For nearly 3 years I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers.  SiloSmashers’ mission is to ‘set out to change how government agencies and corporations manage programs — and smash silo operations’.  Their view is that ‘Working in silos creates isolation and obstacles to effective communication and collaboration across agencies and corporations — reducing efficiency and hampering progress.’

When I was doing a clear out last month – 9 days of clearing 27 items, apparently a feng shui activity that will change one’s life – I found my SiloSmashers’ business card and some of the materials I developed and used there.

Coincidentally, last week, someone asked me if there would be any mileage in running a training programme on silo smashing. Whether silo smashing has returned to change my life, I don’t know but I decided to ask myself if a silo smashing programme would attract participants.

Silo smashing is recommended to bust the downsides of the ‘silo mentality’ – defined as the ‘mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company.’  That implies a wilfulness about the issue of cross silo collaboration, which I don’t think is necessarily the case.

Silos get built through things like the traditional bureaucratic vertical hierarchies (look at any traditional organisation chart and you’ll see a  visual of silos), the performance management systems that encourage competition over collaboration, the reward systems that reward individuals over teams, cultures that emphasise command and control rather than self-direction and autonomy,  IT systems that ‘don’t talk to each other’ and physical layouts (like a single business unit on one floor).  You can probably name other organisational elements that encourage silo working.  It’s not necessarily a ‘mindset’ of wilful behaviour of the people in the silos (although in some cases it might be).

Although there’s much written on breaking down silos e.g. To Build Your Business Smash Your Silos, or 5 Ways to Destroy the Pesky Silos in Your Organization, or Breaking Down Silos to Achieve Strategic Agility or Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (see her talking on the topic here)  silos are not necessarily a bad thing.

As the authors of Dealing with Market Disruption: Seven Strategies for Breaking Down Silos remark, ‘Conventional wisdom holds that silos are a flawed business construct: a legacy of command and control leadership symbolizing outmoded and inefficient management. In truth, silos help establish boundaries and maintain order — and allow professional teams to operate in a focused, specialized way.

If we talk the language of agile squads, tribes, guilds, chapters, we are not far from the concept of silos.  How different is a ‘tribal mentality’ from a ‘silo mentality’?

Commenting in a Tweet, @mrcruce, July 31, 2018, says ‘Instead of ‘eliminating’ divisions, or ‘blowing up’ silos…. let’s use metaphors about bridging, connecting, unifying, transcending, collaborating across borders…. connecting all of the groups within an organization in a coherent way so that they all work seamlessly together.’

This is a sensible approach that could blend the virtues of silos (and tribes) with the virtues of connectivity and collaboration and it is possibly a more achievable, and less disruptive method, than opting to smash the silos.  In ‘Don’t Break Your Silos – Push Out the Silo Mentality’ the writer’s view is that silos need ‘ventilating’.  He points out that, ‘Grain silos keep different types of agriculture separate, but they do not keep them in a vacuum, instead there are openings, which allow air to get in.  Ventilating the silos is not a simple task and the main difference between breaking and ventilating them is that the focus does not disperse. In order to ventilate the silos in your company, you need to boost the sharing culture within and build bridges between the different silos, by which the information can cross freely from one to another.’

Connecting silos where and when appropriate, using carefully re-designed organizational systems and processes to manage the connections effectively in ways that develop a culture of connection and collaboration is the topic of several blogs (and books – See Patrick Lencioni, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars).  One writer summarises the many who advise on how to do this:

  • Develop a unified vision and providing people with a clear purpose and ultimate common goals.
  • Boost the sharing culture and encourage environments of necessary transparency
  • Build bridges between the different silos, through which the information can flow freely. ‘Whether it’s going to be by creating cross functional teams, holding regular meetings between departments or finding a way of your own. This is all to improve collaboration, communication, and trust between teams.’

This is all easier said than done but a good starter is the five questions from a Fast Company article:

  1. What priorities do you or your department have that are not aligned with another’s?
  2. Put yourself in the place of the other silo–what would make that silo realize that your need was a priority?
  3. What information do you or your department have that could be useful to others?
  4. What information or assistance do you need from another silo that you are not getting?
  5. In what areas would increased collaboration and giving up some autonomy be more beneficial for the organisation than maintaining your individuality?

Margaret Heffernan tells a lovely story that illustrates a forum in which the five questions above get addressed:

‘When it came time to draw up the company’s annual budget, each department head drew up a budget for that department — but then had to explain it so cogently to one colleague that the colleague could defend it at the leadership team meeting. The chief technology officer would argue the case for marketing, the head of sales spoke on behalf of operations, customer care explained technology’s needs. The impact of this simple exercise was profound. Everyone had to see the whole company through eyes not their own.’  

