The A to Z of OD: M is for Metaphor

Our language is littered with metaphor.  Oftentimes, we do not notice metaphor unless it is used poetically.  Had I said, “We walk through streets of literature littered with metaphor”, you are more likely to have spotted ‘littered’ as a metaphor for the ubiquity of metaphor.  ‘Littered’ suggests metaphor contaminates our language, just like litter contaminates the street.  Perhaps, I’m even suggesting we are so accustomed to seeing litter on the street we have stopped noticing the street is cluttered, dishevelled, even unhealthy.  I’m clearly suggesting metaphor is a bad thing, and we’ve stopped noticing it is bad.

Our language is rich with metaphor.  A different connotation entirely.  Metaphor is a good thing, perhaps even having monetary value.  Money: that thing that symbolises success in our culture, that enables us to feed and protect ourselves, that gives us choice, freedom and agency over our lives.

The use of metaphor is very helpful to the reader as it describes what you’re trying to say in a few words.  The reader’s mind ‘conjures’ up her own interpretation from her own experience; an experience that is rich with her own metaphor.  She can see the ‘whole picture’ you were ‘painting’.  The problem is that the use of one metaphor – is it magic or is it art? – restricts other interpretations.  This is how others’ words can manipulate us.

Organisational metaphor

Our language defines our culture.  We create the word around us though how we talk and write about it.  As such, it also defines the organisations we create.  The organisations that is, where we work, rest and play; where we live our lives.

And so, the words we use to describe those organisation matter.  We tell stories about those organisations and the metaphors we use are very much a part of that narrative.

I’ve just looked back at the A to Z of OD articles I’ve written in this series to review the metaphor I’ve been using to describe organisations and OD.  I counted nearly 100 examples.  Many of these are consciously deployed – OD is a journey for example – however several were unconscious.

The most frequent positive metaphor I use is one that describes organisations as organisms: I provide the right ‘climate’ for people to ‘flourish’,  I put leaders at the ‘heart’ of organisations, I encourage ideas to ‘spread like viruses’, I ‘diagnose’ issues with them when the organisation  ‘hiccoughs’ and I provide ‘antidotes’ to what I must perceive to be poisonous practices.

I also quite often use negative connotations, suggesting organisations and organisation development are instruments of domination and coercive control: OD ‘drives’ the culture (as if driving a team of horses, perhaps?) and ‘spurs’ people on, it has change ‘targets’, I talk of humans being treated as ‘puppets’, manager and employee as ‘servant and master’ and that managers deploy ‘tricks’ to get things done.

And sometimes I refer to organisations as if they were machines: employee engagement is one of the ‘engines’ of organisational effectiveness, leaders pull ‘levers’ to ‘lock in’ changes and are themselves the ‘lubrication’ that ensures the organisation operates smoothly.

That is not to say organisations literally are organisms, instruments of coercion or machines.  But they can exhibit characteristics that are like those things.  Next time you are describing your organisation or OD approach, what metaphor are you using?  What metaphor do others use, particularly influential people like the CEO?  And how might these metaphors be denying other possible interpretations?

OD thought leader: Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan wrote the definitive guide to organisational metaphor, categorising and exemplifying eight archetypal metaphors for organisations:

Archetype Words used include
Machine Efficiency, waste, order, clockwork, operations, re-engineering
Organism Living systems, life cycles, evolution, fitness, health, adaption, malaise
Brain Learning, mindset, feedback, knowledge, networks
Culture Values, beliefs, rituals, diversity, tradition, history, vision, family
Political system Power, hidden agendas, authority, toe the line, gatekeepers, Star Chamber
Psychic prison Regression, denial, Parent/Child, ego, defence mechanism, dysfunction, coping, pain
Flux and transformation Change, flow, self-organisation, emergent, paradox, complexity, VUCA
Instrument of domination Compliance, charisma, coercion, corporate interest, alienation

He suggests metaphor is a simple tool that can help leaders and OD practitioners effect change and solve seemingly intractable problems that require adaptive thinking from people right across and down the organisation. 

Recommended reading: Morgan, Gareth (2006), Images of Organization (Updated Ed.), Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Next time: N is for Nudge Theory.

The A to Z of OD: D is for Design

I asked people to suggest topics for the series, and this topic was suggested by top HR influencer, Perry Timms.  Thanks Perry.  In earlier posts in this series, I outlined the importance of engaging hearts as well as minds when it comes to organisational change.  This is the D is for Development angle of OD.  While difficult to do, some might call it the softer edge of OD.  But OD has a harder edge too.  Today, D is for Design; organisational design.  And that means we need to take a hard look at the dreaded restructure.

Three things they don’t tell you about restructuring your team

There is a well-trodden path of advice about planning your organisational restructure.  Specialist organisation design consultants will advise you to consider:

  • The purpose of your restructure: to realign to the organisational vision perhaps, to become more flexible or simply to save money (see also: change from the inside-out)
  • The context against which you are restructuring: mergers or acquisitions, changes to the product or service offered or simply to save money (see also: change from the outside-in)
  • Organisation design principles: to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of the structure.

