I have been interested in the furore that has followed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banning workers from working from home. I’ve also read that Hubert Joly, the new chief at struggling retailer Best Buy has also just scrapped their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) for their corporate employees. Corporate staff who, until now, have been allowed to telecommute, as long as they got their results, will now be required to work at the corporate headquarters, though some managers will still have discretion to accommodate some workers. Joly’s intention is to shift the culture to one of greater accountability. A Best Buy spokesman said, “It makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done.”
Think about it for a minute.
Like many, the initial assumption I leapt to was that here were those awful authoritarians: new in the job, trying to make their mark, trying desperately to cling to hierarchical power and going about it rather clumsily. Isn’t the modern thing to show respect to workers and give them autonomy? As long as they achieve their outputs, we don’t have to regulate their movements, right? On further reflection and having read about the possible motivation behind the Yahoo ban, I can see it might make some sense. What if, say, she was looking at Yahoo as a systems thinker and taking action on the system? What if, say, she wasn’t trying to do the old-fashioned thing of managing the people? I enjoyed the sub-heading of an article in the Guardian about Mayer’s decision: “Marissa Mayer shows she knows little about managing people with this offensive memo to Yahoo employees.” Perhaps. Perhaps she actually knows a lot about managing people and knows that it’s a waste of time. Perhaps she knows that in order to get greater effectiveness in an organisation, you actually don’t spend your energies on managing the people, but you work on the system. Maybe, as another Guardian article sets out, she is focussing on what matters for Yahoo at this moment in time and space.
Think about it.
HR consultants and originators of ROWE Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson wrote in an open letter to Mayer, “We don’t think you deliberately meant to send a message to Yahoo employees that you are an Industrial Age dictator that prefers to be a baby sitter versus a 21st century CEO that can lead a company into the future. Or did you?” Good question. Again, let’s suspend judgement and consider the shift in policy. Could be that Mayer is one of those Industrial Age clock-watchers. Might be that she is looking to make a change to Yahoo’s ecosystem in order to get more creativity and innovation going.
I don’t have any special insights into what Mayer was thinking, but I watch what she is doing and am reminded that in a world still dominated by the command-and-control, someone who is acting like a systems thinker might sometimes look as if they are doing the old thing. That is because we haven’t enough “systems thinking stuff” going on to know what that actually looks like. How, for example, would we know if a manager’s tantrum comes out control-freakery or quality-freakery? Looks like the same tantrum, might use some of the same shouty words, but might actually come from a “we are doing crap work” mindset, not a “you are an idiot and I need to whip you into place” mindset. I’m also not suggesting that Mayer is some kind of enlightened goddess; she is as flawed as the rest of us and perhaps her way of going about the shift in working practices was a little graceless. I only want to say, let’s suspend our judgements until we examine a little more closely what might be behind her bold move, and observe if the shift in policy does, indeed, generate greater innovation and collaboration at Yahoo.
Interestingly, in a recent interview, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh said:
“Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.
We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.
What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favours for each others because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.”
So am I. I know from experience that I get a real buzz from real-life interactions and that in most cases, I find a lost mojo when I’m doing my thing in the room with someone who’s available to me and we are giving each other our attention.
One of the things to be mindful of is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to go. Just because whatever it is that works for Zappo’s and Google is good for them, it doesn’t mean that other businesses should necessarily follow suit. A good systems thinker will become intimately familiar with their system and do what works for that system. One of the exceptions that Guardian writer takes is that having to work in the office is inconvenient. She describes how she manages her time and gets her articles written. All good, I say. Once again, it’s important to look at the details of what is happening. In the case of a solo journalist, perhaps it would seem madness to compel her to sit at a desk in an office when she could produce quality journalism sitting at home. If the job was to co-write an article, however, I wonder if being side-by-side with the co-writer might produce even better quality work than each one working remotely, emailing the work back and forth. Just an idea. The point is that we need to know what the work is…..and to consider how best to get it done.
Think about it….
Google’s workplaces are famously enviable, but I would suggest that it’s the smart thing to do to focus on the purpose, not simply on making a “fun place to work”. How did Google’s offices happen? Someone designs them. Someone engineers the physical spaces and what is in them. To make it a fun place to work? Well, yes and no. I would suggest that that someone did not simply design something that is “fun” for fun’s sake. That kind of workplace is often mocked in the popular press or programmes like The Simpsons as funky and cool, but there is a hint of “…but they probably don’t do much work there”. I would suggest that some good thought has been given over to the design of the system at Google: the working processes as well as the community that will carry them out. What does a business like Google require? Creativity and innovation. “The philosophy is very simple,” Craig Nevill-Manning, Google’s Manhattan engineering director said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk.” In order to get this, what would be the optimal way of engineering these things? Draw on nature, be conscious that systems are self-organising and thrive on variety, and that, at the same time, they can be nurtured. The ecosystem within which such fruits could flourish can be designed. Google started with a philosophy. They have a purpose and a way of thinking as to how to make that purpose come to life. They are enviable because they have been designed with the work in mind, not on fun; I believe the “fun” is, in one sense, a by-product. In any case, as Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School says, “I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”
According to John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, studies show that people who work at home are significantly more productive but less innovative. He says “If you want innovation, then you need interaction,” he said. “If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.” That, to me, seems slightly simplistic, but I get the point. Also, Tony Hsieh seems to find that productivity and working together in a shared workspace are linked, so there you go. In any case, you don’t simply institute a ROWE because it’s what people want and seems to be one of those lovely perks that makes people happy. You do something like that if it helps to create the ecosystem that best nurtures the work. You craft a system that is best designed to meet the purpose of the business.
All of this speaks to me because at the heart of the work I do is sociometry. The term was coined by Dr. J.L. Moreno and its basic tenet is that “the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people trying to achieve that outcome.” The sociometry, or quality of relationships, within a business, affects the system and the system affects the sociometry. It’s a reflexive relationship. Sociometry and systems thinking are intertwined. I encourage managers to see their role as supportive of those they purport to manage, rather than as controllers. I encourage them to see their role as ensuring people have the resources, information and relationships they need to get on with their work. That last bit sometimes challenges managers because as John Seddon describes, we train managers (if at all) to be good people managers. When I say “ensure people have the relationships they require”, I don’t intend they manage people or try to keep them happy. Odd, huh? I intend the kind of picture that Google have: to engineer and nurture a system which facilitates people interacting with each other. In an older article, I suggested that a good leader is a good sociometrist. Yes, leaders (people) need to develop their relationship capabilities. They also need to develop the bigger picture abilities that facilitate productive and purposeful working relationships to flourish all over the place.
Some have misinterpreted sociometry as “developing skills to get on better with people so I can get them to do what I want them to.” No. Sociometry is an active exploration of the inter-relationships that exist and an uncovering of what is not seen between people, so that they can, together, create new patterns of behaviour with each other. The result is that people work better together. I believe that working on the sociometry is part of working on the system. One of the insights that came to a client of ours recently, as a result of our work with their sociometry, was that they need to redesign their physical space so that they get more of the interactions that lead to the kind of innovation that sits at the heart of their business. In their commitments to action, I see a mirror of the kind of community that Google have created.
In the modern economy, where much of the work that we do is knowledge based, relationships and networks are core. Google’s approach is to engineer serendipity. I enjoy oxymorons. Like spontaneity training. How can you possibly engineer happy accidents? Well, we can’t make happy accidents happen, but we can nurture the ecosystem within which they are more likely to happen.
