Worldview and language

The Organisation Design Forum (ODF) had an Advisory Board conversation last week (14 August), discussing the questions:

  • How have you seen different worldviews (a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint) shape the organization design work that you do? What did you do to help manage where there were differing world views between the client and consultant, or among the people directly involved in the design work?
  • How has language impacted the organization design work that you do? What have you done to help ensure alignment when language has had an impact on the direction or development of the design work?

The broadcast + chat box text are available here .

They’re questions that provoke more questions, rather than any answers and in the last couple of days since the conversation I’ve been noticing instances of different world views and language.   Four I came across stand out:

My pronouns are:  One that caught my attention was someone putting in his signature block ‘My pronouns are he, his, him’, which I hadn’t seen before. I found out that there’s a whole movement to do this and I wonder what impact it will have on organisation culture (and design).

I see, indicating my prounouns  shows ‘an important move towards inclusivity’.  The question then is – if someone doesn’t conform in putting their pronouns in their signature block, how is that judged by others and could not putting your pronouns in your signature block result in being ostracised for not conforming – which says what about inclusivity?

The global gag on free speech is tightening: The Economist this week in its leader ‘Speak up’,  and a longer, related article, ‘The new censors’ tackles the question of free speech and how it is being eroded.   The article mentions Freedom House, ‘an independent watchdog organisation’, which reports:

‘The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack … The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.’

I interpret these issues of free speech as being part and parcel of worldview and language use and it’s not a leap from here to see how worldview and language use help shape and design societies.

At a more local level language use and worldview undoubtedly does impact organisation design work too, but they are not aspects that I’ve seen discussed much in organisation design work.  But they are material.

There are many discussions considering ‘silent stakeholders’ e.g. the environment, future generations, sustainability, etc in organisation design work.  Our worldviews of the silent stakeholders and the language we use with/about them have an impact on the way we design.  See an article Stakeholders’ impact on the environmental responsibility: Model design and testing, and another,  thorough,  research article, The Stakeholder Model Refined, that proposes a different language (and worldview?)  of stakeholders.

Suppose when we were doing stakeholder mapping and analysis we added concepts like ‘gradism’ or ‘HQ/Operations’ or ‘agile methodology language’ and really examined them for their power and influence on the design work – would it result in useful conversations and closer examination of (perhaps assumed) worldviews and language that (maybe) favours one type of organisation design over another?

The new language of the future of work: In the ODF discussion I mentioned a book I’d read a review of on internet language ‘Because Internet’.  The book appears to speak to an emerging worldview both of internet communities and the internet language that shapes their design and culture. The reviewer notes, ‘The “in-group vocabulary” of internet language and memes isn’t just inclusive; its ability to induce a “rush of fellow-feeling” often relies on excluding an out-group, too.’

Richard Baldwin, in an article talks about his new lexicon of work – globotics, telemigrants, white-collar robots.  He says that ‘this wave of globalization doesn’t have an immigration debate attached to it.  It’s about moving people’s capabilities without moving people. These telemigrants are coming for service jobs and a wall won’t stop them! It’s good news if you want to keep out migrants because you can have the work without the workers’.

Does language shape the flow of time? This article notes that ‘when we talk about time, we frame it in terms of space. English speakers look “forward” to good times ahead and leave the past “behind”. A day flies by just as a ball does, while a deadline approaches the same way a tiger might. But the spatial metaphors we use vary from language to language, and some people think those differences affect our perception of time.’

The article pointed me towards Lera Boroditsky’s TED video ‘How language shapes the way we think’.   The point she makes is that ‘people who speak different languages will pay attention to different things, depending on what their language usually requires them to do.’

Seeing this, I remembered that the same point is also made by Robert Kagan and Lisa Lahey in their book How the way we talk can change the way we work: seven languages for transformation .   They say ‘The words we use do more than represent feelings and attitudes. The very choice itself of one word or expression over another can determine feelings and attitudes and – most importantly – actions’

This matters in organisation design work.  If we believe that language choices shape actions, and we believe that designing is taking action, then we need to pay attention to the words we use and the words others use, because how we use the words will shape our designs.

Where these four aspects of worldview and language led me, is to thinking that we (designers), and our clients,’would benefit from taking the time to reflect on our worldview and language before we start to design or redesign – this is even more critical in international organisations.

Let’s really think about the language we use.  What, worldview, for example does the language of agile, lean, or TQ represent?  Do we really want to exercise power by ‘getting people to buy-in’, (see Marie McKendall’s article The tyranny of change: Organizational Development revisited) or be in a ‘chain of command’?   I wonder what a considered, curious and critical discussion on the ethics and implications of worldview and language would yield in terms of doing our organisation design work.

Boroditsky concludes her TED talk saying: ‘It’s about how you think. It’s how the language that you speak shapes the way that you think. And that gives you the opportunity to ask, “Why do I think the way that I do?” “How could I think differently?” And also, “What thoughts do I wish to create?”  ‘

What thoughts do you wish to create in doing your organisation design work?  What worldview and language inform the way you do it?  Let me know.

