Leaders and decision-making

Recently I got this email:  ‘I think our leaders make poor decisions because although accountability demands it, our world is too complex for those at the top to really grasp all of the information they need. Are you aware of any organisations employing range of different methods of collective decisions?’

I answered the following day, with :

‘Good to hear from you.  Do you know Cynefin Framework, take a look at David Snowden’s work (his article, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, attached)?  Without going into any detail, there’s a lot of work going on about complexity, leadership and decision making.  Also attached is an interesting article, Taking Organisational Complexity Seriously, by Chris Rodgers.

Briefly, many organisations are stuck in a model (in my view) where hierarchical leaders a) think they should know the ‘right answer’ b) that there is a ‘right answer’.  Complexity doesn’t work like that.  In order to make soundish decisions you have to have a very diverse range of perspectives/expertise/hierarchical levels in the room (and listen to them/work with them).’

Answering your question more specifically, take a look at this blog that mentions several companies making decisions a different way.’

Having answered the question, I continued to think about it. It made me think further, because there isn’t any easy way to answer it, without tackling several aspects:  decision making processes, accountability, complexity, information flows/availability/reliability, individual v collective decisions, context for the question, context for the decision making.   Even tackling those aspects doesn’t make any usable answer much easier to arrive at.

Looking at Harvard Business Review, it seems that decision making is a topical discussion.  Since December 2017 there’s been:

How Systems Support (or Undermine) Good Decision-Making, by Ron Carucci, Feb 2020

Navigating imposed innovation: A decision-making framework by Amir Bahman Radnejad and Oleksiy Osiyevskyy, January 2020

10 Ways to Mitigate Bias in Your Company’s Decision Making by Elizabeth C. Tippett October 21, 2019

Keeping Humans in the Loop: Pooling Knowledge through Artificial Swarm Intelligence to Improve Business Decision Making by Lynn Metcalf, David A. Askay, Louis B. Rosenberg August 2019

Organizational Decision-Making Structures in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, by Yash Raj Shrestha, Shiko M. Ben-Menahem, Georg von Krogh August 2019

What AI-Driven Decision Making Looks Like, by Eric Colson, July 2019

Briefing Sheet on Common Biases in Group Decision Making, by Hannah Riley Bowles, Logan Berg, Alyson Gounden Rock, Sam Skowronek June 2019

Avoiding Disruption Requires Rapid Decision Making, by George Stalk Jr., Sam Stewart, April 2019

A Good Meeting Needs a Clear Decision-Making Process, by Bob Frisch, Cary Greene, March 2019

Why AI Will Shift Decision Making from the C-Suite to the Front Line,  by Alessandro Di Fiore, August 2019

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work: Human-AI Symbiosis in Organizational Decision Making, by Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, July 2018

3 Ways to Improve Your Decision Making, by Walter Frick, January 2018

A CEO’s Decision Making Is Shaped by Whether Their Parents Were Immigrants, by  Duc Duy Nguyen, Jens Hagendorff, Arman Eshraghi, March 2018,

When to Decentralize Decision Making, and When Not To, by Frederic Wirtz, Herman Vantrappen, December 2017

In roughly the same period McKinsey offers eight articles on decision making.

Good decisions don’t have to be slow ones, May 2019, by Iskandar Aminov, Aaron De Smet, and Dan Lovallo

Want a better decision?  Plan a better meeting, May 2019, by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost, and Leigh Weiss

Three keys to faster, better decisions, May 2019, by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost, and Leigh Weiss

Effective decision making in the age of urgency, (Survey) April 2019

Decision-making: how leaders can get out of the way, June 2018,  by Iskandar Aminov, Aaron De Smet,  Kanika Kakkar

Keys to unlocking great decision-making,  April 2018, by Aaron De Smet, Gregor Jost

Decision making in your organisation: cutting through the clutter (Podcast) January 2018, Aaron De Smet, Leigh Weiss.

Untangling your organization’s decision making, June 2017, by Aaron De Smet, Gerald Lackey, and Leigh M. Weiss

I didn’t go beyond these two journals/sites, but I’m guessing that, in that time frame, there are hundreds of other blogs, articles, points of view, etc on decision making.

