Decaf, pragmatic and real resistance

Are there words in your organisation that are banned?   Last week a colleague mentioned that while writing report, she was avoiding the use of some words as, from experience, she knew they wouldn’t ‘land well’.   With some humour and cynicism we started a list of these.

I wondered if we were on the edge organisational silence, similar to the situation in a gripping short story I’d read, Ma Boyong’s City of Silence, in which, as reviewer @Bibliophilopoly, says,  ‘Citizens are constantly monitored by The State and must adhere to and use only words from a continually updated list of “healthy words.” The insidiousness of gradualism is on display in how the communication and language are inexorably taken away from the citizens’.

The story imagines ‘a totalitarian state that has restricted all information and communication to a strictly regulated internet, a world in which, “It’s understandable that the appropriate authorities prefer electronic books. With electronic books, all you need is FIND and REPLACE to eliminate all the unhealthy words in a book and decontaminate it. But to correct and edit physical books would take forever.”

Ma writes of computers welded shut, with no hard drives or slots for “CDs or even a USB port”; of data that can only be stored or accessed remotely …’  None of this is a million miles from most organisations that now restrict USB ports, require everything to be stored on sharepoint, etc. and, as Hubstaff  trumpets, ‘Thanks to modern technology, companies can monitor almost 100 percent of employee activity and communication’.

In the City of Silence, there’s a small resistance group who form the “Talking Club,” which meets weekly to use the banned language.

Resistance in organisations is studied by academics and theorists but, as Darren McCabe points out, in his new book, Changing Change Management: Strategy, Power and Resistance, business and management texts ‘are silent with regard to resistance or, in many cases, relegate it to just a few pages. … Indeed, I do not know of a single chapter that is dedicated to resistance in mainstream textbooks – such are the beliefs 1) that organisations are predominantly consensual, thus there is no opposition to management ideas, strategies and intentions,  and 2)  that management is the key player able to dictate to or enrol others and thereby change cultures, strategies, structures, subjectivities, operations, etc.’

What we were exhibiting when we started to list the ‘banned’ organisational words was what, Alessia Contu, now at MIT, labelled  ‘decaf resistance’.  It’s one of three types that McCabe and Contu talk about, the other two are real resistance and pragmatic resistance.

Decaf resistance:  Contu explains ‘just as decaf coffee, makes it possible for us to enjoy [resisting] without the costs and risks involved. We can have the thing (coffee) without actually having it.  Contu tell us that the unofficial transgressions of working life i.e. skepticism, humour, cynicism, etc. ‘consist of an adulterated resistance.  This is a softer resistance, a resistance without the acid that can destroy the machine of power. It is a sweetened resistance that we can still practice without too much damage, without paying the price of what destroying the machine of power may bring. … In this decaf resistance, we receive a payment in the form of the illusion that we are still having the thing (resistance). However, we do not have to bear the cost that is associated with having the thing itself, which is the danger of radically changing things as we know them’.

Pragmatic resistance:  is well described by McCabe in his co-authored paper ‘There is a crack in everything’: An ethnographic study of pragmatic resistance in a manufacturing organization.’  He sees pragmatic resistance emerging as a response to ‘the rationality and irrationality, order and disorder that imbues organizations. … such conditions create ambivalent situations that can generate resistance that is ambivalent itself as it can both facilitate and hinder the operation of organizations’.

An illustration of this is the writing of the same report that I mentioned at the start (the one that avoided ‘banned’ words).  Following organisational practice, the writer sent the first iteration to some colleagues to review.  They came back with suggestions and the paper was reworked.   This process then repeated over several days, but not exactly.  Additional reviewers were added each time as the draft paper circulated.  On the eighth iteration of the paper she resisted writing a ninth and proposed a different tack:  a single sentence update.  Initially, that suggestion was also resisted, but later agreed.

McCabe et al propose ‘pragmatic resistance as a means to grasp the everyday resistance that emerges through and reflects cracks in the rational model of organizations. Rather than being anti-work, we demonstrate how pragmatic resistance is bound up with organizational disorder/irrationality, competing work demands and the prioritization of what is interpreted as “real work”.’  McCabe sees pragmatic resistance as having organisational consequences, unlike decaf resistance which he describes as ‘innocuous’ i.e. without consequences.

Real resistance:  according to Contu, is ‘something crazy, like an heroic act, which goes against all your interests … you cannot justify or explain it. … [It’s] an act of resistance for which we would have to bear the costs. It would be an act that changes the socio-symbolic network in which we and our way of life make sense. It would be costly because we depend on these socio-symbolic networks …  It is an act that cannot be presupposed, predicted, and controlled. … an act where one assumes fully the responsibility for the act itself, without “if” and without “but,” risking all and effectively choosing the impossible.’

