Going UpStream

So you’ve probably picked up on a recent theme in my posts – organizational design. Now, I’m far from an org design specialist. It’s a field that is deep, has been around as long as there have been organizations, and has numerous authors, consultants and academics behind it. That being said, I am personally curious of how organizational design impacts learning and thus performance. My hypothesis is that if we get the design right, most performance problems naturally go away and with it some unnecessary efforts by L&D.

There is a lot of talk about some interrelated ideas today; culture, engagement, performance, ecosystems, etc. Each article I read or talk I hear explores these mostly in isolation and definitely without going far enough upstream. And speaking of upstream, maybe you’ve heard The Parable of the DownStreamers by Donald Ardell. I encourage you to read it as it’s quite short and sets the table nicely. If you haven’t the time, here’s a simple summary:

It’s the story of a village who’s inhabitants regularly saved people drowning in a river; those apparently thrown in somewhere upstream. Rather than figuring out what was happening upstream, the Downstreamers were perfectly content to just develop the infrastructure and hone their craft of saving people.

Today L&D equates to being the Downstreamers; mostly spending it’s time and energy rescuing the drowning. L&D tools, programs, courses, and resources are easy, quick fixes. This isn’t a bad thing, actually it’s necessary today because we have left unexamined some systemic issues; those things that make up the design of the organization.

What do I mean by organizational design?

All organizations design around a purpose as Jack Martin Leith reminded me recently in a Twitter conversation. And this purpose is achieved through various elements; some formal and informal, some are obvious and others hidden, and still more are conscious and unconscious systems. These elements include monetary rewards, recognition, talent measurement, knowledge management systems, reporting relationships, values, information flows, performance indicators, teams and unit structures, and behavior expectations just to name some. All make up an organization’s design.

We’re not going to train our way forward.

Jane Bozarth shared a resource in her book “From Analysis to Evaluation” that I have pointed to many times. It indicates that most performance problems are not ones solved through training. Most issues have to do with motivation, access to information, and hiring correctly for the job in the first place. Therefore at least 75% of the problem lay beyond the waiting arms of the learning professional. These are systems and structure issues; organizational design flaws. And yet either organizational leaders don’t see this or worse, they willingly ignore it.

So, who’s job then is it to identify the flaws?
Leadership? Hardly. A profitable company today may be in a death spiral tomorrow because these system and structural flaws have been left so long they have become inflexible. Status quo lives for today or quarter to quarter. Remember, status quo put leaders in their positions of leadership. It falls on individuals, passionate ones who see the need for change.

Can we alter design without major disruption?
No. The list of design elements are all intertwined. Alter one, you disturb several others. The real question is, what if we do nothing?

When does an organization take on conscious design?
I suspect it’s at the point communication becomes difficult. Management systems are then devised with all the trappings we find today. Conversations around Digital Transformation look to the large organizations but we need to place attention on the small too so as to not repeat mistakes.

These are just a few questions I’m pondering lately. I’m poking the box and joining OD conversations and reading some great organizational design books, blogs and resources. L&D will remain downstream with as Ardell notes, “all the manpower involved, and the large numbers of highly trained and dedicated swimmers already to risk their lives to save victims from the raging currents.” I however need to stretch, so if you’re looking for me I’ll be walking upstream for a bit to see what’s going on.

Transformation Doesn’t Happen in Silos

James Tyer and I often find ourselves chatting on Twitter about our shared observations and ideas.  One particular stream of though started to gel and we decided to formalize it some in a shared blog post (which was quite enjoyable) as an opportunity to extend the conversation. Let us know your thoughts.


There’s much talk of transforming HR, reimagining L&D, shaking up corp comms, disrupting marketing, “hacking” [insert your dept name here]. Transformation! Hacking! SEO buzzwords abound. LinkedIn feeds are full of it. Trade publications are recommending it. Armies of consultants are demanding it. Organizations are spending a fortune on it, yet once again nothing is fundamentally changing.

When “change” happens (and it can) it still happens within the department. This reveals our paradigm – the way our leaders see the structure of organizations – a last century, industrial era mindset. The result is a transformed department…that’s it. With the same problems, the same people – apart from the ones who were fired – the same leaders, the same titles. Really, nothing changes. It’s just the same old re-organization – not transformation.

