Designing for agility

During the past week someone alerted me to the Oxford Futures Forum. I'd not heard of it before but I'm constantly looking for perspectives and insights on what the future might hold. Since all organizations I work with are looking to be 'agile', 'scalable up or down', 'adaptable', 'future fit', and similar words/phrases – it would be good to know what they think they might be facing in order to meet the future. When organizational members say 'agile' they are generally neither talking 'Agile' or 'Lean' in terms of specific methodologies nor why these two techniques might go together. They are talking about a more nebulous organizational capability required in turbulent situations. It is described in an article Journey towards agility: the agile wheel explored as 'proactivity, adaptability, flexibility, speed, learning and skills to provide strategically driven and effectively implemented waves of change. This [agility] is a dynamic capability, and can be defined as "the organisation's capacity to gain competitive advantage by intelligently, rapidly and proactively seizing opportunities and reacting to threats" (Bessant et al., 1999).

It may not be sensible to assume that current turbulent situations will continue into the future but this does seem to be a generally accepted assumption. In 2012, for example, Accenture produced a report Corporate Agility: six ways to make volatility your friend' with a 12-point 'Agility Checklist'. The white paper is clear that 'in today's chronically uncertain markets, agility is an exceptionally powerful competitive weapon.' As an example, Troy Carter, Lady Gaga's ex-manager, talks about this uncertainty in relation to the music industry in an interview:

"Everybody should be nervous," he says, matter-of-factly, the Philly accent still detectable. "With the music industry we've always had technological change, whether it was disruption from eight-track to cassette, or cassette to CD, CD to download, download to streaming. The difference now is how fast it's happening. We're seeing new technology pop up every few months like this." Carter clicks his fingers. "I sit on the edge of my seat. I try to live around the corner just to get a sneak peak, to have some sense of what's happening. The industry [needs] to be very aware, concerned and curious about everything on the way." Among the changes he foresees: albums released solely as apps; unprecedented data harvesting; more African Americans in Silicon Valley; concert holograms; massively bigger audiences; and the triumph of the perpetually online, engaged digital star.

The thing that interested me about the Oxford Futures Forum is that the aim of its 2014 meeting is to 'join two established communities of thought and practice – the design research community and the scenario planning practice and research community with, among other purposes, those of:

  • Forging and supporting an international community of future-minded practices aimed at stimulating actionable, impactful knowledge;
  • Identifying and investigating academic and practitioner interests at the forefront of scenarios and design, and relating them to each other;
  • Uncovering and pushing the boundaries of scenarios practices and theory, to clarify and extend their effectiveness through critical review and linking with other fields.'

The intent is not to make specific predictions or forecasts about the future. Philip Tetlock (a professor of organizational behavior at the Haas Business School at the University of California-Berkeley and a commentator on forecasting) remarking on these says that

'we found that our experts' predictions barely beat random guesses – the statistical equivalent of a dart-throwing chimp – and proved no better than predictions of reasonably well-read non-experts.'

So clearly there is no point in suggesting that organizations design themselves specifically to meet, for example, prediction no 5 in the World Futures Society top the forecasts for 2014 and beyond, that 'Buying and owning things will go out of style'. On this prediction the Society says that, 'The markets for housing, automobiles, music, books, and many other products show a common trend: Younger consumers opting to rent or subscribe to pay-per-use arrangements instead of buying and owning the physical products. Shared facilities will overtake established offices, renting units will become more common than owning a home, and sales of books and music might never become popular again.'

Rather, the Oxford Futures Forum in 2014 seeks to make use of scenarios to test out various future possibilities. The approach works for products, services and, I am suggesting, the design of organizations. As the Forum website says:

A designer designs things for future situations, and if paying attention to the context of the design, would consider scenarios as a plausible set of contextual conditions of these situations.
In practice these future situations unfold; scenarios help to explore how they may depart from how any designer imagined things would play out. In this way, designers and strategists are in the same situation, and can use scenarios in comparable ways.
From the perspective of scenarios scholarship and practice, scenario sets render explicit the assumptions a design and/or a designer have made of the future context. They ascertain if alternative plausible contexts need to be considered to ensure the design works as intended.

On this basis, think how working with scenarios could be effective in designing agile organizations. It seems to me that there's a big opportunity to use scenario work in organization design to a much greater extent than I've seen done. (Shell has a scenarios team but I don't believe it is using its work to think through the on-going design of the organization)

Supposing buying and owning things actually does go out of style, as a recent Economist article The Sharing Economy also implies – what repercussions would this have on any organization that sells products or services? We already know some of the clashes of interest that have followed the introduction of the taxi service Uber – should taxi companies have been working on this as a potential scenario a few years ago and have had a more agile response to it than litigation?

