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 10, 2013
Know how you have an experience and some song lyrics pop into your head that seem to have been written especially for it? ”Expert textpert, choking smoker, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” Parallel process. Happens to me all the time when I’m working. I suddenly notice that what the client is doing, what they act out, is exactly what I’m being drawn into and I respond out of a parallel mindset. I might have thought of “..caught in a trap…I can’t walk out…” but I’m not an Elvis fan. And I’m working with a business that is stuck because of a highly dependent culture. The creativity of the people is not being unleashed as it could be. And how do they relate to me? As the expert: dependent for the “expert advice”. And what do I do? Show off some daft diagram like some kind of expert.
I’ve been stuck on the phenomenon of inertia lately (no pun intended). Fascinated as I am by physics, I have been noticing this phenomenon in the area of how people operate both individually and in teams. Not wanting to teach anyone to suck eggs, inertia states simply that any object that is stationary will remain so unless acted upon by another force and any object that is in motion will remain so unless acted upon by another force. What I see in many situations is people and organisations bound by inertia. Without wanting to place a value judgement on inertia per se, in many of these cases, there is a “stuckness” which is unsatisfying for the person or business concerned and something new is needed to get them out of their rut.
In our work, we apply the concept of a “conserve”. Jakob Moreno set out a cycle of spontaneity, creativity and cultural conserve. Spontaneity sparks creativity which leads to the creation of a conserve. Conserves abound in our world. Handel’s Messiah. The Mona Lisa. Gangnam Style. Bugs Bunny. Antiseptic. The internet. Artefacts and menefacts that come about as a result of a creative act, spurred on by the spontaneity state that arises in us when we warm up to it. This new thing becomes the conserve off of which the next creative act springboards into life, so, for example, Web 1.0 was the jumping-off place for Web 2.0, the iPhone 3 begat 3GS which begat 4 which begat the 5. As long as the conserve is viewed as the starting place for the next thing, it’s all good, but if the conserve becomes too conserved, it can become a rut. Artefacts and mentefacts. Mindsets are just as much a conserve as any creative act.
As I’ve written earlier, I’m on a health kick this year. Moreno believed that one key to health was creativity. When I think about how living systems tend towards entropy, this makes sense to me. If organisations are to counteract the “heat-death of the universe” (thanks to @thinkingpurpose for that expression), they need to add more stuff into the system. Businesses, like each of us individually, can get stuck in ruts, subject to inertia. If we don’t inject something new into our systems, we carry on as we have been. Creativity is a superb way to bring in new stuff. The Morenian method sets out to challenge people to be more creative by developing greater spontaneity, which is the spark that sets creativity alight. Furthermore, the method calls on people to work together to develop new role responses to life’s challenges, rather than remain in isolation and continue to operate out of a limited repertoire of responses.
I mentioned four synchronous conversations with four different clients in a recent article. Synchronous because all four identified some things that they are sick and tired of and ready to shift. One of these things they are trying to grow is a greater sense of WE and, hand in hand with that is a move away from their cultures of dependency. The two are inextricably linked for these four businesses. If we get greater WE and we act out of mutuality and interdependency, rather than silos and dependency, we can unleash something new and mitigate for the inexorable slide towards extinction and ultimate disorder. We need both: WE-ness and mutuality.
What’s wrong with a culture of dependency? From the perspective of those who lead these businesses, this is manifest by the guys at the top saying to me, “If I didn’t look over their shoulder/do it/nag, it wouldn’t get done.” They don’t like this. They relate to me their concern that people aren’t bringing all of their creativity to work. For these businesses, a culture of dependency means that people don’t take initiative. It means that the managers have to cajole, berate or get grumpy. It means that people take up little responsibility, let alone accountability, for in their cultures of dependency, accountability lies with the bosses. In other words, they are left with a mentefact of Industrial Age organisation. “The boss has the answers, the boss knows best, if something went wrong, it wasn’t my fault, it was the boss’s fault .” Blaming and excuse-making reigns in a dependency culture. ”You didn’t get me the right tools.” ”You didn’t tell me the right way to do it.” ”If you’d given me the afternoon off yesterday, I wouldn’t be so tired today.”
