The right word

‘After the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2001 Imtiaz Dharker wrote the poem, “The Right Word”. In it she explores issues of language and identity; how we see and label other people, and how those people may see and label themselves.’

The poem came to mind during the week.  I was with a group of senior leaders, talking about organisation design.  They seemed to me to be frustrated by their organisation’s systems and processes (including the 9-box grid performance management system), the fact that their managers – the grade above – couldn’t contemplate failure or the idea of learning from it, the difficulties of making a decision at the right level – approval had to be granted by someone often with no immediate knowledge of the situation, the impossibility of influencing ‘the system’ to work differently, the use of hierarchical indicators (job titles, access to things, etc) to ‘prove’ value, status, and authority ….,  the many constraints around what they could design, the endurance of legacy practices, the cultural deference to people more senior in the hierarchy.  It was a weighty list. 

I’ve been in this sort of discussion many times, and have written on aspects of all of them, offering resources and suggestions. As examples, I have written blogs on: 

Frustration, 6 July 2015. In this piece, I note that: ‘A quick scan of the tips and guidance focus on handling the frustrating situation we’re in dwell on dealing with our frustration rather than trying to change the frustrating situation itself’.  I propose that,  ‘In any organisation there are numerous system, process, and technology frustrations that could be designed out which would then leave us less stressed (maybe)’.  However, in the event we are unsuccessful in designing out the organisational frustrations, I offer, in the blog, some resources on how to deal with our personal frustration:  3 Easy Ways to Cope With Frustration (with pictures), 4 Tips to Deal With Frustrating People , Frustration – 8 Ways to Deal With It, 10 Tips To Overcome Frustration!, and 33 Ways To Overcome Frustration.

The 9-box grid – ‘What box are you in?’ October 5 2015.  In this piece, I observe: ‘that this 9-box categorisation of people causes a lot of all-round angst, takes up inordinate amounts of time, is based on rather unclear definitions of ‘potential’ and indeed of ‘performance’, runs the risk of marginalising people who are different from the ‘norm’, and doesn’t result in outcomes that increase an organisation’s talent pool or even performance and productivity.’  Again there are resources on this topic – some seeing some value in the 9-box grid, others decrying it.

My view of 9-box-grid type categorisation is taken up in another blog ‘The dangers of categorical thinking’ October 21 2019.  I lifted the title of the blog from an HBR article The Dangers of Categorical Thinking, by Bart de Langhe and Philip Fernbach.  The authors argue that ‘Categories lead to a fixed worldview. They give us a sense that this is how things are, rather than how someone decided to organise the world. John Maynard Keynes articulated the point beautifully. “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas,” he wrote, “but in escaping from the old ones.”

They go on to suggest categorising ‘can lead you to compress the members of a category, treating them as if they were more alike than they are; amplify differences between members of different categories; discriminate, favoring certain categories over others; and fossilize, treating the categorical structure you’ve imposed as if it were static.’  At that point in the blog, I ask myself if these four dangers of categorising are, themselves, categories? However …

Failure:  I have two blogs on this topic Failure as a helpful form of feedback February 20 2017, and Learning from Failure August 30 2010. In the first of these I say, ‘It takes formal systems, processes and policies, that remove the individual and collective fear of failure. Without these, in many organisations, failure is stigmatised. In his book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explores this tendency. One of the book’s reviewers summarised: ‘the world comes down hard on those who are deemed failures. The desire to avoid such opprobrium prompts people to cover up mistakes, argues Syed.  …  If you are hearing organisational phrases on the lines of ‘it’s safe to challenge’, or ‘we learn from failure’ or ‘we tolerate mistakes’ are you sure that you have the attitudes, infrastructures and mechanisms in place to make it so? It may be worth checking.’ 

In the second (Learning from Failure), I discuss three articles and conclude by saying ‘Summing up the three pieces they all make the same three points. To learn from errors:

  • Ask why mistakes occur and look at close calls – where mistakes nearly occur but are headed off (as in near mid-air collisions).
  • Encourage people to report errors and close calls – which they tend not to for fear of humiliation, punishment and retaliation. Bagian (author of one of the articles I mention) encourages reporting in a very specific way by framing what an error or close call is and why it is of organisational value to be interested in it.
  • Be open about things that go wrong and be willing to discuss them, analyse the situation in which they occurred, and provide people with the information and tools to do things differently in the future.’

With the group I was with last week, voicing the notion that I was hearing frustration,  I mentioned Corporate Rebels, and Rebels at Work and asked the group what they were actually doing, or could do to change or challenge the status quo. 

I said that in the current group, there were 15 or so senior leaders. I recalled that I’ve worked with that particular organisation over several years – meeting maybe 250 leaders taking the leadership programme (that my session was part of). I reflected that this was a sizeable pool of people who, if they chose, could collectively form a movement that worked to address the issues they found frustrating. 

(I didn’t ask, but have often wondered, and not just with the people in this organisation, what makes people who have leadership power, feel powerless to stand up and start to make the difference they would like to see).

Hearing my reflection, one of them jokingly asked if I was inciting them to rebel. They seemed to toy with this idea, reluctant to explore the possibilities of pushing collectively for change. And were even less prone to accept the word ‘rebel’.   (In other forums and meetings when I’ve suggested ‘encouraging rebels’, there’s been a similar response to the word rebel). 

However, think about rebels. They are often brave, usefully challenging, learn from failure, bring fresh perspectives, work collaboratively to a common purpose, … 

I think we need organisational rebels to help design better organisations – but I accept that the word itself may not convey their inherent (and necessary?) value, nor encourage a critical mass of people/leaders to be rebels.  As I reflected on the session, I struggled to find another word for ‘rebel’ and the poem I refer to at the start came to mind. 

If we go along with the view that organisations need people brave enough to provide critical examination of practices, systems, processes, norms, etc. and demonstrate the leadership to change those aspects not working, outdated, or contradictory to good work, then how would we describe such people? Can we do so without categorising or labelling them? What is the right word (or words)? Does it take more than the right word(s) to encourage them to take action? Let me know.

(PS see also my blogs Hostile Organisation Design, Designing Brave, and Leadership is a quality not a grade)

Additional point:  My book Designing organisations: why it matters and ways to do it well is coming out on 13 January and available for pre-order now.