You don’t see real resistance happening much in organisational life.  Perhaps whistleblowers demonstrate real resistance?  And, I suggest that the Talking Club in the Ma Boyong story counts as real resistance.  Their meeting is, more or less, an act of madness, an ‘outrageous break’ with all that is professed to be reasonable and acceptable in the society they live in.

The point of examining and exploring resistance, as both McCabe and Contu state (albeit in different ways) is to challenge the models of organisations that prevail in business and management literature/education which portray a rational ordered view of the world, in which organisations can be ‘designed’, change can be ‘managed’, levers pulled, and control exerted.

Examining resistance shows that organisations are hotbeds of absurdity, disorder, uncertainty and the irrational features of organizing that are equally relevant to everyday working life and should be integral to organisation design considerations.

What types of resistance do you engage in and/or have you witnessed in organisations? What impact does it have on your organisation design work?  Let me know

Image:  Resistance decaf

Le Mans ’66 (Aka Ford v Ferrari)

People often ask me what the connection is between organisation design and organisation development.  My usual response is to give a vehicle analogy.  A vehicle is a designed machine with a mass of interdependent systems and processes.  Vehicles (autonomous ones excepted) rely on a human driver and often human technicians and engineers to maintain the vehicle’s performance.  The skills of the driver, the choices made about maintaining the vehicle, etc are akin to development.  The vehicle + driver are a combination of design and development.  Most people get the analogy.  It isn’t perfect because organisations are not machines but its workable in illustrating the interdependence of design and development.

In the December 2019 organisation design training I facilitated, I mentioned the film Le Mans 66, directed by James Mangold, that I’d just seen.  If you want an organisational case study this is it.  Not only is it a seat-edge thrill to watch it’s also got design processes, skills development, leadership power plays, employee engagement, corporate hierarchy clashes, loyalty issues, ethical questions, battles for control, competing cultures, and searing human emotions/experience/dynamics.   In brief, it’s got anything you want to talk about in relation to organisations:  formal, informal, work, people encapsulated in it.

The film is based on a true story. ‘In a nutshell: Ferrari is set to be bought by Ford. The plan is rebuffed when the big boss Enzo Ferrari finds out that he’ll lose control of his precious racing team. And so, Ford, as a corporate F-U to Ferrari, asks Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon in the film, the preeminent American race car builder of the time, to develop a car to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. But the clock is ticking. And so he needs some help and hires the man he knows can both engineer the hell out of the car and drive the thing: Ken Miles,  played by Christian Bale, a brilliant WWII vet with a Brummie accent, who is unbelievable on the track and in the garage, but maybe not a people person.’

It turns out to be a battle between the organization men (‘the suits’, as Ken Miles calls them), and the risk taking, rugged individualists of Shelby and Miles who ‘battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford, and [successfully] challenge Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.’

I went to see it with a car racing enthusiast. (He has a scale model of the GT40 that won the Le Mans 66).  Like any film (or organisation) some people enjoy it and others don’t – the reviews are mixed. I   enjoyed it not for the engine noise, talk about 7000 rpms or the chequered flag, but for thoughts on organisations that it triggered for me.

At one level it’s almost the story portrayed in William Whyte’s, 1956 landmark book, The Organization Man.  Chapter 1 opens, ‘This book is about the organization man. if the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I am talking about. They are not the workers, nor are they the white-collar people in the usual, clerk sense of the word.  These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life.’

The film portrays the majority of the Ford men as this type of Organization Man.  Whyte later describes ‘that contemporary body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. Its major propositions are three: a belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in ‘belongingness’ as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve the belongingness.’  (In the film we don’t see the application of science to achieve belongingness).

This raises a discussion question – are employees organisational ‘belongings’, if so, is it by choice, or by default – for a more recent take on this look at this report on Humanyze or read Dave Egger’s  novel ‘The Circle’. (Or read a review here).

Contrast that with Ken Miles’s observation that ‘Ford hates people like us, because we’re different’. He was right.  Miles was a man searching for ‘the perfect lap’, in the perfectly tuned car.  He had no truck with organisation men and what they stood for.  Miles would never be an organisation man.  A memorable standoff came between ‘the suits’ and Carroll Shelby – who wanted Miles to drive the Le Mans race.  Leo Beebe (Ford Senior VP) refuses, saying, ‘A Ford man drives a Ford car.  That’s the Ford way.’