Attending to the interpersonal also cannot be underestimated. Part of this is examining how people relate to each other and what “elephants” might sit in the room between them. Dealing with these “elephants” is at the heart of sociometry. People learn about themselves and the dynamic of the groups to which they belong. They cooperatively learn how to grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of modern business life. This occurs when a skillful sociometry practitioner assists them to discover what is happening between them and work out new structures of relating.
If creativity and collaboration are core to the business, we can craft workplaces where people are drawn together and interact about the work they are doing. We can design spaces and ways of working where people are more likely to be stimulated to innovate together. Maz Iqbal, in a comment on a recent article of mine wrote, “The pragmatist changes the structure of the system so that the desired behaviour is called forth.” Yes. He also provided a link to the work of Jeppe Hein, an artist who has created some wacky park benches which he designed to encourage more exchange between users and passers-by, giving them a much more social quality. As well as engineering the physical environment, we can also “engineer” the interpersonal by attending to the sociometry. Both of these are conscious systems interventions, both add value and set a business towards achieving its purpose.
March 21, 2013
In working with three senior teams in three entirely different sectors over the past month, I’ve heard someone in each of these teams, during the course of the work, utter these words, “We are a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the business.” They elaborate, “If we don’t get our house in order, how can we expect the rest of the business to work better together?” The theme is silos at work and making efforts to work more collaboratively and cooperatively. In each of these contexts, I shared one of my favourite analogies for silos; it’s as if the organs within my body are fighting each other for primacy. They are inextricably linked and interdependent, each having their own specialisation and each requiring the other to be at their best, however it’s bizarre to imagine that one organ is more important than the other and that if I had the healthiest heart in the world, the whole of my body would functioning at its optimal level. In the past, I have heard those who interface directly with customers say to folks who don’t, “If it wasn’t for us doing the real work, you wouldn’t have jobs.” Imagine my digestive tract saying to my heart, “If I didn’t take in nourishment, you wouldn’t have a job.” Pshaw.
I believe, from my experience, it’s a shift in consciousness that needs to come to people before they see the connection. A change in their mindsets. A whole new perspective. In many businesses, senior managers grapple with effectiveness and train their gaze on the bits of the business that are dysfunctional, rather than see the whole……rather than see that the health of the parts is directly related to the health of the whole…..rather than see that the health of the whole is directly related to the healthy relatedness between the parts. When one person makes that statement about microcosms and everyone else stares blankly, I reckon the rest of the senior team has an opportunity to learn how to think bigger if they want to go further.
I don’t believe the case needs to be made for the elimination of silos at work. I have met nobody who thinks they are a good idea and multitudes who find them ineffective and frustrating. The question people struggle with is, “How do we get rid of them?” I think part of that lies with shifting the thinking that got us here in the first place. To say that silos are ineffective is not to say that specialisation is ineffective. After all, as we develop into fully-fledged humans in-utero, our cells gradually organise according to their specialisations. However, our various specialised systems do not, over time, develop ways of functioning in isolation to anything else in our bodies. They also do not work out ways to operate more optimally at the expense of other parts of the body. I would not suggest, therefore, that businesses need to throw the specialisation baby out with the silo-ed bath water. To clarify that last statement, I would not suggest that everyone should learn how to do everything and be generalists who excel at every specialisation. I’m not suggesting that people’s jobs are determined by simply drawing a role from a hat, regardless of expertise, passion and talent. Specialisation matters; silos do not. It simply does not follow that just because we need people with special talents and expertise, the best way to bring these out is to corral them into functionally-aligned departments and fit them with blinkers so they only see their departmental targets.
The important point is to view specialisation through systems thinking eyes, not mechanistic eyes. If I’m a departmental manager in an organisation where silo-ed thinking dominates, I will do my best to ensure that those who report to me reach the targets I set. If I see the business this way, I will use the words “my team” to mean the folks I manage.
Silos are not simply how an organisation behaves. If it was that simple, people would have stopped working in silos long ago and started behaving differently. They spring out of a mentality, a set of assumptions. Like everything that goes on, what happens happens because there are some assumptions that underly things. There’s where the work of getting rid of silos begins. As I’ve written before, most of these assumptions are unconscious and unquestioned. In silo-ed organisations, there are some assumptions related to the best way of doing things: work is best organised according to functional specialisation, work is optimised when we have reporting hierarchies that monitor achievement of targets, targets are good. Time to question these assumptions.
If sales are down, it’s the fault of the sales department. If the work of the creative team is sub-standard, it’s the fault of the creative team. If clients are unhappy with the service they are getting, it’s the fault of the account management team. Perhaps. Perhaps. Firstly, though, how about looking at lower sales, poor quality creative work or dissatisfied clients as noise in the wider system. Then the senior team can work together to work out how to act on the whole system, rather than on individual departments. Rather than being the responsibility of an individual department, perhaps it’s related to the lack of interconnectedness and flow, which is determined by the business structure. The structure that comes out of the mindset.
Getting out of a silo-ed mentality is about shifting assumptions and perceptions of how a business’s problems are perceived. I believe this shift is happening when someone in the senior executive team pipes up and says, “We are a microcosm of the whole business and we have to operate better before the whole business will operate better.” They are beginning to perceive the work of the senior team as making decisions collectively, rather than arguing their corner from their departmental specialisation….rather than fighting for better resources for their department….rather than pointing fingers at other people’s departments. They are also beginning to see the senior team as “their team”.
The design of a business is heavily influenced by the mindsets and assumptions we bring to it as to how it works best. When the mindset is that a business is a machine and the job of management is to control it, it is then reasonable that one would design something that is controllable. Functionally-based departments with hierarchical reporting lines. This is why I propose that silos are not simply something that happens despite our desire for it not to; we get silos because our beliefs about how businesses best operate design them into being.
It’s a telling comment when I hear an executive team member talk about “their team” and they mean the folks they manage. I would suggest that for the members of the executive team, “their team” is their peers. The other members of the executive team; not the people they manage. When they hear their staff say “that stuff over there (in that other department) has nothing to do with us”, there is the opportunity to reflect on how that silo-ed attitude might be replicated within their senior team. If they then take it this next step and make the “microcosm” observation, things have begun to change. When the executive team gets to this place, the opportunity for re-working the work is there. ”My team is the rest of you executive team members. We need to flow better together. We need to work together to create value.” Then maybe they can get to: “How do we need to re-organise the system so that it is creating value for our customers, not our managers?”
Drawing on expertise and people’s specialisations, then, can happen when there is a re-organising of the business structure; when people work together, across disciplines. Because if people’s jobs are to respond to customer demand and not management control (another example of a mindset thingy), then perhaps structuring the work to be more responsive to customers is a better way to go. Perhaps. Maybe getting teams to clump together according to what would best serve the customer might be a better way to organise things. Perhaps. Maybe getting teams to consist of, say, a creative specialist, an accounts specialist, a production specialist and a sales specialist could be a better way to organise things at work. Perhaps. Rather than have all the creatives clumped together, all the accounts folks clumped together and so on. In silos.
February 21, 2013
Individual performance management is rubbish. Not only that, it’s patronising and disabling. I’ve said it before. When people aren’t performing, it’s extremely probable that it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s the system. It’s not that performance management as a concept has been sullied because it’s been ineptly carried out. It’s just that it’s pointless and in some cases counter-productive to actually getting good performance. Deming’s 95% percent rule.
Sure, some people are not performing well enough. They aren’t doing their tasks. They are not meeting targets. Targets. That’s another, connected conversation. Stop looking at the individuals and look at the whole.
