Designing a listening organisation

Over and over, we hear, talk, and read about ‘learning organisations’.  It was Peter Senge, who popularized learning organizations in his book The Fifth Discipline, describing them as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”  (Watch a short video by Peter Senge explaining the concept here).

One morning last week, I read about a new book by Stephen Martin & Joseph Marks: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, And Why.  The Financial Times, citing it as book of the month (September), says ‘In Messengers, business columnist Stephen Martin and psychologist Joseph Marks explore the reasons why we are more likely to listen to celebrities — like Keegan and Botham — than to experts. Outlining eight fundamental traits they explain how these underpin every aspect of daily social interaction and determine: “Who we listen to. What we believe. And what we become.” Supported by numerous studies and examples, this zeitgeisty book shows how our innate deference to factors such as beauty and status over evidence and expertise make it “scarcely surprising that we live in a world awash with ‘fake news’”.

Several meetings later in the day, I realised I’d been noticing how little listening was going on in the meetings and who it was people were listening to.  People were speaking what Krista Tippett calls ‘competing certainties coming with a drive to resolution’.  With higher postional status people being listened to more than those with lower positional status (but more expert status).  Tippett says that this ‘cultural mode of debating’ is about wanting ‘others to acknowledge that our answers are right’.   It comes with the organisational jargon of ‘getting people on the same page’ or ‘one version of the truth’ or ‘common ground’ – all phrases which I’ve heard several times this week.

Tippett notes that ‘We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about.  This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.’

Given the pressure now to design organisations where you can ‘bring your whole self to work’ (more on this phrase in a future blog), and where there is a stated emphasis on diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, it is critical that develop listening skills.  Rachel Naomi Remen – advises,  ‘The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.’   Tippett thinks ‘it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew’.

Research points to the role of listening in producing positive interaction outcomes. For example, effective listeners:

  • Enable uncertainty reduction and information management
  • Generally, project more positive impressions than ineffective listeners
  • Are perceived to be more trustworthy, friendly, understanding and socially attractive
  • Produce more satisfying (i.e., rewarding) interactions between, for example, patients and their physicians, real estate clients and their agents, protégés and their mentors, and between wives and husbands

There is no shortage of information on developing individual listening skills which may be usefully offered as part of employee/leader development.

However, as the report Creating An ‘Architecture Of Listening’ In Organizations notes:

‘there is little focus on organizational listening … Organizations such as government departments and agencies, corporations, NGOs, and non-profit organizations have thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of stakeholders – whether these are citizens, customers, shareholders, employees, members, patients, or ‘consumers’ generally. Therefore, organizations need to be capable of large-scale listening. 

Organizational listening is long overdue for close study because of (1) this lack of focus; (2) because of its importance in addressing the widely-discussed ‘democratic deficit’ in politics, the lack of trust in government, corporations and institutions, and social inequities; and (3) because organizational listening involves particular challenges and requirements.’

Large scale organisational listening has ‘policy, cultural, structural, human resource, systems, and technological dimensions’.  The report is firm, saying it cannot be achieved ‘simply by adding a listening tool or solution, such as automated software applications, listening posts, or a tokenistic ‘have your say’ page on a Web site. Effective organizational listening requires an architecture of listening, designed into an organization and be deployed in a coherent complementary way, comprising eight key elements’

  1. A culture of listening;
  2. Policies for listening;
  3. Addressing the politics of listening;
  4. Structures and processes for listening;
  5. Technologies for listening;
  6. Resources for listening;
  7. Skills for listening;
  8. Articulation of listening to decision-making and policy making

These eight elements are described as an ‘architecture of listening’ because they need to be designed into an organization and be deployed in a coherent complementary way.   The report argues that the potential benefits from designing a listening organisation, for governments, business, professional practices, and society include:

  • Reinvigoration of the public sphere and civil society through increased citizen participation and increased trust in government and institutions
  • Increased trust in business and improved reputation and customer satisfaction, leading to more sustainable businesses
  • Increased business productivity and efficiency through motivated engaged employees
  • Increased social equity including attention to the voices of ignored and marginalized groups
  • More ethical and more effective approaches in political communication, marketing communication, public relations, corporate communication, organizational communication, and other public communication practices.

Each of these elements is discussed in the report, which then warns: ‘With the eight elements of an architecture of listening in place, organizations are in a position to undertake the work of listening. Organizations should make no mistake; large-scale listening is work. Declaring a policy of listening and inviting feedback, comment, and input are only the beginning.

