28 January 2009

EMD VII: Alignment of Values vs. Alignment of Objectives

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

One of the key descriptors that I use for traditional, industrial-age-conceived organizations is that they are purposeful. By this I mean that the organization’s goals or objectives are paramount, usually placed ahead of any other considerations. Thus, the effects that the purposeful organization creates in its respective social and material environments tend to be more-or-less ignorable by its management – externalized, if possible, but almost exclusively secondary to the organization’s primary purpose. If, somehow, those effects impinge on the attainment of said objectives, they quickly come into focus and become higher priorities. Examples abound: corporate social responsibility and ecological concerns have become important for marketing; dealing fairly with employees tends to improve productivity and output (until economic concerns lead to short-notice layoffs, reduced benefits, more contingent workers, etc.); advertising to children was a great idea to boost sales until there was the backlash accusation of psychological manipulation of the vulnerable; management consultation with employees works to build morale (often in the guise of "selling" management's ideas) until expediency and challenging circumstances necessitate “decisive” (read: autocratic, non-consultative) leadership.

And speaking of leadership, one of the key elements that contemporary leaders are taught in modern management schools is the importance of structurally insuring that employee’s personal objectives are aligned with those of the organization. Personal and group incentive plans, professional development, and all sorts of tracking systems (balanced scorecard, anyone? Ask me about the problematics of BS) are designed specifically to ensure such alignment.

However, among the clear distinctions between traditional BAH, and more contemporary UCaPP organizations that have emerged from my research is that organizations more consistent with the latter characterization tend not to be primarily purposeful. That’s not to say that they don’t have a purpose. In fact, the respective purposes of successful UCaPP organizations tend to be pretty clear and well-focused. They also tend to be emergent, and therefore, any given organization’s purpose may take on a contingent nature. In other words, the UCaPP organization’s purpose tends to evolve over time based on the complexities of the contextual circumstances, and their specific interactions with those constituencies that become enmeshed with said organization. As one of my participants answered in response to a question about what their organization’s work comprises,
That’s a really hard question. … Our methodology is building long-term relationships. What we do is we do that. We find people in various ways with whom we feel we can form a common cause around some various social justice issues, and they’ll be issues arise depending on the context within which we’re working in these places. And follow the relationships. So follow the place in the centre where both we feel that we can engage and we can contribute, and the people with whom we are building the relationship also feel that they can participate in this relationship, and they’ll get something out of it, and it will be useful in the context in which they’re working.
Form common cause, that develops from alignment of values. Follow the relationships to that place in the centre (basho – from which the ba-form of the various relationships emerge) where both parties can engage. Only then can they both discover what will be useful in the appropriate context – in other words, the emergent purpose.

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this description as exclusively appropriate to social justice organizations, or even charitable, good-works organizations. But in many cases, charities and even some organizations that began as grass-roots endeavours evolve into BAH corporate structures, losing that essential element of relationship and alignment of values that created them in the first place. Perhaps even more surprising is the converse: that some capitalist, commercial organizations – those that I would describe as being more-UCaPP in their behaviours – essentially follow this formula. Align the organization’s values with those of its members, and see what emerges that is useful in the context. Of course, in following this path, there are all sorts of disruptive (some might say, subversive) consequences to the way management has been done over the past several hundreds of years. But, as it has turned out, that may well be the emergent purpose of this very research.

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23 January 2009

EMD VI: Identity Crisis: Leadership in Transition

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

Ah, such a McLuhanesque subject line for a post. So many meanings, so little time. (To appreciate the possible nuances, re-read the subject line several times, placing the emphasis on a different word with each reading.) In a 1979 letter, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “When deprived of his identity, man [i.e., human beings] becomes violent in diverse ways. Violence is the quest for identity.” Little wonder, then, that the greatest challenge in effecting organizational change – particularly a transformation in organizational culture – is effecting change in the leaders. Both organizations among my research participants that successfully made the transition from BAH to UCaPP found that enacting true collaboration, giving up traditional hierarchical status, and ceding control in favour of authentic engagement challenged many people beyond their ability to cope. Both organizations experienced exceptionally high turnover throughout the transition period. And, one way or another, the reason came down to damaging the individual’s identity-valence relationship with the organization – especially the fungible aspects of identity-, and consequently, fungible-socio-psychological-valence relationships.