To head towards the responsibility-taking, initiative-taking culture of WE, something needs to work on their inertia which keeps them in cultures of dependency. Looking at structure and relationships would help. I’m pondering next steps with one client who, when I simply showed this diagram:
…took up a defensive position, seeming to lecture me on how important structure was, otherwise there would be disorder (failing to see that both pictures illustrate a structure, just that the one on the right was weird and alien). With regards this particular organisation, one thought that popped into mind was, “..and disorder would be a BAD thing??” The second thought that popped into mind was, “…and explain to me how you would class the way things run around here as ‘order’”. When I stopped thinking facetious thoughts, I took a step back and noticed that the response was exactly what the hierarchical system in which they exist would expect them to say. I had a little flash to that awful, car crash of a reality programme, “The Hotel Inspector”. Some poor unfortunate hotelier, whose business is going down the gurgler, calls in an expert, someone who has years of top hotel experience, to help them turn their business around. The expert comes in, berates the unfortunate for doing it all wrong, gives them advice on what they need to do instead and goes away for a few weeks to see if they put it into practice. As I watch, I’m on the side of the expert, purely because for dramatic tension (presumably because TV producers can no longer afford to pay proper dramatic writers and actors for decent TV any more), they choose a hotelier who is utterly hopeless. For added tension, the besieged hotelier proceeds to argue with the expert. So I wonder, “Why on Earth did you ask for expert advice if you just wanted to rebut everything they said?? Why on Earth did you invite them in to your establishment if all you wanted to do was justify why you were right and they were wrong??”
See what I’m getting at? A business calls you in to be the “outside eye” and make some observations about their organisation and its culture and when you make an observation (an observation, mind, not advice), they are stuck in the mindset that defines their current culture (inertia again) to explain why anything outside their normal ken is just fantastical. There are ways and ways to introduce that “something new” into the system, however.
Now, I’ve made mention in previous articles that I write to help me digest and reflect on experiences I have in my work. My thinking is already a little clearer than it was when I started writing this one, and if even one reader is still with me, thank you immensely for bearing with my narcissistic reflections. The way forward with this client is to take a much more softly, softly approach. They are 2D creatures and can’t make sense of this 3D blob that’s appeared before them. There is a process of slowly uncovering what they don’t yet see about themselves. This follows on very nicely (I love synchronicity) from Dan Oestreich’s comments on my previous article: “Genuine learning implies… birthing new consciousness; looking and really seeing…and therein lies a problem….as raw conscious awareness can be painful.” And what do we human animals do when we are in pain? We fight, we flee or we freeze. The CEO who took such exception to my simple diagram (even though I’d indicated no preference, harboured no advice, pointed out no likeness) saw himself and his organisation in the mirror. And it hurt.
His response was a perfect response from someone at the head of a culture infused with dependency. Defer or defy. That’s what you do with an authority figure. Either defer utterly to authority or defend yourself from the authority’s complete idiocy. In this instance, I was the “authority” in his eyes. Someone from outside with some so-called expertise. Dependency: I’ll wait for the leader to tell me what to do, even though I’m a free-thinking, intelligent human animal who manages to run all other aspects of my life without referring to someone else for permission. OR If it goes pear-shaped, it’s because the leader didn’t tell me how to do it, didn’t tell me how to do it properly, didn’t tell me to stop doing what I was already doing.
So I am sitting with this phrase rolling around my head, “Sociatrist, heal thyself.” I care deeply about this particular organisation, they do some amazing, truly life-changing work in their world. I like the CEO immensely, I have known him for over 15 years. If I am to be of any assistance, I need to role reverse much better with him and the others in his senior team. I need to notice my response to his response and observe the parallel process at play. You know the old adages, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” “Your work is your work”, etc etc. In my first facetious thoughts, I am tuning into the dependency in the air and doing what those awful Hotel Inspectors do. If I really care about making a difference, I need to come alongside my client in a way which assists them to gently see themselves better and warms up THEIR spontaneity to a new creative act. If I didn’t care about this client, I could continue to bully them into seeing things they aren’t yet ready to see. I see a dependency culture. If I am to be with them as they shift it, I need to become more aware of myself and what my role is in that. Do I relate to them as some kind of expert? Maybe I did when I flashed that diagram. In their eyes, it might have looked like that. That’s not what a organisation caught in the inertia of dependency needs.
