28 June 2011

Practices Makes (Im)perfect Organizational Transformation

I am in the process of outlining my next book, Conversations with Nishida: Organization, Leadership, and Transformation in a Complex World. In thinking through some of the themes to do with Transformation, I wrote,
Transformation is fundamentally distinct and different from mere change. All transformation reflects change; not all change is transformative. In these Conversations, it is crucial to maintain a clear distinction between the two. BAH can change and remain BAH. In fact, the overwhelming majority of change in the BAH organization – change that is managed through explicit change management interventions, modelled by such programs as Six Sigma, LEAN, or Agile, guided by a preconceived and targeted outcomes as opposed to effects – these changes rarely, if ever, effect organizational transformation, although the changes themselves usually have a significant effect on the organization and its members.

Organizational transformation, in the sense of these Conversations, is ontological—transformative change that affects the organization’s state of being in the world. Transformative change fundamentally shifts how an organization regards itself in relation to its various constituencies, and how its members constitute themselves in relation to each other…
As I reflect on the challenges of organizational transformation, I’m thinking about an organization that is in the midst of a major transformation of its organizational culture. As part of its evolution, the organization is beginning to adopt what I call Appreciative Practices (AP) to inform many of its collective and individual behaviours with respect to development, coaching, and correction. Appreciative Practices are derived from Appreciative Inquiry, a form of organization development intervention that focuses exclusively on strengths, and positive approaches to effect change. (Note: I link to Jackie Kelm’s site because the project in which I was involved used materials that she co-developed.)

In my work with the organization in question, I suggested that the content of their current practice of disciplinary action (that, as in most organizations, is characterized by a suitably ironic euphemism) could be replaced with an application of AP. The benefits are clear: using AP is more readily “hearable” by members who need coaching and/or correction; it focuses on improvements and specific desirable outcomes and effects, rather than errors and wrong actions (as in that old chestnut, “don’t think of an elephant” that makes you think of an elephant); and perhaps most important, it is less stressful and easier to deliver for the manager.

To my surprise, several people in the organization said that they could happily adopt AP for development and annual reviews, but discipline had to be… well, disciplinary! AP just doesn’t feel like an errant employee is being punished, and it is mandatory that they feel that they’ve done wrong.

In this instance, the transition from conventional discipline to AP in correcting and coaching seems to be not so much about changing the employee, but rather more about asserting legitimated organizational authority. Thus, part of effecting a transformation of a traditional organizational culture to one that is more consistent with the aims of AP (and more UCaPP as well!), involves understanding the power dynamics within the traditional structures, and how they must be equally and simultaneously transformed.

In traditional, BAH organizations, the control-resistance power paradigm is a closed, recursive, and iterative loop. Employee does wrong. Manager disciplines. Employee resents. Repeat. (Add the complication of a grievance loop in a unionized environment.) The more control, the more resistance, the more errant behaviours, the more discipline and control, and on it goes. (This, for example, captures the dynamics of the Toronto Transit Commission, and many government workers across all three levels.)

How to break out of this seemingly never-ending loop of power-control-resistance that is fuelled by conventional disciplinary actions, and threatens to stifle the transformed culture? In organizational transformation, the members must first transform their construction of identity, that is the Identity-valence relationship that they mutually create with the organization among its various constituencies. When one constructs oneself as a surrogate for an authority figure (think, “parent” or “teacher”) that metes out discipline, it is unavoidable that a manager will easily give up this fungible aspect of Identity-valence. However, enabling members to first transform towards Identity-ba – one who creates an environment of shared values, sensibilities, and volition to common action – enables an environment in which Appreciative Practices will create the desired behavioural changes without coercion. More important, as the overall environment changes, “misbehaving” employees who choose not to change will soon realize that they do not belong. Employing traditional disciplinary actions in the midst of a BAH-to-UCaPP culture transformation undermines the process by signalling an ambivalence, that the transformational culture is merely nominal, only words with no substance.

Another reason that organizational culture transformation must begin with the leadership.

27 June 2011

Contemporary Leadership is NOT About "Leading..."

Contemporary leadership is environmental.

It is all about enabling an engaging and conducive environment where you can bring people together to create a shared experience in which an alternative future becomes possible.

26 June 2011

Would You Read This Book?

