Designing brave

A book my daughter gave me that I’ve started to read time and again to my mother is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. It came out earlier this year and it’s brilliant. The mini-bios, a hundred of them with lovely illustrations, are all of brave women.  Each one, in her own way, defying convention, stereotyping, social expectations, and her own boundaries to demonstrate where bravery, combined with learning, and persistence can take you.

The two (women) book authors themselves show those qualities.  They ‘were told they’d never get the book off the ground, but managed to launch one of the most successful literary crowdfunding appeals ever.’

The fun thing is that the carers in my mother’s care home (90% of them women) enjoy the stories too.  Yet, when we talk about the stories they laugh, disbelievingly, when I suggest they too are brave.  But I think they have brave stories to tell – most of them are from other countries leaving behind families and cultural ties – to work for low pay, cheerfully, lovingly and hard in an underfunded care home with very difficult people to care for.

Are they right to laugh when I say they are brave?  Is bravery, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder:  a subjective attribute?   In calling the rebel girls or the carers ‘brave’ am I making the wrong call?  I’m asking myself this because, in a couple of months, I’m facilitating a conference session ‘Exploring workplace bravery’.  This means I have to design and develop something thought-provoking, engaging, and creative.

This means exploring my own views in order to present an opinion for people to challenge, critique, and work with.  My exploration has taken me, among other places,  to definitions – of boldness, bravery, courage, to asking a philosopher and an ethicist, to a Brene Brown book , and Robert Biswas-Diener’s book on courage .

Then from the exploration comes wrestling my point of view.  I’ve got a lot more terrain to go, but now I have some work-in-progress pointers to work up, each offering good discussion possibilities:

  • Although it’s interesting to learn that courage and bravery are rooted in different languages – courage in Old French, and bravery, not Old French but no real agreement on where. For my purpose, I don’t think it’s worth quibbling on the difference.  Many writers   use the two words synonymously – although others see big differences between them.
  • There isn’t much written on brave organizations. There’s a lot more on brave individuals who may or may not act with social and community support.  But I wonder if there are brave organizations: perhaps some of the activist or humanist organizations speaking out in their differing ways and countries against various contraventions of the Declaration of Human Rights might be brave organizations:  Doctors without Borders comes to mind as one or Human Rights Watch.  But maybe they simply employ some brave people and are not collectively organizationally brave?
  • Some roles and professions require obvious and continuous either physical or mental bravery: fire-fighters, lifeboat crew, tiger tamers risk their lives.  Doctors, judges, care workers, make life and death decisions risking the lives of others.  You can look at a list of jobs that will give you the typical adrenaline rush that accompanies bravery here.
  • Bravery in the roles just mentioned implies both being willing to take risks and/or doing so within a humanitarian moral framework that the risk taker is seeking to uphold. I mentioned the Declaration of Human Rights, but there are many similar moral codes for example six medical virtues (one of which is courage), or The Ethos of the Royal Marines.
  • There’s a lot about brave leadership – but much of this seems to be looking at the senior levels of organizational hierarchies. Look, for example, at the Kellogg School of Management Brave Leader Series. Or the speech ‘Leadership and Bravery’ given by Dame Louise Casey at the UK’s Local Government Association conference 2016.  She ends it saying ‘You are the civic leaders that can help deliver what the country now needs. None of what lies ahead is or indeed need be beyond us. But it will require us to be leaders and to be brave.’ There are many lists of the characteristics of brave leaders. One I like tells us that a brave leader embraces change, stands up for what is right – no matter the cost,  backs herself and her team, even when the going gets tough, takes  calculated risks, tries new things, and charts new territory.
  • Bravery is not just for leaders or heroes, though. ‘It’s also needed for everyday life, for those times when we stretch to express a strength and a courage we didn’t know we had. It’s a resource we draw on whenever we stand up to deal with a crisis, take action to better our lives or to stand up for our opinions and for others.’  And in this aspect organizational protocols and policies too often fail, or choose not, to support people doing just that.  You can see that in some of the experiences and analysis of the #MeToo community.

