Think Banking

The phrase ‘think-tank’ is relatively familiar.  What a think-tank does, according to The Economist is ‘aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking. Academics grind out authoritative studies, but at a snail’s pace. Journalists’ first drafts of history are speedy but thin. A good think-tank helps the policymaking process by publishing reports that are as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as journalism. (Bad ones have a knack of doing just the opposite.)’

But my interest today is not in think-tanks but in think banks.  Not the actual Think Bank accounts ‘mainly for customers with poor credit histories or who have struggled financially’ which changed its name in 2012 to Think Money,  but a think bank in terms of your own investment in your thinking.

Imagine we each had a think bank account.  We could then build up the capital gained from reflective conversations, questions and reading that were not aimed at ‘getting the world’s business done, or baking bread, or flying aeroplanes’.  Simon Blackburn in his book Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy argues for the value of ‘reflecting on concepts and procedures and beliefs that we normally just use’.

Invested in well, our individual think bank accounts would have the same outcome as a think tank – a rigorous and accessible point of view/thought process that we could draw on, as Blackburn says, ‘when the going gets tough: when the seas of argument rise, and confusion breaks out’.

During last week I added three things to my think bank account. I’m not sure when I’ll draw on them but they’re there and maybe getting interest.  The first was on ‘additionality’.  That was a term new to me but it made perfect sense as the discussion unfurled.  The person I was talking with defined additionality as calling into being what didn’t exist as part of something and being able measure what value it added to the original thing.

This led me to looking up additionality, and I found a more formal definition than my colleague’s in the Additionality Guide, ‘Additionality is the extent to which something happens as a result of an intervention that would not have occurred in the absence of the intervention.’   The Guide itself offers ‘a standard approach to assessing the additional value of interventions’.

So now in my think bank is info on additionality to mull over + 3 questions to prompt reflection:  What does this Guide offer that could help us measure the effectiveness of organisation design work?  Is subtractionality (I’ve coined this word, I think) as useful a concept as additionality i.e. is what we take away in our organisation design work e.g. policies, or reduction of levels of hierarchy, a value add and thus additionality?  What else can I learn from concepts of additionality?

The second thing that I’ve added to my think bank is from the pull-out section in the Economist: ‘The World if’.  It’s an annual pull-out asking us to imagine various future possibilities.  (Take a look at the 2016 edition that ask the question ‘If Donald Trump was elected’ which came out several months before he was.)

This year there are 10 ‘If’s’ all worth reflecting on.  One that I’ve added to my think bank is ‘If companies had no employees’.  The scene is set in July 2030.  when ‘companies that embraced the shift away from having employees have reaped big gains. They no longer need to pay people to be in the office when demand is slack. They can find the worker with the perfect skills for a task, not just someone willing to have a go. Because individual workers’ output is finely measured, and their proficiency at completing a task becomes part of their online profiles, no one can be lazy and get away with it. Productivity growth has accelerated since the mid-2020s.  Many workers have also benefited. For those with sought-after skills, it can be far more lucrative to flit from contract to contract than to work for a single firm.’

How likely is this scenario, I’m wondering?  At the moment, I think it’s likely and I should be designing organisations to head in this direction, but maybe I should leave the question lying for the moment – banking it for when I have time and information to examine it more closely.  As a thought though – it could form a very good basis for a leadership discussion – if the leaders were willing to give time to it. Many find it difficult to give time to a reflective discussion, even if they know the value of doing so – you may be able to persuade them with some useful tips from How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection.

The third thing I added to my think bank account was a question:  What effect do protests have?  This was prompted by seeing the placards of the Homes and Communities Agency Unite workers beginning a strike over pay,  seeing the tens of thousands in London attending the anti-Trump demonstration, and reading, again in ‘The World If’,  If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated.  A group of us – with varied views – were wrestling with this question and it’s one that’s again relevant to organisation design – could organisational protests spark organisational change and redesign?

There seems to be some evidence that they can spark policy change – but maybe only in the wider societal context? (Think LGBT, or gender equality, for example).   Or maybe there isn’t any real evidence?  I’m not sure, and again it’s in my think bank for investing in further.

Those were the three major deposits into my think bank this week.  But I made a couple of smaller ones.  After a tech conversation I had with someone, he sent me info on Digital Humanism which sounds worth investing thought into as we work with more and more organisational technology and automation.

