Seeing Organizational Patterns

In today’s organizations the top down, hierarchy approach is seen as the antithesis of the modern, hyper-connected world. However, efforts to shift to emphasize greater transparency and openness have often floundered (holocracy and flat management). We’re learning that the ideal form won’t always result in ideal function.

Noting my recent efforts of going upstream, Jon Husband suggested I read Seeing Organization Patterns: A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design by Robert Keidel. In it Keidel frames organizations as having three distinct variables or elements: autonomy, cooperation and control (sound familiar?). He shares that this triad appears in organizational strategy, structures and it’s systems and when not in the right ratio for the work being done, dysfunction results. Keidel doesn’t imply however that perfect balance is desirable or even possible.

Effective three-variable thinking does not mean maximizing all three variables. Rather, it means emphasizing one or two variables, without neglecting any. 

– Seeing Organizational Patterns, 24

With that said, Keidel notes that organizations will struggle in any of three general ways by:

– overdoing the top priority (autonomy, cooperation or control)
– underdoing the bottom priority
– operating without priority (no strategy at all)

This cooperation/control/autonomy triad is a fascinating lens to look at our organization’s design. Keidel provides many 20th century (yes, 20th. The book was written in the mid 1990’s!) examples throughout that reveal the problems of organizations when they’ve over and under emphasized.

Underdoing and Overdoing
A good example today could be the shifting US Military.  Before 2000 the US military was designed to combat a known enemy with known objectives, a known location and known leadership. In many ways the military was built to repel the likes of Nazi Germany and the USSR. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and hierarchy and discipline took rigid forms. After conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan however the enemy was now an idea with networked leadership and without a nation-state (al Qaeda, ISIS). The military struggled in its current system, structure and strategies. The top down leadership through experience wasn’t cutting it, and the push now is to create a more responsive organization (teams of teams?) to meet the demands of defeating a dynamic, shifting enemy.

An example (which is the opposite of the military) of an organization I’ve been working with is one that has a very inclusive leadership belief. Partially the industry and partially the culture, this inclusiveness has led to a very loyal, long-term, committed workforce that places a huge emphasis on cooperation and maintaining harmony at all costs. This may sound wonderful but in reality ensuring everyone is on board and happy coupled with a lack of new blood has led to:

  • Delays in action and limited thinking as the organization struggles to surface new ideas let alone implement them.
  • New approaches met with resistances as a “that’s not the way we do it here” response is prevalent.
  • An overemphasis on saving face and meeting emotional needs prolongs the inevitable departure of under-performing employees.

What can be done? Changes to leadership, management and communication (approval process) would help decrease the highly unnecessary levels of inclusiveness and would likely result in lessening the tension that exists between cooperation and responsiveness.

Parallels to Org Learning
Throughout the book Keidel takes aim at common organizational systems such as communication, meetings, leadership, management, teaming, R&D, HR, and security. He doesn’t however address organizational learning which in my opinion underpins them all. It pretty apparent that the 70:20:10 principle fits neatly into the three elements.

Many organizations place emphasis on training (control) and not enough on social and informal learning (cooperation & autonomy). Looking at this through the Keidel’s triadic lens you would see limited innovation and likely slow responsiveness to change. Similarly, if you have an over emphasis on social and informal learning, the lens would reveal employees at risk of having too little foundational knowledge that training typically provides. New employees or employees new to critical tasks could struggle, leading to disengagement and poor performance.


Like any good org design resource, the timeless ideas in Seeing Organizational Patterns respect the uniqueness of each organization and doesn’t prescribe a single, right solution. Rather it serves to reveal where one is successful in their organization’s design so as to enhance and where one is failing, so it can be addressed.

Social Habit Loops

Here’s a common scenario in organizations struggling to increase openness and collaboration:

Aaron figures out a work around in a finance system that will save time and money. Knowing it’s value, he emails the information to his manager, Susan. Susan acknowledges Aaron’s innovation in a glowing reply. Aaron continues to use the new process but the organization gains little.

Aaron’s organizational communication system has conditioned him to act automatically and maybe unconsciously. His habit is one where when he finds relevant information, he shares it in a way that provides him a reward. This is the Habit Loop Charles Duhigg wrote of in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business“, and I think it holds the key to helping organizations advance their efforts to be more cooperative and collaborative.

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Chatbots FTW!

