By Dev Mookherjee

Our house parties are always difficult to plan for. I’m not that keen on parties but my partner is. When backed into a corner I sometimes foolishly agree to a party… but then there are the tricky questions of how many people do we want to come and who should be on the list. As an introvert I appreciate small gatherings while my partner seems to rejoice in her ability to draw a crowd and connect friends and neighbours.

We find that these questions of how many and who to invite also arise at the initiation of organization re-design processes, and especially when thinking through membership of a core design team. Many of you reading this post know that we are staunch advocates of participative organisation design (Link) and so  give a lot of thought to these questions. I thought I would share our rules of thumb and generic invite lists with you.

How many to invite?

We suggest a range of 6-9 in a core design group. Our recommended number is 9 as this:
– allows a sufficient range of participants to meet the criteria set out below;
– is the maximum number for all to participate and have sufficient voice in this time-intensive process and;
– enables effective breakout conversations and design work to be done in trios.

Who to consider inviting?

It’s sometimes helpful to remember such info with a mnemonic, and in this case our is LINKED…

L – The leader of the unit! In our experience you need the leader of the unit present during the process: leaders are tempted to delegate this task and then reject the outcome, leaving a legacy of mistrust in their wake and making it much harder to engage the organisation.

I – Who will Implement the design? Keep in mind people who will be responsible not just for drawing up designs and job descriptions but those who need to make it work well.

NNovelty – people who are newly in and have a fresh perspective on the organisation, perhaps from competitor organizations, or people in your high potential group. Often more able to identify possibilities in a very different organisation design

K – Who has knowledge of how the organisation’s work is done – what it actually takes and from which people to perform key tasks successfully?

EExisting leaders – some but perhaps not your entire leadership team. If you have ONLY the existing leadership team you will be more likely to get a new design that is close to the old one (which could feel like “more of the same”) but there will be solid commitment to the outcome.

DDiversity of perspective. Include possibly network or union representatives, as well as finance rep, detail-oriented and strategic thinkers, members who can support dialogue.

Perhaps this goes without saying but you also need to make sure that the people you pick have the time and attention to devote to an intense and stimulating process. You don’t want people who are inclined to dip in and out, or who will be trying to multi-task. This work is too important!

Once you’re clear about who’s in the core design team, you can also think about the wider inquiry group – this is where it is really useful to talk to a mix of people in different teams and business units, and especially those who are always bending your ear about all the things that are wrong with the organisation – they usually have a lot of useful insights.

Need help with your invitation lists? Get in touch!


We at Metalogue have developed a tool (www.orgwith.com) to help in-house organization designers to facilitate participative, activity-based design conversations. If you would like a demo of Orgwith™ get in touch at the following email address: orgwith-admin@metalogue.co.uk

#orgdesign #strategy #od #facilitation #facilitationtech #hrtech #orgwith

The client call            

“I know you can do organization re-design in face-to-face workshops but our team is locked down on two sides of the Atlantic and we’re in a hurry. Can you still help us with this?”

Gulp…Keep calm.

In the few seconds we have to answer, the following thoughts go through our heads…

– Can we still productively hold the difficult trade-off conversations needed in the redesign processes virtually, or are face-to-face conversations essential for this?

– How can we replicate our plenary and breakout conversation formats?

– How will we replicate our approaches to activity mapping design options, which we would normally do on large meta-plan boards using post-it notes?

In those few milliseconds we realised we had a choice to make…and we responded “Yes. We can run this process virtually.”

What happened next?

Our first thought was that Zoom plenary and breakout rooms would work well and answer our first two questions and we started the process through a series of Zoom workshops with a core design group following a number of inquiry calls.

The Zoom platform soon proved to be up to the challenge, but we struggled as a facilitator team with the process of activity mapping using Power-point:

The preparation for workshops took an eternity:

– The process was so manual, which took our attention away from attending to the important team dynamics involved in the design process

– Instead, we were having to attend to the more mundane and less value-adding job of moving boxes around on Power-point charts

– Even after the workshop we had to find a way to record the outputs and we had no efficient way to export the designs in a way that would be helpful to the client.

There has to be a better way…” we told ourselves.

…and so the idea for Orgwith.com™ was born

We spent the second half of 2020 building a web-based app, with our brilliant digital agency partners Audacia (www.audacia.co.uk), which makes the process of facilitating organization design virtually (via Zoom or other web-conferencing platforms) much simpler and far less time consuming. The app is designed for in-house organization designers to build design options and populate them with activities using simple or more complex design templates, based on the work of Andrew Campbell. We built the app for us to use with our clients but realised that if we would find it helpful, so would our clients and other in-house organization design practitioners.

What are the features of Orgwith.com™?