I'm planning to spend a good part of the summer writing. The book, tentatively entitled, Conversations with Nishida: Organization, Leadership, and Transformation in a Complex World, will address questions such as: What is organization? What does it mean to lead in the contemporary world? How can we effect organizational transformation, both in the microcosm of individual groups and in the macrocosm of society at large?

The style of the book would be a series of conversations with a Zen master character, based loosely on the Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, from whom I obtained the idea of ba - a place of common sensibility, common understanding, common values and common volition to action - that I use in my work. My question to YOU is, would you read a book that deals with these questions, based on this reasoning:
Human behaviour and the social conditions in which we act are often considered as conforming to some “law,” almost as if people’s interactions are subject to a seemingly immutable law of nature. Human social systems – education, business, politics, and the like – are often modelled after such behaviours-as-laws that seek to explain and predict why and how people will interact in specific ways under particular circumstances. However, in human social systems there are no laws of gravity, thermodynamics, or relativity—laws that explain human phenomena that exist outside of, apart, and separate from the people that enact them. At one time in history, the dominant thinking asserted that the Sun travelled around the Earth; much to the chagrin of the medieval Church, the Sun (not to mention other natural systems) did not quite care about the dictates of the Pope (nor the findings of Copernicus and Galileo, for that matter!). Quantum entanglement notwithstanding, natural systems exist and behave quite apart from our limited, all-too-human understanding of them.

On the other hand, models and conceptions of human systems care very much about the dominant thinking of humans who participate in them. In this sense, our social systems of business and commerce, knowledge and education, politics and governance, and organization and leadership are self-generative: in other words, the way we think about our social systems actually creates those social systems. What has been especially true throughout the millennia is that, as society’s means of social engagement and interaction have changed, so too have the fundamental structuring institutions – the aforementioned social systems – of that society likewise changed. Further, as these social systems change and become more widely adopted and increasingly taken for granted as aspects of “human nature,” the formerly dominant systems – those institutions that simultaneously defined and were defined by the way things were – seem increasingly anachronistic and out-of-place in the contemporary world.

We can each, individually and collectively, simply accept the changes that seem to be washing over, and imposing their will upon us. We can accept the interpretation and implications of these changes asserted by corporate, political, and other powerful interests that may or may not be beneficial for humankind overall. Alternatively, we can become aware of the transformative effects emerging throughout our contemporary world and begin to correspondingly transform our mental models of human behaviours throughout the social systems that define a society. In other words, we have the power and ability to reshape our understanding of organization, leadership, and the nature of transformation. We therefore have the ability to reshape our world.
So, is there any interest out there to read more about this?

20 June 2011

Requiescat in Pace, Aniko Meszaros

Shocked and disbelieving are my two, initial reactions. My dear friend, Aniko Meszaros is finally at peace. Her life was short, tragic, and yet brilliant. Aniko was the proverbial shooting star, illuminating the world with her charm, wit, intelligence, creativity, and beauty. Tragically, she was haunted by a dark history and ever-present demons, and she struggled to allow the brightness within her to shine through in her work, in her designs, and in the lives she touched during the best of times.

The aesthetic brilliance that Aniko brought to her work is clearly evident at anikolab. The Projects link - including Real, Speculative, Research, and Performance projects - are but a small window into the way she experienced the world and its potential. I can only imagine what possibilities might have been realized had her life not been hampered, haunted, and ultimately cut so terribly short.

Even though I had not seen her since she moved west, I will miss her presence in the world. May you sleep in eternal peace, dear Aniko. God has a new designer in heaven.

13 June 2011

10 Lessons of Organizational Culture Transformation

If you're not familiar with my writing, a few notes of explanation. UCaPP is an acronym representing the phrase, "Ubiquitous Connectivity and Pervasive Proximity," (or "ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate," depending on usage), the description I use to characterize contemporary societal conditions. BAH refers to "Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, and Hierarchical," a description of traditional management and organizations. UCaPP organizations are mostly described as "collaborative" in the literature, but they are much more than that. For more details, you are invited to visit the wiki site for Valence Theory of Organization - after reading this post, of course!

I’m finishing up a seven-month contract that helped to initiate an organizational culture transformation in a newly acquired Toronto subsidiary of a large American organization. The American organization’s culture is strongly towards the UCaPP end of the BAH-UCaPP organization typology spectrum. On the other hand, the Toronto organization was strongly BAH when I was first introduced to it, and demonstrated many attributes and behaviours that would qualify them for organizational healing—being able to strongly benefit from my practice as an organizational therapist.