The concluding paragraph of the report talks about listening across borders, saying:

‘Not only are borders geographic, but they exist as political and ideological borders. Communication is the primary mechanism for breaching borders without unwelcome incursion. But communication across borders must involve open, ethical listening, not simply intelligence gathering or selective listening to serve one’s own interests. We hear often of ‘communication breakdowns’ and the tendency is to believe that these are caused by not making a case (i.e., speaking) well enough. But rarely are communication breakdowns caused by a lack of talking; they are usually the result of a lack of listening. Today we have the skills and technologies to listen to the universe. But often we don’t listen to people around us.’

This rings true about what I’ve been observing recently.  The borders are there within organisations as well as across organisations and societies.   There are ways of breaching them but it takes a will, courage and perseverance.   But it’s worth the effort.  Krista Tippett offers insight on the human value of designing listening organisations saying:   ‘listening  invites searching – not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree;  but what is at stake in human terms for us all.’

She quotes Frances Kissling who says ‘You’ve got to put yourself at the margins and be willing to risk in order to make change.’

Do you think organisation designers will take the risk of designing listening organisations?  Let me know.

Image: The Politics of Listening

Designing Empowerment

Many words and phrases in organisational use puzzle me.  ‘Bring your whole self to work’ is a current one, as is ‘empowerment’, and ‘resilience’.  They’re possibly ok as concepts, but what do they mean in practice and what are the organisational design implications of them.

Empowerment caught my attention this week as I was with a leadership team talking about organisational culture.  They felt they wanted a ‘culture of empowerment’.

First a definition.  According to the Business Dictionary empowerment is:

‘a management practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.

Empowerment is based on the idea that giving employees skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation, as well holding them responsible and accountable for outcomes of their actions, will contribute to their competence and satisfaction. ‘

Explicit in the definition is the ‘gift’ of empowerment.  The idea of ‘giving’ empowerment means that there may be situations in which empowerment is not given.  The definition does not cover the motivation for giving the gift, nor the recipient’s response to it.

Leandro Herrero explores some of this aspect in one of his Daily Thoughts.

‘The ‘expectations muddle’ of empowerment has different shapes and flavours:

  1. I expect you to do something but you don’t think you are empowered to do.
  2. I empower you to do something (I have decided it is good to empower you) but you don’t want to be empowered (too much responsibility?)
  3. I am told that delegation is good, so I delegate, but call it empowerment. But I am just passing the monkey on to you.
  4. I empower you, you think I am abdicating.
  5. I don’t have permission to do, or I think I don’t have, I feel I am not empowered, but you never thought you needed to give me permission.
  6. You are empowered! Here you are! Take it. What? (Is he ok?)
  7. Empowering you means you need to behave as if you were the owner of the business (does it mean I can have your bonus?)
  8. We are all empowered, for goodness sake, just take accountability for things!
  9. I am empowering you to be empowered, but not too much, because I will lose control.
  10. I am told to let it go, so I am empowering you, but you don’t believe me for a second, because you know me. So I may have to do something more than just saying it.
  11. You are empowered. Please report to me weekly on the hitting of milestones, number of KPIs and times you took a break.
  12. I can’t empower everybody, it would be a disaster.’

In our discussions we concluded that leadership team members needed to come to some agreement on what empowerment ‘looks like’ and situations or contexts where they want to give the gift of empowerment to employees.

As an example, I told the story of Pret a Manager that asks the baristas to give away a number of free coffees per week ‘Pret employees tell me that the freedom to give a free coffee is immensely empowering. It injects a random act of kindness into the day. It gives delight and hurts not.’  But the giveaways come with some controls – a limit to the number of giveaways, an expectation that the barista won’t consistently give the same person a free coffee, etc.  Empowerment comes with controls.

Eric Flamholtz, an academic, points out that ‘control over an organization can be exercised through many mediums’.  He defines an ‘organizational control system as a set of mechanisms – both processes and techniques – which are designed to increase the probability that people will behave in ways that lead to the attainment of organizational objectives. The ultimate objective of a control system is not to control the specific behavior of people per se, but, rather, to influence people to take actions and make decisions which in their judgement are consistent with organizational goals’.

So, once the realm of empowerment is agreed, then what controls have to be designed to enable, require, or expect employees to accept the gift of it (and what are the penalties if they don’t?).