This is all sensible stuff and only the principles might really need further specialist input.

These principles usually surround seemingly technical concepts including strategic alignment, accountability and empowerment, and the trade-off between coordination and specialisation.  Don’t get me wrong, they can be very useful – I use them myself when consulting on restructuring – but they can over-complicate your approach, confuse you and run the risk of tying you up in knots.

What some specialists don’t tell you is that:

  1. A successful restructure is an act of storytelling
  2. It’s okay to sketch out your new structure on the back of a fag packet
  3. Restructuring is only half the story.

LESSON 1: A successful restructure is an act of storytelling

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Beginnings

The purpose of the beginning is to see the possibilities you have in restructuring.  These possibilities are varied and nuanced, so sketch a few out and see how they feel.  You might just want to remove or add a couple of posts, or you may prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper and reimagine your purpose, or you might only have a vague notion about things being different, a matrix structure perhaps, or even a whole new operating model.

LESSON 2: It’s okay to sketch out your new structure on the back of a fag packet

Middles

The next step is to engage people in your thinking.  This is about testing out the sketches you have made.  Talk to your peers, boss, HR team, and (if you can) the teams that will be affected.

If you need any specialist advice, it is likely to be now, but remember a few key principles can be achieved by making a simple checklist against which to test your ideas.  For example, ask yourself:

  • Does every strategic goal have an owner (this ensures alignment to the vision or strategy)?
  • Will the structure ease workflow between departments (to ensure coordination of key organisational activities)?
  • Does any post report to more than one manager (removing this helps to ensure accountability)?
  • Etc.

Even more important is to hone the story at this point: what is the compelling reason for the restructure? Can you articulate your assumptions, are you prepared to open them to scrutiny and can you explain your thinking?

Endings

This stage is about implementing your chosen structure.  You may notice that thus far we have attempted to keep it simple:  your story is compelling; your structure has been sketched out and tested.  The final hurdle is implementation.  This often fails because the structure will not sustain itself in isolation.

LESSON 3: Restructuring is only half the story

Organisation development must go together with organisation design.  Development without design runs the risk of becoming soft: the structure does not support the development efforts, which is a waste of money.  Design without development however is a hard, empty vessel waiting to be filled with meaning.  Organisation development completes the act of restructuring by turning ideas into actions that will fulfil the vision the design set out to achieve.  It does this by locking in the changes.  It does this by shifting the culture.  You simply must have both organisation design and organisation development to succeed.

See also: The messy job of restructuring

OD thought leader: Robert Dilts (1955 – )

Dilts developed an understanding of neurological levels at play when change is underway.  These levels form a hierarchy from bottom to top: Environment at the bottom; Behaviour; Capability; Belief; and Identity at the top.  Sometimes, there is a sixth level – Spirituality– added to the top of the hierarchy.  This indicates there is a higher purpose than Identity, although for many this is a moot point.

The basic idea is that each level affects those below it, and not the other way around.  Also, people often operate from only one level, which blocks their ability to change.  You can tell at which level people are operating by the language they use.

The phrase “I can’t do that here” neatly encapsulates the hierarchy from top to bottom: I = Identity; Can’t = (limiting) Belief; Do = Capability; That = Behaviour; Here = Environment.  Think of a change where you are blocked, then say, “I can’t do that here” to yourself.  Which word creates a tug internally?  That is the level you are operating from; that is the level where something needs to change.

Dilts’ levels are often used by coaches to help people in this way, or to move up the hierarchy and consider deeper, more meaningful reasons for change.  It is a core part of the principles and practice of Neuro-Linguistic Programming: reprogramming our language can help us change.  The model is particularly useful in reframing individual mindsets and hence aligning individual change with a higher purpose.

As such it is a very useful technique for organisation development practitioners too.

Recommended Reading: David Molden and Pat Hutchinson (2014) Brilliant NLP, London, Pearson Education

The messy job of restructuring, and how not to do it

First published on LinkedIn, December 2, 2016

Strategy informs structure, right?

Something needs to change.  So, you convene a strategy session with your leadership team, commission some market research, and in a relatively short time frame, you’ve set your strategy.  Logically, it is time to lift that off the page.  You need to put the right team in place to deliver it.  So, you sketch out a structure chart that will deliver it and then go about slotting names into places and recruiting for the gaps.

This is often the way of things.  Organisations set their strategy and then create a structure that supports that strategy.  On the face of it, this is eminently sensible.  The goal of organisation design is to maximise the effectiveness of the organisation in serving its purpose.  However, such formal structures are impacted by the informal structures, the power plays, the routines and the symbols of the existing culture.  And culture itself tends to be either ignored or taken for granted when restructuring is underway.

Typically, leaders assume purpose informs strategy informs structure in a linear, predictable way.  They draw a structure chart.  Then they hire into that structure based on capability and expected cultural fit.  And then names appear on the structure chart.  Some new, some existing.  And then the prevailing culture remains steadfastly in place, whether this was the intention or not.  If the culture is out of alignment with the strategy and purpose, then the desired future will never be achieved.

