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.

Vox Populi (part 2)

Since my post Vox Populi was written and shared I have had the fortunate opportunity to have three casual meetings with some local folks wanting to chat about social and social organizations.  I’ll share some generalizations and themes I picked up on.

For starters the people I met with were in traditional leadership roles in organizations providing health care services, education/training and project management. When I broached the topic of social organizations with one, the response was: “I don’t even know the full spectrum of what it all means.”  As I dug deeper into this response with them, the conversation went broader not deeper. Ideas around hierarchy, leadership, social, networks, Wirearchy, trust, conversation, communication, and learning were surfaced and it was clear to me that in a world of fast flowing information, those in the trenches of work have only scraped the surface of these notions and have a cursory understanding. To many then it’s all just disconnected jargon. I tried to synthesize it into a single word and the one I chose was “autonomy.”  I expanded on this by saying how power, aided by technology, has shifted to the individual – yet individuals don’t often take advantage of this shift and neither are organizations. In many cases both are limited by old world thinking about power structures or just comfortable in the current state; change can be scary.

An explanation of what is happening today, not happening and needs to happen can be found in Jon Husband‘s principle of Wirearchy.  This principle provides guidance to all facets of being both a citizen and a worker today. I recommend strongly one reads it.

A theme I picked up on that was present in many of the conversations can best be summarize as “work moves at the speed of trust.” Several spoke of 1. decision-making in a vacuum, 2. the all to familiar business unit “silos” and 3. competition over collaboration. Simply put – 1. Employees were not trusting their leaders, 2. leaders were not trusting their employees and 3. employees were not trusting each other. In each case work, productivity and innovation were hindered as openness and transparency are severely lacking in their environments.

Each in their own way made it clear that change in their settings to a more social organization appeared to be a daunting if not impossible task.  And maybe still stinging from the recent recession or the fact that Syracuse is not an economic juggernaut, these folks didn’t appear empowered to be change agents as the status quo has a firm grip on the mindset of organizations. I look forward to many more conversations like this, different industries and different levels to see the very valuable perspectives of the Vox Populi (the voice of the people).

Openness: the agent of inclusivity

“How do we get people to … ?”

I hear this all the time in my work on organizational learning initiatives and social tool use is definitely no exception. I’ve heard it so much that it’s just became unquestioned white noise – until I heard it today, and something just felt wrong.
Worse than the directive of “get” is “we.” The we here speaks of only those involved in the exclusive conversation and nobody else.
Us and them. Owner and worker. Manager and employee…. Have and have not.

If we start with a goal of changing people’s behavior without those people in the conversation haven’t we just set the stage for manipulation and disempowerment? Won’t we just be playing the traditional role of power broker reinforcing all that is wrong with hierarchy?
Here’s the thing. Don’t we instinctively speak differently when we know everyone is listening? If everyone could at least hear the conversation, be in that space (if they choose to listen or join in is on them), I suspect the “how do we get people to…” questions wouldn’t even be uttered or better yet, would be phrased in a very inclusive way. How could they not?

More community, less control.