Evaluating organization design work

(Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organisation Design: the Practitioner’s GuideThis is the third – from Chapter 8)

In organization design work there is often little appetite to evaluate whether the work has led to performance improvements.   But there are many benefits in doing an evaluation, for example:

  • It focuses the OD work on the context of the business strategy, because it forces people to answer questions like ‘Why did we do this?’, ‘How will are we achieving the return on investment in doing it?’ and so on.
  • It defines improvement in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and ties it closely to achieving business objectives using measures that feed into the overall organization performance measures.
  • It puts the design work in a timeframe and helps the client see what outcomes might be expected as ‘quick wins’ and what results will take longer to achieve and measure.
  • It places accountability for improvement in the hands of the line manager – which usually means a close eye is kept on progress and quick decisions are made if called for.
  • It fosters sharing of learning on successes and failures in OD work
  • It enables issues to be identified and action taken as needed.
  • It identifies where there are opportunities to take things further and deliver greater benefit than originally thought.
  • It suggests routes to building organizational resilience: that is, ‘the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, and respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper’ (Denyer, 2017).
  • It assesses whether and how the design is solving organizational problems and adding value as it does so.

Assuming agreement to conducting an evaluation, follow these seven steps:

Step 1 – Agree the evaluation need

  • Work with the business unit to help define what success would look like, not just at this point but into the next year or so. Because the context is changing all the time, there is a need to judge whether the design is on the right course to meet the goals set at the start, and if it will continue to do so as new goals emerge – or, if this is looking doubtful, what action to take.
  • Make sure that the sponsoring manager considers how the new design contributes to the overall organizational strategy and goals – and what other interrelated factors need to be considered when making OD changes in their area. This is important because it helps people remember that their piece of work is one element in a whole system. Clients often forget that what they do in their part of the organization is interdependent with other parts.

Step 2 – Agree who the evaluation is for and why

  • Discuss the reasons for doing the evaluation: as well as determining whether the new design is delivering the intended outcomes, there may be a need to decide something, seize an opportunity, learn something new or to assess the return on OD investment.
  • Agree who the audiences are for the information from the evaluation (e.g., customers, bankers, funders, board, management, staff, customers, clients, etc.). This will help decide what evaluation tools to use and how to present the information from the evaluation process.
  • Consider the kinds of information appropriate to the intended audiences. For example, is it information to help understand:
  • Encourage people to question the metrics they are currently tracking: are they inputs, outputs or outcomes? Quite often effort goes into measuring the wrong things or measures something that will encourage perverse behaviours.

Step 3 – Choose the evaluation methods

Determine which of the three types of evaluation data to collect: quantitative (numbers), qualitative (words and observation), or mixed (numbers, words and observation). The choice depends on the context, as each type of data has advantages and disadvantages, and none is perfect. Any data captured should be valid, current, relevant and reliable.

  • Assess the tools available in the market for design evaluation. Some tools will be better than others for particular jobs.
  • Bear in mind when making evaluation tool choices:
  • From what sources should the information be collected? For example, employees, customers, clients, groups of customers or clients and employees together, programme documentation?
  • How that information can be collected in a reasonable fashion? Through questionnaires, interviews, examining documentation, observing customers or employees, conducting focus groups among customers or employees?
  • When is the information needed? By when must it be collected? What resources are available to collect the information?
  • Agree, at an organizational level, a ‘basket’ of measures that leaders can pick from so that you will be able to compare one organization design with another. This ensures some consistency across the organization.
  • Ensure you pick measures which can be tracked on an ongoing basis, preferably from before the design work began, through its progress into the new design and beyond. This means thinking carefully about measures that will be appropriate throughout the life cycle of the design.
  • Avoid measuring the same thing in two different ways, so review any measures that are already in organizational use (e.g. on leadership, innovation, collaboration, etc.) to check that they are the right ones, and develop measures that fill any gaps.

Step 4 – Agree how the tool or tools will be applied

Remember, almost any tool, quantitative or qualitative, can be applied in a number of ways. For example, the choice of a quantitative survey raises a number of questions: should it be paper-based or web-based? Should it be administered to a sample of the population (what type/size of sample?) or to the whole population? Should it be at one time point or several time points, or should it be a continuous real-time data collection?