There are various views on the categories of organisational control systems.  Sticking with Flamholtz for now, he presents a useful framework ‘for understanding the nature, role, functioning, design, and effects of organizational control systems’.  He discusses five control processes: planning, operations, measurement, feedback and evaluation-reward. ‘Each of these individual components of the core control system is itself a system, while at the same time functioning as a sub-system of the overall core control system’.  To design the control system that results in the desired behaviour he discusses what control systems must do:

  • They must be able to motivate people to make decisions and take actions which are consistent with organizational objectives.
  • They must integrate the efforts of several different parts of an organization. Even when people are trying to act in the organizations’ best interests, they may find themselves working at cross-purposes.
  • They must provide information about the results of operations, and people’s performance. This is referred to as, ‘autonomy with control.’
  • They must facilitate the implementation of strategic plans.

Another view on control systems is from Robert Simons who proposed four types:

  • Diagnostic control systems allow managers to ensure that important goals are being achieved efficiently and effectively.
  • Beliefs systems empower individuals and encourage them to search for new opportunities. They communicate core values and inspire all participants to commit to the organization’s purpose.
  • Boundary systems establish the rules of the game and identify actions and pitfalls that employees must avoid.
  • Interactive control systems enable top-level managers to focus on strategic uncertainties, to learn about threats and opportunities as competitive conditions change, and to respond proactively.

Others categories control systems in other ways, but the basic idea is that if we want to gift empowerment then a) we have to know within what parameters and b) design and establish controls that enable it within the parameters.

What both Simons and Flamholtz’s articles do is tackle the formal aspects of control systems.  The ‘gift’ of empowerment is designed within a controlling framework/system.   Simon, for example, says ‘Senior managers intentionally design beliefs systems to be broad enough to appeal to many different groups within an organization: salespeople, managers, production workers, and clerical personnel.’

What neither writer does is address the emotional/feelings aspects that underpin Herrero’s ‘expectations muddle’.

In his article ‘The growing role of informal controls: does organization learning empower or subjugate workers?’ academic, Laurie Pant, notes that ‘under uncertainty, when the goals and means of accomplishing goals may be unknown, control assessments shift to outcomes (did we achieve the objective?) or to judgements (is there a consensus that things are being done right?), at this point, he says, ‘informal controls such as group norms become especially important.’  How clear the informal controls are or are not will inform the  attitudes to and expectations of empowerment.

What are the formal and informal controls around empowerment in your organisation? How are you designing control systems to curb or encourage empowerment?  Let me know.

Image: Raúl León Alvarez, Autoprision

Storytelling and organisation design

There’s a lovely Heritage Centre at Nant Gwtheyrn where I was staying last week.  One of the wall posters says ‘We love a good story in Wales’, which continued my thinking about storytelling.

It had been prompted the previous week when I’d been at a 90-minute storytelling session led by RADA Business  (The business arm of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).  It was a great session, and I jotted down the facilitator’s list of ‘what stories need’ (I think I got it all).

  • Conflict
  • A hero (not necessarily a person)
  • The given circumstances (where we are, context, time/place, here/now)
  • High stakes that create tension (it must matter)
  • A choice
  • A consequence of the choice
  • The end – something has changed.  The journey ends at a different place to the start.  We know what has changed along the way.
  • The structure of a story comes from choice, consequence, change

Storytelling in organisation design crops up from time to time. One is in ‘The Palace: Perspectives on Organisation Design’,  from the Institute of Employment Studies, ‘ The story begins:  ‘Once upon a time not that long ago and not that far away, there was a large palace… The Palace was ancient and large, having been built up over very many years, and experienced numerous modifications over its long history….’

It’s a delight to read, with most of the story elements in the bulleted list, and anyone working in a bureaucracy will recognise the barons ‘being in charge of sectors or wings’ and ‘at times’ being ‘more focused on settling their scores with other barons than watching out for their common enemy outside the wall’.  Making me laugh each time I read the story is the ‘Group Architecture Touchstone Document conjured at great expense, by some wizards called McKinsey, decreeing how the barons should work together’.

The story of an old palace is used, very successfully, ‘to consider the challenges of design in a complex and highly connected world, where organisations are expected to be agile and innovative, work globally in a seamless way, and continually engage talented employees through an attractive employer brand.’

