Who is the client, and do you need one?

‘Start where the client is’ is something I suggest to people who ask what they should do if someone hands them an org chart and asks them to ‘make it like this’.   In fact, it’s my stock response to any similar questions:  common ones are, ‘what happens if the client just wants the answer without any assessment on background work’ or ‘how do you challenge a client who doesn’t value org design expertise?’.   With the phrase, I usually give people a handout adapted from Stephen Brookfield’s article on Four Critical Thinking Processes.  This offers some questions for the consultant to start a discussion with the client.  For example, the first of the four critical thinking processes is: ‘Get some context. Decide what to observe and consider. Related questions help gain awareness of what’s happening in the context of the situation, including values, cultural issues, and environmental influences.’ Questions include:

  • What is going on in this situation?
  • What else do I need to know? What information is missing?
  • How do I go about getting the information I need?
  • What about this situation have I seen before? What is different /dissimilar?
  • What’s important and what’s not important in this situation?

This supposes that there is a client.  But now I’m wondering if organisation design work inevitably needs ‘a client’.   It’s a useful challenge to myself as on the organisation design programmes I facilitate, we spend a fair bit of the first part of the first session discussing, in relation to a short case, the question ‘Who is the client for this piece of organisation design work?’

In real life the client is often not who we (the consultants) think it is.   I’ve been caught out several times in my career by writing a proposal or accepting work from someone without checking carefully enough on his her client ‘credentials’.    I’m still learning to ask whether the person asking me to do the work and who I think is the client:

  • Has got any necessary permissions, support, or backing of the person or team who can make the actual decision whether to proceed with the work or not.
  • Will identify a back-up client in the event that he/she (the original client) ‘disappears’. (In her book The Business of Consulting Elaine Biech provides a checklist of questions for consultants to consider after the first meeting with the client.  Questions include:  Did I determine the primary client?  Did I determine the secondary client and stakeholders? Did I evaluate the client’s expertise and ability to support the effort [over the period that it will take])?
  • Has a plan for managing conflict and disagreement – this especially applies if the client is not a single individual but a leadership team.

Getting this information is critical whether you’re an internal or an external consultant but internal consultants may be able to do organisation design work without having a client – by just starting some design work either by themselves or with the participation of an interested and willing group.

Years ago, I read Debra Meyerson’s book Tempered Radicals.  In the preface she says ‘Tempered Radicals, are people who want to succeed in their organizations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organizations.’  Later, she notes that, ‘Tempered radicals are likely to think ‘out of the box’ because they are not fully in the box. As ‘outsiders within,’ they have both a critical and creative edge. They speak new ‘truths’.  She tells us ‘They are quiet catalysts who push back against prevailing norms, create learning, and lay the ground work for slow but ongoing organizational and social change.’   The book has many examples of people who ‘under the radar’ have changed the shape of their organisations.

As I struggled and failed to find ‘the client’ for a piece of design work that is recognised to be organisationally essential by a body of people I remembered the lessons of the Tempered Radical and realised that I could, and should, start it without a ‘client’.  It is work that I can do from my consultant role using, in Meyerson’s words: ‘several strategies to create change that run the gamut from very quiet and cautious to more explicit and strident.’ I can act by ‘subtly calling into question taken-for-granted beliefs and work practices’.  Acting on my experience (and Meyerson’s reinforcement).  ‘It is everyday acts [that] can create ripples that lead to significant change … a single atypical action sets the stage for others to follow’.

Re-reading an interview with Meyerson I am strengthened by her reinforcing view that sees organizations ‘as organic and evolutionary, which means they are changing all the time. If we think of organizations that way, little nudges in the system can change the network of relationships, stimulate learning, and affect how work gets done. It means that small actions actually matter and that people can provoke change from many places within the organization.’

Seeing (reading) again what I already knew but had suppressed in the conformity of looking for the client I am starting the work with no client but some confidence.  I’m also wondering if I will change my stock response from ‘start where the client is’ to ‘start where the organisation is’.

Do you think you need a client for organisation design work? Can design be done without one?  Let me know.

Image: The Shadow People

Hands across the divide

Weeks ago, Jim sent me three questions that he’s posing to various organization design/development practitioners and some leaders he knows.

  • What is the involvement – ideal and actual – of your most senior leaders in the organisation design work you carry out?
  • What conceptual and practical understanding of organisation should they really have in order to make the right contribution?
  • How would you typify the level and content of the understanding they do have – and how do you try to equip/help them to make the contribution they should?

