Hostile organisation design

The Big Issue of 13 February 2018, has an article on hostile design.  It highlights ‘the use of architecture that excludes people or has a negative effect on public spaces.’  For example, designing park benches in such a way that people can’t lie down on them.

A couple of days later I read about the ‘ironing board’ seats on new UK trains which have ‘prompted complaints over hard seats, upright backs and low arm rests. One passenger complained of suffering from “numb bum” on the trains.’

The two examples are different, but in the same ball park, the park bench design is intentionally hostile  (see a debate on it here),  whilst the hard seats are probably thoughtlessly hostile (or designed to a cost spec which didn’t allow for more than the bare minimum).

Then I read Leandro Herrero’s daily thought on the tyranny of metrics where he quotes the blurb from Jerry Muller’s book on the topic.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I have now read a review of it, which concludes:

‘Many of us have the vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgement, and rewarding those who know how to play the system. Muller’s book crisply explains where this fashion came from, why it can be so counterproductive and why we don’t learn.’

(I’ve also ordered the book from my excellent public library).

Organisational metrics are often both intentionally and thoughtlessly hostile.  Take, for example a common call centre operatives performance metric ‘average handle time’ i.e. ‘the total average duration of a single call, including hold time, talk time and the follow-up or admin tasks related to that call.’ Its intentional hostile impact is to penalize reps who are efficient but may also take longer calls to help customers through complex problems.  Its thoughtless hostility lies in the fact that ‘it doesn’t tie back customer retention, growth or any other meaningful key performance indicator’ but people are held to it regardless.

Similar metrics rule doctors’ lives and the book Admissions, by Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year is awash with examples of what I am now beginning to think of as hostile organization design – in my definition this covers both intentional and thoughtless hostility.

Having sensitised myself to the hostile design concept, I’m now wondering how useful it is in practice.  Should organisation designers be alerted to hostile design via some equivalence of the ‘empathy suits’ that Ford vehicle engineers and designers put on to help them actually experience what it’s like to be someone aging, or pregnant, or drunk, and trying to drive a car.

The experience of ‘being’ such a user helps them (Ford engineers) design and build vehicles with special needs and limitations in mind, thus going some way to making vehicles easy and pleasant to use regardless of user.   They really do have the third age suit – similar to the MIT AGNES one – and also  the pregnancy suit, and the drugged and drunk suit.

As we design – and I’m including organisation designers, their sponsors and all the organisation’s leaders here – we could try out variations on the ‘employee empathy suit’.  Ones that spring to mind are the ‘pay differential’ suit,  as we design pay systems,  or the 9-box grid suit as we design performance management systems, or the gender bias in recruitment and talent management suit  as we design those systems.

Experiencing life through those suits would highlight what makes systems, processes, policies, and measures employee/customer friendly, and what makes them hostile.

Going back to hostile design/architecture, it is criticised for its manifestation ‘in the form of “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities’ or intervention of other humans.  Thus an anti-sticker sheath or anti-graffiti paint stops street voices.

Using physical design to shape behaviour is very similar to the design ‘nudges’ we are getting from various organisations as we go about our daily lives.   The average handle time mentioned earlier is an example.  Both evoke similar concerns that although design and behavioural nudging can be problematic, in some circumstances it can be useful.

Distinguishing between ‘hostility’ and ‘friendliness’ in design – whether physical or organisational design calls for reflective, ethical consideration.  One ethicist notes that ‘In fact the permissibility of a nudge derives from whether it is being used in an ethically acceptable way, something that can only be explored on an individual basis.  … nudges are justified if they maximise future liberty. Either way the nudging itself is not inherently problematic.’

This notion of differentiating between ‘hostile’ and ‘friendly’ design from an ethical perspective requires not only empathising with the users of the design but also quality collective debate and individual deliberation on the implications and consequences of the design.  These all, I think, are largely missing from organisation design discussions and it is time we brought it into our practice.

What’s your view on hostile design?  Let me know.

Image: Archisuits

Archisuit, designed by Sarah Ross, consists of an edition of four leisure jogging suits made for specific architectural structures in Los Angeles. The suits include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them.