Let’s face it: leadership is a big and prestigious job. Traditional conceptions of leadership in a BAH context comprise taking responsibility for the organization’s vision, accomplishing its mission, ensuring that individuals align their personal objectives with those of the organization as a whole, and creating circumstances that provide appropriate incentives and motivation for all of this to be achieved. It’s a position that garners respect, conveys legitimation, offers significant responsibilities (and usually commensurate compensation), and provides tremendous challenges, opportunities, and a personal sense of triumph for a job well done. One of my participants is a true leader in this sense. Here he is, reflecting on himself and his role relative to his customers:
I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur if I didn’t like problems. So I like to solve problems. I also wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t have the value set that I do. … The business continues to grow. It will be a challenge to retain [excellent customer service] and to continue to deepen it, because it’s not… the status quo is not acceptable, in my opinion. We want to go deeper. So how do we do that? I think there are a number of exciting things we’re going to have to look at. Ways of communicating that, to me, [are] a whole series of challenges. How can we do that better than anyone else has ever done it before. That’s the way I look at that. It’s an opportunity, and it’s a challenge, and to me that’s energizing.
An exciting, engaging, and energizing kind of guy, right? A leader who takes ownership of the challenges, sets his goals, and everyone who’s with him comes along to join in the challenging work ahead. But what about those whose opinions differ from his? Those individuals who challenge the fundamental fact (fact, at least to the leader) that his role is to be the one who exclusively
see things, or know things for how things are going to be. Where they’re headed. I tend to live six months down the road, but if not further, in my head. And the things that are concerning me today are the things that are going to be issues in six months. … I can probably push through any decision I like, but I like to make sure that people understand it. … I’ve checked in with the other relevant decision makers, so we’re pretty much on the same page, and carry forward.
As is often the case, such dissenters eventually become branded with the reputation of not being a team player, and usually find themselves either out of a job or wishing they were. In the worst examples, individuals suffer from extreme organizational apathy and sometimes act out in problematic, unproductive, and sometimes violent ways.

Violence is the quest for identity.

In a BAH organization, leaders construct their identity in terms of providing leadership – figuring out what needs to be accomplished, anticipating the obstacles, and rallying the followers. Leaders will become violent if that identity is threatened, although the actual manifestation of that violence is sometimes subtle. However, in transitioning an organization from more-BAH to more-UCaPP, it is precisely the identity of the leadership that is most significantly challenged. That transition is characterized by augmenting the fungible aspects of valence relationships through strengthening their corresponding ba-aspects, and creating balance among all the aspects, effectively de-emphasizing fungible-economic as the predominant valence relationship for the organization as a whole. UCaPP leaders no longer lead in the sense of setting out objectives for others to accomplish; in other words, they are no longer in charge. Instead, UCaPP leaders’ primary responsibility is to enable and maintain an appropriate environment – ba-space – so that the correspondingly appropriate sets of objectives, goals, and accomplishments emerge, and are embraced by all members. After all, when no one is in charge, everyone is in charge. And that does wonders for identity.

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EMD V: The Problem with Softball

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

Social outings in an organization have become almost de rigueur: getting the folks in accounting together with the sales team, the warehouse people in touch with the executives, the people among the admin staff interacting with the cubicle denizens – all good stuff, aimed to promote camaraderie, social networking, and general humanizing of an often impersonal, fractious, and otherwise cold bureaucratic environment. Such outings are often disguised as so-called team building exercises, but they often only focus on those among the hierarchical elite who participate in work teams. But how effectively does trusting that someone will catch you when you fall backwards into a mini-moshpit of work colleagues translate into trusting that those same colleagues will expedite your expense report, or provide you with all the information you need for your account presentation, or not damage your reputation through innuendo when you’re both up for promotion?