Image: Testing a worldview, Anthony Gormley 1993

Change management FAQs

I’ve been working, with colleagues, on change management – introducing a structured methodology, developing ‘change agents’, facilitating training, designing a related website, and so on.

In the course of all this I’ve noticed repeated questions coming up from various quarters and I’ve been wondering whether we need a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page.   It seems a straightforward thing to do.  But, as I investigated, I discovered that getting an FAQ page right is not as easy as I first thought and it may be that it’s not needed anyway.  (One website on writing FAQs advises ‘use them as a last resort’, and another says ‘Avoid FAQs’.)

Info on designing FAQ pages is fairly consistent (good to see), offering both advice on the FAQ page layout e.g. think and share visually, plan for scanning, and the part FAQs play in a user support journey e.g. ‘By providing thoughtful answers to commonly asked questions you are making a user comfortable with your firm and starting to build a relationship with a person who may eventually become your client’.

E-consultancy’s advice on FAQ page layout is typical.  Their five tips, each with a good example for each,  are:

  1. Make it visible,
  2. Categorise correctly
  3. Point the user forward
  4. Keep it customer focused
  5. Use personality

Kayako point out the relationship between searching, via a search bar, and FAQs.  They focus the 5 tips on the user support journey (again with a good example to illustrate each). Kayako’s final word is ‘Design for the utter lack of patience that customers have these days. … Doing the hard work to build a more intuitive and readable FAQ starts to pay off immediately.’

Now I’m on the fence about whether or not we need an FAQ page.  I have some real change management questions that I’ve collected that people frequently ask me.  (I’m not going to fall into the trap of presenting a ‘common question’ that isn’t that common but rather something we think is common).  Here are ten of the questions. I’ve aimed to follow the advice – categorising them, keeping the answers brief, and pointing the user forward.

People and change

Are people really resistant to change?  Not in my view. People enjoy change if they choose it for themselves.  Think of your personal life and the things you’ve chosen to change in it.   Even change you didn’t choose you’ve probably come to grips with.   For some ideas on how to encourage change confidence read ‘Why people resist change’.

Is change overload a real thing?  Yes, there can be too much change going on at one time, resulting in stress and burnout.  HBR has a good article ‘Too Many Projects’, with a quiz assessing whether there are too many going on.  People in an organisation I’m working with now, who have taken the quiz, are in complete agreement that there are too many projects.  The challenge remains on how to prioritise them in order to reduce the number.

How can you become an accredited change manager?  There are various certifications and routes available.  For example, the Change Management Institute (CMI) offers 3-levels, and the APMG Certification was developed in partnership with the CMI, the British Computer Society (BCS) offers a course.  Out of curiosity I looked at Business Change Manager and Change Manager jobs on  None that I looked at required the applicant to be accredited in change management.  I wondered why that is.

Processes of change management

Is managing planned change the same as managing unplanned change?  Yes and no.  Typically, planned change is implemented via a programmatic approach – see an excellent workbook with tools and templates on this approach from the Government of Queensland –  and unplanned change is emergent.  But both require people to be adaptive to the losses and gains that either type of change brings. As two researchers note ‘Being able to live with emergent change is particularly important since this type of change offers both the flexibility and the agility needed to cope with unpredictable environmental developments related to increasing [individual, organisational, societal] connectivity.’  These same researchers suggested that we need a new way of thinking and talking about change in organisations:  one that combines planned and emergent change and encompasses people’s needs for some stability within a changing context.

Is change management only about behaviours and emotions?  Again, yes and no.  It depends on the change.  In planned change there is a project plan that ‘outlines the specific activities for defining and prescribing how to move from point A to point B (by changing processes, systems, organization structures or job roles).’ And a simultaneous change plan outlining ‘the steps needed to help the individuals impacted by the change do their jobs in the new way (for example, people transitioning from fulfilling Function A to Function B). See Prosci’s blog on this.  Emergent change – with no project plan – requires cultivation of individual and organisational attributes, including resilience, curiosity, adaptability and energy. (See Organisational Change Management: a critical review) It also requires an understanding of the different role of leadership in emergent compared with planned  processes of change.  (See Leading Emergent Change, Gervase Bushe & Robert Marshak)

Do you need a change management strategy? Yes, for planned change, if you want organisational leaders to work with change using similar concepts, language, and approaches.  Read a  white paper on establishing an organisational change management function and strategy.  For emergent change it is hard to develop a strategy, it is better to develop ‘sense and respond’ capabilities.

Does change management involve organisation design and development?  Yes, if you believe (as I do) that change and change management always involve a degree of design and development.

Outcome of change management

Do change efforts fail?  No, this is a popular myth that has been debunked many times but still sticks.  Mark Hughes has a useful article on the topic.

