Organisation design and national cultures

In the last several months I’ve facilitated organisation design programmes in four countries:  China, Dubai (UAE), South Africa, and UK.  In some of them there have been both that country’s nationals and people from other countries.  Across the programmes I remember representatives from Iran, Zambia, Egypt, America, Canada, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uganda, and Germany.  There may have been others.

During the last programme someone asked whether I’d noticed national cultural differences in approaches to organisation design.   This question led to quite long discussion on three aspects in particular:

  1. Are some organisational structures more prevalent than others in certain countries?
  2. Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?
  3. What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?

The question on whether some organisational structures are more prevalent than othres in certain countries led us to look at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and see what they could offer as insights.  Does a high score on the Power-Distance dimension, for example, lead to more hierarchical organisational structures in countries with a high score on that?  The Power-Distance dimension ‘deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.  … At 80 China sits in the higher rankings of PDI – i.e. a society that believes that inequalities amongst people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized’ (China’s ranking on this dimension is  80, United Arab Emirates 90, South Africa 49, UK at 35).

This dimension could lead to the assumption that hierarchical structures are more favoured in China than in the UK.  Obviously, this is a risky assumption – I’d like to know how many multi-national companies adjust their structures in relation to a perceived cultural dimension.   (Either to challenge or reinforce it).   And there are many critiques of Hofstede’s work.  One, well thought-through and frequently cited is the paper by Brendan McSweeney, ‘Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith — a failure of analysis’.  Having done his analysis and discussion he comments on the “on-going unquestioning acceptance of Hofstede’s national culture research by his evangelized entourage”

However, in our case, it led to a rich debate on the relationship of structure (as in organisation chart) to culture and how we recognise the ways in which our cultural biases – conscious or unconscious – influence our guidance of our organisation towards an appropriate structure.

The second question ‘Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?’  led us again to the power-distance dimension of Hofstede’s model.  This time applied to the role of leaders.  People talked about:

  1. Leaders who think design is moving the lines and boxes with the organisation chart and there is no swaying them from this process.  (One participant in the programme was being barraged by SMS messages from a member of her executive team urging her to produce the new organisation chart immediately).   Participants were very anxious about this leadership tendency to ‘do’ re-design by organisation chart which they felt was risky, it often focused on personalities and not purpose (beyond the personalities), it neglected the involvement and participation of people actually doing the work being re-allocated, and it was unreflective of the possible unintended consequences.   A Deloitte survey found that ‘Restructuring efforts like that can undermine faith in the wisdom of an organization’s leadership, which actually erodes value and team coherence.’
  2. The difficulties they (course participants) have in selling the benefits to resistant leaders of reflective systems thinking, employee participation in the process, developing more than one design option and thinking of the work before the structure. This difficulties are exacerbated for internal organisation designers as they are typically hierarchically subordinate to their client/sponsor and sometimes lack business credibility in terms of language, operational background, perceived business savvy and other factors.

In relation to the resistant leader issue, Hofstede’s power/distance dimension is picked up in Erin Meyer’s culture map work, where her scale on leading ‘measures the degree of respect and deference shown to authority figures, placing countries on a spectrum from egalitarian to hierarchical.’  Her map draws on Hofstede’s work and also on that of Robert House and his colleagues in their GLOBE (global leadership and organizational behaviour effectiveness) study of 62 societies.

The studies suggest that where leaders behave as authority figures they expect others to behave as subordinate to them – and subordinates, consciously and unconsciously, do just that.  It’s often hard for a subordinate organisation designer to challenge a superior leader to discuss alternate ways of designing and for a superior to accept the challenge from a subordinate, even if the challenge comes from a position of consultant expertise.

We discussed how to overcome this superior/subordinate response in order to generate a more reflective approach from leaders.  A few suggestions surfaced:

  • Building leader awareness of the risks of ‘org chart’ restructures – a short video from Q5 Partners is a good discussion starter.
  • The Deloitte paper, mentioned above, could foster discussion, as could an article by strategy& 10 Principles of Organization Design that urges leaders to fix the structure last not first. ‘Structure should be the last thing you change: the capstone, not the cornerstone, of that [organization design] sequence. Otherwise, the change won’t sustain itself.’
  • There’s an excellent one-pager on systems thinking, from the Waters Foundation,  that you could broker a discussion with.
  • Using external consultants as influencers and persuaders on the merits of systems based design can help mitigate the risks of going down the lines and boxes approach.

(I’m not convinced that unwillingness to reflect on a systems/participative approach to organisation design work is part and parcel of a national cultural attribute of power/distance but it’s a reasonable hanger for a discussion on how to stop leaders heading first for the organisation chart).