That was 1966.  Is it the same today?  I took a look at Ford’s website.  Under their heading ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ they say ‘Ford invites us to bring our whole selves – all of our passion, inspiration, integrity and uniqueness – into the office each day. … Our diversity makes us a stronger, more innovative team’.  I wonder if that’s how it really feels to Ford workers now?  Would they work with, or employ, men like Shelby and Miles?  How many organisations do value ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’?

Then there’s the challenge of resource.  Carroll Shelby will do the task in the impossibly short timescale if he’s given the freedom and the blank check to do it his way.   What he promises is ‘that I can get you to the race, I can’t promise you the win.’   But Shelby’s risk appetite is way different from Ford’s.  In one scene Shelby, in order to get what he wants, promises to hand over his entire enterprise, with no strings, if he things don’t go the way he predicts they will.   Organisations are constantly struggling with varying levels of risk to reward questions,  risk appetite and trade off decisions.  The film has many instances good for triggering an organisation design/development workshop discussion on those topics.

There’s a great showdown scene, with Beebe being shut in an office, and Henry Ford II being taken by Shelby for a ride in the racing car which sways things in Shelby’s favour – begging the question how do you choose how to challenge a leader’s decision?

Then there’s the agonizing scene where Miles is denied his Le Mans win because he/Shelby  decide to bow to a corporate edict.  Was that a fair demand on Miles/Shelby?  I’m still wondering.  ‘In an effort to ensure an attention-grabbing picture, Ford executives asked Miles, who was leading the race by a wide margin, to slow down and create a photo finish with two of the manufacturer’s other cars. But when French officials ruled another Ford driver was the victor because he started a few feet further back, Miles was shockingly denied entry into the winner’s circle.’

What films do you think make for good organisation design/development learning?  Let me know.

Image: The Ford Motor Co. Finish of Le Mans 66 race

On models and metaphors

Galbraith’s Star Model™ is a sacred cow of organisation design.   Amy Kates notes that it ‘has been the gold standard for conceptualizing organization design since the early 1970s’.  Galbraith himself, said,  ‘The Star Model™ framework for organization design is the foundation on which a company bases its design choices. The framework consists of a series of design policies that are controllable by management and can influence employee behavior. The policies are the tools with which management must become skilled in order to shape the decisions and behaviors of their organizations effectively.’

The Star Model is one of several dating from the 1970s.  Others include the Burke Litwin model, Weisbord’s 6-box model, Nadler and Tushman’s congruence model, McKinsey’s 7-S model, and Leavitt’s Diamond model.

Facilitating an organisation design course, a couple of weeks ago, participants asked me if there were any newer models.  They wanted to know why we were still working with 50-year-old models.  That’s a good question.  Why are we?

In a general sense we need models.  Scott E Page in his book The Model Thinker tells, us ‘Models are formal structures represented in mathematics and diagrams that help us understand the world.  Mastery of models improves your ability to reason, explain, design, communicate, act, predict and explore.’  Listen to a podcast discussing the book here.

Yet, the organisational models from the 1970s derive from, and have been dominated by, a mechanistic metaphor of an organisation.  Dee W Hock, founder of Visa, says, ‘it was Newtonian science and Cartesian philosophy which … fathered the concepts of hierarchical, command-and-control organizations, giving rise to the machine metaphor.  That metaphor has since dominated our thinking, the nature of our organizations, and the structure of Industrial society to an extent few fully realize.’

This domination of the machine metaphor has consequences.  Peter Drucker said (in 1974) ‘some of the worst mistakes in organization building have been made by imposing on a living business a mechanistic model of an ideal organization.’

Using a different organisational metaphor, from the mechanistic one, might give rise to other models that could form the framework for design.  Gareth’s Morgan’s book Images of Organisation (1986), for example, offered eight organisational metaphors.  Each one ‘incorporates a group or cluster of organizational theories, as described in the paper  Beyond Morgan’s eight metaphors: Adding to and developing organization theory  and shown below:

  1. The machine metaphor encompasses such theories as Taylor’s scientific management, Weber’s bureaucracy and views of organizations that emphasize closed systems, efficiency and mechanical features of organizations.
  2. The organism metaphor depicts organizations as open systems that focus on the human relations and contingency theories.
  3. The brain metaphor focuses on the cognitive features of organizations and encompasses learning theories and cybernetics.
  4. The culture metaphor emphasizes symbolic and informal aspects of organizations as well as the creation of shared meanings among actors.
  5. The political system metaphor encompasses stakeholder theories, diversity of interests, and conflict and power in organizations.
  6. The psychic prison metaphor draws from psychoanalytical theories to examine the psyche, the unconscious, and ways that organizations entrap their members.
  7. The flux and transformation metaphor emphasizes processes, self-reference and unpredictability through embracing theories of autopoiesis, chaos and complexity in organizations.
  8. The instrument of domination metaphor draws from Marxist and critical theories to highlight exploitation, control and unequal distribution of power performed in and by organizations.