Step 5 – Prepare the ground for success

Be aware that there can be unexpected consequences of applying an evaluation tool, as the context is usually complex. For example, deciding to do a skills-level analysis could result in trade union intervention if it was felt the results of the analysis would be used to select individuals to make redundant.  Identify and manage the risks of things going wrong.

Step 6 – Decide who will do the evaluation

Selecting the right people to evaluate the outcomes of the design work involves finding those who are some or all of the following:

  • members of the department/consultancy conducting the review;
  • people with working knowledge of the business area under review and its processes;
  • people with relevant technical knowledge;
  • strategy planners with knowledge of the organization’s business strategy and the OD’s contribution to it;
  • people involved in meeting the objectives of the new design but not directly involved in its design and planning.

 Step 7 – Agree how the evaluation findings will be communicated and to whom

Evaluation yields different types of information and knowledge to share with other project teams and with stakeholders. Many large organizations describe themselves as ‘siloed’ and have difficulty learning from their own members. Communicating evaluation findings to the different stakeholder groups, using a variety of communication channels, helps spread good practice and develop common values and consistent approaches.

There are some common problems that may be encountered in evaluating but these can be minimized by:

  • harmonizing the measurements across business units (preferably in the assessment phase);
  • establishing protocols for capturing and retrieving design work documentation
  • making formal agreements with departments/BUs to participate in the review process (as part of the business case).

Done systematically, the evaluation will yield actionable information on things that must be addressed to optimize the new organization design.

Do you evaluate your organization design work outcomes?  If so, how?  Let me know.

Image: https://patternedpetals.com/home/2017/12/5/art-through-time

What triggers organization design work?

 (Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organization Design: the Practitioner’s GuideThis is the second – from Chapter 4)

Organization design work starts in many different ways. Sometimes a practitioner is presented with a new organization chart and told to ‘make it like this’; sometimes it can be a casual conversation that results in a piece of work; at other times, it can be a feeling or statement that something needs addressing (an opportunity or a problem); and frequently it can be a planned piece of work developed out of a particular strategy – for example, a merger. Sometimes it is the practitioner who starts the conversation: ‘Does this need design work?’, and sometimes it is either the client or someone else in the situation who raises the question.

Almost without exception, behind the question ‘Does this need design work?’ is a changed, changing, or predicted-to-change organizational context. It is this context of change that is the trigger for design work. The question ‘Does this need design work?’ enters someone’s consciousness either as a reaction to a changed context or as a recognition of a current context in flux or as a prediction of an about-to-change context. In the example below, a consultant was approached by a board member of a multisite educational organization in the Middle East. The consultant summarized their discussion as follows:

‘You are clear that the Institute does need to change. It is federally funded and has a commitment to operate efficiently, offer a high-quality educational experience to students, and create ecosystems of innovation and entrepreneurship that help take the region into twenty-first-century growth and productivity. The government has stated that your emphasis now has to be on building future-facing capacity, capability, and hard and soft skills in the local workforce in order to reduce reliance on expats. What you are looking for, at this point, is support in:

  • Taking the agreed strategy and, from it, developing an implementable operating model and OD
  • Developing the detailed implementation plans with success metrics
  • Executing the plans and measuring the benefits realized by the new operating model and OD
  • Ensuring that Institute staff, students and stakeholders understand the need for change, how it is to be achieved, and their role in making the change successful. [/]

In this example, the conversation on design work was triggered by the recognition of a political and economic context currently in flux, resulting in the need to create ecosystems of innovation and to reduce reliance on expats by building local capability.’

In most cases, organization members are able to identify current and short-term context changes, but they have a harder time with long-term horizon scanning. However, this is what is most likely to sustain an organization’s existence and keep it thriving. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is well known for his rare skill in holding a long-term perspective, which has led to Amazon’s huge success. Amazon is continuously designed and redesigned with the long-term perspective in mind. Every year Bezos reissues his 1997 letter to shareholders stating his position on long-term thinking. The full letter is long, but its main point is that Amazon cannot realize the potential of its people or its companies unless it plans for the long term.