I haven’t yet got around to answering them, but they suddenly leapt back into mind when I was on a recent call with some members of the Organization Design Community (ODC) where we were discussing three topics.

  • The challenge of the bridge between academics and practitioners
  • The new world of organization design
  • The practical aspects of bridging the gaps between academics and practitioners

I then got a suggestion from someone else that an organization design programme I’m involved with go through the ODC Accreditation process.  Looking at the requirements for this, I learned that:

‘To receive ODC accreditation, a provider’s design course or workshop must meet a set of requirements. These requirements have been jointly developed by leading academics and professionals in the field of organization design. Twenty-two minimum core requirements are contained in three categories:

  • Design Concepts and Principles
  • Design Types
  • Redesign and Change

My first thought was that twenty-two is a lot of ‘minimum core requirements’ but I let that pass as I’m practicing with a meditation tape that tells me ‘it may be a thought, but you don’t have to think it’.

I moved onto other thoughts which I did begin to think – they revolve around Jim’s questions, the ODC conversation, and the accreditation requirements.  What the three have in common are some reflections and questions around the relationship between theoretical concepts and practical application of organization design, and who needs to know what in order to make an effective, informed and value-add contribution to organization design work.

My experience of working with leaders is that, for the most part, they are very impatient with, not to say dismissive of, anything that smacks of theory or academia.  When leaders do organization design work it is still largely based on fiddling around with an organization chart, moving people and reporting lines with little to no reference to design concepts/theories.  (I got a terrific sketch the other day of the ‘make it like this’ variety.  I’m tempted to put it as the image for this blog but won’t).

Happily, I’ve met a few exceptions to this type of leader – usually they’re people who’ve taken courses in organization behaviour or similar, and equally happily I’ve met other leaders who start off with a ‘make it like this’ mindset but are willing to be curious to learn why lines and boxes are not ‘design’ and taking the lines and boxes approach is very unlikely to result in the outcomes they are looking for.

Done thoughtfully, with a knowledge of systems, complexity and behavioural theory, organization design is ‘the ultimate edge … is so critical that it should be on the agenda (along with a professional designer) of every meeting in every single department’ says Tom Peters, (co-author of In Search of Excellence) He goes on to say that ‘Design, like lifestyle, is one of the few differentiating factors, and companies that ignore the power of elegant and functional design will lose.’

Elegant design is not the result of adjusting an organization chart or looking purely in terms of ‘structures’.  It is the result of line-managers and OD consultants – who might be internal or external to the organization:

  • understanding what people on the ODC phone discussion called ‘the framing theories and related skills’ for organization design. (These framing theories and related skills come from academic research).
  • interpreting and converting the framing theories and related skills from a theoretical, research perspective and language to practical and pragmatic design tools and frameworks
  • applying these skilfully and thoughtfully into on the ground organization design work
  • working with academics to refine the theories and develop new theory from careful evaluation of the outcomes of the original thinking.

Making this happen in practice is the challenge.  Here are four ways of joining hands across the divide between academics and business people to the mutual benefit of both.

1.  University research departments partner with an organisation or organisations to conduct research on a specific topic. This could be initiated either way through a ‘call for participation’.  I have done this successfully on three occasions. For example, I commissioned one of the pieces of work described in When the Bases of Social Hierarchy Collide: Power Without Status Drives Interpersonal Conflict 

2.  Someone in each business organization could be the named co-ordinator of relevant research, its dissemination, and its practical application.  I haven’t yet worked in any large organization where there is a comprehensive database of employees taking academic programmes or a method of capturing the dissertations they do and assessing their value in terms of extending or applying their research.  Doing this could result in  cadre high value-add scholar-practitioners developing in the  organization.  See To wear many different hats: how do scholar-practitioners span boundaries between academia and practice?

3. Academics and line managers could work together to discuss how the theoretical research can be converted into practical application and what organizational issues would benefit from research and theory development. This could happen on executive programmes, for example, as one of the activities or learning sessions.  This was a suggestion made on the ODC phone call.

4.  Academics could take their own work and develop it into to a practical tool for application. For example Andrew Sturdy, and Nick Wylie wrote an academic paper Transformers, enforcers, specialists and independents which aimed to ‘identify, describe and evaluate the different ways in which formal collective change agency is structured in specialist units inside 25 diverse organisations.’

The theoretical framing of the paper is based on and developed from Sturdy et al’s earlier research work, see for example Management as Consultancy and Beneath and Beyond Organizational Change Management: Exploring Alternatives

From their paper (Transformers … ) Sturdy and Wylie developed a very short, practical, ‘how to’ guide – Managing Change without the use of external consultants: how to organize consultant managers.  It’s easy to grasp but grounded in theory.  I’m using it as a discussion tool with line managers and executive teams as we consider establishing a change function.