The third question ‘What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?’ can also be discussed in relation to one of Hofstede’s dimensions, long term orientation. ‘Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.  Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.’ (China’s score on this dimension is 87, UAE has no score, United Kingdom 51 and South Africa 34).

This suggests that China may be more open to designing organisations differently, but a recent research article ‘uncovered twelve barriers to strategic design practice and leadership in China. Six of these are similar to hindrances experienced elsewhere, and the other six are unique to this study. The six common barriers include CEOs don’t understand strategic design, and ‘design is not given the ability to lead’ explained as ‘Designers tend to be seen as third-class citizens and ‘Top managers don’t see design as essential; no discernible design process’.

If you have a discernible organisation design process and still want to short-cut it what are the choices?  I’m still working on that one for the next programme!

Do you think national culture is an important factor in developing and/or applying an organisation design process?  Let me know.

Image: Canvas of Diversity

Designing for aging

It was the headline on the torn-out article, pinned on the notice board, that caught my eye. ‘I did an Ironman at the age of 74’. It set me musing thinking on the several cases of people in their, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s doing counter-stereotypical things that I’ve noticed in the last few weeks. Perhaps these observations are prompted by the release of the film Edie, in which 83 year-old actress Sheila Hancock, climbs a mountain, the 2,398-foot-high Suilven in Lochinver, in Scotland.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m intending to. I’ve been reading about Hancock’s experience of training and climbing it.

I also read about Aleksander Doba aged 70 who’s kayaked solo across the Atlantic 3 times, (among other kayaking feats). And in talking to someone about him I got the book recommendation Age is Just a Number by Charles Eugster. It’s a wonderful and cheering book. He took up weight lifting and athletics in his mid-eighties and became a ‘sprints sensation’ at the age of 95.

These active elders are not all athletes (or actresses). At the Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition is a striking portrait of artist and Royal Academician, Ken Howard, now 85, still painting and with his own paintings also in the Exhibition. The person I went to the exhibition with mentioned Lynn Ruth Miller, a comedienne, aged 85 and going strong.

Sensitised to incredible elders, I spotted a headline ‘Don’t brand over-60s old and doddery, BBC is told’. Age UK, submitting to OFCOM on the BBC’s portrayal of various ethnic and demographic groups is of the view that whereas the sensitivities of ethnic minorities and LBGT people are, in the main, vocally represented, there is a lack of consideration for older citizens in the way they are depicted on television and radio.

This tends to hold true in terms of workplace attitudes to older people. Earlier this year, the UK’s CIPD gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of their inquiry on older people and employment. The session covered the barriers that older people face in the labour market and how both employers and the Government can do more to support them.

In January 2017 the UK Government published a report Older Workers and the Workplace (based on data collected betwee 2004 and 2011 – so somewhat dated now) which found that ‘while on average older employees fare better than employees aged 22-49 in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment, [they] were less likely to receive training. The better average outcomes in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment may reflect the fact that less satisfied employees have left employment by this age.’

Perhaps, combating the ‘old and doddery’ stereotype the researchers found ‘no significant associations between changes in the proportion of older workers employed between 2004 and 2011 and changes in workplace performance over the same period. … this suggests that overall the age composition of private sector workplaces does not have a sizeable role to play in explaining their performance. We do find some evidence that workplace labour productivity falls where the proportion of workers aged 22-49 falls, either due to a rise in the proportion of older or younger workers.’

They also found that ‘many employers value older workers, recognising their experience, loyalty and reliability. Furthermore, while we find no association between change in age diversity and change in workplace performance, age diversity may bring other benefits in the workplace; we find that job satisfaction was higher among young workers in workplaces which employed higher proportions of older workers.’

All that sounds promising. Summarising – older people who are in work are not old and doddery, they are good contributors to the workplace, enjoy what they do, and do not seem to have a negative impact on workplace productivity. (Although, this last needs more research).

But there are some caveats: ‘Existing evidence has suggested that while employers often recognise the benefits of retaining their existing older workers, they can be less willing to recruit ‘new’ older workers.’ Additionally, ‘Generating better outcomes for older workers may therefore require greater focus on other employer practices, such as provision of flexible working or job design.’

Echoing this view is the finding from researchers at the IES. In their report What do older workers value about work and why? They note that ‘There are very few differences between the preferences of older and young workers. However, there are a few factors that become more important with age. Health has the biggest effect on older workers’ decisions about continuing to work, more so than job satisfaction or job quality. Some older workers will therefore place greater value on flexibility at work, adjustments or part-time working hours to accommodate health needs or caring.’