And a second one about an executive who ‘told me about the silos of his business: geographical regions and technical functions found it hard to connect and trust one another. He’d asked that each make short films about one another. He wasn’t expecting anyone to invest much effort in the project but went to the trouble to gather the entire company in a cinema to watch what they’d made. The outcome startled him: movies of immense passion, inventiveness and humor that delighted, motivated, and inspired the whole company.’

These stories illustrate that taking inventive steps to build social connections go a long way towards bridging silos.  But in themselves they are not sufficient. There have to be clearly communicated reasons for connecting and formal reinforcement of it with systems, processes and common platforms that track and enable connection.   (See how the Estonian government manages a platform that is common and appropriately siloed).   Additionally there has to be what Rob Cross describes as boundary spanning leadership which requires skills in systems, system dynamics and network thinking and connecting.

Given all the above info, it seems to me that we could easily develop a programme on Silos – not smashing but connecting.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Sam Bates Silo Artist

Too many projects, too much change

I may have mentioned that I’m taking a 5-week Coursera course, Bridging the Gap between Strategy Design and Delivery, developed by the Brightline Initiative. I’m going to write more about it when I’ve completed it but meanwhile one of the module topics I studied this week is particularly relevant to some work I am currently doing.

It’s about projects and change.  Perry Keenan of BCG talks about the ‘increasingly artificial split– between running the business and changing the business’.  (You can watch the four minute video here)

He talks about the issues with too many initiatives, saying ‘Arguably, it is in fact easier to add an initiative than it is to stop one because there’s a lot of connection – political, emotional, historic– a set of factors which means it’s not easy to stop initiatives. It’s often not easy even to slow them down.’  He goes on to advise, ‘If you’re going to add in new initiatives, then be very thoughtful about what it means for the initiatives that you already have in play and the demands that you’re placing on your people. Once again, we all too often, in theory, assume that there is an infinite pool of highly capable people available to deliver the strategic initiatives. It’s a finite resource. And therefore, it has to be managed in a very definitive way.’

This chimes with an article I read in the Harvard Business Review, Too Many Projects. It opens saying ‘it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives, even when they don’t align with new strategies. Instead, leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.’  The article cites six further reasons for why this change overload occurs

  1. Impact blindness:  executive teams can be oblivious to the number and cumulative impact of the initiatives they have in progress.
  2. Multiplier effects: leaders have a line of sight into their own groups’ initiatives but a limited view of other groups’ activities. Because functions and units often set their priorities and launch initiatives in isolation, they may not understand the impact on neighbouring functions and units
  3. Political logrolling: Executives tend to be strongly invested in some “signature” projects and may garner resources for them through implicit agreements to support their peers with their projects
  4. Unfunded mandates. Leaders want a project to happen but don’t have the resources to put to it. Instead just adding it to the ‘business as usual work’.
  5. Band-Aid initiatives; this is a proliferation of initiatives designed to solve a problem, but without address the root causes of the problem in the first place
  6. Cost myopia; leaders fail to estimate, or underestimate the human cost of multiple initiatives on performance, motivation, morale, stress and so on.

In case you don’t know whether your organisation has too many change projects/initiatives, there is a 17 item yes/no questionnaire – one of the questions, for example, is ‘Does the organization lack processes for quantifying impact and prioritizing initiatives? Yes/No.’   The instructions read, ‘The first step in dealing with initiative overload is to honestly assess and acknowledge the [overload] problem. Ask yourself the questions below to gauge whether your organization is at risk. Then total up the yeses—those are red flags. If you have more than four, you may need to better manage the number or timing of initiatives.’

Since most of us completing the survey scored at least 10+ it served to confirm what we already knew (or at least, felt), that we are at risk and need to better manage the number and timing of initiatives.

The difficulties lie in converting a strong feeling that we are at risk into evidence proving that we are, and then doing something about it.  Both Keenan, and the HBR authors highlight the problem and the impact of the problem, but don’t specify or hint at any practical guidance on mitigating the risks and/or stopping the overload.

One of the things we are feeling is a risk is discussed in an article The Long-Term Damage from Juggling Too Many Projects – it notes that ‘Scrambling to shift scant resources in order to meet deadlines can have a chaotic ripple effect.’  That ripple effect is not just on the timeline and delivery schedule of competing projects and ‘business as usual’ but also on the people involved.

That’s the area I’m interested in.  I’m wondering if there’s a way we can look ahead to forecast the likely project load on people and take steps to even out the flow, slowing it down, speeding it up, or moving resources in a planned way and not a reactive way.  It’s necessary as in our case many people are doing project work alongside their ‘day job’.