Granted, activities like outings, picnics and the seemingly ubiquitous softball tournament (golf for sales people) among work colleagues are ways of breaking the ice in a (mostly) non-threatening, relatively low-stakes environment. Familiar faces often get matched with names and an appreciation for unrecognized skills, and thus, so the theory goes, creates better working relationships. Yes, affective engagement is very important in the workplace, sometimes even more important than strict competence according to Rotman professor, Tiziana Casciaro. But does outside-the-workplace socializing translate to more effective behaviours within?

I’m not sure the answer to that question is clear. What is clear to me is that going outside the workplace to have fun, and thereby creating positive affective connections, is a characteristic behaviour of BAH organizations attempting to rebalance the often out-of-balance work/life balance. Creating opportunities for social engagement (“social networking” to use the new-fangled jargon) is important. I'm not at all disputing that. However, creating such opportunities in a way that is not holistically integrated into the work environment and the organizational culture ironically reinforces the notion that one’s work is distinct from one’s life. What happens in Vegas may well stay in Vegas; to a large extent, what happens in the infield (or even the outfield) stays out in the field and rarely translates to the office in a way that effects cultural tranformation and the healing of organizational dysfunctions.

What I have seen in the more-UCaPP organizations that have participated in my research is that, characteristically, social engagement is well-integrated into the work environment. One organization with a global reach, whose members are often travelling far afield, still place a high value on social engagement through mutual checking-in, “socializing" information (their terminology that expresses not merely conveying information, but contextualizing it in a holistic fashion), and watching out for each other’s psycho-social wellbeing through systemic organizational structures. Another participant organization has created a language and framework for getting things done – especially those things that are more infrastructure related within the organization. They have created a game metaphor, complete with game boards, rules of play, and required, permitted and forbidden moves. They role play for extended periods to understand their client’s customers, and the CEO often signs her emails asking how her correspondent is going to have fun today.

In BAH organizations, work/life balance is measured according to how much time is spent away from the workplace. In UCaPP organizations, the life part of work/life balance is generally considered holistically, with work being an integral part of life. The balance comes from assessing how much those with whom the individual is in relation truly recognize and value the individual’s contributions to work, compared to how other aspects of the person’s life are valued (which, not surprisingly, corresponds to the economic-ba valence relationship). Softball outings and the like don’t help with this sort of valuing in UCaPP organizations, and arguably can over-emphasize systemic dysfunctions in BAH organizations.

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EMD IV: Encouraging Continuous Emergence

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

I sometimes wonder whether we are doing our high school students a disservice by teaching them Newtonian mechanics. Yes, it’s a great way to fill up the physics curriculum requirement, and an awfully good way to have them practice algebra, trigonometry, and eventually, calculus (sometimes with the emphasis on the “awful”). But filling their heads with a classical, cause-and-effect model of dynamics in what is proving to be a complex world? Perhaps not the best idea. No, this isn’t a riff on the 17th century grounding of contemporary era curricula and education (for that, you can watch this). Rather, it is an argument for basic training in complexity, especially as it applies to thinking about organizations.

BAH organizations are specifically designed to promote stability via operating at a point of equilibrium (among other things). They seem to be relatively good at finding classical approaches to questions such as: How can we minimize the impact of unexpected events? What procedures can we implement that will reduce defects and improve quality (like Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, and other similar nonsense when applied to anything other than a manufacturing line). How can we ensure that unexpected (a.k.a. unanticipated) events, outcomes, and consequences will (repeat after me, kiddies) “never happen again!” In point of fact, it’s not all that difficult to accomplish. The organization need only agree to never be interested in innovation, adaptability, and learning, and be willing to accept the inevitability of its sooner-rather-than-later demise. Sadly, boys and girls in MBA school, that is the reality of stability via control, singular vision, and blind adherence to the supremacy of the bottom line.

