(Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organisation Design: the Practitioner’s Guide. This is the first – from Chapter 9)
Leaders play a critical role in three ways in relation to organisation design and development (OD & D) work: stating and explaining the ‘why’ of design or development; supporting people in making sense of the context that the OD & D work is responding to; and telling the stories of how it is going. Here I discuss these three aspects.
There is no value in doing OD & D work if the ‘why’ of doing it is not clear to people. Too frequently, unfortunately, the ‘why’ is not obvious – ‘if things are going nicely, then why change them?’ is a common response to proposed OD & D work. Reasons for doing OD & D work that are rather vague, for example, to be more adaptable’, ‘to be fit for the future’ or ‘to be more competitive’ are not enough to convince people that the value to be gained from OD & D is worth the effort.
It is an organization’s leaders to state the ‘why’ do an OD & D piece of work in words that are meaningful to stakeholders so that stakeholders understand how the new design will affect them.
Simon Sinek, who wrote a book ‘Start with Why’ , says that a ‘why?’ statement has two parts: first, a part that clearly expresses the unique contribution and second a part that conveys the impact of an organization. For example, the UK has a Financial Conduct Authority. Why? ‘To make financial markets work well so that consumers get a fair deal’. The organization’s contribution is ‘to make financial markets work well’ and the impact is ‘so that consumers get a fair deal’
Taking the same approach to an OD & D piece of work in the Financial Conduct Authority, asking the question, ‘Why do OD & D?’ might result in a statement like ‘To make our business quicker at identifying and responding to European Union regulatory changes so that citizens are well informed and prepared when the changes happen.’
A leadership team that spends time really thinking through the question ‘Why do OD & D work?’ – focusing on its impact on the work and the workforce – makes a big difference to the speed at which work can progress.
Explaining the ‘why?’ of OD & D work helps people make sense of what is going on. Leaders often see more of the context, and have more of the ‘puzzle pieces’, than people who are focused on doing a particular task or role. Having access to the ‘bigger picture’ puts leaders in a good position to make sense of complex environments for themselves. It is then the leader’s responsibility to help employees understand the ‘why’ make sense of it and put it into their own words so that within a short space of time a reasonably consistent and common view emerges of the reasons for the OD & D activity.
Sense-making is an important part of OD & D work. People typically become anxious in situations that they are not expecting, or that come across as uncertain and ambiguous. They look to leaders to interpret and make sense of the situation for (or with) them. Failure to do this on the leaders’ part leads to heightened anxiety and multiple individual interpretations of the situation.
Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Leadership Center at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains how leaders go about sense-making:
This sense-making ability is a particularly important predictor of leadership effectiveness right now. … It requires executives to let go of their old mental models and some of their core assumptions; to take in data from a wide variety of sources; to use the information they have to construct, with others, a ‘map’ of what they think is going on; and to verify and update the map – in part by conducting small experiments that provide the organization with more information.
Researcher Sally Maitlis found that leaders approach their role of supporting collective sense-making in one of four ways:
- Guided, where they are ‘energetic in constructing and promoting understanding and explanations of events’;
- Fragmented, where leaders are not trying to control or organize discussions but allowing stakeholders to generate alternative pictures;
- Restricted, where leaders promote their own sense of what is going on with little stakeholder involvement; and
- Minimal, when both leaders and stakeholders await some other interpretation of the issues.
If leaders of OD & D work take a combination of guided and fragmented sense-making approaches then stakeholders are more likely to feel involved in the design process. This is tricky to handle. The guiding sets the framework and the outlines; the fragmenting allows for local or individual interpretation within the framework.
Explaining the ‘why?’ and guiding stakeholder sense-making can be supported by storytelling. Be aware that although stories can be an effective and inspirational tool to make sense of what happens in organizations, or to inspire, provoke or stimulate change they can also be used to mask the truth or to manipulate.
Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her Ted talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, reinforces this point, saying: ‘Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ She follows this by warning of the dangers of a ‘single story’ or (as a common organizational phrase has it) ‘one version of the truth’. (This phrase originally came from the technology world, in relation to having a data warehouse that was the single source of organizational data.)
Adichie goes on to say:
‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another’. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’
For her, ‘many stories matter’ – a single story does not illustrate a complex situation. When telling stories, leaders should recognize that there are many possible stories about the same situation. Effective leaders, who are good as storytellers, neither abuse their power nor tell a single story. They tell many stories – drawn from guided and fragmented sense-making – and they tell these stories from a position of equality and respect, illustrating organizational complexity, a diversity of views, and their own responses to uncertainty. Stories told this way – that explain the why, and acknowledge uncertainty and anxiety – help to build confidence in, and an emotional connection to, the new design. They also demonstrate authentic, transformational leadership.
What would help your organisational leaders do effective OD & D work? Let me know.
Image: Jane Ash Poitras