What makes change efforts work?   There is no easy answer to this one.  In my experience enabling people to manage the stability/change tension and have meaningful say in what is going on makes both planned and emergent change easier to handle. McKinsey’s 2017 article offers some views on planned change efforts, citing ownership and commitment as the most important factors.  At first glance it seems that the factors that lead to planned change success could also be instrumental in effectively handling emergent change. But that is a topic for a longer discussion.

How do you measure the benefits of planned change management activity?  I do not know the answer to this question.  It’s one that I am working on as there is an imperative to show an ROI on the investment in it, and I don’t know of much of value on the topic.  If you do, please advise.

Those are my ten FAQs.  Do they merit an FAQ page?  Or are there are ways of giving the info that doesn’t involve one?  What’s your view of FAQ pages?  Let me know.


Team Topologies: book review

A while ago I received a proof copy of the book Team Topologies, by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais, to comment on.  It’s due out at the beginning of September 2019.  The Amazon info on it says:

‘Effective software teams are essential for any organization to deliver value continuously and sustainably. But how do you build the best team organization for your specific goals, culture, and needs? Team Topologies is a practical, step-by-step, adaptive model for organizational design and team interaction based on four fundamental team types and three team interaction patterns. It is a model that treats teams as the fundamental means of delivery, where team structures and communication pathways are able to evolve with technological and organizational maturity.’

I got hooked into reviewing it for a few reasons a) it appealed to my vanity – the preface opens with a quote from me! And there are others of mine are dotted through the book  b)  Just looking at the contents page brought me new learning:  I had to look up what ‘topology’ meant, and a few minutes later find out more about Conway’s law, covered in detail in the main body of the book)  c)  I was curious about the authors’ offer of  ‘a dynamic and evolving approach to organizational design based on real scenarios from across different geographies and industries.’ And about their hope: ‘As you travel through this book, we hope you get inspired to chal­lenge how to think about teams, their structures, and how they function’ d) I enjoy books that combine theory, practice, and pragmatism which on first skim this book seemed to do.  And the authors say it’s ‘meant to be a functional book. … [with] content that is interactive and delivers as much learning as we are able to fit within these pages’ (236 pages in 8 chapters + Preface and Conclusion).   I’ll cover these four aspects now.

Appeal of the book: Ignoring the appeal to me (via my vanity), would the book appeal to others?  The authors say it is for ‘anyone who cares about the effectiveness of the deliv­ery and operations of software systems.   I take the view that everyone should care about how software systems are designed and operated.  There’s far too much ‘black box’ stuff around technology. (See the article, I mentioned in a previous blog, Inside the black box: Is technology becoming too complicated?)

But how many people in organisations actually do care about effective software systems apart from in the absence of them?  People notice when a system goes down, or when there’s a security breach, or when something goes wrong from their user perspective, and I’m not convinced that their interest goes beyond that.  This seems to imply that the book is for a predominantly digital/tech professional population which is a pity because much of it is applicable to a more general organisation design/leader/manager audience.

One of the aspects I noticed (which may or may not affect the appeal) is maleness of it – all of the (very good) cases studies are presented by men, and there are only a handful of women referenced.  This could reflect the stats around (UK) women in technology,  ‘Only one in six tech specialists in the UK are women, only one in ten are IT leaders and, worse still, despite significant growth in the number of women working in technology and IT roles, female representation in the technology sector has stalled over the last 10 years.’

New learning:  Skelton and Pais say, ‘Experts in organizational behaviour have known for decades that modern com­plex systems require effective team performance.’ In this book, ‘team has a very specific meaning. By team, we mean a stable grouping of between five and nine people who work toward a shared goal as a unit. We consider the team to be the smallest entity of delivery within the organization. Therefore, an organization should never assign work to individu­als, only to teams.’

This is a refreshing take on organisation design – it’s rare, in my experience, that design focuses at the team level and is considered in relation to the team members’ shared goal and appropriate communication structures.  Yet it makes good sense to ‘consider and nurture’ the multiple aspects of team, including ‘team size, team lifespan, team relationships, and team cognition.’

Another aspect the authors discuss in some depth is the cognitive load of teams.  Again, that’s not a focus traditionally born in mind in organisation design – but its one that is of high significance in terms of individual and group resilience.  (See Steven Forth’s blog) They say that ‘ With a team-first approach, we match the team’s responsibilities to the cognitive load that the team can handle. The positive ripple effect of this can change how teams are designed and how they interact with each other across an organization.’

Dynamic and evolving approach:  Part III of the book discusses why ‘organizations must anticipate the need for evolution of team patterns to meet business, orga­nizational, market, technological, and personnel needs’ offering  a variety of approaches for both anticipating and evolving team patterns, including making decisions on when/whether to collaborate with other teams or interact with them as a service provider, using domain driven design (explained in Chapter 6), and sensing.  On this last, the authors say ‘with well-defined and stable communication pathways between teams, organiza­tions can detect signals from across the organization and outside it, becoming something like an organism.’