The 5th Global Drucker Forum held in November 2013, on the theme of Managing Complexity, picked up on some of the issues associated with this increasing unpredictability of what organizations face. And Roger Martin in his conference blog In the Flow: Networked for Complexity points out in a thought provoking piece.

'Hierarchical organisational models and process-driven working practices are struggling to cope with the chaos and complexity this paradigm shift [of industrial practices ceding to knowledge based work] has introduced to the workplace.'

In following a link in this article I found another blog that looks at one aspect of this paradigm shift asking the question 'How do traditional, regulated industries cope with social engagement?' The blog writer's answer to the question is 'Not so well, as it seems. In a series of two posts, we will explore the reasons that hold those industries back from becoming truly social (part 1), taking Pharma as an example. Between real constraints and irrational fears, various avenues of action exist (part 2) to seize the business potential of social engagement.'

On the assumption that turbulence, paradigm shift and uncertainty are giving rise to new thinking, new types of work and new models in which to do work is it in fact possible for traditional well established organizations to change their design to meet this type of challenge and if so specifically how? I think this is where scenario work could give pointers towards answering the question.

Government is one type of organization that might benefit from designing via scenario work. During last week, I was working with some civil servants and we were discussing agility in governments, pointing out that policies, frameworks and other enshrined infrastructures make it very difficult to make government agile in the type of way spelled out as necessary in the World Economic Forum, Future of Government report. The report notes that:

Governments in the future will need to adapt and continuously evolve to create value. They need to stay relevant by being responsive to rapidly changing conditions and citizen expectations, and build capacity to operate effectively in complex, interdependent networks of organizations and systems across the public, private and non-profit sectors to co-produce public value. As recommended in this report, what is needed today is flatter, agile, streamlined, and tech-enabled (FAST) government.

It seems that these civil servants, and organization design practitioners in established organizations would be well advised to put resources and effort into developing scenarios which help them understand how to design the agile government and other enterprises now required.

What's your view on the value of scenario planning in helping design agile organizations? Let me know.

All theories are metaphors

I have been invited to write a piece on the topic of 'Design and form: Organizational' for the 2nd edition of Elseviers Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. As I said in a previous blog piece on the topic 'The chapters are intended to summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject, draw links to other subjects, and explain major directions for developing new knowledge.'

Aiming to describe the current state of 'knowledge' of organization design and form is problematic as it implies there is generally accepted agreement on it. This is not the case, partly because 'knowledge' is context driven – what we know in one situation may not hold true in another, and partly because 'knowledge' is interpreted through the meaning-making processes of the 'knower'. An academic in the field of organization design and form will have a very different 'state of current knowledge' from the line manager struggling with the poor performance of his/her department, or the shareholder anxiously watching an organization's share price rise or fall.

Beyond this difficulty with the word 'knowledge' the word 'current' state' suggests that there has been a past state of knowledge that is 'true' and a future state of knowledge that could be predicted or at least guessed at, and a current state that is 'now'. Taking the idea that the state of past knowledge on the subject of organizational design and form could be articulated is similar to taking the idea that history can be told as a unified story. But as John Arnold explains in his book History, A Very Short Introduction

'Historians cannot tell every story from the past … there are many more things that could be said … Historians inevitably decide which things can or should be said.' He makes the point that 'history is true in that it must agree with the evidence, the facts that it calls upon … at the same time it is an interpretation, placing these facts within a wider context or narrative. … The past itself is not a narrative. In its entirety, it is as chaotic, unco-ordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess, finding or creating patterns and meanings and stories from the maelstrom.'

So it is with organization design and form. Organizations are 'maelstroms' but until the early 1990s organizational theory was predominantly rooted in an (open) systems perspective (e.g. Katz and Kahn 1978) which led to a view that in order to function effectively they needed 'fit', 'congruence', 'alignment' and 'equilibrium' between various organizational components (e.g. Lawrence and Lorsch 1967). Common models underpinning this open systems theory of organization include Galbraith's Star Model, Nadler and Tushman's 1977 congruence model (see reference at end), and McKinsey's 7-S model.

Challenging the prevailing open systems perspective Gareth Morgan (1997) in his book Images of Organization presented eight images (metaphors) of organization: as machines (the systems perspective), organisms, cultures, brains, psychological prisons, instruments of domination, flux and transformation and political systems. Each one of these offers a multiplicity of ways and related theories in which to interpret an organization. For example, as he explains in his article 'Reflections on Images of Organization and Its Implications for Organization and Environment'.

'When you view organizations as brains, you find yourself thinking about information processing systems, learning capacities and disabilities, right and left brain intelligence, holographic capacity distribution, and a host of images that can take a brain-like thinking beyond the spongy mass of material that comprises an actual brain.'

It seems to me that the eight generative metaphors that Morgan presents are reasonable proxies for the 'state of current knowledge' about organization design and form. We can see each in the work of competing academics and practitioners. Each metaphor offers a path to theory construction and each a set of practitioner tools and intervention approaches. On this basis the state of current knowledge on organization design and form is fragmented: there are many competing positions and contested theories each with adherents and detractors.