However, other metaphors may emerge or be emerging.  A 2016 special issue of the journal Human Relations aimed to ‘rethink or add to Morgan’s metaphors and to generate new organizational images’.  Several new metaphors are discussed:

Jonathan Pinto’s (2016) image of an Icehotel focuses on the temporal nature of organizations; that is, how they die and become reborn, disintegrate again, and then become reconstituted.

Darren McCabe (2016) adds the image of Wonderland, in which irrationality exists as the normal organizational state rather than an anomaly. … absurdity, uncertainty and disorder infuse organizational experiences.   (NOTE: This is my favourite metaphor and one I think most apposite in the organisations I have worked in).

Linzi Kemp (2016), contends that Morgan’s metaphors are genderless and consequently fail to address concerns about women’s inequality. She proposes two new images – femicide, which attends to women’s inequality, and justice, which privileges women’s equality.  (NOTE: Morgan, himself, says ‘There’s also a case to be made for viewing organizations through the lenses of gender and race)

Morgan tells us, ‘the metaphor that I most wish that I had included would be …  “Organizations as Media” with a particular focus on the transformations created in the wake of phonetic literacy and the rise of new electronic media, particularly the digital forms that are currently unfolding.’

As far as organisational metaphors go, if we follow Morgan’s list, and observing from my work experiences, we seem to be heading towards the dominant metaphor becoming either organism or transformation and flux.  (Roger Martin describes the power of metaphor in his HBR article Management Is Much More Than a Science).  But neither is giving rise to accompanying models.  Rather, they are generating approaches to organisation designing.

Approaches worth looking at are:

The Cynefin Framework, ‘which allows executives to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities…. The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.’

Systemic design principles for complex social systems, developed by Peter Jones (2014) ‘identified a set of systemic principles shared between design practice and systems theory, which might guide design thinking’ and in a later paper presents a detailed discussion of these, arguing that ‘By integrating systems thinking and its methods, systemic design brings human-centered design to complex, multi-stakeholder service system.’

Social systems design in organisational change,  discussed by Doug Walton offers a slightly different approach from Jones’s.  Walton says ‘The pressing need for the continuous redesign of organisational operating models increases the demand for new approaches to conducting design.  To manage this, a new approach must created that embeds the capability to redesign the organization at all levels, not just the in the offices of executives or process experts. Social Systems Design provides important underpinnings for how to architect such collaborations. Inherent to this approach is the realization that designing complex social systems is not just a construction or specification process, but rather a human knowledge development process.

Human-Centered, Systems-Minded Design is taken up by Thomas Both in his article. His approach integrates the human-centered and the system thinking design methods and ‘poses eight questions that outline what each approach brings to the table and how they can work in conjunction to effectively advance a project.’

If the machine metaphor is giving way to a different organisational metaphor then do we need different organisational models?  Is it time to move on from Galbraith’s Star Model™, McKinsey 7S et al?  Is it sufficient to design with approaches rather than models?  Let me know.

Image:  This is your brain on metaphors

Make Change Happen, Part 2

My access to the FutureLearn course, Make Change Happen got perilously close to being denied before I completed it.  I got a warning notice.  ‘You have 36 hours left on this course.’ But yesterday I finished it – 100% completed.

Of course, I could always pay to upgrade and ‘Get access to this course for as long as it’s on FutureLearn as well as a print and digital Certificate of Achievement once you’re eligible.’ The price is £32.  I wonder how many people do take up that offer, or the other ‘unlimited’ one:  £189 for one year.

But this blog isn’t about FutureLearn’s pricing or business model.  It’s about making change happen, or more precisely, what I learned on the course that I can apply in my work as a ‘changemaker’.   Note that I didn’t choose that descriptor, it’s what the FutureLearn educators call the course participants.  I rather like their cheery tone e.g. section 8.9 begins, ‘Let’s take some time now to look at how you can take your next steps on your journey as a changemaker.’

An organisation designer can be categorised as a changemaker, and I enrolled on the course anticipating I would learn things that I could apply to my organisation design work.  That has proved to be the case.

A couple of blogs ago,  I  wrote about weeks 1 – 5 of the course discussing many useful resources and information.  Weeks 6 – 8 were equally valuable.  They covered  developing strong messages for change, taking action to make change happen and reflecting on change.

