series of organization specific interactions that promote this engagement.'

We proposed five principles related to change and employee engagement:
1. Change is an evolving, evolutionary process working at multiple levels
2. People engage in change in different ways depending on the situation and type of change
3. Positive employee engagement is required as the enterprise changes
4. The 'deal' (value proposition) made between employee and employer underpins the level of engagement people feel in the organizational changes
5. Organizational changes impact the employee value proposition and thus the level of employee engagement.

With this set of principles came a bundle of work that involved guiding the people in the organisation to craft an evolving series of organization specific interactions designed to attract people to the change, co-opt them into supporting it, help them form and accept a changed employee deal and contribute to the evolution of the changing enterprise.

I can't tell you whether or not this approach was more or less successful than any other change management approach I've tried because I haven't done any controlled experiments but I can say there was no repeatable 'methodology' attached to it, and no formula either. The principles – they are re-usable – acted as the framework.

What are your views on change management frameworks, methodologies and principles? Do some approaches have better outcomes than others? Let me know.

PS. I am writing five more blogs before I stop at the end of the year. If you have any suggestions for topics send them to me.

Email experiment

Not much can be said about email overload. It's all be said before and nobody has come up with a really workable solution, though the email charter is a start point. Colour coding, red flagging, and assigning certain stuff to junk mail is insufficient to stop me feeling email drowned. It's not that I want to shut myself off the information flow – I need to know what's going on. But I want to find some reasonably effective method getting to the right balance of being in the loop and spending a reasonable part of my day doing stuff other than to-ing and fro-ing emails. I need to get a few steps towards what's discussed in Pico Iyer's short book The Art of Stillness: The Case for Taking a Timeout From Your Life.

Estimates suggest that people spend around 28% of work week time on their emails. Oddly, it's not a topic that I commonly investigate when doing organisation design work, but I think it makes sense to do so. Emails and meetings are integral to information flow – it must be possible to design the flow tools to be more efficient and less draining than we currently find them. Indeed many sellers of social technologies (and email filter programmes) are suggesting that's what they do.

Over the last two weeks I've been experimenting with item 5 on the email charter about 'cc'. I've instituted two Outlook rules

1. a rule whereby all emails where I was cc-ed automatically re-directed to a folder – they did not enter my in-box.
2. a second rule that automatically replied to those who cc-ed me explaining what I was doing and saying, 'I will not be looking regularly in that folder. I will look intermittently and at the end of the experiment period. I'm also trying out phoning/texting people and just going to talk to them face to face if they are located in the same building as me.

Now at the end of the two weeks and taking stock, I find I've got five types of responses: good idea, bad idea, curious, fed up, and no response.

The good idea people said stuff like, 'Good idea – how did you set this up?' 'This is fantastic :)', resulting in my showing some people how to set the rule(s) so maybe there are the seeds of a wider experiment about to burgeon. These people might be willing to go a stage further and lobby to introduce Daimler's idea: they now have an auto-delete programme for emails to out-of-office workers. This allows employees to set their email software to automatically delete incoming emails while they are on vacation. When an email is sent, the program, which is called "Mail on Holiday," issues a reply to the sender that the person is out of the office and that the email will be deleted.

The bad idea people saw value in the cc 'I think you get cc'd into a lot of important emails', and 'An interesting experiment, and I understand where you are coming from, but quite high risk. For example, if I am sending [top dog] a note, but it is also of interest to you I would be unlikely to include you in the To box, likewise with [head honcho]. Better all-round if you know that people only include you, and address to whatever box when you have a real interest.'

The curious people said things like. 'This sounds like a fascinating experiment – I would be interested in your observations at the end of it. Email traffic is a real problem and we need innovative solutions. I spoke to a key operations manager last week in a highly pressurised role and he told me he gets 160 emails a day. As well as cc emails, people hitting 'reply to all' is also a problem'. Another said ' Would be interested to know if your email traffic goes up as a result!'

The fed up people said they'd received my automatic response email multiple times (because they were cc-ing me in many of the emails they sent) and could I desist. This led me to set a third rule excluding certain people from getting the automatic email. But I guess I could have asked them to stop cc-ing me into stuff, although then I might miss useful information.

Beyond these I've had some increase in phone calls with people saying 'instead of emailing I thought I'd call', similarly people in the building I work in have come to talk rather than email.

I also got a couple of emails where I was cc-ed from other people also cc-ed in that same email but who'd read it and who then forwarded it to me – with my name in the address line – saying, 'You've been –cc-ed into this but I think you should read it', which was a kind and generous thing to do.

Summarising the experiment: there were some successes:

  • On both weeks I got around 400 emails addressed to me and I was copied into a further 100. So the method cut the flow by about a fifth.
  • People agreed that email overload is an issue and so there was some awareness raising and people making different communication choices.
  • I started to have shorter more productive exchanges with people who decided to phone calls or just meet briefly (no meeting scheduled) face to face.

The successes were balanced by potentially losing some useful stuff (I peeked at intervals to check) and annoying some people with a repeated automatic email.

In the organisation I'm working with other choices for flowing information include text messaging, phone calls, face to face, Yammer, Huddle, but these are underused compared with emails (and formal meetings). But there are arguments in favour of encouraging people to use them – not least because as the McKinsey report The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies says: 'when companies use social media internally, messages become content; a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 percent, the time employees spend searching for company information. Additional value can be realized through faster, more efficient, more effective collaboration, both within and between enterprises'.

Effectively changing the design of information flows in the organisation in order to reduce reliance on email and increase use of social technologies is a bigger, people process, technology challenge. However, starting with the lone nut approach may attract the first followers. So, if you're interested in skinnying down your personal email in the hope that will encourage the rest of the organisation to follow suit the best tips I've found come from PC Mag.

Give it a go. Let me know what happens.

PS I have decided to stop writing blogs at the end of this year. So I have six more to write. If you'd like to suggest a topic for one of these let me know.