A real transformation would see the end of these silos, an end to big departmental structures, decentralisation of power, a shift in authority, an end to the “business relationship manager”. For example, a real transformation of HR would likely result in no HR silo. Now that’s revolutionary!

Why do we do this over and over again? This time Amara’s law is particularly pertinent:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara

Short Run:

Leaders are sold on technology as a solution to big problems… big problems in their areas. But this isn’t transformation, it’s piecemeal modification. For example, in HR: people analytics, performance systems, another LMS, maybe even an ESN. IT are dumping every shiny tool they see onto employees in a bid to keep up with “being digital”. Comms (the marketing of four years ago) are obsessed with new “channels” to give employees more and more information. And it’s not a question of whether comms or HR or IT are well-intentioned; it’s whether they are willing to keep repeating the same mistakes.

All we’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Long Run:

Technology is changing product development and distribution, it’s changing political discourse, it’s changing the consumer landscape, and has the potential to continue transforming our physical landscape. Take for example this Greg Ferenstein article on Medium where he reveals a simulation that showed how vast amounts of urban land could be reclaimed and 90% of cars would disappear due to automated vehicles. Technology stands to reimage the globe, physically, socially, and politically like never before.

We are naive if we don’t think organizational structures can’t change. Or are we short sighted, comfortable in our paradigm so as to unconsciously impede the progress of digital transformation by holding tight to familiar structures. Our cautious human nature prevents us from embracing real change. If we could just get out of our own way and let go of our archaic reward structures, our traditional ideas about leadership, our inability to be truly open and transparent with our work. Could we harness technology to create the modern firm – one that actually benefits consumers, workers and shareholders alike? The answer is Yes – there are already companies doing just this!

What’s Next?

If you’re fed up with endless re-orgs, talk of “transformation”, talk of disruption with no compelling alternative vision to the current state of affairs, uninspired by leadership, and feel like you’re working Einstein’s world of insanity. What do we suggest for those of you who would like to get started?

Well, the kicker is, there’s nothing easy. And when you’re out there on your own talking about new ideas, it’s tough.

Frankly you can only transform yourself. You can only change your viewpoints, outlooks, beliefs, ideas, and work. The fortunes spent on changing organizations are wasted because those who spend the money don’t change – they just tell others to. Change is social. Change happens one conversation at a time as Euan Semple has said. Be bold and talk about new ideas. Build your networks of like-minded support across departments, not just your own. Here are some frameworks to help guide your first conversations. There are no formulas – no one-size fits all. You and your organization will need to be agile to adapt to circumstance. To create your own version of the networked organizations.

A few sites, books, articles, etc to get you started.

Learning’s Battle Against Tradition

What if you presented a tool or process to the c-suite, something that would (not could) increase revenue, improve morale and increase efficiency? No doubt they would leap at the opportunity right?
Not quite…

I recently heard a story (Axe Bat Wins Converts, But Has To Overcome Baseball Traditionaliststhat immediately made me see parallels to innovations in organizational learning and performance. The story was about a modern innovation applied to the baseball bat, which has remained in its basic form for around 150 years.

 Felling Axe by タクナワン 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Drawing upon the even older design of axe handles, the Axe Bat is more oval than the current cylinder style, similar if not identical to axes use in chopping wood, an efficient design used since neolithic times. The reporter explained that technology now allows us to easily craft a bat handle in any shape where in the past, using a lathe, round was the only option.  The proponents of the Axe Bat claim, like its wood chopping forefather, that it’s more efficient, effective, and reduces injuries caused by the unnatural ergonomics of traditional bat handles. 

In essence the Axe Bat would help players and help the game.

Yet in face of this information and a readily available alternative, there are few takers. 

Sound vaguely familiar?  Read on…

Age old technique (social learning) made more apparent with advent of new technology (Web 2.0) can transform accepted practice (organizational learning) and challenge long held conventions (learning via formal only). 

In essence social media for learning would help employees and help the organization.

Ironically though, the same resistance the hinders an innovation for baseball exists for organizational learning. This resistance is of course ‘Tradition’. The age old subconscious cry of “but this is how we’ve always done it.” People want to stick with what is comfortable even in the face of new or better. With the Axe Bat, teams would try it in practice situations but come game time they returned to the traditional bat.  With social media, people readily use and support it in their personal lives but are resistant to it’s use or promote it for learning in their professional ones.