I’ve also enjoyed Dee Hock’s story of designing Visa’s leadership .His story begins: ‘There was a time a few years back when for one brief moment the essence of leadership was crystal clear to me. Strangely, it was after leaving Visa and moving to a small, isolated ranch for a life of study and contemplation, raising a few cattle. I was attending to chores in the barn, comfortable and secure from the wind howling about the eaves and the roar of torrential rain on the tin roof. Through the din, I became aware of the faint, persistent bellowing of one of the cows’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Faster, Shorter, Cheaper May Be Simple; It’s Never Easy‘,  the story of how Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff redesigned one of IKEA’s processes which became the prototype for others. This chatty case study, has all the elements of a story, and the section on ‘The Meeting’ has emotional resonance for me  – Weisbord and Janoff report: ‘A jarring surprise for us was the promised flowchart. We anticipated a detailed systems map. What we found on the wall was a simple diagram with three circles on it. We looked at each other. “We can’t get there from here! ”We were starting from scratch after all. People were already filing in, many having just flown half way around the world. Despite the bare-bones flowchart, we saw no choice but to proceed with our original plan and hope for a breakthrough.’

I wonder if we underplay storytelling in the design process.  There is masses of information and practice tips on storytelling but not so much applied specifically to organisation design, beyond the ‘tell a compelling story’ that leaders are urged to do when motivating people to change or undertake a ‘transformation journey’.

I’ve noticed that when I’m facilitating organisation design training programmes people like the stories I tell about my day to day design work.  What I don’t do as much is apply storytelling into my design processes.   Now I’m thinking that I will do more of it and see if brings any different/positive dimensions.

A research article Design Process and Organisational Strategy: A Storytelling Perspective, suggests it would have ‘substantial value’.  The researchers found that storytelling in design work:

  • develops a sense of community and shared experience
  • helps people to construct meaning in a situation or context
  • achieves or aids change and fosters a cultural shift
  • offers new knowledge and different perspectives/interpretations
  • brings emotions and feelings into play

The same researchers developed and tested a Design Storytelling Impact-Approach Framework,  incorporating both visual and verbal stories.  Their testing found that ‘storytelling that uses familiarity has proved to have positive relationships with constructing meaning and critique of design concepts. Storytelling that uses imagery has proved to have a positive relationship with altering perceptions and critique of design concepts. Finally, storytelling with a higher degree of audience involvement in authoring is positively linked to developing a deeper understanding of the design concept.

An example of using storytelling in service design is described in the article Storytelling Group – a co-design method for service design: ‘Storytelling Group combines collaborative scenario building and focus group discussions. It inspires service design by providing different types of user information: a fictive story of a customer journey is created to illustrate a ‘what if’ world, users tell real-life stories about their service experiences, users come up with new service ideas, and they are also asked about their opinions and attitudes in a focus-group type of discussion.’

The authors describe it as ‘a quick start for actual design work but still includes users in the process.’ This approach could equally be used in organisation design.

In the Journal of Organisation Design, there’s an article, Constructing M&A valuation: how do merger evaluation methods differ as uncertainty and controversy vary?, with a section devoted to storytelling in the M & A process.  In the section we are told that ‘stakeholders construct and tell stories in support of their goals. Subgroups with the strongest combinations of concrete and intuitive stories tend to win the debate about the [M & A] deal.

The author of another research article that has applicability to organisation design, Storytelling in Organizations: The power and traps of using stories to share knowledge in organizations, tells and interprets several short stories, concluding, ‘Cases like these illustrate why storytelling is so effective in a variety of domains. Stories can be a very powerful way to represent and convey complex, multi-dimensional ideas.  Well-designed, well-told stories can convey both information and emotion, both the explicit and the tacit, both the core and the context (Snowden, 2000).

Do you use storytelling in your organisation design practices and processes?  What impact does it have on the design outcome?  Let me know.

Senior responsible officers and project sponsors

Someone asked me the other day how many projects a Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) could realistically be responsible for.  He’d been looking at a list that showed a small number of people being repeatedly named as the SRO for a large number of projects.  One person being SRO for 6 projects, and this on top of their normal ‘day’ job.

An SRO is a peculiarly UK public sector role, first recommended for IT enabled projects in the McCartney Report in 2000.  Current Guidance on SROs published in July 2019 states that:

Strong leadership with clear accountability are key elements of successful project delivery. The requirement to appoint a senior responsible owner (SRO) for a programme or project has been established in government for over two decades, and is now mandated in the government functional standard for project delivery. 