So, I am left to ponder my own warm up, how to I warm up my own spontaneity to my own creativity and meet them quite differently next time. Having said what I’ve said, I do believe that cultures of dependency in organisations are not healthy. I will continue my work with this client for as long as I can. But I need to be more cognisant of myself and how I approach them so I don’t trigger a dependency response in them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being the expert, exacerbated by a business that is bound by its own inertia and can’t see another way yet.
…..and do you know what the team asked me at the end of this session? ”So, are there some things about us you need to tell us?” Not going to fall into that. I want to companion them, to assist them to observe themselves and not to do the dependent thing. They are highly talented and creative individuals. With a little nudging, they can shift to a place where they make observations of themselves. So easy to give in to the invitation to be “the expert”. It’s not what the world needs now.
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.
October 21, 2012
Part one (A Way In)
There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side. The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2. He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?” The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow! Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before! It’s great, how’s yours?” Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”
Two points about this:
One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim. I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water. However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it. This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives. We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on. They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.
And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there. It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same. It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water. What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2. That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.
Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.
Why bother with systems thinking?
Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting. The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”. However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset. A more sophisticated mindset is required first. A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.
A transition is occurring, however. As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming. We are in between the old and the new. As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)
When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing. Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts. We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves. Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word. In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay. An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away. Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so. Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.
There is another way to see things
Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different. The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary. People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got. We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends. Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening. Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening. Same word, different meanings. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one. Duck 2.0.” No. Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions. The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2. So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.
If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy. We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world. If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester. Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker. You see and say things that others think are a little crazy. Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically. We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all. So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey
I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred. I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music. The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting. When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all. This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves. The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.
Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar. In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down. In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure). They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet. It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body. This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.
Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system. One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters. If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”. Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)? Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement. Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture. Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness. Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose. They just do what they’re told.
The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough. Everything is connected to everything else. Most folks would say that makes sense. The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.
September 23, 2012
Fresh from running a workshop on responsible leadership, I’m feeling buoyant that the participants entered into the conversation with gusto and were open to the idea that humans engage in their work because they seek out meaning, mastery and autonomy. To a large extent, I was not only preaching to the converted but taking the lead from them. Their work is based on a developmental, strengths-based worldview and they do it because they see the real difference that it makes to their clients. When I proposed that McGregor’s Theory XY and the work of Daniel Pink was providing us with a compelling case for re-visioning how we “do” leadership, there seemed to be general approval. They seemed thrilled that there has been significant theory and research on what makes work work. One person excitedly told the story of her previous workplace that had got to a crisis point, completely revamped its management practice and leadership approach by adopting a Theory Y attitude and turned their business around. Similarly, we at Quantum Shift are working with a client who also views people through a Theory Y lens and is in the middle of a deep transformation of how their business is organised and the light at the end of the transformation tunnel is clear and bright.
Then my heart sinks a little as I read in this morning’s New Zealand Herald, an article entitled “Fear, greed and vanity are excellent staff motivators.” I couldn’t resist reading, it tempted me in, much as those faux science documentaries in which the narrator at some point intones mysteriously, “Was Darwin wrong?” This invariably causes me to exclaim, “NO!” in frustration at the thrall in which ancient myths and fairy stories still grip us. To give the writer of that piece his due, he does start his argument with “in my opinion”, however we are on shaky ground if we base management and leadership of our organisations purely on opinion. Haven’t we learnt that research and study goes a long way to correcting long-held beliefs that get in the way of good practice?
He closes his article by saying, “…all other things being equal, an engaged workforce is more productive than a disengaged one – but the pyramids were built with the whip. We should not forget that.” Reminds me of that quote by Deming, “Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” While it may be that the pyramids were built with the whip (although I learnt when I was in Egypt recently that new archaeological discoveries are showing that it was not slave labour that built the pyramids after all), it also used to be the case that children were used as chimney sweeps, women were burnt at the stake for witchcraft and leeches were considered cutting edge medicine. While everyone is entitled to their prejudices (for that’s all Theory X is as far as I’m concerned), it’s more than a little frustrating when someone is given air time in the business column of a national newspaper to reinforce something backed by no evidence, bar his experience as a company liquidator. Theory X is one which is being challenged by contemporary research into what motivates people. If we take as long to update our perspective on this as we did to acknowledge that the sun is the centre of the solar system, I predict that it will take until the year 2110 before we find workplaces everywhere have at last unleashed people’s genuine desire to do something meaningful and that work will have long since ceased to be paid-for slave labour (or that we need gamification to help us pretend otherwise).
