Think Banking

The phrase ‘think-tank’ is relatively familiar.  What a think-tank does, according to The Economist is ‘aim to fill the gap between academia and policymaking. Academics grind out authoritative studies, but at a snail’s pace. Journalists’ first drafts of history are speedy but thin. A good think-tank helps the policymaking process by publishing reports that are as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as journalism. (Bad ones have a knack of doing just the opposite.)’

But my interest today is not in think-tanks but in think banks.  Not the actual Think Bank accounts ‘mainly for customers with poor credit histories or who have struggled financially’ which changed its name in 2012 to Think Money,  but a think bank in terms of your own investment in your thinking.

Imagine we each had a think bank account.  We could then build up the capital gained from reflective conversations, questions and reading that were not aimed at ‘getting the world’s business done, or baking bread, or flying aeroplanes’.  Simon Blackburn in his book Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy argues for the value of ‘reflecting on concepts and procedures and beliefs that we normally just use’.

Invested in well, our individual think bank accounts would have the same outcome as a think tank – a rigorous and accessible point of view/thought process that we could draw on, as Blackburn says, ‘when the going gets tough: when the seas of argument rise, and confusion breaks out’.

During last week I added three things to my think bank account. I’m not sure when I’ll draw on them but they’re there and maybe getting interest.  The first was on ‘additionality’.  That was a term new to me but it made perfect sense as the discussion unfurled.  The person I was talking with defined additionality as calling into being what didn’t exist as part of something and being able measure what value it added to the original thing.

This led me to looking up additionality, and I found a more formal definition than my colleague’s in the Additionality Guide, ‘Additionality is the extent to which something happens as a result of an intervention that would not have occurred in the absence of the intervention.’   The Guide itself offers ‘a standard approach to assessing the additional value of interventions’.

So now in my think bank is info on additionality to mull over + 3 questions to prompt reflection:  What does this Guide offer that could help us measure the effectiveness of organisation design work?  Is subtractionality (I’ve coined this word, I think) as useful a concept as additionality i.e. is what we take away in our organisation design work e.g. policies, or reduction of levels of hierarchy, a value add and thus additionality?  What else can I learn from concepts of additionality?

The second thing that I’ve added to my think bank is from the pull-out section in the Economist: ‘The World if’.  It’s an annual pull-out asking us to imagine various future possibilities.  (Take a look at the 2016 edition that ask the question ‘If Donald Trump was elected’ which came out several months before he was.)

This year there are 10 ‘If’s’ all worth reflecting on.  One that I’ve added to my think bank is ‘If companies had no employees’.  The scene is set in July 2030.  when ‘companies that embraced the shift away from having employees have reaped big gains. They no longer need to pay people to be in the office when demand is slack. They can find the worker with the perfect skills for a task, not just someone willing to have a go. Because individual workers’ output is finely measured, and their proficiency at completing a task becomes part of their online profiles, no one can be lazy and get away with it. Productivity growth has accelerated since the mid-2020s.  Many workers have also benefited. For those with sought-after skills, it can be far more lucrative to flit from contract to contract than to work for a single firm.’

How likely is this scenario, I’m wondering?  At the moment, I think it’s likely and I should be designing organisations to head in this direction, but maybe I should leave the question lying for the moment – banking it for when I have time and information to examine it more closely.  As a thought though – it could form a very good basis for a leadership discussion – if the leaders were willing to give time to it. Many find it difficult to give time to a reflective discussion, even if they know the value of doing so – you may be able to persuade them with some useful tips from How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection.

The third thing I added to my think bank account was a question:  What effect do protests have?  This was prompted by seeing the placards of the Homes and Communities Agency Unite workers beginning a strike over pay,  seeing the tens of thousands in London attending the anti-Trump demonstration, and reading, again in ‘The World If’,  If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated.  A group of us – with varied views – were wrestling with this question and it’s one that’s again relevant to organisation design – could organisational protests spark organisational change and redesign?

There seems to be some evidence that they can spark policy change – but maybe only in the wider societal context? (Think LGBT, or gender equality, for example).   Or maybe there isn’t any real evidence?  I’m not sure, and again it’s in my think bank for investing in further.

Those were the three major deposits into my think bank this week.  But I made a couple of smaller ones.  After a tech conversation I had with someone, he sent me info on Digital Humanism which sounds worth investing thought into as we work with more and more organisational technology and automation.

I got into a further discussion on why we have difficulty with systems thinking (ref my blog last week) and I’m still investing in that one.  Then I read a review plus sample chapter of Matt Haig’s book Notes on a Nervous Planet.  In the book he talks about fear and the way it manifests in society.   Fear is often present in organisations – particularly in risk averse cultures where people fear doing the wrong thing even if there are organisational mantras like ‘fail fast and learn’.  This led me to a question, what to do when I observe that tension in play?