Where should culture feature?

A better mindset going into restructuring acknowledges the causality between strategy, structure and culture is mutual.  This means that the organisation design combines:

  • Appropriate formal and informal structures
  • The capabilities to deliver products/services
  • In a market where those products/services are valued
  • The internal machinations that serve the purpose.

In other words, structure, strategy and culture interdependently in alignment.  It means aligning head, heart and hands.

This requires a different approach to restructuring, more of a configuration of the subsystems.  Indeed, in his 1989 work Mintzberg on management, Henry Mintzberg suggests organisation design is more a LEGO construction than a jigsaw; a creation that goes beyond configuration.

Current theories and good practices in organisation design combine all the above.  They advocate a forward-looking systems-based approach, coupled with an assumption of mutual causality between subsystems and hence a ‘beyond configuration’ approach to designing organisations.

So far, so good.  However, I suggest this is only half the story.

Organisational change is culture change

I believe organisational change is culture change and so culture should be given special attention during change.  I believe the first step in restructuring is to understand the past by considering culture and specifically how the organisation learns.  What are the values, beliefs, behaviours and underlying mindset that collectively define the organisation? I then advocate using organisation development techniques to understand how the organisation got to where it is today by learning from its past.  This will likely consider incrementalism, retrospective sense-making and the development of emergent strategies and structures.  I tend to do this by facilitating workshops with leaders and then with managers and other members of staff to triangulate the findings.

Only then should leaders turn their attention to the future and sketch out some ideas for an appropriate organisation design.  This inherently requires considering the mutual causality between strategy, structure and culture.

By reflecting on the backward-looking loop and engaging others in that reflective exercise, leaders will achieve a deeper understanding of where the organisation is today and what really needs to change to realise the desired future.  And generally, it is not just names on a structure chart.

Jeremy J Lewis

@growthepig

The Great Big Data Swindle: aka you don’t Grow the Pig by weighing it

First published in LinkedIn August 9, 2016

It’s not the quantity of data that’s important – it’s the way you use it that truly matters

– Matthew Sharp, Senior Hacker at LinkedIn

Weigh the pig

We all know (especially if you’ve ever listened to me ranting on about it) that you don’t Grow the Pig by weighing it.  And yet everyone’s talking about Big Data. The truth is you should only measure what you can use.

The first example of Big Data dates as far back as William the Conqueror.  His commission in 1086, twenty years after the invasion and defeat of the English in 1066, heralded the end of the Dark Ages. He commissioned the report to assess the extent of the land and resources owned in England so he could maximise the tax due. He needed the tax revenue to wage more war in northern France.

It took around a year to complete the data collection.  Some 900+ years later, a vault in Kew holds the resulting two volumes.  It really is an astonishing story. Commissioners were dispatched to create a comprehensive survey that would provide irrefutable evidence of every single landowner, villager, smallholder, tenant and slave, together with the extent of land owned, occupied and the livestock grazed upon it, as well as details of all buildings. Across the whole of England! It was said at the time that “there was no single…pig left out” (which seems apt here). Its definition as irrefutable fact led it to being named after the Christian tradition of Judgement Day, or Domesday, where every soul is laid bare for judgement.

Anyway, William the Conqueror knew how he was going to use his Big Data, to tax people. Ironically, he died before Domesday was completed. Do we know what Big Data is being collected for nowadays? Do you know why you would want to collect Big Data on your customers, processes, people, and what you are going to use it for?

Domesday today

At a societal level, here in the present day, governments and large corporations appear to be maintaining Domesday databases through Big Data. In fact, Big Data goes beyond databases.  Those governments and large corporations managed it through interconnected networks using the power of the internet and social media. And now, instead of manually collecting all our data by hand in large ledgers, they do it automatically in these vast technology networks that track and model everything from simulating the outcome of referendums to predicting what you will do tomorrow based on your credit score, geographical location and shoe size. Ok, so I made that last bit up, but you get my drift.

Liz Ryan (CEO of the Human Workplace) observes that “when in doubt, fearful humans put their trust in data! (Bad choice)”. Should we put our trust in Big Data, or is it all a bit too much like Big Brother, all a bit too scary? Surely it is us who provide the data that makes Big Data scary. It’s scary not because the machines we have created are getting smarter, but because we are now processing information on such a scale it is impossible to keep track of it.

Paralysis by analysis

And the truth is that data will only go so far. The measurement of demographics, credit cores, shoe sizes, whatever, is useless. What matters is the interpretation of that data into meaningful decisions.  Keep your data limited to what you can use to make effective decisions, and learn to use it, talk to your customers and staff and discuss it. Progress your collection to more sophisticated analytics when you need to, but avoid the pull to paralysis through information overload. Do not let the tail wag the dog, or the pig, for that matter.

(rant over)

Jeremy J Lewis

@growthepig

#growthepig is my philosophy of organisation design and development