Can we measure the outcomes and benefits of organisation design work?

On a recent 2-day organisation design programme we started to discuss the outcomes of organisation design work – how we identify them and how we know that these are creating the intended benefits and business value.

We agreed with one writer’s definitions and statements that:

Outcomes, at the most general level, are changes in individuals, organizations, communities, or governments, depending on the goal and reach of the activities being examined. Evaluation is a process of systematic inquiry directed at collecting, analyzing and interpreting information so that one can draw conclusions about the merit, worth, value or significance about a program, project, policy or whatever it is that is being examined. Outcome evaluation, then, at its most general level, is a systematic examination of the outcomes (changes, usually benefits), resulting from a set of activities implemented to achieve a stated goal, and a systematic examination of the extent to which those activities actually caused those outcomes to occur. The intent of outcome evaluation is to assess the effectiveness of these activities with respect to the benefits achieved, suggest improvements and possibly provide direction for future activities.’

And liked another writer’s graphic + example illustrating the relationships between outputs, outcomes and benefits which goes,  ‘in a project designed to implement a document management system:

  1. The implemented document management system that users can actually use is the output
  2. This output results in certain outcomes, for example:
    • faster and easier access to the documents
    • fewer mistakes in archiving and retrieving documents
    • ability to control versions and having access to the latest revisions
    • ability to have reports that help us find solutions for other business problems
  3. And finally, those outcomes create benefits, or in other words, business value:
    • 2% cut in the operation cost

Note that in this example the measurement comes at the benefits realisation stage and not at the outcomes stage  – the ‘basket’ of outcomes yields the measurable benefit.  However, in many cases outcomes are also measured e.g.

Health outcomes involve changes in health status – changes in health of an individual or population, attributable to an intervention. Sometimes the population or group is defined because different outcomes are expected for diverse people and conditions. Measurement of health outcomes involves carrying out different measurements including, measurement of health status before the intervention, measurement of the intervention, and measurement after to try and relate the change to the intervention.’ and from a different author ‘The healthcare industry must measure outcomes to identify which treatments are most effective and provide the most benefit to patients.’

Generally leaders/managers have difficulty in being clear in what outcomes and benefits they are looking for in organisation design work.  (Saying ‘better teamwork’ or ‘cost reduction’ is insufficient).  To help with this I showed participants a list of benefits that organisation design work could realise.  I’ve found that discussing these helps identify and clarify the outcomes that leaders/managers are looking for.  The list is as follows:

Strategic Fit: Benefits that contribute to the desired outcomes of strategic objectives or make them achievable.

Operating Model: Benefits that are derived from structural change, better resource management and decision making – e.g. more efficient centralisation, co-ordination and control of activities through clearly defined capabilities, roles, responsibilities.  Performance improvement through re-engineered, automated processes and shared centres of expertise.  A consistent system of new or amended policies, standards and working practices which enable investments in systems and tools to be leveraged at scale.

People: Benefits of a better motivated workforce e.g. flexible working and increased productivity through variety of work and career opportunities, professional support, training and development.

Quality of Service: Benefits to stakeholder groups, e.g. raising the customer experience through consolidation of volumes and services, standardisation of people assets and ways of working across many customers etc.

Budgetary Control: Benefits which allow for improved control through a framework within which the costs of introducing new infrastructure, standards and quality regimes can be justified, measured and assessed.

Risk reduction: Benefits which allow the organisation to be better prepared for future customer service provision, through greater access to a range of specialisms and expertise via a more skilled pool of professionals.

Economy:  Benefits that deliver a lower cost of service whilst maintaining quality, resilience and flexibility.

From the above, it’s easy to believe that measurement of outcomes and benefits ‘can be simple’.  For example, Jed Simms says it will be ‘if you just follow this 10-step process:

  1. Start with the end defined: Clearly identify your desired business outcomes, or where you want your business to be at the end of the project.
  2. Identify the benefits that come with achieving these desired business outcomes. Link each benefit to the outcome that will deliver it.’ And so on, up to 10.

But it’s not.  Toby Lowe and Rob Wilson talk about ‘The paradox of outcomes—the more we measure, the less we understand.’  Their argument is made in relation to social policy outcomes, but the foundation for the argument is based in complexity theory.

Their paper Managing the performance of social interventions. What can we learn from a complex systems approach?  Is well worth reading.   If we believe we are in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) then we should be willing to look at what we mean by ‘complex’, and be open to complexity approaches which, as they say, require us

‘to give up simple notions of cause and effect, and abandon reductionist approaches to understanding social phenomena. [Complexity] requires us to think differently about how we seek to make change in the world, accepting that the changes we desire are beyond our control. In Boulton et al’s (2015: 108/9) words: “to truly accept that the world is complex changes us. It fundamentally causes us to rethink how we approach the world, how we make sense of what happens, how we approach everything we do. … A key aspect of a complexity worldview is that the interaction of factors influencing a given context means that the future is irredeemably unpredictable. … in situations of complexity, cause and effect do not operate in linear fashion. … Non-linearity is hugely significant, because it means that what happens in situations of complexity is emergent: it is not predictable from the starting conditions of the situation.’