I absolutely agree that this dynamic and evolving approach is critical, but there are tensions involved – in highly traditional and bureaucratic organisations e.g. many public sector ones, the traditional systems and processes inhibit the possibilities of being dynamic and involving. A point that the authors make – in relation to Conway’s law “Orga­nizations which design systems . . . are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”  The ideas around team design are interdependent with the design of the existing organisation.  (There are no case studies of large, bureaucratic, traditional organisations in the book, though I see the Matthew Skelton has worked in some).

Theory, practice, pragmatism:   The book scores well on the linkages of theory, practice and pragmatism.  There’s a helpful section in the Preface, ‘Key Influences that Informed this Book’

‘First, we assume that an organization is a sociotechnical system or ecosystem that is shaped by the interaction of individuals and teams within it; the authors are firm that they take a humanistic approach

Second, we assume that “the team” is something that behaves differently from a mere collection of individuals – several notable academics and writers are mentioned as sources here.

Third, we assume that Conway’s law (or a variant of it) is a strong driver of software product shape and that organizations would benefit from explicitly addressing the implications of this law.

Finally, we draw on numerous sources that describe practical successes developing and running software systems at scale.’

Overall, I fully recommend the book.  It is clearly written, easy to navigate (with suggestions on how do to so), well-illustrated with figures and graphics, call out and note boxes, and clearly based in author experiences.

What’s your view on designing around teams and a shared team goal? Let me know.

Image: The adaptable form of pleated and folded textiles provides a real world view of the mathematical field of topology. Kate Scardifield

Designing and leading technology enabled organisations – a response

Last Monday (22 July) Nick Richmond, European Organisation Design Forum (EODF), UK Chair, published a blog on LinkedIn ‘Top 3 Organisation Design Leadership Insights’.  He then challenged me (among others) to share my top 3.

The challenge came about because the EODF’s conference theme this year (October 25 and 26) is ‘Designing and leading technology enabled organisations’.  Nick was asked by the conference Dean to share some of his thoughts on this theme – hence his blog plus his challenge to others.  He offered 3 insights:  invest for success, innovation is messy, keep your eye on your ‘why’.

Typically, I began by asking myself some questions:  What do we mean by technology enabled? Are there any organisations that are not technology enabled?  What’s special about designing technology enabled organisations (as opposed to non-technology enabled ones)?  What’s different/the same about leading them? What do we mean by leadership in technology enabled organisations?  And so on.

I got stuck instantly in trying to answer the questions – I couldn’t think of a single UK organisation that isn’t tech enabled in some way.  Technology is almost globally pervasive, ‘The  2018 Global Digital suite of reports from We Are Social and Hootsuite reveals that there are now more than 4 billion people around the world using the internet. Well over half of the world’s population is now online.’

I started again, generating a hypothesis: That technology enabled organisations bring new and unexplored territory – we have no idea how to either design or lead them (and it’s pointless attempting it through any of our current paradigms/frames of reference).

That pointed me in a direction (not true North), more likely north-north-west , and I retrieved the digital maturity model we used in one of my previous organisations, and which helped identify the technology enabled stage we were at and determine which stage we aspired to.

There are many of these types of digital maturity models e.g. Deloitte’s TM Forum’s (remarkably similar to Deloitte’s),  digital leadership  (with 5 levels),  Forrester’s Digital Maturity Model.  They serve to ‘evaluates how well user companies have incorporated digital into their operating models and how effective they are at executing on digital initiatives’.  (Let’s not get hung up on the semantic differences/similarities between ‘digital’ and ‘technology’)

Looking at these, when I think of ‘technology enabled’ in terms of my hypothesis, I am thinking beyond the maturity model ‘levels’.  I’m thinking technology enablement is more on the lines of stuff you read in sci-fi where we are forced to think, as Doug Johnstone, reviewing Ted Chiang’s sci fi book  Exhalation, says, ‘how technology can change the way we think about truth in deep, meaningful ways’.   (Try substituting ‘truth’, in this quote, for other words – ‘leadership’, ‘organisations’, ‘morals’, ‘ethics’, etc.)  and how ‘humans interact with technology’.

From this somewhat disjointed musing, my first insight is – we are woefully underprepared and under-reflecting on the speed and penetration of technology and what the implications of this means for designing and leading organisations.   Anyone in organisation design must keep up with a multitude of technology developments across multi-disciplines (and/or read sci-fi).

Designing technology enabled organisations looks easy if you decide to follow one of the maturity model methodologies.  Forrester’s four levels of digital maturity offers a 3-point ‘action plan’ for each level. You determine your current level by completing a survey.   If you find you are at level 1 and want to progress to level 2, you follow the 3-point ‘action plan’ which comprises:  1. Instil some digital DNA,  2. work outside-in, 3. hack yourself.  Hmm – I looked up an article on Business Bullshit by Andre Spicer and pondered over a submission to Lucy Kellaway’s corporate guff award.