Week 6: Developing strong messages for change

Useful in organisation design communication and engagement is the advice that, ‘To build effective messages and an overall story you need to tap into your audience’s priorities, values and concerns by asking yourself the following questions.

  • Have you clearly articulated the problem and the challenge and why it matters to your community or other people?
  • Have you articulated the solution and what the benefit of change will be to your community and audiences?
  • What will motivate people to act (e.g. values and ethics, legal concerns, practical benefits, enlightened self-interest, rational arguments, evidence or something else)?
  • What attitudes will prevent them from acting?
  • Who would be the right messenger for your target audience? (someone they respect, someone from the community affected, someone unexpected)
  • How do you connect to their values?
  • What do they want or need to know?
  • What kind of information attracts them?
  • What do you want them to do? What ‘call to action’ could you use?
  • How can you motivate people to believe that they can make a difference?

From this information we can build a narrative that connects

  • the head – stories with facts, figures and examples based on evidence
  • the heart – stories based on feelings such as love, fear, anger, excitement
  • the hands – stories appealing to the person’s desire to act on behalf of shared values

The educators told us that this approach ‘is effective in helping people understand the purpose of the change, motivate and connect them to the values and people involved in the change, and point them to what they need to do.’   What wasn’t emphasised in the course, that I’ve learned, is that different audiences/cultures respond to different stories – you need multiple stories.

This head, heart, hands approach sounds simple and sensible and although various research suggests that emotions play a bigger part in choices and decisions than we think (or like to think). An article on climate change illustrates. Related to this, the rise of fake news suggests that we need to take great care with who, how, and what we are appealing to in our messaging. Stories can be as harmful as helpful.

Week 7: Taking action to make change happen

Week 7 was heartening reminder that ‘Change action is very much a journey into the unknown, in which you feel your way. Being alert and responsive to shifts in the landscape, and adapting accordingly is what makes an effective changemaker.’

I think, as the course educators say, that in our organisation design work ‘we need to be clear on the risks you will be taking in order to make the change happen and think about how you will manage these risks.’  This sometimes means challenging a leader, ‘the status quo or people and institutions who have power and influence and this can come with risk’.

What we (organisation designers) also need to bear in mind is the basis on which we are making decisions. What rang true for me, as I worked through week 7, was the point that ‘As a changemaker you will decide what the best tactics and activities that will likely lead to a change are. However, your decisions will be influenced by your own beliefs and attitudes, your privilege and prejudices about how you think change could happen.’

I’ve recently been facilitating organisation design programmes in the Middle East and China and the tactics, attitudes, assumptions I’ve advocated in doing organisation design work have been challenged by the different cultural norms in play in those societies.

As a generalisation I’ve been asked many more times in those cultures for ‘the right answer’, than I have in the UK and Europe, where ‘emergence’ is more acceptable.

Week 8: Reflecting on change

Week 8 really made me think about the role of an organisation designer as a changemaker for positive good of the many.   It was a rather uncomfortable thought process.  I started to wonder if, doing organisation design work, we can truly say that it brings about ‘positive change’?

Are we rather, the puppets of power and politics?   Do we have hope for a better future and are we ‘grounded in reality and fully aware of the challenges, both personal and in the external world, that will need to be faced’, as we do our design work?

As I read, ‘There can be unintended consequences of change that weren’t anticipated. And there can be doubts and discomfort that can affect your confidence, and indeed your motivation, as a changemaker.’

I’d like to think that I am a changemaker, acting for positive good, ‘Understanding what [the challenges] are and how to face them [which] means having our minds firmly placed in the realities in which we live.’ I know that, ‘Change takes time and is often achieved through small, sequential action that requires dogged persistence. But it also happens by grasping new opportunities or taking advantage of critical junctures and events that arise and dancing with the system’.  But am I dancing with the system or is the system leading my dance?

Do you think of yourself as a changemaker?  Are you acting for the good of all organisational members?  Let me know.

Let’s not future-proof

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ is a line from the poem Ozymandias that I had to learn by heart at school.

It’s got an instructive message in it that’s useful for anyone in the organisation design and change field:  things are not future proof.  We like to think they are.  There are countless business articles telling us how to ‘future proof’ our strategies, designs, profitability, etc.  A recent HBR one is ‘Future Proof Your Climate Strategy’:  ‘In this article we describe the approach used by more and more companies to brace for the future and even flourish in it’.

