Interfaces and interdependencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Habits of a systems thinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the initial stock:

Module 1:  Big picture thinking 

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

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

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

Module 2: Thinking about thinking

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

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

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

Module 3: Cause and effect

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

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

Module 4: System acupuncture

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

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

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

Module 5: Organisational learning

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

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

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

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


Organizational health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: 15Five


Self organising volunteers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We don’t have time for this stuff.’

‘We have no help.’

This stuff isn’t working.’

‘This stuff isn’t relevant.’

‘You’re not walking the talk.’

‘This stuff is ****.’‘

‘You don’t understand what we do.’

‘Who’s in charge of doing this?’

‘We keep reinventing the wheel.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Self-organising robot swarm

An analogy to illustrate organisational culture

We’ve been discussing organisation culture and trying to get across the idea that organisations don’t have one culture, they’re a patchwork of culture within an overall frame and we should both expect and plan for that.

In my book on Organisation Culture, I illustrated the natural variation in culture across business units, teams, and locations by using an analogy.  Here’s the section from the book.  (I’ve adapted it a bit).

One way of getting to an understanding of organisation culture is to consider it as analogous to something else – climate and weather is a good analogy.  Following the Koppen Climate Classification System the world is divided into 5 major climate zones (analogous to an organisation).  Within each of the zones are sub-zones (analogous to an organisation’s business units, or functions).  Within each sub-zone are the daily weather patterns (analogous to teams within business units/functions).  Climate and weather are inseparable from each other.

NASA explains the difference between weather and climate as

 ‘Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long periods of time.

The difference between weather and climate is that weather consists of the short-term (minutes to months) changes in the atmosphere. Most people think of weather in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, visibility, wind, and atmospheric pressure.  In most places, weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season.

Climate, however, is the average of weather over time and space. An easy way to remember the difference is that climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with pop-up thunderstorms.’

Using this analogy, you can see that an organisation level you could label the culture. You might say, for example that it is collaborative:  the rewards, metrics, other infrastructure elements may act as a framework to reinforce collaboration.  Within this framework, the way business units reflect collaboration may feel different from one unit to another.  Further even within one business unit at the team level day-to-day levels collaboration will vary – just as the weather does.

The climate/weather analogy is helpful when thinking about organisational culture because it represents culture in two-time measures – longer term and short term/immediate – and it paints the picture of local differences or patterns of culture within an overall set of patterns.

This climate/weather example illustrates how people make sense of the world around them by responding to patterns that they experience over time.  People make judgements, even in the absence of weather forecasts, on what clothing to wear and what accessories to take (hat, umbrella) by looking at the sky, feeling the air temperature, listening to wind noise, seeing the light level, noticing what other people are wearing, and so on.  They are making these decisions based on their experience of weather patterns.  This works well when they stay in the same climate zone, because the weather patterns vary only within certain parameters.

For example, in the UK we know that in January it’s a good idea to carry a hat, gloves, scarf and umbrella even if we don’t know that we’ll use each of them every day.    If we go to a different climate zone, that we’re not familiar with, we have to respond to different weather patterns and it’s much harder to make good choices on what to wear or bring in case of weather variation, as this blogger shows:

‘Before living in San Francisco, I definitely had no idea what to pack for a trip to San Francisco. It’s California, so it must be warm, right?

Wrong. There’s a little thing those of us who live here call Karl. He’s the fog that engulfs our city, bringing winds and low temperatures. The fog that covers the sun and inspires countless weekend getaways to wine country. He’s the reason why you’ll find hundreds of unwitting tourists snapping selfies on Fisherman’s Wharf in freshly bought San Francisco hoodies.’

