Organisation design and millennials

‘In order to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort, Pew Research Center decided [in 2018] to use 1996 as the last birth year for Millennials for our future work. Anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) is considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of a new generation.’  25 – 40 now.

I looked up the birth years of Millennials when I was invited to be interviewed for a book that is being written.  The intent behind the book is to share a collection of strategies that will help the next wave of Millennial leaders find their next (or first) executive role.  In my case, the authors were particularly interested in helping Millennials, applying for an executive role, think about, and answer interview questions on their approaches to organisation design.   

Preparing for the interview, initially I wondered what the cultural boundaries are of ‘Millennialism’ i.e. is it a US/UK/Europe predominant label or is it global and are their common characteristics across nationalities, ethnicities, language, etc?

I don’t know the answer but the Deloitte 2021 Global Survey of Millennials and Gen  Z ‘solicited the views of 14,655 millennials and 8,273 Gen Zs from 45 countries across North America, Latin America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific’, and aggregated them into a single report, so I took that as a start-point.

It’s worth reading. The conclusion states.  ‘Emerging from one of the most difficult years of their lives, millennials and Gen Zs are more downbeat that at any time during the 10 years they’ve been surveyed … They’re tired of waiting for change to happen and are taking action to hold others accountable. But they understand their actions as individuals can do only so much to reverse climate change, create pay and wealth equality, and end racism and bigotry. They want organizations to work together—governments, educational systems, and business—to drive change on a much broader scale. … they want to work for companies with a purpose beyond profit—companies that share their values—and in ones where they feel empowered to make a difference.’

To my mind this argues for the millennials seeking executive roles to really question and probe whether they would have the power to change the organisation’s design, if it did not meet those sorts of aspirations (and whether they would want to work for an organisation that doesn’t share those aspirations).   

 But for the moment stick with the idea that it is the millennials being asked questions by the interview panel.  Below, I’ve briefly answered the list of interview questions the book people sent me, with the comment, ‘We likely won’t ask you these questions directly in order to maintain the spontaneous nature and energy of the interview authentic. We’re sharing these to help jog your memory and guide the discussion so we can keep the “spirit” of helping millennial leaders consistent.’   (It’ll be interesting to see the write-up/interpretation of the actual interview which was a lot more free-flowing than the q & a here). 

Why is org design important for people in executive roles? Tom Peter’s view is that “Design is so critical, it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department”  (Unfortunately, I can’t find the original source of this – if anyone knows it please let me know, maybe it was in the book In Search of Excellence) and I agree. Why?  Because good design translates an organisation’s purpose, strategy, and business model into execution, delivery and high performance.  Think of the bike race analogy – every element of winning a race is carefully designed to achieve that purpose.  (See the HBR article on this).

What is the difference between org chart and org structure? I’ve written several blogs on organisation charts and organisational structures.  For example, Talking about organisation charts, and What I talk about when I talk about structure . The chart and the structure are very different things. 

What is considered a bad org structure vs a good org structure?  I don’t know that there is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some organisational structures (not charts) are better than others for a specific context and a specific organisation.  I have a handout on questions to ask about structure and also a blog on the topic, Questions to ask about structures,  which helps with some assessment. 

How do millennials answer and use the “Tell me about how was [XYZ] organization structured?” to their advantage in an interview?  This could only be answered well if the millennial was asked to talk about an organisation in their experience.  It’s a good question to have a prepared answer for.  There are thousands of case studies looking at organisations and the way they are designed.  Look for example at Business Case Studies  or Ivey Publishing . Reading through some of these would give the applicant ideas on how to frame an answer.    

How should millennials answer situational questions like “How would you structure our organization if you were to take this role?”   Assuming the millennial being questioned thinks the same way as those in the Deloitte survey, then they can pick up on aspects of the human centred organisation that Emanuele Quintarelli discusses in his organisation design work. Look too at the Intersection Group and Cocoon Pro .

What are some before and after case study stories of millennials who got org design wrong and what happened after it was turned around?   Words like ‘wrong’ are judger rather than learner centric.  A millennial could propose that ‘wrong’ could be framed as a learning event – look at the helpful resources on fail forward.  Stripe is an interesting case study of an organisation whose founders,  Patrick and John Collison are millennials, (born 1988 and 1990) appear to have this experimental, curious mindset that frames setbacks or failures not as ‘wrong’ but something to adjust/learn from.  Listen to an excellent podcast with Patrick, the CEO.  

What hacks, strategies, frameworks or words of wisdom would help aspiring executives in answering organisation design questions?   A person who can give examples of applying/not applying the following skills to any organisation design work they have led themselves or been involved in, be equipped with a basis for design awareness:

looking at the whole picture;

recognising that patterns change;

seeing that feedback loops exist, and that some nodes are more powerful than others;

acknowledging that different perspectives give different insights;

knowing that cause and effect can be delayed and chaotic, and may not appear related;

exploring the short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of action.

What is your 80/20 list for demonstrating organisation design experience/expertise.  It’s mostly about systems and people’s behaviours and interactions in systems.  I advise people to take a systems programme for example Systems Thinking in Practice

How would you answer the questions above?  Let me know.  

Organisation design: death discussions

In 2014 Tikker watches came to Kickstarter.  I bought one.   It was ‘designed to provide you with a constant reminder that life is truly short and we should take advantage of the time we have on this planet.   The Tikker System will give you an estimate of your life expectancy and then counts down every second so you can make choices that will enhance your life …  Buy one now and you will see how it immediately and positively affects you and those around you.    Start a new way of looking at life today!’  

I got it because I was doing a ToDo Institute Naikan programme, and there was some emphasis on how to live the 30,000 days of an average lifespan.  I wanted to know how many days I had left and stay alert to how I was spending the days and how I would like to have spent them or imagined myself spending the rest of them.  

Three years later, not because I’d lost interest in this but because it has become an ingrained and habitual way of thinking about my life, I put it on Freecycle and someone who had a countdown to launching his new business came for it. 