Clearly, you can read, listen, and watch a lot about decision making but does that help answer the original question I was posed?  The HBR and McKinsey approaches are generally looking for a 3-keys-type easy response.  (I quickly glanced at MIT’s Sloan Management Review list of decision making articles which are much the same as HBR and McKinsey’s)

I’m not convinced by this desire for an easy response, but I decided to follow suit and sifting through the above seems to reveal three themes that might be worth pursuing (none of them go far down the complexity route which is a failing):

  • Leaders aren’t always best placed to make the decisions
  • AI could be used as a decision support tool
  • Biases influence decisions made

Leaders aren’t always best placed to make the decisions.  In the piece Decision Making How Leaders Can Get Out Of The Way, the point is made that  ‘Layers of management often can slow actions with special initiatives, unnecessary upward reporting, status updates and the like. … In organizations where competent people possess clarity of intent, maintaining control only slows decision-making and limits agility. Senior leaders should focus on what only they should do, such as setting intent, making strategic choices and removing roadblocks.’   To support effective decision making we could ask – are the right people making the decisions with the good information to hand?

AI could be used as a decision support tool – yes, and beware the seductive sellers of AI decision making systems, As Kyle Dent in Techcrunch (among many others) points out, ‘AI developers make decisions and choose trade-offs that affect outcomes. Developers are embedding ethical choices within the technology but without thinking about their decisions in those terms. … The most basic assurances of algorithmic accountability are not guaranteed for either users of technology or the subjects of automated decision making.’  To support effective decision making we could ask – are we putting too much faith in our automated organisational decision-making processes (e.g. cv sifting)?  What is our response when they are challenged or questioned?

Biases influence decisions made – yes, both human biases and AI biases.  See a research article on this Cognitive bias, decision styles, and risk attitudes in decision making and DSS, ‘Humans often make less than optimal decisions from a rational viewpoint … decision aids can reinforce biases or improve the way that a person thinks about a situation. … The way that information is presented and the way that analyses are conducted also impact the amount of cognitive resources and information gathering that a person requires in a situation’.   To support effective decision making we could ask – how do we recognise and over-ride our own cognitive biases?

How would you answer the question on leadership and decision making?  Let me know.

Image:  The Myths of Decision Making, Joi Murugavell

Job crafting: is it about fitting in and getting on?

A couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting where we were talking about job crafting.  An excellent article, by Catherine Moore, drawing initially from Berg et al 2007, explains that ‘Job crafting is about taking proactive steps and actions to redesign what we do at work, essentially changing tasks, relationships, and perceptions of our jobs. …   . The main premise is that we can stay in the same role, getting more meaning out of our jobs simply by changing what we do and the ‘whole point’ behind it. ‘

Part of our discussion was on the nature of job descriptions and whether all jobs are, in fact, crafted by the job holder to a greater or lesser degree.  We wondered whether we, as job holders are consciously or unconsciously crafting our jobs, to make them ones where, in Moore’s words, ‘we still can satisfy and excel in our functions, but which are simultaneously more aligned with our strengths, motives, and passions.’   She says that, ‘Unsurprisingly, it [job crafting] has been linked to better performance, intrinsic motivation, and employee engagement’.

As we were talking, I was reminded of my PhD thesis ‘Fitting in and getting on: a study of the organisational socialisation of senior managers joining an organisation’.  The research was sponsored by British Airways who, as the abstract says ‘had noted a number of business costs associated with senior managers who joined the organisation from outside. The aim was to find a way of reducing the costs and improving the joining experience for these individuals in a way which got them to high performance quickly.’

The outcome of the study, summarised in a leaflet I produced (see cover above) to explain it, ‘provided evidence that the relationship between fitting in (socially) and getting on (high-performance) was strong, confirming results of previous studies. However, this study extended previous academic research by finding that the relationship is not straightforward. It is complex, contingent on a range of factors, and continuous throughout a person’s membership of an organisation.’

My PhD came to mind, I think, because it was about how people successfully shape their roles and how the roles shape them in order for them to fit in and get on.  Essentially, how they job craft.