With this in mind they offer 14 steps that employers can take to promote fulfilling work and create age-friendly workplaces. They’re worth a look as several are immediately relevant to organisation and job design, for example: ‘Ensure that older workers have variety and autonomy in their work’ and ‘Design roles for older people that maximise social contact and interaction’.

Looking in more detail at designing work for the mature worker, is the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They have a research stream aimed at understanding the role of work in successful aging – not only because the proportion of older workers is increasingly globally, but also because there is an imperative to minimize health costs by encouraging healthier aging. The health of nations, ‘will be served through creating work that preserves the wellbeing and social, psychological, and mental capital of older workers.’

They are specifically looking at ‘what types of work designs … and organisational supports promote healthy work for older people. … We will further investigate how cognitive, social, and psychological functioning is preserved or maintained through good work. The idea that work can be designed to facilitate such outcomes is part of an emerging perspective that mental and psychological capital can be enhanced across the lifespan.’

Tellingly, none of the extraordinary older people I mention at the start of this piece are in organisational work. They are all self-employed, pursuing their own interests and making a living at it. I wonder how organisational performance could be improved if we were able to design work that encouraged more older people to enter or stay in the workforce and fostered the drive and energy shown in those people? It seems likely to be for the benefit not just of older workers, but all workers.

What’s your view of designing work with the older working in mind? Let me know.

Image: Ken Howard, painted by Tim Hall

Large group interventions: theory and practice

On Thursday 7 June, I opened an email that read ‘Every year Tricordant sponsors a student to help further the theory and practice of organisation design. This year’s student is conducting a study to understand what the gap is between theory and practice in using Large Group Interventions (LGIs) to enable a successful organisation redesign.  Could he interview you on this?’

It happened that on Saturday 9 June I was participating in the Edinburgh Moonwalk.   As I was pondering LGIs I realised the Moonwalk is an LGI.  It has the six critical distinguishing attributes

  1. It is a collaborative, large scale, inquiry.  On a Moonwalk thousands of people are engaged in finding out if, collectively, they ‘can save lives, raise awareness and get fit’,
  2. It is creating alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues: in this case raising money to support ‘research into breast cancer for the future health of us all, to help improve the lives of those who have cancer now, and for prevention’.
  3. It is demonstrating the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process: for the Moonwalkers it means following a well-planned and orchestrated programme of walking training, fundraising, and spreading the word.  ‘With just a little commitment, a big helping of enthusiasm and a spoonful of energy everybody can take on The MoonWalk!’ (Note these are the attributes for employee engagementmoonshots or moonwalks – what’s the difference?)
  4. It provides a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. ‘Walk the Walk is the largest grant making breast cancer charity in the UK. … We grant the funds to other charities and organisations throughout the UK, to help them reach our united goals and ambitions of treating breast cancer.’
  5. It is a large group. ‘Groups are defined as large groups when it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact. Large group dynamics begin once a group exceeds 15 to 20 participants.’  The Moonwalk has thousands of participants, they couldn’t all make eye contact with each other and they are probably avoiding it anyway, as they are ‘feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as you contemplate the hours ahead. Yes, it will be tough’.  (I could use that sentence for the next LGI I facilitate).
  6. It is a time-bound event. ‘Sign up now for our night walk and join the cast… get ready for this one night only sensational Walk the Walk’.   One difference from most organisational LGIs where participants mill around in a hotel ballroom dressed in ‘business casual’, or sometimes, ‘smart business casual’, the moonwalk LGI requires participants to walk through the night dressed in a Hollywood themed decorated bra and bum-bag.   ‘You’ve done the training, you’re feeling fit… it’s time to decorate your bra’.  (There are lots of instructions on how to do this.  I kept it simple. My contribution to our team’s decoration was my knitting six anemones.  In other LGIs I participate in it is usually a bundle of Sharpies and packets of BluTack and post notes.)

A quick glance at the Moonwalk Event Guide indicates that its highly structured design is akin to that of Axelrod’s conference model, an LGI that ‘involves internal and external stakeholders in a series of integrated conferences and walkthrus, each conference lasting from two to three days separated by a month between each conference.  The walkthrus that alternate with the conferences communicate results and gain further input.’ Each conference has a detailed agenda, group exercises, scheduled presentations, and discussion time for table groups.

Anyone walking a full series of Moonwalks and following the programme would feel at home in the Axelrod Conference Model.  At the other end of the LGI spectrum is the Open Space Technology approach. Michael Arena notes that, ‘Open Space principles and framework are quite simplistic. There is one rule and four principles.’ The one rule is the “law of two feet.”  As far as the Moonwalk goes that’s an ideal rule. And, on reflection, I find I’ve also adhered to the four principles in the 12-week run up to the event itself.