So quite a few think bank deposits this week to ponder, reflect on, and invest in for future returns.  What have you added to your think bank this week?  Let me know.

PS    Thanks to James for the concept of a think bank.

Image: Ancient Roman Banking

Organisation design and national cultures

In the last several months I’ve facilitated organisation design programmes in four countries:  China, Dubai (UAE), South Africa, and UK.  In some of them there have been both that country’s nationals and people from other countries.  Across the programmes I remember representatives from Iran, Zambia, Egypt, America, Canada, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Uganda, and Germany.  There may have been others.

During the last programme someone asked whether I’d noticed national cultural differences in approaches to organisation design.   This question led to quite long discussion on three aspects in particular:

  1. Are some organisational structures more prevalent than others in certain countries?
  2. Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?
  3. What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?

The question on whether some organisational structures are more prevalent than othres in certain countries led us to look at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and see what they could offer as insights.  Does a high score on the Power-Distance dimension, for example, lead to more hierarchical organisational structures in countries with a high score on that?  The Power-Distance dimension ‘deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.  … At 80 China sits in the higher rankings of PDI – i.e. a society that believes that inequalities amongst people are acceptable. The subordinate-superior relationship tends to be polarized’ (China’s ranking on this dimension is  80, United Arab Emirates 90, South Africa 49, UK at 35).

This dimension could lead to the assumption that hierarchical structures are more favoured in China than in the UK.  Obviously, this is a risky assumption – I’d like to know how many multi-national companies adjust their structures in relation to a perceived cultural dimension.   (Either to challenge or reinforce it).   And there are many critiques of Hofstede’s work.  One, well thought-through and frequently cited is the paper by Brendan McSweeney, ‘Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith — a failure of analysis’.  Having done his analysis and discussion he comments on the “on-going unquestioning acceptance of Hofstede’s national culture research by his evangelized entourage”

However, in our case, it led to a rich debate on the relationship of structure (as in organisation chart) to culture and how we recognise the ways in which our cultural biases – conscious or unconscious – influence our guidance of our organisation towards an appropriate structure.

The second question ‘Do different national cultural norms affected the designing process?’  led us again to the power-distance dimension of Hofstede’s model.  This time applied to the role of leaders.  People talked about:

  1. Leaders who think design is moving the lines and boxes with the organisation chart and there is no swaying them from this process.  (One participant in the programme was being barraged by SMS messages from a member of her executive team urging her to produce the new organisation chart immediately).   Participants were very anxious about this leadership tendency to ‘do’ re-design by organisation chart which they felt was risky, it often focused on personalities and not purpose (beyond the personalities), it neglected the involvement and participation of people actually doing the work being re-allocated, and it was unreflective of the possible unintended consequences.   A Deloitte survey found that ‘Restructuring efforts like that can undermine faith in the wisdom of an organization’s leadership, which actually erodes value and team coherence.’
  2. The difficulties they (course participants) have in selling the benefits to resistant leaders of reflective systems thinking, employee participation in the process, developing more than one design option and thinking of the work before the structure. This difficulties are exacerbated for internal organisation designers as they are typically hierarchically subordinate to their client/sponsor and sometimes lack business credibility in terms of language, operational background, perceived business savvy and other factors.

In relation to the resistant leader issue, Hofstede’s power/distance dimension is picked up in Erin Meyer’s culture map work, where her scale on leading ‘measures the degree of respect and deference shown to authority figures, placing countries on a spectrum from egalitarian to hierarchical.’  Her map draws on Hofstede’s work and also on that of Robert House and his colleagues in their GLOBE (global leadership and organizational behaviour effectiveness) study of 62 societies.

The studies suggest that where leaders behave as authority figures they expect others to behave as subordinate to them – and subordinates, consciously and unconsciously, do just that.  It’s often hard for a subordinate organisation designer to challenge a superior leader to discuss alternate ways of designing and for a superior to accept the challenge from a subordinate, even if the challenge comes from a position of consultant expertise.

We discussed how to overcome this superior/subordinate response in order to generate a more reflective approach from leaders.  A few suggestions surfaced:

  • Building leader awareness of the risks of ‘org chart’ restructures – a short video from Q5 Partners is a good discussion starter.
  • The Deloitte paper, mentioned above, could foster discussion, as could an article by strategy& 10 Principles of Organization Design that urges leaders to fix the structure last not first. ‘Structure should be the last thing you change: the capstone, not the cornerstone, of that [organization design] sequence. Otherwise, the change won’t sustain itself.’
  • There’s an excellent one-pager on systems thinking, from the Waters Foundation,  that you could broker a discussion with.
  • Using external consultants as influencers and persuaders on the merits of systems based design can help mitigate the risks of going down the lines and boxes approach.

