Leadership and culture

Thanks to a chance conversation I had in the week, someone pointed me towards Edgar Schein talking about ‘cultural islands’.  Schein says,

‘To help leaders deal with multi-cultural teams … two things need to happen – leaders have to become much more humble and learn how to seek help, because the subordinates under them will be much more knowledgeable than they, and secondly leaders will have to create cultural islands where people from differently occupational and national cultures can spend suspend some of the rules and talk to each other more directly, for example, about how they view trust, how they view authority, or how they deal with bosses that make mistakes. If leaders can’t create those kinds of cultural islands, they won’t be able to create teams that can actually work.’

This idea was useful to me on two counts – first because I am working on a culture audit testing a hypothesis that we will find different cultures at different locations and in different functions and we need to develop an approach that honours what Schein calls the micro cultures within the macro culture.  (Schein talks about macro and micro cultures which is similar to my thinking on culture as a climate metaphor).

In the fifth edition of his book Organisational Culture and Leadership Schein says ‘I have emphasized that every organizational culture is nested in other, often larger cultures that influence its character; and every subculture, task force, or work group is, in turn, nested in larger cultures, which influence them. I have enhanced the discussion of how one can begin to work across national culture divides.  (5th edition)’

Second the idea of cultural islands was useful,  because in a workshop we were discussing organisation structures and networks, and I was showing the Rob Cross slide (see image at top of this blog) which shows the traditional organisation chart compared with its network analysis.  As Cross says, ‘Organizational network analysis (ONA) can provide an x-ray into the inner workings of an organization — a powerful means of making invisible patterns of information flow and collaboration in strategically important groups visible.’

One of the group, who I was showing the image to to exclaimed ‘Cole is the leader’.   You’ll see in the ONA side of the image, as Cross points out the ‘central role that Cole played in terms of both overall information flow within the group and being the only point of contact between members of the production division and the rest of the network.’

What the workshop participant’s statement did was start a discussion on leaders.  I think the implication in Schein’s book is that leaders are those with positional/hierarchical power.  Schein remarks,  ‘In an age in which leadership is touted over and over again as a critical variable in defining the success or failure of organisations it becomes all the more important to look at the other side of the leadership coin – how leaders create culture and how culture defines and creates leaders.’ (3rd edition)

I may be wrong, because I see he’s written another book (2018) Humble Leadership – which I haven’t yet read, that tells us ‘The more traditional forms of leadership that are based on static hierarchies and professional distance between leaders and followers are growing increasingly outdated and ineffective.’ He calls ‘for a reimagined form of leadership that coincides with emerging trends of relationship building, complex group work, diverse workforces, and cultures in which everyone feels psychologically safe.’ But is he still talking about CEOs, senior managers, team leaders, and so on.  Or is he verging into the territory of ‘everyone a leader?

In the 1986 edition of Images of Organisation (Figure 6.2 – I have an ancient photocopy!) Gareth Morgan lists fourteen of the most important sources of power.  Formal authority is the first one.  Others are:

  • Control of scarce resources
  • Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations
  • Control of decision processes
  • Control of knowledge and information
  • Control of boundaries
  • Ability to cope with uncertainty
  • Control of technology
  • Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of ‘informal organization’
  • Control of counter-organizations
  • Symbolism and the management of meaning
  • Gender and the management of gender relations
  • Structural factors that define the stage of action
  • The power one already has

You can see each of these with an explanation, developed by Changing Minds

If we assume that leadership involves control of a power source (or having the means to control a power source) as Cole in the organisational network map may do, does that mean that there are many types of leadership power and control that influence the culture?  Isn’t it a reality that ‘leaders’ with positional power, are not the only, or even key, influencers of culture.  Culture influence is the realm of anyone who has any type of power.

Perhaps the strongest influencers of culture are those who use the power they already have (the last item on Morgan’s list) – just being in the culture wielding our behaviours and personalities could be enough to influence it.   Schein says (again 5th edition) ‘our own socialization experiences have embedded various layers of culture within us. The cultures within us need to be understood because they dominate our behavior and, at the same time, provide us choices of who to be in various social situations. These choices are only partially attributable to “personality” or “temperament”; rather, they depend on our situational understandings that have been taught to us by our socialization experiences. ‘

However Schein goes on to talk about this only in relation to ‘leadership’,  saying,  ‘I have introduced as an important element for leadership choices a description of the social “levels of relationship” that we all have learned as part of our upbringing. We can be formal, personal, or intimate and can vary that behaviour according to our situation. In that way, recognizing and managing the cultures inside us becomes an important leadership skill. (5th edition)’

If we were all more aware of the various types of power we all have access to, including our own personal power,  then we could use this (hopefully wisely) to  positively influence culture and our cultural islands.  We’d reach a position where developing healthy organisational cultures – micro and macro –  becomes everyone’s conscious responsibility and is not delegated to positional leaders.