Designing technology enabled organisations is not easy and neither are we in control of designing.  Global Information Infrastructure Commissioner and CEO, Karl Frederick Rauscher, is one of many voices warning of the developing technologies [that] ‘continue to be disruptive, creating new paradigms of economic growth, political liberty and citizen action’. Read his Scientific American piece.  He makes the point that: ‘Concerns regarding how powerful companies may choose to design new technologies are justified, given that their primary interest is to maximize profits for their shareholders. Many of them thrive on not-so-transparent business models that collect and then leverage data associated with users. Tomorrow’s big tech companies will leverage intelligence (via AI) and control (via robots) associated with the lives of their users. In such a world, third-party entities may know more about us than we know about ourselves. Decisions will be made on our behalf and increasingly without our awareness, and those decisions won’t necessarily be in our best interests.’  (See also, Jaron Lanier’s work).

My second insight is – we are attracted to easy looking methods/approaches and a feeling of being in control.   We are not in control and easy looking methodologies are not a good investment of resources.  Instead first broker organisation-wide discussions, encouraging critical thinking to explore the trade-offs you are willing to make, the risks you are incurring, the moral and ethical implications of your journey down a technology designed organisation – try and find out how the technology is designing the organisation and what this means. (Read a short article: Inside the black box: Is technology becoming too complicated?)

Earlier, I said that we had no idea how to design or lead technology enabled organisations.  A research article considers ‘five technologies are transforming the very foundations of global business and the organizations that drive it: cloud and mobile computing, big data and machine learning, sensors and intelligent manufacturing, advanced robotics and drones, and clean-energy technologies.’ The authors say, ‘these technologies are not just helping people to do things better and faster, but they are enabling profound changes in the ways that work is done in organizations. …  Savvy corporate leaders know they have to either figure out how these technologies will transform their businesses or face disruption by others who figure it out first.’

As we get more data driven organisational decisions who will lead on data interpretation and analysis, challenging the data, over-riding ‘the computer says’ to make human driven interventions, etc?   Take employee monitoring as an example: ‘A 2018 survey by Gartner found that 22% of organizations worldwide are using employee-movement data, 17% are monitoring work-computer-usage data, and 16% are using Microsoft Outlook- or calendar-usage data.’  What are the leadership decisions around encouraging employee monitoring, interpreting the results of monitoring, making ethical and moral decisions on its introduction and use …  If we are still thinking as leaders being those in a hierarchy with positional power, then are we confident they all have the skills, knowledge, and aptitudes to have informed discussions on technologies?

My third insight is – traditional positional power leadership is not going to work in technology enabled environments.  People who have informal as well as formal influence, are technology savvy, think critically, and are aware of, and thoughtful about, the social, moral, ethical dilemmas, and are aware of the possible technology enabled futures they are facing will likely lead organisations and they should be encouraged to do so.

What are your three insights around Designing and Leading Technology Enabled Organisations?  Let me + other EODF colleagues + anyone else interested know.

Designing healing organisations

‘We are on the cusp of a massive transformation. …. We are on the edge of tremendous opportunity as well as heart-shattering loss. In the face of this chaos, I believe our organizations today have the power, capacity, and reach to wreak havoc or to heal the planet. Organizations can become a healing force if they choose to be.’

This is part of the opening para to a blog written by Sahana Chattopadhyay that I mentioned in a tweet recently.  Usually, I don’t dwell on the tweet items for long.  They are recorded if I need to refer to them again (tweets make a useful library equivalent), but this one I found myself pondering.

I’ve been wondering what she means by organisations becoming ‘a force for healing’.  Reading on, she seems to mean that they could heal society’s suffering as well as organisational suffering.  And before healing comes acknowledgement of suffering – which could be a stretch.  Recognising the suffering of employees can be problematic, let alone society as a whole.  (Some UK figures on work related stress show this is increasing).

So, I mulled over the question I posed in my tweet – ‘Is there a will to design organisations as a force for healing?’ from three perspectives:

The Project Manager Perspective:  Chattopadhyay discusses six ‘constructs that need to shift for organizations to become thrivable  in the VUCA world. For organizations to become places of heartfelt work done with joy, passion, and love. For organizations to become truly relevant and regenerative’.   The six are:

  • Shift from economic growth to holistic well-being as a measure of success
  • Shift from “forced hierarchy” to “natural hierarchy”
  • Shift from fear to trust and love
  • Shift from optimization to human transformation
  • Shift from [a mechanistic view] to an Ecosystem View
  • Shift from “action orientation” to “being orientation”

My project manager-self notices a ‘from’ state to a ‘to be’ state, implying a detailed transition plan with interdependencies mapped, benefits realisation statements and risks logs.  But at what level are we talking about here?  I think at a whole organisation.  But then I ask to what timescale do we envisage this happening?  How many workstreams will we need?  What will be the cost in time, human endeavour and other resources?  I don’t see this as being a viable, deliverable project.