The linking of organisation design interventions to predictable outcomes and benefits is a linear approach where there is an assumption of cause and effect.  What is does not take into account is the continuous flux and shift in the conditions around the design work – people moving roles, new priorities, sudden constraints, external demands, and so on.  Even if carefully planned and executed our organisation design work is not happening in a stable vacuum – it is (usually) responding to a complex, emergent situation with multiple variables.  As Lowe and Wilson say, ‘Outcomes, which may have been desirable at the start of a process may not be suitable for a context which has changed. And the opposite is also true: outcomes which were undesirable or unforeseen may come to be seen as crucial.’

This does not mean we shouldn’t attempt to measure. Lowe and Wilson offer ‘starting points for discussion in this field by identifying the purpose of a complexity-friendly performance measurement system, and elements of both a conceptual framework and mechanisms by which this might function.’ Their framework ‘requires a different way of thinking about some of [measurement] core concepts, particularly ideas of accountability, trust and the locus of key decision-making.’

Are you measuring outcomes and benefits?  Is it useful to consider complexity approaches in this?  Let me know.

Image: Complexity of Life, Rick Stevens 2014

Block value

On Thursday I went to a networking event, billed as a forum for ‘sharing our latest thinking and inquiring together to explore the organisation development, design, leadership and change issues that are most relevant to your practice … also a great opportunity to connect with like-minded practitioners.’ We were discussing the question ‘How can you learn when there is no time for learning?’

It’s a useful question to ask, and we delved into discussing learning which is ‘as close to the actual work as possible, rather than something that happens ‘over there’, in a meeting or training session that people don’t have time for.’

The event came the week that I’d spent Wednesday afternoon doing e-learning courses.  Two mandatory ones, one on GDPR and the other on Display Screen Equipment, and two discretionary ones, which we’d been asked to do as a precursor to a face to face session on the topic.  Each e-learning programme took around 45 minutes.  (There’s a free online GDPR programme from FutureLearn here.  There’s a similar Display Screen Equipment course to the one I took here).

On Thursday morning I went to the 90-minute face to face session to consolidate the e-learning of the discretionary courses.

So, by the time of the evening event I’d experienced several training sessions that could be classed as ‘over there’, rather than in-the-job or close to the job.

So, were the e-learnings and the face-to-face course a good use of my time?   Tim Urban, of Wait But Why points out that ‘Most people sleep about seven or eight hours a night. That leaves 16 or 17 hours awake each day. Or about 1,000 minutes. Let’s think about those 1,000 minutes as 100 10-minute blocks. That’s what you wake up with every day.  Throughout the day, you spend 10 minutes of your life on each block, until you eventually run out of blocks and it’s time to go to sleep.’

He says ‘It’s always good to step back and think about how we’re using those 100 blocks we get each day.’  He asks us to ‘Imagine these blocks laid out on a grid. What if you had to label each one with a purpose? You’d have to think about everything you might spend your time doing in the context of its worth in blocks. Cooking dinner requires three blocks, while ordering in requires zero—is cooking dinner worth three blocks to you? Is 10 minutes of meditation a day important enough to dedicate a block to it?’

I remembered that post (which took me 2 blocks to find again) after I’d spent the time on e-learning which makes me suspect that my unconscious surfaced it because I was thinking that it wasn’t worth the roughly 24 blocks I’d just spent. I didn’t feel I was learning anything new but had to go through each page in order to take the end test.

I rather like that idea of taking 100 blocks per day and throughout the week seeing if the ten minutes I was in at the time was worth it.  But I thought of a refinement of that activity after the networking event.  What if for every ten-minute block I wrote down what I’d learned in the ten minutes it represented?   Would I learn something every ten minutes?  It sounds a bit of a stretch, but maybe.

That thought took me to the SELF Journal – that someone recommended to me a while ago.  It’s a 13-week approach to achieving your goals.  You ‘use the SELF Journal to prime your mind toward the positive.’ Each evening you complete a section on lessons learned during the day.  ‘The Lessons Learned section should be considered an opportunity for reflection on what did not go as well as expected and an opportunity to improve on that area in the future. What will you do if you encounter the same obstacle again tomorrow?’

So, although suggesting that you prime your mind to the positive, the lessons learned section is about ‘what did not go as well as expected’.   However, ‘Over time, you will begin to naturally see the opportunities for improvement as you go about your day. This will pattern a new behavior for how you consider problems and actionable solutions where you wouldn’t have been able to before.  Consider reviewing the Lessons Learned lists throughout the weeks and months to see how much you have grown and learned.’

The common theme between the networking event, the 100 blocks and the SELF Journal is the process of reflection, and learning from that reflection.

There’s an excellent, practical guide to reflective learning from the Open University.   It says that the two most important aspects of reflective learning are that it is deliberate and it is focused on the future. ‘For learning to happen, you need to use your thinking to affect future actions. The three points you need to consider are: generating and evaluating new idea, reflecting upon events and situations, reflecting upon relations.’

The guide’s author discusses three methods of reflective learning. Making the point that ‘There are many more methods … the important point is not to seek out some ‘correct’ form of reflective learning, but to seek out a method that works for you.’

