A big issue

John Bird presents a stirring case for tackling poverty.  ‘To me the really big thing in the world today that needs to be done is that we have to stop seeing things as ‘things in themselves’. We have to stop being separators of life into categories. That if you want to solve poverty, which I am rantingly struggling to do, you can’t separate poverty out into separate things. You have to hit poverty square in the eye. You have to give a cocktail of solutions to it, like you might zap a cancer. Yet the world is always dividing poverty up into different parts: literacy, housing, work, wellbeing, health … the world of thinking, of society, of government, always breaks things up into things’.

This ‘thingifyíng’ of issues – trying to tackle them separately rather than interdependently, collaboratively and/or as complex problems is a big issue – because people in organisations I work with ‘get’ interdependence in theory and understand that linear and cause/effect thinking won’t address re-ordering the tangle of variables that constitute the ‘design’ of the organisation.  Yet they are unable to work with this in practice and continuously retreat to the organisation chart as the way to solve many organisational issues.  (See a Q5 Partners short video Forget Personality: a thinkpiece of restructuring teams, that warns against an ‘org chart first’ approach, and goes down well when I’ve shown it).

I’ve had several different conversations during the past week on interdependence and the tendency to ‘thingify’.   Various possibilities were put forward for the inability of organisational leaders to engage with complex, interdependent and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments.  Among the reasons we discussed for the tendency to reach for the organisation chart, three came up in all the conversations:

1.  The ‘tyranny of metrics’ (see my blog on this)  that is performance targets that attempt to measure elements of a system’s performance, rather than the outcome of the performance.  This frequently leads to gaming behaviour as organisational members try to reach the target rather than the intended outcome.  An example of this is described in Max Moulin’s article Flawed targets and the ambulance service – is there a happy ending? which leads to questioning, ‘traditional assumptions about measurement, impact, and relationships’.  There’s also a recent report that looks at flawed performance targets in the public sector A Whole New World — Funding and Commissioning in Complexity.

2.  Believing that organisation design work is complicated rather than complex.  David Snowden, explains the difference: ‘In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.’  Organisations are complex.  Trying to redesign them as if they are complicated doesn’t work.

3.  The almost impossibility of changing the infrastructure, systems and processes that have been set up over decades to reflect a mechanistic/deterministic view of an organisational universe.  As Professor Karen Carr  states: ‘The challenge is to implement a systems world view from within organisations that have evolved from deterministic world views. … making it difficult to take a systems approach. Issues such as health, training, leadership and information management are addressed within different partitions …. Finding a way to get these different areas to interact in an organic manner is in itself a problem, given the [organisational] political, social and economic contexts.

Other reasons we discussed for the lack of systems thinking included: power dynamics (‘my bit is ok, why should I worry about yours?’), financial/resource constraints leading to prioritising some parts over others without thinking through the consequences, and short-term thinking – ‘let’s fix this fast and now’, and not knowing how to apply systems thinking.

Going back to the issue of tackling poverty, John Bird tells us, ‘We cannot simply carry on in this brainless, unconverging bit here and bit there’, and it’s the same for organisational issues.  How do we then create the conditions for systems and complexity thinking to become a natural part of the way we look at problems?

Answering this question as if it were a complicated problem yields a bits and bobs answer for example, send leaders and managers on systems thinking programmes (look at the Open University’s courses Systems Thinking in Practice,  or discuss and then pin up the poster Habits of a Systems Thinker,  show David Snowden’s video ‘How to organise a children’s party’ that shows ‘the promise of complexity theory for organizations and government alike’.