How would you, or are you, bridging the academic/practitioner organization design gap to help ensure elegant organization design?   Let me know.

Image  Hands Across the Divid© Copyright zoocreative and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Pointed sticks

A friend of mine is a volunteer at one of the UK’s National Trust houses.  He goes each Wednesday and is one of the ‘outdoor team’.  That team is rather scornful of the ‘indoor team’, who apparently spend their day polishing.  The outdoor team does real things.   Last week he made 27 pointed sticks.

That’s the first time in over two years of his volunteering that I’ve heard of a day making pointed sticks.  I instantly thought of the Monty Python sketch which I thought was about pointed sticks but on re-listening turns out to be more concerned with Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit although pointed sticks get a couple of mentions. Maybe he was making pointed sticks so visitors to the National Trust home could defend themselves against the apples grown in the orchard there.  I got curious about pointed sticks.

This began to feel like a day in my working life.  I’m trying to find out what the problem (or opportunity) is and it’s not that easy.   I almost leapt into assumptions.

Assumption 1: He was making pointed sticks.  This must be for defence or some kind of territorial impulse or wish to achieve advantage over someone else or for a re-enactment battle.   I thought it a bit like the ‘sharp elbows’ that described the Ford culture, among others.  Although, I didn’t go quite as far as thinking that the outdoor team was defending themselves against the indoor team – perhaps armed with spray polish – but it did occur to me.

Assumption 2: The pointed stick activity was a self-contained, bounded activity.  There were no handover points or decisions or delegated authorities from/to other parts of the process.

However, I recognised I might be making assumptions and reverted to questions– open, naturally, in the best consultant mode.  I discovered that the pointed sticks were part of a larger process.   I asked him if he could tell me where his activity was in the process and what happened on each side of his bit.

However, he was only really clear about his own role. Make pointed sticks.   He vaguely knew that other members of the outdoor team were bundling up sticks, while a further team was liaising with the Environment Agency.   But he didn’t know what for.   He had an idea it was about erosion and the river banks.  I noted the lack of clarity and common, shared purpose that is the hallmark of high performance working and left it there for the moment.

He went into a riff on how difficult it was to make pointed sticks without the proper equipment.  This is a story I have heard many times as I investigate work processes – people are trying to do things without the right equipment and/or information.   In his case, he had to improvise, show initiative, and do a workaround.   His first attempt was with a surform (too blunt), second with an axe (not easy to manipulate), third with a handsaw (no benchsaw available).  He stuck with the last telling me the issues with this solution and how a ‘giant pencil sharpener’ would have been the ideal tool for the job.

I enjoyed this story of his finding his own solution.   It told me that his manager recognises the value of empowering people.   She just wanted the job done, she was outcomes focused.  In fact, she rewarded him with the accolade ‘You’re my man’, when he showed her his work.   It also confirmed my view that the person who does the job knows what is needed to do it well.

However, requesting or suggesting that the ‘higher ups’ get a giant pencil sharpener wasn’t an option – volunteers aren’t part of the pay-roll so, like contractors and contingent workers, don’t have an organisational voice although they contribute to the organisation.    He could put his idea into the suggestion scheme, but these schemes don’t have a high success rate.

Unfortunately, the lack of proper equipment meant that he didn’t reach his target of 48 pointed sticks during his shift.  But, again his manager was understanding and said she would give the remainder of the task to the volunteer coming the following day.  (Incidentally,  he didn’t know why the target was 48).

Worth noting was that the manager recognised that not having the right equipment is costly.  It’s regrettable that all too frequently organisational budgeting processes sacrifice up front investing for paying far more than the investment price later.

As my friend pointed out, having a bandsaw (or giant pencil sharpener) would have meant he could have done all 48 pointed sticks in a tenth of the time it took him to craft 27.  It would have freed him up for other, perhaps higher value, work.  Of course, he’d have to have the skills and capabilities for other work.  Automating a worker’s task does not mean that the worker involved can be deployed on something else.

Realising I wouldn’t get the whole story, or even the process flow, with interdependencies, handoffs, and decision points from him and curious about ‘why pointed sticks’ I went off to find out more from the clues that I had.  Sensemaking is a necessary skill for organisation designers to practice.