Do you think the culture is shaped by everyone, on their different cultural islands, or by some groups over others on them?  Let me know.

Tech, humans and organisation design

Tomorrow there’s an Organisation Design Forum (ODF) discussion on Organisation Design Trends and Implications.  Panel members – I am one – have been asked to consider the question ‘What’s the big deal about technology and organisation design?’ together with four related questions:

  • Does technology impact the theory and practice of org design, and if so in what way?
  • What are the implications for the designer?
  • Can optimally functioning organisations be designed by AI?
  • Tech has the possibility to augment human capabilities and also replace human capabilities via robotics and AI.  How might organization designers impact this evolutionary process in a positive way…versus being limited to the clean-up activities as organizations shrink and/or people are displaced?

I can’t answer any of these questions off the top of my head so, knowing they were coming – but only about a week ago – I’ve been seeing if I can form a point of view by reading on the topic.  The difficulty is – where to start?  Tech and humans are the stuff of endless consulting company papers.  Look, for example at Deloitte’s,  Intelligent interfaces: Reimagining the way humans, machines, and data interact  where we learn that ‘Thermal imaging technologies can detect changes in shoppers’ heart rates. A variety of wearables ranging from today’s smartwatches to tomorrow’s augmented-reality goggles capture a wearer’s biofeedback. Smartphone data captured in real time can alert retailers that customers are checking online to compare prices for a specific product, suggesting dissatisfaction with store pricing, product selection, or layout.’

Accenture leaders Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson, authors of Human + Machine, ‘show that the essence of the AI paradigm shift is the transformation of all business processes within an organization–whether related to breakthrough innovation, everyday customer service, or personal productivity habits. As humans and smart machines collaborate ever more closely, work processes become more fluid and adaptive, enabling companies to change them on the fly–or to completely reimagine them. AI is changing all the rules of how companies operate.’

What’s striking about the language of Deloitte and Accenture is the impersonality of it.  Where is the human experience, emotion and feeling that is integral to tech deployment in organisations?  How will humans feel when their work processes are changed ‘on the fly’?   The human/machine interface is the critical element in answering the ODF questions.  But humans, with all our complex emotions and responses, don’t show up in a rich, human way in articles and white papers on digital and tech transformation.  They are secondary to the work processes and the tech.

Making an assumption that humans will continue to be part of organisational functioning, I’m wondering how we can elevate their status in discussions, so that designers are not concentrating only on the tech systems, structures and processes but also on the humans and their feelings.

What’s captured my interest are people who look at the human/machine interface both curiously and critically from perspectives that I am unfamiliar with.  From the handful of material that caught my attention comes a common thread – that we will be dangerously exposed if we focus on the machine over the human.

There’s a book Robots and Art: Exploring an Unlikely Symbiosis, that is a collection of chapters by various people.   Amy M Youngs’ chapter ‘Embracing Interdependencies: Machines, Humans and Non-humans‘ opens with the abstract:

‘As a creator of interactive, constructed ecosystems, I discuss my artistic practice as a way to experience self as interdependent and to re-engineer relationships between humans and other species. Technologically enhanced mirroring, participation, re-programmed elements and designing for non-humans are examined as techniques that entangle the audience within the fabricated systems. Re-configuring the human participant as one element enmeshed within a system that equally includes technology, industry, waste streams and other living things, I work towards new models of collaboration and shared world building.’ It’s powerful in its statement that ‘technology is no longer thought of as a rational, controllable element. … We are in it, not necessarily in control of it.’

This point is taken further by Jamie Susskind in his book Future Politics where he says ‘Relentless advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together … We are not yet ready – intellectually, philosophically, or morally – for the world we are creating.’

In the hard to read, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ Donna Haraway explores the relationship between tech and humans, saying ‘By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism – in short, cyborgs.’  I found an interview with her which was easier to grasp than the manifesto. The interviewer says ‘If we’re going to build a humane techno-culture, instead of a Kafkaesque nightmare, we would do well to listen to what she [Haraway] has to say.’  And what she says is:  ‘Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections – and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”

Then I came across the piece ‘Hunting for life in the machine’ the by-line reads ‘Get it wrong and living with smart machines will be hell’.  The piece looks at the work of designer Yamanaka Shunji whose ‘projects include beautiful prosthetics and life-like robots that re-examine the relationship between humans and machines.’  (See image above).