In the meantime, we still have conversations about how to motivate employees. Way back in 2006, a piece appeared in the Harvard Management Update entitled “Stop Demotivating your Employees”. It came out of some research that showed that when people join organisations they are initially enthusiastic, but that they very quickly lose motivation due to management behaviours and styles. This research, by the way, was conducted with 1.2 million employees at 52 businesses, so it’s not simply the opinion of the three authors. The question, then, is not about finding ways to motivate and engage people. It’s about letting them get on with it, stopping demotivating them.
Central to this is re-visioning the role of a manager. Much of what a manager does gets in the way and leads to situations where they then ponder how to motivate and engage. As Bob Marshall puts it in “Lay off the Managers”, we need management, but much of what managers do is dysfunctional. If we do away with the old Theory X prejudice and embrace the science behind Theory Y, the flow on from this is that the job of managing will look and feel quite different. Some of the things that go on in some of the businesses to which I consult include:
- Policies and procedures that try to mitigate for every possible contingency and overwhelm people with the sheer scale of information they are required to know before actually doing their jobs.
- Micro-managers who need to oversee not only what people do but how they do it.
- Command-and-control hierarchies that centralise decision-making away from the point at which the decisions could more ably be made.
- Managers who hoard power and operate out of a need to be in control of things (and when they can’t, sabotage the hard work of others).
As Deming states in this short video clip, “one is born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning.” These are crushed out by “forces of destruction” throughout our lives. He wonders out loud, “Why crush them out? Why not nurture them?” Indeed. He goes on to say that mere change will not do it. ”We cannot just remodel the prison.” He is talking about transformation, not mere patchwork, not tinkering round the edges.
Backed by research, I believe that Theory Y is in an ascendancy, albeit a slow one (cf. Copernicus). Symptomatic of this, many managers have cottoned on to this new-fangled thing called “engagement”. It seems that some studies have shown that businesses with motivated and engaged staff are far more productive and effective at what they do. That’s pretty compelling. So in the name of creating happier workers, some go through a PR makeover, adopting some kind of newspeak so that people think things have actually changed. That, or they induce people and customers to “like” them by trying to make the same old work seem more fun and interesting. I’m not so sure this is transformation.
Deming talks about transformation as a new kind of reward, but not one that gives you points on a leader board, an extra staff party or an incentive bonus in your pay packet. He talks about restoring the individual. This kind of transformation will unleash the power of human resourcefulness contained in intrinsic motivation and which people are born with. That’s meaning, mastery and autonomy for you Daniel Pink fans. Or self-actualisation for you Maslow fans. Dispensing with extrinsic motivators and transforming business to release people’s intrinsic motivation can lead to less competition and greater cooperation which, in time, will lead to greater innovation, greater service, greater material reward for everyone, joy in work, joy in learning. There is the new kind of reward. Everyone will win in this transformation.
It truly boggles my mind that folks like the author of that NZ Herald article would consider themselves as hardworking and motivated by success yet presume others are inherently lazy, selfish and greedy. Certainly, these are human qualities and ones which we all possess in some measure. We are not slaves to them, however, and in my experience, under the right conditions, we will just as easily bring out the best of ourselves. Under the kind of conditions that model and condone laziness and selfishness, however, I can understand why would people would fail to engage themselves fully. Genuine transformation of business, therefore, is essential; this means a real systemic shift in attitudes and beliefs about people. Getting the “right conditions” for people to flourish is a pre-condition for them to bring their whole selves to work.
In my understanding of McGregor’s Theory Y, those marvellous things he outlines will come to fruition under the right conditions. This is important. The conditions must be right for people to flourish just as soil must be fertile in order for plants to flourish. If you salt the earth, nothing will grow; if you behave like Stalin (while spouting Theory Y newspeak for good PR), your people will disengage or leave or both. As I said, the question to be asking, then, is not “How can I motivate my staff?” but “How do I need to be so that I don’t demotivate people around me?” Some of it is related to transforming how the business organises itself, but this is inextricably linked to transforming ourselves: our beliefs and attitudes about human nature and how we relate to people.
What is required of us then?
Listening to people. Adopt the practice of genuinely listening to people. Acting on what you hear is part of this, too. Come at conversations with the mindset that they will tell you something you don’t already know, something which may challenge your own beliefs or something which may teach you a lesson. Turn off that inner monologue and consider their reality is just as valid as yours.