Out of the research I produced a series of twenty checklists, all addressed at senior new joiners to an organisation (not those promoted from within).   Here’s an example of one – ‘New Joiner: fitting in and getting on’ that I found by Googling.   Other titles included ‘Developing your network’, ‘Handling the politics’, Making an impact’, ‘Handling workplace relationships’ and ‘Adjusting your style’.  Ten were published by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), who I see in 2013 updated them.  I’m not sure if they’re still available from – I’m finding out.  In today’s language the checklists were designed to help them job craft.

However, when I was researching, the term ‘job crafting’ was not around.  It seems to have originated in 2001 in a paper by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton,  Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work, published when I was already writing up.   Wrzesniewski and Dutton discuss three aspects of job crafting: task – shaping what you do, relationship – shaping your interactions, cognitive – shaping your attitudes.

Going back to the job-crafting discussion.  It triggered three thoughts for me:

  • Job crafting – all three aspects – is part and parcel of today’s work world, it’s not just for new joiners.
  • It’s not only the job holder doing the crafting in response to things, but also things crafting the job for the job holder.
  • Job crafting would bring more all-round benefits if it was integral to performance management discussions.

Job crafting is part and parcel of today’s work world.  New joiners are almost by default crafting their roles, as my research found.   But I don’t think it is just new joiners who are job crafting.  Particularly around the task aspect of jobs, almost everyone is crafting – new technologies, new products and services and new ways of doing things all require people to re-think the ways they do their jobs.

Or maybe not, read the story of one Amazon warehouse operative and see how little ability he has to craft the task or the interactions. Even the possibility he could craft his attitudes to the job is sharply limited by the apparent lack of choice to be doing it in the first instance.  The story illustrates the effects of an inability to job craft on someone’s motivation and mental/physical health.  (See a related story of Phil, a train cleaner).

It’s not only the job holder doing the crafting in response to things, but also things crafting the job for the job holder.  In a report, on new CEOs BCG notes that ‘In today’s turbulent, globalized, and high-tech business world, large organizations have acquired complexities unimaginable to earlier generations.’  The report offers 5 things CEOs should be doing, in effect to craft effective jobs.  The thing is that this turbulence is not just affecting senior executives, new or otherwise, but almost everyone.

Take an example from this week  ‘JCB, the British digger maker, has cut working hours and suspended overtime for 4,000 UK employees after the coronavirus outbreak prompted a shortage in parts coming from China.’  The external context is having a significant impact on the JCBs jobs – they are being crafted by default.

Technology changes also act to craft jobs differently, but read the case of a journalist who took a proactive approach of asking the question of some technology companies ‘What could their technologies do to automate me?’ She ends the article saying, ‘It’s not that workers have nothing to fear from automation, but rather that companies will have a fair amount of choice over what they want to do with the extra efficiencies that technology will bring. …  You have to use technology to do what you want to do.  … The more you know how to use the technologies and the more you understand what you want, the better the world will end up being.”   I read the article as being a case study in thinking through how technologies can to help craft meaningful jobs.

Job crafting would bring more all-round benefits if it was integral to performance management discussions.  An article from QZ this week  – The Performance Review of gets its annual performance review’ is scathing on the once a year approach that many companies still take to performance reviews.   It says, ‘Arguably, the most daring and effective reinventions make so many changes that the original tradition is unrecognizable. … I would advocate to retrain the Performance Review for the role of Weekly Check-In, [which has] lower stakes and [is] strategically more appropriate for today’s fast-changing business environment, the Weekly Check-in is five times more likely to produce meaningful feedback for employees, says Gallup. Its subjects are also three times more likely to feel engaged at work.’ Enabling an employee to discuss their job in a weekly check-ins, allows for a discussion of crafting it in a way that makes individual and context sense.

How is your job being crafted?  What room do you have to craft it?  Is job crafting part and parcel of today’s work world enabling you to fit in and get on while feeling engaged and productive?  Let me know.

Mergers and identity theft

LONDON, Jan. 23 1973 ‘A merger of the British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways into a new airline was announced today by the British Airways Board. The board, which runs BOAC and BEA, both state‐owned, said it was going to phase out their names and replace them with the single name of British Airways.’  New York Times

It’s a curious thing to read.  It’s so bare in its announcement.  But a year later came the news that: ‘On March 31, 1974, BOAC and BEA were merged to formally establish British Airways. The combined entity began operations together on April 1. … 1974-77 was a difficult period of time due to all regional divisions in the integration.’