Designing brave

A book my daughter gave me that I’ve started to read time and again to my mother is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. It came out earlier this year and it’s brilliant. The mini-bios, a hundred of them with lovely illustrations, are all of brave women.  Each one, in her own way, defying convention, stereotyping, social expectations, and her own boundaries to demonstrate where bravery, combined with learning, and persistence can take you.

The two (women) book authors themselves show those qualities.  They ‘were told they’d never get the book off the ground, but managed to launch one of the most successful literary crowdfunding appeals ever.’

The fun thing is that the carers in my mother’s care home (90% of them women) enjoy the stories too.  Yet, when we talk about the stories they laugh, disbelievingly, when I suggest they too are brave.  But I think they have brave stories to tell – most of them are from other countries leaving behind families and cultural ties – to work for low pay, cheerfully, lovingly and hard in an underfunded care home with very difficult people to care for.

Are they right to laugh when I say they are brave?  Is bravery, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder:  a subjective attribute?   In calling the rebel girls or the carers ‘brave’ am I making the wrong call?  I’m asking myself this because, in a couple of months, I’m facilitating a conference session ‘Exploring workplace bravery’.  This means I have to design and develop something thought-provoking, engaging, and creative.

This means exploring my own views in order to present an opinion for people to challenge, critique, and work with.  My exploration has taken me, among other places,  to definitions – of boldness, bravery, courage, to asking a philosopher and an ethicist, to a Brene Brown book , and Robert Biswas-Diener’s book on courage .

Then from the exploration comes wrestling my point of view.  I’ve got a lot more terrain to go, but now I have some work-in-progress pointers to work up, each offering good discussion possibilities:

  • Although it’s interesting to learn that courage and bravery are rooted in different languages – courage in Old French, and bravery, not Old French but no real agreement on where. For my purpose, I don’t think it’s worth quibbling on the difference.  Many writers   use the two words synonymously – although others see big differences between them.
  • There isn’t much written on brave organizations. There’s a lot more on brave individuals who may or may not act with social and community support.  But I wonder if there are brave organizations: perhaps some of the activist or humanist organizations speaking out in their differing ways and countries against various contraventions of the Declaration of Human Rights might be brave organizations:  Doctors without Borders comes to mind as one or Human Rights Watch.  But maybe they simply employ some brave people and are not collectively organizationally brave?
  • Some roles and professions require obvious and continuous either physical or mental bravery: fire-fighters, lifeboat crew, tiger tamers risk their lives.  Doctors, judges, care workers, make life and death decisions risking the lives of others.  You can look at a list of jobs that will give you the typical adrenaline rush that accompanies bravery here.
  • Bravery in the roles just mentioned implies both being willing to take risks and/or doing so within a humanitarian moral framework that the risk taker is seeking to uphold. I mentioned the Declaration of Human Rights, but there are many similar moral codes for example six medical virtues (one of which is courage), or The Ethos of the Royal Marines.
  • There’s a lot about brave leadership – but much of this seems to be looking at the senior levels of organizational hierarchies. Look, for example, at the Kellogg School of Management Brave Leader Series. Or the speech ‘Leadership and Bravery’ given by Dame Louise Casey at the UK’s Local Government Association conference 2016.  She ends it saying ‘You are the civic leaders that can help deliver what the country now needs. None of what lies ahead is or indeed need be beyond us. But it will require us to be leaders and to be brave.’ There are many lists of the characteristics of brave leaders. One I like tells us that a brave leader embraces change, stands up for what is right – no matter the cost,  backs herself and her team, even when the going gets tough, takes  calculated risks, tries new things, and charts new territory.
  • Bravery is not just for leaders or heroes, though. ‘It’s also needed for everyday life, for those times when we stretch to express a strength and a courage we didn’t know we had. It’s a resource we draw on whenever we stand up to deal with a crisis, take action to better our lives or to stand up for our opinions and for others.’  And in this aspect organizational protocols and policies too often fail, or choose not, to support people doing just that.  You can see that in some of the experiences and analysis of the #MeToo community.

Where I’ve got to now, is that bravery is expected in some designated occupations, that brave leaders have certain characteristics – of the type shown by the rebel girls I opened with – that bravery is not only for designated occupations, leaders and heroes, but for ordinary people in day-to-day work, and there are many more stories of individual bravery than organizational bravery.

This leads me to ask whether we could design a brave organization and if so, would we want to?  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Be Brave, Create, Repeat