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

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

 

 

The quote “CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR BREAKFAST!” often pops up (in big bold letters) on LinkedIn posts and has variously been attributed to Peter Drucker, Gary Hamel (and with more veracity) Bill Moore and Jerry Rose.

It’s an idea that smells good but is difficult to swallow due to the elusive nature of culture.

If we follow the wafting scent we notice that it is the decisions we make and don’t make which are gobbling up our strategic intentions. Even when we can get to make the decisions, they are often hard to swallow and difficult to digest for the wider organisation. But what can we do to protect our strategies from the patterns of interaction embedded in our culture?

We suggest that “decision-making” is the dish on the culture change menu which is most likely to hit the spot. We describe below some of the examples of decision-making in organisations we have recently worked in to illustrate how patterns of decision making inhibit or constrain strategy.

At the end of our post we present “Our Menu” – interventions we suggest can improve decision-making to support strategy execution.

Too many cooks

Example: A professional services business struggles to reach agreement on internal ways of working. Significant time is spent by the senior team reaching consensus on minor issues, leaving less time to focus on business development, quality reviews, and development of intellectual property.

What has helped: Creating leadership roles on specific topics. Asking those individuals to get agreement from all to a general approach, and document it, and then empowering those individuals to make decisions within that framework.

Reject the “under-cooked” opportunities

Example: A tech firm we have worked with struggles to make decisions on new business opportunities. Sales staff bring in opportunities with great potential but many are prematurely rejected as sunk costs and investments in particular laboratory technology only support a certain type of client or product. This leads to very difficult conversations between the engineers and commercial units resulting in sub-optimal outcomes. The sunk cost fallacy (making ongoing decisions to justify previous investments) plagues decision making in this organisation. This is hard to challenge as it conflicts with the pressure for demonstrating investment payback over time.

What has helped: We suggest that what is needed is acute attention on what the emerging flow of opportunities are telling us the market wants and then critical judgements on what decisions the business needs to make in order to respond.

Eat your vegetables!

Example: In this professional services business, the top team struggle to spend sufficient time on organisational matters such as building leadership capability and team development. Professional and technical issues are ascribed with far more value and so leaders are drawn to the meat on their plate but tend to leave vegetables uneaten. As a result, tricky organisational decisions have been put off and difficult conversations requiring resolution are perpetuated, partly because no-one is clear who has the right to make them.

What has helped: When introduced to the RAPID tool (Blenko & Rogers) the senior team were able to put on the table difficult decisions. They then worked through who does, and who should, have the decision rights in order for the business to deliver its strategy.

Salad dressing

Example: In an alternative energy business a senior team were having difficulty getting any traction or momentum behind decisions that they were taking which were cross-business unit. When they met, differences were aired, however, the overriding atmosphere was one of good humour and play which perhaps masked a fear of conflict and a group norm around the value of harmony. One team member talked about their meeting culture being like a bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. At the start of the meetings the layers were separated. Through discussions they shook the bottle creating a smooth emulsion of the ingredients. However, following on from their meetings, the “salad dressing” of their collective decision making gradually separated back into its constituent parts. This was not an active unpicking of decisions, more a return of focus to individual business units which let things unravel through inertia.

What has helped: is spending time as a team surfacing and noticing their own dynamics. Working with the playful spirit of metaphor the team have a language for calling themselves out on these patterns so they can see when they need to push decisions forward.

Our Menu

– Be explicit as a team about decision-making rights. The RAPID tool (Blenko M. & Rogers) is great to use for this conversation: it identifies who holds each of the critical roles around a decision i.e. who Recommends, Approves, Performs, provides Input and critically who actually decides. Do this as a dialogue/collective experience, preferably with facilitation, and not a theoretical desk top exercise.

– Clarify decision criteria before getting into the decision itself. This can help prevent the professional culture (e.g. legal, risk, clinical, engineering etc) from “crowding out” strategic, commercial and operational matters

– Don’t fall into the trap of expensive restructuring exercises to resolve lack of accountability

– Be clear on what is up for grabs (on the plate) and what is a given (off the plate)

– Finally, pay attention to who is involved in decision making and notice your dynamics as a team

Ingredients used in this post

Arkes, H.R. & Blumer, C. (1985) The Psychology of Sunk Costs, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140

Blenko M. & Rogers (2006) “Who has the D?” in Harvard Business Review. 01 Jan 2006

Campbell, A., Whitehead, J. and Finkelstein, S. “Why good leaders make bad decisions, in Harvard Business Review. 01 Feb 2009


Chef
: Dev Mookherjee

Sous Chefs: Sophy Pern, Simon Martin, Kevin Power, Andrew Day and Sarah Beart

 

Alternative Ways of Knowing: 

Finding new possibilities for how to enable cultural change and transformation.

By Kevin Power & Simon Martin


In our last blog, we talked about applying “a liberal dose of science and an equal measure of art” when exploring organisational culture and change. As practitioners, one frame we find helpful comes from John Heron and Peter Reason (2008), who talk about there being 4 “ways of knowing”:

‘Propositional’ and ‘Practical’ ways of knowing are far more accepted in modern organisational life. These can be found, for example, in policy, process and best practice procedures. They are gleaned from the experience of what has happened in the past. They are what “normally works” and could be seen, too, in the competencies and routines developed through carrying out the daily acts of working life.

‘Experiential’ knowing is described as the embodied encounter with the experience of the moment; the second by second unfolding of everything that happens. ‘Presentational’ knowing is the processing of this experience into “artistic form”.