I joined British Airways more than 25 years later, yet colleagues were still ‘them and us’, on BEA and BOAC.  Long servers knew which airline each had come from and retained the cultural norms and attitudes of ‘their airline’.   Over the years, I’ve noticed the strength of cultures, and it doesn’t have to be at an organisational level.  Try merging two teams and you risk getting cultural dissonance.   Look at a more recent example in the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger.

As McKinsey notes, Cultural factors and organizational alignment are critical to success (and avoiding failure) in mergers. Yet leaders often don’t give culture the attention it warrants—an oversight that can lead to poor results. Some 95 percent of executives describe cultural fit as critical to the success of integration. Yet 25 percent cite a lack of cultural cohesion and alignment as the primary reason integration efforts fail.’

McKinsey defines ‘culture as the outcome of the vision or mission that drives a company, the values that guide the behavior of its people, and the management practices, working norms, and mind-sets that characterize how work actually gets done.’

What McKinsey doesn’t mention is the link between culture and identity which I think is a critical factor.  A merger could be felt as a form of identity theft, and I wonder if exploring mergers from the perspective of identity would be useful in making them more successful.

This idea came to me as I read Tim Harford’s book, Messy.  In it, he says, ‘Attempting to put two tight-knit teams together in a single organisation can present the organisation’s leaders with a severe headache’.  He goes on to discuss the 1954 Robbers Cave experiment.

The goal of this study was, in the words of Maria Konnikova, the writer of a Scientific American article, ‘multifold: to see how quickly group identity could become established among strangers, how fixed or flexible that identity was, how it would play out in competitive settings with other groups, and how the group conflict dynamic could be mitigated after the fact.’

It turns out that in the experiment the two groups could be harmonised up to a point, but as Konnikova says, ‘Alas, it’s easier to bring together eleven-year-old boys in a camp, who have everything in common save for an arbitrary group designation. It’s tougher to do so in the real world. Subsequent studies have shown just how easily groups are formed, on the most arbitrary of bases —and how hard they can be to unform. As the stakes rise, as the diversity increases, as the group identification becomes based on something more than a random division into cabins, so too does the difficulty of unraveling the enmity increase. … Groups form easier than they fall apart.’

As groups form, they develop a group identity.  I was struck by an 8 February 2020 article, on a UK football team West Ham titled ‘West Ham’s culture and identity are slowly being stripped away as Man City prepare to pile on the pain’.  The byline reads, ‘Relegation is a serious threat this season but the biggest concern for West Ham fans is the direction in which the owners have steered the club off the pitch’.  The story is that the owners persuaded supporters to believe, on a ‘shonky sales pitch’, that moving from their original stadium to a new one ‘was the path to a better future’.

The outcome of this is ‘a sense that supporters could live with defeat and disappointment on the pitch. What they cannot stand is having their identity taken away. [Manchester] City may tear them apart on the pitch tomorrow but West Ham’s owners are stripping the culture away from the club. That will do more lasting damage than any relegation.’

The article links the well-researched field of culture and identity.  (Google scholar lists 4 million items on the search term).   The West Ham move is not a merger, but it seemed to me that, as in a merger, the strength of identity, at both group and individual level is a force to be reckoned with.   To me, this article implied a form of identity theft.

Going down the identity theft route a bit, the research articles I found all showed a connection between the theft of identity and the emotional toll it takes.  For example: ‘This exploratory study examined the psychological and somatic impact of identity theft and coping methods utilized by victims. … The majority of participants expressed an increase in maladaptive psychological and somatic symptoms post victimization. … The results from this study suggest that victims of identity theft do have increased psychological and physical distress, and for those whose cases remain unresolved, distress is maintained over time.’ 

A bit more digging about and I uncovered a 2018 research article, Individual and Organizational Identities in Merger Contexts: A Boundary Perspective.  It’s a fascinating article, examining individual and group identity in terms of boundary theory.   One of the researchers eight propositions discusses the relationship between individual identity and the merged organization’s identity.  Here again, it comes close to the notion of identity theft – the authors quote at a group level: ‘These situations of seeing our company’s identity being violated kept accumulating’.  And at an individual level: ‘The company born from the merger made me a bit uncomfortable because it no longer has anything to do with me. It doesn’t look anything like me; it isn’t a place I would choose to work today.’