Rather than follow the training plan I can rest confident that “whatever happens is the only thing that could have”, so not training at all because other stuff intervened is probably ok.  However, I did go for a walk on the Thursday before, so clearly I was  following the principle ‘whenever it starts is the right time’, and when I got there and met the rest of my team and anyone else we happened to meet I ticked off compliance with the third principle  “whoever comes are the right people”, walking through the huge pink Moonwalk finish arch is the fourth principle in action – ‘when it’s over it’s over’.

LGIs design and delivery are clearly based in systems theory,  but do they work in practice?   I took a look at the Walk the Walk’s annual report and accounts. (They organise the Moonwalks) which says that Walk the Walk aims to operate within 25% of the donations it receives, leaving 75% available for grants, and that 2016 this was not possible for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless in 2016 the group’s total income was 9.8 million GBP, of which total expenditure on charitable activity (including grants made) was 5.1 million.  Income was slightly up compared with 2015 and charitable activity slightly down.   However, I’m not sure that measuring LGI success on the amount of money raised is sufficient indicator of working in practice.

On the Moonwalk, there is a ripple awareness-raising effect from the publicity, the growing supportive network of someone who knows someone walking in memory of a friend or family, the participation in an event that generates good-will and a ‘feel-good’ flavour – none which are easily measurable in terms of answering the question ‘do LGIs work in practice?’

LGI models could be measured and evaluated from many perspectives and I haven’t seen any evaluative framework for them.  (Have you?)

Whether they work in practice depends on the reasons for choosing and using one in the first place.  There are many types of LGI – the student I mentioned in in my first paragraph lists:  The Conference Model, Real Time Work Design, Whole-Scale Organization Design, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design, Participative Design, The Search Conference, Future Search, Real Time Strategic Change, ICA Strategic Planning Process, Open Space Technology, Work-Out, Simu-Real.

LGIs have been in use over a good period of time.  Barbara Benedict Bunker’s first book of them appeared in 1999.  This variety of type and their longevity might be an indicator that they work in practice ‘in numerous organizational change efforts across a variety of applications, such as organization development, organization redesign, restructuring, strategic planning, visioning, values and principles clarification, process improvement, customer/supplier relations, global learning and development, and formation of collaborative alliances.’

What’s your view of the theory and practice of LGIs?  Let me know.

PS:  On Sunday 10 June.  Our team of 3 successfully completed the 26.2 miles of the marathon, raised around 1500 GBP, spread awareness of cancer treatment and prevention in their communities, gained proficiency in knitting flowers, and felt an all-round sense of purpose achieved.

Job design

Do you have any insights and thoughts on the future of job design and the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc?  That’s a question I was asked twice in the past week, once in an email from someone and once at the conference I was speaking at in Shanghai on trends in organisation design.

The question has an inherent assumption in it that jobs can be designed. Subject that assumption to the riskiest assumptions test.  High risk assumptions have two traits: a high probability of being wrong and significant impact when they are.  I’m of the view that assuming jobs can be designed through traditional methods, at least for humans, is highly risky.

Traditional models of job design focus on analysing the task structures of jobs, such as task identity, variety, and feedback (See, for example: Hackman & Oldham, 1976). In these models, jobs are collections of tasks designed to be performed by one employee, and tasks as the assigned pieces of work that employees complete.

In a research article on job analysis and design the authors note that traditional job analysis ‘focuses on the procedure for determining the tasks and responsibilities that comprise particular jobs as well as the required human attributes.  There are numerous methods used to examine the levels of functioning of organisational units, workplaces, and employees.  They include the processes functions method, and the well-known functional job analysis that uses scales to represent the tasks performed by employees, and the percentage of time spent on each task during job execution that involve things, data, people etc.‘ Some of the large consultancies offer job design services based, predominantly, on this approach. See, for example, Mercer and WillisTowersWatson

Adam Grant, in a 2007 research paper, challenges this approach saying that the traditional models are incomplete as they don’t recognise the relational and social aspects of work and the jobs people do.   The goal of Grant’s research was to ‘revitalize research on job design and work motivation by accentuating the relational architecture of jobs and examining its influence on the motivation to make a prosocial difference.’ (Prosocial means behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship).  Since his paper, the relational and social aspects of work have become much more visible through technologies such as social network analysis (SNA).

