Zoom from ignorance to omniscience

‘His qualifications for writing The Body are even, fewer, but because he knew almost nothing about his subject, he had to explain everything from first principles, as much to himself as to his readers.  It is this that makes Bryson … a hero to all feature writers.   Our job is to zoom from ignorance to omniscience, but we can aspire to do so with only a fraction of Bryson’s clarity, readability and humour.’  (Andrew Billen, reviewing Bill Bryson’s new book The Body).

I read this review yesterday, having just come back from an organisation design workshop I was facilitating, where someone told the story of engaging expensive consultants to come into the organisation to develop a new design for one of the business units.  After almost 6 months of work the consultants, who’d worked with the internal consulting team, presented their proposals to the Director who said ‘that’s good work, but I think we’ll do it this way instead’.  Apparently, he’d seized the existing organisation chart and just re-drawn the lines and boxes in a slightly different configuration.

This bore no relation to the consultants’ proposals, nor acknowledged the work that had gone into involving staff/stakeholders in developing a design where the organisation chart was one outcome of a careful and reflective assessment of what was needed to resolve the issues.

Nevertheless, positional power ruled, and people started to get an implementation plan together for the leader’s ‘design’.  3 months later he’d left the organisation and his new org chart, along with the expensive consultants’ reflective design was no more.  The issues remained along with the de-motivation that the leader had generated.

This story came after the conversation I’d had earlier in the week with an internal consultant from one of the biggest, global tech companies.  He’d been talking about the difficulty of getting sensible, worked through, collaborative proposals for improvement through the power system.  Expertise and involvement gave way to individual positional power and similar ‘we’ll do it this way instead’ in the stories he told.

These stories of power trumping expertise are both familiar and dispiriting and I think it’s a more common experience for internal consultants than for external ones.  Indeed, one member of the workshop I mentioned earlier, told a story of someone who’d left the organisation because she felt her expertise wasn’t valued.  She’d joined a major consultancy and returned to the same organisation and experienced a quite different reception now she had the badge of external credibility.

In Flawless Consulting, Peter Block discusses the ‘important differences between internal and external consultants’.  In his view ‘The difficulty of being a prophet in your own land is overplayed and can be used as a defence, but there is some truth in it.’

I don’t think it is over-played.  My observation and experiences are that expertise is under-valued compared with positional power and I’m beginning to wonder whether the leaders in most organisations zoom from ignorance on matters of organisation design towards obtuseness and heel-digging, rather than to omniscience.  (Please tell me I am wrong).

In fact, I asked an internal consultant turned external consultant, whether he thought ‘organisation design as a ‘discipline’ has had its day?  Someone asked me a few weeks ago, whether I thought it had and I’ve been thinking on it.   What’s your view?’  His response was: ‘I think organisation design still has legs. We are doing a lot to join up design with the other aspects of transformation to develop good people-centred approaches to transformation. I think there is more demand than ever for that kind of work. My view was always that org design projects need to pay attention to the cultural, leadership and change impacts from day one. Buyers in the market seem to be appreciating that more. So, the good org design people will stay busy, but the mechanistic approaches will hopefully die off.  I still see too many examples of poor design causing problems, or poor design process causing problems. The design skill set still needs investment’.

However, maybe I’m predisposed to focus on the negative things in this case. Because my feeling, that organisation design expertise is under/not valued, was endorsed when another member of the group I was working with asked me how you could short-cut the ground-work of organisation design (finding out what’s going on in the context, whether what’s presenting as a problem is the real problem, whether organisation design is the issue and not something else, etc).

She asked because she was working with a leader who thought doing this kind of work was a waste of time and they should ‘just get on with the re-structure’ i.e. changing the lines and box configuration on the organisation chart.

What is it about an organisation chart that leaders tend to seize on and alter and think they are ‘designing’, without reference to any knock-on effects on work-flow, information flows, system, processes and interdependencies?  And without any expertise in organisation design methods and practices?

Searching for an answer to my question – is expertise under/de-valued? I remembered the infamous quote from UK politician Michael Gove. He ‘refused to name any economists who back Britain’s exit from the European Union, saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.’

I then came across a book review of The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols.  The reviewer, Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, says that ‘Nichols’ focus is on the US, but the parallels with similar nations are myriad. He expresses a deep concern that “the average American” has base knowledge so low it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed”, passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong”. And this is playing out against a backdrop in which people don’t just believe “dumb things”, but actively resist any new information that might threaten these beliefs.’  Having read the review, I instantly bought the book.

Maybe what I’m observing is part of a societal trend away from valuing expertise. Ola Rosling,co-author of Factfulness and president of the foundation Gapminder,  ‘is dedicated to exposing common misconceptions about the world and promoting a fact-based viewpoint’. He says that ‘we need to realise that we are ignorant about our ignorance.’  But that is easier said than done.

Herrero Leander makes a point that ‘we are all traders of comfort’, saying ‘Each of us carves out the world around by areas of comfort. Within that area, ‘our certainty’ is high.’   He asserts that ‘The financial analyst, the trader, and the risk manager think that what they do is something concrete, evidence driven and not that complicated. The HR specialist, the psychotherapist and the designer would not touch those areas and declare them opaque and unintelligible.’ His view is that we seek comfort.

On this argument, it may be that leaders are uncomfortable with the way organisation designers do their work and we should make efforts to help them feel comfortable about it.  This somewhat echoes Nichol’s view (as reported by the reviewer) that experts should:

  • Strive to be more humble.
  • Vary their information sources, especially where politics is concerned, and not fall into the same echo chamber that many others inhabit.
  • Be less cynical. Here he counsels against assuming people are intentionally lying, misleading or wilfully trying to cause harm
  • Be more discriminating – to check sources scrupulously for veracity and for political motivations.

Do you think organisation designers’ expertise is undervalued?  Could we do more to help our clients zoom from ignorance to omniscience?  Let me know.

Image: Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance, with Consort, 1522-50, Nepal – New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art

One thought on “Zoom from ignorance to omniscience”

  1. Thanks a lot for this reflection. I think you’re right: Organisation Design as a discipline is undervalued. I don’t believe this is, however, a case similar to other science domains, where there’s a populist political point of view that goes against the “experts”. I believe that HR (which in most cases should be the owner of Org Design in companies), has failed to make this skillset a core competence spread across the organisation, which is why way too often many think that org design can be redrawing an Org Chart. A big important step would be for CHROs to take the lead in spreading back Org Design competences, especially into HR, so that the entire process can be sustained internally.

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