Answering the question as if it were a complex problem yields other responses.  Donella Meadows offers some thinking on how to do this in ‘Dancing with Systems’ (warning:  this is not written in standard management speak)  and in another Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Perhaps the most useful response to the question ‘how do we encourage organisational leaders to engage with complex and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments?’  is to do so in both a complicated and a complex way.  Maybe then we would see system thinkers emerging and a big issue would be resolved.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Systems thinking 101

Designing for aging

It was the headline on the torn-out article, pinned on the notice board, that caught my eye. ‘I did an Ironman at the age of 74’. It set me musing thinking on the several cases of people in their, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s doing counter-stereotypical things that I’ve noticed in the last few weeks. Perhaps these observations are prompted by the release of the film Edie, in which 83 year-old actress Sheila Hancock, climbs a mountain, the 2,398-foot-high Suilven in Lochinver, in Scotland.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m intending to. I’ve been reading about Hancock’s experience of training and climbing it.

I also read about Aleksander Doba aged 70 who’s kayaked solo across the Atlantic 3 times, (among other kayaking feats). And in talking to someone about him I got the book recommendation Age is Just a Number by Charles Eugster. It’s a wonderful and cheering book. He took up weight lifting and athletics in his mid-eighties and became a ‘sprints sensation’ at the age of 95.

These active elders are not all athletes (or actresses). At the Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition is a striking portrait of artist and Royal Academician, Ken Howard, now 85, still painting and with his own paintings also in the Exhibition. The person I went to the exhibition with mentioned Lynn Ruth Miller, a comedienne, aged 85 and going strong.

Sensitised to incredible elders, I spotted a headline ‘Don’t brand over-60s old and doddery, BBC is told’. Age UK, submitting to OFCOM on the BBC’s portrayal of various ethnic and demographic groups is of the view that whereas the sensitivities of ethnic minorities and LBGT people are, in the main, vocally represented, there is a lack of consideration for older citizens in the way they are depicted on television and radio.

This tends to hold true in terms of workplace attitudes to older people. Earlier this year, the UK’s CIPD gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of their inquiry on older people and employment. The session covered the barriers that older people face in the labour market and how both employers and the Government can do more to support them.

In January 2017 the UK Government published a report Older Workers and the Workplace (based on data collected betwee 2004 and 2011 – so somewhat dated now) which found that ‘while on average older employees fare better than employees aged 22-49 in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment, [they] were less likely to receive training. The better average outcomes in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment may reflect the fact that less satisfied employees have left employment by this age.’

Perhaps, combating the ‘old and doddery’ stereotype the researchers found ‘no significant associations between changes in the proportion of older workers employed between 2004 and 2011 and changes in workplace performance over the same period. … this suggests that overall the age composition of private sector workplaces does not have a sizeable role to play in explaining their performance. We do find some evidence that workplace labour productivity falls where the proportion of workers aged 22-49 falls, either due to a rise in the proportion of older or younger workers.’

They also found that ‘many employers value older workers, recognising their experience, loyalty and reliability. Furthermore, while we find no association between change in age diversity and change in workplace performance, age diversity may bring other benefits in the workplace; we find that job satisfaction was higher among young workers in workplaces which employed higher proportions of older workers.’

All that sounds promising. Summarising – older people who are in work are not old and doddery, they are good contributors to the workplace, enjoy what they do, and do not seem to have a negative impact on workplace productivity. (Although, this last needs more research).

But there are some caveats: ‘Existing evidence has suggested that while employers often recognise the benefits of retaining their existing older workers, they can be less willing to recruit ‘new’ older workers.’ Additionally, ‘Generating better outcomes for older workers may therefore require greater focus on other employer practices, such as provision of flexible working or job design.’

Echoing this view is the finding from researchers at the IES. In their report What do older workers value about work and why? They note that ‘There are very few differences between the preferences of older and young workers. However, there are a few factors that become more important with age. Health has the biggest effect on older workers’ decisions about continuing to work, more so than job satisfaction or job quality. Some older workers will therefore place greater value on flexibility at work, adjustments or part-time working hours to accommodate health needs or caring.’

With this in mind they offer 14 steps that employers can take to promote fulfilling work and create age-friendly workplaces. They’re worth a look as several are immediately relevant to organisation and job design, for example: ‘Ensure that older workers have variety and autonomy in their work’ and ‘Design roles for older people that maximise social contact and interaction’.