The authors of this paper report that ‘This was the first study to explore the interface of the boundaries between individual and organizational identities in merger contexts’ and, like them, I’m left wondering whether mergers could be more successful if, in merger situations we took close account of the possibility that group and individual identity are important factors that are not usually considered in the planning and activity surrounding a merger.

If we don’t do this, we risk people feeling a similar distress to that felt in individual identity theft.   What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image:  Identity theft

Scratching the surface of motivation and complexity

Some interesting questions arose recently around a team that kicked off a ‘mini restructure to help people work differently’.   They’ve found that this isn’t working that well at the moment and there’s a feeling that people are resisting the change.  The questions now arising are, ‘How do you bring people along with you in a change?’ ‘When is it fair to expect people to make the change?’ ‘Do people resist change on principle?’ ‘What will motivate people to change?’  And related to this last question ‘How might you approach getting the team to want to behave differently/make the change?’

Those leaders who ‘did’ the restructure are now wondering what their next steps should be – asking how can they resolve the current situation and what they could/should/might consider doing differently in the future to be more successful in achieving the outcomes they intended.   They also want to know how to better think through what might be the consequences of proposed changes.

Talking to some of the people in the situation suggests that it is a complex one.  Motivating people in complex situations requires recognising that motivation may have three interdependent elements in play intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and achievement motivation.  (These are well discussed in a research paper ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Time for Expansion and Clarification’)

When I’m working with groups on these topics, I usually begin with a four-frame cartoon that provokes discussion.  (See image).  It runs as follows:

Manager:  I want you to design a new performance appraisal form for my group.

HR Rep: But the problem is not in the form; it is in the way it is used

Manager: That may be true but we should start with a new form

HR Rep:  But the form you are now using is being used successfully in other departments in the organisation.

Manager:  Our department is different!  Our people are different! We need a new form! We also need a new staff person who is truly interested in serving her client!!

HR Rep:  When you put it that way, I suddenly see the wisdom in designing a new form.

The discussion of the cartoon, which I’ve used with many different groups in many different environments and cultures, is usually heated.  What people begin to see as they discuss it is that people’s views on what appears to be a simple decision – the design of a new appraisal form (or not) for one organisational department is not straightforward, and neither is the motivation of the two people involved.

I remember Roger Niven’s, AMED talk which he said that rather than using cartoons, he, ‘uses art, artefacts, history, and maps, to stimulate conversations that generate fresh insights into strategic thinking in organisations.’ His view is ‘Such conversations may better enable us to explore often competing theories of strategy and leadership as a complex system.’

Like the artefacts, etc that stimulate discussion and generate fresh insights, the cartoon invariably leads into conversation and ideas on complexity, complex adaptive leadership and motivation.  It also, generally, confirms Niven’s view, ‘that greater awareness of the legacies and culture of other peoples, both within countries and across continents, is important. Each of us is constrained by our own race, gender, and background.  Hence, if we are to create organisational strategies that are appropriate to the 21st century, we must look harder and listen more.  Only then can we advance robust business models and behavioural theories that have relevance for the people we seek to employ and serve.’

Looking harder and listening more is taken up in an HBR article, by Heifetz and Laurie, The Work of Leadership. Niven references it in his slides and although it’s old (2001) the line the authors take ring true in my experience of hierarchical organisations today.  They discuss the adaptive challenge leaders face, the ‘murky, systemic problems with no easy answers.’   They note that, ‘Perhaps even more vexing, the solutions to adaptive challenges don’t reside in the executive suite.’

Heifetz and Laurie say, “Many executives reach their positions of authority by virtue of their competence in taking responsibility and solving problems. … But the locus of responsibility for problem solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift its people.  … Solutions …. reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of the people at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.”  A restructure – mini or maxi – is often a response to a need to adapt.  Yet there is ample voice to the notion that they often don’t achieve the intended outcome (see, for example this article)

The adaptive challenge is keenly felt in complex organisations.  David Snowden,  originator of the Cynfin Framework, talks about ‘the complex domain which has its  basis in complex adaptive systems theory.  In a complex system, there’s so many interacting dependencies that future states cannot be predicted.  There constraints can provide a degree of coherence and direction but they can’t provide predictability.’