Ben Waber, Alex Pentland, et al put SNA to good effect – boosting the productivity of call centre agents, not by changing their job design but by measuring the conversational interactions between workers using sociometric badges.  By using this data to change the coffee break times of the workers, giving group members breaks at the same time, they increased the strength of an individual’s social interactions, and proved related productivity gains.  They conclude, ‘we have shown that strong social groups are beneficial to productivity and can be supported without extensive management interventions. … This result is all the more interesting since it had previously been hypothesized that interaction between call center employees reduces productivity.’

Social network analysis and similar technology uses are showing that, for humans at least, work gets done through social networks, leading to challenges on the value of traditional job analysis for human work.   KPMG Partner, Tim Nice, is another of the challengers. ‘Companies traditionally have a structured approach to role descriptions and pay alignment, but the work people do and the way they engage with organisations is dramatically shifting. Organisations need to embrace a more fluid way of forming jobs, hiring talent and rewarding people, to fit new demands. … The structure of traditional jobs is no longer a reality, and this will be amplified in the future.  Most people are in a much more fluid state concerning how work gets done.”

Dan Cable, in his book Alive at Work, explores the notion that ‘organizations, in an effort to routinize work and establish clear-cut performance metrics, are suppressing what neuroscientists call our ‘seeking systems’. Organizations are shutting off the part of our brain that craves exploration and learning.’  In his talk The Emotions of Competitive Advantage, he goes a step further, saying that ‘employees should have the freedom to explore, experiment and play with ideas, and not be bound by job titles, job descriptions and the trappings of traditional job design’.

Overall, it seems researchers are marshalling evidence suggesting that the relational aspects of work are more important to role success than task and activity definition and suggesting that we look at work and job design in a different way from previously.

On this basis, the future of job design is looking different from traditional models but my questioners also asked about the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc. on job design.   PWC describes three types of AI:  assisted, augmented and autonomous.  They ask ‘What types of tasks in your organization can you automate by having Assisted Intelligence? Have you thought about how to rethink your business using Augmented Intelligence? Do you think that your company will ever get to a stage of completely handing over the job to the machine?’   (Autonomous intelligence).

These questions are partially answered by Michael Gibbs in his article ‘How is new technology changing job design? He finds that ‘new technologies complement non-routine, cognitive, and social tasks, making work in such tasks more productive.’ And ‘Greater access to data, analysis tools, and telecommunications allows many workers to focus more on social interactions, collaboration, continuous improvement, and innovation.’ (See also his paper ‘Why are jobs designed the way they are?’ )

Making another assumption – that AI is not relational or prosocial, (though some argue that this is coming), there is a case for saying that some of the tools of traditional job design, rather than being retired, could be applied to make decisions about how much to go down all or any of the AI routes.   Because where AI is strong is on performing routine and specific tasks, and/or sifting through big data.  AI is mostly useful, as one writer says, for the ‘non-creative and non-personal tasks that can be broken down into relatively predictable parts.’ Traditional job design methodologies are much more suited to identifying these routine and standardized tasks that are the domain of AI capability.

 Look at a ‘how to’ guide on job design it could work to aid decisions on whether all or part of the work process/activity is ripe for AI or whether/where/how it needs human/relational involvement.

If we use traditional job design methods to determine what tasks and activities could be done by AI, then what methods can we use to design relational, pro-social human work, at this time when, as Mercer says, ‘the nature of “a worker’” is experiencing its own revolution’?

Perhaps we could give up on the idea of ‘job design’ in favour of agreeing goals and outcomes and then enabling workers to design their own work in response to the shifting context.  At ‘Hello Alfred’, for example,responsibilities evolve every few weeks or quarters, along with the goals and teams tasked with achieving them. As pods reconfigure, different people come together bringing different strengths and expertise, making for a more collaborative, dynamic workplace.’   

How do you think the future of job design is changing and what impact the different types of AI will have on it?  Let me know.

Image:  Job description IT


Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to notice when I am unseeing.  It’s hard, falling into the realms of the ‘known, unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’.   But it’s useful to practice as I’m wondering how much of organisational life we unsee and what effect that has on us.

Unseeing is the concept that underpins China Mieville’s detective novel, ‘The City and the City’ which I’ve just finished reading and now discover is a TV series (that I can’t bring myself to watch, in case it destroys my sense of the book).  The book is gripping and brilliantly written, set in two cities, each with aspects of their own dress codes, language, culture, subcultures, control systems, and system challengers – no different from two organisations.

The difference that makes the book compelling is that the two cities are set in/on exactly the same geographic/physical space. ‘The city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to see it.’  They must ‘unsee’ the city that they are not a citizen of.  The word ‘unsee’ comes up repeatedly.