A quick thought led to a tweet that Chatbots in our #ESN platforms will be very good for human social interaction in organizations.

Supposedly Steve Jobs, Einstein, President Obama and others maintained wardrobe basics so they didn’t have to expel energy picking out clothing; simple (what to wear) and more complicated (what matches) cleared away. Similarly, chatbots will relieve us of the simple and complicated tasks that tend to eat up our time and mental energy; finding files, scheduling meetings, sourcing content, travel arrangements, ordering common products, and answering other’s simple questions. Chatbots will allow us to be more productive and attentive to problem solving and critical thinking – those things that really move organizations forward, those things leadership desires and employees want to do.

So I’ll go a step further and share that chatbots could be the tail that wags the dog. It’s pretty clear that as consumers leverage chatbots to make their lives easier in the marketplace, this technology in established ESNs will flourish. Can it be over done? Absolutely and probably will at first. Eventually though it will be seen less as a novelty and more as a critical player in proving the value of social technology in organizations – more than any other feature, function or vanity metric. To that last item, it will be very easy to measure how often a bot was accessed and how quickly and accurately it responded to requests. This data will be undeniable, revealing its value as performance support and time saving. Quite simply, our little AI friends could very well move companies to procure social technology and it’s adoption faster then any vendor pitch or consultant strategy ever could. Where then will it leave those helping organizations adopt social tech today? Helping companies change their employee’s work habits, behaviors and ultimately their culture… the really human stuff that only humans can do… for now.


Side note: Dion Hinchcliffe picked up on my tweet and shared a great article he wrote in a similar vein. Do take a moment to read. “How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence Are Evolving the Digital/Social Experience“.

Progressing Backwards

I had an opportunity to attend a session at DevLearn titled “What Does Community Mean in 2017“. Julian Stodd and Trina Rimmer provided both theoretical and practical thoughts and experiences throughout. I was left thinking on this flight home about how today we truly believe anything is possible and that anything can and must happen quickly. But the notion that one can create a community or worse can do so with a click of a button is equally puzzling and disheartening. Many justify this by simply removing key principles of community and altering the definition. In the name of some twisted progress or economic purpose they ignore long held research about nature and human history. Community has gone from being about groups with a shared purpose, building trust through sincere and consistent behavior and necessary interdependence between all members to now being pitched as followers of a Facebook page who periodically “like” a video.

The word community for many equates to a feature on a social platform or the activities of traditional customer service now done online. You may say “it’s just a word” but I say it’s a slippery slope when people try and remake human activities in technology. Fortunately 10,000 years of human development can’t be changed with the advent of Web 2.0. Call me negative, but I celebrate the many failures of social platforms that I read about and the struggles of strategies formed around re-engineered concepts. These failures are usually a result of trying to simplify the complex through bells and whistles and reduce human social institutions to being just words. I have faith that slowly, like the march of evolution itself, our technology will actually come back to meet us right where we are and who we are.

Same Ol’, Same Ol’

I read an article recently about how to improve “engagement” in Facebook’s enterprise social platform Workplace. It was rich with approaches one could use and referenced the idea that in Workplace you need strong “group leaders”. There was nothing wrong with the post and frankly it had decent value but honestly there was NOTHING new here either. Seriously, this post could have been written in 2011 about Yammer or in 2013, swapping the tool Jive into the title. These tips and approaches are still being touted and yet we still hear that 80+ ESN efforts fail!

So, it’s not the tools obviously, they all do the same things. And frankly it’s not that the approaches are wrong, these ones make a lot of sense if your organization is ready. And there’s the rub, most aren’t ready for tech that amplifies and exposes. Simply, the problem resides in the culture and well, “culture” is a nebulous word anyway, everyone says it but nobody really gets it – it’s complex.  I’d argue that what we really mean is habits (individual and organizational). These habit loops (cues->routines->rewards) around communication, sharing and collaboration need to be examined, and this analysis takes time. However I’d start with basic questions at all levels:

  • How do we communicate?
  • Why and When do we communicate? When is it triggered?
  • Where does it happen?
  • How does information move in our organization? How is it “packaged”
  • Is it controlled? And if yes by whom and why?

The issue is really about org psychology and sociology and this needs to be accepted well before technology is purchased. You knew this though, your leaders know this but that’s another habit loop to be examined – Need change -> Buy a tool-> Avoid painful cultural realities.