Complex situations require staying alert and watching to see how things unfold.  Brian Eno, quoted in Tim Harford’s book, Messy, says ‘Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.’

That may be so for Eno, but for many of leaders and managers recognising that very few situations are within their control and can’t be predicted is a very hard unlearning. As one writer says, they ‘first have to get over the fact that it contradicts everything they’ve been taught about making decisions. B-school encourages students to frame problems, formulate alternatives, collect data, and then evaluate the options,’ as if they can control the outcomes.  This isn’t so in a complex world with multiple adaptive challenges.

However, Heifetz and Laurie offer six principles for leading adaptive work and, through this, fostering motivation.  These principles are:  being alert to the emerging patterns (they call it getting on the balcony), identifying the adaptive challenge, maintaining disciplined attention, regulating distress, giving the work back to people, and protecting voices of leadership from below.

The first three of these (being alert to the emerging patterns, identifying the adaptive challenge, maintaining disciplined attention) are related to leading in complexity, and the second three (regulating distress, giving the work back to people, and protecting voices of leadership from below) to motivating people in complex contexts where the interplay of intrinsic, extrinsic and achievement motivation needs considered exploration.   On first read, these six principles seem like an easy answer to a complex situation but thinking about them I’ve decided they’re worth discussing with the team involved and seeing if they provoke insights and give value.

What principles do you use to increase individuals’ adaptive capacity and motivation in complex organisations?  Let me know.

Image:  From Flawless Consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used, Peter Block

Metal detecting

Usually, by the end of the week there’s been some obvious bloggable theme that’s emerged through conversations, observations, meetings and readings.  This week was not unusual, the strongly emerging theme was governance.  What is unusual is that I find I can’t summon the interest today to tackle that topic, so I’m left casting around for something to say!

I just read a good Aeon article on free will where the author writes, ‘But as I read [William] James, I just needed to keep trying things and, most of all, be brave. From him I learned that the truth is elusive – but taking action is mandatory.’   Thus, I decided to spur myself into action despite the lack of topic.

Looking back at my calendar for the week, I see I’ve been in a range of meetings covering all sorts of territory.  In that sense I feel I’ve had something like a metal detecting week.  One in which I’ve metaphorically been wielding a metal detector and found a number of organisation design related items which, for one reason or other, seem attractive, useful, or worth a closer look – the articles linked above are two of them – here’s what else I’ve found.

1:  I got an invite to join Phanish Puranam’s webinar on “Organizational Design and Development in the Age of Algorithms”.  The blurb reads, ‘In this session, we will bring you to the cutting edge of how organizations are being (re)-designed today in the age of algorithmic intelligence. We begin by identifying the limits of traditional top down, “box- and-arrows” approaches to design and show how we can do better by approaching design problems from a “bottom-up” perspective. The new approaches exploit the vast computational power and data resources made possible by digitalization, as well as recent theoretical breakthroughs in conceptualizing the problems of organization design’.

There’s a pre-webinar ‘look-over’ blogpost and video, which I’ve looked over today.  They’re excellent.  I particularly like the way Puranam talks about the pressing need for ‘new ways to think about organisation design that link individual actions and interactions to organisational outcomes’.

2: A friend told me about Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist.  She’s highly energised by his work.  I hadn’t come across him and followed up on the mention.   A reviewer describes his new book ‘The Order of Time, a dizzying, poetic work in which I found myself abandoning everything I thought I knew about time – certainly the idea that it “flows”, and even that it exists at all, in any profound sense.’  I’ve promptly downloaded a sample chapter to read on my way home tomorrow.  It may help bolster an argument I’m busy (so far, unsuccessfully)  making about the futility of developing a ‘three year plan’, or it may at least cheer me up in the process.