The desire to work to short-term around OD work is attributable to several factors, including the requirement to hit quarterly earnings targets, lack of management or leadership time to reflect and discuss a longer-term future, constant ‘firefighting’, being rewarded only for immediate results, and/or not caring about the future of the organization because current decision-makers will not be part of it.

Short-term design can be useful to help address an immediate problem – providing the problem is solved and is not just the symptom of the problem. Often, though, short-term decisions on design can compromise longer-term value and bring the risk of having to ‘unpick’ the work and redo it (See: Silverthorne, 2012).

One of the roles of an organization designer is to help clients and other stakeholders understand the risks of responding only to short-term triggers and to understand the value of taking a longer-term view. Ron Ashkenas, consultant and author, offers three points for developing and then optimizing designs that have a longer-term horizon (5–15 years).

‘1    First, make sure that you have a dynamic, constantly refreshed strategic ‘vision’ for what your organization (or unit) will look like and will achieve 3–5 years from now. I’m not talking about a strategic plan, but rather a compelling picture of market/product, financial, operational and organizational shifts over the next few years. Try to develop this with your direct reports (and other stakeholders) and put the key points on one page. This then serves as a ‘true north’ to help guide key decisions.

2    Second, make sure that your various projects and initiatives have a direct line of sight to your strategic vision. Challenge every potential investment of time and effort by asking whether it will help you get closer to your vision, or whether it will be a building block to help you get there. Doing this will force you to continually rebalance your portfolio of projects, weeding out those that probably won’t move you in the right direction.

3    Finally, be prepared to take some flack. There may be weeks, months or quarters where the results are not on the rise, or don’t match your (or analysts’) expectations. Long-term value, however, is not created in straight lines. As long as you’re moving iteratively towards the strategic vision on a reasonable timeline, you’re probably doing the right things. And, sure, you can always do more. But just make sure that you’re doing things for the right reasons.’

It’s important to keep communicating to stakeholders, as Bezos does, the reasons for taking a longer-term approach and to be continuously designing the organization.  It helps to back up the communication with narrative and quantitative information that ‘provides a holistic picture of the business, describing the economic, environmental and social performance of the corporation as well as the governance structure that leads the organization. By embedding environmental, social and governance (ESG) data into financial reports, a company achieves an effective communication of its overall long-term performance’ (Silverthorne, 2012).

People in organizations weak at horizon scanning, future thinking and forecasting can look for help in various quarters. As Thomas Frey, World Future Society, points out:   ‘Since no one has a totally clear vision of what lies ahead, we are all left with degrees of accuracy. Anyone with a higher degree of accuracy, even by only a few percentage points, can offer a significant competitive advantage’

Whether your perspective is short-term or long-term, the thing to bear in mind is that:

‘Any organizational structure should be temporary. Organizations have no separate existence; they function as tools of the business. When businesses change their priorities … then organizations must be changed, sometimes even discarded. That is why it is so wrong to encourage employees to identify with the organization – they need to identify with the business. If you are a Bedouin, it’s the difference between the tent and the tribe. As for building an organization, I think [Henry] Mintzberg got it right when he suggested that two things must be settled – the division of labor and co-ordination after that. But again, any division, any organization is always temporary.’ (Corkindale, 2011)

Do you think organization design is triggered by changes in the external context?  Let me know.

Image Hot topic: trigger points – myth or magic?

 

A leader’s role in organisation design and development work

(Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organisation Design: the Practitioner’s GuideThis 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

Designing OD & D learning: the criteria

What would you put in a 5 day internationally appropriate organisation design and development training programme, aimed at practitioners who have a basic view of the disciplines and who want to extend their skills, knowledge and confidence in these?

My task is to develop the outline for such a programme, and now I’m taking the first steps, eating my own dog food – as the saying goes – in doing this.

The first step, according to my new book (Chapter 4), is ‘Starting’ – blindingly self-evident yet easier said than done.  Each of the actions (recognising the triggers for the design work, meeting the client, agreeing the contract, finding out the context, getting commitment for the work, writing the case for it, starting the stakeholder engagement and risk management) takes time to complete.  In our case, they began 5 months ago in February.  However, we’ve now completed them and we’re into the ‘Designing’ phase.

