Throughout 2021, we undertook an action research project into the ‘lived’ experience of executive teams.  This revealed how they are increasingly confronted with existential challenges.  These stretch beyond the realm of operational, performance or commercial pressures.  They raise profound questions around the role, values and impact of their organisations, such as:

> How is the organisation responding to the climate emergency and the impact of their operations, products or services on the environment?

> How do they acknowledge and tackle issues of inclusion, social justice and inequality? and

> How will the organisation adapt to wholescale changes in employees’ expectations around the nature of work and how and where work is done?

What’s more, leaders are being scrutinised and challenged by employees, shareholders, politicians or activists on how they are responding to such questions.  For example, one new executive shared with us their experience of a meeting with their department where a group of employees expressed their dismay at the state of the Planet and asked her what the point of their business was in this context.   Rather than avoiding the subject, she acknowledged that she too held concerns about the environment and had no simple answers.  This led to a passionate conversation around the work of the organisation, what it was doing to tackle sustainability, and what more they felt they needed to be doing.

If leaders are to engage with existential challenge they need to confront reality and not avoid the consequences of existing practices.  In other words, not to ‘sleepwalk’ into the future.  This process is necessarily unsettling and anxiety-provoking as they must face their responsibilities and the ethics of what they do. They need to act and, in doing so, take a risk in not following convention or habit.  This requires courageous choices about what they stand for and do (or do not do).

If you would like to read more about what helps executive teams to perform, you can download a copy of our research report – “The Unspoken Life of Executive Teams” at: https://metalogue.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Metalogue_Report-2021_final.pdf

 

 

We all have opinions about our leaders. Be it on what they are doing effectively, ineffectively, or not doing at all. Some of these views are based on first-hand experience and thought-through judgements whilst others reflect projections, prejudices, or unrealistic ideals. How many of us, however, truly understand what it’s like to be part of the executive team for an institution?

Throughout 2021, we enquired into the ‘lived’ experience of executive teams in leading their organisations. Our findings revealed both the unique challenges that leadership teams experienced during the pandemic and more universal experiences that come with the role.

We discovered that executive teams:

• Increasingly face existential questions, in addition to strategic and operational challenges, that require them to think deeply about their organisation’s role, purpose and impact in society
• Face immediate demands on their time and attention that distracts them from taking a longer-term perspective
• Feel scrutinised from all directions and experience demands that at times feel overwhelming
• Grapple with anxieties and doubts when making important decisions
• Experience structural and cultural dynamics that cause them to fragment, making it hard for them to collaborate and work together, and
• Find it hard to (or avoid) exploring their emotional experiences, ambivalences, and anxieties.

For many teams, the demands on them risked exceeding their capacity to cope. When this happened their attention narrowed and they tended to lose their emotional boundaries. This meant that they were less able to access their capabilities as a team. They were therefore less resourced to engage with the big strategic, operational and existential questions facing them and their organisations. They also experienced stress and felt at risk of burnout.

Executive teams that were more resilient and capable in their leadership tended to:

• Take time to clarify their role and desired impact
• Acknowledge and process transitions in their membership
• Reflect together on their work as a team
• Be mindful of where they focus their attention when they are under pressure
• Explore their ambivalences when making decisions
• Take risks to speak openly and directly with each other, and
• Actively build trust and support with their stakeholders and across wider networks.

This is a high-level summary of our findings. If you would like to read more, you can download a copy of our research report at:

Unspoken Life of Executive Teams

As part of our research into the practice of designing organisations, we spoke to leaders and practitioners about their experience and reflections on organisation design projects. Most of them acknowledged that, with the benefit of hindsight, they had not given sufficient attention to how changes would be brought to life.

Underestimating transitions

In every case, we were told that the amount of time and resources that was necessary was underestimated. Looking back, most felt that transitions require a minimum of 12-18 months and that 18-24 months is more realistic, particularly for more complex changes. In practice however all the attention goes on agreeing what the organisation needs to look like in the future, and significantly less attention is directed towards:

• What is being communicated through the process
• How people will transition into new roles, teams and departments.

Culture-creating moments

We discovered that embedded in the design process and subsequent organisational transitions were culture-creating moments. These related to how any changes were done. They included events such as:

1. Who was involved in the design process
2. How design changes were decided
3. How the changes were communicated and the rationale given for them
4. How senior appointments were managed
5. Who was appointed to key roles
6. How exits or redundancies were managed
7. How the new design was launched or went ‘live’
8. The extent to which endings, transitions and beginnings were acknowledged.