Where I’ve got to now, is that bravery is expected in some designated occupations, that brave leaders have certain characteristics – of the type shown by the rebel girls I opened with – that bravery is not only for designated occupations, leaders and heroes, but for ordinary people in day-to-day work, and there are many more stories of individual bravery than organizational bravery.

This leads me to ask whether we could design a brave organization and if so, would we want to?  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Be Brave, Create, Repeat

Curation of learning

Along with ‘pivotal’, the word ‘curation’ seems to be in vogue.  And it was ‘curation’ that I got curious about this week.  What exactly is ‘the curation of learning’ – a phrase I read in a role description for an L & D expert?  I visualized some type of art gallery or a museum of carefully arranged pieces of learning – a Janet and John book, a recording of a teacher dictating biology notes, an abacus, an extract from an on-line course, and so on.  The curator would invite people to come and look at these or interact with some of them if they offered that possibility.  Does a Museum of Learning exist somewhere?  (Yes – The Museum of Teaching and Learning).

This took me to a mental wander around a gallery in such a museum – what was I learning from it?  I learned that the artefacts are instructional tools or mediums.  They are not ‘learning’.   Learning is an outcome.  It is the development of an individual’s capacity or the development of a collective capacity if we believe in ‘learning organizations’.

Remember Chris Argyris’ work on single and double loop learning?  That came up this week too.  I was reading a piece that argued that the way we have developed leaders is entirely wrong for now.  The author, Nick Petrie, said that ‘the incremental improvements that we were making in [development] programs were what Chris Argyris would call “single loop” learning (adjustments to the existing techniques), rather than “double loop” learning (changes to the assumptions and thinking upon which the programs were built).’

This point of view was reinforced by an article by Linda Gratton, who says management is getting much more complex and includes and that we need very different management development.  Managers must learn, ‘managing virtually rather than face to face; managing when the group is diverse rather than homogenous; and managing when the crucial knowledge flows are across groups rather than within.’ Capabilities she says are required for this are how to build rapid trust, coach, empathize, and inspire.  She also sees managers learning new practices – team formation, objective setting, and conflict resolution.’

Other articles I read make similar points.  Summarised, they agree we need ‘new pedagogical models and approaches’ in order to develop new capabilities as a response to digitalization – ‘defined as the diffusion and assimilation of digital technologies into all aspects of daily life – [that] is transforming industries in general and learning and development in particular.’

What this new pedagogical model looks like is less clear but seems to involve a shift from instructional design (per the exhibits in my museum of learning and single loop learning) to ‘learning experience design’ which to me implies double loop learning.  In learning experience design ‘professional development goes from being an aggregation of distinct activities, to becoming a continuous journey guided by data-driven insights.’  This seems plausible but what does it mean in practice?  And does it help with my trying to work out what the ‘curation of learning’ is?

Digitalization gives a different perspective on the word ‘curation’.  And here is where ‘learning curation’ becomes meaningful.)  And, as I quickly found out it’s big business and there’s masses of activity around digital curation of learning.

In fact, I can’t think how I missed it, but on the other hand, given the various definitions of it, I can now label myself a curator of organization design learning.  Given that ‘the three key things a good curator does: filter content, add value and provide a place to access her collections’.

For a good introduction to content curation look at Robin Good’s page.

What digital curation does is a create a personalised selection of learning stuff.  It’s chosen by you, or a learning ‘provider’ if you’re trying to teach people something, or I guess by AI that chooses for you by examining your digital trail.   (See Harold Jarche’s blog on this).

Are we near the point now that If we want to go really digital on this we could have our digital assistants help us.  How would it be if they were the curators of our learning (at least in the digital media) – providing us with real time data on what we are paying attention to and re-directing or reinforcing us to help us learn in a double loop way.

However you get your feed how will you know that it right for you and meets the need?

