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

 

 

Consulting beyond the Froth:

A welcome return to ‘home cooking’ … or the scarily ordinary done exceptionally well

During a recent meeting with a prospective client (let’s call him Paul), I was struck by how much he didn’t want us to sell what we did. He seemed to be much more fascinated in how we felt able to “just be ourselves”(his words). At one stage his challenge was “yeah, yeah I know when you are consulting you can do all that. I’m sure you will be good at partnering with us or anyone. What I really want to know is how comfortable you are with each other and then with someone like me and the people I have in mind. So tell me: what does a group of people like you do for a Christmas party?”

Home Cooking

Now some readers at this point might be more interested in how we answered such an unexpected question. But what struck me was that Paul had sought us out purely from his intrigue at how we showed up on our website and then how that matched with how we related to each other. Of even more interest was the fact that he hadn’t quite worked out precisely what he was looking for.

He just wanted something different. Something a little less elaborate than the leadership development that his colleagues had been served up in recent years. “It’s as if we have got far too used to dining out in Michelin-starred restaurants with all their frothed up garnishes. Yet sometimes you just want to eat something straightforward and be back with the people who really know and care about you. Where you are delighted just to eat something basic and wallow in the ordinariness of a typical day at home”.

It reminded me of those moments when I am more than happy to heat up some beans on toast and grate some cheese (if I’m feeling indulgent). As I sit down to eat with my sons, I amuse myself when I proclaim: “cheesy beans: the food of kings and queens!” And I actually mean it too.

Scarily Ordinary

The best articulation that Paul could find was they needed now to focus on what it takes to bring some ordinary management practice back into what they were referring to as leadership. “Part of the problem”, he went on, “is we have got so used to lurching from one drama to the next that we have started to lose sight of what we value closer to home. In other words: the stuff that happens in the everyday. And it is only becoming apparent because it seems we are running out of dramas and the expectation that there is always something lying around the next bend. Indeed we can see much further up the road and, whilst the business is in good shape, it all seems scarily ordinary. For now at least.”

It brought to mind another client conversation (let’s call her Dawn) where we were discussing the challenge of sustaining cultural norms over time. The business in question was well known for its innovative and unique approach to its brand identity. To both consumers and employees the brand has always stood for innovation and quirkiness even 20 years after its well known products were first conceptualised.

I asked Dawn how they had managed to keep their values so fresh and vibrant for such a long time. Her response was illuminating: “well people often assume that we have a unique approach to the way we engage people and how we go about HR stuff. Yet you will find that we have pretty similar policies and processes to most progressive businesses – it’s just that we try to apply them in a super authentic way”.

Looking beyond the Froth

So I wonder, should we be paying more attention to the craft of leading and organising that is exceptional and super authentic in its ordinariness?

If I think of the consulting world or more specifically the world of OD and Change, it reminded me that we are so often seduced into believing that we always need to offer something new. This is why we are never short of fancy language and fancy packaging that disguises something that has usually been borrowed and might even be a little old. Nothing wrong in that if it keeps us away from a cookie cutter approach to our consulting proposals. But are we trying a little too hard to dress up that which often just needs something basic…but served up with exquisite care and attention?

Being Extraordinarily Present

My experience is that what often gets most valued is our ability to hold safe spaces for people to talk to one another and perhaps get heard in a way that they rarely experience. To do this ordinary consulting work well, we have to be extraordinarily present. We see our job as creating the conditions for people and their colleagues to witness what each other has to say about how they feel in their work, how they feel in their relationships to each other and most importantly what they are hoping to get better at. And then of course feeling able to do something about it.

Being really heard can feel quite profound for some people. Yet holding onto our curiosity and with a little less judgement is not something that can be easily bought or sold. So whether you are a leader or change agent, if you look beyond the ‘froth’ you might find the essence of what you really need is something quite straightforward.

You might even want to try some of our Metalogue-starred ‘home cooking’ from time to time.

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.

Bernard Cornwell’s 1981 novel, Sharpe’s Eagle, follows the exploits of Lieutenant Richard Sharpe in a campaign on the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic wars. The Sharpe novels were then adapted for UK channel ITV in the early 1990s, with British actor Sean Bean taking the lead role of Richard Sharpe. He’s the one in the middle.