In fact, I got more interested in death and ways to approach it and last year trained to be a non-religious funeral celebrant.  But I am finding I am less interested in the one-off tribute at a funeral aspect and more interested in the social processes, systems, routines, rituals, planning and preparations for the ending of life.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, looking for some Humans Systems Dynamics Institute  (HSDI) resources for something completely unrelated to death or end of life, I saw a page on their website on Patterns with Death.  This resulted in two conversations – the first with Glenda Eoyang (HSDI)  and the second with Glenda and Liz Coenen about death – the rituals of it, the differing social attitudes towards it, the ripples that it precipitates, and the types of support people seek (or not) as they come into closer contact with death. (Note: there is an HSDI Facebook group on Patterns with Death)

These conversations have brought to mind a conversation I had sometime last year with Milan Guenther on the concept of hospices for enterprises.  We felt that there was too little recognition that organisations have a life cycle – they get stuck in the notion of phases of growth – per the classic Larry Greiner model. We wanted to see models of organisational lifecycle through decline to final ending become as commonplace as the growth model. Further we were interested in how these ending stages could be designed and managed well. (See the book: Organizational Pathology: Life and Death of Organizations)

Now, again wondering about this, I came across a special edition Culture and Organisation (2014, Volume 1, Issue 1) on exactly that topic.  Emma Bell introduced the articles in the journal saying, ‘Death is an integral part of organizational life, not only in talk and symbolism but also in a very real physical sense.  Despite numerous examples which illustrate the importance of organizational death as a meaning-making construct, scholars of organization have only rarely treated death as an explicit focus of study.’

Bell notes that, ‘The term ‘organizational death’ encompasses a wide range of individual and collective level phenomena. We were initially concerned with the metaphorical use of the term, either by researchers or by organization members, to account for the cessation of organizational function, for example, in situations of corporate closure or shutdowns of production units. Issues of organizational mortality, discontinuity and decline are particularly prescient in the wake of the global financial crisis; industrial and economic downturn, corporate failure, downsizing and plant closure have material, social and psychological effects on societies, organizations, groups and individuals. Organizational death can thus constitute a profound source of loss and suffering through the removal of fundamental structures of work-related meaning.’

As a note of caution, Tony Walter, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, in his paper Organizations and death – a view from death studies, which is in the special issue – says that speaking or thinking ‘of the ending of an organisation, or part of it, as organisational ‘death’, possibly followed by some kind of resurrection or reanimation ..  is a conceptually more problematic metaphorical use of the word ‘death’; and like all metaphors, may be useful for certain purposes if used appropriately, but misleading if taken too far.’

As well as the metaphorical death, Walters discusses four other forms of death in his paper:

  • Most obviously, individual members of organisations die and suffer personal bereavements; a member of the organisation or someone close to a member dies – with consequences not only for several individuals but also for the organisation or part thereof.
  • Organisations may cause, or at least contribute to, people’s deaths, for example through medical intervention, poor communication, harmful products, incompetent service, industrial accident, or suicide.
  • The food industry relies on the rearing of animals for slaughter and the subsequent processing of their remains
  • There is the question of whether, and if so how, awareness and/or denial of our mortal human condition affects the way people behave in organisations and what they expect from organisations.

Regardless of the form of death, talking about it of and in organisations often causes discomfort.  For example, the UK organisation Cruse Bereavement Care,  notes that, ‘For many employers, it can be difficult to know how to respond when an employee is bereaved, and how to ensure that the impact on both the individual and the organisation is minimised. With one in ten people in the UK likely to be affected by bereavement at any one time, employers can benefit from planning ahead.’

This ‘planning ahead’ is part and parcel of designing ways of working with and talking about death. Done well, it could support the purpose driven approach to organisation design that many advocate.  Emma Bell, again in her comments on the articles in the special issue of Organization and Culture, mentioned earlier, makes the point,  ‘It is only by coming to terms with the inescapable nature of death as a universal parameter and a constituent part of life that we can discard mechanistic, reductionist theories in favour of a more meaningful working life … all these writers show that death goes to the heart of what it is to experience life in organizations; we therefore cannot understand the meaning of organization without acknowledging death.

Knowing that individuals only have around thirty thousand days of life, and many organisations espouse notions of making work meaningful – should organisation designers introduce and work with concepts of death?  Let me know.

Endnote:  A London School of Economics blog, February 2021, estimates that 15.1% of UK businesses, registered and unregistered, are ‘at risk’ of permanent closure in 2021.  That is a lot of people affected by organisational ‘death’. 

Image:  Dying Matters

The future of organisation design

March of Intellect”, by William Heath, 1828 depicts future ideas for transport that would not be so unimaginable today

Last week this email arrived: “I hope this note finds you well. We are in the final weeks of the organisation design program for cohort 2. Your slot, part of session 10, is ‘the future of Organisation Design’. You can have up to 45 minutes right after the opening. Will you want to include some slides? … “.

Although I’m told that the session outline is ‘straightforward’ – mine is the slot after the session on reflections on session 9 – the topic itself is not straightforward. I ask myself, ‘What is the future of organisation design?’

Sometimes, in training courses, I’ve shown one of the several ‘from-to’ graphics showing the future of organisations. Look, for example, at Tanmay Vora’s sketchnote that goes ‘from purpose to profit’, from ‘hierarchies to networks’,  etc. or the Booz & Co from analogue to digital culture which has, among other dimensions, from process and task orientation to result orientation.

 It’s easy to get seduced by these ‘from-to’ graphics: they look good, and appear convincing.   But are they the future of organisation design? I no longer think so. They imply a smooth movement, from left to right, in a stable context.   We are not in a stable context. 

 In my forthcoming book I say: ‘The late South African economist Ludwig Lachmann once wrote: “The future is unknowable, though not unimaginable”.  … Because we can imagine different futures, we can act to create the better version. We have the creative ability to draft scenarios and possible outcomes, so we can prepare for what is more likely to be. And [we can] attempt to bring it about.

 There is a design tension inherent in designing for what is in front of us in the immediate future and what we imagine in the further out future. …  Leaders and designers must recognise and manage that tension, perhaps taking guidance from the authors of the book The Design Way, who say “Design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist, to make it appear in concrete form as a new, purposeful addition to the real world”.

