Challenge your cicada instinct. Opportunities in crisis: take actions (part 2)

Last week I talked about the first four, of seven, actions organisation designers can take to seize the advantage of the opportunities in crisis:  think systems, encourage rebels. recognise complexity, experience the cultures.

This week, I’ll cover the final three of these:  challenge assumptions, stop the swirling, ‘confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’.   

Challenge assumptions:   Last week I was talking in a webinar with Mark Cole, of the NHS Leadership Academy about the design opportunities in crises.  Around 40 people attended the session, and afterwards I asked one of them what he made of it.  His response was ‘What I am never quite sure on, based on my years in the NHS, is how much people understand and get org design – still many default to a structural lens only. So, I wonder if it’s worth sharing a quick definition / explanation to make sure they think similar things to you when you say org design?’

I thought this was a great challenge to my assumption that participants and I would have corresponding views on what organisation design is.  

For the next go round – a similar session I’m running next month, I’ll start with something on what is organisation design.  What though?  I remembered an article,  ‘Emerging assumptions about organisation design, knowledge and action’.  (Fortunately, I also remembered the name of the author, Alan Meyer,  so I was able to find quickly).  It was written in 2013.   

At the time it prompted me to extract and synthesise some aspects of the author’s thinking that still inform my work.  In my work the emerging assumptions have full emerged, but it may be that other I work with are still holding to the established assumptions.  (See table below).

Established AssumptionsEmerging Assumptions
Organisation design is about organisation charts.Organisation design is about systems and processes.
Organization designs should be hierarchical structures supported by organizational processes that control members’ behavior.Organization designs should emerge from “design thinking” and principles that generate empathy with users.
Designers should create structures and processes that ensure control, create stability, and absorb uncertainty.Designs should set in motion novel actions in pursuit of novel goals.
Designs should be developed by leaders.Designs should be developed through involvement of people who do the day to day work.
Design work is a spasmodic event.Design work is a continuous process.

Nearly 8 years later it seems that the ‘emerging assumptions’ are still emerging.  Will it take a full 17 years before we see them become established and will there, by then,  be other emerging assumptions?

I say 17 years, because when I was thinking about this how challenges to emerging assumptions come to full daylight, an image came to mind. I was in Washington DC in 2004 when the cicadas emerged after a 17-year gestation.  It was a staggering sight.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t there this May when, again, ‘billions of the loud, winged insects emerged from the ground in a quantity not seen in 17 years.  The sound of such a massive swarm is said to reach up to 100 decibels.’

One of the reports of this year’s cicada emergence tackled the question ‘How much has our life changed? Take a look back at how the D.C. area looked in May 2004.’

It struck me that although the context for organisation design has changed massively maybe the assumptions around organisation design haven’t changed, in much the same way that changes in Washington DC do not seem to have changed the cicadas assumptions related to their established life-cycle.   

Challenging assumptions is not easy (either for ourselves or when enouraging others). I often use a list of questions derived from Stephen Brookfield’s work on critical thinking, when I am working with others on organisation design. 

The questions are: 

  • What assumptions am I making about my organisation, for example, its purpose, capabilities and commitments?
  • What assumptions am I making about stakeholders, for example, their interests, capabilities and commitments?
  • What am I assuming, based on previous experiences, that may not be true now?
  • What am I assuming about available resources?
  • What limitations am I assuming to be so—and what surprises might I find?
  • What am I assuming about external circumstances?
  • What am I assuming about what’s impossible–or possible?

Stop the swirling:  Five years ago, I wrote a blog, Implications of Swirl,  a word I came across in a Bain brief ‘Four paths to a focused organisation‘ looking at change and transformation. They have a graphic that illustrates swirl that runs on the lines of:

  • Issue identified that requires resolution
  • New process/initiative proposed to resolve issue
  • Data needed to determine whether proposal merits go-ahead
  • Meetings scheduled to review data
  • Additional requests come from meetings before any decision to go ahead can be made
  • Data needed to answer requests
  • Follow up meetings to review answers before any decision to go ahead can be made (this cycle continues in a downward swirl).

The implications of this is that, first, a lot of people spend time and resource getting stuck in the data and second the issue is not resolved, instead heading towards the plug-hole the swirl leads to.

The image and the concept have stuck with me because it’s a very familiar scenario in my work.  Getting out of the swirl involves, among other things, being clear on decision making rights and authorities (lowest level possible), rapidly experimenting with small trials to test hypothesis (not waiting for everything to be ‘known’), clearly describing what is going on – see a useful blog on the value of clear description in unblocking situations.

Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’.  This statement comes from James Stockdale, a United States military officer who was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War.  The Stockdale Paradox, as his experience is known is rooted in the fact that, while he had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was the most optimistic of his fellow captives who did not survive the ordeal. They could not contemplate the brutal reality of the situation they found themselves in.

I have set of reflective prompts to help people ask the brutal questions and confront their brutal facts. They come with the prompt, ‘If this set of questions is not brutal enough for you, feel free to amend or add!’

  • You’re in charge. So what?
  • What is working best in your business today? What do you do to contribute to it?
  • What is not working in your business? What do you do to contribute to it?
  • When was the last time you really talked to your customers/audiences/users about what they really, really want from you?
  • Are you prepared to give them what they want?
  • What are your most treasured assumptions about your people, customers, markets, products, services and yourself? What if one of them weren’t true? What would you do then?
  • Are you out of your depth?
  • Now, having looked at your brutal questions, what are your brutal facts? What are you going to do about them?

Which of the seven actions in this week’s and the previous week’s blog are ones you will take? Let me know.