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

Unseeing

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to notice when I am unseeing.  It’s hard, falling into the realms of the ‘known, unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’.   But it’s useful to practice as I’m wondering how much of organisational life we unsee and what effect that has on us.

Unseeing is the concept that underpins China Mieville’s detective novel, ‘The City and the City’ which I’ve just finished reading and now discover is a TV series (that I can’t bring myself to watch, in case it destroys my sense of the book).  The book is gripping and brilliantly written, set in two cities, each with aspects of their own dress codes, language, culture, subcultures, control systems, and system challengers – no different from two organisations.

The difference that makes the book compelling is that the two cities are set in/on exactly the same geographic/physical space. ‘The city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to see it.’  They must ‘unsee’ the city that they are not a citizen of.  The word ‘unsee’ comes up repeatedly.

A person in Beszel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away.’  Citizens of each city are taught the habit of ‘unseeing’ any aspect of the other city – ‘The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city’.  This is deliberate and controlled ‘unseeing’ – a different concept from simply not noticing.

The habit of ‘unseeing’ doesn’t always have to be taught in a conscious way – cultural norms imbue patterns of ‘unseeing’, sometimes, as in The City and the City,  in ways that act to reinforce the deliberate control mechanisms.   Additionally, what we see visually, heavily influences what we think culturally, and conversely, our culture influences what we actually see.  Some interesting research explores this link between culture and visual interpretation.  The start-point for the research was the statement: ‘We presume that people from different cultures, who grew up in different visual environments, associate different words with the same object. By analyzing the nature of cross -cultural word associations and word category frequency counts in respondents’ answers, we are hoping to understand the connection between culture, verbalized thoughts, and object judgments.’

What the researchers found was that, ‘Comparison of the most frequent words has shown [when subjects were asked to freely associate words with a picture of an animal] that American and Japanese subjects are quite different in terms of what they think when they look at an object (an animal, in this case), except in aesthetic judgments.’

You can’t generalize from one research example, but this finding continued my thinking on what it is that people unsee and what effect it might have on organisational design and development.

The film Hidden Figures, for example, exposes the way the contribution three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson made to NASA’s organisation design/development as they gradually moved from being unseen to being seen.

‘There’s a moment halfway into Hidden Figures when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn’s upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford’s response is dismissive—”There’s no protocol for women attending.” Johnson replies, “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir.”

Another protagonist, Mary Jackson, ‘needed to take after-work graduate courses held at segregated Hampton High School [in order to become an engineer]. Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to be able to learn next to her white peers. She won, completed the courses, and was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA’s first African-American female engineer.’

As the unseeing scales drop so positive change starts to happen.   But the scales don’t just drop.  It more a question of consciously removing them and you find when you start the removal processes that the scales are more like onion layers – you have to keep peeling them off.

For example, it’s easy to look at spreadsheets of organisational management information and yet unsee much of what they are telling you.   Once you ask yourself if you might be unseeing something you may be able to discern a pattern about, say, pay differentials, and then this leads to seeing something about gender imbalance,  and moves on to telling a story about social mobility.  All of these elements might be present in the original spreadsheets but it is not easy to see them either initially or in one go if they are in your realm of unseen.

Learning what you’re unseeing is, as I said, not easy and doing something about it is even less easy.  In the same week I finished reading The City and the City, I read the quote from Miyamoto Musashi, who, in The Book of Five Rings, tells readers to ‘Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye’  in order to be successful in any endeavour.   He spent a lifetime practicing this.

Now that the concept of unseeing is with me,  I am practicing walking down a familiar street trying to see what I’ve previously unseen.  Moving into plain sight are the many, previously invisible to me, homeless people that I’m now wondering what I can do to help. James Attlee writing (a whole book, Isolarian) about Cowley Street, Oxford, noticed the names of the phone services he passed:  Mama Africa, Pakistan Connect, Hello Arab, Jamaica Direct, Eastern Eurovoice, Taj Mahal.   In his case, it started him musing on the patterns of immigration and ‘inflammatory politicians articulating (or set on creating) a fear in the native population’.

It’s very easy to ‘unsee’.   It is less easy to stop unseeing, but I think to stop unseeing is a skill to be practiced. What’s your viewing on unseeing and stopping unseeing?  Let me know.

Image:  Synesthesia

How do you change what it is that people value in a system?