(I’m not convinced that unwillingness to reflect on a systems/participative approach to organisation design work is part and parcel of a national cultural attribute of power/distance but it’s a reasonable hanger for a discussion on how to stop leaders heading first for the organisation chart).

The third question ‘What are the organisation design short cuts that different cultures take?’ can also be discussed in relation to one of Hofstede’s dimensions, long term orientation. ‘Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honoured traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion.  Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.’ (China’s score on this dimension is 87, UAE has no score, United Kingdom 51 and South Africa 34).

This suggests that China may be more open to designing organisations differently, but a recent research article ‘uncovered twelve barriers to strategic design practice and leadership in China. Six of these are similar to hindrances experienced elsewhere, and the other six are unique to this study. The six common barriers include CEOs don’t understand strategic design, and ‘design is not given the ability to lead’ explained as ‘Designers tend to be seen as third-class citizens and ‘Top managers don’t see design as essential; no discernible design process’.

If you have a discernible organisation design process and still want to short-cut it what are the choices?  I’m still working on that one for the next programme!

Do you think national culture is an important factor in developing and/or applying an organisation design process?  Let me know.

Image: Canvas of Diversity

Shared values or not

‘You don’t need to share values’, someone I was in a meeting with the other day, said very firmly.  I’ve been thinking about his statement.  In each of lift lobbies where I work the organisation’s values are the first thing you see when you leave the lift.  They’re painted large on the wall opposite the lift doors.  I found his statement intriguing and I’ve been asking myself some questions that it raised for me:

  • Do I share those values?
  • If so, how do I convert them into my day to day working life, so I ‘live’ them?
  • Are the values ‘liveable’ – for example, if I make what I believe to be a ‘bold decision’ (one of the values) what if others believe it is foolhardy, risky, or wrong?
  • Does it matter if I don’t share the values? If so, in what way?
  • What if I do share the values but interpret them differently from others – what are the implications?
  • How does the concept of ‘sharing values’ square with the concept of ‘valuing diversity’? Suppose someone doesn’t share the values but met all other criteria for employment, would we say that they are not right for this organisation –  in which case would we be valuing diversity – or only some aspect of it?

Maybe I’m overthinking this off-the-cuff comment, but it led me into looking more at espoused values – those that appear on walls, on corporate websites, sometimes in the employee handbook and on induction programmes.   In a paper ‘Evaluating espoused values: does articulating values pay off?’  Researchers noted that there’s often ‘cynicism and suspicion about the values that companies espouse with their written value statements. Terms like “window dressing”, “greenwashing”, and “PC” (political correctness) easily spring to mind because the link between articulated values and corporate behaviour may be tenuous’.

Nevertheless, these researchers offer several reasons why having them is worthwhile.  They found that espoused values:

  • Are important because they are positively associated with financial performance.
  • Help with ‘impression management’ and that a ‘corporation’s ability to communicate values to their current and potential stakeholders is better than not trying at all.’
  • Are increasingly contractually required in order to acquire new customers, including governments.
  • Are associated with matching people’s values with those of the organization and that ‘communicating espoused organizational values upfront paves the way for matching expectations and for relevant discussions prior to recruitment and relationships with potential partners.’
  • Can help employees (and potentially other stakeholders) focus their attention on what is considered ‘right behaviour’ and assist in their interpretation of what makes a ‘good soldier’: they know what ideal to strive for, what is conceptually expected from them, as they are a ‘solid cue for current and future staff and managers of the organization regarding what is important around here.’

They conclude their paper saying, ‘Our findings suggest that, while managers should not naively believe that corporate values will necessarily be exactly what people in the organization do, there is some advantage to espousing values actively as part of corporate communications strategies. We recommend espousing values that are, at least to some extent, different to those of other companies, and we believe that organizations are better off adopting a dynamic approach to espoused values where changes and dialogues take place.’

The ‘dynamic approach’ is interesting.  Their suggestion is that it is better to change an organisation’s espoused values over time, rather than stick with a long-term stable set.

The changing nature of espoused values in organisations is touched on in another research paper, Mapping Espoused Organisational Values.  Here researchers found that ‘A first observation is that our inventory of espoused values has similarities with previous frameworks on organisational values in general. For example, all include values that are concerned with capability, including performance, efficiency, flexibility and adaptability. … However, there are categories in our inventory that are not evident in most of the prior frameworks. In particular …  values that reside in the ‘Emphasis on Community’ … such as ‘sustainability’, ‘care for environment’, ‘social responsibility’ and ‘ethical practice’.   Similarly, values such as achievement’, ‘winning’ and ‘challenge’ do not appear in earlier inventories.

They suggest that ‘the richness of value labels that relates to broader ethical issues may be aimed at external stakeholder management, but also may have an increasing influence on organizational behaviour as they are embedded into organizational practices.’