One way is to develop our thinking skills and on this, I recommend Stephen Brookfield’s work.  He describes four critical thinking processes, all of which could lead to learning, or identifying what we need to learn from any situation we are in, and also judging the quality and value of anything we are ‘fed’.

  • Contextual awareness and deciding what to observe and consider. This includes an awareness of what’s happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences.
  • Exploring and imagining alternatives. This involves thinking about and imagining other ways of looking at the situation, not just the first thing that comes to your mind. It involves exploring as many alternatives as you can think of for the given situation.
  • Assumption recognition and analysis. This involves analysing assumptions you are making about the situation as well as examining the beliefs that underlie your choices.
  • Reflective scepticism/deciding what to do. This critical thinking approach involves questioning, analysing, and reflecting on the rational for decisions.

(See also, Robert Kegan’s 5 orders of adult development).

What’s your view of curation of learning, digital or otherwise?  Let me know.

Job descriptions: dead or alive?

In Dubai this past week someone asked me what the value is in job descriptions (JDs).  (I was facilitating an org design programme, not taking a vacation).  They pointed out that a job description doesn’t indicate how a person does the job, or what he/she does once in the job.   I was on the edge of saying that they are of no value.  Which, like some others, I mostly believe.

For example, I enjoyed reading Leandro Herrero’s idea that ‘The job description is dead. It is replaced by a Lego box, no instructional manual and a map.’  In an earlier post he made the point that ‘The job description, and the label associated with it, are very often a mental prison.’

Chris Rodgers offers an escape from the JD mental prison by suggesting that instead of JDs we have Contribution Statements .  He tells us that:  ‘This sets out to answer the question: What specific contribution is the role intended to make which, if performed excellently, can make a significant difference to organizational performance and/or capability?’   It therefore begins by stating the role’s purpose – to make clear why it exists at all – and then sets out the performance aims for which the role-holder is accountable.

This focus on outputs (contribution and results) rather than inputs (resource usage and activities carried out) is an invitation to escape from the ‘activity trap’ of rigid job descriptions and procedural straight-jackets that too often limit performance – and ambition.

Another writer – agreeing that job descriptions are dead suggests that we begin by asking Why does this job exist? And then via discussion uncover ‘the three to five key accountabilities about how this job should be done’.

A further writer believes that ‘using impact descriptions versus job descriptions makes a significant positive difference.  Impact descriptions help both your team and your candidates to understand that every role exists to impact the organization in some specific way. Our roles make a difference, move the needle, and change the game.’

There are several others in these veins – Google ‘is the job description dead’ for more.  And, of course, I thought they were right.

But then I wondered:

a) how far my response was culturally conditioned.  How do other cultures respond to job descriptions?

b) As I enjoy  Herrero’s posts, and others, slating JDs am I succumbing to the psychological trait of confirmation bias. (See also here).  Preferring to read others confirming what I believe.

Maybe.  To test this, I took another tack and googled ‘Are job descriptions alive?’  Google’s algorithms instantly gave me links to jobs at Alive, a non-profit aimed at ‘lighting up later life’.  It looks like a great organization it points out that ‘There are now over 400,000 older people living in residential care in the UK. Alive is the UK’s leading charity enriching the lives of older people in care and training their carers.’

I instantly got worried, thinking that Google knows more about me than I imagined – I’ll have to protect my data better.  (My mother is 101, in residential care).

On a temporary diversion from job descriptions I looked at the blog on session replay scripts, published by Freedom to Tinker.  I am right to be worried.  Their researchers say, ‘You may know that most websites have third-party analytics scripts that record which pages you visit and the searches you make.  But lately, more and more sites use “session replay” scripts. These scripts record your keystrokes, mouse movements, and scrolling behavior, along with the entire contents of the pages you visit, and send them to third-party servers.’

Back to job descriptions.  UK employers aren’t legally obliged to create a job description for a role.  I don’t know if there is a legal obligation in other countries?   Whether they are of value or not , in the main, I found that HR sites are in favour of producing job descriptions and give advice on how to write one.  The UK’s CIPD, for example, quotes research that finds that ‘Poorly defined job descriptions drive staff turnover’.