Beyond the warnings we organisation designers can learn more about the tech/human interface from designers in other fields.  Designer and weaver, Anni Albers talking in 1937 says ‘Life today is very bewildering.  We have no picture of it which is all-inclusive. … We have to make a choice between concepts of great diversity.  And as a common ground is wanting, we are baffled by them. … For we are overgrown with information, decorative maybe, but useless in any constructive sense.  We have developed our receptivity and have neglected our own formative impulse.’  Albers commentaries on her  lifetime of weaving materials that  bridged the technology/human interface hold insights for organisation designers that are as applicable now as they were then.

Taking weaving into a different sphere,  Weave: the Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute ‘is building connection where there was no connection, creating relationships where there were no relationships, weaving thick neighborhoods where there were thin neighborhoods.’  It is a version of Facebook but without the mediation of technology and with greater human benefit.  (A research project designed to test what happened when people turned off their Facebook accounts for a month found that ‘Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety).

I read Singapore’s Digital Government Blueprint.  In the centre of it is the strapline Digital to the Core + Serve with Heart.  I liked that apparent intention.  But I wonder – is it feasible to design organisations that combine a tech-human exchange that is intellectually, philosophically, and morally thought through – digital + heart?  Let me know.

Image: Ready to Crawl,  Yamanaka Shunji

Everyone a change manager

On Saturday my plan was to run the ParkRun, starting at 09:00 and then continue with what I’d planned to do.   I got to the underground station in time, a train pulled in.  I got on.  The train didn’t move.  Some 5 or so minutes later the driver told us there was a signal failure.  He couldn’t say when we’d depart.  Hmm – a change to my plans.  I managed that change.   My view is that everyone is a change manager and we can all do it well enough.

But this goes unrecognised in the received wisdom that change fails.  I googled the phrase ‘Why does change fail?’ and got 613,000,000 links.  Quite a few then.   I decided not to trawl through all of these to find out why.  Instead I randomly picked a 2013 Strategy&/Katzenbach Center survey of global senior executives on culture and change management, which found (as most surveys of change do) that the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent.  The survey suggests 3 reasons for the failure:

‘The first—no surprise—is “change fatigue,” the exhaustion that sets in when people feel pressured to make too many transitions at once.’

The second ‘because companies lack the skills to ensure that change can be sustained over time.’

The third, ‘is that transformation efforts are typically decided upon, planned, and implemented in the C-suite, with little input from those at lower levels.’

Even though the article citing these reasons for failure offers ‘10 guiding principles for change can help executives navigate the treacherous shoals of transformation in a systematic way’, 2 years later McKinsey confidently says, ‘We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support.’  In 2017 we were still being fed a diet of ‘change fails’, for example,   ‘Corporate transformations still have a miserable success rate, even though scholars and consultants have significantly improved our understanding of how they work. Studies consistently report that about three-quarters of change efforts flop—either they fail to deliver the anticipated benefits or they are abandoned entirely.’

Can we believe that this level of change effort ‘fails’?  If so, it makes one wonder how most organisations stagger on.  One researcher doubts these reports of failure.  He asks the question ‘Do 70 Per Cent of All Organizational Change Initiatives Really Fail?’   In a well-argued piece, he concludes: ‘whilst the existence of a popular narrative of 70 per cent organizational-change failure is acknowledged, there is no valid and reliable empirical evidence to support such a narrative.’

If we take that line, we might be able to change our perspective on change.   Suppose we discovered that most people, for the most part were pretty good at change in their daily lives.  In fact, they often seek it out – they move house, take a holiday to a different place, try out a new food, get married or divorced, have a baby … and so on.  And when it is imposed on them – missing a bus, breaking a limb, suffering a bereavement – they work through it, sometimes describing a disastrous change as the best thing that happened to them.

With that discovery we could dream that everyone is a change manager.  We often hear the phrase ‘everyone a leader’, but how often do we hear the phrase ‘everyone a change manager’.  It’s rare, but as Carsten Tams points out in Everybody Is A Change Agent, ‘The understanding of human nature proposed by Bandura and McGregor construes employees as vital change agents, rather than as reluctant implementers or outright resisters in need of conversion.’ Tams suggests we should be ‘motivating employees to implement predefined changes and toward creating an environment in which employees can fully actualize their potential as self-initiating change agents.’