At the breakfast briefing I was at last week, I heard John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service  ‘discussing the current {UK} Civil Service transformation agenda and offering his reflections on how the Civil Service and Private Sector can respectively learn from one another.’  During his talk, he posed the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’

Hearing it, I remembered the time when I was working on an office move.  We were asking (‘making’?) senior individuals to give up their individual offices – a perk of seniority – and work in open plan spaces.   One man was appalled at this idea, asking me ‘How will people know that I am important?’  He valued his own office as a symbol of ‘importance’.

I was amazed.  I hadn’t had my own office in years, I was used to roving around to find a hot desk or sitting in a cafe or working from home or other location.  I valued the flexibility and ability to meet people I wouldn’t meet if I were in my own private space.

However, that incident led me to look more closely at why we want to change what people value, what they value, and how do you change it if that’s what seems to be needed by leaders.

Change and transformation programmes typically involve a lot of clashes between what leaders value and what employees do.  For example, employees value having a job, leaders value automating the work .  Employees value a permanent contract, leaders value contingent labour, etc.  We want to change what people value in order to resolve this clash (in favour of the leader).

Manzoni talked about various aspects of transformation that he is involved with – they’re common to much of transformation work and they usually involve clashes of what people value. He mentioned:

Moving from hierarchy to flattening the organisation that erodes a grading structure or career ladder that people have often struggled up

Changing to regard expertise over generalists (or vice versa) that under-estimates the sense of professionalism and pride people feel in the role that they have done up to now

Relocating work which often involves more virtual/remote working that  bites at the social network and sense of community, or local identification that people enjoy about work

This ‘transformation’ activity, sometimes thoughtlessly, attacks what people value in an organisation.  Their response, which often comes across to leaders of the transformation charge, as resistance then stalls the process.  Hence the question, ‘How do we change what it is that people value in a system?’

In our office move case, it was clear that people valued private space which wasn’t on offer in the move scenario.   Typically, what happens next in this type of clash is activity of one type or another in which leaders try and ‘get’ people to ‘buy in’ to whatever the leader values at the expense of what the employee values.   The language and intent can feel coercive or manipulative.  See a Fast Company article How to Get Employee to Buy in to an Exceptional Culture

‘Getting people to buy in’ is hardly the stuff of most organisational values, and, I haven’t found lumping ‘people’ together a very productive route when I’ve been asked how to ‘get’ people to ‘buy-in’.  People value different things.  Some people in the office move loved the idea of giving up their private space because they’d felt isolated and looked forward to joining their team and colleagues in open plan, others took it as an opportunity to try out the various types of work spaces newly available freeing themselves from the idea of being tethered to a fixed desk.

I find a better approach is to try and understand the reasons why people value what they do and whether there are value substitutes that can be made or whether we (the transformation team) can adjust to respect what they value.   In the office move having a private office was a sacred cow to several people, albeit for different reasons:  for some as a symbol of power and for others as a symbol of their expertise, lawyers, for example, strongly valued the principle that they should meet their clients in their own private office.

In the office move case, I commissioned a team of academics to come in and look at the symbolic aspects of power and status.  Their research and findings helped us think through a range of ways of managing the potential loss of what the CEO called ‘private real estate’.

I’ve found the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’ to be one with no answer, many answers, and no right answers even if you think you have an answer.   As with anything complex what people value is contingent on situation and circumstance.  Behavioural economics has various theories on what people value which may help.  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good read that offers insights on what people value and why.

Over the weekend I read Stuart Heritage’s article on the stresses of parenting small children, what he values now – time to think,  a respite from the relentless grind, etc.  is not what he’s likely to value when his children are grown up.   He sees that too and has what could be a sage answer to the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’   (You’ll see I’ve made an edit to his statement): ‘Figuring this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of parenthood and change and transformation projects are a mess of short-term firefighting. When the time comes, when basic autonomy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoulders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s become my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.

What’s your take on the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’  Let me know.

Image: Flickr user John Lustig

Middle managers – why the label?

This week I was facilitating a workshop on middle managers’ roles in orchestrating organisational change.  A role which ‘entails directing (and redirecting) resources according to a [strategy] policy or plan of action, and possibly also reshaping organizational structures and systems’.