There is a mindset that says, “an individual’s performance must be monitored/managed/reviewed”. What’s a mindset? I like Bob Marshall’s treatment of this: “a set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, heuristics, etc. (e.g. memes) which interact to reinforce each other.” In most cases, we are unconscious of the mindsets out of which we operate and see the world. We just behave out of them. So there are a whole set of these (mostly) unconscious things that coalesce in our minds. It’s a reflexive thing, too. We have a set of beliefs and assumptions, we then have a bunch of experiences. We give meaning to these experiences out of the beliefs and assumptions that we bring, which in turn reinforces those assumptions. An example of a self-preserving, self-reinforcing mindset:
“Why do you keep that rabbit’s foot?”
“Because it keeps the elephants away.”
“But there are no elephants anywhere near here.”
“See? It works.”
Like Bob, I believe that “attempting to simply swap out selected memes, one for another, on an incremental basis appears infeasible.” Granted, this also comes out of my own mindset and I could be shooting myself in the foot by saying this. At the same time, I have come from “individual-performance-management-land” and it was found wanting. Back in the old days when all this was fields, I also used to assume that someone had to monitor and manage my performance because that’s just what happens in the workplace. Then I grew up and realised I don’t like being “told off”; it’s demoralising, it’s disrespectful, it’s limiting. Counter-productive to being productive because it often leads people to withhold any kind of effort beyond what they are instructed to do by the all-knowing, all-seeing bossman (though in one case for me it was a woman).
The “individual performance management” meme was also blown out of the water by experience. Many years ago, I had first hand experience of “effectiveness-land” and it worked. By this I mean that the work was far more satisfying for everyone, we were incredibly effective at what we did and we all brought our creativity to the table, making for a culture of genuine continuous improvement. We knew we were effective, not because our managers told us we were or that we achieved X% of our KPIs. We knew we were effective because our stakeholders told us so. They included the clients we worked with directly, the statutory government agencies to whom the agency reported, the media and our peers in other agencies. And if the quality of our work was substandard, we had good feedback systems in place and were told about it, and because we already had in place a culture of learning, we sought to adjust our working practices….
…..and we talked about our performance all the time.
In recent years, with growing awareness of the need to humanise workplaces, some have advocated for a more humanised performance management process. This means, in many cases, that managers have been trained to structure performance reviews as more of a mutual conversation than a top-down, Manager-driven assessment of performance against a pre-determined set of targets. Often, though,the mindset has still not changed. Forms are filled out, the conversation revolves around targets and KPIs, only the employee is invited to speak first and evaluate themselves against the same old criteria. The assumption that monitoring individual performance is essential still underlies what goes on, it’s just done in a friendlier way. I’ve used the expression before: you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.
You don’t get a flower to grow by pulling on it. You create the conditions within which it will flourish and do what comes naturally to it. If we hold to a Theory X mindset, then we will be oriented towards a carrot and stick approach to getting better performance. If we hold to a Theory Y mindset, then we will be oriented to crafting a structure within which people will flourish and do well. I read a very short but very delightful article this week by systemthinkingforgirls entitled, “The only question a manager should ask in an appraisal.” That question is, “What stops you from doing a good job?” Behind this question sits the mindset that it is the system which stops people from doing well at work, not their individual skills, knowledge and attitudes. Performance appraisals as we currently understand them focus on people’s individual stuff. Tarting them up so that they aren’t as scary or rejigging them so they are “two-way conversations” still doesn’t address the underlying assumption that they are useful.
This notwithstanding, I am not suggesting that managers suddenly stop talking to anyone about anything they do at work. I’m also not suggesting that people just stop having conversations about performance. I’m suggesting that conversations that presume managing and monitoring an individual’s performance is essential will not necessarily lead to effectiveness or a high-performing organisation. It’s specious logic to say that we’ve always done it, look at that business there, they do it and they are successful, therefore…. That’s Monty Python logic: we’ll throw her in the pond and if she floats, she must be made of wood and therefore, a witch.
Perhaps a more useful performance conversation is done with a view to offer coaching and support or to detect noise in the wider system. ”What stops you from doing a good job?” Lack of knowledge or technical expertise? Poor relationships with peers? Inadequate or impenetrable policies and procedures? Outdated or insufficient information? Poor resourcing? Lack of experience in the organisation? Breakdowns in communication between different parts of the organisation? All of these questions point to the clues as to where we would find the barriers to high performance, and it’s more than likely it’s not an individual’s inadequacies. Deming’s 95% rule.
By poo-pooing individual performance management, is the inference that I’m anti-performance, anti-effectiveness, pro-lovey-dovey-nicey-nicey? You might as well say I’m pro-crime because I think our current criminal justice system is broken. I realise it’s heresy to suggest that managing individual performance is useless. To reference Bob again, he wrote a great list of invalid premises that businesses would do well to jettison, one of which is that an individual’s productivity and performance is down to the individual. Related, yes, for if you have someone in a job who doesn’t have the technical skills necessary to carry it out, they are likely to do poorly. ”Related”, but not “down to”. If the system is screwy, it will be hard for any individual to excel.
A bad system will beat a good person….every time. Deming
Let’s get good performance, yes. Let’s also look at how we get it and examine the assumptions we make about how it happens. Are we doing the wrong thing righter? Or are we establishing the fertile ground from which high performance will spring? Let’s have performance conversations, yes. Let’s look for the systemic causes of poor performance in the organisation. Let’s talk about the organisation’s performance, not that of individuals.
What do we do if individual performance management is abolished?
What would we find in a high-performing organisation, then? A 2007 AMA study, “How to Build a High-Performance Organisation”, sets out five domains they observed in their survey of businesses that excel. It acknowledges that external factors impact on performance and looks at what they do to navigate an environment which is volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex. The five drivers that most heavily influence performance are:
- Strategic approach: clear vision supported by flexible plans
- Customer approach: clear focus on engaging and maintaining good customer relationships
- Leadership approach: clear goal-setting, coaching and mentoring when necessary and appropriate, ensuring people have a clear line of sight that that vision stuff
- Processes and structure: ”good enough” policies and procedures that facilitate the work, not create busy work that takes people away from their real work. Structure that eases information flow and good relationships across businesses
- Values and beliefs: easily understood set of values that are lived by everyone, not laminated
If we default to old mindsets, some might read in there that we still need to manage individual performance, otherwise, how would we achieve that stuff? I believe it’s more about creating the conditions within which let people do well. If we could substitute leadership for performance management, perhaps we would get there. If those who lead the business did some reflection and committed themselves to adopting Theory Y as their touchstone, perhaps energy would be spent on making sure people had all they need to do their jobs well and then getting out of their way.
February 3, 2013
Why would the whole of the Universe be a complex, self-organising and interdependent system, and a business be a top-down, controlled machine? Why would the entire Universe be subject to the laws of Nature, and business, not? It’s almost as some businesses they think they exist in some bubble, where the laws of nature are turned away by some bouncer: “You can’t come in here with that gravity. Second Law of Thermodynamics? Not in here, sunny Jim.”
My favourite programmes on telly are the ones about the universe and how it came to be. One I was watching recently had a theme of complexity and order: how order arose out of the chaos of the Big Bang and formed some of the most beautiful sights in our solar system, such as Saturn’s rings. The narrator kept describing the wonders of the solar system as complex and marvelled at how it organised itself over many billions of years, subject to the forces of nature. As I watched, I was making connections to life here on Earth. The point he made in the final minutes of the programme was that we are part of the same complex and wonderful solar system and subject to its same laws. I made the link to organisations, to one client in particular and to one particular phenomenon of systems (you can’t tell a systems thinker to stop being a systems thinker in their free time, sorry). I had a moment of thinking how many who “run” businesses think they are immune from laws of nature, or certainly behave like they do, acting out of old myths like some kind of Flat-Earther.
