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.

Social Atrophy: Know the Signs

When small, an organization is typically vibrant and innovative. Employees are engaged, connected and feel a part of something special – I know, I was part of that once. However, as the organization grows, these attitudes and behaviors can change; the environment becomes more closed, leadership moves out of the day-to-day, work is less visible, connections grow but each becomes a weaker relationship. This is social atrophy.

What’s the risk? Well, if you define social as community, collaboration and sharing then as these diminish, so too does the seeds of innovation which is a necessity in a rapidly changing marketplace.

I attempt to reveal the process in the image above (a revisit of my previous look at Social Atrophy). Notice when the organization is small that being human (sharing, collaboration, camaraderie, error tolerance) is a big part of the day-to-day and hierarchy is really in name only. As the organization grows however so too can the rigidity of hierarchy leading to a decline in humanity. The space between people grows as passion’s void is filled by many unnecessary policies and procedures.

Is this the case and course for every organization? I don’t think so, as each organization is very unique. However we can be more conscious of the decline of social at any level in an organization and head it off so as to not to reach the need of large scale, painful organizational culture change efforts.

Here are a few warning signs to consider:

  • Increasing rate of turn-over
  • Impersonal announcements of employee departures
  • Departments becoming insular
  • New layers of management appearing
  • Communication moves increasingly top down
  • Titles and roles become more important and desirable
  • “That’s not my job” over takes “I’ll do it”
  • Process becomes inflexible
  • Learning is seen as something to complete
  • Knowledge hoarding becomes the norm

Are all of these unavoidable? Are all equal in weight? I think not. For example process can be very important but when it is unquestioned over time it becomes a sacred cow and possibly a drag on business. The same can be said for new level’s of management. If the management philosophy and practice is open and transparent, then simply having more is not inherently a negative. So this list is not exhaustive or without it’s caveats of course but I am curious of what other signs of social atrophy have you seen? Has your organization addressed them or tried headed them off?

Strengthening Our Social Supporting Muscles

I hurt my shoulder swimming (yes, you can get hurt swimming). Apparently I have a labrum abrasions (see picture) causing me to have painful movement, too painful to swim. Surgery on my shoulder is an option but may be unnecessary. So physical therapy has been my course of action and as I’ve learned it’s not my shoulder joint that needs to be fixed, rather it’s the small, little known muscle system around the shoulder that were too weak all along. This weakness caused me to alter my swim stroke and thus damage my shoulder. So of course this got me to thinking…

Approaches to performance improvement efforts are similarly surgical in nature. We directly attack the problem itself. But when the performance issue is say less tangible, like improving organization communication (collaboration, cooperation, openness, or transparency), we initially target individual or group behaviors and begin working on the people directly.

Typically it goes like this:

– We need to be more agile, adaptable, innovative…

– We need to collaborate more, open up and be more transparent

– Let’s buy Yammer… or Slack… or Jive. Or

– Let’s “create” a CoP so people will talk and share and innovate more… or

– Let’s revisit our knowledge management approach… or

– Let’s have the c-suite blog more… or

This approach is a mistake. At worst it is an expensive, morale killing failure and at best it is so slow it stumbles on for months or years with weak support.

Communication, collaboration, cooperation, etc. in the organization, like my shoulder, are really supported by little, unseen systems:

– Who gets to talk to whom and when?
– What gets rewarded and recognized?
– Is management leadership or overseer?

Just think, if I have surgery on my shoulder but return to swimming with the same underdeveloped system (muscles) that supports the movement (shoulder), it remains weak and I will eventually fail again.

Similarly, if we just implement a new technology or target individual/group behavior change and the system that supports the new behavior remains unchanged (weak) the new behavior too will eventually fail again.

Address the system which will alter the behavior and change the culture.