We were discussing what skills middle managers need and what factors inhibited or facilitated their role in what Heyden et al see as the two aspects of change:

Change initiation which ‘entails the ‘spark’ for change through activities such as identifying, articulating, and outlining an opportunity for change, formulating the initial business case, emphasizing its urgency, and securing key budgetary and resource commitments.’

Change execution which ‘is about realizing change plans through activities such as day-to-day adjustments, rolling out initiatives, aligning activities with stated objectives, translating overarching goals into periodic milestones, and giving sense and direction to change recipients.’

Kiehne et al take the view that middle managers face both ways in initiating and executing change and are ‘key players for making strategy work. They are both a source of knowledge for senior management to develop and formulate a strategy as well as a vital element in selling high level strategic plans to lower levels in the organization and even translating it and putting it into context so that working level employees can make sense of high level strategic directions’.

This viewpoint highlights the role of middle managers as arbiters and interpreters between two layers of a hierarchy, seeing ‘the vision at the top of the organisation and the pain at the bottom.’  Scott Adams, offers an alternative image of this, describing middle managers as ‘the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives’.

Whether they are interpreters, arbiters or glue, the role puts them in an uneasy position, rendering them, according to another researcher, ‘vulnerable and insecure’, having a ‘current identity of being a talented, technical professional dumped into a lonely world of endless pressure from above and suffocating people management issues from below.’

Building on this bleak picture, Boston Consulting Group says ‘Middle managers frequently … do not have the support of senior managers or effective levers to do their jobs and provide assistance to their employees’, and the CIPDs’, 2018 UK Working Lives Survey finds that, ‘At a broad level, poor well-being at work is most often experienced by middle managers, which may be a sign of the dual pressures of working with organisational strategy and day-to-day deliverables.’   The actual figures presented for middle managers are:

31% reported feeling overloaded

27% believe their work negatively affects their mental health

26% suffering with anxiety or depression within the last year

24% said they feel under excessive amounts of pressure

The discussion on these figures took an interesting turn.   Rather than seeing them as confirmation of the bleak picture of a squeezed and stressed managerial level, several in the group thought that the figures were actually rather good.  They felt that if things were as dispiriting as the various researchers’ findings, the figures would be much higher.   They began to contest the research – granting that the middle manager role is challenging but, in their experience, not more than managerial roles at lower or higher levels. The label of a middle management group that merited special attention slipped as someone pointed out that every level of manager faces both upwards and downwards.

With this backdrop, we turned to the list of roles middle managers typically play in the change process.  As interface between bottom and top levels they:

  • Communicate and transmit information from the bottom to the top level,
  • Exercise the role of defender (championing alternatives, guiding and promoting, defending, presenting alternatives to top management);
  • Take on the role of synthesizer (categorizing ideas, selling these ideas to top management, combining and applying the information, synthesising it);

And as interface from the top to bottom level they:

  • Act as facilitator (protecting and promoting adaptation activities, sharing information, guiding the adaptation, facilitating learning and adaptability);
  • Become an implementer (implementing deliberate strategy, reviewing and adjusting, motivating and inspiring as a coach).

Participants pointed out that all those roles are also played in the ‘day job’ – they are not specific to initiating or executing change.

So now we had the ideas that middle managers may or may not be unduly stressed, and the roles they play in their work are not specific to planned change work.   With these ideas we looked at Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis’s 4 quadrant model of middle managers’ roles in culture change.

The model proposes four types of managerial role in culture change.  Someone’s position on the matrix depending on the organisation culture and amount of control managers feel they can exert on the change:

Quadrant 1: Yes managers:  happy to go along with anything proposed by top managers and enjoy the ride.  ‘These middle managers are happy to fulfil requests from senior leaders. They regard themselves as lucky as, after all, their circumstances are beyond their capacity to influence.’

Quadrant 2: Effective change agents:  ‘working effectively both with senior leaders and with staff as positive change agents – sometimes initiated by senior leaders, sometimes initiated by staff and other times initiated by themselves.’

Quadrant 3: Change resistors: ‘In these circumstances, the middle manager aligns with staff (who are often negative) and typically they are at odds with senior leaders – sometimes explicitly, other times in a more subversive way.’

Quadrant 4: Embattled change agents: ‘This is a tough context as middle managers are often buffeted by senior leaders whose actions thwart their attempts to improve the work environment. In their belief that they can and do influence the culture, middle managers attempt to stay in touch with the issues as perceived by staff while struggling to do anything about them.’