I want to create a ‘heat-map’ that forecasts what one writer describes as ‘change collision’:  ‘Change collisions occur when there are multiple changes hitting individuals or a team of people over a common timeframe. Often, change collisions are a small number of high impact changes. In some cases, however, these collisions may be a high volume of low impact changes that didn’t garner attention until understood in the aggregate. Keep in mind that other “rhythm of the business” activities, driven by the organization’s calendar of events, should be taken into account as well when considering the volume of change activity.’

Talking with colleagues on the issues of project overload led to a number of interesting, still open, questions:

  • What’s the tipping point between projects that remain manageable and the point of overload?  How could we recognise it?
  • Is project overload to do with leadership and communication as much as the demands of the projects themselves?
  • How do we reconcile change due to project delivery and implementation and change in ‘business as usual’?  Does one feel more overloading than the other?  Or is it the combination that causes overload?  (In our case many people are doing project work alongside their ‘day job’.)
  • Is something we call ‘too much change’ related to projects, the general operating context changing, other factors changing and is the source of the ‘too much change’ feeling identifiable (and does the source matter?)

We are interested in the human indicators of overload and began to develop a list of metrics that we could track and link back to the project plans.

People suggested a range of other measures that fell into four impact categories: resilience, successful delivery outcomes, work/culture and resource.  For example, in the successful delivery category,  if we the rise of reports in bullying and harassment coincides with some project delivery target(s) is there any connection to investigate?  Or on in the resource category,  if we saw a sudden spike in people working weekends and logging overtime is there too little resource on the project?

Right now, we are playing around with the ideas of how to measure this cumulative impact of projects and associated change with a view to gathering data to test some of our ideas and convert them into an evidence based heatmap.

How do you measure the cumulative impact of change on your workforce members, and how to you use it to smooth the change flow?  Let me know.

Image:  Overloaded

What I talk about when I talk about structure

In many of the organisation design meetings that I attend where a client has an issue they want to address, their request is for a re-structure.  Closer questioning reveals that by ‘re-structure’ they actually mean they want a differently arranged traditional organisation chart.  They are of the view that, once people are in the configuration shown on the chart, a revised chart will solve the issue and are surprised when I ask questions about work flows, value streams, customer journeys and so on.  There is almost no recognition that ‘structure’ and ‘re-structure’ mean more than a different organisation chart.

Asking people what information an organisation chart gives us, and what information it doesn’t give us alerts them to the possibility that the information it doesn’t give us could well be useful in thinking how to achieve the re-structure purpose (assuming we are clear on  what that is) but that recognition doesn’t translate into ‘let’s look at that too’.  Providing the article ’10 principles for organisation design’,  where principle 3 is ‘Fix the structure last, not first’,  is given polite nods before people return to drawing boxes and lines.

What I talk about when I talk about structures is not organisation charts.   I am not against org charts (see my 2011 blog) and they are usually one of the outputs of design work. But organisation design charts do not represent the totality of organisational ‘structure’.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines structure as:  the way in which the parts of a system or object are arranged or organized, or a system arranged in this way, giving some examples:

  • the grammatical structure of a sentence
  • The structure of this protein is particularly complex.
  • They have a very old-fashioned management
  • Some people like the sense of structure that a military lifestyle imposes

You can see from the examples that ‘structure’ comes in many forms.  Over the years my views on what I mean by structure has developed.  My 2012 blog on the topic almost does equate ‘structure’ with ‘chart’ (but not with ‘design’).

But now,  I think of structure is a way that is much more akin to Richard Karash’s view.  In his blog  ‘How to see structure’ he discusses structure in the way I now think of it.   He says, ‘Structure is the network of relationships that creates behavior. The essence of structure is not in the things themselves but in the relationships of things. By its very nature, structure is difficult to see … much of what we think of as structure is often hidden. We can witness traffic accidents, for example, but it’s harder to observe the underlying structure that causes them.’

Karash explains the traffic accident at three levels:  the events level, the patterns and trends level, and the structural level.  As he points out, these levels are interdependent.  The structural elements – road layouts, traffic flow regulators, road surface design and so on interact along with non-structural elements to shape driver behaviour.   (I don’t agree that structure ‘creates’ behaviour, but I do think it shapes and directs it).