I got into a further discussion on why we have difficulty with systems thinking (ref my blog last week) and I’m still investing in that one.  Then I read a review plus sample chapter of Matt Haig’s book Notes on a Nervous Planet.  In the book he talks about fear and the way it manifests in society.   Fear is often present in organisations – particularly in risk averse cultures where people fear doing the wrong thing even if there are organisational mantras like ‘fail fast and learn’.  This led me to a question, what to do when I observe that tension in play?

So quite a few think bank deposits this week to ponder, reflect on, and invest in for future returns.  What have you added to your think bank this week?  Let me know.

PS    Thanks to James for the concept of a think bank.

Image: Ancient Roman Banking

A big issue

John Bird presents a stirring case for tackling poverty.  ‘To me the really big thing in the world today that needs to be done is that we have to stop seeing things as ‘things in themselves’. We have to stop being separators of life into categories. That if you want to solve poverty, which I am rantingly struggling to do, you can’t separate poverty out into separate things. You have to hit poverty square in the eye. You have to give a cocktail of solutions to it, like you might zap a cancer. Yet the world is always dividing poverty up into different parts: literacy, housing, work, wellbeing, health … the world of thinking, of society, of government, always breaks things up into things’.

This ‘thingifyíng’ of issues – trying to tackle them separately rather than interdependently, collaboratively and/or as complex problems is a big issue – because people in organisations I work with ‘get’ interdependence in theory and understand that linear and cause/effect thinking won’t address re-ordering the tangle of variables that constitute the ‘design’ of the organisation.  Yet they are unable to work with this in practice and continuously retreat to the organisation chart as the way to solve many organisational issues.  (See a Q5 Partners short video Forget Personality: a thinkpiece of restructuring teams, that warns against an ‘org chart first’ approach, and goes down well when I’ve shown it).

I’ve had several different conversations during the past week on interdependence and the tendency to ‘thingify’.   Various possibilities were put forward for the inability of organisational leaders to engage with complex, interdependent and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments.  Among the reasons we discussed for the tendency to reach for the organisation chart, three came up in all the conversations:

1.  The ‘tyranny of metrics’ (see my blog on this)  that is performance targets that attempt to measure elements of a system’s performance, rather than the outcome of the performance.  This frequently leads to gaming behaviour as organisational members try to reach the target rather than the intended outcome.  An example of this is described in Max Moulin’s article Flawed targets and the ambulance service – is there a happy ending? which leads to questioning, ‘traditional assumptions about measurement, impact, and relationships’.  There’s also a recent report that looks at flawed performance targets in the public sector A Whole New World — Funding and Commissioning in Complexity.

2.  Believing that organisation design work is complicated rather than complex.  David Snowden, explains the difference: ‘In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.’  Organisations are complex.  Trying to redesign them as if they are complicated doesn’t work.

3.  The almost impossibility of changing the infrastructure, systems and processes that have been set up over decades to reflect a mechanistic/deterministic view of an organisational universe.  As Professor Karen Carr  states: ‘The challenge is to implement a systems world view from within organisations that have evolved from deterministic world views. … making it difficult to take a systems approach. Issues such as health, training, leadership and information management are addressed within different partitions …. Finding a way to get these different areas to interact in an organic manner is in itself a problem, given the [organisational] political, social and economic contexts.

Other reasons we discussed for the lack of systems thinking included: power dynamics (‘my bit is ok, why should I worry about yours?’), financial/resource constraints leading to prioritising some parts over others without thinking through the consequences, and short-term thinking – ‘let’s fix this fast and now’, and not knowing how to apply systems thinking.

Going back to the issue of tackling poverty, John Bird tells us, ‘We cannot simply carry on in this brainless, unconverging bit here and bit there’, and it’s the same for organisational issues.  How do we then create the conditions for systems and complexity thinking to become a natural part of the way we look at problems?

Answering this question as if it were a complicated problem yields a bits and bobs answer for example, send leaders and managers on systems thinking programmes (look at the Open University’s courses Systems Thinking in Practice,  or discuss and then pin up the poster Habits of a Systems Thinker,  show David Snowden’s video ‘How to organise a children’s party’ that shows ‘the promise of complexity theory for organizations and government alike’.