A person in Beszel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away.’  Citizens of each city are taught the habit of ‘unseeing’ any aspect of the other city – ‘The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city’.  This is deliberate and controlled ‘unseeing’ – a different concept from simply not noticing.

The habit of ‘unseeing’ doesn’t always have to be taught in a conscious way – cultural norms imbue patterns of ‘unseeing’, sometimes, as in The City and the City,  in ways that act to reinforce the deliberate control mechanisms.   Additionally, what we see visually, heavily influences what we think culturally, and conversely, our culture influences what we actually see.  Some interesting research explores this link between culture and visual interpretation.  The start-point for the research was the statement: ‘We presume that people from different cultures, who grew up in different visual environments, associate different words with the same object. By analyzing the nature of cross -cultural word associations and word category frequency counts in respondents’ answers, we are hoping to understand the connection between culture, verbalized thoughts, and object judgments.’

What the researchers found was that, ‘Comparison of the most frequent words has shown [when subjects were asked to freely associate words with a picture of an animal] that American and Japanese subjects are quite different in terms of what they think when they look at an object (an animal, in this case), except in aesthetic judgments.’

You can’t generalize from one research example, but this finding continued my thinking on what it is that people unsee and what effect it might have on organisational design and development.

The film Hidden Figures, for example, exposes the way the contribution three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson made to NASA’s organisation design/development as they gradually moved from being unseen to being seen.

‘There’s a moment halfway into Hidden Figures when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn’s upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford’s response is dismissive—”There’s no protocol for women attending.” Johnson replies, “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir.”

Another protagonist, Mary Jackson, ‘needed to take after-work graduate courses held at segregated Hampton High School [in order to become an engineer]. Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to be able to learn next to her white peers. She won, completed the courses, and was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA’s first African-American female engineer.’

As the unseeing scales drop so positive change starts to happen.   But the scales don’t just drop.  It more a question of consciously removing them and you find when you start the removal processes that the scales are more like onion layers – you have to keep peeling them off.

For example, it’s easy to look at spreadsheets of organisational management information and yet unsee much of what they are telling you.   Once you ask yourself if you might be unseeing something you may be able to discern a pattern about, say, pay differentials, and then this leads to seeing something about gender imbalance,  and moves on to telling a story about social mobility.  All of these elements might be present in the original spreadsheets but it is not easy to see them either initially or in one go if they are in your realm of unseen.

Learning what you’re unseeing is, as I said, not easy and doing something about it is even less easy.  In the same week I finished reading The City and the City, I read the quote from Miyamoto Musashi, who, in The Book of Five Rings, tells readers to ‘Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye’  in order to be successful in any endeavour.   He spent a lifetime practicing this.

Now that the concept of unseeing is with me,  I am practicing walking down a familiar street trying to see what I’ve previously unseen.  Moving into plain sight are the many, previously invisible to me, homeless people that I’m now wondering what I can do to help. James Attlee writing (a whole book, Isolarian) about Cowley Street, Oxford, noticed the names of the phone services he passed:  Mama Africa, Pakistan Connect, Hello Arab, Jamaica Direct, Eastern Eurovoice, Taj Mahal.   In his case, it started him musing on the patterns of immigration and ‘inflammatory politicians articulating (or set on creating) a fear in the native population’.

It’s very easy to ‘unsee’.   It is less easy to stop unseeing, but I think to stop unseeing is a skill to be practiced. What’s your viewing on unseeing and stopping unseeing?  Let me know.

Image:  Synesthesia

How do you change what it is that people value in a system?

At the breakfast briefing I was at last week, I heard John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service  ‘discussing the current {UK} Civil Service transformation agenda and offering his reflections on how the Civil Service and Private Sector can respectively learn from one another.’  During his talk, he posed the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’

Hearing it, I remembered the time when I was working on an office move.  We were asking (‘making’?) senior individuals to give up their individual offices – a perk of seniority – and work in open plan spaces.   One man was appalled at this idea, asking me ‘How will people know that I am important?’  He valued his own office as a symbol of ‘importance’.

I was amazed.  I hadn’t had my own office in years, I was used to roving around to find a hot desk or sitting in a cafe or working from home or other location.  I valued the flexibility and ability to meet people I wouldn’t meet if I were in my own private space.

However, that incident led me to look more closely at why we want to change what people value, what they value, and how do you change it if that’s what seems to be needed by leaders.

Change and transformation programmes typically involve a lot of clashes between what leaders value and what employees do.  For example, employees value having a job, leaders value automating the work .  Employees value a permanent contract, leaders value contingent labour, etc.  We want to change what people value in order to resolve this clash (in favour of the leader).