This phase starts with the design criteria and I’ve roughed them out for the programme.  I’m now incubating them pending improvement and discussion, but here’s what they currently look like – with some questions I’m pondering shown in italics.

The course design must:

1              Be clear and simple in language, style, and content in order to work for people who do not have English as a first language.

(Note to design team: how will we test this?  Do we need a text analyser,  or someone specialized in English as a second language on the design team? Will we allow for activities to be conducted in the native language although the course will be in English – or will it be?  Could it be designed to be delivered in other languages – how would we train facilitators?)

 2              Show the relationships between organisation design, development and change management clearly throughout the 5 days in order to demonstrate that although they are independent disciplines they are interdependent in design work.

(Note to design team: we discussed 2 days of design, 2 days of development and one day of integrated case study, but is this right?  It feels too compartmentalised – maybe we need to show interdependence almost from the start, once we’ve discussed the different theoretical frameworks of each. There’s lots of info in Chapter 2 of my book we can draw on).

3              Balance the required level of theory with relevant/pragmatic practice and application in order to meet the needs of both the accrediting body and the day to day practitioner.

(Note to design team:  this needs thought.  Are we going to follow the 10:20:70 approach – or is it too ‘folklore to formula‘? We don’t want to spend too much time on the theory/theoretical frameworks as we know people want a ‘how-to’ guide but we do want to be academically rigorous and thoughtful).

4         Provoke participant (and facilitator) inquiry, reflection and conscious awareness of what they/we are learning and what insights are being revealed about their OD & D work in order to provide opportunities for applied learning and continuous professional development.

(Note to design team:  Critical reflection, on the theory and practice from an ethical and professional standpoint is essential.  Research shows that ‘‘learning from direct experience can be more effective if coupled with reflection—that is, the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience … [and] the effect of reflection on learning is mediated by greater perceived ability to achieve a goal (i.e., self-efficacy). Together, these results reveal reflection to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”  How can we build reflective elements into the design?  What form would these take?  How much do we think practitioners also have to be able to ‘teach’ reflective skills to clients who want a quick ‘solution’ to OD & D issues?)

5           Be readily adaptable to the VUCA environment in a range of international contexts and cultures in order to equip participants with up to date, relevant skills for their work.

(Note to design team: We briefly discussed how we could make this work well – a modular approach, supplementary materials, ‘slot-in’ case studies and examples for the different countries, etc. – and will continue this discussion. We didn’t discuss but we can talk next time about how we keep up to date on the use of new/emerging technologies in organisations and how these are impacting organisational operations e.g. AI doing work allocation instead of managers doing it.  On this, see ‘Should there be a computer on your organisation chart?‘.  These technologies are also increasingly being used in ‘doing’ organisation design/development work.  There’s a good article, by David Green, that looks specifically at organisational network analysis (ONA) who references a podcast on this topic that I just listened to.  It’s an interview with Michael Arena , author of a new book Adaptive Space. Keeping the programme continuously fresh and relevant over the coming 3 years or so is a challenge we’ll have to meet).   

 6           Offer a range of organisation design and development methods and approaches in order to demonstrate that there is no one right way or prescription to shape the design or development of an organisation.

(Note to design team:  Are we going to introduce notions of service design , design thinking , agile, lean, customer experience design , other types of design?  If so, how much weight will we give them?  If not, are we missing opportunities for ‘joining-up’ or connecting a wider design community that exists in most large organisations?)

The criteria listed have to work within certain non-negotiable constraints.  Constraints we have considered so far – the length cannot be extended beyond 5 days, the target participant group is the ‘doers’ of design work – those who will see it through implementation and evaluation, the programme assumes a basic knowledge of some of the theories that underpin organisation design e.g. systems theory, complexity theory, contingency theory.  It also assumes some knowledge of organisation development e.g. theories of change, culture, behaviour.  In other words, it is not an introductory course.

Once we have nailed down the non-negotiable constraints and the design criteria we can start on a high-level programme design.

What would you have as design criteria?  What do you think of those listed above?  Let me know.

Image: Organization Design Forum 2×2 Practitioner Landscape

Job design

Do you have any insights and thoughts on the future of job design and the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc?  That’s a question I was asked twice in the past week, once in an email from someone and once at the conference I was speaking at in Shanghai on trends in organisation design.