Living in one climate people learn to make sense of the day to day weather.  Similarly, in organisations people make sense of an organisational culture by picking up the patterns of the organisation – things like what type of person gets promoted, how offices are allocated, what gets noticed, who talks to whom … . Where these patterns can be discerned across the whole organisation (equivalent to a climate zone) they are usually reinforced in policies, performance management systems, common visual symbols or décor and so on. And these may vary somewhat by sub-zone/business unit level.  At the ‘weather’ level – within a team the patterns are local (as in weather) depending on the nature of the work, the personalities of the managers, and so on, but can be really hard to get to grips with.

The experience of a long-serving executive moving from the marketing department to the strategic planning department of the same organisation illustrates this.  She made the comment “Marketing was very gregarious and outgoing. Here it is unbelievably intense”. She found this change difficult to adapt to commenting. “It was a gruelling experience at first.  I nearly gave up several times. What saved me was knowing at the broader level how the organisation worked and knowing where to go to get things done.”  This executive’s experience of the climate of the organisation helped in her initiation to local ‘weather’ conditions.

People who move from one organisation to another (as from one climate zone to another) have to get to grips with not only the climate-level change but also the local/team ‘weather’ patterns. And this can be very hard indeed.

Another executive, recruited from outside but to the same organisation as in the previous example, when asked six months into the role if he felt attuned noted:

“Not completely. I want to bring some fresh things in.  But I’ve had to adapt.  I’ve had to learn to fit into the culture and accept some of its strangeness if I’m going to be accepted.  For me there’s a bit too much consensus and discussion: meetings for two hours are not what I’m used to.  But I need to be careful. I need to understand why people do what they do. I’m confident enough now at the whole organisation level, but the local departmental differences are still worrisome to me”

Thinking of organisational culture as climate zone, sub-zone and weather which are interlinked and inseparable means we can recognize and work with local variations.  It gives the idea that an organisation does not have a single ‘culture’ but has patterns of culture swirling within a frame. It also suggests that trying to change the culture in the short term may have little impact on the overall patterns in the longer term.  On the other hand, they may, in the same way that a local volcanic eruption, or cutting down a forest, can have both an immediate effect on the weather and a longer-term effect on the climate.

The climate/weather analogy worked in our discussion – what do you think of it?  Let me know.



Work below the waterline

If you’re working with people who are being ‘restructured’ and are now in the process of transitioning to the new structure, it’s worth looking at the report The impact of restructuring on employee well-being: a systematic review of longitudinal studies.  I remembered it in a meeting I was in recently where we were discussing the movement, due to a restructure,  of people from one part of the organisation to another.   The conversation stuck at the practical logistics – number of people, letters they would get about their move, dates, new reporting lines/managers, and so on.  There was no discussion of their feelings, emotions, experiences of being moved, although someone noted that many people had left knowing that they would be moved and voting with their feet on it.

Co-author, of the report just mentioned, Karina Nielsen reminds us that ‘Restructuring is a significant characteristic of working life in both private and public companies and a large part of the working population will face one, but probably more restructuring events in their career. It is therefore important to understand the effects of restructuring and the impact of the way the process is managed on employee well-being, in order to reduce the negative effects for employees who continue to work at the organisation afterwards’.

She continues, ‘Our findings show that it doesn’t really matter whether people are laid off or not, it still has a negative impact. Those employees who stay on at the organisation might have to do tasks they are not familiar with and they don’t necessarily get the training. They need other competencies.’

These more negative responses are harder to deal with, and are often side-lined or ignored, as conversations stay focused on the way things are ‘supposed to be’.  Just as was going on in the meeting I was in.  But ignoring them is a risk. The tangled mass of informal systems, processes and interactions that frequently contravene, sometimes contradict, and often overrule what is supposed to be, the formal systems, are what can make or break a restructure.

A common way of visualizing this ‘supposed-to-be + tangled mess’ is as an iceberg. Dan Oestreich, in his blog At the Water-line explains: ‘The top part of the iceberg represents the visible, formal aspects of an organization, such as the stated goals, the technologies, structures, policies, and services of an enterprise. Below the water-line are the covert or so-called “hidden” aspects of an organization, the beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, feelings and values that characterize the real-world interactions from which an organization is also built. If the top of the iceberg represents “the way we say we get things done,” the bottom and larger part is “the way we really get things done.”  ‘

What is usually discussed and informs the ‘way we say things get done’ – is the above the waterline stuff: for example, written charts and hierarchies, role descriptions, strategic plans, disciplinary and other procedures, workflow maps, etc.