The organisation development perspective:In 2009 Margaret Wheatley wroteWe continue to be confronted by the complexities of our interconnected fates, resisting solutions. Our hearts continue to be challenged by the terrible things that humans should not be doing to other humans. Our Western worldview of material ease and endless progress has been shaken. Economic failures have worsened life not only for ourselves but everywhere in the world, among those who knew abundance and those who knew only poverty.’

For Wheatley healing is about achieving ‘a world where more people would be free from suffering—the physical suffering of poverty, disease, and loss, and the emotional suffering of ignorance, mis-perception, and invisibility.’

I wonder whether things have improved at all in the ten years since she wrote that?  It’s hard to give a conclusive picture – take poverty, for example, in the UK ‘The Trussell Trust’s food bank network provided 658,048 emergency supplies to people in crisis between April and September 2018, a 13% increase on the same period in 2017.’  But the World Bank reports ‘The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10 percent in 2015 — the latest number available — down from 11 percent in 2013, reflecting steady but slowing progress.’

If we agree with Wheatley that the world is suffering then do we agree it is incumbent on organisations to be part of a ‘healing movement’, and what would that mean in practice?  Wheatley herself suggests that ‘great healing is available when we listen to each other. … Listening is such a simple act. …  We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available’.

There are examples of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have success in helping societies heal via listening to testimonies of people.  I have not seen any similar organisational examples but it could be an idea worth exploring?

The organisation design perspective:  Raj Sisodia (FW Olin Distinguished Professor of Global Business Babson College Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus Conscious Capitalism Inc.)  writes and talks about ‘The Healing Organisation’.  In a TEDX talk he provocatively says ‘if we do not consciously choose to be part of the healing, we are probably inadvertently part of the hurting’.  I’d be surprised if organisation designers wanted to be known for designing ‘hurting’ organisations but what does Sisodia offer in terms of designing healing ones?  Not much in terms of specifics we could design to.  He offers examples of organisations he considers either ‘healing’ or ‘conscious capitalists’ but I couldn’t quite workout which.  Nevertheless, they may serve as case studies to discuss (they’re all American) and include Pay ActiveAppletree, and Ram Construction.

Differently, the authors of a chapter in a book Virtuous Organisations, define organisational healing as ‘the actual work of repairing and mending the collective social fabric of an organization after experiencing a threat or shock to its system’.  In their thinking, it’s not the ongoing design process taking an organisation from suffering to healthy.  Their work ‘uncovers four themes of organizational healing that reflect an organization’s capacity for virtuousness: reinforcing the priority of the individual, fostering high quality connections, strengthening a family culture, and initiating ceremonies and rituals.’ All of these four are designable, and worth considering in if we’re thinking about healing organisations after sudden shock.

Another avenue to pursue could be around self-healing of ecosystems – it’s perhaps too futuristic to imagine that organisations could ‘build tools and platforms that can automatically monitor their … environments and make intelligent real-time operational decisions to remedy the problems they identify’.  Netflix, however, claims to have done this for its production environment.  (I deleted the word ‘production’ in the quote above to give a better flavour of a possible future).

After all this musing I’m left not much the wiser about designing healing organisations.  It seems a ‘good idea’ but is it ‘deliverable’.  Perhaps that doesn’t matter, we should just aim to design organisations that don’t foster suffering.  I enjoyed Margaret Wheatley’s story ‘Years ago, the Dalai Lama counseled a group of my colleagues who were depressed about the state of the world to be patient. “Do not despair,” he said. “Your work will bear fruit in 700 years or so.”

What’s your view of healing organisations?  Can we design them?  Let me know.

Image:  Tibetan Healing Mandala

Five myths of organisation design – part 2

Last week I explored one of five organisation design myths  – that design is about the organisation chart – through asking Robert Segal’s three questions

  • Those of origin – why and how myth arises
  • Those of function – why and how the myth persists.
  • Those of need – what need does the myth fulfil and what need makes it last by continuing to fulfil

I was looking at the myths as I’m doing a webinar on them and the date is looming.  I have to get the slides ready to send this week.  So, in what a friend calls a ‘twofer’ (i.e. two for one), I’m going to explore the other four briefly here, in order to give me the info for the webinar.   (Note that I’ve derived these myths from my experience – they’re not underpinned by extensive, empirical research).

The four are:

  • Leaders are in the best position to decide the design of an organisation
  • Organisation design is an intermittent process
  • Redesigning an organisation will solve its problems
  • There’s a right way to do organisation design

The myth that leaders are in the best position to decide the design of an organisation probably originates in the ‘heroic leader’ model of leadership.   In this model senior executives act as if they have all the answers and ‘use the power of their position to make decisions unilaterally … in a culture that worships the ability to score goals, usually in the form of advancing compelling solutions to problems, while downplaying facilitation [and reflection] as not being real work.’   The myth persists possibly because people are drawn to hero figures and we need them for various reasons.  See Heroes: what they do and why we need them.