The question has an inherent assumption in it that jobs can be designed. Subject that assumption to the riskiest assumptions test.  High risk assumptions have two traits: a high probability of being wrong and significant impact when they are.  I’m of the view that assuming jobs can be designed through traditional methods, at least for humans, is highly risky.

Traditional models of job design focus on analysing the task structures of jobs, such as task identity, variety, and feedback (See, for example: Hackman & Oldham, 1976). In these models, jobs are collections of tasks designed to be performed by one employee, and tasks as the assigned pieces of work that employees complete.

In a research article on job analysis and design the authors note that traditional job analysis ‘focuses on the procedure for determining the tasks and responsibilities that comprise particular jobs as well as the required human attributes.  There are numerous methods used to examine the levels of functioning of organisational units, workplaces, and employees.  They include the processes functions method, and the well-known functional job analysis that uses scales to represent the tasks performed by employees, and the percentage of time spent on each task during job execution that involve things, data, people etc.‘ Some of the large consultancies offer job design services based, predominantly, on this approach. See, for example, Mercer and WillisTowersWatson

Adam Grant, in a 2007 research paper, challenges this approach saying that the traditional models are incomplete as they don’t recognise the relational and social aspects of work and the jobs people do.   The goal of Grant’s research was to ‘revitalize research on job design and work motivation by accentuating the relational architecture of jobs and examining its influence on the motivation to make a prosocial difference.’ (Prosocial means behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship).  Since his paper, the relational and social aspects of work have become much more visible through technologies such as social network analysis (SNA).

Ben Waber, Alex Pentland, et al put SNA to good effect – boosting the productivity of call centre agents, not by changing their job design but by measuring the conversational interactions between workers using sociometric badges.  By using this data to change the coffee break times of the workers, giving group members breaks at the same time, they increased the strength of an individual’s social interactions, and proved related productivity gains.  They conclude, ‘we have shown that strong social groups are beneficial to productivity and can be supported without extensive management interventions. … This result is all the more interesting since it had previously been hypothesized that interaction between call center employees reduces productivity.’

Social network analysis and similar technology uses are showing that, for humans at least, work gets done through social networks, leading to challenges on the value of traditional job analysis for human work.   KPMG Partner, Tim Nice, is another of the challengers. ‘Companies traditionally have a structured approach to role descriptions and pay alignment, but the work people do and the way they engage with organisations is dramatically shifting. Organisations need to embrace a more fluid way of forming jobs, hiring talent and rewarding people, to fit new demands. … The structure of traditional jobs is no longer a reality, and this will be amplified in the future.  Most people are in a much more fluid state concerning how work gets done.”

Dan Cable, in his book Alive at Work, explores the notion that ‘organizations, in an effort to routinize work and establish clear-cut performance metrics, are suppressing what neuroscientists call our ‘seeking systems’. Organizations are shutting off the part of our brain that craves exploration and learning.’  In his talk The Emotions of Competitive Advantage, he goes a step further, saying that ‘employees should have the freedom to explore, experiment and play with ideas, and not be bound by job titles, job descriptions and the trappings of traditional job design’.

Overall, it seems researchers are marshalling evidence suggesting that the relational aspects of work are more important to role success than task and activity definition and suggesting that we look at work and job design in a different way from previously.

On this basis, the future of job design is looking different from traditional models but my questioners also asked about the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc. on job design.   PWC describes three types of AI:  assisted, augmented and autonomous.  They ask ‘What types of tasks in your organization can you automate by having Assisted Intelligence? Have you thought about how to rethink your business using Augmented Intelligence? Do you think that your company will ever get to a stage of completely handing over the job to the machine?’   (Autonomous intelligence).

These questions are partially answered by Michael Gibbs in his article ‘How is new technology changing job design? He finds that ‘new technologies complement non-routine, cognitive, and social tasks, making work in such tasks more productive.’ And ‘Greater access to data, analysis tools, and telecommunications allows many workers to focus more on social interactions, collaboration, continuous improvement, and innovation.’ (See also his paper ‘Why are jobs designed the way they are?’ )

Making another assumption – that AI is not relational or prosocial, (though some argue that this is coming), there is a case for saying that some of the tools of traditional job design, rather than being retired, could be applied to make decisions about how much to go down all or any of the AI routes.   Because where AI is strong is on performing routine and specific tasks, and/or sifting through big data.  AI is mostly useful, as one writer says, for the ‘non-creative and non-personal tasks that can be broken down into relatively predictable parts.’ Traditional job design methodologies are much more suited to identifying these routine and standardized tasks that are the domain of AI capability.