Although the formal educational program was prescribed by the parent organization, the Toronto site had specific needs that went well beyond those addressed by the otherwise excellent and insightful formal materials. Nonetheless, the results have been nothing short of outstanding: by the beginning of the program’s sixth month, overall productivity – units out the door – increased by 70%, with customer complaints down to a small fraction of what they were in January. Employment growth in new production staff has been nothing short of explosive, and the line and middle management ranks – initially fearful of what such growth would mean relative to the old ways of doing supervision – are (mostly) feeling quite good about how well they’re coping.

I’ve compiled ten lessons learned from this remarkably successful organizational culture transformation that, not surprisingly, are consistent with the predictions of Valence Theory. See how many might be useful to you as you reflect on navigating your organization through the complexities of today’s environment of uncertainty:
  1. Culture comes from values; values obviate vision as the organization’s source of impetus. When people work from a place that aligns fundamental values among all members, shared knowledge of where to head is a natural outcome. On the other hand, a vision imposed by an small, elite group at the top of the organization necessitates continual reinforcement (and enforcement) through ever-growing, extrinsic incentive plans.
  2. Like learning a new language, culture change venue scripts seem artificial at first, become more comfortable with practice, and evolve into the organization’s lingua franca. The challenge is to ensure that those who are not directly involved in the “language lessons” that serve to inculcate the new culture are nonetheless given opportunities to participate in the new vocabulary of practices, behaviours, and attitudes.
  3. Relying on training as the sole or primary mechanism to effect culture change is completely ineffective. On the other hand, continual peer reinforcement on-the-job, coupled with a concerted program of individual coaching and counselling for key members, with a limited amount of well-contextualized education, are essential to begin the process. Notice I said, “begin.” The process of transformation necessarily continues long after the formal program has been completed.
  4. There will be an occasion – and usually no more than two – in which the new culture’s principles will have to be violated in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the new culture’s principles. This usually results in one or two people being asked to find other employment. As I have pointed out elsewhere, “it is perhaps ironic that coercive, legitimated, and hierarchical leadership is occasionally needed to enforce the transformation away from coercive, legitimated, and hierarchical leadership.
  5. Embracing and committing to the new culture is always a matter of individual choice. What is not a choice is the tight coupling between embracing the culture and sustaining one’s membership (e.g., employment) in the organization.
  6. The person who, in the past, has been identified by legitimated management (i.e., those who are most vested in the “way we do things around here”) as the trouble-maker, malcontent, or the one-most-likely-to-be-written-up-for-disciplinary-action, is likely your best ally in identifying necessary changes, and effecting culture change—as long as you can overcome his/her legitimate cynicism and long-reinforced distrust of management-imposed “change.”
  7. In a UCaPP organization, compensation is at least partially – and ideally completely – decoupled from job performance. The more strongly extrinsic motivators influence an individual’s contribution to the organization, the more BAH the organization necessarily becomes, and the less committed is the individual to the organization’s values as its primary impetus.
  8. In a UCaPP environment, no one is required to give “110%.” Instead, more productivity is paradoxically experienced as needing less expended effort. Conversely, in a BAH environment, 50% (or more) of the organization’s potential is wasted in counter-productive, energy-consuming behaviours and well-rehearsed defensive scripts.
  9. Blindly adopting so-called best practices in a bid to become as successful as some arbitrary industry leader is a management cargo cult. Transformative education is founded on experiential learning, not plagiarism.
  10. The vast majority of benefits of organizational culture transformation are necessarily qualitative, not quantitative. However, there are consequential, indirect benefits – some of them economic – that are measurable, although one cannot usually establish clear, deterministic, causal connections. This means that one cannot “prove” a priori, tangible benefits of organizational culture transformation, much to the chagrin of traditionally trained managers. Remember—when it comes to effecting sustainable, truly beneficial change throughout an organization and among its members, complexity is your friend.

03 June 2011

Congratulations, Julie!