In these moments, important symbolic questions are addressed through what actually happens (rather than what is espoused). These include:

• Who will be included and who will be excluded?
• How will power be exercised and decisions made?
• What is actually changing and what is staying the same?
• What will be valued in the future (and what won’t)?

Such moments define or re-define cultural norms and convey the actual values of senior leaders. What happens around these events, therefore, reinforces the core messages of the redesign or undermines them. They influence people’s commitment to the new design, the relationships that form and whether people act in ways that support the aims of the organisation.

Consciously attending to process

The emotional impact of these key moments is significant but is often underestimated or avoided because they surface sensitivities or uncomfortable issues. They are however unavoidable realities of the re-design process and opportunities to model desired norms or values. They need therefore to be engaged with consciously and with sensitivity to ensure that consistent, meaningful and clear messages are communicated. This can be difficult to do when you are steeped in an established culture or in the midst of a complex design process. The risk however is you sleepwalk into reinforcing the very patterns you want to change. In organisation design projects, as well as supporting the design process, we help everyone involved to attend to transitions and the symbolic, emotional and cultural dynamics of the process.

If you would like to read our research report, you can download it here:

https://metalogue.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Metalogue_Designing_Organisations_Report-2020.pdf

Throughout 2020, we conducted an action research project with our clients into the practice of designing organisations. One observation we made is that most organisations are in a constant process of redesigning themselves as they adapt to ever-increasing levels of uncertainty and complexity. Because of this, organisations are becoming more fluid and structures more transitory. As 2020 unfolded, we observed and heard how the pandemic is amplifying and accelerating this process.

In many organisations, multiple design projects are happening simultaneously at different levels. For instance, we are working with a large and complex University that is changing its structures and working practices across the whole system whilst at the same time individual faculties and schools within them are reorganising how they operate. In many cases, we heard how the tail end of one design project overlaps with the start of the next. For employees this can leave them feeling in permanent transition and struggling to make sense of how to make decisions or get things done. This stirs up anxieties and insecurities.

These observations led us to conclude that organisation design is increasingly an ongoing and iterative process. We need therefore to shift our thinking away from creating ‘the design’ – which suggests the construction of a static, enduring entity – towards ‘designing’ as a critical ongoing practice in organisations.

Our research indicates that designing requires:

> Keeping the future in mind whilst drawing on past experiences to understand what will work in a given culture,

> Accepting that designing is a messy and unfolding process and not a neat linear one,

> Focusing on ‘good enough’ design decisions that are able to adapt and flex with feedback,

> Creating ownership by involving people to develop ideas and make decisions,

> Encouraging the questioning of assumptions and creating space to explore design options and possibilities, and

> Taking transitions seriously and undertaking realistic assessments of support people will require to let go of the past, learn new skills, and take up new roles.

To make this shift, we argue that organisations need to possess the expertise and capability to design and redesign themselves, and leaders at all levels need to see designing as a core part of their role.

If you want to read more about our research, you can download our report “Whose design is it anyway?” at:

https://metalogue.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Metalogue_Designing_Organisations_Report-2020.pdf


This was the question posed to us recently by a sceptical senior leader about to embark on an organisation design process for their organisation. On further questioning she intimated that in previous organisations she had always been told what her structure was going to be after a quick decision by the CEO, based on advice from the HR Director and external consultants. The notion of participating in designing the whole organisation seemed to him to be an abdication of her manager’s responsibility, overly time-consuming and an unfair request, given the difficult choices that would have to be made. The metaphor of the plaster represented the pain that she felt would undoubtedly be involved, and the idea that the job was best done quickly (by her manager) and without too much deliberation.

We know that many organisation design practitioners have heard a version of this question numerous times. As organisation development practitioners it seems important to examine our assumptions and our advocacy when we hear such a question. I suggest that we would both need to consider the framing of the question and think about the answer to the question.

Let’s consider the metaphor first…

If we accept the offered notion (inherent in this metaphor) that the process of organisation design is painful and designed to enable a wound to heal then of course we would want to remove it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Indeed, research (Furyk et al, 2009) on the removal of plasters at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, suggests that there is a lower perception of pain involved if processes are ripped off than when more time is taken. In the research there were a number of factors which affected responses which included: participants’ culture; previous pain events; beliefs; mood; and ability to cope. While these factors seem relevant to the question in hand, I remain instinctively suspicious of the fit of the plaster metaphor to organisation design.