Enabling them to get on with it. There are a number of enabling behaviours I set out in a previous article, “Leaders: get out of the way”. I would strongly suggest it is more than behaviour change; once again, it is personal transformation that flows out of a meaningful shift in our beliefs and attitudes.
Acknowledging people. This is not about praise. Managers who steal the credit for good work are demotivators. Acknowledging means giving people their due and recognising the contributions they make to the whole. It means noticing when people have been of good service to others. It means assisting people to see that their unique contributions and who they are add something invaluable.
Facilitating the easy flow of information and unimpeded access to the proper resources to do the job. At a very basic level, a manager would do well to see themselves as the one who eases and unblocks information flow. Hoarding information is an act of the power-hungry.
Enrolling people into a vision of something greater than the sum of everyone’s daily tasks. Declaring a clear purpose for the business, apart from increased shareholder return or higher profit. Keep hold of a single-minded purpose and make sure everyone has a clear line of sight to it. What is your business contributing to the well-being of the world?
If the author of that NZ Herald article was moved to write what he did because he has witnessed indolence and selfishness in the workplace, I would suggest that it has as much to do with the kind of cynicism people bring to work when they witness their managers exhibit the same cynical behaviours and attitudes. That Harvard Management Update found that people start a job full of enthusiasm, which, like Deming, I would say is our default setting. The rot sets in when systemic inhumanity within the business infects them and their natural motivation is crushed. I would also suggest it has much to do with organisations which have not put “the right conditions” in place that would allow creativity, autonomy and responsibility to flourish. It’s also to do with managers and leaders who hold on to an obsolete view of human nature. So it’s no surprise to me that a company liquidator would encounter people who do their best to be their worst.
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……
August 23, 2012
The cosmos is a complex, and sometimes confusing, place.
Every three or four months, the planet Mercury goes retrograde. What this means is that if you track its movement in the sky, it will appear to move backwards for about 3 weeks and then it continues its forward course. In ancient Greece, the planets used to be seen as erratic and unpredictable relative to the stars, hence the word ‘planet’ (‘wanderer’). The ancient Greeks found ways to describe this retrograde motion that fit within the old geocentric view of the cosmos. They concocted mathematical descriptions to help them make sense of what they observed, given the evidence they had, but which are now seen as wrong. This bizarre planetary behaviour was not acknowledged to be an illusion until Copernicus suggested that it was a matter of perspective, i.e. it is the Sun that is the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth. Copernicus stated that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets arises not from their motion, but from the Earth’s. He resisted publishing his work because he did not wish to risk the scorn to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses, and even after being published, his ideas took quite some time to be generally accepted. Only over half a century later with the work of Kepler and Galileo did the first evidence appear that backed his theory. Not until after Newton, over 150 years after Copernicus, did the heliocentric view become mainstream. Who would now maintain that the Earth is the centre of everything?
Technology had a part to play in this shift in perception. The impact the telescope had on science was profound. Amazing how, when things are seen differently, whole mindsets shift. If we look at the night sky with the naked eye and observe Orion’s belt, we will see three stars: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. If, however, I look through a different lens (specifically, a telescope), I can tell you that Mintaka is, in fact, two stars. Faced with this information, you could
- reject what I say because you’ve always known that Orion’s Belt consists of three stars and that’s just the way it is
- suspend your belief and try to get your hands on a lens like mine so you could check it out yourself
- accept what I say and simply update your thinking
Viewing something through a new lens can cause a stir. Galileo and his telescope provided us with so much new information that we had to update our thinking and beliefs about the cosmos. Something similar is going on in the world right now. Many beliefs about the business of business are being stretched. It seems that most businesses are still holding on to outdated ideas, despite information now available which challenges these ideas.
Business does not work like that either, much as some would believe.
I was recently in a meeting where someone was describing how their business works while drawing an organisational tree diagram on a whiteboard. As I watched and listened, it was like watching TV while listening to my iPod. What I saw and what I heard did not match. I suspect there are many businesses like this. They have a hierarchical tree diagram to illustrate lines of reporting (or the way things are supposed to be), but lines of accountability and decision-making were pulling towards a more networked reality. The dissonance between the old thinking and the new more effective thinking is beginning to wake people up to the fact that something has to change. I have advocated for more diffuse power structures in organisations and to me, it seemed like that is what is occurring quite naturally in this particular business. This makes sense to me, as systems are naturally self-organising. The HR person present at this meeting piped up, “Of course, the informal structures and relationships are what really make things happen here,” and I was left bewildered why this business, which is in the midst of a significant transformation to a flatter and more cooperative way of working, would try to shoe-horn this far more effective organisational process into an outdated organisational structure.