What is not discussed as much, is ‘the way we really get things done’ the below-the-waterline stuff of feelings, emotions, values, norms, interactions (positive and negative) and day-to-day ways of doing things.

The deeper the elements below the waterline, the harder it is to see, interpret and work with them. However, everyone is aware of the many different groups of people engaged in collaborations, conflicts and conversations to define the agenda of the organization and, in doing so, shape its course of action.  As one writer says:

Some cultures are more open than others when it comes to expressing inner thoughts and feelings. Most situations have a ‘subtext’ of unspoken thoughts – the kind of conversation we are accustomed to keep inside our heads.

This was illustrated in the film Annie Hall, when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton meet at a party and the verbalized conversation between them is subtitled with their private, internal thoughts. Needless to say, the open conversation and the private ones are quite different, but it is interesting how their non-verbal communication reveals some of their inner thoughts.

Of course, there are inner thoughts which it is better not to reveal, but often it is the inner conversation which directs our actions, and for that reason we need to find ways of expressing the subtext openly, and encouraging others to reveal theirs.

Although it is possible to force through a change without acknowledging these inner conversations, the consequences are usually disruptive and hard to handle. It is in the transitioning phase – when the movement from/to is happening – that the below-the-waterline of the organization is the most powerful.

Successful transitioning from current state to planned state requires looking below the waterline – surfacing and working with it.  Without open discussion defensive behaviour, blocking, non-compliance and other potential showstoppers are likely to emerge.

There are some techniques and tools you can use to to do this.  Two that I use are:

Peter Senge’s ‘Left Hand Column’ activity, which is helpful in workshops.

Acting like a corporate anthropologist – developing and using skills in systematic ‘on the ground’ observation and ethnographic methods to comment on what’s going on.  Ways of doing this include:

  • being and staying aware of responses to transitioning through feedback mechanisms like ‘pulse checks’ of morale, motivation and productivity (note these may record what people think they ought to say not what they want to say);
  • aiming to understand what is going on through dialogue, interaction and empathy;
  • working responsively to select and use appropriate tools and techniques that help people in transitioning;
  • monitoring what is working and what is not, and adjusting accordingly;
  • assessing how people are using technology and other tools in the course of the work day;
  • enquiring how workers extract meaning (or not) from their work;
  • noticing where conflicts arise and what causes them;
  • ‘valuing the continuous process of people’s day-to-day interactions’ as they come to terms with the transitioning phase – that is, the informal conversations, the political realignments and the role of informal leaders;
  • And, as Chris Rodgers says, ‘stimulating and participating in meaning-making conversations, and seeking to mobilize the actions of people around important emerging themes during this period’

Key to mobilizing support from below the waterline, Nielsen (mentioned earlier) finds, are ‘the characteristics of the restructuring process, such as fairness of procedures, communication and change management [which] in general have been found to have an impact on worker well-being. Some groups of workers react less negatively, for example if they have more chance of influencing the process’

Much of the ‘noise’ about the design goes on below the waterline of the organization. Taking the anthropologist’s perspective and using their skills gives organisation designers and line managers the chance of finding out what is actually going on, developing interventions, and evaluating the intervention process and its impact on the effectiveness of transitioning to the new design.

How do you work ‘below the waterline’ in restructures you are involved in?  Let me know.

NOTE:  This piece is an edited extract from Chapter 7 of my book, Organization Design the Practitioner’s Guide.


Image: The Sculpture Coralarium. Sirru Fen Fushi, Maldives, Jason deCaires Taylor


Blog comments and treasure troves

Happy New Year.  It’s January 1, and traditionally time for making resolutions and commitments.  (I got stuck in wondering what the difference is between a resolution and a commitment and found this interesting sounding book, The Logic of Commitment).