The fact that the role is now mandated demonstrates its (potential) value.   In the private sector the term ‘senior responsible officer’ is not used, but all the private sector projects I’ve worked on have a ‘sponsor’.   Comparing the role of the SRO and the more familiar, to me, role of the sponsor, I found that they are pretty much identical.

The SRO ‘is ultimately accountable for a programme or project meeting its objectives, delivering the projected outcomes and realising the required benefits. He or she is the owner of the business case and accountable for all aspects of governance.

The sponsor ‘is accountable for ensuring that the work is governed effectively and delivers the objectives that meet identified needs. … As owner of the business case, the project sponsor is responsible for overseeing the delivery of the benefits. So, the sponsorship role covers the whole project life cycle.’

Assuming that the roles are the same, is there anything that can be learned around either SRO or sponsor capability and capacity to take accountability for projects that could be usefully applied, irrespective of role title?  As there’s far more written about SROs than sponsors I’ve stuck with SROs but the info is equally applicable to sponsors.

I found the Office of Government Commerce 2009, Bulletin 5, Lessons Learned: The SRO Role in Major Government Programmes.  It  highlights ways in which to make the SRO role more effective, saying:  ‘In summary, the SRO role can be made to work more effectively by addressing a number of factors, including:

  • Better understanding of the role
  • Selection of the right people to act as SROs
  • Giving SROs real accountability and business authority to resolve issues
  • Ensuring SROs have relevant delivery skills and experience, including commercial awareness
  • SROs dedicating sufficient time to the role
  • Improved continuity of the role through the project life-cycle
  • Improved tools, guidance and development opportunities for SROs
  • Provision of adequate supporting resources.’

Ten years on, this list seems, in my experience, to be just as relevant today and also applicable to project sponsors.   The list also helps answer my questioner who has recognised an issue with SROs having too little time to dedicate to the role, and lack of selection of SROs against specific criteria for the projects they are now being held accountable for.

The document The Role of the SRO, published in July 2019 gives a comprehensive picture of what is expected from an SRO and the relationships of this role to others in a project/programme.  It also discusses the time required to do the role and the skills needed.

In a similar, but chattier, vein the booklet (44 pages) The Art of Brilliance – written by SROs for SROs charts the five challenges SROs face and how to overcome them.  The burble tells us that the book ‘unpacks the behavioural characteristics of highly successful leaders of transformation to help move your professional performance from ‘good to great’.’  It is really worth reading, with each of the 6 chapters structured similarly:

  • The typical challenge facing SROs drawn from the breadth of behavioural insights drawn out from the research to support SROs in addressing the challenge.
  • Research based techniques that provide practical advice for SROs throughout the course of their work.
  • Case studies from other SROs and the private sector
  • Red flags that each SRO should watch out for in the delivery of the programme.
  • Nudges to encourage the SRO to focus on really critical issues.

Sponsors, in any sector, would learn from this book that one SRO described as a ‘pocket sized coach’.

What all the various info on SROs does is emphasise that being an SRO (or sponsor) is not an add on to a ‘day job’.  It is a demanding role that requires special skills and a project/programme delivery focus. Axelos provides a description. ‘An SRO must be someone who can:

  • broker and build strong relationships with stakeholders within and outside the programme/project environment and network effectively within the broader organization and beyond.
  • deploy delegated authority to ensure that the programme/project achieves its agreed objectives with appropriate oversight, dependent on the size, risk, complexity of the programme/project environment and capability.
  • provide ad hoc direction and guidance to the programme/project manager and team as required.
  • acknowledge their own skill/knowledge gaps, seek appropriate guidance and structure the programme/project board and programme/project management teams accordingly; ensuring the right people, with the right skills, with the right capabilities and personalities appropriate for the organizational culture are available when required.
  • give the time required to perform the role effectively but also the support and guidance to build the right capability in the programme/project team to enable an effective [project] organizational structure.
  • negotiate well and influence people, particularly important skills that enable SROs to lead with authority.
  • be aware of the organizational strategies and direction and how it affects the programme/project and if necessary, make informed decisions in terms of readiness for the next phase/stage. Noting success is not only defined as the delivery of a customer desired tangible product or service within time, cost and quality parameters but also prematurely closing a programme/project that is no longer aligned to strategic intent or likely to deliver the financial and quantifiable benefits to the user knowing that the investment saved can be better spent elsewhere to deliver strategic intent.
  • be honest and transparent about a programme/project progress. This is someone who not only scrutinizes progress report information but also holds the programme/project manager to account. The SRO role exists not only to receive information but to enable checks and balances to occur by being proactive and to probe evidence by asking questions. This is important irrespective of the value of the programme/project. SROs need to continually understand why resources (people, funds, assets, materials and services) are being invested and what the desired outcomes are.