However, we know that metaphors used are artificial and imperfect constructs which shape the way we think and act. Charteris-Black (2016) described how the metaphor of containers was used by right-wingers in the narrative of stronger immigration control in the 2005 UK election. If you accept the idea that the UK is a container, you are obliged to entertain the notion that there are boundaries to the container which need to be protected and that the container could be swamped or walls broken by external penetration.

George Lakoff at the University Of California, Berkeley, argues that “every thought you have is physical”. The author of “Don’t think of an Elephant!”, he argues that even if we disagree with a metaphor, by challenging it we only reinforce the neural connections holding this thinking in place. Better to challenge with an alternative and more helpful metaphor.

So…if challenging a metaphor is unhelpful, then we have a choice as OD practitioners to accept the frame we are offered or to change it. Accept the (faulty) metaphor we are served and we are condemned to defeat or, or at the very least, a struggle to persuade.

What would be a good alternative metaphor?

In our previous research report on Transformation (2018) we set out a number of metaphors that are commonly used (and misused too) in organisations. Perhaps “renovation” is a better metaphor to respond to the plaster frame. After all, imagine the pain if you came home after a weekend away and someone had reshaped your house without your very clear input? That would hurt!

Now…back to answering the question about whether it is better to rip off the org design plaster…

Engaging others in the organisation design process can sometimes be perceived as difficult or unhelpful

We know that radical participation in the process of organisation design elicits very strong reactions. Some people love it; but others seem to hate it, for a few reasons:

> time taken to engage can be perceived as taking too long

> burden of making a decision that affects you and others

> defence against accountability in case the wrong design is chosen

> they have a view that re-design is “someone else’s” job; “it’s above my pay grade”

> they have previously seen experts come in and do a good job and have a view that such work is best done by outsiders

> it is easier for some staff members and leaders to create a power imbalance to let someone else structure their organisation (their managers or delegated management consultants) for them to later rail against or defer to. This thinking goes back to outdated scientific management notions of the need for distinct groups of “thinkers” and “doers”.

However, we believe that participation in the re-design process is a good thing

We believe in the power of supported participation in the process of organisation design for the following reasons:

> team members are more likely to accept the outcome if involved in shaping the solution

> there is more chance of a solution that will work in practice

> quicker adoption through better understanding when finally implemented

> this enhances a culture which sees responsibility and solutions as co-created and jointly held by all participants in the organisation – leaders and staff members

Interested in this frame? Get in touch!

References

Charteris-Black, J. (2006). Britain as a container: Immigration metaphors in the 2005 election campaign. Discourse & Society, 17(5), 563–581. doi:10.1177/0957926506066345

Jeremy S Furyk, Carl J O’Kane, Peter J Aitken, Colin J Banks and David A Kault. Fast versus slow bandaid removal: a randomised trial. Med J Aust 2009; 191 (11): 682-683. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2009.tb03379.x; Published online: 7 December 2009

Lakoff, G. (2004) Don’t think of an elephant!: Know your values and frame the debate, White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Publishing Co

The Metalogue Transformation Report (2018) https://metalogue.co.uk/Metalogue-Report-on-Transformation-Dec-2018.pdf

Finally, a thanks to organisers and attendees at the European Organisation Design Forum 2020 Conference for prompting, encouraging and contributing to my thinking on this subject. https://www.eodf.eu/

One perspective that informs our consulting practice at Metalogue is cultural anthropology.  We see value in trying to understand the symbolic meaning of behaviour, language, artefacts, rituals and ways of working.  This lens often reveals new and different ways of making sense of what goes on in organisations.   We’ve learnt to value being immersed in organisations, hanging out and observing first-hand what goes on between people.

Upon entering an organisation for the first time, we are confronted with the challenge of figuring out how things are done and what it means to be a member of the organisation.  This is rarely a comfortable experience, at least for me. Clients hire us to help them to achieve specific goals, and with this often comes an expectation that you understand or know what to do.   More often than not, however, we don’t know what to do because we simply don’t understand enough about the organisation, what actually happens or what’s happened in the past.   

Rather than seeing this as a problem, I am learning that it’s precisely this ‘not understanding’ that is often required.  This is because helping a leader, team or organisation to change (as we all know) is not as simple as telling them what they need to do differently.  In most instances, people know what they need to do – that’s not their difficulty – it’s figuring out how to change.    This is only possible if they become aware of what they take for granted, their assumptions, beliefs and norms.