When we are in a transition from one state to another, we cling on to what we know. We are prisoners of the familiar. The “new” is sometimes so new that we don’t have the language to describe it accurately. As we transition from a world of results-orientation, cause-and-effect, predictability, silos and planning to one of continuous improvement, complexity, ambiguity, cooperation and emergent design, we are in a quandary as to how to articulate where we are headed without giving the impression that it’s just a jazzier version of where we left. It’s not. Often, for example, when I try to describe what I do and how I do it, I sense that people are hanging my description onto what they currently know about learning and organisational transformation. ”Oh, I see, you do leadership training.” ”I get it, you teach EQ.” ”Hmm, you do role plays.” No, no and no. In command-and-control land (and still infected by the Mechanism Virus), people, understandably, will not get what I’m talking about. When I talk about managers re-visioning their function from Doer-in-Chief to Systems Stewards, I mean it; it’s not just semantics. It’s part of a sea change in the whole view of what makes work work.
We live in networked times, this is true. Now, more than ever, business is about relationship. There is a shift in mindset required in order to really do business effectively. I believe it is happening now. We are right in the middle of it. Work is not what it was and will never be that way again.
Harold Jarche uses the metaphor of the blind men describing an elephant, writing that “we are blind men unable to understand the new realities of work”. He goes on to suggest that tearing down the “artificial disciplinary walls” that we have erected out of our now useless mechanistic mindset would be a good place to start growing better functioning organisations. I tend to agree with him. Sticking with outdated models and trying to manipulate them to do something that they actually cannot do is a waste of our energy. We live in networked times and the tensions that this has created on our antiquated structures are revealing them to be increasingly irrelevant. As Jarche states, with a networked, cooperative mindset, it is possible.
We need to re-imagine how we do HR. No more treating humans as a resource to be managed. We now know more than enough about human motivation, group dynamics and psychology to deserve something radically different in how people are treated.
We need to re-imagine how we do professional development. No dull, lifeless training seminars that few pay attention to and in which fewer actually learn something useful. The 70/20/10 rule of thumb is far more reflective of the reality of work. Some serious thought should be given to that ‘formal 10%’ component too: I believe it is far more beneficial to modern business to attend formal learning events that generate real, significant and long-lasting shifts in perceptions and develops the users of the “tools”, not merely adding tips and information to a “tool-kit”.
We need to re-imagine how we do workplace relationships. No more power games. No more silos. In a social economy, social skills are vital. We need to develop greater self-awareness and compassion for others. Caring and compassion are not things to learn about; they are essential capabilities we need to learn.
We need to re-imagine how we do customer service. No bland corporate speak. No making excuses for poor service. No gamification to tart up a dull, lifeless product. What’s wrong with developing some good interpersonal capabilities and growing real relationship with customers?
We need to re-imagine what leadership means. It’s not about booting out the old CEO and replacing him (it’s usually a him) with someone who operates out of the same mindset. It’s not about a change of leadership style. It’s about a root-and-branch transformation of what leadership actually means.
As Russell Ackoff stated, “Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach and different ways to organise society.” How long till the old illusions disappear and the new mindset becomes mainstream? What will it take?
July 18, 2012
In “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, Big Daddy bellows in exasperation, “Ain’t nothing more powerful than the odour of mendacity.” Recently diagnosed with cancer and fed up with the secrets and lies of family life, he begins to see that there is nothing lost in airing the truth. Perhaps many of us when faced with the finality of a situation in life realise that there was much left unsaid that, had it been expressed, would have been to everyone’s benefit. Had we acknowledged our trepidation and named the elephants in our various rooms, standing up for integrity and truth, we might have cleared the air of the stench of mistrust and enjoyed a much more honest life. In fact, in a recent article, the number one regret of the dying was identified as: ”I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
In light of the many recent revelations of systemic corporate greed and mendacity, I have wavered between despondency, fury and hope. Should I give in and hone my deceptiveness skills: both to myself and others? Should I play the game just because others will be disappointed if I don’t or, at the risk of incurring their wrath, express my misgivings, doubts or hesitation? Should I just give up hope that we will find people worthy of the title “leader”? Should I join those manning the barricades of the Occupy movements? Alternatively, should I remain hopeful that those who fiddle while Rome burns will soon be swept aside in a tide of genuine democracy and that our organisations, businesses, communities will be driven by the people within them rather than some out-of-touch elite? Should I rejoice that, at last, some of those in positions of power are naming corporate greed as systemic and not simply driven by “a few bad apples”. Are people finally getting it? It is a human dilemma: conform or be crushed by a corrupt system.