We’ve reached that point in a piece of work I’m engaged in.  Believing that everyone is change capable, we are involving people in designing a series of activities, events, learning topics that we hope will switch the perspectives from the popular view that change fails and people resist it to the confident view that change isn’t a succeed or fail event,  it is a continuous process of enabling and developing people’s  resilience,  trust, and belief in their agency that they can handle whatever the situation demands, co-creating the environment which supports this.  Like Carsten Tams, we believe our role as organisation designers is ‘to design the organization in a way that enables continuous adaptation to an ever-evolving environment.’  (Tams has a series of five blogs on the topic of rethinking change).

Whether or not you go along with another popular view that it is imperative to become an ‘agile’ organisation,  if we are all confident that we can manage change well enough, that we do it all the time in our non-work lives, and that the skills are transferable and can be adapted to our work and work lives, it will help us go some way to building the capabilities of an agile organisation:

·         Where people understand that they are part of a wider system and what happens in their part impacts another part

·         Where leaders ‘focus on building the context and organization needed for a system to emerge instead of working in sometime heroic attempts to fix the problems herself or coordinate actions of subordinates by detailed command and control.’

·         We are willing an able to work with continuous learning from experiments and apply the precepts of ‘intelligent failure’.

·         Where there is a genuinely open and collaborative and open communication style

Whether our destiny is to get to this state or whether it will be a continuous process of trying to get there we don’t know yet – either way changing the story from ‘change fails’ to ‘everyone a change manager’ will be a good learning journey to be on.  (And, yes I’ve used the 4 Ds of Appreciative Inquiry to shape this piece).

Do you think everyone is a change manager?  Let me know.

Image:  Agents of change

Interfaces and interdependencies

The phrase ‘interfaces and interdependencies’ is one I hear more and more in organisation design work.  Last week someone asked me what the difference is between them, why they’re linked and do they require different design considerations?

Looking purely at definitions it’s relatively easy to see the difference between the two concepts:

Interface: Common boundary where direct contact between two different cultures, devices, entities, environments, systems, etc., occurs, and where energy, information, and/or material is exchanged.

Interdependence:  Dependence of entities such as people or countries on each other.

The linkage of interface and interdependence comes into play, particularly in work-flows, because there are handover points in most flows and these handover points are at a common boundary.

Imagine a relay team, racing.  The first runner carries the baton.  At a determined point he/she hands the baton to the next runner, and so on.  The team’s success is down to each runner’s ability to maintain speed and efficient handovers.  The team members are interdependent in their ability to win the race. Their skill at managing the interface – the point of passing the baton – can give them a critical advantage.  Watch an excellent TED talk on issues around creating smooth interfaces in an interdependent process:  too often we try and put controls around them when encouraging co-operation would yield better results.

The increasing references to interfaces and interdependencies are due to four factors:

First, erosion of hierarchical siloed ways of thinking about organisations. See, for example Stanford Business School’s blog Rethinking Hierarchy in the Workplace, which tells us ‘When you look at real organizations, having a clear hierarchy within your firm actually makes people turn on each other when they face an outside threat.’

Second, acceleration of tech enabled networks of connected individuals, communities, organisations and societies that help us navigate and manage the complexities of our world.  Look at the 10-minute RSA Animate, The Power of Networks for more on this.   The ideas in the Animate are taken in a different direction in Ranjay Gulati’s Harvard Business Review piece.  He says, ‘With the explosive growth of the internet and social media, people now enjoy innumerable channels for sharing concerns and ideas in their personal lives. Compared with these expansive platforms for self-expression, the workplace can feel downright stifling. The freedom of the outside world is banging at the corporate door, demanding to come inside.’

Third, recognition that customers want a seamless end to end service (customer journey). This means carefully designing the flow of work processes that cross organisational boundaries, either within an organisation or across multiple organisations – as often happens in the delivery of citizen services,  where, for example ‘separate teams are often responsible for different chunks of a full end-to-end journey like becoming a childminder or setting up a company.’

Fourth, development of tech/human interactions which are becoming increasingly common and give rise to multiple complex questions.  On this read, for example, a research paper Robots Working with Humans or Humans Working with Robots? where researchers state that ‘When developing and designing the intuitive interfaces for industrial robots, such as hardware, software and system integration, robot experts in the manufacturing industry usually do not clearly recognize the “social” implications of their concepts. The relation between intuitive design, and the possibility to enable and improve the qualification of workers operating the equipment is still large unknown.’