‘Outsiders’ often notice things that ‘insiders’ have stopped noticing.  Furthermore, being curious and asking simple or naïve questions about seemingly mundane events, can help others to question what they do and why.  With a little encouragement and support, managers and their teams are usually able to adopt a similar position of curiosity about themselves. This can be as simple as asking them to be aware of, over a period of time, a range of everyday expressions of culture (such as language, norms, social roles, artefacts, rituals and ceremonies, myths, dress codes, etc) and then exploring what they have discovered.  Groups usually become highly engaged when given such an opportunity to study themselves.  Such exercises can prove to be both sobering and hilarious, often at the same time, as contradictory and seemingly non-sensical patterns are surfaced and explored.  Bringing together my ‘outsider’ perspective and their ‘insider’ viewpoint can therefore reveal deeper levels of understanding of how work is undertaken and its consequences.

Some examples from the field

To give a simple illustration, I’ve been coaching a newly appointed Director in a public sector organisation who for the first time in her career was expected to participate in governance meetings around service provision and metrics.  In the meetings, she felt like she was an ‘outsider’ as she struggled to understand her role, what was happening, the language that was used and what was expected of her. I took the position that when she attended the meeting, she was crossing a boundary between her professional culture and the managerial culture of the organisation.    To help her to make sense of this transition, I encouraged her to take up the position of an anthropologist who needed to de-code the culture of the meeting.  In our sessions, I helped her to describe the patterns that she observed and experienced.  This led her to the following description (somewhat abbreviated for this blog):

> A lengthy report of over 250 pages that was prepared in advance of the meeting. This covered clinical and financial performance for each department.

> The most senior managers sat at the centre of the table with managers from the same department sitting together around the table.

> The meeting took on an air of formality with each department having a specific time bound slot on the agenda in which to present the data for their area.

> The presenter would be careful not to ‘show any dirty washing in public’.

> The senior managers directed the flow and pattern of the meeting by asking questions, expressing concerns and making demands on the departments.

> When ‘issues’ were raised, the presenter would always state clearly what was being done to resolve it.

> Discussion tended to be limited to a few clarifying questions with very limited challenge of the presenter or exchange of ideas or opinions.

> The general tone was one of muted responses and an absence of explicit displays of emotions.

The meeting’s ritualistic quality appeared to serve the implicit purpose of providing assurance to powerful stakeholders, such as the Board and different external bodies, that risks were being managed and were under control.  The scene itself reminded me of the Sociologist Erving Goffman’s delineation between front stageand back stagesocial interactions. The meeting was a theatre in which a public image was presented for an audience.   They were engaged in impression management, showing that they were in control of their services and that risks were known and managed.   My client experienced considerable frustration in these meetings because she felt their content and the tone did not reflect what was happening in the organisation.  Whilst, the above exercise did not resolve her frustrations, it did reveal to her that she needed to work backstage, behind the scenes, to surface difficulties and risks (rather than raise them formally at the meeting).

With another client, who I was working with for the first time, I was struck by how all my interactions were short in duration, fast paced and purposeful.  I noticed how I experienced a constant pressure to get to the point quickly or respond immediately.  When asked for my opinion about what needed to be done to support a transformation process, I shared my observations and experience of our interactions. This led me to suggest that people would need space and time to reflect together which would need some deliberate disruptions.  This hit a chord with those present who were quickly able to recognise the cultural pattern and that they needed to slow down and think about what the changes would mean for them.

In summary, inquiring into cultural dynamics can help managers to understand how they can get things done and help teams to understand how their norms and taken-for-granted assumptions affect what they do and how they do it.

If you are interested in reading more about organisations as cultures then please download our research report: “Culture … where to start? The realities of Culture Change in Organisations” https://metalogue.co.uk/Metalogue_Culture%20Change_Nov19.pdf

 

Reference

Goffman, E (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Most of our clients are engaged in attempts to develop or change their culture in some way, shape or form.  They tend however to tell us they find such initiatives to be tricky, demanding and, ultimately, disappointing.  To understand why this is the case, we have been inquiring with leaders and OD practitioners into their experience of trying to change culture.  Our report: “Culture…where to start? The realities of culture change in organisations” summarises our findings and practical insights.

What we found

We discovered that a high degree of scepticism exists around planned efforts to change culture, particularly when their aims are ambitious, abstract and idealistic.  Those responsible for these initiatives are often left feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of what to do or where to start.   They can absorb significant time, energy and resources without delivering the desired or hoped for outcomes. This tends to leave those involved feeling helpless, frustrated and disappointed.