Looking in more detail at designing work for the mature worker, is the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They have a research stream aimed at understanding the role of work in successful aging – not only because the proportion of older workers is increasingly globally, but also because there is an imperative to minimize health costs by encouraging healthier aging. The health of nations, ‘will be served through creating work that preserves the wellbeing and social, psychological, and mental capital of older workers.’

They are specifically looking at ‘what types of work designs … and organisational supports promote healthy work for older people. … We will further investigate how cognitive, social, and psychological functioning is preserved or maintained through good work. The idea that work can be designed to facilitate such outcomes is part of an emerging perspective that mental and psychological capital can be enhanced across the lifespan.’

Tellingly, none of the extraordinary older people I mention at the start of this piece are in organisational work. They are all self-employed, pursuing their own interests and making a living at it. I wonder how organisational performance could be improved if we were able to design work that encouraged more older people to enter or stay in the workforce and fostered the drive and energy shown in those people? It seems likely to be for the benefit not just of older workers, but all workers.

What’s your view of designing work with the older working in mind? Let me know.

Image: Ken Howard, painted by Tim Hall

Large group interventions: theory and practice

On Thursday 7 June, I opened an email that read ‘Every year Tricordant sponsors a student to help further the theory and practice of organisation design. This year’s student is conducting a study to understand what the gap is between theory and practice in using Large Group Interventions (LGIs) to enable a successful organisation redesign.  Could he interview you on this?’

It happened that on Saturday 9 June I was participating in the Edinburgh Moonwalk.   As I was pondering LGIs I realised the Moonwalk is an LGI.  It has the six critical distinguishing attributes

  1. It is a collaborative, large scale, inquiry.  On a Moonwalk thousands of people are engaged in finding out if, collectively, they ‘can save lives, raise awareness and get fit’,
  2. It is creating alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues: in this case raising money to support ‘research into breast cancer for the future health of us all, to help improve the lives of those who have cancer now, and for prevention’.
  3. It is demonstrating the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process: for the Moonwalkers it means following a well-planned and orchestrated programme of walking training, fundraising, and spreading the word.  ‘With just a little commitment, a big helping of enthusiasm and a spoonful of energy everybody can take on The MoonWalk!’ (Note these are the attributes for employee engagementmoonshots or moonwalks – what’s the difference?)
  4. It provides a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. ‘Walk the Walk is the largest grant making breast cancer charity in the UK. … We grant the funds to other charities and organisations throughout the UK, to help them reach our united goals and ambitions of treating breast cancer.’
  5. It is a large group. ‘Groups are defined as large groups when it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact. Large group dynamics begin once a group exceeds 15 to 20 participants.’  The Moonwalk has thousands of participants, they couldn’t all make eye contact with each other and they are probably avoiding it anyway, as they are ‘feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as you contemplate the hours ahead. Yes, it will be tough’.  (I could use that sentence for the next LGI I facilitate).
  6. It is a time-bound event. ‘Sign up now for our night walk and join the cast… get ready for this one night only sensational Walk the Walk’.   One difference from most organisational LGIs where participants mill around in a hotel ballroom dressed in ‘business casual’, or sometimes, ‘smart business casual’, the moonwalk LGI requires participants to walk through the night dressed in a Hollywood themed decorated bra and bum-bag.   ‘You’ve done the training, you’re feeling fit… it’s time to decorate your bra’.  (There are lots of instructions on how to do this.  I kept it simple. My contribution to our team’s decoration was my knitting six anemones.  In other LGIs I participate in it is usually a bundle of Sharpies and packets of BluTack and post notes.)

A quick glance at the Moonwalk Event Guide indicates that its highly structured design is akin to that of Axelrod’s conference model, an LGI that ‘involves internal and external stakeholders in a series of integrated conferences and walkthrus, each conference lasting from two to three days separated by a month between each conference.  The walkthrus that alternate with the conferences communicate results and gain further input.’ Each conference has a detailed agenda, group exercises, scheduled presentations, and discussion time for table groups.