I was proposing that middle managers should be aiming to be in quadrant 2 where they are able to influence the change in a supportive culture.   If they’re not headed in that direction Simpson and du Plessis say ‘we think there is value is digging a little deeper into the issue. For example, are middle managers feeling as though they are in Quadrant 4 where their attempts at change are being constrained by a negative culture without support from senior leaders? Or do middle managers have a victim mentality where everything is the fault of others?’

My proposal was challenged by participants – some arguing that being in quadrant 3 – the change resistors – was organisationally useful.  They felt that middle managers in this quadrant could be signalling that the change strategy was at odds with the reality of capacity to deliver it and keep the business running at the same time.  People supporting this view added that the managers in this quadrant could, legitimately, be protecting their staff from extra work pressures.

Similarly, other participants felt that quadrant 1, being the yes manager was a good place to be.  They felt it made life easier for the manager – assuming manager capability to engage employees in supporting the change – as the manager could more simply plan the change into the work without having to think too much about it, these participants felt it was a more stable environment for employees.

Participants agreed that quadrant 4 was a difficult place to be. Many of them had been in it and described it as ‘banging head against brick wall’ – resulting in them moving to either quadrant 3 (resistor) or quadrant 1 (yes manager).   They didn’t see this as failure but rather a pragmatic reassessment of where to put their energy.

Then somebody made the point that this role of change agent was not specific to middle management but part of every manager and leader role.

At this point I saw the middle manager label slip completely. They are neither unique in facing up and down, nor in being stressed in their work, nor in taking a role of change agent.

Do you think ‘middle managers’ need their own label?  Let me know.

Image: The god janus

Matrix structures: the pessimism advantage

Matrix oganisations have been loved and hated in varying proportions over the years.  They are problematic because their key feature, involves managers in two reporting lines: ‘vertically’ often along functional lines and also ‘horizontally’ (laterally) along project, product, client or geography lines.   The intended purpose of this dual reporting is to increase lateral co-ordination at the levels below the leadership team.

However, Nigel Nicholson, in How Hardwired is Human Behaviour? noted that: ‘[Matrix management] has proved to be one of the most difficult and least successful organizational forms. The reason?  Evolutionary psychologists contend that matrix forms are inherently unstable due to the conflicting pulls toward too many centers of gravity. People are instinctively drawn toward commitment to one community at a time, usually the one that is closer and more familiar to them. Thus, when a modern businessperson is asked to report both to her regional boss and to a product manager, she is typically drawn to the regional boss because he is physically closer to where the employee works and to what she knows best. Similarly, when a manager “belongs” to a function and a project, her allegiance to the function – her primary assignment – usually prevails. The dual loyalties required by matrix management are difficult to sustain in the long term.’

Because the idea of working as a matrix organisation is gaining ground in some work I am doing, I’ve just re-read the HBR 1990 article Bartlett and Ghoshal article Matrix Management: Not a Structure, a Frame of Mind Surely the date is wrong?  It could have appeared in this month’s HBR and would have been just as welcome and informative.  There’s no aging in the statement: ‘Today the most successful companies are those where top executives recognize the need to manage the new environmental and competitive demands by focusing less on the quest for an ideal structure and more on developing the abilities, behavior, and performance of individual managers.  Change succeeds only when those assigned to the new transnational and interdependent tasks understand the overall goals and are dedicated to achieving them.’

Continuing with HBR, the more recent, 2016, Vantrappen and Wirtz article Making Matrix Organizations Actually Work says much the same thing.  That in order to achieve good lateral co-ordination you need soft wiring and hard wiring.  Bartlett and Ghoshal (1990) describe this as the formal structure (basic anatomy) together with the soft elements of ‘organizational physiology—the systems and relationships that allow the lifeblood of information to flow through the organization, and a healthy organizational psychology—the shared norms, values, and beliefs that shape the way individual managers think and act.’

‘Actually work’ is a phrase associated with a classic book on matrix organisations.  Jay Galbraith, in his book Designing Matrix Organizations That Actually Work maintains that they do.   Phanish Puranam, writing an obituary of Galbraith, who died in 2014, recalls how Galbraith ‘laid out the problems with the pessimistic rhetoric about matrix structures (“utter nonsense!”), and how the label itself was being bandied about without any precision.’