Designing organisations grappling with these four factors inevitably means learning how to design with a focus on the interfaces and interdependencies.  There is no single ‘how to guide’ for this.  But there are some useful pointers, some with a focus on interdependencies, others with a focus on interfaces, and others combining discussion of both.   Beyond the resources mentioned above, here are ten others that I’ve found helpful:

Nicolay Worren has an interesting slide share on interdependencies, suggesting five dimensions of interdependency.

A paper Project interfaces and their management, by Alan Stretton.  He has reviewed some key writers on organisational interfaces and from this ‘Over thirty project interfaces are identified, and are broadly classified and accumulated into a table. This could be seen as a basic checklist for project managers who are establishing and/or managing this component of project integration.’

In a blog Harold Jarche (drawing on Curtis Ogden’s work) explains four attributes of networked thinking saying ‘Network thinking can fundamentally change our view of hierarchical relationships.’

A research article Coactive Design: Designing Support for Interdependence in Joint Activity  explains that ‘Coactive Design is a new approach to address the increasingly sophisticated roles that people and robots play as the use of robots expands into new, complex domains. The approach is motivated by the desire for robots to perform less like teleoperated tools or independent automatons and more like interdependent teammates. In this article, we describe what it means to be interdependent, why this is important, and the design implications that follow from this perspective’.

The book The DNA of Strategy Execution is about ‘the modern PMO’ and has a whole section (7) ‘Connect’, that discusses networks, silos, interfaces and interdependencies, including a piece on pooled, sequential and reciprocal workflows and a useful template for managing interfaces and interdependencies.

I’ve often recommended A bridge too far? How boundary spanning networks drive organizational change and effectiveness .  This paper explores boundary spanning and networks, the authors saying –  ‘Just as our understanding of informal networks has grown in the past decade, so has our interest in a closely related area: boundary spanning.  Boundary spanning leadership is defined as the capability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal.

If you want a theory read the blog on modularity theory and why it matters, ‘Modularity Theory (also known as the Theory of Interdependence and Modularity) is a framework for explaining how different parts of a product’s architecture relate to one another and consequently affect metrics of production and adoption.’ …

An article on project interdependency management, gives down to earth advice:  ‘Contrary to the opinion of some project managers, no project is an island unto itself. Like it or not, most projects depend on other projects or initiatives to deliver some enabling capabilities that are essential to their successful implementation. Most also contribute some enabling capabilities to other projects or initiatives.’

The HBR article How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together which is much less about ‘agile’ and much more about collaborative working,  discussing cross-functional teams  that ‘often bump up against misaligned incentives, hierarchical decision-making, and cultural rigidities, causing progress to stall or action to not be taken at all.’

If you’re a project manager, the study –  Management of Project Interdependencies in a Project Portfolio which finds that ‘project portfolio management is acknowledged by both theory and practice to be a highly challenging task which is even amplified by the presence of project interdependencies. Managing project interdependencies is found to be an area of weakness for contemporary portfolio management, which so far remains under investigated but emergent field within general portfolio management theory. … The study examines the benefits of project interdependency management, the negative effects of failed project interdependency management and the related challenges.’

What are your shareable resources on interfaces and interdependencies?  Let me know.

Image: Hard (required) versus soft (opportunistic) interdependence relationships


Habits of a systems thinker

‘Not mincing words here, developing an organizational habit of systems thinking is challenging and a lot of work. It requires investments in time, money and people. One can certainly utilize books, articles and courses to build an awareness of systems thinking. Training someone to use systems thinking in their day-to-day management requires focus, and it is something best done through broad experiences.’   Knowing all this colleagues and I are still going to try out developing  systems thinking across the organisation.

Why?  Because we go along with the view that ‘the larger the business, the more complex the interactions. It is paramount to be able to evaluate the interrelations of systems, comprehend the forces that are at work on the business and subsequently choose changes that result in improved production both in the near-term and in the long-term [in order to improve business performance]’   Quotes above from: Amplify Your Leadership Effectiveness: Apply Systems Thinking

We’re starting small – by simply providing some resources to provoke discussion and see where that takes us.  But even a this point we can illustrate a systems thinking concept.

In Thinking in Systems author Donella Meadows wrote, ”If you understand the dynamics (behavior over time) of stocks and flows, you understand a good deal about the behavior of complex systems.” In describing stocks and flows, Donella Meadows stated, “A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity of material or information that has built up over time.  It may be a population, an inventory, the wood in a tree, the water in a well, the money in a bank…Stocks change over time through the actions of flows, usually actual physical flows into or out of a stock–filling, draining, births, deaths, production, consumption, growth, decay, spending, saving.  Stocks, then, are accumulations, or integrals, of flows.”

