Advancing The Social Organization Through Systems Change

The current approaches used to move organizations to be more social are struggling. The first phase was in using social technology. We quickly found out that the idea of “if you build it, they will come” didn’t work. Phase two focused rightly on “culture change” through social leadership initiatives. This is a top down approach which emphasizes that if organizational leaders change, then the behaviors will trickle down the hierarchy. Of course leaders REALLY have to change and this is not an easy task as most leaders are on top because of the current system, in short what’s the motivation to change? Phase two also includes more grassroots approaches, like I have taken, where we work more subversively (or as Jane Bozarth says, as a Positive Deviant). This is when you engage in small experiments, identify where collaboration is healthy, and take a performance consultation approach to leverage social approaches to solve problems.

Each of these however are slow change processes because they readily accept the current system as is and work within it. The system however is very resilient and has an incredible elasticity; it can stretch but can very easily bounce back to status quo.

I don’t disagree that each has merit (with the exception being tool first) but the slow pace leaves room for doubt and in an age of rapid change, these approaches may not always be fast enough to enable an organization to thrive.


So, if social can slowly change the systems, can the system be changed to rapidly encourage social?

I was recently revisiting an ancient text (OK, ancient as in 1999) and it dawned on me that we may need to focus less on people and more on the systems they work within. By breaking pieces of the system we can change behaviors and ultimately transform the culture. Jim Collin’s wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that year that set the stage for his book, From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. This article was our introduction to Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and the idea of Catalytic Mechanisms:

” [Catalytic Mechanisms are] the crucial link between objectives and performance – they are a galvanizing, non bureaucratic way to turn one into the other. They are the devices that translate lofty aspirations into concrete reality.” (from 12manage)

The article revealed to me that the real reason we fight and claw to gain a social foothold with our current efforts is not because of resistant people (alone) but because we are trying to work Social into the current organizational human systems (systems that drive attitudes and behaviors). These long-established, often unconscious systems of Communication, Recognition, Rewards, Career progression, and Organizational Learning (to name a few) do not support wide-scale social. In fact, I’d argue that most reinforce the exact opposite of the transformation being sought in large organizations. It’s no surprise then that the resulting inhibited culture is so resistant to changes.

Jim Collins’ idea was to meet a clearly defined, tangible, yet highly audacious goal. However, my idea is to use Catalytic Mechanisms to change behaviors and meet the goal of increasing the less tangible – creativity, transparency, openness, collaboration, cooperation, and innovation… all attributes of a social organization.

What exactly makes up a Catalytic Mechanism? According to Jim Collins there are 5 elements of these actions that:

  1. produce desired results in unpredictable ways.
  2. distribute power for the benefit of the overall system and uncomfortable to traditional power holders.
  3. have teeth
  4. eject viruses
  5. produce an ongoing effect

Whereas most initiatives are direct hits to the problem being addressed, a Catalytic Mechanism is more of an indirect one that ripples across an organization like a pebble striking a pond. Or to continue the water analogy;

If you want to move a river, you don’t grab the water. Rather, you alter the landscape around it and the river reroutes to a new, more desirable course.

Catalytic Mechanisms Reroute

Take for example the traditional systems of rewards as a place to start. Sales contests are common, and typically these appear as “sell X quality of something by X date and receive X“. There is no question this is effective as people are motivated by both the challenge and opportunity for monetary reward. A sales person or team meets the goal and wins the prize. They are rewarded but the organization is not. Leaders only reward the outcome and ignore the process but it’s in the process that we have the greatest opportunity to advance to a more social organization.

The social sparking mechanism that is missing here is a required transparency. And transparency has teeth! 

By requiring a transparent process (the how) the traditional reward system is altered and serves as a catalytic mechanism to shift the organization more social:

  1. unexpected benefits: could reveal unethical practices and accelerated adoption of new best practices.
  2. Knowledge hoarding practice loses power, all sales teams improve as a result.
  3. Has teeth: No reveal, No reward.
  4. Unethical practitioners revealed and reprimanded and those not wishing to help peers/org grow are exposed and likely move on.
  5. On going culture shift as each subsequent contest would require new approaches to better the last, and openness becomes normalized.

Could we not do the same for recognition? Internal communications? Management and leadership? Imagine requiring that individuals on a career path to management must demonstrate effective coaching or mentoring before they advance. Connecting with and growing people becomes the new core skill of a manager.

A series of small but powerful placed system changes (Catalytic Mechanisms) targeting the social transformation we seek, may just be the answer to the problem of slow change due to a resilient, inhibited culture.

Social Inception

Have you seen the movie Inception? It’s a fantastic sci-fi film where people infiltrate other people’s subconscious while they sleep and remove information or, in the case of the title, plant an idea. When the person awakens, they think the idea is their own.

Now I do believe that the same idea can spring up independently from different people in different locations at the same time. Historically speaking, you can see that Pyramids of various sizes and constructs appeared all over the globe by different civilizations in or around the same time where the people had no contact with each other.  However time and space are no barriers anymore. As more and people find their voice online, begin sharing their stories, experiences, and ideas, an unintentional form of “Social Inception” can occur. When we engage in social networks we accumulate many ideas from many sources. Some can be fleeting, like those seen briefly in a Tweet. Others are deeper like those in articles, blog posts or videos and of course conversations. For me, I recently wrote about change happening one conversation at a time. The gist of my post was that we can just cut through all the fat about social media technology barriers, it’s really as simple as helping people ask their internal questions out loud to those who are “connected” – Things like “where do you find the time?” “how did you start?” “How has it helped you?”, etc. Good idea? Maybe. Was this my idea? I’m not so sure now. 
When I wrote it I was like, this is an interesting thought, I wonder what others would think? Flash forward to today. I’m scanning some favored Tweets looking for something in particular and I see:
It got me to thinking so I re-read the article. I was left with two thoughts. 1. This is brilliant and 2. Did I steal this concept?! 
Well, no, not consciously, not completely, and not with any intention to do so. I have always been very careful to sing the praises of the trailblazers (not sure that’s a good term but I’m not a fan of the word Thought Leader). I vigorously read and promote the works of Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings and many others in the learning/social learning space… including Euan Semple.  But here, over 115 days ago, he wrote an article of a very similar title to mine. Did I read this 115 days ago, process it internally, experience a triggering event and spew out my own interpretation as something really original? Did Euan plant more than a seed in my mind? Is this more common than I think?

Today information comes at us so fast, influencing our thoughts and practices in positive ways. We consume so quickly that even when we have trusted networks through which we have information curated the lines can blur between what is ours and what is others. Our thought, other’s thoughts, our practices, experiences and reflections all blending together and in the end attribution is practically impossible as you walk away thinking… “This is an interesting thought, I wonder what others would think?”  

Well, then this is all I can offer – my mea culpa moment. For starters go read Euan’s article here, as mine pales in comparison. If you can only read one, go to his.  Going forward, in addition to continuing to recognize the ideas of others in my posts and presentations, I’ll revisit my Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) strategy and tools, and I’ll continue to add to my blog roll as it serves as a great list of those who’s work I find inspiring. These people continue to influence my thoughts and practices and I guess, as long as I keep them upfront and getting the attention they deserve, maybe my unintentional imitation is a sincere form of flattery. 
What ideas do you have to create a buffer against unintentional Social Inception?