Answering the question as if it were a complex problem yields other responses.  Donella Meadows offers some thinking on how to do this in ‘Dancing with Systems’ (warning:  this is not written in standard management speak)  and in another Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Perhaps the most useful response to the question ‘how do we encourage organisational leaders to engage with complex and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments?’  is to do so in both a complicated and a complex way.  Maybe then we would see system thinkers emerging and a big issue would be resolved.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Systems thinking 101

Who is the client, and do you need one?

‘Start where the client is’ is something I suggest to people who ask what they should do if someone hands them an org chart and asks them to ‘make it like this’.   In fact, it’s my stock response to any similar questions:  common ones are, ‘what happens if the client just wants the answer without any assessment on background work’ or ‘how do you challenge a client who doesn’t value org design expertise?’.   With the phrase, I usually give people a handout adapted from Stephen Brookfield’s article on Four Critical Thinking Processes.  This offers some questions for the consultant to start a discussion with the client.  For example, the first of the four critical thinking processes is: ‘Get some context. Decide what to observe and consider. Related questions help gain awareness of what’s happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences.’ Questions include:

  • What is going on in this situation?
  • What else do I need to know? What information is missing?
  • How do I go about getting the information I need?
  • What about this situation have I seen before? What is different /dissimilar?
  • What’s important and what’s not important in this situation?

This supposes that there is a client.  But now I’m wondering if organisation design work inevitably needs ‘a client’.   It’s a useful challenge to myself as on the organisation design programmes I facilitate, we spend a fair bit of the first part of the first session discussing, in relation to a short case, the question ‘Who is the client for this piece of organisation design work?’

In real life the client is often not who we (the consultants) think it is.   I’ve been caught out several times in my career by writing a proposal or accepting work from someone without checking carefully enough on his her client ‘credentials’.    I’m still learning to ask whether the person asking me to do the work and who I think is the client:

  • Has got any necessary permissions, support, or backing of the person or team who can make the actual decision whether to proceed with the work or not.
  • Will identify a back-up client in the event that he/she (the original client) ‘disappears’. (In her book The Business of Consulting Elaine Biech provides a checklist of questions for consultants to consider after the first meeting with the client.  Questions include:  Did I determine the primary client?  Did I determine the secondary client and stakeholders? Did I evaluate the client’s expertise and ability to support the effort [over the period that it will take])?
  • Has a plan for managing conflict and disagreement – this especially applies if the client is not a single individual but a leadership team.

Getting this information is critical whether you’re an internal or an external consultant but internal consultants may be able to do organisation design work without having a client – by just starting some design work either by themselves or with the participation of an interested and willing group.

Years ago, I read Debra Meyerson’s book Tempered Radicals.  In the preface she says ‘Tempered Radicals, are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations.’  Later, she notes that, ‘Tempered radicals are likely to think ‘out of the box’ because they are not fully in the box. As ‘outsiders within,’ they have both a critical and creative edge. They speak new ‘truths’.  She tells us ‘They are quiet catalysts who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the ground work for slow but ongoing organizational and social change.’   The book has many examples of people who ‘under the radar’ have changed the shape of their organisations.

As I struggled and failed to find ‘the client’ for a piece of design work that is recognised to be organisationally essential by a body of people I remembered the lessons of the Tempered Radical and realised that I could, and should, start it without a ‘client’.  It is work that I can do from my consultant role using, in Meyerson’s words: ‘several strategies to create change that run the gamut from very quiet and cautious to more explicit and strident.’ I can act by ‘subtly calling into question taken-for-granted beliefs and work practices’.  Acting on my experience (and Meyerson’s reinforcement).  ‘It is everyday acts [that] can create ripples that lead to significant change … a single atypical action sets the stage for others to follow’.

Re-reading an interview with Meyerson I am strengthened by her reinforcing view that sees organizations ‘as organic and evolutionary, which means they are changing all the time. If we think of organizations that way, little nudges in the system can change the network of relationships, stimulate learning, and affect how work gets done. It means that small actions actually matter and that people can provoke change from many places within the organization.’

Seeing (reading) again what I already knew but had suppressed in the conformity of looking for the client I am starting the work with no client but some confidence.  I’m also wondering if I will change my stock response from ‘start where the client is’ to ‘start where the organisation is’.

Do you think you need a client for organisation design work? Can design be done without one?  Let me know.

Image: The Shadow People

Organisation design and national cultures

In the last several months I’ve facilitated organisation design programmes in four countries:  China, Dubai (UAE), South Africa, and UK.  In some of them there have been both that country’s nationals and people from other countries.  Across the programmes I remember representatives from Iran, Zambia, Egypt, America, Canada, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uganda, and Germany.  There may have been others.