Combining the ideas of reflective learning, in-the-job, and the worth of blocks of time, I decided to see what I was learning in the (typically) 7 meetings per day I go to, each one lasting 45 -60 minutes.  Some are meetings I’ve called others I attend as a participant so I could reflect on my own meetings skills and those of others.

A recent HBR article pointed out that there is little reflection on the value of meetings.  ‘The goal should be not to kill all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective or unnecessary ones and improve the quality of those that remain …. It’s up to managers to make positive changes by objectively assessing and improving their own meeting skills.’

After only a couple of days, I feel I’m learning through meetings – so even in cases where the meeting content may not be worth 6 ten-minute blocks, the process of reflecting on the meeting process, style, relationships, tone and outcomes is.  Some things I’m finding help the reflection are the left hand/right hand column exercise – doing it as the meeting proceeds, an article on ‘Plan a better meeting with design thinking’, and a meetings cost calculator which helps focus the thinking!

What have I learned so far? I’m learning to develop better ways of helping people on the phone feel included in the meeting (whether or not the meeting is ‘mine’) and when I’m the one on the phone learn to participate more effectively,  (if you haven’t seen it, watch the 3-minute video – A conference call in real life) .  I’m learning to notice when and why my attention sidles off the meeting – lured by tech bleeps and alerts.  I’m learning to practice listening more attentively to what other people are and are not saying.

The question I’m now reflecting on is how to keep up this level of reflection and still do the work?  Maybe I’ll have time over the Easter weekend to tackle it.  It must be worth 6 blocks to do that.

How many blocks do you spend on reflective learning in your work day?  Are they worth it?  Let me know.

Image: Wait but Why

Internal consulting models

Here’s a brain-teaser that arrived in my in-box recently: ‘Today, some folks here were discussing the role of cluster leads, that we have in our organisational structure. Cluster leads were appointed when we started self-organizing, categorizing all work that came in into “projects”. Each cluster lead looks after a category/ group of projects and is supposed to integrate and find synergy among/between the projects.  Today, we evaluated that role and realised that the intended purpose has not worked well.  Have you any thoughts … about how to practically structure a way of working in, what I think of as, multiple dimensions?   We want to be able to:

  • Guide our customers/clients/end users (e.g. leaders or practitioners) in reaching the right person to respond to their needs
  • Enable internal sense-making, knowledge growth and information sharing across projects
  • Assess and anticipate the possible/likely future needs of our clients’

The question came from someone in a large enterprise’s internal consultancy.  The consultancy offers consulting, research, and leadership development around organisational change and transformation.   Any of these 3 service lines are delivered either within a particular business unit or across business units.

I’ve been noodling on the question since it came in.

It would be very hard to give ‘the answer’ to a question like this without knowing a lot more about the operational context and the more granular aspects of what isn’t working well (and what is working well).  However, I started to consider three angles on it:

  • The nature and structure of internal consultancies
  • The way ‘self-organising’ works and doesn’t work
  • The role of ‘cluster leads’ specifically their objective to integrate and find synergy between/among projects

The nature and structure of internal consultancies:  A research paper from Nick Wylie and Andrew Sturdy, Structuring Collective Change Agency Internally: Transformers, Enforcers, Specialists and Independents, discusses four types of internal change agency unit.

The question I got came from a change agency unit that closely resembles Wylie and Sturdy’s ‘Independents’.  This type of unit is established, ‘Where organisations identify the need for the persistent presence of a more generalist change delivery unit.’ The authors note that ‘The impact scope of these units tends to be localised as they deliver change through specific, often small, projects within business units.  At the same time, Independents are detached from core structures and operational areas and so operate largely outside of managerial hierarchies. In this way, Independents most closely resemble external consultancies because they are required to source their own work and often to be self-funding.’ In their structure ‘Independents can combine former external consultants and managers from within the organisation in an attempt benefit from both the exotic-outsider status and detailed insider-knowledge’.

Additionally, ‘they are sometimes involved in creating and managing links to external consultancies’.

The challenges that Wylie and Sturdy report that Independent units face are, the need to guarantee a pipeline of projects, loss of credibility over time and a great deal of their role being involved with relationship management activity.

With this information my questioner can follow some lines of enquiry that could work towards a structure and way of working that delivers more of what they want.  Questions I suggest are:

  • What can we learn from external consultancies on pipeline, credibility and relationship management? (Go back to their question at the top of this piece and you’ll see that these are the three things they want to be able to do, albeit expressed in slightly different words).
  • Are there things in the other three consulting models we could consider, learn from, migrate towards to achieve our objectives?

The way ‘self-organising’ works and doesn’t work: In my blog Self Organising Volunteers I talk about four conditions for self-organising

  • Understanding the concepts of self-organising
  • Agreeing authority level of the self-organising team
  • Selecting the individuals who will comprise the team
  • Ensuring you have the ‘appropriate conditions’ for self-organising

I won’t go into the detail of all of these here as that blog has the discussion plus links to other resources on each of the four conditions.   But it’s worth looking more closely here at the authority levels condition.  In his book, Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances J. R. Hackman’s presents an Authority Matrix: 4 levels of team self-management.  He describes four team functions: executing the task, monitoring and managing work process and progress, designing the team and its organisational context, setting overall direction.  Depending on who has the authority for each function results in four levels of team organization.