The various elements of  ‘structure’ that comprise the structural building blocks of ‘design’ include:

  • Hierarchies, layers and spans, with stated decision and authority levels
  • Lateral linkages and interdependencies
  • Work process, flows and business capabilities
  • Organisational performance management and governance systems
  • Individual performance management systems, pay and reward mechanisms, job design, career paths.
  • Templates, frameworks, models and methodologies
  • Information and communication flows
  • Policies, procedures and standards

So, when I talk about structure, I talk about those things, and these are the things I consider in the organisational design work.  This more comprehensive view of ‘structure’ is sometimes problematic if I don’t explain and explore it carefully with clients and stakeholders, because typically they do equate – and use interchangeably – ‘structure’ and ‘chart’ and also refer to the chart as the organisation’s ‘design’.    (The ’10 Principles for Organisation Design, mentioned earlier, also equates structure with chart, but not design).

Maybe I’m out on a limb taking a more comprehensive view because when I Googled ‘organisation structure’ and looked at the images from this they were pretty much all of organisation charts.   But I’m simultaneously reading blogs and articles telling us that the organisation chart is dead.   See for example The Org Chart is Dead,  and The End of the Org Chart and To Sir, With Love – Compliance and the End of the Org Chart and It’s Time to Kill the Org Chart

There are many organisations, particularly those moving towards ‘structures that enable self-organizing teams to organize and collaborate through internal networks’, that do not have an organisation chart of the type shown when you Google organisation charts/structures – but they do have many of the other structural elements on my list above.

Corporate Rebels reports that these chartless organisations ‘have evolved themselves from structures that look like static slow-moving pyramids to something that looks more like a flexible and fast-moving swarm of start-ups. We have witnessed them in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all called slightly different. Spotify talks about squads and tribes. Buurtzorg about self-governing teams. Stanley McCrystal about a team of teams. Finext and Incentro about cells. And FAVI calls them mini-factories.’  Look too at the article on Haier in November/December 2018 HBR

If we only equate ‘structure’ with traditional types of ‘org chart’ we lose sight of the many other, possibly better, ways of organising work and workers.   No organisation chart does not mean no structures.   And having an organisation chart requires acknowledgement that it represents only one structural element and one that neither defines nor represents the design of the organisation.

What do you talk about when you talk about structures?  Let me know.


(I got the title from a book by Haruki Murakami ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’)

Image: New York and Erie Railroad organisation chart from 1855 © Geography & Maps/Library of Congress

Chapter sampling

So far this year I’ve downloaded sample chapters of 20 non-fiction books to my Kindle.  In 2017 I downloaded 34.  I don’t think I’ll be downloading another 14 this year, but probably I’ll download 2 or 3 more.

I download chapters of books that either I’ve read a review of that I think sounds interesting and relevant to the work that I’m doing, or that people have recommended – in response to something I’ve said I’m working on.  So, reviewing the chapter list I can review my year at work.  It’s a variant of a personal diary, except I’ve done the reading not the writing.

At least, in theory, I’ve done the reading.  In practice I have not read all the sample chapters all the way through, and I don’t know if Amazon is keeping track of the sample chapters that I convert to buying the whole book – probably they are, so I’m expecting a nudge on the lines of  ‘People like you download 25 sample chapters per year and then buy the full book of 20 of them.’

Amazon may not have the AI (yet) to report that my starting to read a sample chapter invariably invokes my personal a ‘fail fast’ system, and may be running their sample chapter operation on the premise that I will read the sample and buy the book.  But I don’t.  If I want to read it, I borrow it from the library.  (Libraries are a very necessary part of community life and are under increasing threat.  I’m a confirmed library user and delighted to see how the campaign is growing to save the UK’s libraries from closure).

I wonder what nudges, reprimands or penalties Amazon will invoke when they get the pattern. What proportion of readers really are like me and don’t buy the book?   Will Amazon to redesign my process or make me see it from a different perspective because I stop their purchasing a few pages in?  I see Amazon’s Alexa now has Hunches, will she/he sense my preference for library borrowing and urge me to buy the book instead or will Alexa be biased in favour of libraries?

Enough on Alexa and Amazon. The books I haven’t bought during 2018 are a mixed bunch:

  1. Happiness Quantified: A Satisfaction Calculus Approach, Bernard van Praag and Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell.
  2. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor
  3. Dynamic Capabilities and Strategic Management: Organizing For Innovation And Growth, David Teece
  4. The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, Gay Hendricks
  5. The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z Muller
  6. Agile IT Organization Design: For Digital Transformation and Continuous Delivery,  Sriram Narayan
  7. Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience,  Mary Helen Immordino-yang
  8. Deviate: the science of seeing differently, Beau Lotto
  9. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth,
  10. Small Arcs of Larger Circles: framing through other patterns, Nora Bateson
  11. Simple Complexity: a clear guide to complexity thinking, Neil Johnson
  12. Notes on a nervous planet, Matt Haig
  13. GDP: a brief but affectionate history, Diane Coyle
  14. Twitter and Tear Gas: the power and fragility of networked protest,  Zeynep Tufekci
  15. Networks of Outrage and Hope: social movements in the internet age, Manuel Castells
  16. Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, Kate Raworth,
  17. Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking, Concepts, and Tools,  Richard Paul
  18. Metaphors in Mind: transformations through symbolic modelling,  James Lawley
  19. Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder
  20. Bullshit jobs, David Graeber