During the last programme someone asked whether I’d noticed national cultural differences in approaches to organisation design.   This question led to quite long discussion on three aspects in particular:

  1. Are some organisational structures more prevalent than others in certain countries?
  2. Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?
  3. What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?

The question on whether some organisational structures are more prevalent than othres in certain countries led us to look at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and see what they could offer as insights.  Does a high score on the Power-Distance dimension, for example, lead to more hierarchical organisational structures in countries with a high score on that?  The Power-Distance dimension ‘deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.  … At 80 China sits in the higher rankings of PDI – i.e. a society that believes that inequalities amongst people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized’ (China’s ranking on this dimension is  80, United Arab Emirates 90, South Africa 49, UK at 35).

This dimension could lead to the assumption that hierarchical structures are more favoured in China than in the UK.  Obviously, this is a risky assumption – I’d like to know how many multi-national companies adjust their structures in relation to a perceived cultural dimension.   (Either to challenge or reinforce it).   And there are many critiques of Hofstede’s work.  One, well thought-through and frequently cited is the paper by Brendan McSweeney, ‘Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith — a failure of analysis’.  Having done his analysis and discussion he comments on the “on-going unquestioning acceptance of Hofstede’s national culture research by his evangelized entourage”

However, in our case, it led to a rich debate on the relationship of structure (as in organisation chart) to culture and how we recognise the ways in which our cultural biases – conscious or unconscious – influence our guidance of our organisation towards an appropriate structure.

The second question ‘Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?’  led us again to the power-distance dimension of Hofstede’s model.  This time applied to the role of leaders.  People talked about:

  1. Leaders who think design is moving the lines and boxes with the organisation chart and there is no swaying them from this process.  (One participant in the programme was being barraged by SMS messages from a member of her executive team urging her to produce the new organisation chart immediately).   Participants were very anxious about this leadership tendency to ‘do’ re-design by organisation chart which they felt was risky, it often focused on personalities and not purpose (beyond the personalities), it neglected the involvement and participation of people actually doing the work being re-allocated, and it was unreflective of the possible unintended consequences.   A Deloitte survey found that ‘Restructuring efforts like that can undermine faith in the wisdom of an organization’s leadership, which actually erodes value and team coherence.’
  2. The difficulties they (course participants) have in selling the benefits to resistant leaders of reflective systems thinking, employee participation in the process, developing more than one design option and thinking of the work before the structure. This difficulties are exacerbated for internal organisation designers as they are typically hierarchically subordinate to their client/sponsor and sometimes lack business credibility in terms of language, operational background, perceived business savvy and other factors.

In relation to the resistant leader issue, Hofstede’s power/distance dimension is picked up in Erin Meyer’s culture map work, where her scale on leading ‘measures the degree of respect and deference shown to authority figures, placing countries on a spectrum from egalitarian to hierarchical.’  Her map draws on Hofstede’s work and also on that of Robert House and his colleagues in their GLOBE (global leadership and organizational behaviour effectiveness) study of 62 societies.

The studies suggest that where leaders behave as authority figures they expect others to behave as subordinate to them – and subordinates, consciously and unconsciously, do just that.  It’s often hard for a subordinate organisation designer to challenge a superior leader to discuss alternate ways of designing and for a superior to accept the challenge from a subordinate, even if the challenge comes from a position of consultant expertise.

We discussed how to overcome this superior/subordinate response in order to generate a more reflective approach from leaders.  A few suggestions surfaced:

  • Building leader awareness of the risks of ‘org chart’ restructures – a short video from Q5 Partners is a good discussion starter.
  • The Deloitte paper, mentioned above, could foster discussion, as could an article by strategy& 10 Principles of Organization Design that urges leaders to fix the structure last not first. ‘Structure should be the last thing you change: the capstone, not the cornerstone, of that [organization design] sequence. Otherwise, the change won’t sustain itself.’
  • There’s an excellent one-pager on systems thinking, from the Waters Foundation,  that you could broker a discussion with.
  • Using external consultants as influencers and persuaders on the merits of systems based design can help mitigate the risks of going down the lines and boxes approach.

(I’m not convinced that unwillingness to reflect on a systems/participative approach to organisation design work is part and parcel of a national cultural attribute of power/distance but it’s a reasonable hanger for a discussion on how to stop leaders heading first for the organisation chart).