Complexity, ambiguity, dynamic change and uncertainty are not the new normal; they have been around since the Big Bang. They are part of the fabric of the universe. We have just been (unconsciously) shielding ourselves from the forces of nature by pretending we weren’t a part of it. From the days of lords and serfs to the time we set out on the “scientific management” path, we have applied top-down control mechanisms on people to get them to work, like so many bits of a wind-up clock. Many are finally acknowledging that complexity, ambiguity and so on are part of the fabric of organisational life. Accordingly, we must adjust our ways of doing business to take account of these phenomena of Nature.
Just as, 1000 years ago, we “KNEW” that the Sun went around the Earth, just as we “KNEW” the Earth was flat, just as we “KNEW” that trepanation was a good cure for headaches , many organisations seem to “KNOW” that top-down command-and-control mechanistic structures, with a select few pulling the levers, are the best ways to run things. I believe that if we don’t “unknow” some of the nonsense we still unconsciously adhere to, the forces of Nature will present us with some unpleasant surprises. Even if we continue to “KNOW” that our business is a machine, it does not make it any less true that it is a living system, and thus subject to the laws of living systems.
A client who I described in a previous article was reflecting on 2012 recently and observed that they had made some progress in their business over the year. By progress, he meant that
- people were beginning to take up more responsibility and initiative without having to wait for the boss to tell them what to do
- there was more discussion amongst the staff as to how to manage some of the day-to-day challenges they meet and less referring to the boss for the “answer”
- mistakes were being used as entry points to examining business processes and working out how they could be improved
- they had a clearer idea of their collective purpose and how important relationship is to achieving that purpose
- the leaders were devoting more of their time to ensuring the conditions and structures of the business were optimised so that people could get on with their jobs (and less time micro-managing operational tasks).
Thrilling stuff. He also reflected on how shifting the focus away from “behavioural problems” as isolated events and onto the business as a whole living system seemed to have injected some new life (his words, not mine) into the business: that they were actually going somewhere. Here was an example of the practical benefits of applying systems thinking to overcoming business “stuckness”. They started the year stagnating, with things getting worse, they injected some new learning into the system, they are now moving to another level of effectiveness.
Here’s the link to that TV programme and this client’s business: entropy. As a living system, my client’s business is subject to the same laws that pertain to the rest of the universe. One of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a corollary of which is entropy. Entropy, crudely speaking, is the tendency towards death. Social entropy, which applies to organisations, is a ”measure of the natural decay of the structure or of the disappearance of distinctions within a social system.” (Krippendorff) As the whole of the universe tends towards randomness, or death, so do all the elements within it. This is not to take a fatalistic approach and say “Why bother doing anything, then?” There are forces that also act to retard entropy. Like with other living systems, some energy needs to go into the pot in order to counteract it. My cup of hot tea will naturally cool down as heat is transferred away from it, but I can re-heat it by applying energy in the from of a microwave oven.
What does entropy look like in the business world?
How do we counteract entropy?
If a business is succumbing to natural entropy and feels like it’s losing track or going nowhere, how can we reheat it? Let’s look to Nature. How do other living systems in Nature counteract entropy? They bring in more stuff. Living systems find loopholes to counteract entropy. In the context of the natural world, this shows itself as adaptation. In the context of business, this means learning. Closed systems that spend their energy simply on maintaining themselves in survival mode eventually spend themselves out. If a business is spending too much of its time on hunting for food, and not enough on learning new ways to hunt for food, it will succumb to entropy. Vibrant and open living systems naturally tend to greater complexity, experiment often, are driven to what is possible and seek new opportunities which destabilise them until they restablise in a renewed way. They look for more stuff to put into the system to renew it.
“Systems thinking is a response to the failure of mechanistic thinking in the attempt to explain social and biological phenomena.” Lars Skyttner
Purpose, not anatomy
If something is not working, look at the bigger picture: purpose, relationships and interconnectedness of the elements. Because entropy (a phenomenon of living systems) is affecting the business, taking a systems thinking approach will be the path to finding its counter-measures. Merely looking at the anatomy of a business is not going to help us solve 21st century problems. As Skytnner writes, the emergence of a holistic approach came about in an effort to provide us “an outlook to see better, a network to understand better and a platform to act better.” This is something that is dear to my heart. Systems thinking gives us a real-life, practical way to actually craft the way we do things better and more effectively, not simply some intellectual exercise that sounds lovely.
Systems thinking is not a prescription or method, it’s more of a perspective or way of approaching problems. Systems thinking can help us to look for patterns within businesses, to see fundamental structures and their impact on the elements (the people, the departments, the sub-groups) within the business as well as on the relationships between those elements.
When living systems, such as a business, get to a certain point, they begin to entropy. Unless something new is added to the system, it will tend towards death. If we continue to apply the same-old, same-old solutions to address this problem, we are not bringing anything new into the system. ”Something new” requires learning. Learn what is working well. Learn what is not working well. Learn where the connections are within the business. Learn where the disconnects are. Learn from the customer.
A business will not have sustainable life unless it is infused with energy from outside itself. For a business to operate as a closed system, starving itself of innovation and creativity of its own people or ignorant of its customers and environment, entropy takes over. It will tend towards death. A “she’ll be right”, “it’ll sort itself out” attitude will lead to greater mess, greater randomness, and without new energy in the system to help deal with the mess, it will die away. Things do not sort themselves out. If I don’t maintain my house, it’ll eventually crumble over time. This is a real example of how the Second Law of Thermodynamics affects us. A hot cup of coffee will tend, over time, to lose heat. A living system starved of nourishment will eventually cease to exist. A business led by managers who see their role as nothing more than “competent supervision” will tend towards disintegration and eventually have a “Kodak moment” (not the picturesque kind). To be successful, a business must adapt to its ever-changing environment and to its own ever-changing internal dynamics that emerge out of the interactions between all the elements within in. A successful business must gain nourishment from outside its steady state: from innovation and creativity, from market information, from ongoing learning. When a business applies systems thinking, it can find new ways to renew itself.
Businesses that will do well in this networked age will overcome the natural phenomenon of entropy by becoming open to what could be and taking steps to do something different. They will learn to think bigger. They will see learning and renewal of their business processes as part of their new culture of continuous improvement. They will see the business as a living system and not a machine. They will see mistakes as opportunities for learning and renewal, rather than through the old lens as a “disciplinary issue”.
When Harold Jarche says work is learning and learning is the work, I think he’s suggesting that for a business to thrive, it must place learning at the heart of everything it does. Purposeful learning. Learning that is not “training” as we have visioned it up till now. Any training that is disconnected from the people is not sufficient. Learning that is not about the work is not sufficient. Real 21st century learning must change how we think, behave and interact with each other, as well as what we know. It must be relevant to purpose, activity and relationships. Not just one of those: all three. A business, which is a living system, requires relevant learning in order to subvert that thing which happens to all living systems: entropy.