We can do this by acknowledging that the immediate future is not entirely unpredictable. Specific future events and trends may be unpredictable, but it is possible to envisage the implications of possibilities as sets of potential actions that the organisation may have to be ready for, and designed to take. ‘ 

Taking that perspective means detecting signals in the current, unstable context that we could take forward as possibilities into the future, searching for patterns the signals generate, and making collective meaning from the signals and patterns. (See article ‘On the role of collective sensing and evolution in group formation’). These activities give rise to scenarios that it is possible to imagine and, take some steps to prepare for.

Three newish signals that I noted this week that caused me to think about the possible future of organisation design are: 

 Metaverses: These are a shared online space that incorporate 3D graphics, either on a screen or in virtual reality. They came up in the New Scientist article that piqued my interest, not least because it mentioned Second Life , launched in 2003, which I used about 3 years later when I was doing some work with the American Red Cross.   At that point I had high hopes that Second Life would become integral to organisation design, but it didn’t happen. Now I see Roblox  co-founder, David Baszucki, saying  “Just as the mail, the telegraph, the telephone, text and video are utilities for collaborative work, we believe Roblox and the metaverse will join these as essential tools for business communication.” Maybe he’s right?  

 Metaverses give rise to a possible scenario of big tech companies holding in their thrall all their users, having access to their users’ data, and being able to control their users in various ways – extending this one can imagine big tech will someday supersede governments, and change the idea of national borders. People will be nationals of a metaverse. (See the novel,  He, She, and It by Marge Piercy for a variant of this idea).   How would organisations be designed in this scenario?

Individuals as networks:  I then read a fascinating piece on individual selves as networks. It says, ‘[Individual] selves are not only ‘networked’, that is, in social networks, but are themselves networks. By embracing the complexity and fluidity of selves, we come to a better understanding of who we are and how to live well with ourselves and with one another’. It’s left me wondering if and how this could influence organisation design.  I’m thinking it  may give a different take on the phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’, and also challenge current approaches to health and wellbeing that organisations are increasingly preoccupied with. 

 A scenario that could come from this is one of very different career paths, skills assessments, and employment expectations as our networked self focuses on different or new aspects of itself.

 Gillian Tett’s book: Anthro-visionprovides a compelling case for using anthropological approaches to business life (and by extension, organisation design). You can listen to an excellent video of her talking about this and I came away thinking that her view gave impetus to ‘human centred’ organisation design in an actionable way. Thanks to the EODF newsletter for the link. 

The interview brought to my mind the various Covid-19 legacies around building design/ventilation, biophilia, etc.  The pandemic has brought to the forefront the relationship between physical space design and human performance. Typically, organisation designers and facilities managers/workplace designers are siloed. A scenario that could play out is one where organisation design and workplace design are integrated, perhaps using tools like digital twinning to model human and workplace design options.   This could give organisations a very different design from currently envisaged ones – much as 3D printing has enable innovative building design

Three more ubiquitous signals came up again this week – ones that are now becoming patterns.

Geo political landscape shifts. Think how many organisations have had a recent high-profile brush with governments in a way that has forced re-design of aspects of the business. Amazon, Alibaba, Uber, Google, Facebook are some that spring immediately to mind.  Think too of other effects of geo-political shifts, for example, on supply chains (e.g. semiconductors). These will have profound effects on the design of organisations. Will multinationals exist in the future? 

Cyber security/threats – recent ransomware attacks have had a crippling effect on some organisations, for example ‘In the recent Colonial Pipeline and JBS attacks, cybercriminals disrupted gasoline and meat supplies, causing an artificial run on both commodities.’ Given the acceleration in such attacks what are the organisation design implications?   

Climate-tech This article notes that ‘many corporate giants are going beyond hollow commitments of greenery and “net zero” carbon pledges by investing directly in climate tech’, again these actions will change the design of organisations.

 Answering the question ‘what is the future of organisation design?’ is best answered by saying there are multiple possible futures. A further question to ask is ‘how do you design organisations to prepare for an unknown but not unimaginable future’. Is your organisation doing this? Let me know.

Reviews and reflections

Often, triggered by my blog or other channel, people send me articles or reports or similar that they think will be of interest to me.     Although it can take me a while to get round to reading whatever they’ve sent, I usually find that the document does hold something that is of interest and I’m grateful to have been sent it. 

This week I’ve managed to read five things I’ve been sent, and I’ll briefly explain why I was interested. (Note the stuff I’m focusing on here is not related to specific pieces of work I am doing like Terms of Reference, or project plans. What I’m talking about here is info that is sent my way as part of my general interest in organisation design).

But first, a slight – but relevant – digression. I get the FS newsletter, and this week’s linked to an excellent article about attentive reading, making the point that, ‘Consuming information is not the same as acquiring knowledge. No idea could be further from the truth.’ The article made me stop and think whether I was just consuming information from the 5 documents, or actually acquiring knowledge.   

Thus,  I re-read the documents asking myself, ‘What reflections or questions come out of my reading of this?’ Below some thoughts on the five pieces. (NOTE: I am not endorsing any organisation or its products/services). 

 The Future of HR – seen through two different lenses:  (From Kennedy Fitch). I was sent this because I was one of the people interviewed as part of the research. The goal was to discover if the near future (up to 2025) of HR and the world of work look the same for two distinct groups of people – HR practitioners and ‘thinkers’ about the world of work who are also known for their views on the HR function.  

It’s a well-structured report, clearly laying out the thinker and practitioner stance on each topic area covered.  It discusses first where the agreement between the two groups lay, and second where the differences lay. For example, on the topic of trends, both groups agreed that three major trends will impact the world of work: accelerated digitalisation, personalisation and flexibility.   However, the two groups offered further, and different trends beyond these three. The practitioner group talking about speed of business, diversity and teamwork, while the thinkers talked about expectations of private sector companies, role shifts/empowerment, and management and organisation development across geographies.

 As I was reading it, some questions came to mind:  the report focuses on private sector organisations, would its findings hold true for public sector and third sector ones? 

 I wondered how HR functions would actually make the shift suggested in the report – how is the education and training of HR practitioners adapting? Is it in tune with these findings? 

Four times the word ‘brave’ is used as in ‘the HR function needs to be brave’.   What does it take to be brave? Are HR practitioners capable of this? What would be in it for them if they were?  Does the report miss an opportunity to explore this offering real practical examples and suggestions on what it takes to become a brave HR function?