  • Manager led teams who only have authority for executing the task
  • Self-managing teams whose members have responsibility not only for executing the task but also for monitoring and managing their own performance.
  • Self-designing teams whose members have the authority to modify the design of their own team or aspects of the organizational context or both.  Managers set the direction for such team but give members full authority for all other aspects of the work.
  • Self-governing teams whose members have responsibility for all four major functions:  team members decide what is to be done, structure the unit and its context, manage their own performance, and actually carry out the work.

My questioner could investigate how their self-organising stacks up against the authority matrix as it might be that there is something in the authority levels that is mitigating against their achieving their objectives.

The role of cluster lead: I haven’t seen a role description for a cluster lead, and it’s not a role I’m familiar with.  I found that cluster leads are fairly common in the humanitarian aid field.  The World Health Organisation has a detailed description of both clusters and cluster leads.  There a cluster lead ‘commits to take on a leadership role within the international humanitarian community in a particular sector/area of activity, to ensure adequate response and high standards of predictability, accountability and partnership.  Their key responsibility is to ‘ensure that humanitarian actors build on local capacities and maintain appropriate links with Government and local authorities, State institutions, civil society and other stakeholders.  … cluster leads have mutual obligations to interact with each other and coordinate to address cross-cutting issues.’  Substitute the labels around ‘humanitarian’ with a label representing my questioner’s organisation.  The questioner could then compare the two role descriptions (theirs and the WHO’s) and see if they could learn anything from that comparison.

In summary:  before heading for a ‘solution’ to a perceived issue, I suggest following some lines of enquiry to determine what the underlying causes may be.  It’s possible that some small adjustments to the existing model will make it workable.  On the other hand, the investigation may suggest a more radical rethink.  One of the points I make on organisation design training programmes is not to ‘solutionise’ to start.  It may seem like time is wasted in investigation and enquiry, but it is an investment worth making.

How would you advise the questioner?  Let me know.

Image: Internal Teams Need Better Positioning

Ambiguity anxiety

Ambiguity anxiety may be replacing change resistance as something managers must learn to deal with.  How to we recognize it, how do we cope with it?   I ask, because it’s come up in several meetings this week.  No, it’s not just in relation to Brexit.  It’s about reporting lines, accountabilities, client/customer single point of contact, ‘what are we doing here?’ and so on.  I’ve heard it in statements like ‘People want clarity, they don’t like ambiguity’ and ‘At the end of the day they just want an org chart to see who they’re reporting to’.   Ambiguity has come up in some emails too:

‘At tomorrow’s team meeting we will be thinking a bit about how we work through ambiguity and how we can make it easier for the team to deal with uncertainty. If you’ve got any ideas or thoughts in this area it would be helpful if you could come prepared to share them.’  And from another team ‘At this week’s team meeting we talked about dealing with ambiguity and if there is anything more we can be doing to deal with that.’

Ambiguous is the ‘A’ in the now well-known acronym VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).  On VUCA there is plenty of guidance in how to lead through it, what it means for you, the competences you need for it, etc.  A lot of it is in lists which seem, to me, to be completely obvious and not specifically helpful.  For example, Leading in a VUCA World requires:

  1. Developing a shared purpose
  2. Learning agility
  3. Self-awareness
  4. Leading through collaboration and influence
  5. Confidence to lead through uncertainty

There’s nothing there peculiar to a VUCA world, or that that develops new thinking about the VUCA context or useful ways of ‘managing’ it.  On that last, I hope we don’t fall into the trap that we did with ‘change’ that the VUCA world can be ‘managed’ as if it were a tractable thing.

Focusing on ambiguity and you find less guidance than on working in the VUCA world, and what guidance there is, is often a similar level of list as for VUCA.  For example, in Leading Effectively in a VUCA Environment: A is for Ambiguity we learn ‘three ways to lead more effectively in an ambiguous environment’.  They are:

  1. Listen well
  2. Think divergently
  3. Set up incremental dividends

There’s not much in the lists that give practical and usable information on how to do the item listed.  How do you actually learn to ‘think divergently’, for example?  If you could – would it help assuage any anxiety when faced with ambiguity?

A better list comes from Colin Shaw in Dealing with Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative.  He has items including, Understand that some of your decisions will be wrong.’ And ‘Realize there is not a defined plan you need to follow.’  But again, this advice not easy to put into practice.

What I’ve noticed, in the articles and in the discussions/emails is the lack of definition around what ‘ambiguity’ actually is.  I think people use the word ambiguity when they actually mean ‘uncertainty’.  David Wilkinson makes a good distinction between the two in a short video, The Difference Between Ambiguity and Uncertainty. Ambiguity is a situation in which something has more than one possible meaning and may therefore cause confusion.  Wilkson illustrates by means of a single image that can be seen as either a rabbit or a bird.  Uncertainty is the feeling of not being sure what will happen in the future.  If you’re looking for further detail on VUCA definitions, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink does a nice job distinguishing, defining and visualising them.