These last two focus on intuitive, rather than pre-conditioned, responses. By drawing on this kind of data it can help to “create” new perspectives and new possibilities.

Working from Intuition

When we are dealing with many familiar organisational situations, then Propositional and Practical knowing may serve us well. However, when dealing with complex, systemic questions such as culture change we do well to explore the other forms of knowing too.

To bring this to life, one way we help individuals and groups to access their experience in a presentational way is to use what we describe as ‘cultural artefacts’. We ask them to choose something that represents or resonates with what it means for them to be a participant in their organisational culture. The request is normally unusual enough that they have to work intuitively because the “right answer” is not available!

Sometimes people bring along an item that has been sitting at the bottom of a desk drawer or something that is stuck on an office wall. They might refer back to what they first noticed on joining the organisation or a source of frustration or pride. Other times they will choose an evocative image or an object from home to express something that is otherwise not easily spoken of.

Tsunamis and Crowns

For example, during a recent strategy & culture workshop, a senior leader in a manufacturing based company offered up an imagined tsunami image (see below). It was his way of describing the experience of working in the context of constant uncertainty that faced the business.

In their leadership roles were they supposed to exude calmness or agitation? Or were they being perceived as in denial? In an ensuing discussion between a cross section of colleagues about the impact of Brexit, they realised that this was just another context for a typical pattern in the business. In this case it had become the norm to carry on with resilience and belief that you can address whatever issues or challenges that come along through rational and calm endeavour. This was an engineering-led organisation after all. Yet this response was leading to other unintended consequences such as cycles of anxiety for some people and complacency or disempowerment for others.

With another client group, a pink crown was chosen to represent how people related to their senior colleagues. On the one hand there was respect and a sense of responsibility inherent in the symbol of monarchy. Yet at the same time the playful colour undercut this with something that was a serious concern. In a subsequent discussion that included the executive team, the  group talked about a nagging feeling that their bosses were unlikely to stay around for very long. It was therefore not a surprise to learn that it sometimes led to ambivalence in how people responded to new strategic imperatives.

Transformative Conversations

In both these examples, these patterns had grown to become cultural norms and had become resistant to previous leadership interventions and exhortations for change. Interventions that were based more on the propositional “rule book”, such as signing up to agreed “leadership behaviours” or team charters. By surfacing these cultural patterns through a more intuitive “artistic” form, people from different levels in the organisation found it easier to talk more openly with each other about their attitudes and responses. These perspectives were always there but had remained hidden and unspoken about. Now they could be given language and worked with in the spirit of changing their organisations for the better.

In our recent research into Organisation Transformation we refer to the importance of enabling transformative conversations, which can often more easily and gently be elicited through artefact work. We don’t profess to have an amazing one-size-fits-all model for how to make cultural change happen. But we do know how to build a process that helps clients to make sense of their own cultural patterns – with emphasis on the richness that different ways of knowing and multiple perspectives can bring. We also know what might engender different responses and what might disturb what has become fixed.

At the same time, we support the view that the role of leaders and change agents is to create the conditions for change to become possible. This is a reframe on the cult of leader as the heroic instrumentalist. It is a reminder, too, that non-rational approaches that have a more humble starting point can often bring about unexpected, and sometimes transformative, results.

You can download our latest research report here:

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

 

Key References:

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2008). The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nd ed., pp. 366-380). London: Sage.

McLean, A (2013). Leadership and Cultural Webs in Organisations: Weavers Tales. Emerald Group Publishing.

 

 

 

In our work with culture and transformation, we often talk about the importance of narrative and metaphor. In fact we wrote a report about this just recently. ( Metalogue report on Transformation )

So it’s always pleasing when what we say is illustrated by others – in this case by Greta Thunberg in particular. If you manged to miss her speech to the UK parliament here it is (Greta Thunberg speech).

What has struck us about it is the change in narrative

For 30 years we’ve talked about “sustainable development”. And she has offered a completely different phrase: ‘climate crisis”. And the game changes.

Speaking personally- for years I’ve been aware, probably a bit more than most, of the importance of somebody somewhere doing something about the climate stuff. And I’ve made some micro changes- better recycling, a bit less meat, and known there were other things I should do- but you know, I’m busy, there is lots going on and I will get to it later..

And yet in reading her speech, and many other articles and reports since then, what is clear to me is that “later” needs to turn into “now”. Because you don’t deal with a crisis later. You do it now. The sense of urgency that has been lacking for so many years is suddenly there. It feels deeply uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. For me- and of course, because Greta has chosen to speak in the name of the future- for my children and for the natural world which we are part of.

Her choice to speak for others, for the future and for the planet, is an immensely powerful leadership act

Her skill in doing so is remarkable.

So in the last fortnight, some very different conversations things have taken place in our home, with clients, colleagues and friends. And we have changed how we source food, what we eat, our travel plans. I’ve talked to senior clients about what their real contribution to the climate issue is. I’ve talked with friends about what they would re-imagine in their professions if environmental impact was a key consideration. There’s excitement and interest. Political parties are taking notice…What is required is cultural change on a scale we rarely think about.

Much like cultural change in an organisation, no single or individual act does the trick

It requires action from power and institutions, but also from each of us. It remains to be seen whether this is in fact a tipping point in terms of how we collectively face up to these issues, and make real deep changes. And because we are social beings the power of the collective will be there encouraging us not to disrupt too much, and holding us to our current and past ways of doing. Making deeply necessary changes will feel risky and uncomfortable, and will require courage. It will require being different, and finding the words to explain why we are being different.