If the world in which organizations exist was, in fact, a closed system with regard to both its social and material environments, stability and equilibrium would be the appropriate objectives. But, unfortunately for many among management and leadership ranks, the world is more appropriately modelled as an open system. Hence, achieving stability through attaining a state of equilibrium equals death. To understand how organizations might better function in the context of an open system – like the world – we need to draw instead from thinkers like Ilya Prigogine.

Prigogine observed that thermodynamic systems operating far from equilibrium nonetheless enable very ordered, stable structures to emerge. He calls this phenomenon a dissipative structure because it dissipates energy through itself to maintain stability, and enables evolution to other, more complex structures at higher levels of energy. Between points of stability are periods of instability – some might call it a chaotic state – and disruptive transformation before the system reaches a bifurcation point, out of which emerges the new, more complex configuration. Because of multiple feedback loops among its components (say, organization members) dissipative structures as coherent entities exhibit non-linear characteristics that cannot be predicted from observing the individual behaviours of its component elements (like people).

Prigogine’s dissipative structures do a fairly good job of characterizing important aspects of contemporary organizations, and the absurdity of attempting to discover universal, linear descriptors and predictive correlations (hey there, all you quantitative organizational researchers!), as well as attempting to uncover universal (as opposed to simply useful) explanations for organizational behavior. In the case of an organization that is thrown into a state of chaos or disruption of stability through various external influences, the strategy of attempting to “bring things under control” using methods of imposed power dynamics that tend towards creating a state of equilibrium is likely counterproductive. Instead, what is required is additional energy and more interaction and feedback loops that might generate a bifurcation point and a new, emergent state of stability at a higher level of complexity. Note that there is an element of indeterminacy (unpredictability) at bifurcation points; the path that the system follows is a function of the system’s history (collective memory) and various external conditions, both of which introduce randomness into the system’s (organization’s) longer-term trajectory. And yes, indeterminacy, randomness of outcome, and ceding control are all aspects that are anathema to both BAH organizations as institutions, and traditional management training and practice.

So how do UCaPP organizations differ from BAH organizations in this regard? BAH organizations tend to seek out the same voices and opinions for guidance. There are steering committees, management committees, executive groups, and teams of senior managers whose opinions are exclusively sought. Even when “regular employees’” opinions are solicited, they are often filtered through managers or Human Resources personnel who bring a relatively consistent socialization in how things are done – so-called best practices learned through the mythos created by the case study method. However, in general, the leaders at the top of the status hierarchy generally gather together the same sorts of people, if not the same individuals, from whom to seek guidance, advice, and thought regarding both strategic and tactical issues.

UCaPP organizations, on the other hand, deliberately encourage the type of intellectual energy that creates bifurcation points, and hence the emergence of new strategic and tactical structures (of decisions, action, and effects; we’re speaking of more than simply organizational structures). They accomplish this by not merely responding to externally imposed change, but by actively seeking to create disruption in homogeneous thinking. Such disruption is often enacted by inviting multiple diverse voices to participate in significant conversations that otherwise might have included only those whose status/titles signalled that they were people of organizational significance. Consistent with what several of my participants suggested, one participant described it this way:
Someone at an entry level position might have … had an experience through a parent who told their stories at work, or something they’ve learned at college, or they had an internship, or they’re very well-read or connected, and they put a question on the table that completely changes the way you think about [the problem at hand]. And that’s what we’re working very hard not to dismiss, is how much we can learn from anybody, versus it has to be the same five to seven people, because they’re at a certain status. These decisions are no longer driven on status.
By creating sub-organizations of heterogeneous voices, experiences, and contexts, the larger (valence) organization systemically creates mechanisms that ensure ongoing environmental sensing of effects, and the appropriate flow of new energy that both maintains and helps to evolve the current dissipative structure into new, stable structures at higher levels of complexity – in other words, they deliberately encourage and enable continuous emergence. In doing so, these more-UCaPP organizations become more responsive to all of their constituent members, and therefore are more effective, and ultimately more successful.