Now, our organisational challenge is to make the matrix organisation idea ‘actually work’.  My task is to follow the optimists on the matrix structure and mindset rather than the pessimists.   I am, unfortunately, rather more drawn to the pessimists.  Luis Goncalves, blogging on the topic, for example, talks about the political in-fighting, the goal conflict, the blame culture, and the management issues. He bluntly says that a ‘matrix organisation harms your company’.

Research from McKinsey, Revisiting the Matrix Organization (2016) follows the bleaker outlook, finding that matrix organisations ‘may create uncomfortable ambiguity for employees … the structure gives rise to a lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, and who reports to whom’ and that ‘Most employees in matrixed organizations, according to the survey, aren’t terribly engaged with their jobs.’

However, if I look on the optimistic side of being a pessimist I can take the view that pessimism will lead me to examine the risks and downsides closely in order to avoid them as we head towards a matrix structure, thus pessimism becomes advantageous?

My pessimist/sceptical lens may lead me to closer critical reflection on the report from Hanover Research, Best Practices in Matrix Organizational Structures which offers potentially helpful questions to start us down the path of making the matrix actually work.

Echoing the hard/soft or anatomy/physiology/psychology of other writers on matrix organisations, this report’s authors preface their question set with the point that ‘matrix organization structures reflect the reality of today’s external and internal business complexity…but the matrix structure itself solves nothing—it is the way people operate the structure that makes the matrix organization succeed or fail.’  Their advice is ‘After deciding to adopt a matrix structure, particular consideration should be given to the following questions:

  • How do we operate effectively with responsibility and accountability without authority?
  • How do we manage expectations of multiple bosses?
  • What is the best way of dealing with ambiguous and shifting reporting lines?
  • How can we best influence those separated by distance/time/culture?
  • How do we manage communications?
  • How do we manage conflict?
  • How do we develop routine relationships?
  • How do we clarify role specifications/performance objectives?’

Rather than taking a pessimist view,  and getting stuck in thinking a matrix structure is unlikely to work, I could use the questions to ask ‘if [we did …]  then … ‘.

However, it’s easy to sink back into pessimism as the report says, ‘Successful implementation requires shifting the organization’s culture, addressing the important function of emotional intelligence, and providing comprehensive training for both leaders, [managers] and employees alike.’  No mean task in this.

For example, the ‘comprehensive training’ advocated requires considerable resource investment.  There is the practical skill development, related to the formal organisation, that leaders require e.g. setting two-manager objectives, assigning accountabilities and there is emotional skill development, specifically in what were found to be four competencies in leaders successful in matrix roles: empathy, conflict management, influence and self-awareness.  ‘Influence and conflict management capabilities help leaders to build consensus around a common purpose and deliver the collaborative solutions that the matrix requires. Empathy, on the other hand, enables leaders to develop a better understanding of their counterparts’ perspectives and their customers’ mindset. Self-awareness allows leaders to summon the patience to manage the complexities of the matrix. Three additional skills noted in this same article as critical are ability to build loyalty, trust and interpersonal relationships.

My pessimistic bent suggests that the resource investment will not be easy to get but then I ask myself ‘What are the innovative and creative ways of solving that problem – perhaps the TRIZ framework could help here?’.

Do you see a pessimist advantage in getting a matrix organisation to actually work?  How would you tackle the matrix challenge?  Let me know.

Image:  Antony Gormley, Matrix II 2014

The tyranny of metrics

When I read a review of Jerry Muller’s book, The Tyranny of Metrics, I immediately ordered a copy from my library.   I went to collect it the other day.

Risking the charge of confirmation bias, I nodded approvingly to myself when I read on page 3, ‘And gaming is only one class of problems that inevitably arise when using performance metrics as the basis of reward or sanction.’  As Muller points out ‘The things that get measured may draw effort away from the things that we really care about.’

Jonathan Harris, in his wonderful artpiece, Data Can Help Us, (image for this blog) also points this out in a series of provocative sentences, for example:  Data ‘will help educators make excellent standardised tests, but will it help us embrace different standards of excellence?’ (Here I had a brief pause to check if data is/are singular or plural) Harris warns us of the dangers of abandoning timeless decision-making tools like wisdom, morality, and personal experience in favour of data converted into numbers.