I what ‘embedded’ means?  What I take it to mean is that the espoused values must be more than words on a wall.  They must be evident in every day use.  Achieving this could contribute to overcoming the ‘say-do’ disconnect which gives rise to the cynicism that often accompanies discussions of organisational values.  (See some research on this in:  Inspiration and Cynicism in Values Statements) How does being embedded square with being dynamic?

One way of making use of the values is in decision making.  Joel Urbany explains how to do this.  He points out that ‘a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values. Because the values that underlie our decision making are often buried in the shortcuts we take, we need a means for revealing those values and expressly thinking through the trade-offs between them.’  He outlines a process of decision mapping that ‘literally creates a picture of a decision that is built around choice options, consequences, outcomes and values/goals.’

Principle 1: Every action represents a choice

Principle 2: Every choice option has both positive and negative poles.

Principle 3: Every decision is a trade-off of values.

Principle 4: Reflections about values are more likely to “stick” if they are grounded in the reality of everyday or recognizable decisions rather than presented in the form of abstract exhortations.

Urbany continues by outlining how to use decision mapping as an everyday tool in organisational life, linking it to the values of the organisation.

This seems a practical and useful approach to both having and using organisational values, what it doesn’t mean is that someone has to ‘share’ the values – they just have to enact them.

I didn’t answer all my questions as I pondered the statement ‘You don’t need to share values’ – but I ended up agreeing with it.

Do you think employees need to share organizational values?  Let me know.

Image: Sharing values and social ontology, Marcus Hedahl & Bryce Huebner

 

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

What should future leaders be learning?

I had a conversation the other day with someone who asked ‘What should our management trainees be learning now, to equip and prepare them for leading 10 years out?’ He thought that if, 10 years ago, we’d been able to predict and teach them about design thinking, systems thinking, working with augmented/artificial intelligence, robots in the workplace, behavioural science, the ethics of technology – then they would be better able to manage the leadership roles they are now in.

It’s a good question, and one, I feel, is very hard to answer as what will be useful now in terms of leading ten years from now involves crystal ball gazing and futurology which do not always yield good yardsticks, as the Lyapunov exponent that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, demonstrates.

But just to test this, I took a look at what The Economist was predicting for 2007.  They asked the question: What will be on the leader’s agenda?  Their answer: climate change, managing shifts in global power, ‘responding to a sense that, in crucial areas, progress that until recently had been taken for granted has stopped or even gone into reverse’, the internet’s transformation of business, the growing connectedness of people, and new tools to search for things.

Their predictions for 2017, ten years later, are very similar, but more pronounced: authoritarians will be ascendant, far-right parties will surge, ‘European politics will be dominated by scaremongering’, more terrorist attacks, financial shocks, and ‘Brexit negotiations will be slow, complicated and cantankerous’.  However, on the more optimistic side, ‘Technology is forging global connections whatever the backlash against migration or trade’

The Economist closes its 2017 predictions with a question: ‘The question is not whether the world will turn back towards openness, but how soon—and how much damage will be done in the meantime.’

What does this mean for future leaders? Should they be preparing for more of the same reversal of progress over the coming ten years, or for a growing return to open-ness?   As we talked this over we asked, what would give them ‘grip’ or enable them to get a grip on, a situation of either further closure and/or more open-ness, and manage it effectively?

Looking at the predictions for 2007 and 2017, it seems to me that rather than develop knowledge of  specific domain content, in order to be able to ‘get a grip’ management trainees should be developing timeless skills useful for pretty much any situation –practicing these through various methods, including scenarios, case studies, action learning, gaming and provocation sessions.

Four timeless skills I think would stand future leaders in good stead, gathered not from rigorous academic research, but from  my organizational experiences over many years, are: diplomacy, kindness, critical thinking, and curiosity.

Diplomacy:  ‘the art of advancing an idea or cause without unnecessarily inflaming passions or unleashing a catastrophe.  It involves an understanding of the many facets of human nature that can undermine agreement and stoke conflict, and a commitment to unpicking these with foresight and grace’.

Kindness  ‘the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others’ — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. … In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.   (See a lovely poem on Kindness here).

Critical thinking: ‘that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.’

Curiosity:   the a strong desire to know or learn; having an interest in a person, thing, or experience that leads to making an inquiry.  ‘Being curious can manifest itself in the activity of asking questions, but it can also be a position from which one approaches life.  It keeps us learning, helps in decision making and can be useful in navigating arguments or confrontations. Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, believes that it is from our openness – and not our closedness – that we are able to develop ourselves and others.

How safe do you think it is to predict what leaders will be dealing with in the future – would we be better helping them develop timeless skills (which?) rather than specific domain knowledge?  Let me know.

Image: Reggio Emilia approach