Opportunities in crisis: take actions (part 1)

Keith Haring, Actions

Last week I offered a list of seven actions to help organisation designers take advantage of the opportunities in crises. 

  1. Think systems
  2. Encourage rebels
  3. Recognise complexity
  4. Experience the cultures
  5. Challenge assumptions
  6. Stop the swirling
  7. ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

This week, gives more on the first four of these, suggesting why each is useful and ways to develop skills in taking the action. 

Think systems: ‘Silos’ and ‘Silo-ed thinking’, are frequently heard words in organisation design. Leaders want to break down organisational silos. Several years ago, I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers and it may have been there that my conviction that systems thinking is a required attribute of organisation designers, got accelerated. 

In my forthcoming book I talk more on the phrase ‘systems thinking’ which has many challengers. However, a practical start-point is to accept that organisations are systems – that is, they are composed of inter-related and interdependent elements, ‘linked together by dynamics that produce an effect, create a whole new system or influence its elements’. Designing being clear that an organisation is a system, which is part of wider systems mitigates against silos. If you want to learn more about systems then a good (free) start-point is a short Open University downloadable course Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice.

Encourage rebels:  When I offered this suggestion at a conference of government leaders. It caused great amusement and some bafflement.  Why would an employer want to encourage rebels in the work force? My observation is that if you want to change an organisation, you have to look for people who are kicking against the way it is and channel their energies into helping make the changes. There’s a very good website Rebels at Work, with multiple examples of why rebels are good for organisations.

My thinking on this was triggered years ago – not by one of my first managers who told me I was ‘unmanageable’ (not as a compliment!) – but by Debra Meyerson’s research on tempered radicals. Her book Rocking the boat: how tempered radicals effect change without causing trouble , although a bit dated, is well-worth reading. Good rebels are crucially important in offering alternative views, recognising inconsistencies, being curious and questioning, and usually energetic in their activism.  I came across a quote by Vladimir Nabokov the other day, ‘Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form’. Yes, hierarchical organisations try to weed out the curious – to the disadvantage of the organisation.   

One of the first actions you could take to encourage rebels is to print off copies of a wonderful Tanmay Vora graphic in his blog Sketchnote: ‘what rebels want from their boss‘ and stick it on every notice board in your building (or as a screen saver). Go on, I dare you.   See also What makes a good rebel? Consider becoming one yourself.

Recognise complexity: If you’ve ever read a short story by Ray Bradbury, The Sound of Thunder, you’ll start to get the idea of complexity. I read it first in my early teens and it’s one that’s stuck with me ever since.  In the story, a butterfly was accidentally crushed by a big game hunter who travelled back in time to pursue a tyrannosaurus rex. The insect’s death had haunting consequences that rippled through 65 million years to change, among other things, written English and the results of an election. Nothing was quite the same, as the hunter found when he returned to his 2055 departure date.  

If you’re not sure how to apply the idea of complexity, one activity is to use the Futures Wheel, created by Jerome Glenn, to identify the potential consequences of trends and events, but you can also use it in decision making (to choose between options) and in change management (to identify the consequences of change).  Another is to use the Hyper Island tool Unintended Consequences.  Either of these tools will be useful in generating rich design options.

Experience the cultures: Originally, I had this action as ‘understand the cultures’. Now, reflecting on my conversation with Memory Nguwi on cultural transformation that we had the other day, I’ve changed it to ‘experience the cultures’.   (Listen to the discussion, on Human Capital Hub here).

 I’ve changed it because I’m not sure it is possible to understand the cultures?  You can only experience them and then try and convert the experience into words or visuals that are transmissable in a way that will give others a flavour of your experience in order for them to see if it matches theirs.  If you can get to some common flavour of experience it makes it easier to look for opportunities to reshape the culture.

Think about the weather. You can describe it in terms of metrics – temperature, humidity, likelihood of rainfall, windspeed, and so on. But the metrics don’t convey an individual’s experience of that weather – which may depend on a number of factors and may differ from another individual’s experience of that same weather.  Similarly, you can do cultural surveys e.g. Human Synergistics Organisational Culture Inventory, that describe the cultures in various metrics, but they do not provide much insight into how individuals experience the cultures. 

Notice I’ve used organisational cultures as a plural. I don’t think an organisation has one culture that can be transformed via a single label as in ‘a culture of collaboration’, or ‘a toxic culture’. Organisations have multiple cultures, perhaps with common threads running through them,  that are shaped by national cultures, professional cultures, and social network cultures and so on.  

The lack of one organisational culture is one reason if someone moves role, within the same organisation, it can feel culturally very different. (Take a look some info on cultural transformation through network analysis.)

Next week I’ll expand a bit on the other three actions: Challenge assumptions, stop the swirling, ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

Meanwhile, what actions will you take to seize the opportunities in crises? Let me know.