I don’t know if there is any certification or reputable training programmes for would be (or current) SROs/sponsors, none appear when googling, but if there were, I think participants would quickly learn that they can’t be responsible for multiple projects, and that being responsible takes time and skill.

What’s your view of the SRO/sponsor role?  Let me know.

Image: From The Art Of Brilliance

Pick a card

‘Pick a card – any one’, said the facilitator of the workshop I was in the other day.  They were all face down on the table so you couldn’t see what they said on them.  I picked mine and turned it over.  It said ‘Take your time.  Slow down and take your time.   There’s no rush now to make decisions. You can’t feel your vibes, let alone trust them, if you’re overbooked, juggling too many things at one time, constantly playing catch up, or racing around like crazy. … Assume a more leisurely rhythm, and trust and actually stretch time.’

Good advice for me, I thought, but more difficult to act on and keep on practicing.  Others were equally pleased with their cards, from the Trust Your Vibes card deck  which we were using as a closing exercise for the workshop.  Each of us went away with a bit of ‘guidance’ from our ‘innate sixth senses’.

Facilitators often work with card decks and when I got home, I took time to take a look at the ones I have.  I was surprised to find that I have 11 different packs – some of which I use a lot, some less frequently and a couple waiting for the right moment to be used even once.   Here’s what I’ve got.

Qualities of Practice Cards® from Engendering Balance.  I can’t remember how/when I got these, but I think I participated in one of the leadership programmes that they link to, and I’ve used them occasionally.  Each of the 50 or so cards has a word or phrase on it e.g. enabling, conscious of consequences, expressive. Sue, Rosie and Mary – the card developers – say ‘A process called ‘mapping’ is used to identify a set of core qualities that define how you or your team live your leadership in general and in different situations. … they can provide a powerful window into the way that you work, where learning is through live issues, situations and challenges.

Go ask anyone is a pack of cards each with a question on, e.g. ‘If you could relive one moment of your life, what would it be?’, ‘What song makes you want to dance everytime you hear it?’  I used these again the other day as an icebreaker.  They work really well for that and people enjoy the activity of walking round the room introducing themselves and asking the question on their card. I’ve found they work in any culture.

A similar pack is Sussed which my daughter told me about a few years ago.  Again, I use the cards as an icebreaker – and they work well for this. They’re billed as promoting ‘the health benefits of face-to-face conversation’, to support positive mental well-being’.   I have the showcase pack.  Each card has 5 multiple-choice questions on it e.g. ‘Which frustrates me most about myself a) I say things I don’t mean b) I jump to conclusions c) I think the worst of people’.  ‘I’d get the most use out of … a) a professional camera b) a state of the art DIY kit c) a top of the range coffee machine.

Absolutely years ago, I got a pack of Barrie Hopson and Mike Scally’s Transferable Skills cards and I still have the original pack, but don’t have the accompanying workbook and I don’t know if I ever did, but I see it dates from 1986.  Anyway, the same cards have transmogrified and are now Value My Skills cards, available from Union Learn.  I use them in career and development conversations.  They’re very worthwhile.

Playing cards – I have a deck of normal playing cards and use them in two activities to illustrate power and influence in organisations.  I first learned them from Jo Ellen Gryzyb of The Impact Factory when I went on one of her influencing skills courses.  They generate much discussion, and I still carry in my purse the laminated 10 of spades that I got on the course.  At times, I surreptitiously get out and look at in situations where I’m feeling low or disadvantaged. (It reminds me that I too can influence and have some powers I can choose to use in a situation).

Oblique strategies:  This is a pack that I haven’t used yet.  Although I bought them about a year ago, I haven’t found a situation/workshop for them. They’re ‘a set of over 100 cards, each of which is a suggestion of a course of action or thinking to assist in creative situations.’  For example ‘only one element of each kind’, ‘Do we need holes?’ They’re to break a deadlock or solve a dilemma or lead towards a solution and act as a creative direction.  There’s a good 4 minute video intro to their use here.