January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
November 25, 2012
Don’t ask a systems thinker for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Of course performance, engagement, recruitment, they’re all connected, so your systems thinking friend will sound like a fruit loop because they’ll see the whole picture and proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you wanted to know is “how to get people to do stuff”. You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they come up with ideas that seem counter-intuitive at first, but are actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just lovely sounding theories that academics spout? (…wouldn’t work in the real world) In an effort to get them to answer your simple question, you keep repeating “Yes, but they are SUPPOSED to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s a systems issue.
One of the most important things I learnt from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behaviour change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviours”. Similarly, if you want behaviour change in an organisation, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life as a sociatrist, I apply my understanding of systems to organisations and organisational change, not merely the individuals within them.
We can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. As disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, one thing I observed (and I may be entirely off the mark here) is that people behave in ways which surprise themselves and which sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions which compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line. We do what we’re told.
What we need if we want organisational transformation, if we want more effective organisations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful: we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine in England recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just seem to want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioural problem” comes out of a mechanistic worldview. Yuck.
There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different….if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. I’ve been working with a manager and his two off-siders, all three of whom lead their business. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organisational transformation they are seeking to effect. Phase one: eliminating systems blindness. Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so hasn’t done yet again or what what’s-his-name is still doing, despite that one-to-one chat urging them to stop it. I let them get some things off their chest and jot down a few salient things that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a little while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviours as indicators of the wider patterns at play.
The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterised by:
- things done at the last minute without much fore-thought
- poor self-discipline with regards working practices
- low self-reponsibility
- poor following up of commitments and promises
- getting easily side-tracked
- being reactive, rather than proactive
- a “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
- inconsistency in work practices
- an overly laidback attitude towards work
- a “can’t do” attitude
Behaviours at work are tempered by the systemic norms; you could also say it’s the “culture”. You can read this in many places on the interweb: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. The system drives performance.
Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day. Deming
I’m utterly convinced (from my experience) that the organisational changes they want will come about when they focus their attention and their energies on the system and not on the individual behaviours of individual people. So when I share my observations with the three of them, they nod and smile and say, “That’s exactly what they’re like; that absolutely describes the culture.”
I then enquire as to what they’ve tried, in order to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions (for they are really lovely people), they tell me things like:
- “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
- “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
- “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following him up again.”
- “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
- “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
- “Yes, I had a chat with him and said I’d meet again a week later to see how he was getting on, but I let it slip.”
- “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back and I don’t know how I can get it across.”
After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, side-tracked etc etc…. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They (fortunately) find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system and that very same system will be exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.
Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not just true because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. It doesn’t matter how frustrating we find it, but the systems to which we belong will be exerting their influences on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves, as well as others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror, to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.
These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the current phase of their work together. Phase two: creating the vision of what you want. Now they are aware of this thing called “culture”, and that it impacts on them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to see the wood for the trees and are more able to make connections to the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” ”How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, need to stop and really think about it.
Lately, rather than see themselves as victims to all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less and less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. The things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) are the influencers which they can apply to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.
Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do (re-sharpening their sticks or coating their carrots with glitter), they are thrilled to devote more and more time in our sessions to the thing they want, rather than the multitude of things they don’t. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, about the staff and about the business.
Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.
Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt a little like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive and they are now talking more about modelling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility and “can do”, learning from mistakes and “just enough” structure….and for me, they are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to”.
In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.
August 30, 2012
I overheard a conversation recently where someone said in all seriousness, “In the new way of doing business, cooperation beats competition.” I was amused by the irony of the statement. We are infused with a competitive mindset from our earliest days on this planet, so it makes sense that the language in that statement would reflect this. In transition from one world view to another, we can sometimes only describe what we mean by using linguistic devices that belong to the old. The sentiment, however, rings true for me. Cooperation is, indeed, the way forward. Competition is often the way to get stuck. We are so embedded in competitive capitalism that it is almost impossible to think outside of it.
With the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in mind, competition in its most obvious form looks like a 100m race. Competition in its least sophisticated form looks like the schoolyard bully. Competition in its nascent form of classroom indoctrination looks like rewards and punishments for behaviour, memorisation ability and conformity or lack thereof. Competition in the “educated”, capitalist form of the workplace looks and sounds like subtle putdowns and power games. It is, as Bob Marshall eloquently put it, “promotion commotion”, it is incentives and bonuses, it is passive-aggressiveness, it is anti-social bosses, it is one-upmanship. We also get it in our political systems. ”Big-willy politics” as Simon Jenkins puts it, is the most dangerous form because it appeals to paranoia and prejudice, not reason and humanity. Popular culture brims with competition as lazy TV producers churn out cheap entertainment, mistaking treasure hunts and cooking programmes overdubbed with suspenseful music for drama. The judges even use language which implies death (pay the ultimate price) if the meringue is not crunchy enough. In saying that, I’m not implying competition per se is bad; I would suggest, however, that we default to a mindset and way of behaving which in many cases is counter-productive.
Unsurprising that such behaviours are unseen, condoned or unchecked because the dominant mode of running business is still hierarchical, command-and-control. Inherent in this mindset is competition. Bigger, better, more. A system based on power accumulation will elicit competitive behaviours. Businesses do this with each other and people within organisations do it at a micro-level. Our capitalist, consumerist social structures lead us to operate as if work is a transaction and humans are resources. It is not and they are not. This mindset facilitates a switch in how we view people, from an I-Thou perspective to I-It. According to Professor Simon Baron Cohen, when we switch from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective, we lose empathy for people. Their only value, then, is as a resource that will help me make more profit, advance my position, make me look good, give me some inside information, connect me with someone else I “need” and so on. My belief is that neither organisations nor the humans of whom they are composed (for the success of both are inextricably linked) will flourish unless we begin to practice greater cooperation.
I’ve seen too many vision statements that aspire only to “be the best blah blah in Australasia” or “the #1 provider of such-and-such in our sector” The all-hallowed “market” seems to operate quaintly like suitors in the 18th century vying for the hand of the lovely maiden. Who has the best prospects? Who has the biggest house? Who has the most well-connected family? Watching a costume drama, how our hearts sink when Lady Penelope chooses the dastardly capitalist or the arrogant fop over the one she truly loves. It draws comment in the 21st century when people choose partners for their “prospects” rather than for love, connection, companionship and trust. Why is the organisational world still playing this rather outdated little game?
From our earliest days at school, we were admonished for “copying” others’ work. The “right” way is to be quiet and “do your own work”. Humans are social animals and are at their best when cooperating with others. Competition is a virus which continues to breed unchecked, despite there not being much in the way of substantiated evidence or research that it is more effective than cooperation; quite the contrary. Research suggests that cooperation leads to higher achievement at school, provides health benefits (calmness and freedom from intense stress) and is correlated with increased creativity and success in the workplace.