Why am I telling you this? Not because I want to rework old parallels between military and organisational design or leadership – I think our views of organisation have been influenced enough over the years by the over-emphasis on these metaphors.

I am telling you this, in part, because I believe that if we always look to the same sources for insights this is unlikely to be the route to anything new. And also because I think Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe has something important to say to us about being a change agent.

In the scene I am thinking of, Sharpe’s men are about to go into battle. They have little combat experience, and the odds are against them. Sharpe paints a frank picture of the realities of the situation, then offers them a slim hope –

But if you don’t run; if you stand…and fire volley after volley, three rounds a minute, then they slow down…all you’ve got to do, is stand, and fire three rounds a minute.

Now you and I know you can fire three rounds a minute.

But can you stand?

In organisational transformation we often spend a lot of time and effort strategizing and planning. Teams of highly skilled executives display a huge amount of competence in researching options, fleshing out proposals, making recommendations. As leaders and change agents, we take change seriously, and carefully consider the implications of what we are about to undertake. This is our technical competence, our ability to fire three rounds a minute using a standard issue musket.

However, what Sharpe is saying is also required of the situation, is something different, namely the ability to “stand”. In an organisational change context, this is perhaps being able to “hold the space” when working with change and transformation; to know that there will be times of high anxiety and uncertainty, and having the self-awareness to stay in the moment. Ed Schein, in his seminal works on organisational consulting, talks about there being different modes of intervention. The “expert mode” sees consultants or leaders drawing on their own expertise, their technical competence, their musketry skill so to speak. This can be extremely helpful. However, in a situation where transformation, or change, is required, advising from the existing paradigm may not bring about the difference needed. Schein’s focus is on a mode of consulting he calls “process consultation”. The aim here is to stay in the present moment within organisational life, to observe organisational and interpersonal dynamics in teams and departments as they unfold. This includes moments of tension, anxiety, and conflict; and requires the ability to “stand”.

Taking this further, Bill Critchley talks about the role of a change agent being to “seek to raise the levels of anxiety sufficiently to disturb the equilibrium and create readiness for change” (Critchley, 2001 (italics mine)). From a complexity perspective, it is the very act of bringing in (potentially anxiety provoking) newness that may cause the disturbance which allows a new pattern of interaction to establish itself (or, a change to take place). This can feel uncomfortable, and the temptation for us as leaders can be to try and smooth any disruptions. However, if we work on our ability to “stand” through this period of temporary turbulence, and not smooth away the difference, then there is a chance something new may emerge.

And whilst we are standing, what are we standing for? Gestalt OD thinker Edwin Nevis talks about the importance of “presence” when intervening in organisations with the intent to transform. The change agent must “stand for something”. This need not be as literal as standing for a particular organisational agenda, but there must be something discernible and authentic about the person’s way of being in the organisation; there must be something different, that raises interest. Otherwise the agent or leader fades into the organisational background and cannot disturb enough to have a transforming effect.

So, it seems there is more to Lieutenant Richard Sharpe’s question than meets the eye. Our skills and competencies remain of vital importance to our work. However, if we don’t also acknowledge what it means to experience anxiety and uncertainty in organisations, and catch ourselves in our habitual attempts to smooth disturbance in order to escape from it, then we may remain stuck in the paradigms we are trying to change. Beyond skilled technical expertise there is work to be done, as change agents, on our self-awareness and on what we stand for; so that, when the question is asked of us, we can remain standing.

If you’d like to explore with us how these ideas can help with change and transformation, do get in touch and join the conversation – contact@metalogue.co.uk

References:

Cornwell, B. (1981). Sharpe’s Eagle. London: Collins

Critchley, B. (2001). The role of the management consultant in the change management process. In P. Sadler (Ed.), Management consultancy: A handbook for best practice (pp. 274-290). London: Kogan Page.

Nevis, E. C. (1987). Organizational consulting: A Gestalt approach. Cambridge, MA: Gestalt Press

Schein E.H. (1988) Process consultation vol. 1: Its role in organisational development. Reading, MA: Wesley