The third question ‘What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?’ can also be discussed in relation to one of Hofstede’s dimensions, long term orientation. ‘Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.  Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.’ (China’s score on this dimension is 87, UAE has no score, United Kingdom 51 and South Africa 34).

This suggests that China may be more open to designing organisations differently, but a recent research article ‘uncovered twelve barriers to strategic design practice and leadership in China. Six of these are similar to hindrances experienced elsewhere, and the other six are unique to this study. The six common barriers include CEOs don’t understand strategic design, and ‘design is not given the ability to lead’ explained as ‘Designers tend to be seen as third-class citizens and ‘Top managers don’t see design as essential; no discernible design process’.

If you have a discernible organisation design process and still want to short-cut it what are the choices?  I’m still working on that one for the next programme!

Do you think national culture is an important factor in developing and/or applying an organisation design process?  Let me know.

Image: Canvas of Diversity

Designing for aging

It was the headline on the torn-out article, pinned on the notice board, that caught my eye. ‘I did an Ironman at the age of 74’. It set me musing thinking on the several cases of people in their, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s doing counter-stereotypical things that I’ve noticed in the last few weeks. Perhaps these observations are prompted by the release of the film Edie, in which 83 year-old actress Sheila Hancock, climbs a mountain, the 2,398-foot-high Suilven in Lochinver, in Scotland.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m intending to. I’ve been reading about Hancock’s experience of training and climbing it.

I also read about Aleksander Doba aged 70 who’s kayaked solo across the Atlantic 3 times, (among other kayaking feats). And in talking to someone about him I got the book recommendation Age is Just a Number by Charles Eugster. It’s a wonderful and cheering book. He took up weight lifting and athletics in his mid-eighties and became a ‘sprints sensation’ at the age of 95.

These active elders are not all athletes (or actresses). At the Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition is a striking portrait of artist and Royal Academician, Ken Howard, now 85, still painting and with his own paintings also in the Exhibition. The person I went to the exhibition with mentioned Lynn Ruth Miller, a comedienne, aged 85 and going strong.

Sensitised to incredible elders, I spotted a headline ‘Don’t brand over-60s old and doddery, BBC is told’. Age UK, submitting to OFCOM on the BBC’s portrayal of various ethnic and demographic groups is of the view that whereas the sensitivities of ethnic minorities and LBGT people are, in the main, vocally represented, there is a lack of consideration for older citizens in the way they are depicted on television and radio.

This tends to hold true in terms of workplace attitudes to older people. Earlier this year, the UK’s CIPD gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of their inquiry on older people and employment. The session covered the barriers that older people face in the labour market and how both employers and the Government can do more to support them.

In January 2017 the UK Government published a report Older Workers and the Workplace (based on data collected betwee 2004 and 2011 – so somewhat dated now) which found that ‘while on average older employees fare better than employees aged 22-49 in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment, [they] were less likely to receive training. The better average outcomes in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment may reflect the fact that less satisfied employees have left employment by this age.’

Perhaps, combating the ‘old and doddery’ stereotype the researchers found ‘no significant associations between changes in the proportion of older workers employed between 2004 and 2011 and changes in workplace performance over the same period. … this suggests that overall the age composition of private sector workplaces does not have a sizeable role to play in explaining their performance. We do find some evidence that workplace labour productivity falls where the proportion of workers aged 22-49 falls, either due to a rise in the proportion of older or younger workers.’

They also found that ‘many employers value older workers, recognising their experience, loyalty and reliability. Furthermore, while we find no association between change in age diversity and change in workplace performance, age diversity may bring other benefits in the workplace; we find that job satisfaction was higher among young workers in workplaces which employed higher proportions of older workers.’

All that sounds promising. Summarising – older people who are in work are not old and doddery, they are good contributors to the workplace, enjoy what they do, and do not seem to have a negative impact on workplace productivity. (Although, this last needs more research).

But there are some caveats: ‘Existing evidence has suggested that while employers often recognise the benefits of retaining their existing older workers, they can be less willing to recruit ‘new’ older workers.’ Additionally, ‘Generating better outcomes for older workers may therefore require greater focus on other employer practices, such as provision of flexible working or job design.’