I’m building up a set of resources to support the systems thinking programme.  It struck me that the resources are the stock and the people who take the programme are the flow – they’re ones who will, through their participation, change stock over time.  They’ll add to the resources, take stuff out to use, amend things, comment on items – keeping the accumulation up to date and useful.

The programme is hung on the Waters Foundation poster ‘Habits of a Systems Thinker’.  There are 14 habits and my colleague has organised them into 5 categories.  Each two weeks we will facilitate a group discussion/learning session that covers the habits in that category.  In between each of the sessions participants will have something to read, watch or think about related to one of the habits in the category.  We’re also planning to invite a speaker to each session to give case study input to the topic.

Here’s the initial stock:

Module 1:  Big picture thinking 

Habit:  Seeks to understand the big picture.  Resource: White paper The Dawn of System Leadership, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania

Habit: Changes perspectives to increase understanding.  Resource: White paper  Taking Organisational Complexity Seriously Chris Rodgers

Habit: Observes how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends.  Resource: 10-minute video: Systems theory of organisation

Module 2: Thinking about thinking

Habit: Surfaces and tests assumptions. Resource:  8-minute video, Why challenging assumptions is the way to go.

Habit:  Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future. Resource: Blog,  The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking: How Can We Make It Easier to Master?

Habit: Considers an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion. Resource: 5-minute TEDed  Rethinking thinking, Trevor Maber,

Module 3: Cause and effect

Habit:  Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships. Resource: 4- minute video Introduction to causal loops

Habit: Recognises the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships.  Resource:  Article (academic) Understanding the causes and consequences of disruption and delay in complex projects: how system dynamics can help

Module 4: System acupuncture

Habit: Recognises that a system’s structure generates its behaviour. Resource: Book chapter System behaviour and causal loop diagrams

Habit: Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions. Resource:  Blog,  Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Habit: Makes meaningful connections within and between systems.  Resource:  Guide, Project Interdependency Management

Module 5: Organisational learning

Habit: Considers both short and long term consequences of actions. Resource: Report, Short-termism in business: causes, mechanisms and consequences

Habit: Finds where unintended consequences emerge.  Resource: 3-minute video:  Great moments in unintended consequences

Habit: Checks results and changes actions if needed: ‘successive approximation’. Resource: Blog,  Successive Approximations: What the Berimbolo Taught Me About Learning

What resources would you add to the list to illustrate each of the habits of a systems thinker?  Let me know.


Organizational health

Well-being and resilience are hot topics right now.  Discussions I’ve been in have focused on individuals not organizations, but the concepts are similar and it makes sense to think of individual and organizational health and well-being as inter-linked.  In my book on Organizational Health I describe organizational health in the same terms as human health.  Here’s what I say (adapted slightly).

‘Joseph Jimenez, CEO (2010 – 2018), Novartis, when asked what was the most important leadership lesson he had learned said that before he starts to address a problem he always asks himself and others whether they are fixing the root cause of the problem or simply fixing the symptoms of the problem.

Knowing that presenting symptoms more likely than not, have underlying causes that need to be investigated and treated is one that many management thinkers have observed.  Art Kleiner is one of these who makes the point that organizations are systems like living beings and are “as unpredictable, unruly, self-organizing, and even sentient as any living beings.”  He notes that “although organizations may not literally be alive, when it comes to running and changing them, they might as well be.”

Taking a view that an organization is similar to a human being makes it easier to grasp that presenting symptoms – for example, not meeting sales forecasts, or the need to agree protocols in open plan space – are rarely cured by a quick fix.   It makes for a healthier organization if some investigation is done of the presenting symptoms.  It makes for an even healthier organization if preventive measures are taken that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong.  The human/organisation analogy is apt for a number of reasons:

They are often described in the same language.  Business writers talk about the ‘organizational DNA’, for example, as in ‘A patriarchal ethos was written into the Wal-Mart DNA’.  Managers use such words and phrases as organizational ‘sensing abilities’ and ‘intelligence’, while being concerned with their organizations’, ‘systems’ and ‘processes’.  They worry about organisational ‘dysfunction’ as they look for ‘indicators’ of organisational health.  Other words and phrases commonly used in both anatomy, physiology, medicine and organisations include, ‘intelligence’, ‘health’, ‘organs’, (e.g. of governance), newcomer ‘rejection’, ‘well-being’ and software ‘viruses’.

