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.

The Org Culture Tipping Point

The most interesting thing to me as of late about the culture change puzzle many in OD face is that the answers might be found in the questions not being asked. Many today write about making change happen from understanding what is, yet never seem to ask how the culture got to be in the poisoned position it is.

Simply put, shouldn’t we first try to answer the questions around “How did we get here?”

  • Was the culture ever positive?
  • How do we know it changed?
  • When was it first noticed that the culture change?
  • Were new systems, processes, or institutions were implemented before change was noticed?
  • Was the change an inside job or was there external stimuli (new competition)?

Like my simple graph here tries to explain, there is a point where the agile, innovative, open culture typically found in smaller, growing organizations shifts to one that emphasizes uniformity, complacency, and compliance over humanity. A tipping point is reached where the organization loses the elements that many (larger) organizations now aspire to regain.

OnsetofSocialAtrophy

 

Past is prologue as historians might say, and if we can pinpoint the emergence of the change, doesn’t it then hold true that this knowledge could be used to create targeted measures to reverse course?

If you’re interested, several of us look to ponder the idea of culture emergence vs. culture change on Sept. 19th at 9:00pm ET. Take a look at the posts written by Chris Jones on his blog to see where we’ve been with this and where we are going, then join the conversation on Twitter at #orgdna.

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.