However heroic leadership doesn’t result in a well-designed organisation, because no leader can know enough about the day to day operational work of the organisation to make design decisions alone (or at the executive-only level). Designing requires insight and participation from a diversity of employees and other stakeholders who represent the differing points of view/experiences in the organisation.  See Realising the Impact of Organisation Design: ten questions for business leaders.

Organisation design is an intermittent process – this myth seems to arise from an old belief that organisations are fairly stable and that a new design can solve a presenting significant problem and once that’s ‘solved’ equilibrium will be restored and the design can stay as is until another significant presenting problem arises.

This myth persists, I think, because there’s not much teaching/learning for leaders/managers about design as a continuous process.  Nor do they recognise that continuous design is increasingly necessary today because, as Nick Tune a blog writer says, ‘Modern organisations need to move fast, continuously getting feedback from customers …  in constantly evolving competitive markets, customer needs are always changing. Organisations must continuously adapt.’ He offers an approach to continuous organisation design based on Simon Wardley’s strategy maps. From my observations and experience, the myth fulfils the perceived need – often reinforced in performance objectives – to pay more attention to business as usual/taking action and less attention to reflection, learning and challenging – all necessary to keep organisations flourishing.

Redesigning an organisation will solve its problems.  As a McKinsey article notes ‘redesigns that merely address the immediate pain points often end up creating a new set of problems.’   While Deloitte suggests that from their research ‘conducted on 130 organisation design projects from their global client base … fewer than 20% of those projects exceeded the original business case values that were used to justify them in the first place.’  The myth that organisation design will solve a business problem seems to stem from a feeling that changing the lines and boxes on the organisation chart is ‘design’ (related to myth one that organisation design is about the organisation chart).   It may derive from wishful thinking, ignorance, or both (or something completely different) but re/design is not straightforward.

Deloitte warns that ‘Sometimes changing an organisation design can be the wrong approach to address current issues.  It is vital to be very clear on why you undertake a redesign.’ And McKinsey confirms this warning, saying, ‘Companies should therefore be clear, at the outset, about what the redesign is intended to achieve and ensure that this aspiration is inextricably linked to strategy.’

I’d like to know what need this myth fulfils but, hazarding a guess, it’s the need for action over reflection, or possibly a lack of a theoretical knowledge of organisations as complex systems. To help dispel this myth I recommend a short, free Futurelearn course Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World in their Business and Management series and another Systems Thinking and Complexity.

There’s a right way to do organisation design.  The origins of this myth probably arise from articles from consultancies and proponents of a specific method.  McKinsey, for example, tells us the ‘9 golden rules’ to get organisation design right.  Strategy+Business offers 10 Principles of Organisation Design, BCG sells Smart Design for Performance while Requisite Restructuring© will ‘Design cost-effective organizational structure that fits the complexity of the company’s value chain.’  There are hundreds of others all somewhat the same and somewhat different in their approaches.

This myth persists because people seem to desire ‘a firm answer to a question and [have] an aversion toward ambiguity, [there’s a] drive for certainty in the face of a less than certain world. When faced with heightened ambiguity and a lack of clear-cut answers, we need to know—and as quickly as possible.’  There’s a tendency to look for ‘cognitive closure’ and I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked to give someone the ‘right answer’ to various organisation design options.   When I say we can’t know what the ‘right answer’ is we can only work on best information to make somewhat informed choices my response usually doesn’t go down that well.  (I always like what I think is a line from a Van Morrison song ‘There ain’t no why, there just is’ but I’ve never been able to track down the source).

The myth of the ‘right way’ fulfils the need for certainty. Not much organisation design work would be sold by consultants who said they were going to work with what emerges from some delving into what’s going on in an organisation.  Having a structured methodology and an assurance it will work is more comforting to clients.  Working with the need for assurance and certainty is hard if you take the view that organisations are complex emergent systems.  The Cynefin Framework offers an approach.  As David Snowden says, ‘Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux. In this domain, we can understand why things happen only in retrospect. Instructive patterns, however, can emerge if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail. That is why, instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.’  Too few leaders have the courage and patience for that but maybe they can learn?

What do you do when facing an organisation design myth in your work?  Let me know.

Image: Debunking the myth

Five myths of organisation design

A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I would do a webinar on organisation design. I thought the organisers would suggest a topic but they asked me to.  I offered three possibilities, ‘New Developments in Organisation Design?’ or ‘The need for continuous organisation design’ or ‘5 myths of organisation design’.  They picked the 5 myths.  So, I started on that,  writing down five myths:

  1. Design is about the organisation chart
  2. Leaders are in the best position to decide the design of an organisation
  3. Organisation design is an intermittent process
  4. Redesigning an organisation will solve its problems
  5. There’s a right way to do organisation design

Looking at my list, I remembered the article I’d written in 2006 when things were different and dredged it out of my files.  (The Ten Myths of Organization Design. It was published in Issue 7, March 2006, Developing HR Strategy – a journal that doesn’t seem to exist now).   Oh, I found things weren’t different after all.  The 10 myths I wrote about then are below.