They are both complex, adaptive open systems.  That is they comprise ‘many diverse and autonomous components or parts (called agents) which are interrelated, interdependent, linked through many (dense) interconnections, and behave as a unified whole in learning from experience and in adjusting (not just reacting) to changes in the environment.’

They are both frequently ‘diagnosed’ and ‘treated’ following similar methodologies.  Managers are glad when a consultant’s ‘diagnosis’ of an issue comes up with some possible solutions (‘treatments’), and consultants deploy a variety of ‘diagnostic tools’ even though these may come up with a simple response to a complex situation.

They both have life cycles that follow similar paths to human beings: some live into maturity and old age, some get ‘sick’ and either fail to flourish from birth or die young. Larry Greiner wrote an article in 1972, Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow that is as fresh today as it was when first written.  In the article he notes that he has drawn from ‘the legacies of European psychologists’ to extend their observations on human development to that of organizational development and growth.

They are both more likely to thrive if they are consciously nurtured and developed.  Going into any bookshop will reveal the stacks of information on parenting, managing illnesses, child and adult learning, self-help, diet, nutrition, stress management, and so on, all aimed at developing people’s mental and physical health.  Similarly, business and management guidance talks about organizational learning, behaviour, intelligence, and so on.

They are both responsive to cultural and environmental conditions. Look at the business newspapers or websites on any day of the week and there are reports of companies responding to changes in their operating contexts.  All of these major shifts in company strategy are attributable to external factors – social, economic, geo-political, etc.  People too respond to cultural and environmental conditions: they adjust their behaviours to suit the context – office formality is different from home informality.  They cut their spending if they have been laid off, and so on. Failure to adapt rapidly to change is a symptom of lack of adaptation capability and will take both humans and organizations to extinction.

They both require intense and continuous communication and co-ordination between the elements to stay functioning efficiently and effectively.  In the human body this ‘communication’ is conducted through neural pathways, via the bloodstream, and via the signalling molecules.  In organizations it is conducted through various formal and informal channels.

However, the human/organisation analogy has two significant limitations:

First, it misses the point of what is changeable and what is not.  Take the notion of DNA which is in remarks like ‘It’s in the DNA’ is a frequently referenced human and organizational term.   Here’s how one writer explains organizational DNA.  ‘There are fundamental rules that determine how organisations behave – policies and practices that have a tremendous impact on motivations, capabilities, and behavior. These rules are so powerful, and so often taken for granted, that it is entirely apt to refer to them as organisational DNA.’

For humans their DNA, even given modern gene therapies, is pretty much fixed whereas for organizations the elements that are the proxies for DNA which include policies, rules, values, principles, control methods, and power structures, can be changed to a greater or lesser extent.

Second, taking a single perspective of an organization i.e. it is like a human body blinds us to other ways and perspectives of thinking about and interpreting organizations.  (Try this test ).  Gareth Morgan in his book Images of Organization presents eight metaphors for organizations each compelling in its own way. He discusses organizations as: Machines, Organisms, Brains, Cultures, Political systems, Psychic prisons, Flux and transformation, Instruments of domination.  But although he talks of them as independent ‘lenses’ Morgan also makes the point that the insights gained from one metaphor are helpful in interpreting another.’

What is the value of treating organizations as living organisms and what are the limitations of this?  Let me know.

Image: 15Five


Self organising volunteers

A colleague, Diz, asked me last week if people and teams could ‘self-organise’.  She was asking in the context of several examples of work projects that people had volunteered to work on, additional to their day job, but those people had failed to get themselves together to deliver any project outcomes.

Diz wanted to know why people who volunteered to do something didn’t then do it.  It’s an interesting question that set me wondering about organisational volunteering which takes several forms, including:

  1. Volunteering for a well-defined organisational role that is additional to the ‘day job’ e.g. first aider or fire warden
  2. Volunteering for a less well-defined work-related role that is additional to the ‘day job’ e.g. ‘change champion’
  3. Volunteering for a non-work-related role e.g. being on the milk buying rota
  4. Volunteering to organise or help organise a social club or community network that is not directly work-related e.g. a Women’s Network
  5. Volunteering to participate as a team member in a work-related project that is additional to the ‘day job’ where the desired purpose/outcome is well expressed e.g. organising a business unit conference
  6. Volunteering to participate as a team member in a work-related project where the desired outcome is unclear or up to the team members to decide for themselves e.g. what one thing shall we change to make working here easier?