Similarly, Muller notes that ‘The most characteristic feature of metric fixation is the aspiration to replace judgement based on experience with standardized measurement’.

It’s not that numbers are ‘wrong’, it’s that converting data into meaningful numbers that are useful and could produce good outcomes is not easily done, as a good example in an HBR article Know the Difference Between Your Data and Your Metrics illustrates.  The authors say ‘As we learned, there is a difference between numbers and numbers that matter.’

I was drawn to Muller’s book because I work in a field, organisation design and development, where it is almost impossible to identify what numbers might matter – assuming that it is sensible to even try to reduce organisation development or organisation design to a metric, or set of metrics.   If I am asked to suggest meaningful metrics that might show that what OD & D practitioners do produces value (and for whom) I find it hard to offer anything with confidence.

One reason for this is that the metric required is often a monetary return-on-investment one (dollars or pounds).   However, a monetary unit is a different unit of measurement from what are sought as outcomes of the piece of work which could be, for example, increased collaboration, aligned leadership, a ‘one-team’ culture, etc). We expect that if the input is in money – cost of time to design and deliver the work, that the outcome will also be in money.

In any instance where the input unit is not the same as the output unit we are not comparing like units.  Sticking with money as an input unit, we could try and convert the outcome to units of money, but these would be proxy measures.  They distort how we see the outcomes.  There are several factors contributing to the distortion, among them:

  • we don’t know that there is a direct cause/effect relationship between the OD & D work what we are looking for in results
  • the conversion to like units is not easy to do – what are the proxy metrics of ‘aligned leadership’, for example, that would give us a monetary value?
  • interventions don’t create outcomes – they may create a different context that enable something to change – but it may not be what is expected.

Toby Lowe, a researcher on managing performance at the UK’s Newcastle University is clear that, ‘The simplification required to measure and attribute ‘outcomes’ turns the organisation and delivery of social interventions into a game, the rules of which promote gamesmanship, distorting the behaviour of organisations, managers and practitioners who undertake it.’

I collected Muller’s book a day or two after coming back from the ODNE conference where I spoke on the sacred cows of organisation development:  a sacred cow being an organisational or societal norm that is accepted without question.  (Until it is questioned – for example votes for women came about after challenging the sacred cow that only men could vote).

One of the ‘sacred cows’ I offered for discussion was ‘Organisation development activity can deliver tangible business results’, asking participants to consider what would happen if we did not give up this sacred cow, and what would happen if we did give it up.  There was some debate on what ‘tangible’ results are, and a lot of debate on the issues around ‘proving’ the ROI of the OD & D work.

Too late to share in the conference, I find that Gerry Muller offers a thoughtful 10-point checklist on how to approach the use of performance metrics.  He notes, before presenting the list, that ‘measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured, whether rewards and penalties will be attached to the results, and to whom to make the measurements available.’  (Judgement is not measurable.)  Here are the checklist items with a summary quote from the fuller explanation that Muller gives:

  • What kind of information are you thinking of measuring – ‘measurements attached to human activity are not reliable unless the humans agree with the goals of the measurement’.
  • How useful is the information? ‘the ease of measuring may be inversely proportional to the significance of what is measured’.
  • How useful are more metrics? ‘the fact that metrics is helpful doesn’t mean that more metrics is more helpful’.
  • What are the costs of not relying on upon standardized measurement? ‘Are there sources of information about performance, based on the judgement and experience of clients?’
  • To what purposes will the measurement be put? ‘Here a key distinction is between data to be used for purposes of internal monitoring by the practitioners themselves versus data to be used by external parties for reward and punishment’.
  • What are the costs of acquiring the metrics? ‘Information is never free, and often it is expensive in ways that rarely occur to those who demand more of it’.
  • Ask why people at the top of the organisation are demanding performance metrics. ‘Sometimes [this] flows from the ignorance of executives about the institutions they’ve been hired to manage.’
  • How and by whom are the measures of performance developed? ‘Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up … from direct experience’.
  • Remember that even the best measures are subject to corruption or goal diversion. ‘There are inevitable drawbacks to all schemes of measured reward’.
  • Recognising the limits of the possible is the beginning of wisdom. ‘Not all problems are solvable, and even fewer are solvable by metrics.’

Do you think that the outcomes of OD & D work can be identified and then converted into useful proxy measures to show ROI?  Let me know.