Echoing this view is the finding from researchers at the IES. In their report What do older workers value about work and why? They note that ‘There are very few differences between the preferences of older and young workers. However, there are a few factors that become more important with age. Health has the biggest effect on older workers’ decisions about continuing to work, more so than job satisfaction or job quality. Some older workers will therefore place greater value on flexibility at work, adjustments or part-time working hours to accommodate health needs or caring.’

With this in mind they offer 14 steps that employers can take to promote fulfilling work and create age-friendly workplaces. They’re worth a look as several are immediately relevant to organisation and job design, for example: ‘Ensure that older workers have variety and autonomy in their work’ and ‘Design roles for older people that maximise social contact and interaction’.

Looking in more detail at designing work for the mature worker, is the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They have a research stream aimed at understanding the role of work in successful aging – not only because the proportion of older workers is increasingly globally, but also because there is an imperative to minimize health costs by encouraging healthier aging. The health of nations, ‘will be served through creating work that preserves the wellbeing and social, psychological, and mental capital of older workers.’

They are specifically looking at ‘what types of work designs … and organisational supports promote healthy work for older people. … We will further investigate how cognitive, social, and psychological functioning is preserved or maintained through good work. The idea that work can be designed to facilitate such outcomes is part of an emerging perspective that mental and psychological capital can be enhanced across the lifespan.’

Tellingly, none of the extraordinary older people I mention at the start of this piece are in organisational work. They are all self-employed, pursuing their own interests and making a living at it. I wonder how organisational performance could be improved if we were able to design work that encouraged more older people to enter or stay in the workforce and fostered the drive and energy shown in those people? It seems likely to be for the benefit not just of older workers, but all workers.

What’s your view of designing work with the older working in mind? Let me know.

Image: Ken Howard, painted by Tim Hall

Large group interventions: theory and practice

On Thursday 7 June, I opened an email that read ‘Every year Tricordant sponsors a student to help further the theory and practice of organisation design. This year’s student is conducting a study to understand what the gap is between theory and practice in using Large Group Interventions (LGIs) to enable a successful organisation redesign.  Could he interview you on this?’

It happened that on Saturday 9 June I was participating in the Edinburgh Moonwalk.   As I was pondering LGIs I realised the Moonwalk is an LGI.  It has the six critical distinguishing attributes

  1. It is a collaborative, large scale, inquiry.  On a Moonwalk thousands of people are engaged in finding out if, collectively, they ‘can save lives, raise awareness and get fit’,
  2. It is creating alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues: in this case raising money to support ‘research into breast cancer for the future health of us all, to help improve the lives of those who have cancer now, and for prevention’.
  3. It is demonstrating the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process: for the Moonwalkers it means following a well-planned and orchestrated programme of walking training, fundraising, and spreading the word.  ‘With just a little commitment, a big helping of enthusiasm and a spoonful of energy everybody can take on The MoonWalk!’ (Note these are the attributes for employee engagementmoonshots or moonwalks – what’s the difference?)
  4. It provides a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. ‘Walk the Walk is the largest grant making breast cancer charity in the UK. … We grant the funds to other charities and organisations throughout the UK, to help them reach our united goals and ambitions of treating breast cancer.’
  5. It is a large group. ‘Groups are defined as large groups when it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact. Large group dynamics begin once a group exceeds 15 to 20 participants.’  The Moonwalk has thousands of participants, they couldn’t all make eye contact with each other and they are probably avoiding it anyway, as they are ‘feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as you contemplate the hours ahead. Yes, it will be tough’.  (I could use that sentence for the next LGI I facilitate).
  6. It is a time-bound event. ‘Sign up now for our night walk and join the cast… get ready for this one night only sensational Walk the Walk’.   One difference from most organisational LGIs where participants mill around in a hotel ballroom dressed in ‘business casual’, or sometimes, ‘smart business casual’, the moonwalk LGI requires participants to walk through the night dressed in a Hollywood themed decorated bra and bum-bag.   ‘You’ve done the training, you’re feeling fit… it’s time to decorate your bra’.  (There are lots of instructions on how to do this.  I kept it simple. My contribution to our team’s decoration was my knitting six anemones.  In other LGIs I participate in it is usually a bundle of Sharpies and packets of BluTack and post notes.)

A quick glance at the Moonwalk Event Guide indicates that its highly structured design is akin to that of Axelrod’s conference model, an LGI that ‘involves internal and external stakeholders in a series of integrated conferences and walkthrus, each conference lasting from two to three days separated by a month between each conference.  The walkthrus that alternate with the conferences communicate results and gain further input.’ Each conference has a detailed agenda, group exercises, scheduled presentations, and discussion time for table groups.