 Point of View Paper The Slingshot Effectand research report Fit For Change. Both pieces tackle ‘trying to get momentum for transformation out of the ongoing meta-crises.’   (From Prophet)

The two reports cover similar ground on what it takes to make transformative change, using their Human Centred Transformation Model™. They use the analogy of the human individual, talking about organisational DNA, mind, body and soul. The Fit for Change report offers some suggestions for making the transformational change and there’s a ‘new model for change fitness’ that would make an interesting workshop discussion, that talks about obstacles, milestones, journeys, flows, and plays. The Slingshot report offers four pathways to create organisational resilience. Again, this would make the basis of a structured workshop discussion, particularly if it focused on what would taking each of the four pathways mean in practice (and are we already on one of the paths).  

 However, having said this, what I’m left with after reading these two reports is some unease with the implied promise that there are easy answers – ‘follow this path and you’ll get there.’ Is this true?  To my mind, we are all currently, in a massive learning experiment. We don’t know yet what the impact of the last year is or will be, we are feeling our way. 

Remember the lines from the poem by Antonio Machado, ‘Traveler, there is no path, The path is made by walking. By walking the path is made’ ?  I wonder if there are ways of giving ourselves and each other confidence that ‘feeling our way’ is the only way and we must do this collaboratively, collectively and reflectively?  This question left me to ponder another question: how do we give ourselves and each other confidence to work in a situation where there is no prior path (and no right answer)?

 The ebook  fromOrgvue produced in support of their Hybrid Working Future campaign – ‘The hybrid working blueprint offers ‘5 steps to make hybrid working work for your business strategy’. I’ve written before on hybrid working so won’t repeat here. What the orgvue report offers, beyond the 5 steps, is a SaaS platform/solution on which you can make people related ‘data-driven decisions on how to continuously adapt and do better in the future’. In some organisations I’ve worked in, orgvue has been in use so I have some familiarity with it   

 The questions that I’m mulling having read their report are around the data that is captured – how is it interpreted and by whom?  The point made by statistician, Nate Silver sprang to mind, ‘The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.’[1] The report notes that ‘In this blueprint, we’ve outlined the main steps today’s organizations need to take to fully capture the opportunities hybrid working offers’. If we imbue the data with meaning and we are only looking for opportunities, then how will we see the possible down-sides, risks and consequences (positive and negative)  of it?’  

Maven7-OrgMapper offers Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). They  sent me a ‘primer’ on ONA and the features of Org Mapper. Incidentally, their  email gave me a new word ‘videomonials’ which was fun.   The primer is a useful intro to the topic – ‘It enables leaders to look beyond the traditional hierarchies of their organization and drive enhanced collaboration through in-depth analysis of the organization’s formal and informal networks.’

 Much work is going on around ONA, see for example, Rob Cross’s extensive work on it.  My view is that ONA will be of growing benefit in organisation design work, but along with the strengths of looking at organisation through networks of influence, it also has caveats around data interpretation, see a 2010 research paper on this Analyzing the Flow of Knowledge with Sociometric Badges which though old highlights the concerns which are still pressing. 

What have you reviewed and reflected on this week? Let me know.   

  [1] Silver, N., The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction, Penguin, 2013

Image: Simon Hennessey

Cultural influencers: how to shift and sustain organisational culture

Graffiti – crime or culture?

The research team at non-profit APQC is conducting a study on how organizations shift and sustain organisational culture. As part of their research, they are conducting interviews ‘with a range of individuals who have expertise and experience related to organisational culture.’ They invited me to participate and I talked with Elissa Tucker of APQC, last week. 

She had a set of interview questions to go through with me, as she said, ‘in order to gain your insights on this topic’.   For the most part, I enjoy these types of interviews. Once I came across a phrase ‘When I hear what I say, I’ll know what I think’, which seems to hold true for me.  The act of formulating a point of view in a way that transmits seems to clarify my thoughts.  Here are the questions with aspects of my answers and further resources.   

  1. How do you define organisational culture?   There’s no simple answer to this question.  There are multiple definitions of organisational culture ranging from ‘the way we do things round here’ to elaborate paragraphs that include behaviours, values, assumptions, norms and expectations.   I’m of the view that there is no singular organisational culture. An organisation is similar to a climate zone in that, within a recognisable range/geography, it encompasses multiple weather patterns that vary from location to location and day to day.  Organisations comprise multiple cultures, within recognisable parameters.
  2. Who defines an organisation’s ideal/desired culture?  Sometimes a strong CEO can set the tone of the culture.  Think about the ex CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, for example. He resigned, having been held accountable for a culture of harassment.  But even if the CEO does set the tone, that does not mean that everyone subscribes to it.  There are many other influencers that act to define organisational cultures – national cultures, professional cultures and networks of interest cultures are some of them.
  3. Why is culture important? Cultures shape, reflect and represent prevailing expectations, norms and behaviours, and, in turn, are shaped by systems, processes, rules, policies and structures. Their importance lies in the way they enable, or disable a healthy organisational life to play out.
  4. Do you see increasing awareness of the role culture plays? Yes, in relation to discussions going on now about the Covid-19 world.  Particularly in relation to maintaining or developing a sense of affiliation and ‘belonging’ to an organisation when a proportion of the workforce is now working remotely without the day-to-day and face-to-face interactions with colleagues.  There’s also a growing awareness that over-focus on hybrid working could cause cultural fractures in cases where some organisational members can work remotely and others cannot by virtue of the roles they have.  Additionally, I’ve seen a recent rise in the number of references to ‘toxic cultures’. (See my blog on this).
  5. Do you have any advice on making sceptics see the value of investing in culture? Everyone is investing or disinvesting in culture all the time, we are each engaged by, and enmeshed in, our cultures – we can’t escape them.  By deciding to, for example, ‘follow the rules’ you are maintaining your investment in that cultural norm.  Or if you decide to buck the rules you are culturally disinvesting.  Often the investment or disinvestment is not recognised as such, but it is still powerful.  There’ve been some examples of disinvestment in cases involving What’s App usage when cultural values of inclusion and respect have been challenged by exclusive and disrespectful What’s App exchanges. 
  6. What do you see as the key levers that shape organisational culture?  Johnson and Schole’s cultural web is a useful tool to start considering the levers of organisational cultures.  Too often culture is seen simply as beliefs, or behaviours, or values, but these are shaped by control, power, and organisational systems which are themselves part of the culture.  Suppose you consider the culture of responsibly driving a car on a road.  Your driving ‘culture’ is shaped by road signage, enforceable speed restrictions, road layout, etc.  The driving cultures vary by country depending on the systems which shape driver behaviour and also on the way certain driving apps are configured.  Cultures are shaped in many different ways – I hesitate to say there are ‘key levers’ – cultures are continuously emergent, shaping and being shaped by their context.
  7. Which individuals or groups are “key influencers” of organisational culture?  Finding the  key influencers of organisational culture is a task that can be aided by social network analysis.  I4CP recently published a report (unfortunately behind a paywall) on Five Ways Networks Create Culture – it concludes,  ‘Senior leaders who want to enact culture change must be prepared to learn about the many cultural undercurrents in their organisations. They need a clear understanding of their cultural subnetworks, a willingness to identify and engage with informal influencers, a sense of the absorption rate of new priorities and behaviors, an ability to defuse pockets of tension, and a profound awareness of emotional responses.’