The value of recognizing that there is no unifying theory (or practice) of organization design and form (in the same way that one can recognize that there are different perspectives and interpretations of history, even given the 'facts') is that it 'shows the inherent incompleteness of any particular point of view.' As Morgan remarks holding only one perspective as 'a way of seeing becomes a way of not seeing; and that any attempt to understand the complex nature of organizations (as with any other complex subject) always requires an open and pluralistic approach based on the interplay of multiple perspectives.'

The idea of 'multiple perspectives' of organization design and form is brought alive by the use of metaphor and storytelling – the latter much as historian John Arnold demonstrates – to present, interpret and make meaning of a variety of states of current 'knowledge'.

This approach was demonstrated in the Organizational Design Community's 2013 Annual Conference. As Alan Meyer reported participants there (I was not present) 'faced the challenge of making organization design knowledge actionable'. In his useful article Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action on the conference, he comments 'my overall assessment is that design oriented scholars are in the process of shifting from one integrated set of assumptions to another somewhat more amorphous set of assumptions.' He arrived at this assessment by listening to conference participants telling their various stories.

He presents three tables that illustrate the shift in assumptions. The first table considers established versus emerging assumptions about organization design, the second table shows established and emerging assumptions about design knowledge, and the third presents established and emerging assumptions on organization design action. Meyer's conclusion is that seeking to make design knowledge actionable is nudging the community away from a set of assumptions based on linearity and equilibrium (open systems theory, and toward a new set of assumptions based on emergence, self-organization, and non-linearity (possibly multiple theories).

The inherent danger of moving from one set of assumptions towards another is that the emerging assumptions become the new 'way it is', leaving no room for competing and equally valid approaches. In table 2, for example (about design knowledge) one of the established assumptions presented is that 'design knowledge achieves validity through nomological rigor, operational definition of variables, and documentation of causal relationships between carefully measured variables, as demonstrated by statistical analysis'. The emerging assumption related to this is that 'design knowledge achieves pragmatic validity through communication in clear and evocative language, should often be elucidated in narrative form, and benefits from illustration in pictorial diagrams'. It is easy to imagine that quantitative information becomes abandoned in favor of qualitative information.

As Gareth Morgan illustrates through metaphor and John Arnold (the historian) tells us we are dealing with 'maelstroms' when we work with organizations. Recognizing the limitations of past and current interpretations of 'states of knowledge' we might consider thinking not in terms of emerging assumptions – unless are going to question them, but rather taking a path that Chris Rodgers talks about as he aimed to 'clarify my thoughts on how to reframe the dominant – yet limiting – either-or perspective that dominates much conventional management thinking.' He has 'since developed a view of paradox that seeks to accommodate the positive aspects of contending ideas, views or values … and which acknowledges the potentially negative aspects of otherwise well-intended policy shifts.' (I mentally substituted the word 'assumptions' for 'policy' here).

Rather than thinking that one metaphor, or theoretical approach is 'better' than another, or one story is the 'truth' and another isn't it would make for richer approaches to organization design and the ongoing development of the 'state of current knowledge' to work with the paradoxes and the range of interpretations available.

These derive from what Ralph Stacey describes as 'complex responsive processes of interaction between people taking the form of conversation, power relations, ideologies, choices and intentions'. The social processes are inherent in each of the eight images/metaphors of organization, and in any account of history. They foster a range of interpretation about 'what is' (or was). None of the metaphors is 'right' but all of them have merit. Being aware of, and arguing about, the merits of each creates possibilities of changing things and is likely to give rise to new generative metaphors and new theories of organizational design and form.

What's your view that the eight metaphors and their related theories are useful and describe the current state of knowledge of organization design and form? Let me know.

NOTE: Morgan has suggested another metaphor he would put in if he had the opportunity: Organizations as Media.

Galbraith, J. (2012). The Future of Organization Design. Journal Of Organization Design, 1(1), 3-6. doi:10.7146/jod.1.1.6332
Meyer, A. (2013). Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action. Journal Of Organization Design, 2(3), 16-22. doi:10.7146/jod.2.3.15576
Morgan, G. (2011). Reflections on Images of Organization and Its Implications for Organization and Environment. Organization Environment. Vol. 24 no. 4 459-478
Nadler, D. A., & Tushman, M. L. (1999). The organization of the future: Strategic imperatives and core competencies for the 21st century. Organizational Dynamics, 28(1), 45-60.
Nadler, D., & Tushman, M. L. (1977). A congruence model for diagnosing organizational behavior. Columbia University, Graduate School of Business.
Stacey, R. (2012) The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity, London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-53118-4 (Extract from the Appendix)

New Year, New Computer

For various reasons I have bought a new computer. The one I settled on is a Microsoft Surface Pro 2. I took ownership of it on December 31. It's only January 5 now, and as I think back over the last five days I feel as if I've been through a rapid fire personal learning mill which must be good practice for me in my role of 'change agent'. Here's the story so far (as I type I am downloading Adobe Acrobat XI which is going very slowly).