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22 January 2009

The First UCaPP President

It seems so obvious, but yet stymies the most experienced and seasoned of leaders: Bring diverse voices, including those that oppose you and listen to their counsel; lead not by fear, coercion, command, or control but through mutual respect, inspiration born of sincere dedication, and passion; be responsible for what you do to others and move quickly to right wrongs (especially systemic wrongs); adhere to, and hold sacred those principles and values that are fundamental to you achieving leadership in the first place; truly value those that bring value to your enterprise and endeavours, including those that provide you the challenges and the privilege to lead. These are aspects that characterize leadership in a UCaPP world. And these are the aspects that seem to describe the new President, Barack Obama, even as he officially reported for work on his first day.

The Ibbetson article in the Globe mentions that, "The business day began with Mr. Obama alone in the Oval Office for a few moments of reflection and to read a note from George W. Bush addressed "To: 44; From: 43."" I can only imagine what that note said (cue the harp music)...
Dear Barack,

Well, this is it. You have assumed the most powerful and challenging position in the land, perhaps in the entire world. To tell you the truth, I'm glad to be done with it. It was fun for a while, but to tell you the truth, after that jaunt in the flight suit on the aircraft carrier, you know, mission accomplished and all that, the whole thing became a bit of a drag. Anyway, I want you to know that I left you the same advice that Bill left me, and my Daddy left him. Look in the top drawer of the desk. You'll see three envelopes. Each time you get into trouble, open each envelope in succession. Good luck. You'll need it. And if ever you're in Texas, why don't you and Michelle drop by and visit for a spell. GWB

President Obama smiled at the sentiment (although visiting with the former President at his ranch was close to the last thing he wanted to do), and he pulled open the desk drawer. Sure enough, there were three envelopes, labelled One, Two, and Three. He closed the drawer and set about accomplishing the business of the day: ordering the suspension of the military tribunals and closing Guantanamo, phoning Middle East leaders to press for peace, consulting with both his national security and economic advisory panels. It was a full day, and indeed, a full first-one-hundred-days.

But after a time, the public were becoming impatient. Yes, there were high hopes, but even his ardent supporters were beginning to wonder when change would actually occur. So one day, President Obama returned to the desk drawer and opened the envelope marked, One. In it were two words written on a piece of paper: "Blame me." So Obama called a press conference and reminded the public of the legacy left to him by the forty-third president. He recalled the economic mess created by the war deficit and the sub-prime mortgage debacle. The greed of people like Bernard Madoff. And the public backed off for a while.

But mid-way into his term, once again the public grew restive. Obama opened the drawer and pulled out the second envelope. Again, only a few words: "Blame the terrorists (or whoever we're at war with)." So once again, Obama spoke to the nation and with his soaring oratory, focused the blame squarely on the collective fear and impatience promulgated by those who lacked imagination and vision (after all, blaming a specific group would be inconsistent with the whole unclench the fist rhetoric from the inauguration). And once again, the public calmed down and the heat was off.

Finally, though, people began to see through the rhetoric, and jobs were still being cut, and homes still being lost. The shine had inevitably come off and people again were confronted with the harsh reality that, for all of his good intentions and accomplishments, President Obama wasn't really the second coming of any messiah. So he quickly retreated to the Oval Office to retrieve the third, and final, envelope. In it were three words: "Get three envelopes."

Good luck, President Obama. Hopefully, you won't need more than the first one.
(I first heard this joke in the context of Leonid Brezhnev handing over power to Yuri Andropov in the Soviet Union: "Blame me"; "Blame the Americans"; "Get three envelopes.")

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20 January 2009

Good morning, Barack

Congratulations to my American friends, and indeed, to the entire world. It is difficult not to invoke the clich├ęs and myriad historical images that have permeated the media over the preceding days and weeks. It was impossible for me not to feel the thrill of a new dawn during the 44th President's inaugural address. And the one thought that has been foremost in my mind today is, "Today, we are all Americans."