Alongside the internal cultural influencers there are external cultural influencers – think of rise of  ‘influencers’ on Instagram, for example, or the role of activist investors.

8. What is the role of organisational subcultures? Do they need to be managed?  I am not sure that cultures and sub-cultures can be managed.  They are not ‘things’ amenable to ‘management’.  They are more like rivers that can be harnessed and shaped but the ramifications and consequences of doing this are unpredictable

9. People often talk about “changing the culture” but don’t know where to start. What would you tell them?  Again,  the Johnson and Scholes web could help.  For example – listen to the stories about the organisation, try telling different stories. Look at the power structures and see if any are restricting cultural movement and so on.  Look at the symbols – change them.  I once worked in an organisation that had in the reception area photos of the 12 (white, male) members of the executive team.  Part of the organisational rhetoric was about everyone being valued.  Believing in the power of symbols, I suggested that if this was the case, we take down the pictures of the 12 executive team members and replace it with a photomontage of the entire workforce.  My suggestion was not accepted, but consider the impact of different visual symbols as reflectors of culture in practice rather than culture in rhetoric. 

10. How do you think the pandemic and social distancing are affecting organisational culture? Both positively and negatively.  I like the way Zoom puts everyone in the same size rectangle and shuffles the order so that hierarchies get blurred. Or you get insights into colleagues lives through their children wandering into screen view.  But there are also new pressures or work-life balance, mental health, and things around a sense of belonging, as I mentioned earlier.

11. What are your biggest lessons learned from your culture work? That it is an endlessly fascinating exploration with no easy answers, only more questions. 

12. Some organisations are adopting roles dedicated to organisational culture – for example a chief culture officer. Do you think having a role or team specifically focused on culture is beneficial for organisations?  It depends on the organisation, what the purpose of the role is, and how the role-holder shapes the role. 

How would you answer these questions?  Let me know.

Image:  graffiti – crime or culture? 

Getting out of the compression chamber

The same day I read an article titled Culture-war terms can compress complex ideas in an unhelpful way, which was sub-titled, ‘In discussions of group differences and grievances, nuance is vital’, I had a discussion with someone with whom I’m starting a piece of work.  The discussion focused on some of the challenges the work may face.  He was particularly concerned about different stakeholders protecting their interests at all costs.

Later that same day I had a discussion with someone else who was curious to know whether I felt collaborative on-line working i.e. via Zoom or similar, provoked polarisation of views, and unexplored misunderstandings amongst people, heightening tensions amongst them.   

Both people wanted to know whether there were organisation design methods and tools that could lead away from polarisation and towards something more productive.

The article mentioned above, opens ‘If you set out to design a drearily predictable identity-politics ding-dong in a laboratory, you could do little better than the one that broke out in Britain on June 22nd.’ And goes on to discuss the phrase ‘white privilege’. 

It continues, ‘In the raging culture wars, “white privilege” is now among the many phrases lobbed like online grenades between opposing camps. Since the combatants cannot agree on what it means, it is not surprising that there is no consensus on whether it exists and what should be done about it. …  The problem with these terms is their compression. They are signposts rather than arguments, only making sense in the context of more elaborate reasoning .’

The word that stood out for me in that extract is ‘compression’.   Technology mediated communication is compressed – by screen size as in Zoom rectangles, by written word length restrictions as in tweets, by substitutions of words for emojis and by compressed time – our instinct is to immediately respond to/comment on something.

Suppose we recognised we are in a compression chamber, one that fosters outrage, indignation, entrenched positions, hasty judgements, and so on:  what steps could we take to get out of it in order to develop reflective, patient, empathetic, generative attitudes and more ‘elaborate reasoning’? 

There are techniques and methods used in organisation design work that could help.  Three of them are:  facilitated face to face interactions where people listen to and work with people with differing views from their own, practice in critical and creative thinking (and related skills), community building activity.  I’ll briefly discuss each of these and offer some resources I’ve found useful.   

Facilitated face to face interactions:  accepting that current constraints mean that face to face meetings may be difficult, it is still worth investing in a large group intervention (LGI).   These can be very powerful unlockers of locked positions and I’ve been involved in many and various versions of them, including Future Search, World Cafe, hackathons, jams, and others.

They are both scary (if you are the facilitator) and huge fun (when they work well).   LGIs share 6 attributes:

  1. They are collaborative, large scale, inquiries – typically involving multiple stakeholders.
  2.  They create alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues. 
  3. They demonstrate the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process. 
  4. They provide a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. 
  5. They are large groups – more than 30 – where it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact.  
  6. They are time-bound events.   

You can listen to an excellent interview with Barbara Bunker – one of the leaders in the LGI field here on the theory and practice of them.