Furthermore, as Fintan O’Toole suggests, “All the evidence from the many scandals of recent years is that it is not sociopaths who create rotten cultures. It is closed, arrogant, unaccountable cultures that turn ordinary people into sociopaths.” Deming said as much some years ago.
So many times over recent weeks as I read of the fraudulent practices of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK Conservative Party, the New Zealand Immigration Service, Barclays Bank and most recently, HSBC, have I found myself remembering Deming’s comment that 95% of possibilities for improvement sit with the system and only 5% lie with the individual. I also hear myself muttering that a bad system will defeat a good person, every time. EVERY TIME. We are seeing this before our eyes.
I received a subscription email that propounded the notion that we thrive when our ratio of positivity to negativity is high. I have no beef with that notion. However, it went on to link to articles in the press that “demonstrated” how things are looking up and we are back on the road to recovery and everything is alright, if we would only stop feeling negative about things. Made me want to vomit. There is a word for folks like this: Pollyanna. I know people like this, some of them apparently working in the real world of organisational life with a view that if we only just thought lovely things, it would all be OK. The truth is: the world, including the business world, is in a parlous state. No amount of positive thinking can erase the fact that some of the world’s major industries and corporations are systemically sick. No amount of soma will make me blind to the fact that those in positions of power remain inert in the face of corporate malpractice, environmental degradation and growing inequality. No amount of media distraction will divert me from the evidence that our democratically elected “leaders” are in the pay of lobbyists and their corporations who answer to nobody, bar their shareholders. I’m not just having a moan and I’m no Eeyore; I have a good life and count myself exceedingly fortunate that my worries are mostly first world problems. Think you have worries? Enter your annual salary in the global rich list website and see where you place relative to others in the world. If you are reading this, life is probably pretty good for you, on the whole.
However, we are an important juncture in human history. Our institutions have lost the trust of those they purport to serve. Many of our businesses are resorting to gamifying their marketing in an effort to soma-tise potential customers. Many of our workplaces are likewise trying to hypnotise people that their meaningless work is fun fun fun.
I take heart that there are businesses like Morning Star, who base their organisational effectiveness on self-management and not some lumpy hierarchical management structure that insists “it knows best”. I take heart that the Beta Codex Network, of which I’m an associate, is out there, promoting a saner and more humane (and frankly, much more sensible) way of structuring organisations by advocating for radical transformation, rather than tinkering round the edges, to achieve real effectiveness, meaning and joy at work.
I am entirely sure I am not alone in my disdain towards fraudulent business practice. The aptly named Bob Diamond, ex-CEO of Barclays Bank infamously told British Members of Parliament last year, “There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over.” However, as Andrew Rawnsley has written recently, “he was wrong: plenty more remorse and apology would be appropriate, and welcome; but much more importantly, the values, culture and practices of finance, as they have developed since the ‘Big Bang’ reforms of 1986, must be torn down, and a smaller, humbler, simpler world of banking built in their place.”
To be honest, I’m not interested simply in apology and remorse. These things are worthless without some kind of follow up. If someone apologises, I expect an associated change in behaviour and attitude that demonstrates the apology was genuine, heartfelt and indicative of real responsibility-taking. I’m mostly interested in what Rawnsley suggests with regards a tearing down of the values, culture and practice of finance. I’m similarly interested in a transformation of business. I’m interested in businesses selling products and services that are actually worthwhile. I’m interested in businesses that actually provide interesting and meaningful work for people. I’m interested in businesses that run on the premise that people are humans, NOT resources. I’m mostly interested in business that operates with transparency, honesty and humility. Not just a PR job that makes us think these are the values, but that these are the values that are REALLY lived throughout the business; even, if not especially, by those who manage it. Even Bob Diamond, in a BBC lecture last year, said, ”Culture is difficult to define. But for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.