 Look at a ‘how to’ guide on job design it could work to aid decisions on whether all or part of the work process/activity is ripe for AI or whether/where/how it needs human/relational involvement.

If we use traditional job design methods to determine what tasks and activities could be done by AI, then what methods can we use to design relational, pro-social human work, at this time when, as Mercer says, ‘the nature of “a worker’” is experiencing its own revolution’?

Perhaps we could give up on the idea of ‘job design’ in favour of agreeing goals and outcomes and then enabling workers to design their own work in response to the shifting context.  At ‘Hello Alfred’, for example,responsibilities evolve every few weeks or quarters, along with the goals and teams tasked with achieving them. As pods reconfigure, different people come together bringing different strengths and expertise, making for a more collaborative, dynamic workplace.’   

How do you think the future of job design is changing and what impact the different types of AI will have on it?  Let me know.

Image:  Job description IT

Unseeing

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to notice when I am unseeing.  It’s hard, falling into the realms of the ‘known, unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’.   But it’s useful to practice as I’m wondering how much of organisational life we unsee and what effect that has on us.

Unseeing is the concept that underpins China Mieville’s detective novel, ‘The City and the City’ which I’ve just finished reading and now discover is a TV series (that I can’t bring myself to watch, in case it destroys my sense of the book).  The book is gripping and brilliantly written, set in two cities, each with aspects of their own dress codes, language, culture, subcultures, control systems, and system challengers – no different from two organisations.

The difference that makes the book compelling is that the two cities are set in/on exactly the same geographic/physical space. ‘The city of Beszel exists in the same space as the city of Ul Qoma. Citizens of each city can dimly make out the other but are forbidden on pain of severe penalties (administered by a supreme authority known simply as Breach) to see it.’  They must ‘unsee’ the city that they are not a citizen of.  The word ‘unsee’ comes up repeatedly.

A person in Beszel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away.’  Citizens of each city are taught the habit of ‘unseeing’ any aspect of the other city – ‘The cities have different airports, international dialling codes, internet links. Cars navigate instinctively around one another; police officers cooperate but are not allowed to stop or investigate crimes committed in the other city’.  This is deliberate and controlled ‘unseeing’ – a different concept from simply not noticing.

The habit of ‘unseeing’ doesn’t always have to be taught in a conscious way – cultural norms imbue patterns of ‘unseeing’, sometimes, as in The City and the City,  in ways that act to reinforce the deliberate control mechanisms.   Additionally, what we see visually, heavily influences what we think culturally, and conversely, our culture influences what we actually see.  Some interesting research explores this link between culture and visual interpretation.  The start-point for the research was the statement: ‘We presume that people from different cultures, who grew up in different visual environments, associate different words with the same object. By analyzing the nature of cross -cultural word associations and word category frequency counts in respondents’ answers, we are hoping to understand the connection between culture, verbalized thoughts, and object judgments.’

What the researchers found was that, ‘Comparison of the most frequent words has shown [when subjects were asked to freely associate words with a picture of an animal] that American and Japanese subjects are quite different in terms of what they think when they look at an object (an animal, in this case), except in aesthetic judgments.’

You can’t generalize from one research example, but this finding continued my thinking on what it is that people unsee and what effect it might have on organisational design and development.

The film Hidden Figures, for example, exposes the way the contribution three real-life African-American female pioneers: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson made to NASA’s organisation design/development as they gradually moved from being unseen to being seen.

‘There’s a moment halfway into Hidden Figures when head NASA engineer Paul Stafford refuses the request of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) to attend an editorial meeting about John Glenn’s upcoming mission to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Stafford’s response is dismissive—”There’s no protocol for women attending.” Johnson replies, “There’s no protocol for a man circling Earth either, sir.”