Maybe it doesn’t matter too much which word people use because, in general, it’s the anxiety about not knowing that is the issue.  And if we could learn to live with not knowing – perhaps getting to the point when we enjoy, or at least accept, not knowing – we could discard anxiety.  Milton Glaser and Rebecca Solnit both offer that perspective:

 ‘Graphic designer Milton Glaser thinks that being uncertain is a good way to be.  “Certainty is preposterous,” says Milton Glaser. “Fundamentally, one cannot be certain about anything.” Glaser, who doesn’t shy away from speaking plainly, prefers a mindset that embraces ambiguity. For the 86-year-old, this is “a basic tool for perceiving reality” — and a driving force throughout his storied career.’

Rebecca Solnit, in her inspiring and wonderful essay, Hope in the Dark feels similarly, saying:

‘‘Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and in that spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.’

So, what could we do to accept ambiguity/uncertainty anxiety (beyond learning to do stuff on the numbered lists above – if we think these are both do-able and useful)?  The suggestions made by Robert Leahy, Director of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy NYC, in an article  Accepting Anxiety are helpful, because they provoke thought:

  • First, ask yourself “What are the advantages in accepting some reasonable uncertainty?”
  • Second, ask yourself “What uncertainty do you already accept?”
  • Third, ask yourself “Third, do you know anyone who has absolute certainty?”
  • Fourth, flood yourself with uncertainty.

He discusses each of these, making the point that, ‘You can remind yourself that uncertainty is inevitable and that accepting uncertainty allows you to live your life more fully.’

These approaches of seeing uncertainty as helpful, may not wash in organisations where people are looking for the answer to ‘How do we fix ambiguity anxiety?’  Or, in organisations where there’s an assumption that ‘Leaders must provide clarity so that work assignments and goals are not as ambiguous as the environment.’

But because we are living in the VUCA world maybe it’s time to move away from a traditional response of trying to fix what appears to be an issue and try a different approach of seeing the opportunity and value in it.

Another approach to ambiguity anxiety is a project management one, described in ‘Characterizing unknown unknowns’.  The authors of the paper provide and talk through a model that ‘helps identify what had been believed to be unidentifiable or unimaginable risks. Finding more unknown unknowns means converting them to known unknowns so that they become manageable using project risk management’. Following their detailed method, you might be able to mitigate the risk of people getting ambiguity anxiety in the first place.

What’s your view of ambiguity anxiety?  Should we embrace it as an opportunity, see it as a risk to be managed, or take another view of it?   Let me know.

Image:  Spaces of Uncertainty


Scrambling to respond to change

The question of the week is: ‘I’m dealing with rapidly shifting needs and priorities, while working with limited resources.  The traditional change management approaches don’t seem to recognise this.  What are the must do things I need to support my team in this situation?’

I got the impression from this manager that she’s in a constant scrambling to respond to changing situations – rather like being in a small ship at sea in a storm with critical equipment failing, and the crew flagging under pressure.

This thought led me to look at what sailors do in that situation and ask can we take any lessons from them?  First, I looked at Yachting World’s piece ‘15 things you should know when planning an Atlantic crossing’, it says ‘In most cases, the crossing is the culmination of years of planning and preparation’, this is exactly what traditional change management seeks to do – plan the change, then deliver the change, then embed the change.  Or as Prosci says Prepare for Change, Manage Change, Reinforce Change.

This is precisely what the questioner says is not workable in her situation – she has no time for planning and she is in a continuously turbulent environment where she has to deliver change at a moment’s notice, and then deliver the next change without any embedding of previous change.   So, drawing on that article didn’t work too well.  Except for one point:

‘A smart crossing is all about consistent speed, 24 hours a day. The key is not to have downtime.’  Well I agree change is all about consistent speed, but not with the point about no downtime. Downtime for people in changing situations is critical to give space for review and reflection.  Read this article Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure.

However, I was already immersed in Yachting World, and in danger, of drifting aimlessly through its blogs, articles and offers when I spotted info on what can go wrong crossing the Atlantic: ‘We issued the 290 yachts sailing in the 2016 ARC and ARC+, transatlantic rallies with a survey to detail their breakages and solutions’.

It has some interesting stats: ‘The first thing you notice from the results is that there were few empty columns for yachts without problems. In total, 167 yachts, or nearly 60 per cent of the fleet, had a breakage.’   Taking an organisational equivalent to ‘breakage’ e.g. relationships breaking down, equipment failures, wrong decisions, financial loss, sudden context shifts, risk aversion, or any of the myriad things that happen that managers have to deal with in our VUCA world and 60% seems like quite a low number.

Reading on, I found many useful ideas to help the questioner:

‘Problems are of course to be expected, but breakages can spoil voyages. One of the best ways to avoid them is to learn from others’ mistakes.’   On dry land, Torben Rick has a list of 20 change management mistakes we can learn from. Several of them are to do with lack of employee involvement – a mistake I see being made over and over again.