Anyone walking a full series of Moonwalks and following the programme would feel at home in the Axelrod Conference Model.  At the other end of the LGI spectrum is the Open Space Technology approach. Michael Arena notes that, ‘Open Space principles and framework are quite simplistic. There is one rule and four principles.’ The one rule is the “law of two feet.”  As far as the Moonwalk goes that’s an ideal rule. And, on reflection, I find I’ve also adhered to the four principles in the 12-week run up to the event itself.

Rather than follow the training plan I can rest confident that “whatever happens is the only thing that could have”, so not training at all because other stuff intervened is probably ok.  However, I did go for a walk on the Thursday before, so clearly I was  following the principle ‘whenever it starts is the right time’, and when I got there and met the rest of my team and anyone else we happened to meet I ticked off compliance with the third principle  “whoever comes are the right people”, walking through the huge pink Moonwalk finish arch is the fourth principle in action – ‘when it’s over it’s over’.

LGIs design and delivery are clearly based in systems theory,  but do they work in practice?   I took a look at the Walk the Walk’s annual report and accounts. (They organise the Moonwalks) which says that Walk the Walk aims to operate within 25% of the donations it receives, leaving 75% available for grants, and that 2016 this was not possible for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless in 2016 the group’s total income was 9.8 million GBP, of which total expenditure on charitable activity (including grants made) was 5.1 million.  Income was slightly up compared with 2015 and charitable activity slightly down.   However, I’m not sure that measuring LGI success on the amount of money raised is sufficient indicator of working in practice.

On the Moonwalk, there is a ripple awareness-raising effect from the publicity, the growing supportive network of someone who knows someone walking in memory of a friend or family, the participation in an event that generates good-will and a ‘feel-good’ flavour – none which are easily measurable in terms of answering the question ‘do LGIs work in practice?’

LGI models could be measured and evaluated from many perspectives and I haven’t seen any evaluative framework for them.  (Have you?)

Whether they work in practice depends on the reasons for choosing and using one in the first place.  There are many types of LGI – the student I mentioned in in my first paragraph lists:  The Conference Model, Real Time Work Design, Whole-Scale Organization Design, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design, Participative Design, The Search Conference, Future Search, Real Time Strategic Change, ICA Strategic Planning Process, Open Space Technology, Work-Out, Simu-Real.

LGIs have been in use over a good period of time.  Barbara Benedict Bunker’s first book of them appeared in 1999.  This variety of type and their longevity might be an indicator that they work in practice ‘in numerous organizational change efforts across a variety of applications, such as organization development, organization redesign, restructuring, strategic planning, visioning, values and principles clarification, process improvement, customer/supplier relations, global learning and development, and formation of collaborative alliances.’

What’s your view of the theory and practice of LGIs?  Let me know.

PS:  On Sunday 10 June.  Our team of 3 successfully completed the 26.2 miles of the marathon, raised around 1500 GBP, spread awareness of cancer treatment and prevention in their communities, gained proficiency in knitting flowers, and felt an all-round sense of purpose achieved.

Job design

Do you have any insights and thoughts on the future of job design and the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc?  That’s a question I was asked twice in the past week, once in an email from someone and once at the conference I was speaking at in Shanghai on trends in organisation design.

The question has an inherent assumption in it that jobs can be designed. Subject that assumption to the riskiest assumptions test.  High risk assumptions have two traits: a high probability of being wrong and significant impact when they are.  I’m of the view that assuming jobs can be designed through traditional methods, at least for humans, is highly risky.

Traditional models of job design focus on analysing the task structures of jobs, such as task identity, variety, and feedback (See, for example: Hackman & Oldham, 1976). In these models, jobs are collections of tasks designed to be performed by one employee, and tasks as the assigned pieces of work that employees complete.

In a research article on job analysis and design the authors note that traditional job analysis ‘focuses on the procedure for determining the tasks and responsibilities that comprise particular jobs as well as the required human attributes.  There are numerous methods used to examine the levels of functioning of organisational units, workplaces, and employees.  They include the processes functions method, and the well-known functional job analysis that uses scales to represent the tasks performed by employees, and the percentage of time spent on each task during job execution that involve things, data, people etc.‘ Some of the large consultancies offer job design services based, predominantly, on this approach. See, for example, Mercer and WillisTowersWatson

Adam Grant, in a 2007 research paper, challenges this approach saying that the traditional models are incomplete as they don’t recognise the relational and social aspects of work and the jobs people do.   The goal of Grant’s research was to ‘revitalize research on job design and work motivation by accentuating the relational architecture of jobs and examining its influence on the motivation to make a prosocial difference.’ (Prosocial means behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship).  Since his paper, the relational and social aspects of work have become much more visible through technologies such as social network analysis (SNA).