3:  Coglode Nuggets – A set of cards each one giving ‘Bite-size behavioral [science] research analysis. … Each Nugget is painstakingly crafted to summarise research without undermining its integrity’.  Each card outlines a behavioural principle, references some related academic papers, and gives ‘takeaways’ to help you apply the principle e.g. Risk Aversion, Storyteller Bias, Certainty Bias in your business. They say you can ‘Design by behaviour: Quickly choose key behaviours to drive your design sprints.’   Someone brought a set to a presentation I went to so I was able to flick through them. I haven’t bought the deck yet, but I think I will.

4:  The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts.  As rather a sk(c)eptic on things, I was delighted to discover these podcasts, thanks to @robinince.   I’ve just listened to the current one – which discusses Goop which ‘spreads misinformation’.  Sadly, I am over 700 episodes behind, but I’ve found them now.

As Ince says ‘it is one of those podcasts where the chemistry and fascinations of the hosts come together. … Steven Novella is a neurologist whose campaigning work has been particularly focused on the pseudoscience behind the anti-vaccination campaign and alternative medical practitioners’.  I get New Scientist every week and this podcast is a good complement to that.   I am of the view that scepticism is a necessary quality for organisation design and development work and a useful antidote to hype and fads.

5:  The quote, ‘Trifles make the sum of life’, from Dickens’ David Copperfield, and I read it in a review of the new film adaptation of the book.  It adds to, what may become a collection of quotes on trifles.  A couple of weeks ago I found ‘it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found’ (said by Jonathan Miller)  and I’ve long had the quote ‘Do not be negligent in trifling matters’, from Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings .  I enjoy these quotes because, in organisational life, we are constantly enjoined to see the ‘big picture’, indulge in ‘visioning’,  and do ‘blue sky thinking’.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  Indeed, it is necessary but not at the expense of paying attention to the detailed reflection and critical thinking needed to get any idea from vision to implementation.   ‘The devil is in the details’ is a similar concept.  In day to day working life having, for example,  a working stapler is just as important as having the mission, ‘To inspire humanity – both in the air and on the ground’.

6:  A mixed bag of miscellaneous items, including some uplifting stories from Positive News which I’m now thinking of subscribing to.  (I get the weekly email update),  a link to a story on ‘The writers breathing life into black British history’ and another to  Amazing women in history.  All these three reminding me again that there are multiple perspectives, no ‘right’ answers and that there is huge value in diversity of thought in looking at organisational issues and possibilities.

7:  A recommendation on the gohenryapp designed to help children learn how to handle money and make sound financial decisions.  I’m struck by the way these types of apps take learning and development into a whole new sphere – with this you are not ‘teaching’ financial responsibility, children are experiencing developing it in real time.  At the same time I see apps like this completely changing the business models of organisations.

On the same day as the gohenry recommendation.  Someone sent me a link to a video of 2 teenagers trying to work out how to dial a number on a rotary phone. It’s hilarious.  With gohenry in mind, wondered how soon there’ll be a video of two teenagers trying to work out how to use an ATM.  (I’m assuming ATMs will be defunct soon).

Both of these, illustrate how quickly things move on – reinforcing my view that we must never think an organisation design is sustainable, or that we can predict what and how things will change in order to ‘manage’ it.

What organisation design related items did your metal detector turn up this week?  Let me know.

Image: Best metal detector

Conversations on Leaders with Nick and Nick

Nick Richmond, Chair of the Organisation Design Institute, and I had a conversation last week on leading organisation design work.  Nick is doing some work on this as he’s found there isn’t much discussion or academic research on the topic.  He was asking if I knew of any.  Although there’s a lot of info/research on leading organisational change and you could argue that organisation design heralds/is change, that isn’t what he is looking for.  It’s more about considering the design of an organisation and how you lead a redesign of it (or design it from scratch).

In my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design, the one I’m thinking of writing a third edition of, I do have a chapter on Leadership and Organisation Design and in it I note that:

 ‘Organisation design success depends on the complex interactions of four broad leadership groups: internal formal leaders, internal informal leaders, external formal leaders and external informal leaders or opinion influencers. Each of these groups has at their disposal various sources of power, and although formal leaders may have access to more of these than informal leaders, the way the power is wielded is an important determinant of the outcome. As martial arts practitioners know, soft as cotton can be as hard as steel.