Applying my human sense-making to the list and attempting to see a pattern in it, reveals that through the year I was looking at four categories:  employee experience (1, 2, 20), designing systems (3, 6, 10, 11, 18), operational context (5, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)  and brain stuff (7, 8, 4, 9, 17, 19).

The list reflects the way I work with organisation design.  I do think it’s about designing structures, roles, processes and systems that yield a positive employee experience.  In doing that we have to be alert to the constantly changing environment (internal and external) and take thoughtful, often courageous action.

In each of the categories I find that, even if I have not either bought or borrowed the book, I have taken info from the sample chapter and used it in my work – an example from each category:

Employee Experience CategoryBullshit Jobs,  which discusses the ‘possibility that our society is riddled with useless jobs that no one wants to talk about’, because as he observes, ‘Everyone is familiar with those sort of jobs that don’t seem to the outsider, to really do much of anything’.  It did good service in alerting me to be more rigorous and critical in my work on job design.

Designing systems categorySimple Complexity – The writing style of the author irritated me so I looked for other sources of info and was recommended David Snowden’s 3-minute video How to Organise a Children’s Party which explains simply and brilliantly.  I’ve now shown the video many times in workshops.

Operational context categoryThe Tyranny of Metrics – not only did I borrow the book, from the library, and read it all, I also wrote a blog on it

Brain stuff categoryMiniature Guide to Critical Thinking, Concepts, and Tools – I wrote a blog on this too and I’m also now using the tools, frameworks, and info available on the Critical Thinking Foundation website – so well worth the download.

Have you read all or part of any of the books I downloaded sample chapters of?  If so, what did you learn from them?  Let me know.

Image:  Kindle logo

Ten questions

Most Tuesdays, work permitting, I take a writing class at my local adult education centre.  The first part of the class is a 20 minute or so writing assignment.   Although I didn’t make the class last Tuesday (work commitment) Paul, the tutor, sent me the task.

Based on The Guardian’s Q & A in which ‘Public figures supply the answers to our searching questions’, Paul sent a list of 18 questions with the instruction: ‘Answer 10 of the questions with single sentences and then pick one to write on it for 10 mins.’

Thinking about the assignment, I realised that each week, at the end of my blog, I ask a question.  So, rather than using Paul’s list, I decided I would take 18 of my questions and, as instructed, answer 10 of them with a single sentence, then pick one of them – one of the 10, I think, but he’s not here to clarify that – to write about for 10 minutes.  Paul is very strict on timekeeping and we all obediently stop writing when he calls time, so I’ll do the same.  (Normally I spend at least twice as much time looking at interesting links as I do writing.)

I decided to take the first eighteen weeks of 2018 – which took me to Mid-May – and use those questions.  (If you want to look at the related blog, go to my website and filter by month/year).   I’ll answer 10 of them with one sentence.  Here goes – I’ve listed the 18 and put my chosen ten in bold, with my answers in italics:

  1. What organization design knowledge do you think is provisional?  I’m not sure we have organisation design ‘knowledge’ only theories, practices, assumptions, and methods.
  2. What’s your view on gratitude as a business capability?
  3. What masterclasses would you offer organization designers?
  4. Do you think science fiction can inform organization design?(There’s another sci-fi question a couples of weeks later so I’ve omitted the second one).  Yes, definitely and it should as it offers the prospect of states beyond those we typically imagine in an organisational setting.
  5. What’s your view on the HR BP role?
  6. What’s your view on hostile design?I think there’s an unfortunate tendency for organisation designers to be ‘servants of power’ rather than ‘owners of power’ which in many cases does result in hostile design.
  7. Do you think employees need to share organizational values?No, I did think that at one time, but I have changed my views on organisational values which often times are not adhered to even by those who promulgated them in the first instance.
  8. What toolkits are in your [OD] toolkit?
  9. What are you making sense of this week? I’m trying to work out how we can measure the additive impact, if any, of planned change on people’s normal day to day workload.
  10. How would you assess the degree of complexity in a business function and what is manageable for one Director?
  11. What do you think you can expect as you move from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role? (Or vice versa) A very different power dynamic – an internal consultant, regardless of expertise, can only influence while an external consultant – also regardless of expertise – is viewed as authoritative and worth paying attention to.
  12. What are your project do-ability criteria? My main criterion is to have a very good project manager working with me, because without one the whole piece of OD work could easily remain at the design stage and never make it into implementation.
  13. Do you think that the outcomes of OD & D work can be identified and then converted into useful proxy measures to show ROI? Yes, I’m sure they can and I’m still not sure quite how to do that –  it’s something that I’m still working on.
  14. What are your OD sacred cows?
  15. What’s your view of business v digital transformation?
  16. How would you, or are you, bridging the academic/practitioner organization design gap to help ensure elegant organization design?
  17. Do you think advancing technologies will impact organisation design? Yes and we are already seeing that both in the way we ‘do’ organisation design and in the way organisation designs are changing.
  18. 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? Unseeing is not noticing what is happening in the context and being alert to the possibilities, challenges, opportunities, understanding that really seeing would offer – too much of organisational life is blinkered by assumptions and legacy.

Now I get 10 minutes to write on one of them and I’ll put the links in afterwards.  It’s 15.03 timer is set!   The question of hostile design is one that becomes increasingly relevant as working contracts change and technology encroaches more and more deeply into the design of organisations.   Take a look at the gig economy,  zero hours contracts, employees having microchip implants (albeit voluntarily at this stage), and human job roles being superseded by automated processes. One of our design dilemmas is how to work with the increasingly complex tech/human interface.

In the CIPD workshop I facilitated last week, I posed 4 scenarios (thank you Paul Levy for letting me use them) one of which was ‘organisation designers working in a world where they are facilitating cyborgs, developing implanted employees, meeting inside the matrix and led by robotic leaders’.  This may sound far fetched today but we see the seeds of it already e.g. in cyborgs , implanted employees, and robo work-allocators.  Tech can feel/be hostile to people – look at the twitter trolls where the tech is mediating the hostility, but this doesn’t have to be the case. How do we design organisations that manage the tech human interface in a way that values the humans?

Ok – that’s 10 minutes of pure writing.  Now I’m going to go back and put in links to some of the points in the 10 minutes worth.

If you were given this list of 18 questions which one would you choose to spend 10 minutes writing on?  Let me know.

Image Just Questions 10, Mark Fearn

What about critical thinking?

This week I’m facilitating a workshop at the CIPD conference I submitted the presentation and materials a few weeks ago and now I’m looking at them to develop thinking I had then. (One of the issues of living in the VUCA world is that it’s very easy to forget things in past given the swirls of more things coming in).   Anyway, I’m relieved to see that I mention critical thinking and reflection as two of the necessary OD & D/change skills needed.

Critical thinking and reflection seem to me to be in short supply in many organisations.  In two forums last week I came across the puzzlement OD&D consultants feel when they realise that their clients are not interested in any ‘lessons learned’ discussion on projects. (See this article on organisational learning .  The consultants were equally puzzled by clients looking for ‘the answer’ when, in most cases, there isn’t one but several possible answers.  Each of these possible answers has pros and cons which require thoughtful discussion on what trade-offs to make in order to arrive at a wise choice given current understanding of the situation.  Sadly, the consultants said they didn’t feel that clients would invest time in this type of discussion, and several of the consultants said they wouldn’t feel confident challenging the client on this.

The question that came out of those forums was – how do we encourage critical thinking in organisational life?  It’s the right question to ask, I think.

I just read an article ‘Elon Musk is raising an important question about job titles:

‘This week, in a classic Muskian publicity stunt, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, announced that he no longer had a job title at the electric-car manufacturer.

He had deleted his honorifics from his Tesla bio page, where he previously had been listed as chairman, product architect, and CEO, he said in a tweet . “I’m now the Nothing of Tesla. Seems fine so far,” he wrote.’

Many of us have heard of Elon Musk, seen reports of his tweets and behaviour, and formed an opinion of him.

In the same article reporting Musk’s action the author mentioned the Brightline Initiative’s Strategy@Work conference.  At this, Roger Martin outlined his view of several major shifts in the way we organize, or ought to organize, work.  ‘Let’s get rid of jobs,’ he told the audience, and instead give everyone a portfolio of projects.’ Someone in the audience asked Martin if this would just be a recipe for chaos.  ‘His response, in a nutshell: Companies already operate in chaos. They’re sprawling and multi-layered, communications break down between levels and departments, strategy becomes meaningless.’