Further reading of the story reveals the Axe Bat manufacturers are approaching increased adoption by doing the following:

1.  Focusing on the newest to the game. 
“just let them pick one, they’ll pick [the Axe Bat] because it feels the best. It feels natural to you.”
2.  Doing a lot of demos.
3.  Getting high profile endorsers.
“…get more high-profile endorsers as some of those college players turn pro.”
4.  Believing. 
“we know we’re going to overcome this (tradition).”

Sound vaguely familiar?  

If its social learning or innovative baseball bats, it’s a slow road to change when faced with well entrenched tradition. 

In Pursuit of Athens Inc.

On the recent anniversary of the Gettysburg address by Abraham Lincoln I serendipitously was re-introduced to an ancient text by the Greek leader Pericles which has uncanny similarity to Lincoln’s famous speech in a similar context. Both wrote of their current struggles and the glory that was the nations they fought to preserve.

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens.”

Funeral Oration of Pericles

These are the some of the words of Pericles (Leader of Athens 444BC to 430BC.) where he gave historians a vivid picture of Athens and all it’s practices that helped lead it to be a model for much of Western civilization.

Being a former History teacher, I have always been fascinated by eras of great advancements in humanity and the human condition which often are a result of cultural diffusion and removal of barriers. I see parallels to current events and the past and feel too that with the advancements in collaborative technology we are diffusing on a massive scale and entering a new and probably the most significant of Golden Age‘s …and organizations can also be transformed.  

For example during the Golden Age of Athens, fearless and without hindrance, Athenians placed greater attention on creative and innovative pursuits. Furthermore Athens, being a seafaring power, ventured out to the edges of known civilization uninhibited. Through trade, Athenians brought more than merchant goods to all of Athens but idea from other worlds that would fuel its innovation and lead to advances in Arts, Literature, Architecture, Governance, etc permeate all of Western civilization today.

What lessons can organizations today, which can be compared to nation-states, take away from the Golden Age of Athens? 

Geographically Athens was surrounded by a rugged landscape. Fertile farmland was scarce and thus an agrarian society was not a choice. Athenians had to turn to the sea. Likewise organizations today cannot survive isolated; resting solely on its internal workforce and leadership will not result in a sustainable enterprise. The successful organization must reach out from its borders not to seek and acquire talent but to enable its people to connect with talent everywhere and through these connections grow, innovate and create. 

Athenian merchants, driven by self-interest, served themselves but unconsciously served to grow Athenian influence and power. Athenians were proud and loyal because theirs was a nation that placed the individual above the state. Together they rose. Today organizations who aim to contain and control their people in their pursuits limit themselves and ultimately create distrust and disenchantment; not the loyalty they so greatly expect and desire.

As Pericles eludes to in the excerpt above, Athens subscribed to both transparency and openness. They revealed their innovations to the world and invited others in knowing full well their strength was not in their systems and products but in their people. Their enemies might profit occasionally but the long-term gains of openness far outweighed the short-term losses. 

Organizations too, who choose to invest in their people and their happiness, drop their fruitless efforts at security and reap the rewards of individual freedom of the people. People, free to connect and create with passion and zeal, benefit their organization. And although organizations will encounter periodical challenges from competitors. This trust can only lead to greater gains.

Arguably the greatest reason for Athens success was [Direct] Democracy. The belief that the people, collectively, determined and directed policy. Debate was encouraged and contribution to Athenian politics was not a request but a duty. Hierarchy existed to execute the laws but not create them. Each, regardless of position, had a voice and was encouraged to use it.

Today, through collaborative tools, Democracy can be reborn in our modern [organizational] nation-states. We have an technology enabled ability in our organizations to hear all voices, to debate, to encourage contribution, and to influence hierarchy. These same tools can extend us beyond our borders, seek fertile environments and bring back to the enterprise innovative ideas and solutions. This is about trust; trust in our organizations, trust in the systems, trust in each other. 

Leaders today have an opportunity then to embrace the principles of openness, transparency, and democracy as Athens subscribed, resulting in great work and prosperity or continue down the path of exclusion, deception, control.

Won’t you open up your eyes?

Beatles songs have always given me pause. Some of my favorites include “Yesterday”, “Hey Jude”, “Across the Universe” and “Let it Be.” The Beatles were ahead of their time musically and lyrically.
Recently, yet unfortunately, while running up a pretty steep hill the song “Dear Prudence” began playing on my iPhone. I say unfortunately because when you’re climbing a hill you need Metallica or something.