‘The most common casualties were ripped sails and breakages caused by chafe – which, going on past feedback, is nothing new.’   I checked the work ‘chafe’ and found that ‘Chafing is irritation or damage caused by friction – friction is resistance caused by rubbing.  Chafing worsens with excessive pressure.’   Isn’t ‘caused by chafe’ a terrific phrase to describe the way people feel in changing situations – irritable, resistant to pressure, torn or damaged?  Managers who are alert to signs of chafe in their workforce can take some steps to curb it.

‘Thirteen yachts had batten problems or breakages (mainly from flogging in light winds) … The simple message coming from the majority of these cases is to carry spares!’  I hope there’s not too much organisational equivalent of ‘flogging in light winds’ but there’s a warning there to not drive employees too hard in business as usual work – aim for good enough, so there’s spare goodwill and capacity/energy for dealing with the ongoing changes.

‘There were multiple failures to preventers, blocks, and furling lines … The trend here showed a lack of routine maintenance’.  I stopped to think on this one.  There are multiple things in office life that fail because of lack of routine maintenance – photocopiers, staplers without staples, lifts, people unthanked, team spirit, etc.  Community Toolbox has a very good resource on Day-to-Day Maintenance of an Organization together with a checklist.  Making sure the routine maintenance is in place will help in turbulence.

‘The gooseneck bolt broke “Nothing alarming or special happened during that moment or just before. The grinding and wear and tear had somehow loosened the nut on the bolt and then the bolt dropped off its position. … the biggest take-home lesson is “to inspect critical points more often.”  Another good point for managers in stressful times – identify the critical points and keep an eye on them.’   Each fast-paced change context is likely to have different critical points for maintaining delivery, but typically critical points are: enough skilled people (have you got cover if people move on/get sick?), few but sufficiently good metrics to provide actionable info, frequent/truthful communication that builds trust and involvement.  Project Laneways offers a course in Rapid Agile Change Management that appears covers the typical critical points. (Only available in Australia?).

‘Both the gooseneck and vang mast fittings broke aboard the 72ft Southern Wind Far II Kind. Skipper Will Glenn said in hindsight they should have checked that the riggers did what was asked of them properly – and that they should have trialled the boat in stronger winds.’ Another good point for managers – have you checked people’s capacity to learn and change, are you progressively trying out and developing their skills to deal with more complex or even faster-paced change, and trying these skills out?  There are five suggested ways for doing this in the blog 5 Ways Leaders Strengthen And Prepare Their Teams For Change.

‘What would you do if hardware, hatches or fittings ripped out of the deck or rig? When the mainsheet track car broke on Harmony 38 Oginev, the crew was quick to jury rig solutions.’  (Jury-rig = makeshift repairs made with only the tools and materials at hand). Most of us have to be able to find ingenious solutions to problems we face in everyday organisational life with no extra or special resources to do so, often they are called ‘work-arounds’.  The HBR Working Paper,  ‘Fostering Organizational Learning: The Impact of Work Design on Workarounds, Errors, and Speaking Up About Internal Supply Chain Problems’ has ideas on how to develop both work-around skills and the skills/designs for having to work-around in the first place.   (There are some interesting examples of community action jury rigging here)

Thanks to Yachting World I now have 8 points that could help the manager with ongoing change turbulence, summarising these:

  1. Allow reflection and review time – it’s worth the investment
  2. Learn from other’s mistakes – in particular make sure you involve your workforce in the change decisions/work
  3. Do routine maintenance
  4. Be alert to signs of chafe in your workforce
  5. Aim for good enough
  6. Inspect critical points often
  7. Develop people’s capacity to learn and change
  8. Develop both work-around/jury-rigging skills (and the skills/designs for not having to do work-arounds in the first place).

Looking at the list, it’s more about ensuring you get the context for change right.  Then, even though it may not be all plain sailing, at least you will have the ability to handle what comes up.

What advice would you give the manager who doesn’t have time to plan change but just has to do it?  Let me know.

Image: Whitbread Round the World Race

Davenport & Kirby, McGrath, Mintzberg

Somewhat before Christmas 2018, I took a free, online Coursera course – Bridging the Gap Between Strategy Design and Strategy Delivery.  It’s managed by the Brightline™ Initiative ‘a coalition led by the Project Management Institute together with leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and delivery’.  (See my blog on it)

I can’t now remember how I found the course, or what was going on at the time that prompted me to enrol on it.  However, I was in the first cohort of participants.   A few weeks after completing, I got a cheerful email from the Brightline Initiative, saying ‘as a token of appreciation for successful completion of the course Turning Ideas into Results: Bridging the Gap Between Strategy Design and Delivery. You can win three books authored by leading strategy experts – some featured in this course! Brightline is covering the cost of the books and shipping.’ The way of ‘winning’ was to fill in a form saying which books you wanted to receive.  No contest involved.

I’m not sure of the money and motivation behind this largesse but this week my three chosen books arrived: Only Humans Need Apply, The End of Competitive Advantage , Simply Managing.  All I have to do now is read them.

But before doing that I took a look at what they have in common.  Superficially, they have a colon after the main title followed by an explanatory phrase.  They are written by well-known American academics over the age of 60.  They have a detailed reference list.  They have ‘how to’ sections.