Today, my daughter, Julie graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education, achieved “with honours.” The U of T’s program in Kinesiology is a challenging one – challenging to be admitted in the first place, and challenging to sustain through four gruelling years. Beyond the physiology, anatomy, and other more obvious aspects of subject matter, much of the focus of the program, especially in the latter years, are on the social responsibility of those who undertake a practice of health and wellbeing in contemporary society. To this end, Julie augmented her education with a minor in Women and Gender Studies, and again concentrated on issues of equity, social justice, and a nuanced understanding of power dynamics. (As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!)

In addition to her diligence when it came to her studies, she also did internships with a professional sports team, and with OPHEA, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, an organization that “works in partnership with school boards, public health, government, non-government organizations, and private sector organizations to develop groundbreaking programs and services that support healthy active schools and communities.” And, to top it all off, through her undergrad years, Julie co-founded and produces Glamour Puss Burlesque, a successful burlesque troupe, retrieving a time-honoured art form with modern sass and sensibility.

Julie, your mother and I are tremendously proud of you. May you go from strength to strength, and from success to success!

02 June 2011

Transformation of an Activist Organization

Volunteer groups are often the most challenging in which to effect organizational transformation, since people don’t “have to” be there (as in, they aren’t earning a paycheque), and those who do come bring with them long-vested and entrenched ideas about how organizations are run. Most of them, after all, are members of well-established organizations from which they are earning a paycheque, and those organizations almost invariably locate themselves towards the BAH end of the Valence Theory typological spectrum. So, it is fascinating to observe (even more so to have the privilege to facilitate) the transformation of such an organization.

Last weekend, for the second time, I facilitated the annual retreat of a volunteer-run, activist organization. This group has been established for a very long time, although most of its currently active members are relatively recent (as in, joining within the past three to four years or less). In reviewing the intended activities and objectives decided at last year’s retreat, as I usually do, I took a page from Appreciative Practices to ask three key questions that I commonly ask of each planned initiative: What worked well? What didn’t work as well as it might have? What was missing that might have improved the experience? The current chair of the group was a bit wary of the first question; she says that one of the group’s shortcomings is that they consider that they do everything well, and lay blame at the feet of external actors and circumstances!

Despite her misgivings, (and this is part of the art of my facilitation, of course), I never allow a group to look for blame, but rather, learning. What the group learned through this part of their retreat day can be summed up in two important principles of Valence Theory. The first is embodied in the idea of Effective Theory of Action: it is important to differentiate between achieving the desired and intended effects for a given situation, and achieving the nominal objectives or goals of an initiative. In one instance in particular, an initiative that had been designated as the group’s secondary focus for the year, had accomplished pretty much none of its objectives. However, when we answered the question, “what worked well?” with respect to this initiative, it was clear that a whole bunch of desired effects had been created—in fact, far more than the group could even have imagined a year earlier. Was the initiative a success? According to conventional measures of effectiveness, no. But when considered from the ground of Valence Theory and effectiveness – focusing on effects enabled and rippling through the complex system of human interactions – the initiative was considered to be tremendously successful.

Through the first half of the day, the group struggled with the paradoxes of more and less formal leadership and structure, the need to coordinate and keep track of certain activities while allowing sufficient flexibility for people to jump in and take up responsibility for tasks of their own volition. They realized that for those projects in which there were common values, common understanding, common sensibility, and a common volition to action – characteristics that describe ba – things happened well, including outreach and engagement with “external” organizations. People felt a sense of individual autonomy and agency, and worked not independently (nor strictly interdependently, which suggests tight-coupling), but rather with a sense of collective responsibility and mutual accountability. The conclusion they came to – although I didn’t suggest the specific language – was that their organization functioned better in an environment of organization-ba. To this end, the group decided to recast its traditional governance model of a formal executive with a designated Chair in charge (including taking ownership of meeting agendas and running meetings, a very strong measure of control). Instead, the group’s governance has moved to a contemplative consensus model, with a coordinating committee to tend to the coordination and “business” aspects of the group’s operation, and rotating facilitators managing agendas and meetings (in which the facilitator attends to process and cannot speak to content).

I will be working with the group to facilitate a revisitation of their values to provide fundamental guidance for future decisions, and to help the cadre of future facilitators to learn and practice their craft in a way that is consistent with their transformed governance. And, I anticipate that I will be invited a year hence to once again facilitate their annual retreat. I am most interested to see the successes that the group will be able to effect operating now as a more-UCaPP organization, one that is consistent with the conditions of today’s world.