  1. Organization design is only about changing structures*
  2. Organizations can be designed to last
  3. Organization design and change management are different
  4. Organization design work spawns a cottage industry of its own (I noted, in the article, that this should be a myth but isn’t really as it usually does!)
  5. A new design behaves predictably
  6. People resist change brought about by organization design work
  7. Organization designs work best when mandated by leaders*
  8. Organization design is a start-over process*
  9. Organization design is a quick fix for a business problem*
  10. Organization design is best left to external consultants

The asterisks in the 2006 list indicate those which are also on the 2019 list. The only one that’s new on the 2019 list that isn’t on the 2006 list is ‘There’s a right way to do organisation design’. 

I wondered why my list of organisation design myths hasn’t changed in thirteen years?  We now have design thinking, agile, social media, AI, automation of work processes,  organisational network analysis, and hosts of other technologies that are changing both the way we work and the way we think about work.  (See, for example the RSA Report ‘The Four Futures of Work’)  Some commentators propose the end of organisation charts.

To answer the question ‘why no change in the myth list?’ I got curious about the word ‘myth’  In my using the word I’ve taken one definition that it is ‘a commonly believed but false idea’.  But there is another definition that it is ‘an ancient story or set of stories, especially explaining the early history of a group of people or about natural events and facts’.   In this definition ‘Myth serves to interpret the whole of human experience and that interpretation can be true or fictitious, valuable or insubstantial, quite apart from its historical veracity.’

In his book Myth: a very short introduction Robert Segal proposes that ‘myth accomplishes something significant for adherents’.  He takes issue with ‘today’s parlance’ in which ‘myth is false.  Myth is mere myth.’  And in his blog on the topic ‘For to call even a conspicuously false story or belief a mere myth is to miss the power that that story or belief holds for those who accept it. The difficulty in persuading anyone to give up an obviously false myth attests to its allure.’   Elsewhere, he notes that ‘Myths have also shaped societies and ideologies over the years, from nationalism to fascism, and helped forge the careers of infamous politicians.’

In a another piece he makes the point that ‘Myth as a false story or belief is not objectionable because myth is thereby false. For me, a myth can as readily be false as be true. (But then it can as readily be true as be false.) The falsity or truth of myth is secondary. What is primary is the need that the story originates and functions to serve’.

He suggests asking three categories of questions about myths:

  • Those of origin – why and how myth arises
  • Those of function – why and how the myth persists.
  • Those of need – what need does the myth fulfil and what need makes it last by continuing to fulfil

If we take the view that the examples I give are myths that are false then asking questions around how they originated, why they persist, and what need they fulfil may take us towards less of a derogatory view of those who perpetuate, or work, the myth and more of an understanding of why they do and why it matters to them and how power of the myths help shape the way we approach organisation design.

Take, as an example, the myth that organisation design is about the organisation chart (aka ‘structure’) – which I think is false.  But in my experience, it is clear that many people believe it to be true.  Why?  Possibly because, an organisation chart serves several purposes.  It is a visual representation of hierarchy, reporting lines, who reports to who, number of jobs, teams, employees (not FTE), names of jobs, teams, core business – how work is sectioned, job vacancies, etc.  The myth arises from thinking that the formal elements that can be expressed on a chart are the organisation.

Why and how this myth persists could be to do with attitudes and beliefs around formal relationships.  In a hierarchical organisation, for example it may be a commonly held view that re-allocating positional power enables a ‘better’ person to take on a role (or sidelines a poor performer).  Or it could be, as Margaret Heffernan suggests, that an organisation chart is a powerful symbol of aspiration.  She says that, ‘For decades, managers imagined that corporate ladders were motivating and that dreams of climbing them would drive superior performance’.   Or it could be that there’s a belief that changing the chart is a quick and simple way to fix organisational issues.

Turning to the question of what need does the myth fulfil and what need makes it last by continuing to fulfil?  Well, although Andrew Hill notes in his article It’s time to kill the org chart,  some believe ‘They are a vital tool, providing information on the role and identity of team members. They supply valuable context.’ He says that one HR Director ‘said the org chart was her company’s best-read online document.’  Hill goes on to say that ‘while shredding the org chart may be a satisfying way of triggering such [transformational] change, it could make everything worse if it deprives workers of information about who does what. Businesses need some structure to be able to grow — and sooner or later someone will want to see what that structure looks like.’   So, the organisation chart fulfils a need for some information (but, in my view, it is still not the ‘design’ of the organisation).

Another need that it may fulfil – for those who believe that complex problems have simple answers is that it’s much easier to reconfigure an org chart – back of envelope will do – than take, say, a systems or complexity approach to organisation design.

What’s your view of organisation design myths – how they originate, why they persist and what need they fufil?  Let me know.

Image:  Left brain v right brain myth