The idea is peddled with the promise that it is possible to ‘future proof’.  For example, the Institute for Customer Service offers ‘7 ways to future proof your organisation’ and Kepner-Tregoe, a consulting company, tells us ‘Businesses will soon experience productivity decline from a workforce unprepared and unable to provide the competitive advantage needed to survive in the modern environment. The companies most likely to avoid this less-than-desirable prospect are those future-proofing their organizations’.  (At least you can see the qualifiers in this statement’).

The phrase is beginning to irritate me.  Maybe because I’ve heard or read it several times this week. Repeat Ozymandias’s lesson, it is not possible to ‘future proof’ an organisation.  Even thinking that you can is a misplaced and unachievable aspiration.

You could take a more nuanced view of ‘future proofing’ that implies a limited time horizon.  For example, conference speaker Jean-Pierre Lacroix, offers a metaphor:

‘Taking a short-term view of the future is like driving a car at night using only your low beams. Although low beams allow a driver to respond to the immediate twist and turns in the road, they do not provide a view of the obstacles farther ahead that could be seen with the high beams. With today’s companies embracing agile and scrum processes, the ability to see farther into the distance has become imperative.’

Ok – but high beams still don’t help us that much – they are not capable of seeing around a curve to show that obstacle.  High beams highlight what is in the immediate distance, not the long distance.  They can’t, at the moment, future-proof against a driver having a sudden, fatal heart attack.

However, this may be a quibble with the metaphor, not with the intent of it, which I take to be that we have to stay alert to what is going on in the external context.  I think that is necessary.  In my book – the one I am thinking of writing a 3rd edition of – one of my five rules of thumb for designing is:

‘Stay alert to the future. The context is constantly shifting and this requires an alert, continuous and well-executed environmental scanning. Organisations should be aware that they may have to do design work at any point, so they should take steps to build or maintain a culture where change, innovation and forward thinking are welcomed.’

This is not ‘future-proofing’.   I extend the discussion about staying alert to the future, saying: ‘[No] company can accurately predict what the future will bring, but trend analysis, simulations, rapid prototyping, scenario planning, gaming, environmental scanning and a range of other techniques give clues on the context and the competitive environment. Organisations … that take the future seriously are less likely to be blindsided by events than organisations that are rooted in the present.’

In the organisation design course, I facilitated last week, we talked about two CEOs who seem (currently) to be alert to trends.  We cannot say that they are ‘future-proofing’.  We can say that they are making organisational adjustments that are keeping their organisations successful as they interact with the context.  It may be that they are consciously and continuously testing assumptions and hypotheses about what is working and not working in emergent contexts.

Satya Nadella is one of the two CEOs I mentioned in last week’s programme.  It’s only today that I find that in the 2nd edition of the book, I wrote in 2014, I referenced him.

‘At the time of writing Nadella’s decisions around redesign or not are unknown and his first day as CEO email to staff implied changes ahead without saying how incremental or radical:

While we have seen great success, we are hungry to do more. Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation. This is a critical time for the industry and for Microsoft. Make no mistake, we are headed for greater places — as technology evolves and we evolve with and ahead of it. Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world.

Five years on, in a Geekwire article, we read that: ‘2014, Nadella took over as CEO, doubling down on the cloud and refocusing the company on productivity technology. Nadella, who started at Microsoft in 1992, often receives high praise from employees who talk about the company’s high energy and empathetic, inclusive culture under his tutelage. By 2018, Microsoft was undeniably back on top. In November, it reclaimed the title of world’s most valuable company, surpassing Apple, which had knocked it out of the top spot in 2010.’

Nadella is alert to trends – in the same article, read how he handled recent sexism complaints, and how he is responding to corporate responsibility and regulatory issues.

The other CEO we talked about was Zhang Ruimin, CEO, Haier Group. He is known for his work, over his 30 years at the company, ‘in turning a little-known, bankrupt refrigerator manufacturer into the world’s fourth-largest white appliances company’.

Corporate Rebels, who visited the company,  report that, ‘Time after time, Zhang led Haier in the right direction at the right time. Haier seems addicted to change.  They manage to move before they really need to. They are rarely late in adapting.  They seem to have a masterful sense of timing—selecting the right moment to abolish the old and embrace the new. … Arguably the real uniqueness of Haier’s transformation journey lies in its constant attempts to adapt, and to continually experiment with its organizational structure to meet employee and user demands. They constantly challenge the status quo, and a clear change in management style can be observed in all the stages.’

One common Microsoft/Haier thread is that both CEOs have been with their organisations for decades. Let’s hope that they have the humility to know that they are not future-proofing their organisations but, from their experience of their organisation’s capability and context, guiding each – for a limited time – step by step into an unknown and unknowable future.

Do you think you can future proof organisations?   Let me know.