It's not that I simply wish to usurp the tremendously positive feeling that now unites what has been a bitterly divided nation. Rather, President Obama's words, his inspiration, his call to action shout loudly to the entire world. All of us, the entire population of the planet, so connected and so proximate in the effects we create among each other, must unite, striving to meet the challenges and reach the objectives that he so eloquently described. We must all unclench our fists and extend our hands, and collectively work for the betterment of all people. And, perhaps with an unparallelled imperative born uniquely of our time, together create a world in which we all want to live.

Congratulations. You deserve it. We all deserve it.

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19 January 2009

Goodnight Bush

On the eve of a new era and the first UCaPP President of the United States, a bedtime story, Goodnight Bush.

Happy Obama-day to all my American friends!

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08 January 2009

Admirable Corporate Cultures? Narcissistic, Perhaps...

I just read a piece that pointed me to the supposedly "most admired corporate cultures" among Canadian organizations for 2008. This is apparently the result of a survey conducted by Waterstone Human Capital, essentially a recruitment firm.

What is corporate culture? Survey says, "Leadership behaviours, Employee behaviours, Leadership attitudes, Employee attitudes, Organizational values, Work environment, Organization mission/vision," among others. Notice the question wasn't, "what contributes to culture," but rather, "What is culture?" Okay, so I'm being nit-picky. And, only selecting responses that scored more than 50% (more than one choice could be offered).

How would you describe your culture? Survey says, "Performance driven, Customer focused," and then down the line, "team focused" and some others.

What has led to the creation of your current corporate culture? "Leadership." Period.

Three most important factors in managing the culture? "Alignment of culture to business strategy. Leadership development." No other scored more than 50%, even though respondents were asked to select three.

What specific tools to you use to "align your employees" (yes, that's a quote) to your culture? "Leadership practices, posting the values (like, on the wall), training, and 'town hall meetings'."

Does culture have an impact on your performance? 83% said "strong" or "very strong" impact.

Can a new leader change the culture? "Yes" (90% of respondents). This one is not surprising to me, but troubling to some extent. In my book, culture should not be as ephemeral as the corporate life expectancy of a leader.

Do you have a process for integrating new leaders into your corporate culture? 55% said no. This one is a surprising result, given the previous two questions.

There were a bunch more questions of various sorts. But it seems clear from this survey that leadership is critical to culture, and culture is tied to business results, and (to cheekily paraphrase the introduction to the Book of John) culture is business results. In other words, culture is all about the leaders, leadership, and results.

Oh, the kicker question for me? What is your occupation? 80% of 340 respondents are Director, Vice President, President or CEO - in other words, leaders! Quelle surprise!

I wonder what the results might look like if they happened to ask workers. Or even Edgar Schein.

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02 January 2009

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of the Future of Organization

In honour of the 40th anniversary of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, the Program is sponsoring the publication of an edited volume entitled, Effects of Technology: Multidisciplinary perspectives. Because of my involvement with the Program (prior to joining OISE), I was invited to contribute a chapter. Here's the abstract I proposed for my chapter:
The Toronto School of Communications discourse suggests that the dominant form of communication in a society creates an environment, from which the structuring institutions of that society emerge. This paper briefly traces the history of the institution of organization through the major cultural epochs of Western civilization: primary orality, phonetic literacy and the manuscript culture, the mechanized print culture and industrialization, and the contemporary culture of instantaneous, multi-way, electric communication. In particular, the paper proposes, and reports on empirical research that supports, a new fundamental model of organization that is consistent with today’s conditions of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity (UCaPP). This Valence Theory of Organization represents a fundamental reversal (McLuhan, 1988) of the prior conception of the purposeful organization, structured with Bureaucracy, Administrative controls and Hierarchy (BAH).
I just completed a first draft of the chapter entitled, "A Brief, 3,000-Year History of the Future of Organization." It looks at the organizations of Athenian democracy, the medieval Church, modern bureaucracy, administration and hierarchy, and of course, Valence Theory and UCaPP organizations (and how did you spend your Christmas break?). Thanks to all those who provided me feedback before submitting the chapter to the editors. If you might like to read the current version of the draft chapter, please email me your request.

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