– Drag & drop user interface to minimise hassle & maximise participation

– Import, add and edit activity listings as the building blocks of design options

– Build designs and compare options easily

– Work together in plenary or assign Breakout Facilitators

– Save and name design options

– Compare options easily

– Export design data in Excel to create role definitions

– “Save as you go” functionality

– Stable and secure as hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform

– Built to run on Chrome and Safari PCs

Interested in finding out more?

Check out www.orgwith.com or contact us at orgwith-admin@metalogue.co.uk.

Finally, if you are interested in developing your skills in facilitating participative organization design we have some spaces available on our programme in November. Email us at contact@metalogue.co.uk if you would like to find out more.

It is still by no means business as usual. While the impact of the pandemic has varied from individual to individual, we are all living with less certainty, often more anxiety and questioning some of the taken for granted in our lives.

Many organisations and teams need to re-evaluate and adapt their structures or ways of working to adapt to the new reality. So we thought it would be useful to share what we are learning about organisational re-design. The broad principles we follow continue to apply, however, some things need to be emphasised more than ever. These are our 10 top tips, re-visited in the context of our recent experiences:

1. Keep linking design to strategy. At this time of heightened uncertainty the importance of making sense together is even more crucial. From an organisation design perspective, be as clear as you can be on what the strategy is AND see organisation design as an opportunity to continue to engage people in the development and the implementation of strategy. We’ve had many a light bulb moment in workshops as the implications of a strategy memo suddenly become much clearer. This is critical given how much is changing around us at the moment.

2. Create a small but representative design team. With a clear remit and the right facilitation support they will design for the strategy and for the future, and most importantly feel ownership of the new design.

3. Continue to share as much as you can. We’ve seen great examples of very open communication by CEOs and leaders over the the last year. This is very important given that distrust and paranoia thrive in a vacuum. The same principle applies to organisation design work: pay particular attention to communicating the process and decisions to those who are not part of the design team.

4. Build a “warts and all” picture of what is and isn’t working at the moment. Share that picture (with the warts) as you start the re-design work so everyone has shared context from which to work.

5. Start by paying attention to process- the outcome will follow. As soon as the words re-design, or restructure are mentioned, naturally most people start to try and second guess what the outcome will be in terms of individuals and roles. Although it may seem counter intuitive, our experience suggests that the most helpful thing to focus on is what your redesign process will be. If you have a good process, you’ll get a good outcome- even if you don’t yet know what that will look like.

6. Conversely, beware of easy answers. This might be the sketch someone (the CEO / an expert consultant) has drawn up on the back of an envelope that is presented as “the answer”. It might not be a bad idea, but it won’t have the right level of ownership across the organisation for a successful implementation.

7. Be pacey, but don’t rush it. Re-design work is important for any organisation and has significant implications, so it’s important to take the time to get it right. That doesn’t mean it has to take years. Our experience suggests that 6-8 weeks is enough to come up with a well thought through robust organisational design. Bringing it to life will however take much longer – see point 9.

8. Be creative. The design process needs to encourage thinking outside of the box. The obvious example from this year has been virtual and multi site teams becoming the norm. It’s also highlighted how we can also be creative about the process itself. Our clients have been surprised at the quality of work that they have been able to do virtually instead of face to face, and it’’s even led us to develop an app to facilitate organisation design processes virtually. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that…

9. Plan for implementation up-front. A significant re-design always requires implementation resource: leadership time, HR support, internal communication and project coordination. Don’t let yourself be surprised by this.

10. Plan for transition support. Individuals find themselves in new roles having to do all the core business of management (i.e. set new KPIs, implement new governance processes, create new leadership teams etc) AND will need to provide emotional support to their teams who will be going through transitions themselves. At the best of times, this will typically takes 6 months for individuals to feel settled in a new structure. It will take longer in the present context and not providing appropriate support risks not realising the benefits of your re-design.


What you would add from your own experience? email us at sophypern@metalogue.co.uk


For more information and insight on organisation designing see our 2020 Research report into designing organisations

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

It is by no means business as usual for anyone during this crisis period. While the impact varies from individual to individual, we are all living with less certainty, often more anxiety, and questioning some of the taken for granted in our lives.

Organisations too are re-thinking what they do, and how they do it- in many cases coming right back to fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. Our engineering clients are engaging with the challenges of building ventilators and producing PPE. Our clients in tourism have been concerned with getting people home safely- and playing their part in keeping the supply chain going for vital things such as food & medicine.

Like many consultancies we have been asked to find innovative ways of continuing essential assignments. Indeed people have been surprised at how much you can still get done in the virtual space once you get over the new rules of engagement.  Sarah Beart’s blog on virtual working  is well worth reading on these.

We have noticed that many organisations are needing to re-evaluate and adapt their structures or ways of working to adapt to the new reality. The broad principles we follow continue to apply,  however some things need to be emphasised more than ever.