I decided not to go down the route of addressing the questions that these observations led me to – Why do book titles go for a colon? Are these books American centric?  How does the experience of academics over 60 inform current thinking?  Which of the references should I pursue?  Should I adopt any of the how-to suggestions?  And so on.  I can’t remember (and the list is no longer available to look at) if there were any non-American, non-academic writers on the list of books to choose from, but another question would be ‘why did I choose these three books?’

Turning to the books’ content, what follows is a bit about each, not from a detailed reading, but from a couple of hours spent flicking through them, landing on various pages and seeing what I found out ‘how to …’.

Davenport & Kirby (2016) ‘Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines’.  Davenport and Kirby’s primary idea is based on the question how to take seriously the threat of ‘computers coming after your job’.   They tell us that ‘instead of asking what work will machines take away from us next, we need to start asking what work will machines enable us to take on next?’  This type of work they describe as ‘augmentation of human work by machines … in which humans and computers combine their strengths to achieve more favourable outcomes than either could alone.’  They say that ‘augmentation spots the human weakness or limitation and makes up for it … without pain to the worker.’   (Take a look at the test at Ford of exoskeletons)

In the chapter ‘Don’t Automate, Augment’, they advocate five strategies – stepping up, stepping aside, stepping in, stepping narrowly, stepping forward – for ‘humans who are willing to work to add value to machines, and who are willing to have machines add value to them’.  They illustrate the five steps by looking briefly at how insurance underwriters, teachers and financial advisors are taking them, before moving to a full chapter on each step.  They argue that complacency in the face of machines is not an option. ‘But despondency isn’t required either’:  there is a role for individuals to take decisions on how to deal with advancing automation, and a role for ‘governments, other convening bodies, and the experts who advise them’ to do similarly for society.  This is an upbeat book and I’d like to believe that the dedication their book opens with comes to fruition.  ‘Both us dedicate this book to our kids’ – Julia’s ‘who will make the world a better place’ and Tom’s who will ‘continue to find interesting and useful work’. We all need to help them make it so.  I’ve learned how to feel a bit more optimistic about automation.

Mintzberg, (2013), Simply Managing: what managers do and can do better This book is a ‘substantially condensed and somewhat revised version’ of Mintzberg’s 2009 book Managing. It’s in large print with wide line spacing, lots of sub-headings and bold type sentences that ‘summarize the key points in this book and so serve as a running commentary throughout’.  So excellent for someone who doesn’t really want to (or have time to) read much. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) the sections do not have an estimated read time.

There are 6 chapters covering: managing beyond the myths; managing relentlessly; managing information, people, action; managing every which way; managing on tightropes; managing effectively.  I felt exhausted just skimming the chapter headings.  However, I plunged into the section ‘The Enigma of Order’ (in the chapter on tightropes) which considers the conundrum, stated in bold type, ‘How to bring order to the work of others when the work of managing is itself so disorderly?’ Mintzberg’s advice is that managers deal with this ‘by nuancing its two sides.  They have to weave back and forth between letting the chaos reign and reigning in the chaos.’  OK good.  Mintzberg briskly moves on to the next section.  ‘The Paradox of Control’.  I turn to McGrath’s book.  I’ve learned how to convert a thorough book into a soundbite book.

McGrath (2013), The End of Competitive Advantage.  The opening pages of this are devoted to 11 people (10 men/1 woman) praising the book.  Point taken, it must be worth reading.  McGrath ‘takes on the idea of sustainable competitive advantage’ in its place she offers ‘a perspective on strategy that is based on the idea of transient competitive advantage’ together with ‘a new playbook for strategy’.  Wisely, she tells us that ‘The ability and willingness to seek out actual information, confront bad news, and design appropriate responses is critical’… ‘The learnability principle emphasises continual investment in people, even if one doesn’t know exactly what they will be doing.  And combating the tendency to seek only positive news that confirms existing assumptions is critical’ (too).

She is of the view that we need to rethink all the assumptions we hold around organisations being ‘long-lived and their advantages sustainable’.  She offers practical advice to individuals who agree with her that we are in a ‘transient-advantage’ economy.  Take a look at her checklist for preparing yourself for the transient-advantage economy.  It appears as a quiz in her book, along with a discussion of the questions.   If you don’t want to read the book, you can listen to a 60-minute webinar of her talking about it.  I’ve learned more on how to question organisational assumptions around sustainability and got some helpful tools/resources to do this as well.

Have you read any of the three books?  What’s your view of them?  Let me know.


‘Britain is Merging BOAC and BEA as a Giant Airline’, read headlines in 1974. More than 15 years after that merger, I joined British Airways. Even after all that time people described themselves as ‘I’m BEA’ or ‘He’s BOAC’ as if that explained more or less anything – good or bad.  I was struck by that loyalty to … well, what exactly?  And I’ve seen it a lot in organisational life. Over the years, I’ve come to think of it as tribalism.

Kevin deLaplante, in a video ‘The Dangers of Tribalism’ describes a tribe as ‘a group of people that feel connected to each other in a meaningful way because they share something in common that matters to them. The connection can be based on just about anything kinship, ethnicity, religion, language, culture, ideology favourite sports team whatever.