Schools are ranked, ostensibly to provide a useful means with which to decide resource allocation, the result being, however, that principals, teachers and PTAs compete to maintain a nonsensical status that sometimes relegates the interests of children in classrooms. This system of ranking is multi-layered. From our earliest days at school, we are caught in this competitive treadmill, receiving rewards for being outstanding; for standing out. It’s an outward focus: how am I better (than them)? How am I different (from them)? The thing is, we are already different by the mere fact that we are who we are. In the business world, it becomes, “What’s my unique selling proposition?” I’ll tell you mine: that I’m me. That’s why I make such a big deal about growing self-awareness. Self-actualising is not a journey to work out what I’m not or to work out what makes me different from others; it’s a journey to work out who I am. Why focus outward and try to find a unique selling proposition? This seems “olde worlde” to me. The focus and locus of control is outside, not within. If our sense of self-worth is dependent on how unlike others we are, it is fragile. USPs, to me, imply a competitive mindset but nobody can really, truly compete with a person or a business that has a really clear idea of who they are, what they do and what they value. We increase satisfaction in life when we grow self-awareness, not when we get stuck in the hamster wheel that is “keeping up with the Joneses”. 21st century business finds success when competition as the prime modus operandi is supplanted with cooperation.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” Lao Tzu
Accentuating a cooperative way of being does not mean sinking into groupthink or losing critical abilities. Team or group conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else is not cooperation. Business can be a hive of searing conversation if everyone participates with a view to contributing to the whole, building on others’ input. It’s like the “yes game” that actors and improvisors play. Someone makes an opening gambit (an offer) and others play along (accept their offer), bringing creativity and a sense of community. No one person’s contribution is better than another’s and people play, not with the idea of being the best, but of co-creating something purposeful and fresh. Consider the difference between these two scenes:
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Oh. It’s just that I saw you limping.”
- “My foot is fine. I wasn’t limping, this is how I normally walk.”
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Caught it in a bear trap.”
- “Really? Have they started laying bear traps in the staff room?”
- “Yea, it’s meant to keep out the bears, they’ve been raiding the staff fridge again.”
- “I wondered who kept eating my yoghurt.”
This is, of course, a light-hearted illustration, but the relationship dynamics are real. In scene one, the person who makes the offers (you have something wrong with your foot, you are limping) struggles to get any traction in the dialogue as both offers are rejected. In scene two, their offers are accepted and the other person builds on to them, with the result being the two create something that neither could have created without cooperation. Workplace conversations often sound like scene one, coming across like the Monty Python argument sketch, people in opposition to one another, getting stuck.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Thanks for that idea, have a listen to mine now.”
“I think you’re coming at it the wrong way.”
“What you fail to see is….”
What we get with this non-cooperative, or competitive, modus operandi, is missed opportunities, and an overall decrease in human achievement. Cooperating with others stimulates our creativity. Cooperation opens doors to ideas and solutions that we might never have come across on our own, trying to be the star pupil.
As a practitioner of systems thinking, I take note of a highly relevant article which identifies different kinds of systems with reference to their levels of cooperation or competition: eco-, bio- and mechanical. Mechanical systems (machines being the most obvious example) require very high levels of cooperation, otherwise the machine just doesn’t work. Machines, however, are highly predictable, low in complexity and are designed to do exactly what they are designed to do. If a part breaks, you fix it and the machine will carry on functioning. Bio-systems are higher in complexity and rely on very high levels of cooperation. The human body is a perfect example. In order to flex your arm, your triceps and biceps must work in concert. While they are opposing each other in their movement, they are not in competition. Bio-systems might be said to be at just the right balance between order and chaos. They have evolved just enough “in-synch-ness” so that they work as unified systems and meet the challenges of life, however, there is enough plasticity to allow for growth and development in response to a changing environment. The components of a bio-system work in concert until age or disease cause certain components to (appear to) compete in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
Eco-systems are highly complex and are composed of interactions between multiple bio-systems and mechanical systems. Two types of eco-systems abound on planet Earth: biological and social. Biological eco-systems (flora and fauna, for example) tend to be highly competitive, with species or members of the same species competing for limited resources to survive. Social (or human) eco-systems are just as natural as any coral reef. However, humans have the advantage of being able to overcome the constraints of scarcity that other eco-systems do not. We have no natural predators, save ourselves. The thing that binds our human systems are our evolved cognitive and emotional abilities, which we can deploy as we relate to each other. We have highly evolved relationship capabilities that other eco-systems do not, however we seem to dispense with these at the merest hint of a perceived threat to our existence. We do not have to sleepwalk through time as if we were a coral reef, mindless and thought-less and slave to the natural competitive instincts that go with being an eco-system. I repeat: we have no natural predators, save ourselves. We humans need to become more self-awake and curtail some of our less-evolved competitive ways. Competitive politics is a clumsy way to govern ourselves and and unregulated markets are human disasters.
The workplace is not a jungle. It is not a battlefield. We need to apply ourselves to behaving more like bio-systems: work in concert for the good of the whole. We’ve had competitive practices instilled in us for so long that we need to become conscious of how we work with others. In a complex and networked workplace of the 21st century, we need to learn and stretch our cooperative abilities and to inculcate cooperative practice on a daily basis until it just becomes the way things get done. The fact is that we are interdependent. Why not start acting like it? Why not start acting like this is a world of “we”, not “me”?
Act cooperatively. Let’s play the “yes game” with people at work. When discussing things, let’s become aware of opportunities to listen, to “add in” and to “build on”, rather than simply counter what others have to say.
Learn to transcend self-interest. No quid pro quo. Let’s practice “building on”, sharing and contributing for no other reason than to do it and build community with others.
Cultivate an attitude of conviviality. Con-vivere = live together. Let’s become aware of those moments when we could do something different and behave as if we are happy to share this planet, this town, this industry sector, this office-space with others. Our survival as a species depends on it. Our survival as co-workers depends on it. Business survival depends on it. (….or become a hermit.) In fact, beyond survival, I’d say that we thrive on it.
Build coalitions, not empires. Let’s stop pretending that this is a medieval battle for territory; it’s not. Market competition appeals to our primitive narcissistic paranoia; no-one is out to get us. (We have no natural predators, save ourselves, remember?) Let’s stop pretending that there is such a thing as intellectual property; it’s an illusion. Information and knowledge are for sharing, not hoarding. Status and accolade or synthesis and creativity: which will take us further?
We have no natural predators……
May 28, 2012
Business leaders: when I use the word “culture”, do you screw up your face and say “Love and peace, man”? I’m no aging hippie; in any case, I was born 10 years too late to be part of that movement. Business culture is no wiffly-waffly discretionary add-on. It’s central to effectiveness and business improvement. I do admit a fondness for better communication, greater self-awareness, lots more empathy and way less fear in the workplace (man), but this comes out of a firmly held view that there is huge scope for workplaces to be more humanised, which will have a huge impact on effectiveness. I also have a firmly held view that a real leader is one who seeks to steward the business culture; not find things to measure so they can prove how useless people are. My thinking about “culture” comes out of the intellectual rigour that is Systems Thinking.
To illustrate the power of culture, have a look at what is going on for Rebekah Brooks. Former editor of both The Sun and News of the World tabloids and former chief executive of News International, Brooks is reported as feeling astonished at the treatment she is receiving by prosecuting authorities in the UK, in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal that caused Rupert Murdoch to shut down The News of the World. She is quoted as saying, “Whilst I have always respected the criminal justice system, you have to question (do you Rebekah?) whether this decision has been made on a proper impartial assessment of the evidence. Although I understand the need for a thorough investigation, I am baffled by the decision to charge me.” Her husband goes on to say that she is the subject of a witch-hunt. Good word, that.
After reading about this, I was left wondering if anyone who ever had NI “journalists” camped outside their home for days on end in the pursuit of some salacious tittle-tattle felt hounded or witch-hunted or if those whose phones were hacked felt anger or bafflement at the invasion of their privacy? I also wonder if anyone who worked for News International ever felt compromised by the culture of the system? Or felt compromised by the practice of relentlessly stalking some celebrity or politician in pursuit of juicy gossip (usually not in the public interest, but more often in the public fascination)? Or felt compromised by the use of elaboration, insinuation or hyperbole in order to create prurient effect? I wonder if anyone who worked for News International has ever felt fearful about speaking up about unethical, unfair or unreasonable practices (such as phone hacking) within that business? I suspect they did.