NOTE:  I am not talking about Employer Supported Volunteering Schemes which give employees the opportunity to volunteer during working hours in the external communities in which they operate.

Diz was talking about a group that fell into the last category (6) – a project where the volunteer team members had to decide the specific project outcome amongst themselves and then deliver it.

Thinking about it, there are two ideas in play here a) volunteering and b) self-organising.  It’s easy to think that the two ideas are connected.  But I don’t think they are.  Volunteering implies you have the intrinsic motivation to do something and so you will organise to do it.   But self-organising is a specific form of getting something done which implies no external management control or direction. It isn’t related to volunteering.  We need to ask two separate questions:  why does initial volunteer enthusiasm not always lead to follow-through action?  Why don’t people self-organise?

Peter Senge, in his book The Dance of Change: The challenges to sustaining momentum in a learning organization discusses 10 reasons for why intentions lose momentum.  (See more detail on each of the reasons here).  Several of them are relevant to volunteers not following through on their initial enthusiasm.   Momentum stops as people start saying one or more of the following:

‘We don’t have time for this stuff.’

‘We have no help.’

This stuff isn’t working.’

‘This stuff isn’t relevant.’

‘You’re not walking the talk.’

‘This stuff is ****.’‘

‘You don’t understand what we do.’

‘Who’s in charge of doing this?’

‘We keep reinventing the wheel.’

‘Where are we going, and what are we here for?’

These expressions of feeling are less likely to happen if someone has volunteered for a specific role e.g. first aider. It’s where people are volunteering to be part of a team that things are more likely to get stuck – sometimes for Peter Senge’s reasons and sometimes because the conditions for fostering continued participation are not there.    The conditions for team participation and achieving an outcome are critical whether or not the participants are volunteers or paid for doing the work.  And there’s no shortage of info on how to build effective teams.

How they become self-organising adds another layer to the discussion and here I think it helps to be clear about four things:

  1. Understanding the concepts of self-organising. There are many definitions but this one I like for its translate-ability into organisational life:  ‘[Self-organisation] is the ability of a system to spontaneously arrange its components or elements in a purposeful (non-random) manner, under appropriate conditions but without the help of an external agency. It is as if the system knows how to ‘do its own thing.’ (Watch a 3-minute video on self-organising here)
  2. Agreeing authority level of the self-organising team. Mike Cohn in a blog offers Hackman’s four types of authority as a feature that distinguishes self-organising teams from others.  He suggests self-organising teams have authority over performing the work and also over how work is done.  In his words, ‘In addition to performing the tasks, a self-organising team manages its own process. A self-organising team decides how it will work.’
  3. Selecting the individuals who will comprise the team. In another blog, Self-Organizing Teams Are Not Put Together Randomly, (on self-organisation and agile teams) author, Mike Cohn, notes that a lot of effort should be expended in selecting the individuals who will comprise the team, discussing five selection considerations: (some of them the same as Glena Eoyang’s): including all needed disciplines, having a mix of technical skill levels, balancing domain knowledge, seeking diversity, considering persistence.
  4. Ensuring you have the ‘appropriate conditions’ for self-organising. There are many and heated academic researcher debates on what exactly these are.  Glenda Eoyang, for example,  talks  about 3 conditions:
  • Containers i.e. the environmental elements for the group to work within. It includes such practices as clarifying the purpose of the group’s work; stating the givers, norms, operating guidelines, mission, values, and common vision;
  • Differences i.e. having diversity within the group e.g. perspective (big picture versus focused), learning types, peak operating times (morning person – non-morning person), personality profile, functional expertise – business administration, products, or consulting, and hierarchical level.
  • Exchanges i.e. the flows of information, feedback, communication, etc between team members including listening, articulation of shared beliefs, metaphorical thinking, post-meeting written evaluation by participants, prepared agendas, meeting notes, analysis of the process, and communication of work results to a group of people beyond those who worked on it.
  • (See also info on rules of flocking, for example and the info on the image on this post)

If ‘teams’ comprise random people, their authority levels are not determined, the conditions are not appropriate and they are not familiar with concepts of self-organising, then they are not set up for success.  It does not matter whether they are volunteers or not the group is unlikely to become quickly self-organising to achieve a project outcome.  If they do succeed it is likely to be a stretch and take time.

If you are aiming to encourage volunteers to be self-organising you have to work with them to a) overcome the barriers to maintaining volunteer momentum and b) operationalise the four elements of self-organising outlined above.   What’s your view on volunteers and self-organisation?  Let me know.

Image: Self-organising robot swarm