What we learnt

As a result of our research, we concluded that to facilitate culture change, leaders and change agents need to:

> Identify and communicate the adaptive challenge facing the organisation

> Translate this into clear, specific and meaningful goals that employees care about and are committed to

> Understand the full richness, complexity and depth of their cultures

> Raise awareness of how specific cultural patterns help or hinder the achievement of their goals

> Signal change through their own actions and by disrupting established norms, assumptions & beliefs

> Challenge people to question what they do and how they maintain specific cultural patterns

> Change symbols, structures, processes, workspaces and policies to reinforce desired patterns and values

> Review regularly with employees how they are making sense of the changes they are experiencing, hearing and seeing

> Be patient, consistent and persistent!

The above is a high-level summary of our findings, if you want to read stories from our clients and see more about what we discovered then please download our report:

https://metalogue.co.uk/Metalogue_Culture%20Change_Nov19.pdf

 

 

Over the past year, we have been researching the practice of transformation in organisations.  A brief summary of our findings follows.

If you would like to read our findings in more depth, then you can download a copy of the report by clicking on the link at the end of this blog.

What we discovered about transformation

Remarkably, when we started exploring this topic we found that:

> Firstly, many organisations are struggling to both conceptualise how to transform themselves and to undertake transformations.  Indeed, many projects unwittingly seem to end up doing more to reinforce existing paradigms; in other words, they are ‘more of the same’!

> And, secondly, there is little applied research that explores what organisations actually do when they attempt to ‘transform’ themselves; and little research into what works and what does not.

After 12 months of inquiry with our clients into their experiences of transformation initiatives, we discovered that:

> Transformations are social processes of discovery, creativity and innovation. Success requires the mobilisation of collective intelligence, imagination and energy.

> The process of transformation is characterised by ongoing challenges, dilemmas and contradictory emotions including anxiety, discomfort, uncertainty, hope and excitement.

> How the transformation is framed influences whether and how people respond and whether they engage.  Most transformations are underpinned by metaphors and narratives that either bring it to life – creating a sense of opportunity and possibility – or generate fear and anxiety.

> Transformation requires the organisation to tell itself different stories about itself. This process happens in social interaction and conversation.

> Leaders enable transformation by telling a coherent and compelling story about the future, holding their nerve, engendering confidence, and role modelling what they are asking of people.

If you want to read more about what we have discovered, you can find the full report at:

https://metalogue.co.uk/Metalogue-Report-on-Transformation-Dec-2018.pdf

Please feel free to distribute and share this research across your networks.

If you need help and guidance with transformation and change in your organisation then please contact us at andrewday@metalogue.co.uk.

Organisation ‘transformation’ has become somewhat of a leitmotif. Increasingly, our clients are using the word ‘transformation’ when they talk about planned or ongoing change efforts.

We’ve become curious about what they actually mean and are doing. So, over the past 6 months, we started to inquire with our clients who are undertaking ‘transformation’ projects. In June, we held a roundtable event with a group of our clients to test our observations and to deepen our findings.  And since then, we have been studying specific transformation projects in greater depth.

Transformation as metaphor

Our inquiry has revealed that different stakeholders often use very different metaphors and images to describe what they are doing. This has significant implications because the underlying metaphor implies:

> What form of transformation is necessary,

> What types of actions are required,

> What success looks like,

> How individuals communicate, and

> The urgency of change.

Significantly, when individuals hold different images of the transformation effort then this can lead to confusion, conflict and resistance.

The underlying metaphor can trigger and elicit very different emotional responses and levels of engagement from employees. They therefore heavily influence the likelihood that a transformation effort will achieve its aims.

‘Organisation-in-the-mind’

Behind the metaphors lies what David Armstrong’s (2005) called the ‘Organisation-in-the-mind’ – the image an individual holds in his mind of the organisation and how they imagine activities and relations are organised, structured and connected internally. This is an inner, symbolic representation of the organisation that gives rise to emotions, values and responses within the individual. The ‘Organisation-in-the-mind’ influences how a person leads or relates to their organisation and how they engage with others.

Transformation metaphors

The most popular metaphors across our inquiry were:

Renovation: The original footprint and structure remains stable, but internal operating processes and systems are knocked down, replaced and modernised. A blueprint or design is drawn up to represent an exciting vision for the future.

‘Getting Fit’: Images of health, competing and performing are used to either inspire efforts to improve or to conjure up feelings of guilt and shame. The underlying message can be either the fittest survive, success is outperforming the competition or health is a virtue. Transformation is a matter of effort, hard work and ability.