With that in mind, our (slightly revisited) 10 top tips for organisation design are…

1.  Be as clear as you can be on what the strategy is AND see organisation design as an opportunity to continue to engage people in the development and the implementation of strategy. At this time of heightened uncertainty the importance of making sense together is even more crucial. We’ve had many a light bulb moment in workshops as the implications of a strategy memo suddenly become much clearer- this will be even more the case at the moment.

2. Create a small and representative design team to work on this and give them a clear remit. With the right facilitation support they will design for the strategy & for the future- and most importantly feel ownership of the new design.

3. Pay even more attention than usual to communication. We’ve seen great examples of very open communication by CEOs in the last 6 weeks- very conscious that distrust and paranoia thrive in a vacuum. The same also applies to organisation design work: even more attention than usual needs to be paid to communicating on the process and the decisions that are being taken to those who are not part of the design team.

4. Build a real warts and all picture of what is and isn’t working about the current structure. And share that picture (with the warts) as you start the re-design work so you have enough shared context from which to work.

5. Trust that a good design process (like ours) will get you to a good outcome for your organisation– even though no one knows at the outset what that outcome will be. As we said to a workshop participant recently “We haven’t failed yet”.

6. Beware of the sketch someone (the CEO/ an expert consultant) has drawn up on the back of an envelope and which is “the answer”. It might not be a bad idea- but it won’t have the right level of ownership in the organisation to allow for a successful implementation

7. Be pacey – but don’t rush it. This work is important for any organisation and has significant implications- so it’s important to take the time to get it right. That doesn’t mean it has to take years. Our experience suggests that 6-8 weeks is enough to come up with a well thought through robust organisational design.

8. Be creative. In the last few weeks face to face workshops have gone virtual- and clients have been positively surprised at the quality of work that they have been able to do.

9. Plan for implementation up-front. A significant re-design always requires implementation resource: leadership time, HR, internal communication and some project coordination. Don’t be surprised by this!

10. Plan for transition support. Individuals will end up in new roles needing to do all the “traditional” management stuff (set new KPIs, implement new governance processes, create new leadership teams etc) AND in all likelihood with individuals in their teams requiring significant emotional support. At the best of times it will typically takes 6 months to individuals to be fully up & running in a new structure. It might take longer this time, and not providing appropriate support runs the risk of not realising the benefits of your re-design.

We hope these tips and pointers are helpful. What would you add from your own experience?

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

 

 

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.

We have been working in and around organisations long enough to have noticed a cyclical obsession with changing culture as a panacea for transformation and renewal. But is it helpful to describe this kind of change as if it is something we can master by applying some kind of cause and effect approach?

Mastering what is elusive

It is often the context for what I do in my work and yet I still hesitate to call myself an expert in something that is so elusive and therefore unmanageable. The subject demands humility yet it doesn’t stop us from thinking that we can somehow shape and control it.

Amongst the myriad of definitions you can find about organisational culture you will often discover terms that refer to patterns of human interaction such as behavioural norms, narratives, rituals and the significance of relationships. Then there are contextual factors such as symbols, artefacts and the aesthetics of the working environment Whatever aspects we have in mind it has consequences for how we think about cultural change as well as the actions that stem from these assumptions.

What is also interesting is that the etymology of the word has Latin and French origins and has evolved from an agricultural metaphor – the cultivation of land and crops from the early Middle Ages. So it does imply the notion of ‘controlled change’ as a base metaphor especially when you examine how it came to be used in philosophical thought through the ages:

“All the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism and, through artifice, become fully human” (Samuel von Pufendorf, 1632-94).

This way of thinking continued to evolve through to the last century, especially with the emergence of the social sciences, where the gaze turned to communities and tribes in different geographical contexts. As anthropologists in particular became more aware of their ethical responsibilities, they became less interested in any notions of cultivation and more on learning from their observations and insights about social systems of people. Hence the less goal-orientated idea of a noun called ‘culture’ where we were becoming more interested in what is rather than what should be.

The Petri Dish of Life

In a recent conversation with a client – who had a background in biochemistry and now works in social policy – she made an intriguing statement: “ I prefer researching and thinking about what people are doing in their lives rather than staring into a petri dish”. It reminded me that the ‘cultivation’ metaphor is alive and well in the world of microbes: the ‘cultures’ that are created and observed under the lens of a microscope.

Our conversation turned to whether we as leaders or change agents see ourselves as standing outside of culture looking in or whether we are actually swimming in the petri dish whilst imagining that we have access to the eye piece of the microscope.  And so we came to the fundamental difficulty of definition and our ability to influence something that is not within our grasp. We cannot ‘see’ something with neutral, objective clarity when our own lenses are distorted by our hypotheses and by our need to control and categorise. For example, how can you analyse and explain something when you are part of the very same phenomenon you are trying to pin down.