Manzoni talked about various aspects of transformation that he is involved with – they’re common to much of transformation work and they usually involve clashes of what people value. He mentioned:

Moving from hierarchy to flattening the organisation that erodes a grading structure or career ladder that people have often struggled up

Changing to regard expertise over generalists (or vice versa) that under-estimates the sense of professionalism and pride people feel in the role that they have done up to now

Relocating work which often involves more virtual/remote working that  bites at the social network and sense of community, or local identification that people enjoy about work

This ‘transformation’ activity, sometimes thoughtlessly, attacks what people value in an organisation.  Their response, which often comes across to leaders of the transformation charge, as resistance then stalls the process.  Hence the question, ‘How do we change what it is that people value in a system?’

In our office move case, it was clear that people valued private space which wasn’t on offer in the move scenario.   Typically, what happens next in this type of clash is activity of one type or another in which leaders try and ‘get’ people to ‘buy in’ to whatever the leader values at the expense of what the employee values.   The language and intent can feel coercive or manipulative.  See a Fast Company article How to Get Employee to Buy in to an Exceptional Culture

‘Getting people to buy in’ is hardly the stuff of most organisational values, and, I haven’t found lumping ‘people’ together a very productive route when I’ve been asked how to ‘get’ people to ‘buy-in’.  People value different things.  Some people in the office move loved the idea of giving up their private space because they’d felt isolated and looked forward to joining their team and colleagues in open plan, others took it as an opportunity to try out the various types of work spaces newly available freeing themselves from the idea of being tethered to a fixed desk.

I find a better approach is to try and understand the reasons why people value what they do and whether there are value substitutes that can be made or whether we (the transformation team) can adjust to respect what they value.   In the office move having a private office was a sacred cow to several people, albeit for different reasons:  for some as a symbol of power and for others as a symbol of their expertise, lawyers, for example, strongly valued the principle that they should meet their clients in their own private office.

In the office move case, I commissioned a team of academics to come in and look at the symbolic aspects of power and status.  Their research and findings helped us think through a range of ways of managing the potential loss of what the CEO called ‘private real estate’.

I’ve found the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’ to be one with no answer, many answers, and no right answers even if you think you have an answer.   As with anything complex what people value is contingent on situation and circumstance.  Behavioural economics has various theories on what people value which may help.  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good read that offers insights on what people value and why.

Over the weekend I read Stuart Heritage’s article on the stresses of parenting small children, what he values now – time to think,  a respite from the relentless grind, etc.  is not what he’s likely to value when his children are grown up.   He sees that too and has what could be a sage answer to the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’   (You’ll see I’ve made an edit to his statement): ‘Figuring this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of parenthood and change and transformation projects are a mess of short-term firefighting. When the time comes, when basic autonomy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoulders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s become my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.

What’s your take on the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’  Let me know.

Image: Flickr user John Lustig

Middle managers – why the label?

This week I was facilitating a workshop on middle managers’ roles in orchestrating organisational change.  A role which ‘entails directing (and redirecting) resources according to a [strategy] policy or plan of action, and possibly also reshaping organizational structures and systems’.

We were discussing what skills middle managers need and what factors inhibited or facilitated their role in what Heyden et al see as the two aspects of change:

Change initiation which ‘entails the ‘spark’ for change through activities such as identifying, articulating, and outlining an opportunity for change, formulating the initial business case, emphasizing its urgency, and securing key budgetary and resource commitments.’

Change execution which ‘is about realizing change plans through activities such as day-to-day adjustments, rolling out initiatives, aligning activities with stated objectives, translating overarching goals into periodic milestones, and giving sense and direction to change recipients.’

Kiehne et al take the view that middle managers face both ways in initiating and executing change and are ‘key players for making strategy work. They are both a source of knowledge for senior management to develop and formulate a strategy as well as a vital element in selling high level strategic plans to lower levels in the organization and even translating it and putting it into context so that working level employees can make sense of high level strategic directions’.

This viewpoint highlights the role of middle managers as arbiters and interpreters between two layers of a hierarchy, seeing ‘the vision at the top of the organisation and the pain at the bottom.’  Scott Adams, offers an alternative image of this, describing middle managers as ‘the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives’.

Whether they are interpreters, arbiters or glue, the role puts them in an uneasy position, rendering them, according to another researcher, ‘vulnerable and insecure’, having a ‘current identity of being a talented, technical professional dumped into a lonely world of endless pressure from above and suffocating people management issues from below.’