Transformer: The image is of a machine that can change form. A car becomes a robot. In other words, the parts can be reconfigured to create a different function or purpose. Transformation involves using what you already have in different ways. At a more fundamental level, the core identity of the organisation changes.

Metamorphosis: Transformation involves a fundamental and irreversible change in form. Change is a messy, emergent and natural process. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Again, transformation involves a radical change to the organisation’s identity. It can however can lead to idealistic and magical thinking.

Burning Platform: This conveys a sense of urgency and imminent threat to the survival of the organisation. For instance, the Chairman of M&S recently said: “This business is on a burning platform. We don’t have a God-given right to exist and unless we change and develop this company the way we want to, in decades to come there will be no M&S.[1]”Transformation often involves a focus on the immediate challenges facing the organisation, radical actions to reduce costs and to change the operating model of the business.

Revolution: Transformation is presented as a social movement and the overthrowing of an established ideology, power structure or traditions. It tends to reflect images of power, political processes and solidarity. The revolution can be quiet or very noisy and intimidating. It can be imposed from outside or an underground movement from within.

Reformation: Based on religious associations, this image imposes notions of what is good or bad. It is associated with campaigns for root and branch reform of an assumed failing service or department. It can invoke a sense of morality and failure to live up to ideals or expectations.

Incubator: As a metaphor this tends to be used when attempts are made to develop new products, services or capabilities outside of the boundaries of the core organisation. We have observed this model most frequently being applied by large corporations who want to initiate new digitally led business models.

Our conclusion is simple and obvious – language and imagery matters!

Our research suggests that:

> We actively construct models and images of organisations that inform how we try to change them;

> These models are often unconscious or at least out of our awareness for much of the time;

> Individuals can hold different images that can create confusion and conflict when left unexamined; and

> We are able to reflect on and notice these deeper metaphors and images.  We can therefore make choices and help people to notice their deeper assumptions and their effects.

If you are involved in a transformation effort, take a moment to reflect on what you and your colleagues are trying to convey and what response you wish to invoke.

We are continuing our research and will launch our final report in December 2018. Please get in contact if you want to contribute to our research or want to receive a copy of the final report. We can be reached at contact@metalogue.co.uk

Reference

Armstrong, D. (2005) Organization in the Mind: Psychoanalysis, Group Relations and Organizational Consultancy. Karnac Books.

[1]https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/jul/10/marks-spencer-chair-to-shareholders-were-on-a-burning-platform

 

“Words create worlds”

Abraham Heschel

 

Generally speaking, I don’t think philosophy is considered to have much practical relevance to organisations.  Certainly, when I look back on my early training as a psychologist little attention was paid to questions of philosophy.  A few months ago, a daughter of a friend was telling me that she was thinking about studying philosophy at University. I found myself excited on her behalf and saying how I feel the subject is both important and useful.  This got me thinking about how philosophical ideas helped me to be clearer about what I do, how I do it and why I do what I do in my OD practice.

My early training (close to 30 years ago now!) as a psychologist was deeply embedded in an unquestioned positivist paradigm.   That is, reality (i.e. people and organisations) exist as independent entities that can be objectively studied and empirically measured.  I learnt to assess people and organisations to diagnose problems.  My professional assessment would then inform interventions to support or enable change.  For most of the first decade of my practice, I never really questioned this paradigm.  After a while, however, experience forced me to recognise it rarely helped to enable change.  Too often, I felt my clients resisted the diagnosis (they didn’t own it!); or by the time I had a ‘valid’ diagnosis the situation had changed or having a diagnosis didn’t equate to knowing what to do or having a solution that would work.

Over time, I started to question my assumptions.  I was not on my own.  For the past 40-50 years social scientists and OD practitioners have increasingly challenged the dominant ontological and epistemological paradigms about organisations and how they change. In 1966, the Sociologists Berger and Luchmann wrote a pioneering book titled ‘The Social Construction of Reality’. This was the start of a wave of thinking in the social sciences that has, and is still, challenging assumptions around the nature of organisations and the practice of OD.  Ideas such as: Kenneth Gergen’s ‘Invitation to Social Construction’; David Cooperrider and his colleagues work on Appreciative Inquiry; Patricia Shaw’s Changing Conversations in Organizations; and more recently Bob Marshak and Gervase Bushe publications on Dialogic OD.  These are, but a few, of the writers that have applied postmodern philosophy and social constructivism to the field of OD.