The US HR body SHRM is firm ‘A job description is a useful, plain-language tool that describes the tasks, duties, functions and responsibilities of a position. It outlines the details of who performs a specific type of work, how that work is to be completed, and the frequency and the purpose of the work as it relates to the organization’s mission and goals.’

But organizations in favour of job descriptions also point to the requirement to keep them current, and offer advice on how to update them.  See for example, How To Revive And Renew Your Job Descriptions  and ‘At year’s end, don’t forget to update your job descriptions’

So maybe I am biased, and job descriptions are sensible and suitable.  However, I’m still not convinced of their  value to individuals, although I can see they may have organizational value.  And, even on this count, they have pros and cons as Susan Heathfield’s blog suggests in 5 Positives and 5 Negatives about Job Descriptions.

What’s your view of job descriptions? Let me know.

Image: Science job descriptions

The accountability conundrum (again)

Tomorrow’s Organization Design Forum’s peer-to-peer consulting session in which I’m in the hot-seat has been drifting to front-of-mind over the last couple of weeks: prompted by first, a coaching session on how to frame the question in a way that the peer group can tackle it, and then by getting a Zoom invite to the actual session that proved to me that I’m actually in the hot seat.

The way it works is rather like a fish-bowl exercise, but virtually.  I sit in the ‘middle’, and briefly outline my conundrum.   Five consultants the discuss it.  We follow the ‘Ace-It’ formula. Other people ‘watch’ the session in action, commenting only via the chat box.

The info that has gone to the five consultants says: ‘The ask for Naomi to hold this session came out of a high level of interest shared during one of our monthly virtual conversations (ODF Advisory Group) around an article she wrote Accountability – Is it a Design Concern? featured in EODF’s monthly newsletter.  People suggested that I do a follow-up blog but it turned into this live session instead.

The conundrum I’m posing to the consultants is:

Work process flows almost always cross organizational boundaries, either internal boundaries or between organization boundaries.  This can create difficulties, bottlenecks, and failure points at the intersects and hand-overs.   Assigning a single person accountability for the process flow does not allow for the fact that the accountable person may not have control over the people along the flow.  These people may be working on other flows, have different priorities, and different performance measures.  Along the flow, people may have the power to slow or stop the flow.

Imagine a design that assumed a collective accountability to maintain process flow.  How could this be designed?

Last week I wrote a blog and also ran a session on Hierarchies and Networks. In these two forums I asked whether ‘the very differently principled networks and hierarchies co-exist in one organization’?  I think they do, along with the informal networks that are in both.

In response to that blog Nicolay Worren sent me his excellent – still in draft – paper The “hidden matrix”: Reporting relationships outside the formal line organization. In this, he talks about some research in which he has found that ‘Even though the organization does not formally have a matrix organization, the decision rights have been distributed in such a manner that employees will require the approval of people who are not their line manager, who is outside their own department, and may not be hierarchically superior to themselves.’

He is wondering, similarly to me, about mixing of structures in one organization – one of which is often consciously designed (the hierarchy) and the other which equally formal but not usually consciously designed – the network or, in Worren’s case, the matrix.  He doesn’t speak much about the informal networks in both.

I’m intrigued to find that a network can be expressed mathematically as a matrix but I’m not going to pursue the difference between them in organizational design terms right now.  Another intriguing take is in the article To Matrix, Hierarchy or Network: that is the question.   It’s not directly about organization design but there are great parallels that might be usable in design work.

Pursuing the network route for now, RAND researcher, Paul Baran, began thinking about the optimal structure of the Internet. He envisioned a network of unmanned nodes that would act as switches, routing information from one node to another to their final destinations. Baran suggested there were three possible architectures for such a network —centralized, decentralized, and distributed.