Another protagonist, Mary Jackson, ‘needed to take after-work graduate courses held at segregated Hampton High School [in order to become an engineer]. Jackson petitioned the City of Hampton to be able to learn next to her white peers. She won, completed the courses, and was promoted to engineer in 1958, making her NASA’s first African-American female engineer.’

As the unseeing scales drop so positive change starts to happen.   But the scales don’t just drop.  It more a question of consciously removing them and you find when you start the removal processes that the scales are more like onion layers – you have to keep peeling them off.

For example, it’s easy to look at spreadsheets of organisational management information and yet unsee much of what they are telling you.   Once you ask yourself if you might be unseeing something you may be able to discern a pattern about, say, pay differentials, and then this leads to seeing something about gender imbalance,  and moves on to telling a story about social mobility.  All of these elements might be present in the original spreadsheets but it is not easy to see them either initially or in one go if they are in your realm of unseen.

Learning what you’re unseeing is, as I said, not easy and doing something about it is even less easy.  In the same week I finished reading The City and the City, I read the quote from Miyamoto Musashi, who, in The Book of Five Rings, tells readers to ‘Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye’  in order to be successful in any endeavour.   He spent a lifetime practicing this.

Now that the concept of unseeing is with me,  I am practicing walking down a familiar street trying to see what I’ve previously unseen.  Moving into plain sight are the many, previously invisible to me, homeless people that I’m now wondering what I can do to help. James Attlee writing (a whole book, Isolarian) about Cowley Street, Oxford, noticed the names of the phone services he passed:  Mama Africa, Pakistan Connect, Hello Arab, Jamaica Direct, Eastern Eurovoice, Taj Mahal.   In his case, it started him musing on the patterns of immigration and ‘inflammatory politicians articulating (or set on creating) a fear in the native population’.

It’s very easy to ‘unsee’.   It is less easy to stop unseeing, but I think to stop unseeing is a skill to be practiced. What’s your viewing on unseeing and stopping unseeing?  Let me know.

Image:  Synesthesia

Middle managers – why the label?

This week I was facilitating a workshop on middle managers’ roles in orchestrating organisational change.  A role which ‘entails directing (and redirecting) resources according to a [strategy] policy or plan of action, and possibly also reshaping organizational structures and systems’.

We were discussing what skills middle managers need and what factors inhibited or facilitated their role in what Heyden et al see as the two aspects of change:

Change initiation which ‘entails the ‘spark’ for change through activities such as identifying, articulating, and outlining an opportunity for change, formulating the initial business case, emphasizing its urgency, and securing key budgetary and resource commitments.’

Change execution which ‘is about realizing change plans through activities such as day-to-day adjustments, rolling out initiatives, aligning activities with stated objectives, translating overarching goals into periodic milestones, and giving sense and direction to change recipients.’

Kiehne et al take the view that middle managers face both ways in initiating and executing change and are ‘key players for making strategy work. They are both a source of knowledge for senior management to develop and formulate a strategy as well as a vital element in selling high level strategic plans to lower levels in the organization and even translating it and putting it into context so that working level employees can make sense of high level strategic directions’.

This viewpoint highlights the role of middle managers as arbiters and interpreters between two layers of a hierarchy, seeing ‘the vision at the top of the organisation and the pain at the bottom.’  Scott Adams, offers an alternative image of this, describing middle managers as ‘the glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives’.

Whether they are interpreters, arbiters or glue, the role puts them in an uneasy position, rendering them, according to another researcher, ‘vulnerable and insecure’, having a ‘current identity of being a talented, technical professional dumped into a lonely world of endless pressure from above and suffocating people management issues from below.’

Building on this bleak picture, Boston Consulting Group says ‘Middle managers frequently … do not have the support of senior managers or effective levers to do their jobs and provide assistance to their employees’, and the CIPDs’, 2018 UK Working Lives Survey finds that, ‘At a broad level, poor well-being at work is most often experienced by middle managers, which may be a sign of the dual pressures of working with organisational strategy and day-to-day deliverables.’   The actual figures presented for middle managers are:

31% reported feeling overloaded

27% believe their work negatively affects their mental health

26% suffering with anxiety or depression within the last year

24% said they feel under excessive amounts of pressure

The discussion on these figures took an interesting turn.   Rather than seeing them as confirmation of the bleak picture of a squeezed and stressed managerial level, several in the group thought that the figures were actually rather good.  They felt that if things were as dispiriting as the various researchers’ findings, the figures would be much higher.   They began to contest the research – granting that the middle manager role is challenging but, in their experience, not more than managerial roles at lower or higher levels. The label of a middle management group that merited special attention slipped as someone pointed out that every level of manager faces both upwards and downwards.