Ben Waber, Alex Pentland, et al put SNA to good effect – boosting the productivity of call centre agents, not by changing their job design but by measuring the conversational interactions between workers using sociometric badges.  By using this data to change the coffee break times of the workers, giving group members breaks at the same time, they increased the strength of an individual’s social interactions, and proved related productivity gains.  They conclude, ‘we have shown that strong social groups are beneficial to productivity and can be supported without extensive management interventions. … This result is all the more interesting since it had previously been hypothesized that interaction between call center employees reduces productivity.’

Social network analysis and similar technology uses are showing that, for humans at least, work gets done through social networks, leading to challenges on the value of traditional job analysis for human work.   KPMG Partner, Tim Nice, is another of the challengers. ‘Companies traditionally have a structured approach to role descriptions and pay alignment, but the work people do and the way they engage with organisations is dramatically shifting. Organisations need to embrace a more fluid way of forming jobs, hiring talent and rewarding people, to fit new demands. … The structure of traditional jobs is no longer a reality, and this will be amplified in the future.  Most people are in a much more fluid state concerning how work gets done.”

Dan Cable, in his book Alive at Work, explores the notion that ‘organizations, in an effort to routinize work and establish clear-cut performance metrics, are suppressing what neuroscientists call our ‘seeking systems’. Organizations are shutting off the part of our brain that craves exploration and learning.’  In his talk The Emotions of Competitive Advantage, he goes a step further, saying that ‘employees should have the freedom to explore, experiment and play with ideas, and not be bound by job titles, job descriptions and the trappings of traditional job design’.

Overall, it seems researchers are marshalling evidence suggesting that the relational aspects of work are more important to role success than task and activity definition and suggesting that we look at work and job design in a different way from previously.

On this basis, the future of job design is looking different from traditional models but my questioners also asked about the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc. on job design.   PWC describes three types of AI:  assisted, augmented and autonomous.  They ask ‘What types of tasks in your organization can you automate by having Assisted Intelligence? Have you thought about how to rethink your business using Augmented Intelligence? Do you think that your company will ever get to a stage of completely handing over the job to the machine?’   (Autonomous intelligence).

These questions are partially answered by Michael Gibbs in his article ‘How is new technology changing job design? He finds that ‘new technologies complement non-routine, cognitive, and social tasks, making work in such tasks more productive.’ And ‘Greater access to data, analysis tools, and telecommunications allows many workers to focus more on social interactions, collaboration, continuous improvement, and innovation.’ (See also his paper ‘Why are jobs designed the way they are?’ )

Making another assumption – that AI is not relational or prosocial, (though some argue that this is coming), there is a case for saying that some of the tools of traditional job design, rather than being retired, could be applied to make decisions about how much to go down all or any of the AI routes.   Because where AI is strong is on performing routine and specific tasks, and/or sifting through big data.  AI is mostly useful, as one writer says, for the ‘non-creative and non-personal tasks that can be broken down into relatively predictable parts.’ Traditional job design methodologies are much more suited to identifying these routine and standardized tasks that are the domain of AI capability.

 Look at a ‘how to’ guide on job design it could work to aid decisions on whether all or part of the work process/activity is ripe for AI or whether/where/how it needs human/relational involvement.

If we use traditional job design methods to determine what tasks and activities could be done by AI, then what methods can we use to design relational, pro-social human work, at this time when, as Mercer says, ‘the nature of “a worker’” is experiencing its own revolution’?

Perhaps we could give up on the idea of ‘job design’ in favour of agreeing goals and outcomes and then enabling workers to design their own work in response to the shifting context.  At ‘Hello Alfred’, for example,responsibilities evolve every few weeks or quarters, along with the goals and teams tasked with achieving them. As pods reconfigure, different people come together bringing different strengths and expertise, making for a more collaborative, dynamic workplace.’   

How do you think the future of job design is changing and what impact the different types of AI will have on it?  Let me know.

Image:  Job description IT