Martin’s statement offers first, a challenge to the conventional idea of jobs (I’ve assumed a link to job descriptions and titles here, picking up on Musk’s action) and second makes a provocative point that companies operate in chaos.

It’s easy to respond to both Musk’s and Martin’s points with an immediate view, an opinion, or a soundbite response to either of these points. (See, for example, the responses to Musk’s tweet).

It’s much less easy to think, as the Foundation for Critical Thinking urges,  ‘open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, assumptions, implications, and practical consequences’.  It’s hard to explore open-mindedly Elon Musk or Roger Martin’s views if we cling on to our assumptions – the taken-for-granted beliefs about the world.

In their cases we might hold assumptions that job titles, and jobs/job descriptions matter, and that organisations are not chaotic.  As Stephen Brookfield says ‘Assumptions give meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do’.  He makes the point that we instinctively resist challenging our assumptions – ‘Who wants to clarify and question assumptions she or he has lived by for a substantial period of time, only to find they don’t make sense?’   (See also his article So exactly what is critical about critical reflection?)

In organisational life we are often busy leaping on or off burning platforms, looking across for blue oceans , trying to recolour ourselves teal and following north stars.   This activity not only doesn’t leave much time for critical thinking and reflection but also may well work against our own best long-term interests.

In his book ‘The Answer to How is Yes’ Peter Block shows that many standard solutions and improvement efforts, reinforced by most of the literature, keep people paralyzed. He ‘offers a new way of thinking about our actions that helps free us from being controlled by the bombardment of messages about how we should live and act’.

Both holding onto assumptions and jumping on bandwagons are blocks to critical thinking, and much of ‘normal life’ also omits critical thinking.  In the view of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, ‘much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.’

Given the context in which key socio-economic and earth system trends are ‘going exponential – for better and worse’.  (See the UN Global Compact Project Breakthrough )  we can’t afford shoddy thinking, but even as we recognise this we seem unable to do anything about doing enough criticial thinking in day to day organisational life to bring the adaptability, responsiveness, creativity, innovation and resilience to handle the exponential, messy, complex, and ‘deep craziness’ that we’re now in.

For well argued reasons why much more critical thinking is essential, listen to a BBC radio programme where ‘Mariella Frostrup and a panel of expert contributors discuss the value of critical thinking and how to nurture it in children and young people’.

As the BBC programme says, there is evidence that critical thinking skills can be learned and developed and there are many routes to this.  The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a series of miniature guides to it as well as a number of related resources.  FutureLearn offers short, free on-line programme Logical and Critical Thinking,  Coursera has Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age  Or rather than a coures, look at the five TED talks related to critical thinking.

Earlier this week a John Scharr quote dropped into my in-box.

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

We need deep critical thinking to create and make good paths.  Do we have enough critical thinking going on in our organisations?  If not, how do we get enough?  Let me know.

Image:  Critical Thinking, Ricardo Colugnatti


Agile: is it hype?

In January 2014 I wrote a blog ‘Designing for Agility’. I’ve just re-read it to see if/how my thinking has shifted since then.  I’ve been prompted to do this because, this week I again heard myself saying again that ‘agile’ – as applied to organisational design and effectiveness – is a massive hype that has, as the authors in one article point out, ‘entered the business lexicon like few other terms in recent memory.’

In 2014, when I wrote the blog, I don’t think I heard/read the words agile/agility as much as I had by 2016  when I was reading that agility has become a ‘meaningless buzzword …  It’s another word business leaders use to sound dynamic and edgy (often while laying off staff), like disruptive, innovative or even intrapreneur’.

Another two years have passed and the rate of usage of the words agile and agility seem  to be still shooting up.  Is it even more meaningless now?  Are there degrees of meaningless-ness?  Has the hype has overtaken good sense?

One of the issues around the meaninglessness is because definitions around agile/agility ‘remain loose, situational, informal, confused, and sometimes non-existent.’ (Chris Worley’s words). This lack of definition is one of the issues that makes me uneasy about the agile  ‘movement’.

Lucy Kellaway, takes a sideswipe at agility in her (2009) FT management guff column, saying,  ‘The latest Harvard Business Review contains an 11-page article telling us that the best way to survive financial meltdown and global recession is to be like Muhammad Ali when he met George Foreman for their Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire. What the renowned boxer’s performance teaches us about thriving in turbulent markets is that we must all be agile and we have to absorb blows. The point is helpfully summarised by various charts, diagrams and a two-by-two matrix with agility up one side and absorption along the other.’