Anyone walking a full series of Moonwalks and following the programme would feel at home in the Axelrod Conference Model.  At the other end of the LGI spectrum is the Open Space Technology approach. Michael Arena notes that, ‘Open Space principles and framework are quite simplistic. There is one rule and four principles.’ The one rule is the “law of two feet.”  As far as the Moonwalk goes that’s an ideal rule. And, on reflection, I find I’ve also adhered to the four principles in the 12-week run up to the event itself.

Rather than follow the training plan I can rest confident that “whatever happens is the only thing that could have”, so not training at all because other stuff intervened is probably ok.  However, I did go for a walk on the Thursday before, so clearly I was  following the principle ‘whenever it starts is the right time’, and when I got there and met the rest of my team and anyone else we happened to meet I ticked off compliance with the third principle  “whoever comes are the right people”, walking through the huge pink Moonwalk finish arch is the fourth principle in action – ‘when it’s over it’s over’.

LGIs design and delivery are clearly based in systems theory,  but do they work in practice?   I took a look at the Walk the Walk’s annual report and accounts. (They organise the Moonwalks) which says that Walk the Walk aims to operate within 25% of the donations it receives, leaving 75% available for grants, and that 2016 this was not possible for a number of reasons.  Nevertheless in 2016 the group’s total income was 9.8 million GBP, of which total expenditure on charitable activity (including grants made) was 5.1 million.  Income was slightly up compared with 2015 and charitable activity slightly down.   However, I’m not sure that measuring LGI success on the amount of money raised is sufficient indicator of working in practice.

On the Moonwalk, there is a ripple awareness-raising effect from the publicity, the growing supportive network of someone who knows someone walking in memory of a friend or family, the participation in an event that generates good-will and a ‘feel-good’ flavour – none which are easily measurable in terms of answering the question ‘do LGIs work in practice?’

LGI models could be measured and evaluated from many perspectives and I haven’t seen any evaluative framework for them.  (Have you?)

Whether they work in practice depends on the reasons for choosing and using one in the first place.  There are many types of LGI – the student I mentioned in in my first paragraph lists:  The Conference Model, Real Time Work Design, Whole-Scale Organization Design, Fast Cycle Full Participation Work Design, Participative Design, The Search Conference, Future Search, Real Time Strategic Change, ICA Strategic Planning Process, Open Space Technology, Work-Out, Simu-Real.

LGIs have been in use over a good period of time.  Barbara Benedict Bunker’s first book of them appeared in 1999.  This variety of type and their longevity might be an indicator that they work in practice ‘in numerous organizational change efforts across a variety of applications, such as organization development, organization redesign, restructuring, strategic planning, visioning, values and principles clarification, process improvement, customer/supplier relations, global learning and development, and formation of collaborative alliances.’

What’s your view of the theory and practice of LGIs?  Let me know.

PS:  On Sunday 10 June.  Our team of 3 successfully completed the 26.2 miles of the marathon, raised around 1500 GBP, spread awareness of cancer treatment and prevention in their communities, gained proficiency in knitting flowers, and felt an all-round sense of purpose achieved.

How do you change what it is that people value in a system?

At the breakfast briefing I was at last week, I heard John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service  ‘discussing the current {UK} Civil Service transformation agenda and offering his reflections on how the Civil Service and Private Sector can respectively learn from one another.’  During his talk, he posed the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’

Hearing it, I remembered the time when I was working on an office move.  We were asking (‘making’?) senior individuals to give up their individual offices – a perk of seniority – and work in open plan spaces.   One man was appalled at this idea, asking me ‘How will people know that I am important?’  He valued his own office as a symbol of ‘importance’.

I was amazed.  I hadn’t had my own office in years, I was used to roving around to find a hot desk or sitting in a cafe or working from home or other location.  I valued the flexibility and ability to meet people I wouldn’t meet if I were in my own private space.

However, that incident led me to look more closely at why we want to change what people value, what they value, and how do you change it if that’s what seems to be needed by leaders.