There’s also a wonderful write up of a Future Search conference with IKEA –  ‘In this case, the world’s only global furniture retailer, IKEA, created in a single  meeting a new system for product design, manufacture, and distribution, agreeing to decentralize an agglomeration of “silos” that no longer served effectively. This was not simply a meeting to validate what top management already had thought up. People who had never met before created something that had not existed. Some 52 stakeholders examined the existing system, developed a new system, created a strategic plan, and formed task forces led by key executives to implement it. In 18 hours, the plan was made, validated, and signed off by the company president, key people from all affected functions, and several customers.’ 

Giving time and space to practice critical and creative thinking (and related skills).   There are many ways of learning some of these skills, some I’ve found work are:

  • The ability to challenge assumptions is one of the skills of a critical thinker.   I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago.  I am consciously practicing challenging the various assumption my own ‘confederacy of selves’ holds.   (I came across the term ‘confederacy of selves’ in a Knowledge Project clip on decision making with Sendhil Mullainatham  who used it). Recognising and challenging assumptions is hard but useful as of often leads to softening an entrenched position.   
  • Choosing to be a learner not a judger.  Over the weekend, I went to someone’s house and she had on her toilet wall a poster about learner/judger mindsets which was lovely to see – I rushed home to find my book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams, which elaborates on this. 
  • Use packs of cards to encourage different thinking.  Some I’ve used are Tension and Practice cards, Oblique Strategies,  Creative Whackpack  and De Bono’s six thinking hats all of which encourage thinking outside your current frame of reference.
  • There are a number of other resources that support critical thinking and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute is a wonderful source of 21 of them.  I’ve found polarity mapping (interdependent pairs), the four truths ‘that help you understand different perspectives that influence individual and group action’, , and conflict circles are three that I use repeatedly in my work. 

Community building activity: There’s a lot to be learned from the non-profit sector in community building on projects and amongst stakeholders.  Take a look, for example, at 8 ways to unlock the power of community (a WEF article).  And Steve Skinner’s article ‘How can we build strong communities?

Other sources of community building come from co-working spaces (e.g. WeWork) which employ community managers whose role is to build a sense of connectedness amongst the different users of the space.  Roles like this act to find common ground, via social activities, info sharing or similar.   

(When I worked at SiloSmashers, one of the community building activities we had was a skills share – individuals would hold a lunchtime session on non-work topic they enjoyed and that they thought others might be interested in – making an authentic curry, or wine tasting, or learning to ride a unicycle – that informal interaction goes a long way towards developing kindly relationships). 

I’ve touched on three methods of leaving a compression chamber – what are the ones you use that work to build connections, empathy, and generative thinking.  Let me know.

Image: https://www.hsa.ie/eng/Your_Industry/Diving/Diving_at_Work/Emergency_Plans/Compression_Chambers/

Organisation Design: Spreading the Word

In June this year, I was contacted on LinkedIn by Ivan Stefanović, one of the Program Directors of the HR Week event, to be held in a virtual environment (sneak peek here) on 22-26 November, 2021. The event is organized in 5 thematic days – Strategic HR, People-Centric HR, Digital HR, HR Development, and C-Level Day. The target audience is HR Practitioners in South Eastern Europe.  Ivan wanted to know if I would speak at the event on an organisation design topic 

Sadly, I haven’t visited or worked in many countries in that geography, but talking with Ivan suggests that the challenges organisation designers and HR practitioners face there are similar to the ones I’ve seen in countries I have worked in, so I agreed to deliver a 15-minute keynote, that ‘would help strengthen the position of HR as a strategic business function’.  

One of the things they offer in return for my participation is to have my books and other materials promoted within the e-library section of the event.  An ideal opportunity to spread the organisation design word amongst HR practitioners, and prompting me to comb through the year July 2020 – July 2021 to re-discover what I’d actually done – apart from comply with various coronavirus-related restrictions.    

I discovered I’ve done quite a lot.  As I did no face to face anything from 1 July 2020 until 1 July 2021 everything was virtual/online and is recorded somewhere.  Although some of it is on closed circulation, others of it can be freely viewed, read, listened to.  This following is a selection of my publicly available material, that I think will help spread the word on organisation design, that I’ll forward to HR week for their e-learning site.  

Making remote work #20 (Re) designing remote work This is one of a series led by the Organisational Design Community and hosted by Iulia Istrate, Skills for Mars.  It is a public service video-podcast in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Iulia says, ‘In this episode, we discuss the organisational issues surfaced by the pandemic and then move on to more practical advice on organisational (re)design that supports working remotely in all its forms. My guests are Naomi Stanford, Matthew Skelton, and Milan Guenther.’ 

What happens when Silver Bullets meet theory and practice?.. This was billed as, ‘Join Naomi Stanford & Steve Hearsum as we discuss what happens when a client’s need for an ‘expert’ with ‘answers’ meets reality.’   The questions we considered include: How far is the projection of expertise useful and when does it become an ethical consideration? What can we learn from our experiences as consultants and practitioners about how to work with clients’ expectations, however unrealistic they might be? What happens, as it has with Naomi, when guru status is conferred and how does that amplify the problem? In amongst all the theories, can there ever be one that passes for a Silver Bullet?

There were two webinars, catering for different time-zones.  The recording to the first webinar held on the 9th October 2020 is here and the second one on the 14th October 2020 here.  Because each was a free-flowing conversation, the content is different in the two.

In Conversation with Q5: The Future Workplace is Hybrid – Are You Ready?  A panel discussion considering:

  • The opportunities and risks of ‘hybridity’
  • What hybrid working looks like in different contexts
  • Hybrid working versus flexible working
  • The impact of hybrid working on culture
  • Creating your blueprint for the hybrid workforce

The recording of the webinar is here.  I also wrote a blog on this event, which you can read here.

Organisation Design 101: A Conversation with Naomi Stanford  Mee-Yan Cheung Judge of Quality & Equality asked me to contribute to her ‘Just in Case’ series of videos.   In this one I introduce the concept of Organisation Design by answering five questions: What is organisation design and what is its history? How do practitioners do organisation design? Are there examples of organisations known for good practice in organisation design? How do you become an organisation design practitioner?

Pandemic Response – Impact on Organisation Design: A Conversation with Naomi Stanford   This is the second video I did for the Just in Case series.  In it I unpack how the pandemic has had an impact on organisation design through answering the following questions: What is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and other context factors on organisation designs? How are some organisations responding? What should organisation design practitioners be helping with now?