He felt the first two —centralized and decentralized— were vulnerable to attack, the third distributed or mesh-like structure would be more resilient.  And this is what he designed.  The Internet is a network of routers that communicate with each other through protocols – which might be an organizational proxy for decision rights, approvals, and distributed accountability.

The mesh like structure is what I think of when I think of networks, and I dug out my blog Of Nets and Networks  and found that the metaphor of accountability exists in physical fishing nets.  Each knot in the net is ‘accountable’ for the success of each other part of the net.  The knots are representative of shared and distributed accountability.  The way the fishermen work with the nets represents the informal network.  But maybe I’m carrying that too far?

Then my brother sent me a snippet that seemed to perfectly describe organizational networks – formal and informal in one go.  Except it was referring to consciousness:

‘In our brains there is a cobbled-together collection of specialist brain circuits, which, thanks to a family of habits inculcated partly by culture and partly by individual self-exploration, conspire together to produce a more or less orderly, more or less effective, more or less well-designed virtual machine, the Joycean machine. By yoking these independently evolved specialist organs together in common cause, and thereby giving their union vastly enhanced powers, this virtual machine, this software of the brain, performs a sort of internal political miracle: It creates a virtual captain of the crew, without elevating any one of them to long-term dictatorial power. Who’s in charge? First one coalition, then another…’   It’s from Daniel Dennett, (1991) Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Co.

I’m not sure how all this rumination has progressed my thinking on organizational networks and distributed accountability, in a way that will make sense when I sit in the hot seat tomorrow.  But it’s been an interesting exploration.  Do you think networks distribute accountability?  Let me know.

Image: How everything is connected to everything else

Hierarchies and networks

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Oday Kamal observes that ‘The tension between hierarchy and networks is fundamental in charting the course of the future of work.’ And then asks several questions: ‘How can beneficial networks be nurtured in organizations? Where does a legacy hierarchical structure and a nascent network intersect and support each other? How can we determine if our organizations are choking the life out of potentially beneficial networks before they can really make a positive impact?’

He doesn’t answer these questions but they’re relevant to an introductory session I’m running this week on organizational hierarchies and networks and how work gets done, and I’ve been ruminating on them.

We seem to be moving towards the idea that networked structures are ‘a good thing’ in an age where hierarchies and ‘power over’ organizations seem to have had their day.

Amy Edmundson and Michael Lee describe hierarchies as being based on two principles a) A hierarchy of authority where individuals report to managers who have the authority to direct and prioritize the execution and allocation of tasks, review performance, and in many cases, hire and fire; b) A hierarchy of accountability—that is, work accountabilities roll up from direct reports to managers who hold ultimate accountability for the work of all those below in the organization chart.

They imply, as does Deloitte in the 2017 Human Capital Trends, that these organizational hierarchies are not fit for our digitized, networked age and that a more appropriate design is one thatradically decentralizes authority in a formal and systematic way throughout the organization,’

Networks fall into this category.  Jessica Lipnack and Jeff Stamps describe them as configurations ‘where independent people and groups act as independent nodes, link across boundaries, to work together for a common purpose; it has multiple leaders, lots of voluntary links and interacting levels.’  They’re based on the principles that

  • Authority is not from a hierarchy but from individual’s recognized knowledge and skill
  • Links are between people and teams across conventional boundaries (e.g. departments and geographies)
  • Members and structures adapt to changing circumstances
  • Management has a sense of mutual responsibility
  • People explore ways to work effectively
  • Teams are readjusted or disbanded needed

Can the very differently principled networks and hierarchies co-exist in one organization and would this resolve the tensions Oday Kamal observes?

John Kotter suggests so.  In his article Hierarchy and Network: Two Structures, One Organization, he tells us that:

The successful organization of the future will have two organizational structures: a Hierarchy, and a more teaming, egalitarian, and adaptive Network. Both are designed and purposive. While the Hierarchy is as important as it has always been for optimizing work, the Network is where big change happens.  … My idea of the Network is a system of teams with representatives from all divisions and all levels, who leave formal titles at the door to participate in a decidedly anti-hierarchical forum.  (See also his HBR article Accelerate)

But, not obvious in either the principles or the discussions of formal hierarchies and networks are the informal networks that exist within them – of friendship, influence, knowledge, etc. (Unless this is what Kamal means by ‘beneficial network’).