Agile may be a meaningless buzzword,  the definitions may be loose, and it’s easy to knock the movement, even so, the intent of it is worth looking at.  It is intended to act in the spirit of the 2001 12-principles Agile Manifesto. However, that’s where another of the issues lies.   There’s a tendency to take aspects of the agile methodology and principles – which were originally devised for a better way of developing software – and try to apply them in a wide range of business contexts and situations, in the hope that by the application of the selected principles the organisation will be(come) more adaptable and responsive to the operating context.

However, as a McKinsey podcast points out ‘that agile is not a menu of things from which you can cherry pick … you need to think of them in a holistic way. You can’t just cherry pick a few of them … it’s a system.’   Saying you’re ‘doing agile’ if you are running daily ‘stand-ups’ is not going to make an organisation ‘agile’.

The band-wagon effect of wanting to be or do ‘agile’, reminds me of similar attitudes to TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, Continuous Improvement, and other methodologies which have emerged over the decades and which were each the ‘flavour of the month’  at some point.  (See a comparison of TQM, Six Sigma and Lean here)

Agile is of the same stock as these – not only because it is a ‘flavour of the month’ but also because it has a similar intent to all these methodologies in aiming to build the adaptability and responsiveness necessary to do well in the emerging context through   plan-do-check-act types of cycle (in agile, often called ‘test and learn’).

In also has roots in other methodologies.   A colleague, asking me what I thought of agile, offered his views: ‘From my fragmented research it seems there is a link [to agile] between ideas from old school socio-technical systems, participative methods, self-managed teams, and distributed leadership (though rarely acknowledged) … fashionably re-packed.’  And in another conversation I had on agile, socio-tech was mentioned as having some similarities to agile.

I am not saying that we should not aim to be adaptable and responsive, to put the customer first or to give workers more autonomy and discretion.  All of that is laudable but it is not new or specifically ‘agile’.   In fact, I don’t think there is much about ‘agile’ that we haven’t discussed, seen, worried about or worked with before, agile is not new or different.  It is well-packaged to look new and different.

Another example, take the recent McKinsey article Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-century organizations, in which the authors discuss nine new leadership capabilities:  Shifting from reactive to creative mind-sets, fostering innovation/collaboration/value creation, helping teams work in new ways, design thinking and business model innovation, applying the principles and practice of agile organisation design, shaping an agile organisational culture.  (We discussed the article on last week’s Organization Design Forum, Global Conversation –  you can register to join these regular global conversations that discuss articles listed in the monthly newsletter).

To me, adjusting for the language of the time, these capabilities are pretty much the same as Deming’s 14 principles of management (published 1982) or the leadership traits that Peter Drucker talked about in his long career.  I can’t really see anything about the capabilities that is ‘new’ or specific to ‘agile’.   Although, if pushed I could agree that ‘design thinking’ is ‘new’ at least in this context, but hardly ‘new’ in the history of design.  (On Design Thinking see a view from Natasha Jen, Design Thinking is Bullsh*t).

If the leadership capabilities and the methodological concepts around ‘agile’ are not new, then what is it that ‘agile/agility’ is promising that we are so entranced by?  In our focus on the buzz we have not examined closely what the promise is and, more importantly, whether it can be delivered on by ‘agile’.   I think we think the ‘agile’ promise is that it will enable us to cope with the utterly different context (geo-political, social, economic, technological, etc) that we face.  And we can’t resist that promise.

In an excellent piece (thanks Stefan for sending it to me), Dude you broke the future, sci-fi writer, Charlie Stross tells us how he used to be able to write good sci-fi by a recipe of ‘90% of the next decade’s stuff is already here today… another 9% of the future a decade hence used to be easily predictable … it’s the 1% of unknown unknowns that throws off all calculations.’ He continues saying, ‘’But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.’

And it’s here that I am alarmed.  I see us jumping on what appears to be a very attractive, agile band-wagon.   Who can resist the McKinsey metaphor, ‘as a gardener, the agile leader might pay attention to creating the fertile soil and environment that will enable growth and creativity to flourish.’?   The metaphor sounds lovely, aspirational even, and that is where we are stuck at the superficial non-critical level of agile’s promise.  We are not thinking deeply and talking reflectively and collectively about the ‘deep craziness’ in which we are living.

This ‘deep craziness’ is one where are lured by the metaphor of ‘creating fertile soil’ and faced with the reality of, ‘A third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year, according to a new United Nations-backed study that calls for a shift away from destructively intensive agriculture.’

Everywhere we look we see multiple world-issues  of this scale that we are ill-equipped to respond to.   

Is what we talk of and practice asAgile’ the route to handling this level of challenge?  Is it hype or does it hold a real and realisable promise?  Let me know.