Access to and use of power is one of several variables determining ability to lead. Others include style of attracting and holding on to followers; stability or instability of circumstances; personal motivation; and the organisation’s political landscape. The efficacy of a leader changes as the context changes, and someone who cannot adjust their style of leadership or draw on a different source of power is opening the door for someone else to seize the leadership role’.

Our discussion didn’t go down the power route.  Instead, we focused on role questions including:  What are the leadership roles in organisation design?  Are there different leader role at different points in the design process?  What are the respective roles of a business leader leading organisation design and an organisation design expert leading the work?  What impact does leader style or status have on organisation design?  Would we be able to look at specific films and discuss the role of leaders in them in relation to organisation design? (We touched on my blog on Ford v Ferrarri).

Nick mentioned a way of thinking about a leader’s role in organisation design, which comes from an article ‘A Framework for Consulting to Organizational Role’. According to authors James Krantz and Marc Mertz, ‘Role is a key component in any organizational change and a critical place for such change to be initiated.’  In their words, ‘the article offers both a framework for thinking about organizational role and a process for consulting to organizational “role holders.”’

The framework they present considers four dimensions of role.  The first two are,  ‘role as taken and role as given. The role holder’s internalized and then enacted view/construction of her or his role, how it is construed and interpreted subjectively, is the individual’s role as taken. “Role influencers” — those the role holder is working for and/or with – define the individual’s role as given. The given and taken aspects of role produce its authorization.’

The second two are the task and sentient aspects,  ‘The task system comprises the aspects of role that belong to the structures, procedures, and technologies, which exist independently of individuals within organizations.’  While, ‘the sentient system is the social, human process within an organization: the symbols, meanings, unconscious group forces and/or emotional significance experienced and attitudes and beliefs based on the needs, fantasies, and patterns of identification within a role and an organization.’

We discussed these four aspects plotted on a 2 x 2 matrix and thought that they could form the basis for discussing, reflecting on and agreeing various leaders’ roles in organisation design.

Different leader questions occurred in another conversation during the week in a conversation with Nick Obolensky on complex adaptive leadership.  His view is that for leaders to be effective they must be able to build networks and operate collaboratively not from a position of rank and power.  Through his work, he encourages leaders to learn how to enable and follow the people they lead, and followers to learn how to take the lead and be included in the dynamic of leadership.  He sees leadership as a dynamic to be managed and enabled, rather than a role to be exercised. ‘The more senior the role, the more this is needed’.

This conversation included the questions ‘how much do leaders need to know about complexity?’  ‘Can power and control leaders (what Nick Richmond called ‘heroic leaders’) become the ‘leaders who listen well, spot the solutions, and support those who propose them’?   How do organisations change when there is a ‘dynamic rather than attribute-driven approach to leadership?’  Can leaders learn to lead with confidence when they do not know, and do not have the answers?  How can leaders make time for mindful reflection on their leadership when they have multiple competing and urgent priorities?

As one of the tools to help answer these questions Nick advocates eight principles ‘to enable a team to do a very complex task without a leader.’   Organisation design is a complex set of tasks which are not amenable to a deterministic/mechanistic approach which, as Nick says, does not work well in VUCA environment and results in waste and sub-optimal results.

We talked specifically on one of his eight principles – ‘a few simple rules’ – that enable complexity to be leveraged. He gave an example of applying this principle to an expenses process.  When it was reduced to ‘self-authorise, spend for the good of the organisation, make your spend transparent to everyone’,  what had been a heavily administrative process, involving many policies and several layers of authorisation became streamlined, resulting in costs (and expense claims) going down.   Thinking about this, it could be that organisations don’t need to be ‘designed’, the design could emerge through determing and applying a few simple rules.  (See rules of flocking).

As Nick was talking on this I was reminded of the different, but related concept of ‘choice architecture’ which, I think,  is under-explored in organisation design work, and which earlier in the week Nick Richmond and I had mentioned.

I’m still pondering the discussions and the two Nicks’ questions around role and complexity.  They all have a significant bearing on the way organisations design is approached.  How would you answer them?  Let me know.

Image: Left side: A Framework for Consulting to Organizational Role  + Right side: eight principles

Decaf, pragmatic and real resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image:  Resistance decaf