Trends cards – This is a downloadable pack of postcard sized cards.  Each considers area-specific trends, for example transport, environment, agriculture as well as wider changes in society.   I use them when we’re doing an assessment of the environment – they’re a form of PESTLE activity to discuss and examine the way the world and society is changing.  ‘They encourage thinking about how issues are interconnected and how changes in one area will impact on others.’

Creative whack pack – this I got when I lived in the US and have used many times in organisation design and culture workshops.  They are on the lines of 6 thinking hats. The  64 cards are designed to ‘whack you out of habitual thought patterns and allow you to look at what you’re doing in a fresh way. Each card, ‘features a different strategy. Some highlight places to find new information. Others provide techniques to generate new ideas. Some lend decision-making advice. And many give you the “kick” you need to get your ideas into action’.

Kindness cards – these I got at the start of 2018 when my new year’s resolution was to be kinder.   They’re 60 cards in a box from the School of Life.  They’re ‘designed to bring out our better natures. They present us with a series of thoughts that nurture our sympathy, our powers of compassion, and our appetite for forgiveness. They return us to who we always want to be and deep down already are: kind people.‘  Each day I take one card from the front of the pack and reflect on what it says at moments during the day.  I put it to the back of the pack as I take the next day’s front card.  Today’s reads ‘The kind person is a warm and gentle teaser … they latch onto our distinctive quirks and … try to change us for the better, not by delivering a stern lesson, but by helping us to notice our excesses and laugh at them.’  I haven’t used them in workshops but I think I could try them out in a resilience one that I’m running shortly.

Post cards – I buy masses of postcards of all types/artists from art galleries and have a big collection that I use as an icebreaker.  In a workshop of 15 people I may put out 50 – 100 postcards and ask people to pick one that appeals to them and then introduce themselves by showing which postcard they’ve picked and why.  (They can keep the postcard they pick).  I always remember a youngish man who joined a workshop dressed in an intimidating Goth outfit with the haircut, nose/other body piercings, and scowl to match.  I was a little nervous about how he would take the activity.  He picked a picture of an ancient, wrinkled woman and told the most lovely and tender story about his grandmother who’d died and whom he desperately missed.  It was a great lesson for me in not stereotyping on looks.  (See Experiential Tools for other ideas for postcard activities).

Process mapping cards from Orgvue – I don’t know if these are commercially available, but I use them in every organisation design workshop I run, in conjunction with a case study I have.  The activity immediately illustrates the method and value of process mapping as participants have to put seven processes in an agreed activity order and then work to cluster activity appropriately, bearing in mind the requirements of the case. As Rupert Morrison, Concentra says: ‘This approach to process mapping leads to activity based costing, proper role definitions and job specs, the construction of proper roles… and visualising all of it through an experiential exercise’.

Do you use packs of cards in your organisation design work?  Which are your ‘go-to’ ones?  Let me know.

Job shadowing

Last week I got an email from someone who’d attended a couple of info sessions I facilitated.  She said ‘Thanks for presenting the sessions on culture and change management.  I found them interesting as they leaned towards my aim to develop my OD and Change skills.  I wondered if I could shadow you in relation to your work on change and design to develop my knowledge and experience in the area and my career.’

On first glance it’s a lovely invitation and we’ve set up a meeting to discuss it.  On second glance the invitation has prompted me to look more closely at job shadowing – what, why, how and also about what I do in the day-to-day that illustrates what a career in OD and Change is like.   I’d like the shadowing to be helpful, and a learning experience, for both of us.

What is it?  Martin, on Cleverism says it’s ‘following, or shadowing, a professional at an organization throughout the workday or workweek to get a better idea of what that particular role entails.’ Another writer says, ‘The overarching purpose of a job shadow is to give someone a sense of what a career [in that discipline] is really like. A test drive so to speak!’

Martin talks about two main types of job shadowing: observation and hands-on.  He says, in observation, ‘you will be observing an incumbent employee, taking notes on how they conduct their business and understanding their activities. You are nothing more than a fly on a wall, listening and seeing everything an employee says and does, respectively.’

In hands-on ‘After observing for a short time and understanding the things an employee in that position needs to do, you will take on those same responsibilities and undertake some of those tasks.’