Postmodern thinking

Rather briefly, postmodern thinking is characterised by a general distrust of grand theory and ideologies.  It challenges the belief in an objective reality that is independent of the observer.  Rather reality is, and organisations are, socially constructed and inter-subjective in nature.   Meaning, words and action, arises in social contexts and cannot be separated from it. Postmodern ideas draw attention to patterns of dominant discourse and how these discourses are reflective of power relations in society.  A postmodern perspective seeks to explore alternative accounts, narratives and to be critical and questioning of implicit assumptions and dominant discourses.

These ideas have changed my practice.

> Rather than trying to diagnose problems, I help people to talk about how they are working together and  how they are talking to each other. I draw attention to language, words and assumptions and how these are reflected in what they do.   I might for instance help my client notice how they talk about ‘driving change’, ‘beating the competition’, ‘aligning the organisation’ or ‘bringing people into line’.

> I am less invested in normative models or ideological images of what organisations ‘should’ look like or how they ‘should’ function. Instead, I explore my clients’ experience of working together. I have come to distrust, or at least question, bold statements such as: “this is the problem”, or “this is how the organisation needs to change”. I see conversations that explore different multiple perspectives as generative and creative.

> I am less committed to finding agreement on the nature of the problem or what to do.  I am attentive to how different individuals or communities are constructing their experiences. I pay attention to patterns of conversations: who speaks to whom, who talks about what topics and who does not talk to whom etc.   I see my role as helping people to acknowledge, question and challenge dominant narratives.  Not because they are wrong but because the process of questioning reveals assumptions and choices.  Where possible, I want to help different accounts to be acknowledged, given voice and understood (not necessarily agreed with).

> I now believe that change happens when we change how we talk and relate with each other. My practice is increasingly about convening and hosting conversations that are different from those that habitually happen or that appear stuck and lacking the expression of difference, novelty and creativity.

> With the above in mind, if I am going to be of service to my clients then I need to notice and question my construction of what I am seeing, hearing and experiencing. I no longer assume that I am able to stand outside of my client’s experience and to offer objective judgements. I am a participant with them in a process of inquiry, exploration and possibly change.

Whilst writing this blog, I recalled a consulting project, that I worked on with my colleague Dev, that really helps me to grasp the value of helping people to notice how they were ‘framing’ their experience.  The client had recently re-organised from a centralised structure with business units in countries around the World to a matrix which gave the countries greater responsibility and accountability.  Dev and I started the work by talking with those involved.  What became apparent was how the different groups constructed and acted into the situation.  The executive team described the problem in one way, the central functional leads in another and the country managers in multiple ways (they after all had little opportunity to confer with each other).  Dev and I brought most of the stakeholders together for several days to explore and talk about their experiences and to explore each other’s assumptions of ‘the problem’. Through a process of dialogue and conversation, individuals began to understand each other’s perspective and to shift their framing of the situation from who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to a deeper appreciation of different experiences, needs and expectations.  Out of these conversations, agreements were made about their respective roles and responsibilities.

Embracing this way of consulting is both unsettling and liberating. I no longer ‘have to get’ people to ‘somewhere’ or ‘to change’. I have also learnt that to question the ‘dominant discourse’ or people’s ‘reality’ is at times confronting for them and, not surpisingly, is not always welcomed.

 

At Metalogue we see our work is about helping our clients have a different conversation with themselves and about themselves.  If you want us to join a conversation with you about your organisation please reach out to us.

 

 

 

 


In recent years, I’ve noticed that enquiries for team development and coaching, invariably start with the statement: “we (or they) need to be a high performing team.” On face value, this strikes me as a reasonable request. However, I’ve learnt that this statement covers a whole range of ills, dysfunctionalities and possibilities. It gets used as a proxy for ‘help us sort out our problems…without risking exploring what these might be’.

In truth, there are no off-the-shelf answers to what constitutes high performance for a leadership team. Every team needs to work it out for themselves. However, we believe that there are important questions that a leadership team needs to ask itself which can act as a starting point of a conversation or development process.

Below are ten questions we think it is important for every leadership team to ask itself:

1. When are you a team and when are you not?

Research on teams argues that they are only effective when people need to work together to complete a task or achieve a goal. Many years ago, colleagues of ours Bill Critchley and David Casey wrote a paper titled: ‘Second Thoughts on Teambuilding’. In it they questioned, the implicit assumption that many leadership teams have that they are a team. In practice, they argued that for much of the time, leadership teams are not a team and do not need to be. At others times, such as when they need to formulate and execute strategy, they do need to be a team.

So, the first question to ask yourselves, is when do we need to be a team and when are we not a team?