Change and transformation programmes typically involve a lot of clashes between what leaders value and what employees do.  For example, employees value having a job, leaders value automating the work .  Employees value a permanent contract, leaders value contingent labour, etc.  We want to change what people value in order to resolve this clash (in favour of the leader).

Manzoni talked about various aspects of transformation that he is involved with – they’re common to much of transformation work and they usually involve clashes of what people value. He mentioned:

Moving from hierarchy to flattening the organisation that erodes a grading structure or career ladder that people have often struggled up

Changing to regard expertise over generalists (or vice versa) that under-estimates the sense of professionalism and pride people feel in the role that they have done up to now

Relocating work which often involves more virtual/remote working that  bites at the social network and sense of community, or local identification that people enjoy about work

This ‘transformation’ activity, sometimes thoughtlessly, attacks what people value in an organisation.  Their response, which often comes across to leaders of the transformation charge, as resistance then stalls the process.  Hence the question, ‘How do we change what it is that people value in a system?’

In our office move case, it was clear that people valued private space which wasn’t on offer in the move scenario.   Typically, what happens next in this type of clash is activity of one type or another in which leaders try and ‘get’ people to ‘buy in’ to whatever the leader values at the expense of what the employee values.   The language and intent can feel coercive or manipulative.  See a Fast Company article How to Get Employee to Buy in to an Exceptional Culture

‘Getting people to buy in’ is hardly the stuff of most organisational values, and, I haven’t found lumping ‘people’ together a very productive route when I’ve been asked how to ‘get’ people to ‘buy-in’.  People value different things.  Some people in the office move loved the idea of giving up their private space because they’d felt isolated and looked forward to joining their team and colleagues in open plan, others took it as an opportunity to try out the various types of work spaces newly available freeing themselves from the idea of being tethered to a fixed desk.

I find a better approach is to try and understand the reasons why people value what they do and whether there are value substitutes that can be made or whether we (the transformation team) can adjust to respect what they value.   In the office move having a private office was a sacred cow to several people, albeit for different reasons:  for some as a symbol of power and for others as a symbol of their expertise, lawyers, for example, strongly valued the principle that they should meet their clients in their own private office.

In the office move case, I commissioned a team of academics to come in and look at the symbolic aspects of power and status.  Their research and findings helped us think through a range of ways of managing the potential loss of what the CEO called ‘private real estate’.

I’ve found the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’ to be one with no answer, many answers, and no right answers even if you think you have an answer.   As with anything complex what people value is contingent on situation and circumstance.  Behavioural economics has various theories on what people value which may help.  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good read that offers insights on what people value and why.

Over the weekend I read Stuart Heritage’s article on the stresses of parenting small children, what he values now – time to think,  a respite from the relentless grind, etc.  is not what he’s likely to value when his children are grown up.   He sees that too and has what could be a sage answer to the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’   (You’ll see I’ve made an edit to his statement): ‘Figuring this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of parenthood and change and transformation projects are a mess of short-term firefighting. When the time comes, when basic autonomy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoulders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s become my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.

What’s your take on the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’  Let me know.

Image: Flickr user John Lustig

Complexity and organisational processes

Do you have a criteria or approach for assessing/measuring the complexity of business functions? This question came to me from a consultant redesigning a business unit.  The proposed new design increases the number of functions reporting into the current Director.   He wondered if the size of the unit would be too much for him.   The consultant suggested that the answer depends on the complexity‎ of the functions reporting in to the Director and now needs to find a way to identify and test functional complexity.

McKinsey tells us that ‘Companies must get three things right to manage complexity for value: organizational design, coordinating processes and systems, and capability building.’

In a later article they point out that ‘When pressed, many leaders cite the institutional manifestations of complexity they personally experience: the number of countries the company operates in, for instance, or the number of brands or people they manage. By contrast, relatively few executives consider the forms of individual complexity that the vast majority of their employees face—for example poor processes, confusing role definitions, or unclear accountabilities.’