Another writer talks about “Burst Interactions”  ‘Here a visitor/guest will shadow the host for specific activities over a period of time which are all preceded by a mini brief and follow up debrief. This type of shadowing provides short periods of focused activity, rather than passive ongoing observation.’

I took a look back at what I did last week and whether my job shadower could be hands-on, would be more of an observer, or would be better doing ‘burst interactions’.   In calendar entries my week comprised:

Monday: six meetings (three group and three individual) all broadly on ‘what/how we are doing on building change management capability.’  Plus, a chunk of time I diarised as ‘uninterrupted desk time’, so people looking at my calendar don’t plop in a meeting.  It’s an experiment, triggered by reading David Stiernholm’s book, and reading his blog on the seagull free hour.  I’m seeing if it helps me focus on getting a decent length of time to reflect on and write some papers that are now approaching deadlines.

Tuesday: morning a discussion with colleagues on a culture audit we’ve being doing. Then a meeting on accreditation of change managers (yes/no?), and in the afternoon I participated in an external workshop on talent and a learning culture .

Wednesday:   A train trip to facilitate a session on brave leadership + some phone discussion on smart working.

Thursday: Two different sessions on building change management capability, and a workshop on direction setting and prioritising/planning activity in the next quarter.  (Note to self:  beware the dangers of ‘roadmapping’)

Friday: Following up on the change management workstream in a big project and attempting to get to grips with my email in-box, and finally write the papers.

In non-calendar activity, I also had multiple casual and unplanned conversations and answered over 200 emails (latter probably not something to shadow).

If I’d been shadowed last week as an observation (rather than hands-on) then what would the person have observed?  I don’t know how skilled she is at observation i.e. ‘the systematic description of the events, behaviors, and artifacts of a social setting and I all I currently know about why she wants to observe is from the email she sent.

Why she wants to do it, is to ‘know more about the area of OD and change’.  I think she’d see from the various meetings, that I’m working as an internal consultant in much the way that Andrew Sturdy/Nick Wylie discuss in their ESRC report Internal Consultants as Agents of Change. The work I do falls into their 4 buckets:

Operational efficiency – this category is one that I call organisation design, in their terms ‘practices which are focused around improving systems or processes so that information and/or material can be moved through the organisation more efficiently.’

Organisational development ‘including the use of psychology-based analytical tools and, broadly speaking, more of an interest or focus on people rather than work processes.

Strategic analysis and development here, I’m working with colleagues in the strategy group to develop alignment across strategies and keep an eye on the changing external context in order to ‘sense and respond’ effectively.

Project management.  A significant part of what I do is with Programme and Project colleagues looking not only at change management aspects but also at the efficiencies, development and strategies of the various projects.

Seeing this she might well ask herself whether which of the four areas she is more interested in, or does she want to develop all four?  Each has their own specialist route which she could go down and/or find out more about.

I wonder if she’ll also be observing me deploying (hopefully) my role and skills as an internal consultant.  An old but still relevant report on this, The Role of the Internal Consultant, from Roffey Park is worth reading.  It gives a laundry list of internal consulting competences:  relationship building, maintaining a long-term perspective, disengaging (i.e. not having a vested interest), active listening, self-knowledge/self-awareness, contracting, diagnosis, design, tolerance of ambiguity, facilitating and understanding change, data gathering, influencing, challenging the status quo, conflict handling.  I’d add to the list business/commercial knowledge and understanding internal political dynamics.

There’s quite a lot of info for the person doing the shadowing, but less for the person being shadowed although I thought that the instructions Cleverism gives for the person shadowing could equally apply to me:

  • dress for success (hmm – do I do this?)
  • be punctual and show eagerness (both sometimes a challenge)
  • be open-minded (I’m constantly learning on this one)
  • learn how to communicate (ditto)
  • read all formal documents (a particular point as I rush to a meeting and skim them as it proceeds)
  • ask for feedback (good advice to take)
  • report everything you learned (sometimes I’m just reporting to myself but I find the reflection useful).

Manchester Metropolitan University’s Guidelines for Job Shadowing is a very good resource for both host and shadower covering benefits to both.  Armed with this info  – which I’ve also sent to the person who’ll be shadowing, we should both enjoy the experience.

What’s your experience of job shadowing? Let me know.

Image: Four benefits of job shadowing

Worldview and language

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

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

The broadcast + chat box text are available here .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Testing a worldview, Anthony Gormley 1993