Did Brooks really think that she wouldn’t be subject to the forces of the system which she presided over? The inquiry investigating the phone hacking has even heard that Brooks herself had her phone hacked. Surprising? Not much. In a system that, according to a former News of the World employee, was permeated by fear and riven with unethical practices, should she really be baffled that she felt its harsh bite? This same employee alleges lying, fabrication and blackmail and goes on to say that while he couldn’t justify his actions, the culture at the News of the World was somewhat to blame. Makes sense to me.
While I feel sympathy for anyone who is hounded and unfairly spotlighted, it is no surprise to me that Rebekah Brooks would be subject to the very same system forces that The Sun or News of the World’s “victims” were. I don’t say this out of schadenfreude; to my eyes, I simply see this as part of the whole. Not for nothing do we have expressions such as, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” or “Those who judge will be judged.” She is unfortunately, feeling the effects of the very same system. If you set up and maintain a system which is corrupt, hostile and defined by fear, you will also feel its effects.
What could stand in the way of someone challenging a sick or ineffective culture? Should they overcome their systems blindness and open their eyes to a system’s dysfunction, why might someone continue to do the “dumb” thing?
“A bad system will defeat a good person, every time.” Deming
In many businesses, the fear is palpable. Managers at all levels behave in ways that communicate, either directly or by implication, that people should not challenge the boss, challenge the status quo or give honest feedback. I’ve seen businesses where people fear doing or saying anything that might damage career prospects, where they worry about being excluded from decision-making because their ideas might seem a little too crazy and therefore an inconvenience to conventional thinking or where they are concerned about being judged for having an idea that is not clever enough. They see managers as task-masters as opposed to leaders who are there to assist them.
“Your people are doing their best, but their best efforts cannot compensate for your inadequate and dysfunctional system.” Scholtes
While I entirely accept that people need to know what is expected of them in their work so that they can make a valuable contribution to the business’ objectives, putting emphasis on measuring individual performance without attending to the culture will be detrimental to the whole. Even though a leader can legitimately challenge someone’s performance, there will be a line that they cross when a challenge is perceived as a threat. Even if fear, threats or intimidation manage to get people to achieve their KPIs, eventually the culture will undermine their efforts anyway.
“Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” Deming
Greater self-awareness on the part of the leader is essential, therefore. When you issue a challenge, does it come out of irritation? Or do you play the role of Investigator, seeking to uncover what may be behind poor performance: inadequate resources or information? fragmented workplace relationships? a need for training or development? lack of clarity? undefined vision? All of these things sit within the remit of the leader to address and an investigative approach will uncover what needs attending to in the system.
Be very careful how you generate greater effectiveness. Be very careful, also, to do things which proactively generate a culture of trust and collaboration. While most of us like to think we are peaceful people, if we join a system characterised by fear, we will eventually come down with the same sickness as everyone else and begin respond to people from a fear-based paradigm. Managers in such a system will therefore become driven by fear and abuse their authority. Drive out fear. Leaders must become more self-aware. They must notice how they respond and relate to people. They must be better able to notice themselves and understand how they inculcate fear in the culture. Before leaping on an individual about their performance, look at the culture you steward:
- Do you think that people limit themselves to saying what they think you want to hear?
- How clear are people as to what is expected of them?
- How well-resourced are people so that they can do their jobs? Do they have the information and networks in place that mean they can get on and do it? How would you know? If people require further training or development, what opportunities do you provide for them?
- How do you respond to “failure”?
- How competitive or political is your business? How much do you witness (or know of) backstabbing, damning with faint praise, belittling or undermining? (…and how much do you do this?)
What are you supposed to do about it? I hate 10 top tips; life is way messier than that. There are some directions you could head towards though. This is the stuff of culture.
- Make sure everyone knows the game you are all playing together. Ensure people have a clear understanding of the “why” of the business. Ensure people know exactly what is expected of them, the business has robust (but not too restrictive) systems and processes and that they have all they need to do their jobs. This is your job.
- Model trust in others. How are you going to drive out fear unless you embody trust. If you don’t trust people, take up some personal development. Can they trust you?
- Be curious, not punitive. In the face of “failure” or “dysfunction”, take up the role of Investigative Consultant, not the Sheriff; if Deming was correct, there are adjustments to the whole system that will probably lead to longer-lasting improvements. How do you respond to failure? Responding to people and situations with greater equanimity will go a long way to driving out fear. Struggling to develop curiosity and equanimity? Take up some personal development and deal with your anger issues.
- Be patient. Shifting a system does not happen overnight. While you might get “good behaviour” for a short while after tearing strips off someone, making adjustments to the whole system will not necessarily generate immediate results. However they will be longer lasting and much more significant for the business. Having trouble with being patient? Take up some personal development.
- Look for patterns. Not much in this universe is a one-off. If you can’t see the pattern, you just haven’t seen it yet. Address systemic patterns, take out blame, think bigger.
People do dumb things. Or rather, they fail to do smart things, even though it’s obvious to everyone else what the right thing to do is. They also do dumb things even if they also know in their heart of hearts that it’s dumb. I’m including myself in this, of course. While I like to think I’m the master of my own destiny, I know I’m not an island and am subject to the vagaries of the systems I’m a part of.
I consult with a number of people who sometimes despair at the dumb things their managers do. They throw their hands up in frustration at the dumb things their company asks them to do. In saying this, however, I am not leaping to the conclusion that people are dumb. There will be many factors as to why we don’t do the smart thing. Upton Sinclair, for example, said, “It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his (or her) salary depends on his (or her) not understanding it.” We endure anti-social bosses or mindless busy-work or bizarre hierarchies because in a lot of cases, making sure we pay for food on our tables and a roof over our heads takes precedence over what our hearts or guts tell us. Sad but true and I’ve been there myself.
My thoughts come out of a synthesis of some conversations I’ve had with clients of late. Even in the face of good hard evidence, we still do dumb things. There has been enough analysis of the global financial crisis, for instance, to indicate that letting loose the dogs of war on the floors of the world’s financial exchanges was, in hindsight, dumb. By grossly unregulating global financial systems, the conditions were set for the crash to happen. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, said recently that they should have “shouted from the rooftops” their concerns about the impending catastrophe before 2007-08. Apparently, he saw something coming, but was too timid to tell anyone. But now with crystal clear 20:20 hindsight, you’d expect those with the power and authority to do something about modifying those conditions to actually do something about it, wouldn’t you? If they saw how everything is connected to everything (and if they really cared), you’d expect those who can see what happened and the hardship it has created for people far and wide to adjust the regulations so that it doesn’t happen again, wouldn’t you? You’d expect those with the capacity to shift the culture away from short-term greed and entitlement, to take the bull by the horns and reign in financially and socially irresponsible behaviour, crafting a system founded on greater accountability and sustainability. Wouldn’t you?
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they did, but I wasn’t at all astonished to hear the UK Minister of Defence saying that consumers must accept responsibility for their part in the financial crisis. Sure, it’s true that the banks were not the only ones who were behaving badly. Governments did it, consumers did it. Not to excuse anyone and at the same time, not to blame anyone, who set the conditions? Who set up a system that not only condoned, but encouraged and modelled unreasonable borrowing? Who unregulated the financial systems? Who let the dogs out? I think if we had leaders worth their salt, they’d take a good look at themselves and realise that the responsibility and the authority now rests with them to change the rules of the game. It is dumb to blame people for playing by the rules you set for the game.