Outside of the hills, running is meditative for me. My mind, wanders between work, life, calf pain, back to work, life …etc and at the moment the song began, I was pondering the difficulties of convincing others of the changing nature of work and learning I see around me everyday. Most struggle to see what I view as obvious; the need for a connected workforce that shares and collaborates openly in networks enhanced through technology.
Dear Prudence hit me like lightening (probably the only thing worse than running up a steep hill). A warm song immediately took on new meaning, a bit if divergent thinking if you will, and one that will now serve as an anthem, playing in my mind when I engage those who just don’t see it… yet. 
My new look at select lines in the song follows each verse.
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Start with “Prudence.” Sure, as the story goes, John and the boys were teasing Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, who was held up in a tent working hard on meditation and missing out on the fun. But for my lucid, endorphin filled, running moment it is more the dictionary definition for those who show caution with regard to practical matters; discretion. What’s more prudent than connecting people to communicate and share – it’s what people do! In my experience those who show caution see only the status quo, stuck in old laws and paradigms of learning. These are the workers and leaders resting on ideas that led to “success” in the 20th century.  They hold back, or move slowly while the world changes rapidly around them.
“won’t you come out to play?” “greet the brand new day” – The ideas and tools “breaching the hull” our organizations are worth exploring, trying, feeling. We have entered a new era of connection that is transforming society, business and learning; it is a brand new day.
Dear Prudence, open up your eyes 
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies 
The wind is low, the birds will sing 
That you are part of everything 
Dear Prudence, won’t you open up your eyes? 
“The wind is low, the birds will sing” “That you are part of everything” -The barriers, the headwind that slows down innovation, can be reduced when we encourage social learning, encourage networks which level the hierarchies that lock progress in political chains. People are truly at the center of this communication, knowledge, innovation, and technology, even the naysayers are “part of everything” and can greatly improve and contribute once they accept this reality. 
Look around round, Look around round round, Look around

“Look around” – See what is naturally happening already, what has been happening. Look at the technology but more importantly how that technology is being used. Mere tools, yes but pause and re-think their immediate applications. Look how community has changed, how networking has changed, how knowledge flows within these networks. See how hierarchies hold surface strength only and the nodes really do rule the day.
Dear Prudence, let me see you smile
Dear Prudence, like a little child
The clouds will be a daisy chain
So let me see you smile again
“Dear Prudence, let me see you smile.” – Smile, the universal human symbol of happiness. “Happiness is the precursor to success—not really the result of it” says Shawn Anchor in his book The Happiness Advantage (see brief article/video here).   He goes on to explain the three main predictors of happiness are:
1. having an optimistic mindset, 
2. having the ability to see stress as a challenge and not a threat, and 
3. social support.  
The first two organizations can hire for but the third is what your organization’s culture presents and encourages. Good social support systems enable community. Within community people share and collaborate. When employees share and collaborate they improve processes and products; they get work done. When employees get work done (socially) they are rewarded intrinsically and extrinsically. When employees are rewarded, they are happy. When happy, Shawn argues, employees are smarter, more energetic, and more creative.
“The clouds will be a daisy chain” – Wow, really?? was Lennon so deep into meditation that he had an out of body, time travel experience and saw Cloud Computing?? OK, a stretch but “daisy chain” today is a term that most can understand beyond the counter-culture reference (which I have to assume was a Flower Power ideal). As the definition in the link explains, a Daisy Chain is: 

an interconnection of computer devices, peripherals, or network nodes in series, one after another. It is the computer equivalent of a series electrical circuit.”  

The keyword here; interconnection.  Networks are made up of nodes and people are the knowledge nodes. Through these connections they are learning, collaborating, and sharing …improving.
Dear Prudence, won’t you let me see you smile?
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
“It’s beautiful and so are you” – Next time you are presented with resistance or outright mocking reaction to building the connected work force rather than spout off about 70-20-10, Social Learning Theory, Collaborative tools, etc…. speak to the reluctant ones of their own value, skills, knowledge and motivations and how this “beauty” works perfectly within the “new systems.” 
Whistle or hum Dear Prudence…it may be all you need to give yourself that pause. 
Dear Prudence – Composed by The Beatles. Author: Lennon; Lead vocals: Lennon, McCartney