Image: Ozymandias, Chaaya Prabhat

Shall I write a third edition of my Economist Guide to Organisation Design?

Although I’ve promised my family that I will never write another book, I feel the temptation to contemplate the idea.  First – why did I make that promise?  Because the package of writing – books, blogs, tweets –  working full-time (and with additional work sometimes) and sustaining family and related social commitments is something I’ve tried and realised is too demanding.  Family and related social commitments are more important to me than a book.  They deserve more than knowing I have churned out another 100 words, or a chapter.

Second, why am I feeling the temptation to write another book.  Well, I enjoy writing on organisation design. Each week I find myself writing a blog on the topic and I’ve done that for the last 10 years.   Actually, (in case anyone looks at the archives on my site) it’s 11 years but in 2008 I only wrote 8 in the year.  It was 2009 that I got into my blogging stride, so I count ten years –  if it were a marriage, I’d mark it with an anniversary gift of tin or aluminium.

And in the vein of enjoying blog writing, I seem to be trying to convince myself that it’s not really another book I’m contemplating, it’s rather a kind of extended blog.  Easy enough then? Especially since it wouldn’t really be a new book.  Rather, the third edition of my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design.  And it’s not just me contemplating it, the publisher has contacted me saying they are thinking a third edition would be timely and asking if I’d be interested in writing it.

I noticed in the course of the phone call with the publisher that the words ‘No, definitely not’, seem to have dropped from my vocabulary – I made an attempt at saying ‘no’ without using that word.  I said – ‘I couldn’t even begin to start before August 2020’, to which the response came ‘we’ll work around your schedule’.  Ultimately, I finished the call saying, ‘I’ll think about it.’ Which is what I am doing – along with wondering why I’d shelved the ‘saying no’ skills I learned during months of assertiveness training, many years ago.

My thinking is running along the lines of rather aimlessly listing pros and cons, except that the pro list only has one item – it gives me the opportunity to update the book for readers, and the cons list has many items, including:  it will take large chunks of time which I could be using with family/running/reading novels, I’ll have to do a ton of research, it doesn’t square with my plan to go cold turkey on all things organisation design, the terrain is moving too quickly for a book to have any value, it’s a vanity project …

Pros and cons feels like an unsatisfactory decision making tool as the items have different weights and trade-offs.  Out of curiosity I looked at the second edition of the book to see what my younger self has written about decision making.  I’m surprised to see five pages on the topic (234 – 239).   They’re followed by a shorter section on problem solving where there’s a quote from Laurence J. Peter author of The Peter Principle that strikes a chord: ‘Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them’.  I’m not sure whether solving the problem of writing the third edition of a book is complex or whether I’m converting a simple ‘yes/no’ into something more complicated.

Reading the quote, I remembered an article on the Cynefin framework as a decision-making tool: ‘The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these—simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic—require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth—disorder—applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.’   I briefly wonder how I can apply this to my question, and then think I’m getting side-tracked.  However, it has suggested to me that a discussion of the Cynefin Framework, not in the second edition, would be useful to include in a third edition of an organisation design book.  (Oh, dear – have I decided without deciding?)

Maybe the second edition, published 2015, still has a shelf life?  Certainly, the participants on an organisation design programme I was facilitating this week thought so, and we referred to it throughout the 2-days.  And a November 2019 review of it by Sergio Caredda says ‘it is evident that there is an effort to have a contemporary view on the topic of organisational design, including most recent trends and ideas’.

But I think four years after publication things have moved on.  Casting an eye over my blog titles, since book publication, I see a lot on more on critical thinking, power and politics, ethics, data/AI, collaboration and involvement than is in the book.  So maybe it is time to revise it.

As I’ve been thinking, Winnie the Pooh appeared.   He says “When you are a bear of very little brain, and you think of things, you find sometimes that a thing which seemed very thinkish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

Whether or not to write a third edition of the book is very thinkish inside me.  But I’ll let the thought into the open and have other people look at it.  Do you think I should write it?  Let me know.

Image: Number three wall art

Experts and generalists

Jonathan Miller died this week (27 November 2019).  One of his obituaries notes,  ‘One of the most intelligent people of his generation, he came to public attention first as a comedian, then as a television presenter and theatre and opera director, with work as a writer, broadcaster, lecturer and art historian on the side.’

Another says, ‘As a comedian, TV presenter, satirist, stage director, man of medicine and all-round intellectual … He had wise words on almost any subject under the sun. His big failing, somebody once said, was that he was interested only in everything; his curiosity, and his ability to formulate ideas in cascades of language around it, knew no bounds’.