Intersection20  Reflections on the pattern of leaving  This was a conference presentation for the Intersection20 conference.  In their book Enterprise Design Patterns, the authors discuss 35 patterns that they’ve noticed in their enterprise design work.  One of these patterns is ‘Leaving’. Their opening statement on ‘Leaving’ is, ‘You have been working as an Enterprise Designer for a while now. After some time, you realise there is a mismatch between you and the environment you work in.’ They suggest leaving the work.

In this session I pick up on ‘Leaving’ and discuss it from several angles, based on my experience as an external consultant, as an internal consultant, as an ethical/values based statement, in terms of career enhancement/limitation of the individual, the courage it takes to leave, and so on.

IPC The Human Capital Hub Q & A with Dr. Naomi Stanford on Culture Transformation   Watch this video to find out more on whether organisation culture can be ‘designed’ or whether it just ‘is’.  During the discussion we touch on types of culture, whether an organisation has one culture or many cultures, and why ‘culture’ is so important to organisation effectiveness.

IPC The Human Capital Hub Organisational Design Q&A with Dr Naomi Stanford Watch this video to get more details on identifying the dysfunctional aspects of workflow, procedures, structures and systems and ways in which these can be realigned to fit the current business realities or goals as well as developing plans to implement design changes.

Three webinars I did for Caliber Consulting.   In order to view the recordings, you will have to click on the link, register and then you will be able to view the recordings (very simple).

AIHR Organisational Development Certificate Programme. This is a training programme which I and Giles Slinger developed. The organisation design unit comprises 4 modules where participants learn how to recognize the triggers for organisation design, through selecting the right model, to applying the Org Design process and overcoming common obstacles.

CXO Magazine Designing organisational agility This was an article I wrote that discusses the ways organisation design can help go beyond the surface-level of this century’s buzziest word (agile) and design a truly agile organisation.  To do this enterprises need to understand the intricacies of agility. And beyond that, examine whether an agile approach is likely to benefit their organisation at all.

Designing organisations: why it matters and how to do it well, is the title of the book I wrote during the year which will be published in March 2022.

What resources do you use that help spread the organisation design word? Let me know.

Forthcoming OD app

From Quality & Equality website

Mee-Yan Cheung Judge, Quality and Equality, is developing an organisation development app.  She has asked me to contribute a section on organisation design, saying ‘the purpose of what you write is to help users to get to understand what your specialism is, what are the required competences needed if they want to be like you – a specialist in Org Design, and tips on how they can pursue their mastery in this area.  As number of other contributors are doing similarly for their specialism and for app design purpose, we need the same structure for each piece:

 Part 1    – share a short personal journey how you get to have mastery in this area (what evoked your interest, why org design. etc)

Part 2 – what is org design, definition and what does this specialism do., a bit of the field history if there is any?

Part 3 – What are the required competences any org design specialist should have eventually?

Part 4 – what does one need to do to develop themselves + few resources if they want to know more?

I said to other contributors that this is NOT an academic article, this should be a practical, accessible guide to people who want to be organisation design specialists.   A simplified road map to help them know enough to begin their route and then know how to navigate to achieve their specialism.’

That’s a tall order in a short number of words (approx 1900) but I said I’d give it a go.   So, I’ll try out a slightly shorter version here to get feedback from you before I send on to Mee-Yan (with any of your thoughts included).

Part 1: My journey into organisation design accelerated when I worked for British Airways, (1996 – 2001) as an internal consultant.  One of my colleagues there was interested in organisation design and ran a couple of programmes for the consulting teams. 

I’d been heading into the design direction without fully realising it for probably the 15 years before.  My first career was in adult education and from there I moved into managing learning and development functions, but came to the conclusion (maybe contentious?!) that learning and development on its own does not necessarily lead to organisational change, although it may be of great benefit to the individual, or groups of individuals (as in team development).  

You’ve probably all experienced leaving a course on a high with all sorts of intentions of doing things differently back in the workplace, only to be stymied by systems, structures, policies, controls, and all the stuff that makes organisation design.  (Sometimes described as the formal elements, with learning/development/culture/behaviours as the informal elements).   

Thinking that organisations change only when there is a combination of intentional shaping of both the formal and informal elements of them, I got interested in systems and did a couple of Open University courses in systems approaches.  One I recommend now is the Post Graduate Diploma in Systems Thinking in Practice.

Part 2:  Thus, systems were in my interests, but a process and framework for applying systems change into the design work wasn’t there until the British Airways courses.  Then it was.   

Since leaving BA, I’ve taken many other learning paths around organisation design. You can read more about what I’ve found works for in my blog on the topic here.

I now define organisation design as ‘intentionally arranging people, work and formal organisational elements to effectively and efficiently achieve a business purpose and strategy.’ There are countless other definitions of organisation design.  But that’s the one that seems most appropriate for the analogies and methods that I use.

Accepting that organisations are systems and that systems thinking helps in design work enables designers ‘to step back from the system they are in, think about what they are trying to achieve in relation to the bigger picture, and collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders … encouraging them to assess and question the existing system – the boundaries, perspectives and relationships that could be relevant to addressing their design issues and opportunities.[1]   

Note that systems thinking includes thinking about the culture, behaviours and informal elements and, more specifically, how the formal elements are instrumental in shaping these (and vice versa).  It is not possible to do organisation design work without doing organisation development work.  Although it is possible to do organisation development work without doing organisation design work – but it may not be as effective as hoped.   See my blog on the relationship between organisation design, organisation development and change management here .

The field history of organisation design is problematic and contested partly because it depends on what we mean by organisation design.  Another of my blogs discusses this question.  Suffice it to say that we are moving from descriptors of organisations as mechanical systems and pyramid hierarchies (the language of pulling levers, triggers, chains of command) that can be manipulated,  towards descriptors of organisations as networks, collaborations, and complex adaptive systems that ‘emerge’ and can only, perhaps, be shaped. 