Accepting that distinction, the number of different functions that a single Director can manage depends on both factors.  The institutional complexity relates to the operating environment.  A Deloitte paper quotes the example of regulators, ‘whose job has always been to protect the public from danger, exploitation, or insufficient competition in reasonably stable markets, now face another danger: that their own application of old rules to new realities might suppress innovations of tremendous potential value to the public.’

The article lists four ‘new realities’:

  • Change comes faster – the authors point out that ‘while innovation has always challenged regulatory authorities, its influence on society has historically spread more gradually, giving regulators more time to learn and adapt. Today, startups are more quickly reaching significant scale and impact, in some cases serving millions of customers and employing thousands of people’
  • Innovators find back doors – think how Uber challenged the regulation of taxi firms, and Air BnB of the hotel industry.
  • Ecosystems are full of unlike players – ‘once-clear industries dissolve into complex ecosystems full of unfamiliar entities and innovative offerings’.
  • Innovations cross lines of jurisdiction – for example people interested in investing their pension in cryptocurrencies cross more than one regulatory framework.

The individual complexity that employees face is commonplace in most organisations.  Julian Birkinshaw in his TEDx talk ‘The Cost of Complexity’ gives vivid examples of individual complexity at work:  workarounds, things falling into ‘a bit of a black hole’ where no one can retrieve them, duplication of activity, and poor customer service.  He talks about the costs of this form of complexity, advocating instead ‘organising based on adhocracy not bureaucracy’.

There is an example of this adhocracy over bureaucracy thinking applied to traffic flow.  Hans Monderman’s ‘designs emphasized human interaction over mechanical traffic devices. By taking away conventional regulatory traffic controls, he proved that human interaction and caution would naturally yield a safer, more pleasant environment for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.’

The information above is useful in indicating that the Director needs to know:

  • The level of institutional complexity, and whether it is the same for each business unit
  • The types of individual complexity employees and customers experience in the organisation (and the costs of this)
  • The possible methods of addressing the two types of complexity to make the Director’s task manageable in the absence of being able to reallocate some of the management to another Director – for example, could the number of rules and policies be reduced?

Knowing the level of institutional complexity means keeping alert to the constantly changing external environment, perhaps introducing a horizon scanning function, keeping a close eye on competitors, looking for patterns in large data sets, and so on.

Knowing the level of individual complexity is usefully done by examining organisational processes.  As David Garvin says, in an excellent article, ‘In the broadest sense, they [processes] can be defined as collections of tasks and activities that together — and only together — transform inputs into outputs. Within organizations, these inputs and outputs can be as varied as materials, information, and people.’  He tells us that ‘a process perspective gives the needed integration, because it emphasizes the ‘links among activities, showing that seemingly unrelated tasks — a telephone call, a brief hallway conversation, or an unscheduled meeting — are often part of a single, unfolding sequence’.  Additionally, a process perspective can link the realities of work practice ‘explicitly to the firm’s overall functioning’.

He describes organisational processes in three categories:  work processes (subdivided into operational and administrative), behavioural (he discusses decision-making, communication and organizational learning), and change.  Processes operate at the institutional and individual level, emphasizing, ‘the links among activities, showing that seemingly unrelated tasks — a telephone call, a brief hallway conversation, or an unscheduled meeting — are often part of a single, unfolding sequence.’

Organisation designers take note of the point that there are ‘intimate connections among the different types of processes’ and it is futile to analyse them in isolation.  As he says, ‘It is extraordinarily difficult – and, at times, impossible – to understand or alter a single process without first taking account of others on which it depends.   Thus, in Garvin’s view, accountability must shift ‘to those with wide enough spans of control to oversee entire processes’.

Following the discussion of organisational processes, Garvin talks of managerial processes:  direction setting, negotiation and selling, monitoring and control.   He then presents a ‘Framework for Action’ that I haven’t yet used but intend to try.  It looks to be a good starting point for making some judgements on whether the organisational and managerial processes are complex – in terms of work flow, behavioural interactions and degree of change – in the context of what is known about the institutional complexity.

How would you assess the degree of complexity in a business function and what is manageable for one Director?  Let me know.

Image:  Data complexity

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.

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