He’s familiar to me as throughout my life his different work has threaded through, in TV, theatre, music.  I still remember going to his National Gallery exhibition, ‘Mirror Image: Jonathan Miller on Reflection’

His story is relevant because this week I’ve in several different forums I’ve noticed a common theme of experts versus generalists.

Baroness Wolf, talking about the UK’s Civil Service says, ‘If an incoming government was serious about central government reform, as a prerequisite for systemic change, what might that mean?’ She discusses 3 reforms

‘how the machinery approaches its role and responsibilities; how people are trained, appointed and promoted; and who is involved in policy formation and delivery. None involves razing the civil service to the ground, but all would make a difference.’

Talking about how people are trained and promoted Baroness Wolf says, ‘the civil service, in my experience, continues to value ‘general skills’ over specific expertise to an excessive degree.  … Whitehall simply does not value knowledge nearly enough. It expects everyone who succeeds to be good at management, able to swap areas and departments effortlessly, and to be simultaneously pleasant and incisive. These demands mean that those with ‘spiky’ profiles — and those who really know the areas — are often buried far deeper than they should be.’

The point about people who know being buried, is often the case.  But in my experience rather that the people being buried, it is their expert knowledge that is buried as, in many bureaucratic hierarchical organisations, career progression means moving from an expert role to a managerial role.   People who want to ‘get on’ may well sacrifice their expertise.

Does this matter?  Baroness Wolf suggests it does.  I think so too.  I think organisations would do well to value expertise and reward and career progress it accordingly.  (But that doesn’t mean that they should sacrifice all generalists).

One of the questions related to expert versus generalist that’s come up this week, relates to organisation design and development (see my blog on the relationship between the two).  I was invited to a discussion on  whether the communities of  the European Organisation Design Forum, the Organisation Design Forum, the Organisation Design Community,  socio-tech communities, requisite organisation practitioners, Organisation Development Network Europe, Organisation Development Network,  etc. should/could be better connected with each other.  The purpose of this is, I think, in order to deepen knowledge, and grow expertise.  (Though I will find out more on this in a conversation happening next week).

Deepening knowledge and growing expertise is essential in both organisation design and in organisation development.  It is easy to adopt a methodology or some models and think you have expertise.  Peter C. Brown et al, authors of Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, note that, ‘The illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know.  Being accurate in your judgment of what you know and don’t know is critical for decision making’.   The issue with generalists is that they are often working with an illusion of mastery.

Jonathan Miller, in spite of his prodigious breadth of activity, and long list of achievements, wasn’t secure in his lack of deep expert knowledge, ‘Theatre people saw him as a dilettante. Music critics were quick to capitalise on his admission that he could not read a score. Miller himself, although he held many academic posts, felt a fraud when attending medical conferences, where his knowledge was outstripped by that of dedicated professionals’.

In Make it Stick (well worth reading) you can read example after example of methods of gaining deep knowledge and being able to apply it creatively, and innovatively from a sound base.  Going into organisations time after time we need deep knowledge in order to apply it wisely into the different situations we meet.  As Brown says, ‘Mastery in any field, from cooking to chess to brain surgery, is a gradual accretion of knowledge, conceptual understanding, judgment and skill.  These are the fruits of variety in the practice of new skills, and of striving, reflection and mental rehearsal.’

A second event that came up on the expert v generalist question was in a discussion with an expert organisation design colleague bewailing the fact that ‘anyone round here thinks they can design their bit of the organisation’.  And, indeed in many organisations I’ve worked in that has been the case.  I’ve noticed that lack of knowledge and expertise in organisation design leads to a lot of mistakes.

A few of the common ones are:  People change the org chart as a quick response to a perceived problem – when they haven’t investigated what the problem is, they don’t take a systems view so miss the linkages and interdependencies that are critical to design effectiveness, they design around named people and not sound design principles, they haven’t got an articulated purpose or strategy to translate effectively into design requirements.

The results of this generalist approach to design are expressed in a well-known quote  ‘we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.’

In general, I’m in favour of the idea of joining communities, I’m not in favour of losing the specialist skills of organisation design (or development), in a more generalist ODD approach.

So, there are a couple of questions I’m noodling now:

Will our continuous development of organisation design depth of knowledge and expertise be aided by greater connection with more practitioners in related fields or will that lead to a dilution of depth of knowledge and the illusion of mastery?

How do we encourage organisational leaders to take a critical look at their organisation’s career paths, whether they do value/reward either experts or generalists to the detriment of one or other group?

What’s your view on these questions?  Let me know.

Image: Jonathan Miller