Building on this bleak picture, Boston Consulting Group says ‘Middle managers frequently … do not have the support of senior managers or effective levers to do their jobs and provide assistance to their employees’, and the CIPDs’, 2018 UK Working Lives Survey finds that, ‘At a broad level, poor well-being at work is most often experienced by middle managers, which may be a sign of the dual pressures of working with organisational strategy and day-to-day deliverables.’   The actual figures presented for middle managers are:

31% reported feeling overloaded

27% believe their work negatively affects their mental health

26% suffering with anxiety or depression within the last year

24% said they feel under excessive amounts of pressure

The discussion on these figures took an interesting turn.   Rather than seeing them as confirmation of the bleak picture of a squeezed and stressed managerial level, several in the group thought that the figures were actually rather good.  They felt that if things were as dispiriting as the various researchers’ findings, the figures would be much higher.   They began to contest the research – granting that the middle manager role is challenging but, in their experience, not more than managerial roles at lower or higher levels. The label of a middle management group that merited special attention slipped as someone pointed out that every level of manager faces both upwards and downwards.

With this backdrop, we turned to the list of roles middle managers typically play in the change process.  As interface between bottom and top levels they:

  • Communicate and transmit information from the bottom to the top level,
  • Exercise the role of defender (championing alternatives, guiding and promoting, defending, presenting alternatives to top management);
  • Take on the role of synthesizer (categorizing ideas, selling these ideas to top management, combining and applying the information, synthesising it);

And as interface from the top to bottom level they:

  • Act as facilitator (protecting and promoting adaptation activities, sharing information, guiding the adaptation, facilitating learning and adaptability);
  • Become an implementer (implementing deliberate strategy, reviewing and adjusting, motivating and inspiring as a coach).

Participants pointed out that all those roles are also played in the ‘day job’ – they are not specific to initiating or executing change.

So now we had the ideas that middle managers may or may not be unduly stressed, and the roles they play in their work are not specific to planned change work.   With these ideas we looked at Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis’s 4 quadrant model of middle managers’ roles in culture change.

The model proposes four types of managerial role in culture change.  Someone’s position on the matrix depending on the organisation culture and amount of control managers feel they can exert on the change:

Quadrant 1: Yes managers:  happy to go along with anything proposed by top managers and enjoy the ride.  ‘These middle managers are happy to fulfil requests from senior leaders. They regard themselves as lucky as, after all, their circumstances are beyond their capacity to influence.’

Quadrant 2: Effective change agents:  ‘working effectively both with senior leaders and with staff as positive change agents – sometimes initiated by senior leaders, sometimes initiated by staff and other times initiated by themselves.’

Quadrant 3: Change resistors: ‘In these circumstances, the middle manager aligns with staff (who are often negative) and typically they are at odds with senior leaders – sometimes explicitly, other times in a more subversive way.’

Quadrant 4: Embattled change agents: ‘This is a tough context as middle managers are often buffeted by senior leaders whose actions thwart their attempts to improve the work environment. In their belief that they can and do influence the culture, middle managers attempt to stay in touch with the issues as perceived by staff while struggling to do anything about them.’

I was proposing that middle managers should be aiming to be in quadrant 2 where they are able to influence the change in a supportive culture.   If they’re not headed in that direction Simpson and du Plessis say ‘we think there is value is digging a little deeper into the issue. For example, are middle managers feeling as though they are in Quadrant 4 where their attempts at change are being constrained by a negative culture without support from senior leaders? Or do middle managers have a victim mentality where everything is the fault of others?’

My proposal was challenged by participants – some arguing that being in quadrant 3 – the change resistors – was organisationally useful.  They felt that middle managers in this quadrant could be signalling that the change strategy was at odds with the reality of capacity to deliver it and keep the business running at the same time.  People supporting this view added that the managers in this quadrant could, legitimately, be protecting their staff from extra work pressures.

Similarly, other participants felt that quadrant 1, being the yes manager was a good place to be.  They felt it made life easier for the manager – assuming manager capability to engage employees in supporting the change – as the manager could more simply plan the change into the work without having to think too much about it, these participants felt it was a more stable environment for employees.

Participants agreed that quadrant 4 was a difficult place to be. Many of them had been in it and described it as ‘banging head against brick wall’ – resulting in them moving to either quadrant 3 (resistor) or quadrant 1 (yes manager).   They didn’t see this as failure but rather a pragmatic reassessment of where to put their energy.

Then somebody made the point that this role of change agent was not specific to middle management but part of every manager and leader role.

At this point I saw the middle manager label slip completely. They are neither unique in facing up and down, nor in being stressed in their work, nor in taking a role of change agent.

Do you think ‘middle managers’ need their own label?  Let me know.

Image: The god janus