2. Are you organised for success?

It’s not uncommon to find leadership teams of between 12 – 15 members or more. Whilst hard rules do not apply, this is usually a clear indicator that the team has a problem with its design. It’s too large!

An effective leadership team includes only those roles necessary to perform its work, and no more (West, 2012). The team also needs to (i) have the necessary authority for executing or running the service or operation for which it is accountable; and (ii) be rewarded and recognised for working as a team.

Does the organisation structure and design support and enable you to be effective?

3. Do you believe in what you need to achieve?

Most models of teams emphasise the importance of teams having a meaningful purpose or direction, shared commitment and specific goals (e.g. Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). In my experience, there is both a rational and emotional side to effective teams. The team has to exercise thoughtful strategic judgement around what they need to and can achieve. However, they also need to care about, believe in and be committed to their aims.

4. Do you have the support of your stakeholders?

All teams exist within a wider socio-political context. The success of senior teams invariably requires legitimacy and political support from individuals and groups outside of the team. For an executive team of a large public or private sector organisation, this might include: the board, ‘the public at large’, regulatory bodies, shareholders, trade unions, the workforce, the senior management, etc. The recent controversies around UBER demonstrate how success is not simply defined in terms of growth and financial performance.

5. Do you have effective and authorised leadership?

Questions of power and authority often lurk beneath the surface in teams, particularly senior ones which mainly include confident individuals with a high need for power. How the leader enacts their authority and engages with the team influences the extent to which the team feels accountable and responsible for its performance. Equally, the leader needs to be authorised, and not resisted, by the team if he or she is to be able to lead the team.

6. Is the climate of the team one of openness, respect and trust?

The quality of communication and interaction within a team is fundamentally related to the level of trust and mutual respect that exists within the team. Trust is in essence the willingness of individuals to be vulnerable with each other (Lencioni, 2005). Generally speaking, the higher the trust in a team the clearer individuals communicate, the more individuals are willing to listen, to challenge each other and to share their ideas, feelings and doubts. High trust environments are characterised by disagreement, the expression of emotion, lively debate, appreciation and humour. When I encounter a team that feels dry and unemotional, more often than not, the team is suffering from an absence of trust. Individuals are holding back from bring their full selves to their work and protecting themselves by suppressing what they really think or feel.

Put simply, do you trust each other?

7. Do you execute critical judgement for key decisions?

The work of leadership teams often centres around decision making both operational and strategic. The research on ‘group think’ and group decision making highlights the importance of teams being willing to question their assumptions, challenge their conclusions and assess the risks of their decisions. Often teams that have enjoyed success (i.e. growth, external recognition etc.) start to believe their own press and lose their critical perspective and moral compass. The stories of Enron, Lehman Brothers and RBS are examples of where the hubris of the executive leadership contributed to the collapse or decline of the organisation.

8. Are you learning and developing as a team?

A differentiator between high and low performing teams is the capacity of the team to reflect on how it goes about its work and its group process. Teams are more effective and innovative when they regularly reflect upon their objectives, strategies, processes and dynamics and make changes accordingly (West, 2012). This capacity is becoming increasingly important given the dynamic and turbulent nature of organisational environments.

How often do you take time as a team to reflect on how you are working together? Do you take time to give each other feedback? When problems arise does the team have a culture of inquiry or defensiveness and blame?

9. Is it healthy and satisfying to be a member of the team?

The longer-term success of a leadership team needs to encompass the health and psychological needs of its members. Sustained anxiety and stress, excessive work hours and a blind and obsessive focus on results leads to burnout, health problems and resignations. Do you feel supported by your peers? Would you describe your team environment as healthy and confident? Is there an invigorating, positive and vibrant team climate?

10. Do you work together to enable the organisation to achieve its aims?

Leadership teams exist to enable a work system to achieve its aims. The ultimate measure therefore of a leadership team’s effectiveness is whether collectively the team works together to develop the organisation’s capacity to be successful in both the short and long term. This requires a balancing of the achievement of operational and strategic goals. How do you balance short term results with longer term development and change of the organisation? How do gather feedback on your impact?

Finally, I would add that truly effective and high performing teams are not commonplace. They are hard to develop and sustain. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good! If you have more ticks than crosses to these questions then recognise and acknowledge what you are doing well. If you have mainly crosses, then now might be time to start a conversation about how you work together.

References

Lencioni, P. (2005). The five dysfunctions of a team.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The wisdom of teams: Creating the
high-performance organization.

West, M.A. (2012). Effective Team Work: Practical Lessons from Organisational Research.