Organizational network mapping, of the type Rob Cross does, clearly shows us that informal networks of social connection and interaction are strong in all types of organizations and they can be very powerful influencers – beneficial or not –  of individual, team and organizational performance. (Watch the TED talk on the hidden influence of social networks.)

There may be tensions between hierarchies and networks, and they may be resolvable by having both present in one organization but only if the strength of the informal social network ties are identified and factored into the design thinking.  (Here’s a helpful Oxfam blog on getting started in social network mapping).

The informal, social networks are what make organizations work and they can’t be designed.  How can knowing more about them help us decide how to configure the formal hierarchies and networks either as independent forms or as integral forms?  Let me know.

Image Jakob Wolman

Maybe, I’ve left it too late

A one-hour introduction to design thinking can’t be designed in 5 minutes or in an hour.  I’m feeling the pressure, with very little time to go before I have to facilitate the session and only the barest outline of what to cover that is high-quality, engaging, informative, useful and quick to design.  Maybe, I’ve left it too late to do a good design job.

Years ago, when I first got involved in the world of computer based training I read somewhere that it took 40 hours of designing to get 1 hour of instructional material ready to deliver.  Now, with so many channels of delivery – omni-channels, even – has this estimate increased or decreased?  I don’t know, and thinking about it is taking away from the time that I have – closer to 40 minutes than 40 hours –  to design the one hour I am facilitating next week.

So, what to do? How can I accelerate the design of my workshop in the time I’ve got on the train, where there is very limited internet access to pull up resources?  I definitely do not have the time to go through the 5-step design thinking process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test – that will result in a brilliantly designed session.  Not good role-modeling here.

Maybe I can do a 60-minute version of the 90-minute Stanford D-School virtual crash course in design thinking? It’s got a facilitator guide, video and worksheets.  Presumably the course has been through the design thinking process itself.

And that takes me to Natasha Zen’s argument that ‘Design thinking is bullshit’.  She makes the case that formalising and commoditising a 5-step process that has underpinned design work over ages is limiting. As the blurb says, ‘In her provocative 99U talk, Jen lobbies for the “Crit” over the “Post-It” when it comes to moving design forward.’

She has a point on this.  ‘Design thinking’ could be on the verge of being dismissed as a fad as it has been hyped so much in the last few years.

Perhaps going down a ‘principles’ approach would be more fruitful?  That avoids the predictability of following a 5-step process and there are some interesting design principles to critique.  I already have them on my laptop which makes things easier.  Dieter Rams’s, John Maeda’s and the Global Agenda on Design Council’s.  We could critique them in relation to some objects participants have with them in the room – a pen or a pencil?

I’m still undecided.  I’ve now got several ideas, and others have just landed in my in-box via LinkedIn’s Design Thinking Community.  Someone is looking for some good tips on ‘quick, 5 min fun activities or games that could be conducted to introduce design thinking to a diversified audience (divided into very small clusters, as small as 1-3)’, and others have weighed in with suggestions.   I like the piece on questions from Mastermindset.

Good, I’m forming a bit of a sequence and an outline.  I can start off with a definition of design, then do a short activity where they critique an object against one of the sets of design principles.

I’ll then move on to a short video on design thinking.  There are two I’ve used before that give good summaries: one Design Thinking by Daylight Design, a 4 minute intro video and the other a trailer for a film Design & Thinking.

From this we can go into the 5-phase method and do a variant of the crash course when the participants design something relevant to them as users.  The thing that springs to mind is a better room booking experience – maybe because I’ve just been bumped from a booked room with no warning or explanation.

I’ll ask a couple of colleagues if they think that will work, give it a go as a minimum viable product, and learn from what happens.