A short trawl around the internet told me that the people bundling sticks were making ‘fascines’ and the pointed sticks were to anchor the fascines along the river banks to prevent erosion.   The Environment Agency is helping organisations that are having issues with water flow, learn about and implement natural and sustainable water flow control .   My curiosity satisfied I asked him what next week’s task was.  It’s ramps for cygnets.

What are you making sense of this week?  Let me know.

Image: Brushwood fascines

Internal and external OD & D consulting

A friend has just asked me what she can expect moving from being an internal to being an external consultant in the field of organisation development and design (OD & D) and how she should prepare herself for the move.

It’s too easy to look at two-column tables that highlight the differences.  I have one from Gary McLean’s book Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance . This tells me, for example that internal consultants ‘know the organisational culture better than an external can ever know it’ while external consultants ‘do not have pre-knowledge of the organisational culture, so do not enter the process with any preconceived notions.’   And, ‘[Internal consultants] have relationships established that can get cooperation more quickly’, while external consultants are ‘Often given more respect by insiders because they are not known except by reputation’.  You can see another table adapted from Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development here.

At first glance these differentiations look ok but take a more critical look and you’ll see several assumptions around the statements. For example, can we safely assume that external consultants do not come to an organisation with preconceived notions?

Additionally, the lists appear binary – know the culture/don’t know the culture.  In terms of giving support to someone making the transition from internal to external consulting, the statements are not that useful. They are superficial observations not actionable insights that would help my friend get to grips with a different take on what is often perceived to be a similar role.  Consultancy.UK, for example, states, ‘An internal consultant is, at first glance, just like an external consultant: a professional that is hired to solve an organisational problem and implement the solutions in order to improve the performance of an organisation.’

More importantly these types of comparisons don’t address how:

  1. Theories and approaches to OD & D are evolving
  2. Changes are being made to way the OD & D is being ‘done’ in organisations (assuming it is ‘do-able’ see last week’s blog)
  3. The evolution of theories of OD & D and the way it is done has a consequential impact on the role of internal and external OD & D consultants and the relationships and interdependencies they are part of

O & D is about changing aspects or the whole organisation.  As Sturdy and Wylie find ‘change has become normalised or business as usual in many contexts’ and, to paraphrase, that rationalist theories that suggest that ‘change’ is a ‘thing’ amenable to linear, planned and structured approaches, is shifting towards theories that change is complex, ‘fragmented and incoherent’.

This evolution is leading to thinking that OD & D is less of specialist/expert capability and more of a generic leadership/management capability,  or even a whole organisation one which is ‘dispersed and decentred’ in a number of ways including through various individuals, formal teams and informal groups.

If OD & D consultants are to migrate from structured approaches e.g. Appreciative Inquiry’s four step model of discovery, dream, design, destiny/deliver, and if OD & D is becoming accepted as both a management capability and an organisational capability then what does that mean for the expert OD & D consultant?

It means thinking about a different ‘offer’.  This is a challenge to management consultancy in general, as managers become less commanders, and more consultants themselves.  McKinsey, for example, is one consulting company changing its offer.  It ‘is targeting medium-sized companies, which would not have been able to afford its fees, by offering shorter projects with smaller “startup-sized” teams. As it chases growth, the firm is also doing things it used to eschew as being insufficiently glamorous. In 2010 it moved into business restructuring and it has also set up a global strategy “implementation” practice. That is a far cry from the days when its consultants stuck mainly to blue-sky thoughts in their ivory towers.’

This shifting landscape me wondering what I can tell my friend to expect as she moves from internal to external OD & D consulting.   Some thoughts:

  • On the whole context shift that I outlined above she can expect to have to keep a close watch on organisations she is interested in a see how their approach to hiring and using external consultants is changing, although for this she’d have to have access to insider knowledge.
  • She can expect to have to keep her own skills honed as the theories and practices of OD & D change.  I wrote on this topic in 2014 and re-reading the piece I can see an update is necessary as skills required have moved on since then.
  • As OD & D becomes a capability reliant less on individual expertise and more on collective capability she can expect to act more as a coach, mentor and support to managers (assuming her knowledge is current or even in the vanguard of thinking).
  • In terms of her own job satisfaction she can expect to feel a range of emotions that are different from those she might have felt as an internal consultant.  There’s the financial insecurity, the worry about business development, and the isolation if you go-it-alone.  These types of downsides are balanced against the autonomy to accept or reject work, the ability to develop skills and experience by working with a variety of organisations, and the opportunity to meet and build relationships with more people than you typically meet as an internal consultant.

What do you think she can expect as she moves from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role?  Let me know.

Image:  Henry Moore, Upright Internal External Form