Business leaders are not going to changes things simply because they come under fire in the media or are told that it is wrong. They already knew it was wrong and they did it anyway. The structures of how business is managed create the sick cultures in which they operate. Cultures are not transformed by mere criticism nor by symbolic public witch-hunting.
It is clear to me that the fraudulent practices that have recently come to light are systemic. The “few bad apples” defence, as Andrew Rawnsley has written, will not wash. What happened, happened because the system allowed it, condoned it. Those who make the rules not only fell under the thrall of high finance, they were well and truly in its pockets. As he goes on to say, a college student, with no previous convictions, was imprisoned for six months for stealing a £3.50 pack of bottled water during last year’s London riots. Yet there is serious doubt whether it will be possible to prosecute banksters who perpetrated a massive con involving sums which would buy many millions of bottles of water.
Just as “a few bad apples” does not placate those who watch these scandals with disgust, the opposite also does not give comfort. The suggestion that there are individually decent and compassionate people within these rotten systems and that this should give us hope things will change, is just as false. The system is responsible for 95% of what goes on in it. The system must be reformed, transformed, root and branch. Utterly. Totally. Absolutely. It is the system.
Surprised at these revelations of corporate fraud? Not much. The systems which brought the financial crisis and scandalous corporate behaviour to bear have not changed. The same dynamics are in place, the same values intact, the same practices perpetuate. The question that Plato posed in his tale of the Ring of Gyges was whether a moral person would remain moral should they become invisible. To all intents and purposes, the practices of bankers and the nod-and-wink agreements made over lobbyists’ drinkies are invisible and mysterious to most of us. Let loose to do as they please in the 1980′s, what would constrain banksters to behave in a moral fashion? Reliant on corporate donations, what would cause politicians to change the immoral rules which their paymasters rely on?
Public enquiries, the odd sacking, stripping a Fred Goodwin of a public honour or the symbolic prosecution of a Bernard Madoff, while just, are simply public relations band aid solutions to deep seated problems. If the system remains intact, people will continue to act within its rules, treacherous though they may be. Having said that, those who stewarded those rotten cultures must be removed to make way for those who have the nerve to re-boot their systems and establish morality within business and government. Rotten cultures, as Will Hutton has observed, do not emerge from thin air. They emerge from structures which encourage and condone rotten behaviour. Similarly, moral cultures will also not arise out of thin air.
To be truthful, I’m not depressed by recent revelations of this institutionalised fraud and business improprieties. To me, they are the lancing of the boil that needed to happen. It is a wake-up call to actually look at the system and craft new ones for the 21st century. Vince Cable, UK Business Secretary, pointed to the Swedish business bank, Svenska Handelsbanken as a model of how things could be. Like Cable, I am a long-term optimist and a believe that these scandals will eventually lead to better systems.
Trying to apportion responsibility for these scandals on a few rogues ignores the reality that the systems within which these folks operated are broken. News International, Barclays Bank, GlaxoSmithKline, the New Zealand Immigration Service, HSBC. The politicians of all hues whom we elect to represent and stand up for our interests are overly chummy with the financiers, the corporates and the media who are being tagged with the epithets ‘immoral’ and ‘deceitful’. Are we really all in this financial crisis together? I think not.
My hope is that all these dishonest practices will eventually herald the time of the moral business. It is time for the way we do business to be re-booted. It is time to start doing the right things, not the wrong things righter.
What is the moral business?
A moral business orientates itself to its customers, its staff, its environment, its community and its shareholders, not just its shareholders. A moral business orientates itself to doing good, not just for those at the top whose enormous bonuses ensure their collusion with a system that is focussed more on quick profit than innovation-generating benefit for the wider economy. A moral business takes hold of the bigger picture and takes a long-term view of what business success means. In other words, it will see that deifying shareholder return is not how to run an organisation that serves all of its stakeholders, nor contributes to sustainable human development.
I don’t believe that anyone seriously gets into business to do wrong or sets out to be intentionally deceitful or immoral; I have a higher view of humanity. But when we find ourselves in sick systems, we struggle to swim against their tide. If we want our businesses to do the right thing, maybe it’s time we put our foot down and started naming some of those elephants. Let’s also look out for those leaders who have the courage of their convictions to do the ‘hard thing’ and reform capitalism.
Mendacious times, indeed.