For a while I've been intrigued watching people take handwritten notes on tablets and endured some scoffs at my old fashioned pencil and paper approach so I was ready to take the plunge into a different experience. And I didn't want to have two devices – a tablet and a laptop. At a conference I sat next to someone from Microsoft who has a Surface Pro. He gave me what I thought was a realistic lowdown on it, including some of the things he didn't like about it: only one USB port, for example. But he seemed very happy with it and assured me that he would not get commission if I bought one as he is not a sales person according to organizational role definition. I formed a good impression of its capabilities

  • Learning point one: listen to an existing user's experience and ask lots of questions.

Not to be taken in by first impressions I did some research on tablets, evaluating the possibilities, there are lots to choose from. I also consulted with various other people including a computer whizz who said:

I reviewed both the ThinkPad tablet 2 and the Surface Pro 2. My vote is for the Surface Pro 2. I prefer the Core i5 processors to the intel atom processor from a performance standpoint and also considering you will need to install additional applications you will require for work such as Microsoft office and adobe reader or acrobat and other office applications that may become necessary for your work. It is more pricy but I'm confident you will get a better user experience with it.

  • Learning point two: don't go with first impressions, dig around for more information, challenge one's assumptions.

The reviews were generally in favor and the comments from both the reviewers and the users warned me ahead of time that Windows 8.1 is 'very different': reviewers have hosts of complaints and nitpicks about it which they are hoping Microsoft will listen and respond to. So I was pre-armed with that knowledge – which hasn't made things easier but at least I knew.

  • Learning point three: Try and visualize what you might be letting yourself in for, be prepared for things not to go as hoped for. Look at the gains not the losses.

Then the crunch time came. I had handed over the cash, and got the device. I'd got a list of everything I wanted transferred from my Dell Latitude to the Surface. I'm always very anxious at this point of transfer (just as in an organization design project) – it's when things get lost or fall between the cracks – like I didn't realized that the reader that reads pdfs on the Surface doesn't have any editing facility. Adobe wasn't transferred over. (Hence my downloading it now). But it seems that just about everything else was ok and ready to roll. The computer whizz, mentioned above, who did the transfer has supported my migration through several computers and knows my anxieties. He's incredibly calm. He installed team viewer as a crutch and left with the instruction to call him if I needed help. I warned him I probably would!

  • Learning point four: Do some preparation, have support at the ready and don't be afraid to ask for help

Transitioning over initially involved my having the Dell Latitude running alongside the Surface. I wanted to be sure I had (another) safety net. Why? Because learning a new system is frustrating – I needed to step aside at points and go back to familiarity. There were a lot of things on the Surface that I couldn't work out – like making the text larger and how to toggle between the desktop and the start screen. I contemplated giving up on the whole machine and found out that I had a grace period in which I could return it without any penalty. That's still a possibility but it's receding.

  • Learning point five: Take breaks from learning a new system. It's frustrating, time consuming and tiring but don't give up. Persistence works.

On day two however I decided to go cold turkey and switch off my Dell and put it away. So far I haven't got it out and I've been getting on well. Each time I reach a stumbling block I have googled 'how do I … ' and found an answer in one of the forums, or on YouTube – there hasn't been a question so far that I've put that someone else hadn't wrestled with which made me feel a whole lot less stupid. I'm delighted and surprised by the numbers of people who are willing to put out their queries, answer other people's and generally contribute to the learning process.

  • Learning point six: Take the plunge and let go of the safety net(s). There are others out there learning and it's fun to feel part of a group feeling their way through new territory – does this qualify as 'joint sense-making' in OD jargon? (Note: I didn't want to keep pestering the computer whizz).

The Surface has a small 10.6 inch screen and for the first time ever I decided I needed a monitor for home use. I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to read the screen for long periods of time e.g. when traveling. Getting the monitor also involved getting the connector which meant more cash outlay and time to go and buy the items.

  • Learning point seven: Be ready to adapt to the new situation and also be aware that it may take an unforeseen investment but ultimately be worth it. (I'm hoping so!)

Now it's the end of the fifth day in and I'm feeling more confident and on the plus side it's certainly going to be easier to carry a 2 pound device than a 7 pound one. Tomorrow I'm going to tackle learning the handwriting input piece.

  • Learning point eight: Be willing to carry on learning.

So this week I've experienced what people in change situations experience. OK, it wasn't a colossal change but it had all the hallmarks of what it feels like going through a specific change experience and a good reminder for me. When was your last change experience? What did you learn? Let me know.