What are the ‘first principles’ of organization design?

I’ve found Mumsnet, I’ve read two ‘how to be a grandmother’ books, and I’ve looked at the bewildering array of baby products – My breast friend topping my list on this score!

My daughter now has a 6-week old baby, and I’m rapidly learning that everything I knew about bringing up two children myself – who have both turned into wonderful adults – has changed and I better get learning, rapidly.  Things are different now.    But surely, there are some first principles of child rearing – if so, what are they?  (Elon Musk says, “First principles are a kind of physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’)

This flashed through my mind when I was on a call to colleagues at the Organization Design Forum (ODF).  We were discussing 3 questions: ‘What are you noticing about the theory and practice of organization design today? What are the implications for practitioners? What can/should ODF be doing to help support practitioners given these trends?

These are three big questions to cover in an hour with about 15 people.  I found the call somewhat troubling and during it I was struggling to think why.   But now I’ve had some time to reflect it seems to be related to the child-rearing thought.

One of the early comments made by colleagues was that many people working in organization design don’t understand the ‘first principles’ of it.  I think they were thinking that there are some ‘fundamental truths’ from which to do organization design.  I’m not convinced that there are.

Similarly, I don’t think there are any ‘fundamental truths’ about child rearing.  For example, in the world of child-care there is no fundamental truth that ‘the baby’s sleeping position most always be with the head pointing due north’ although it was the way to do things in 1878.  And, funnily enough, we do seem to have the notion today that organizations must be guided by their ‘true north’– in both cases, these are fads determined by culture and context.

As practices, resources, research findings and theories evolve in child-rearing so they do in organization design, the idea that there are fundamental truths underpinning organization design is as much a fallacy as believing there are some fundamental truths in child-rearing.  (See the book Raising Children: Surprising Insights from other Cultures.)

Certainly, my child-rearing practices differed from my mother’s, as do mine from my daughter’s.  However, what I think my mother and I found helpful, and I suspect my daughter will too, was applying some guiding principles, e.g. that we should bring up healthy – mind, body, spirit –  children,  in the context of understanding that children have rights.

This combination of guiding principles (not fundamental truths) and children’s rights enabled us to child-rear effectively in a way that matched our particular time and place.

A similar approach could work for organization design.  There are already some principles around ‘good work’, see for example Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet or Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices that has just been published in the UK.

This report suggests that good work ‘is work that is engaging, gives people a voice, treats them fairly, is good for their wellbeing, and helps them to progress. It should be positive for individuals, but also lead to wider positive organisational and economic outcomes: higher levels of productivity and output, and greater innovation and adaptability.’

These are quasi principles that could be used in organisation design and these, combined with local employment rights, would give a useful framework for organisation design, leaving the way of doing it open to various approaches.  Alternatively, there are several sets of design principles for ‘good design’ we could use e.g. Dieter Rams’.

Returning to the three questions we were discussing, ‘What are you noticing about the theory and practice of organization design today? What are the implications for practitioners? What can/should ODF be doing to help support practitioners given these trends?’  I’m thinking that as there are no ‘fundamental truths’ about organization design we could propose some principles for good work or good design,  encourage organization designers to look at the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, help people look at organization design practice in new and innovative ways that make use of critical thinking and not faddism, and abandon some of our sacred cows around ‘how to do it’.

What’s your view?  Do you think there are fundamental truths around organization design?  Do you think there are ‘good work’ or design principles and employment rights the ODF could support practitioners using?  Let me know.

Image: http://bit.ly/2iMKvyk

What should future leaders be learning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Reggio Emilia approach