What matters is that this connection binds individuals into a group that allows them to make a distinction between us members of the group and those who are not members of the group. When we talk about tribalism what we’re really talking about is a pattern of attitudes and behaviours that human beings tend to adopt when we come to identify with our tribes. In a nutshell we use the us/them distinction defined by tribal boundaries to make normative judgments: we’re good, they’re bad, we are right they’re wrong.’ (deLaplante’s video is excellent and he has an extensive list of references on the topic on his blog).

Tribal members share (or have shared in the past) a ‘collection of habits, practices, beliefs, arguments, and tensions that regulates and guides [them]’. Guidance comes from many sources ‘narratives, holidays, symbols and works of art that contain implicit and often unnoticed messages about how to feel, how to respond, how to divine meaning.’ (The quotes are from David Brooks, The Social Animal) the members benefit in some way – intrinsically or extrinsically – by virtue of their participation in the groups.

I see many tribes in organisations. They include profession tribes, team tribes, social group tribes, interest group tribes and prior organisation tribes. Often members indicate their tribal affiliation through symbols like lanyards and lapel pins. In some organisations ‘tribe’ is part of the vocabulary – look at Spotify’s Squads, Tribes, Chapters model. Like deLaplante, Mary McCrae, of the Tavistock Institute, notes that tribe membership brings many positives – ‘a sense of belonging, comfort and security for its members.  Those who belong commit themselves to the beliefs and values of the tribe.  Loyalty to the tribe stems from the sense of belonging to a familiar, like minded, and caring group’.

We touched on tribes and tribalism last week in a workshop I was facilitating. Afterwards a participant, emailed me, saying he thought tribalism was a particular issue in the organisation ‘because we have brought together different tribes and are trying to create one organisation’ (The organisation I am currently working with was formed from a mash-up of parts of various other organisations, plus a lot of newcomers who have no experience of the other organisations that now form part of the mix).

The discussion highlighted the downsides of tribalism which McCrae sees as ‘competition between groups for power and control over resources, roles of authority, boundaries, and policies that govern institutions.’ These are the ‘particular issues’ that the person who emailed me had in mind. It’s not an option to ignore these, neither is trying to form one organisation if that means aiming to eradicate tribes.

Robert Kovach, writing in the Harvard Business Review lists four downsides to tribalism:

  • Rock-throwing. Where teams are blaming each other, unjustly criticizing the others’ work or continually throwing rocks at one another.
  • Blaming the customer. Blaming the customer or end consumer occurs all too frequently, and can be another sign that inter-team rivalry is spiralling out of control.
  • Pushkin did it.” In Russia, when you don’t know who did something it is common to say “Pushkin did it.” The Dutch have something similar with the saying, “It was the dwarves.”
  • Refusal to work together. This is perhaps the most severe case of tribalism. When whole departments or organizations refuse to cooperate with one another.

I’ve also noticed

  • Turf defending. This is described brilliantly in Annette Simmon’s book, Territorial Games. I have a handout I use in workshops listing the 10 territorial games she discusses. I ask people to discusses whether they play that game, whether their peers do, whether their boss does, and if they’ve been a victim of someone playing that game on them. Games include ‘Information Manipulation’ and ‘Shunning’, that is ‘subtly (or not so subtly) excluding an individual in a way that punishes him or her; orchestrating a group’s behaviour so that another is treated like an outsider.’
  • Polarization. That stems from perceiving differences between tribes. This can lead to a (false) sense of superiority, and sometimes exclusion, bullying and discrimination.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter asks if the negative aspects of tribalism are inevitable and is optimistic that they are not, saying ‘Tribes are a source of identity, but when people belong to many overlapping groups, they are more likely to think broadly, as cosmopolitans. When they work together in mix-and-match structures and depend on the performance of people from other groups for their own success, they are more likely to empathize with differences rather than mistrust them. … Tribalism is not inevitable. We can civilize tendencies toward discrimination. But leaders must make it a priority.’

She offers some suggestions on how they might do this:

  • Make structural changes that eliminate silos, and non-diverse groups. (Watch the video A Tale of O on diversity)
  • Foster cross boundary interdependence ‘a shared task that all parties care about replaces tribal instincts with other motivations.’
  • Encourage cross-tribe coalition building in order to combine resources for mutually-beneficial initiatives, and a flow of people across them, so that everyone in the organization has multiple affiliations and has worked on numerous cross-sectional teams.
  • Find a common purpose that is inspiring and motivating, helping people transcend their differences. When backed up by incentives for achieving common goals, a sense of community helps override selfish interests.
  • Establish codes of conduct specifying community norms that should not be violated regardless of local traditions.
  • Encourage identification across the widest possible range of tribes/groups, rather than focused on a small closed group: think about how ‘products or pronouncements will be experienced by diverse constituencies and multiple ethnicities. It is hard to remain tribal when trying to be national, regional, and global.’

What’s your experience of tribalism in organisations? Is it something we should resist, eradicate, work with or embrace? Let me know.

Image: Tribalism