Thinking about resolutions, my mind wandered to my very frequent thought that I must/should/ought to respond to people who comment on my blogs.  Each of my blogs ends with the invitation, ‘Let me know’, and often people do.  I get comments posted on LinkedIn, on my own website and through emails.   I read them all, they’re helpful to me at least, and I appreciate getting them.

I feel churlish and anxious in not replying to the public ones – though I invariably reply to email comments.  There’s really only one reason I don’t reply: I don’t have enough time to give each one a thoughtful response.   And a quick ‘thank you for your comment’ response, doesn’t seem sufficient.

Now, I’m wondering if I should I resolve (or commit) to respond to any comments I receive in 2019, (and what to do about all the ones I haven’t responded to in 2018 and before that) or alternatively stop saying ‘Let me know’, or switch off the comment box and not feel the churlishness (but also lose the value in the comments) or come up with something else that isn’t quite so binary.

To see what others do I took a look at HBRs most popular 8 articles this week.  Only one of the 8 had no comments. The rest had between 3 and 16 with an outlier one which had 25.  Blog authors varied in whether they responded or not.  Most did not. Only 2 of the 8 blogs had a response from the author in which they were responding to a posted comment.

Then I looked at what the prevailing advice is.  There are lots of differing views on the pros and cons of responding to comments. A well-balanced piece discussing disabling the comments feature, with data to support, asks the question ‘With no clear consensus from the content marketing community, how are you supposed to decide what to do with the comments on your own blog?’ and concludes ‘Since blog comments don’t have a huge effect on your traffic, they don’t have a huge effect on your revenue either. …  Comments can be used to further relationships with your existing readership, provide social proof, or to elicit feedback. … it is completely up to your own personal preference [whether you disable comments or not].’

An idea I have, that is somewhere between not responding to any, responding to some/all, or switching off the comments feature is to take an arbitrary date – maybe a month after I’ve posted the blog and at that point draw on all the comments to synthesise/interpret them in relation to the blog topic. And that activity might become a blog topic in itself.

I came across a piece in the Journal of Organisation Design that does that, for a suite of journal articles: ‘An Interpretative Synthesis in Three Themes’ where author Richard Burton says ‘I was asked by JOD to monitor the discussion and identify the broad organization design themes that emerged [from the inaugural issue of the Journal of Organisation Design]’.

Maybe doing that for each blog that had a reasonable number of comments would be useful to organisation design practitioners (and others)?

Aiming to get to my view on the answer to this question I took a look at the 52 blogs I wrote during 2018 – one per week.  I post each one on my own website and on LinkedIn.  Looking only at LinkedIn, the blogs that got both the most comments and the most views were:

The blog Agile: is it hype? got a higher number of comments, but not as many views as some other blogs – 29 (265).

I re-read A Big Issue and all the comments it got. It’s about systems thinking.  I followed all the links and references people commenting have put in.  It turns out to be a treasure trove of views, ideas and references on systems thinking from a diversity of perspectives. The trove includes:

On Pete’s blog, Bruce Kay – someone following the discussion and commenting himself – summarises the discussions saying, ‘Thank you all for a very entertaining and illuminating discussion on the merits of Systems Thinking. In the following paragraphs I captured some notes … ‘

Also, Pete fostered the discussion by responding to every comment in supportive and questioning ways which kept it going.

My conclusion to this limited research is that thoughtful comments provide a rich source of additional information/resources on a blog topic.  Someone fostering the discussion by responding to and extending each comment adds richness. (I’ve done this when I’ve been teaching on-line courses but not seen it done before on blogs).  If there are sufficient comments it might be worth synthesising and interpreting them.

I’m still thinking over how I should approach the comments on my own blogs.  Any ideas?  Let me know.

Image: No comment graffiti