How would you design an hour’s introduction to design thinking?  Let me know.

Image from: Margaret Kagan, Open Law Lab

Metaphors and a speak up culture

Last week the UK’s Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) published a Good Practice Guide, Encouraging a Speak Up Culture.  They are clear that is it not only about whistleblowing – explained by Gov UK as:

You’re a whistleblower if you’re a worker and you report certain types of wrongdoing. This will usually be something you’ve seen at work – though not always. The wrongdoing you disclose must be in the public interest. This means it must affect others, e.g. the general public.

But,  IBE says,  also about ‘speaking up’ – a language shift that ‘can mark the beginning of fostering an open culture’.  The guide tells us that:

‘managers at all levels are responsible for nurturing a Speak Up culture – a culture of integrity and openness – where ethical dilemmas are discussed and debated and employees feel supported to ask questions and raise concerns.  A healthy, trustworthy culture is the basis of a sustainable organization in the long-term’.

In this it extends ‘speaking up’ beyond the bounds of whistleblowing into the arena of ‘employee voice’ which the UK’s CIPD, says is  ‘the means by which people express their opinions and have meaningful input into work-related decision-making.

(As one of their seven layers of workplace productivity Acas has ‘strong employee voice:  informed employees who can contribute and are listened to.’)

A speak up culture embraces both whistleblowing and employee voice and, as Courageous HR suggests,  ‘Maybe the way forward is to work with organizations and managers in particular, to treat whistleblowing as an aspect of employee voice.’

That’s a laudable suggestion, but is still treating the concept of speaking up in constrained, organization as machine, terms – with policies, formalities, forums, and what the CIPD in their Factsheet actually calls the Mechanisms of Employee Voice, explaining, ‘There’s a range of different and often complementary mechanisms for employee voice. We distinguish two groups: upward problem-solving and representative participation.’

Trying to address issues and opportunities of whistleblowing, employee voice, and a speak up culture from a machine metaphor is not getting us very far.  A 2013 UK survey of UK businesses’ whistleblowing ‘found that despite over 90% of companies adopting formal whistleblowing policies, 1 in 3 think their whistleblowing arrangements are not effective.’

Typically, and perhap unconsciously, we use the organization as machine metaphor in many of our organizational constructs, (e.g. employees being ‘cogs in wheels’, concepts of efficiency, pipelines, toolkits, etc).   If we used a different metaphor, from the machine one, to encourage a speak up culture then maybe we’d come up with a different, more effective, approach to designing one.

Gareth Morgan, in his book Images of Organization offers eight metaphors of organization – one of which is the machine. The others are brain, psychic prison, political system, flux and transformation, instrument of domination, living organism, and culture.

Supposing, for example, we explored the brain metaphor to consider a speak up culture – where would that lead us? Morgan, in his 2011 article,  says:

‘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 brain-like thinking beyond the spongy mass of material that comprises an actual brain.’

For a moment forget about whistleblowing and employee voice and just consider a typical business meeting where usually only a handful of people present speak – why are the others not?  Using the brain metaphor raises interesting questions, for example: Are some participants having difficulty processing the discussion? Are they picking up signals of micro-inequities that constrain them?  Have they learned that the views of those with hierarchical power win or dominate, regardless of other views?   Is their cognitive capacity diminished by being in a small group, or their perceived lower status in the group?  On this last see some fascinating neuro behavioural research.  (Or if you want the easy version look here)

Perhaps if we understood, via the brain metaphor, why people did or did not speak up in meetings which are part of the daily operation of organizations, we might get some insight into why they do or do not speak up about ethical and moral concerns, which takes equal or more courage than speaking up in meetings.

Viewing the problem of not speaking up from a different metaphor could well lead to new ways of encouraging a speak up culture and yield innovative ways to do this.

What other ways are there of encouraging a speak-up culture beyond the mechanistic ways, or using metaphors?  Let me know.

NOTE: See also the CIPD publication Alternative forms of workplace voice: positioning report (September 2017)