Part 3:  Mee-Yan describes competences as ‘the characteristics that define successful per­formance by a professional practitioner. It delin­eates who practitioners need to be, what they need to know, and what they must be capable of doing. It is a detailed description of an ideal performer.’    The Organisation Design Community certifies org design practitioners on evidence of practical experience.  It does not list required competences.  

The UK’s CIPD has an HR Profession Map with one of the specialisms being Organisation Development and Design.   This is at four levels and, rather than competences, states ‘what you’ll understand’ by category at each of the levels.  For example, at the Associate level, one thing you’ll understand is the ‘Macro trends that impact the design of organisations (eg sustainability, geopolitical, demographic, technology)’.

I don’t know if you can get to a ‘detailed description of an ideal organisation design performer’, as the work requires different competences in different contexts and situations.  My view is that critical thinking, and curiosity are required.  I read about the necessary attributes for a diplomat – ‘objectivity and scepticism’ and I thought they were apt for organisation designers. (Maybe org designers need similar skils to diplomats?)   

Another attribute organisation designers need is the ability to wield credible influence – all too frequently internal organisation designers are in a more junior position than people they are aiming to advise and their skills, knowledge and experience are side-lined.  External organisation design consultants typically do have credibility and influence but are not familiar enough with the organisational context to execute/implement the design.  More successful design work blends external and internal expertise.  Again, a couple of my blogs talk more on this.

So, there’s a sketch of three of the parts Mee-Yan is interested in for her app.  Any comments on this, let me know.


[1] How systems thinking enhances systems leadership, Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The questions are: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunities in crisis: take actions (part 1)

Keith Haring, Actions

Last week I offered a list of seven actions to help organisation designers take advantage of the opportunities in crises. 

  1. Think systems
  2. Encourage rebels
  3. Recognise complexity
  4. Experience the cultures
  5. Challenge assumptions
  6. Stop the swirling
  7. ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

This week, gives more on the first four of these, suggesting why each is useful and ways to develop skills in taking the action. 

Think systems: ‘Silos’ and ‘Silo-ed thinking’, are frequently heard words in organisation design. Leaders want to break down organisational silos. Several years ago, I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers and it may have been there that my conviction that systems thinking is a required attribute of organisation designers, got accelerated. 

In my forthcoming book I talk more on the phrase ‘systems thinking’ which has many challengers. However, a practical start-point is to accept that organisations are systems – that is, they are composed of inter-related and interdependent elements, ‘linked together by dynamics that produce an effect, create a whole new system or influence its elements’. Designing being clear that an organisation is a system, which is part of wider systems mitigates against silos. If you want to learn more about systems then a good (free) start-point is a short Open University downloadable course Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice.

Encourage rebels:  When I offered this suggestion at a conference of government leaders. It caused great amusement and some bafflement.  Why would an employer want to encourage rebels in the work force? My observation is that if you want to change an organisation, you have to look for people who are kicking against the way it is and channel their energies into helping make the changes. There’s a very good website Rebels at Work, with multiple examples of why rebels are good for organisations.

My thinking on this was triggered years ago – not by one of my first managers who told me I was ‘unmanageable’ (not as a compliment!) – but by Debra Meyerson’s research on tempered radicals. Her book Rocking the boat: how tempered radicals effect change without causing trouble , although a bit dated, is well-worth reading. Good rebels are crucially important in offering alternative views, recognising inconsistencies, being curious and questioning, and usually energetic in their activism.  I came across a quote by Vladimir Nabokov the other day, ‘Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form’. Yes, hierarchical organisations try to weed out the curious – to the disadvantage of the organisation.   

One of the first actions you could take to encourage rebels is to print off copies of a wonderful Tanmay Vora graphic in his blog Sketchnote: ‘what rebels want from their boss‘ and stick it on every notice board in your building (or as a screen saver). Go on, I dare you.   See also What makes a good rebel? Consider becoming one yourself.

Recognise complexity: If you’ve ever read a short story by Ray Bradbury, The Sound of Thunder, you’ll start to get the idea of complexity. I read it first in my early teens and it’s one that’s stuck with me ever since.  In the story, a butterfly was accidentally crushed by a big game hunter who travelled back in time to pursue a tyrannosaurus rex. The insect’s death had haunting consequences that rippled through 65 million years to change, among other things, written English and the results of an election. Nothing was quite the same, as the hunter found when he returned to his 2055 departure date.  

If you’re not sure how to apply the idea of complexity, one activity is to use the Futures Wheel, created by Jerome Glenn, to identify the potential consequences of trends and events, but you can also use it in decision making (to choose between options) and in change management (to identify the consequences of change).  Another is to use the Hyper Island tool Unintended Consequences.  Either of these tools will be useful in generating rich design options.

Experience the cultures: Originally, I had this action as ‘understand the cultures’. Now, reflecting on my conversation with Memory Nguwi on cultural transformation that we had the other day, I’ve changed it to ‘experience the cultures’.   (Listen to the discussion, on Human Capital Hub here).

 I’ve changed it because I’m not sure it is possible to understand the cultures?  You can only experience them and then try and convert the experience into words or visuals that are transmissable in a way that will give others a flavour of your experience in order for them to see if it matches theirs.  If you can get to some common flavour of experience it makes it easier to look for opportunities to reshape the culture.

Think about the weather. You can describe it in terms of metrics – temperature, humidity, likelihood of rainfall, windspeed, and so on. But the metrics don’t convey an individual’s experience of that weather – which may depend on a number of factors and may differ from another individual’s experience of that same weather.  Similarly, you can do cultural surveys e.g. Human Synergistics Organisational Culture Inventory, that describe the cultures in various metrics, but they do not provide much insight into how individuals experience the cultures. 

Notice I’ve used organisational cultures as a plural. I don’t think an organisation has one culture that can be transformed via a single label as in ‘a culture of collaboration’, or ‘a toxic culture’. Organisations have multiple cultures, perhaps with common threads running through them,  that are shaped by national cultures, professional cultures, and social network cultures and so on.  

The lack of one organisational culture is one reason if someone moves role, within the same organisation, it can feel culturally very different. (Take a look some info on cultural transformation through network analysis.)

Next week I’ll expand a bit on the other three actions: Challenge assumptions, stop the swirling, ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

Meanwhile, what actions will you take to seize the opportunities in crises? Let me know.