While managers do dumb things, they sometimes inherit dumb (read: not fit for purpose) systems. Here’s where the leader’s responsibility sits. When faced with a dumb system, we can either:
- blame someone else and say “It’s just how we’ve always done things around here. What can you do?”
- pretend we see nothing and carry on doing the same dumb thing until the laws of physics hit us hard. The words “sub-prime”, “derivatives”, “Lehman” and “Brothers” might be springing to mind.
- actively set out to create a system or a culture that is fit for purpose, that is humane and that allows people to learn, do meaningful work and bring themselves to what they do
In the same way it is dumb to blame consumers for the financial crisis, it is unfair to say your manager is being dumb when they are doing what the system is set up for them to do. To paraphrase Deming, “Every manager supposes that he (or she) is doing their best, (however), their best is embedded in the present system of management.”
It is often the system of management that is dumb, not the people within it.
It’s an interesting paradox that every manager will be subject to the forces that act upon and within the system they operate, while at the same time, systems thinking suggests that the job of a manager is to manage that very same system. To borrow from Homer Simpson: “Ah, the system. The cause of and solution to all of our problems.” This is especially challenging because, just as a system cannot observe itself, it is hard for a manager who is within the system to get a good big picture view of it. It is also hard for a manager who lives the effects of the system to extricate him or herself from it. For example, in a business where people struggle to keep to deadlines, senior managers will often struggle with the same thing. In a system characterised by crossed lines and miscommunication, managers will similarly experience the same frustrations as everyone else while at the same time causing said frustration in others, sometimes failing to see themselves behaving in the same way. If the senior leaders cannot see this dynamic, it will continue to be a blind spot and, unseen, will remain unaddressed.
When Deming said that “the prevailing style of management must undergo transformation,” I believe he was pointing the way to a sea-change in what managers believe their jobs to be: from “Doer-in-Chief” to “Steward of the Culture” or “System Steward”. By taking up the role of Steward, I believe leaders will be much better placed to take the bigger picture view that is required in order to effect the transformation of the system. The place to exert influence is not at the level of what people do (their tasks and function), but at the level of values and mindsets. A leader who sees themselves as Chief Doer will orient their management practice more to what people DO. If they take up the role of Steward instead, they will diagnose the working of the whole, not viewing the business as a bunch of bits, some of which appear to be working well and some which appear to be dysfunctional. One particular manager who I believe to be a really effective Systems Steward would say that without his big picture perspective, the appearance of a well-functioning “part” may only be smoke and mirrors.
Not for nothing do they say that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is the thing out of which emerge the results, so the systems leader will focus their attention on the cause and not try to manage the results. No amount of intense planning can mitigate for the cultural, or systemic, phenomena which impact far more on what gets done and how it gets done. Once again, the point of leverage is not at the “doing” level; it’s at the culture level. One of the challenges of a Systems Steward is to identify the most likely drivers for real change from a bigger picture perspective and to develop and nurture organisational processes and patterns that support a healthy and effective culture. An overly deterministic and linear results-based management style will not achieve this. Establishing a set of guiding principles and values, formulating and communicating a vision and direction, promoting ongoing learning and setting rough boundaries within which the business will operate are the way ahead if a manager wishes to behave as a Systems Steward. I’m watching that manager I just mentioned doing these things and it gives me heart.
A Systems Steward attempts to overcome systems blindness, that inability to see what we are currently mired it. One of the symptoms of systems blindness is that people within a business fail to see or misinterpret key relationships within the business. In other words, staff begin to mistrust senior management, senior management begin to mistrust middle management, sales staff begin to mistrust administrative support staff and so on. This occurs because, when afflicted with systems blindness, people lose sight of one of the key binding agents: relationships. Don’t underestimate the amount of attention that should be put into positive working relationships throughout the system. Once established, they also need to be maintained. Always.
A leader who acts as Systems Steward will also aim to assist the system reconnect with itself, help it understand itself better. This can be facilitated by ensuring that processes related to feedback, information sharing and knowledge management are in place and functioning well. These things lie at the heart of transformation and ongoing renewal. If relationships are the connective tissue of a business, information and knowledge are its nutrients.
Are you a Systems Steward type of leader? Do you know any Systems Stewards in business?
What experiences have you had of systems blindness?
As always, I welcome comments.
July 11, 2011
I’m currently in the process of working with a bunch of Leader-Managers who struggle to engage with each other in conversations which some call ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’. It has been useful for me to remember that there are two strands to this phenomenon: the cultural and the personal. Just as a ladder has two main rails connected by steps or rungs, if one rail is missing or faulty, the ladder fails to serve its purpose. Similarly, if either the cultural or the personal strands of ‘challenging conversations’ is absent or underdeveloped, the organisation may well find that there are a whole bunch of conversations that are just not being had.
When crafting a learning programme to address this phenomenon, it is therefore essential to address both the cultural and the personal. Send someone off to a workshop to develop the skills within themselves and put them back into an organisational system that does not support these conversations or acts to undermine Managers who try to have them, and what you may see is a Manager who grows increasingly frustrated with the ‘system’. These Managers may decide that it’s not worth trying to have performance conversations because they only end up looking like the office ogre; and nothing much changes. The conversations don’t get had; performance issues remain unaddressed and eventually snowball until they become personal; and HR (or the CEO) who sent the Manager on the workshop wonders why they bother to invest in training because “nothing ever really changes”, amplifying the cynicism that exists in some quarters about Learning and Development.
Alternatively, you could invest in some sort of ‘culture change process’ that highlights the need for the organisation to shift its thinking around performance conversations. This may result in people becoming excited about new possibilities. They now see that being ‘people friendly’ and ‘performance oriented’ are not mutually exclusive. They become hopeful that things will finally change around the place as all those poor performers will FINALLY get a good talking-to. Without attending to the ‘personal’ strand, however, you may find that there are a number of Managers who lack the capability to challenge their staff, their peers or their own bosses without damaging working relationships. Growing a culture that affirms performance conversations is not, after all, a green light for a no-holds-barred free-for-all 1970s style encounter group where you just tell everyone what you think without being aware of the consequences. Without addressing the personal, you may also find that there are still some Managers who beat around the bush so much because of their own internal ‘stuff’ that people are left wondering what point they are trying to make.
An effective programme is one where both the cultural and the personal are addressed. It can be easier to start with the cultural, simply because the things that influence someone’s ability to have these conversations inevitably involves emotions such as fear or disappointment, and starting with the bigger picture can defuse any hijacking of what should be a constructive analysis of the phenomenon. Get a group of Manager-Leaders to discuss questions such as:
- How often do we all challenge others in this organisation?
- What determines how often we do this?
- What are some barriers to this happening?
- What makes it easy for this to happen?
- What would need to change in our organisational culture in order for these conversations to happen more frequently and effectively?
Starting off with the big picture depersonalises the issue from any one Manager or group of Managers and also can uncover the fact that many folks struggle with similar things. This can also warm people up to taking the next step, which is to look at the more personal aspects. These are the things which each person can develop in themselves. An effective programme, when focussing on this strand, will incorporate experiential techniques that coach Leader-Managers to practise new behaviours and to integrate them in such a way that they become part of their repertoire of responses to people.
Addressing the organisational culture as well as the personal capabilities of each Leader-Manager, therefore, is essential if your investment is to pay dividends. Taking such a systemic approach will also require time and patience in order for the shifts to embed and for the improvements in performance, staff retention and teamwork to filter through, but filter through they will.