With this backdrop, we turned to the list of roles middle managers typically play in the change process.  As interface between bottom and top levels they:

  • Communicate and transmit information from the bottom to the top level,
  • Exercise the role of defender (championing alternatives, guiding and promoting, defending, presenting alternatives to top management);
  • Take on the role of synthesizer (categorizing ideas, selling these ideas to top management, combining and applying the information, synthesising it);

And as interface from the top to bottom level they:

  • Act as facilitator (protecting and promoting adaptation activities, sharing information, guiding the adaptation, facilitating learning and adaptability);
  • Become an implementer (implementing deliberate strategy, reviewing and adjusting, motivating and inspiring as a coach).

Participants pointed out that all those roles are also played in the ‘day job’ – they are not specific to initiating or executing change.

So now we had the ideas that middle managers may or may not be unduly stressed, and the roles they play in their work are not specific to planned change work.   With these ideas we looked at Steve Simpson and Stef du Plessis’s 4 quadrant model of middle managers’ roles in culture change.

The model proposes four types of managerial role in culture change.  Someone’s position on the matrix depending on the organisation culture and amount of control managers feel they can exert on the change:

Quadrant 1: Yes managers:  happy to go along with anything proposed by top managers and enjoy the ride.  ‘These middle managers are happy to fulfil requests from senior leaders. They regard themselves as lucky as, after all, their circumstances are beyond their capacity to influence.’

Quadrant 2: Effective change agents:  ‘working effectively both with senior leaders and with staff as positive change agents – sometimes initiated by senior leaders, sometimes initiated by staff and other times initiated by themselves.’

Quadrant 3: Change resistors: ‘In these circumstances, the middle manager aligns with staff (who are often negative) and typically they are at odds with senior leaders – sometimes explicitly, other times in a more subversive way.’

Quadrant 4: Embattled change agents: ‘This is a tough context as middle managers are often buffeted by senior leaders whose actions thwart their attempts to improve the work environment. In their belief that they can and do influence the culture, middle managers attempt to stay in touch with the issues as perceived by staff while struggling to do anything about them.’

I was proposing that middle managers should be aiming to be in quadrant 2 where they are able to influence the change in a supportive culture.   If they’re not headed in that direction Simpson and du Plessis say ‘we think there is value is digging a little deeper into the issue. For example, are middle managers feeling as though they are in Quadrant 4 where their attempts at change are being constrained by a negative culture without support from senior leaders? Or do middle managers have a victim mentality where everything is the fault of others?’

My proposal was challenged by participants – some arguing that being in quadrant 3 – the change resistors – was organisationally useful.  They felt that middle managers in this quadrant could be signalling that the change strategy was at odds with the reality of capacity to deliver it and keep the business running at the same time.  People supporting this view added that the managers in this quadrant could, legitimately, be protecting their staff from extra work pressures.

Similarly, other participants felt that quadrant 1, being the yes manager was a good place to be.  They felt it made life easier for the manager – assuming manager capability to engage employees in supporting the change – as the manager could more simply plan the change into the work without having to think too much about it, these participants felt it was a more stable environment for employees.

Participants agreed that quadrant 4 was a difficult place to be. Many of them had been in it and described it as ‘banging head against brick wall’ – resulting in them moving to either quadrant 3 (resistor) or quadrant 1 (yes manager).   They didn’t see this as failure but rather a pragmatic reassessment of where to put their energy.

Then somebody made the point that this role of change agent was not specific to middle management but part of every manager and leader role.

At this point I saw the middle manager label slip completely. They are neither unique in facing up and down, nor in being stressed in their work, nor in taking a role of change agent.

Do you think ‘middle managers’ need their own label?  Let me know.

Image: The god janus