Or put another way, there is an old saying which we think comes from an old Chinese proverb and goes something like this: “if you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.”

And to bend the fish metaphor in another direction, culture is therefore a very slippery eel indeed!

So where does this leave us in our roles as change agents and leaders?

Hopefully not in a helpless place if we can hold our pragmatist and idealistic urges in check. As long as we have the capacity and the willingness to pay attention to our assumptions and are clear which lens we are seeing the world of culture through then we do think you can have some influence. What if we were to start with the following principles:

1. Organisational cultures are always in flux. They are constantly in a state of co-creation – a bit like very complex, self-modulating systems.

2. We participate (swim?) in these modulation processes and this contributes to what we experience as cultural patterns such as norms of behaviour.

3. These patterns are only one manifestation of a cultural eco-system. Indeed you could argue that all organisational activity and symbols are expressions of culture in one form or another.

4. Neither system nor pattern has boundaries. They are non-linear by nature.

5. Culture has no fixed configuration just changing contexts. It might even be better to talk of culture as a verb rather than a noun.

In a nutshell it means we are dealing here with something that is always emergent and somewhat paradoxical. So if you think of a typical cultural issue in organisational life – where it gets expressed as “we need to be more (or less) of something”- our instinct usually is to find a change solution that involves some form of control thinking. This is not a surprise because this in itself is a typical cultural pattern in many organisations and in life generally. It’s a bit like the challenge of overcoming an addictive pattern of behaviour. Our experience suggests that the first step to ‘recovery’ is accepting first that we are not in control of something that is a pattern of contexts and relationships.

Rich Descriptions

It follows then, if we feel some responsibility for creating change, we might have to let go of our conventional thinking in this area. We would suggest then that there are more congruent approaches that can create a gentler but more impactful ‘disturbance’ than any grand design or intervention.

There is no one truth that can encapsulate or describe all contexts. So in our client work we apply a liberal dose of science and an equal measure of art. It means that we have to be rigorous in our methods as we help our clients to pay serious attention to what they each experience in their organisational lives. We act like anthropologists in that we help them to build a rich description of these cultural experiences through a discovery and immersion process. This then enables them to reveal and express those patterns that they wish to amplify and those that they wish to dampen. How and when they do this becomes the basis for a next phase of support. We will come back to how that works in reality later but for our next blog we will talk more about some of the methods we use during the initial discovery phase.

For those who wish a deeper dive into some of the ideas expressed above we would strongly recommend the work of Gregory Bateson, Adrian McLean, Clifford Geertz and John Berger.

 

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.

The “T” word is everywhere – it’s hard to find an organisation that isn’t undergoing some kind of transformation. At an event last week to launch our Metalogue research on the subject, one group worked on the question “How do we help leaders hold their nerve during transformation.” It was a popular question, and the group was composed of a mix of transformation leaders and those who are endeavouring to support them (strategy, HR and OD directors).

Wobbly leaders

People were clear that it’s daunting work, and a lot of leaders feel “wobbly” during a big transformation. They are trying to lead the transformation while also dealing with immediate pressures, such as this quarter’s profit and other performance targets. It can be hard to find time to make connections to the future and to the end goals. Leaders commonly get through the first stage of the transformation and then see just how much work remains to be done.

Some people spoke about how difficult it can be for a new leadership team to form itself AND lead a transformation. Others mentioned how leaders have to go against the grain (theirs and the organisation’s) in order to get the transformation to happen, especially when they have to work across organisational splits. And there was general agreement that leaders (and OD and change practitioners) have to hold their own nerve as well as helping others.

Don’t look down!

A paradox emerged – helping leaders and others pay attention to what is NOT going to change seems really useful. Leaders who can hold on to a thread of continuity, and who can genuinely honour the past, really help themselves and others. However, often leaders aren’t prepared for the feeling of chaos when a transformation gets underway, so it’s useful to help them accept that they may feel wobbly (and tell them not to look down when they do!).  They tend not to be prepared for just how long transformation takes – helping them be OK with the long haul is important.

Leaders who have been through it spoke about the usefulness of being accompanied by people who’ve seen some of this before, and know where else it had worked (stories from competitors’ successes seemed particularly consoling!). And creating spaces for honest conversations was vital – conversations where leaders could allow themselves to be wobbly, to remind themselves about the purpose of the transformation and be ordinary about the job of connecting with others about continuity and change.

Walking backwards into the future

One lovely idea that emerged was to help leaders with the idea of walking backwards into the future. In Maori culture the idea is that we are always walking backwards into the future, because we can easily see what’s behind us but not what’s ahead (and it’s awkward – just look at the slightly nervous face sketched by one of my talented colleagues above). Holding your nerve while walking backwards seemed a fitting description of the experience so many leaders are having right now.