The A to Z of OD: Q is for Questions

Is consulting about offering your own solutions, or working collaboratively with clients to generate solutions jointly? The former involves telling, advising, recommending. The latter involves asking, diagnosing, exploring possibilities. I guess the answer depends on what sort of consulting you are offering. Perhaps you are an IT expert and there really is one best way of implementing a solution. More likely, you are engaged in collaborative consulting. OD is collaborative consulting. The A to Z of OD continues. Q is for Questions.

The Paradoxical nature of change

The paradox of change is that if you push too hard, it resists. If you let go, often it comes more easily. It’s the same with OD. If you seek tightly-defined solutions, elegant models, rigorous frameworks or SMART outcomes, people can become sceptical and resist.

OD is the planned approach to change, and yet it is equally invested in the process-centred journey as it is in the destination-focused goal. “What we need is better practice,” muses management guru Henry Mintzberg. “Not neater theory.” What he is saying is, “What we need is better questions, not neater solutions.”

Self as instrument of change

The practice of OD is the practice of asking questions. And it seems we’re in fashion: mansplaining is out, humble inquiry is in. It requires offering our vulnerability that we do not know the answers and that we might just find a path toward change by working together.

And by asking a question, the OD practitioner is intervening in the system – he is using himself as an instrument of change. OD scholar Ed Schein offers suggestions for some opening questions in his 2013 book Humble Inquiry:

“So…” (with an expectant look)

“What’s happening?”

“How are things going for you?”
(Note: not “Hi, how are you?”, which is likely to elicit a closed response, “Fine.”

“What brings you here?”

“Go on…” (or my personal favourite version of it, “Can you say more about that?”)

“Can you give me an example?”

The critical point here is to remain curious. To “seek first and then to be understood” as Dr Stephen Covey would have it. Yes, have an opinion, and yet at the same time hold it lightly. Explore everybody’s ideas equally, sincerely and with humility.

Some types of questions

There are good uses for open questions to explore issues, “What is keeping you awake at night?”, closed questions to focus, “So you are saying…, is that right?”, and choice questions, “on a scale from 1-10, how would you rate the current situation?”

There are several useful facilitative questions, used by people chairing or facilitating meetings to generate accountability in the other people present and move the conversation on, from, “What happened?”, to exploring root causes (why?) and possibilities, “How can we improve?”

There are also some very special types of questions, such as Nancy Kline’s incisive question, “If you know that you are [positive assumption, e.g. highly regarded by your client], what will you do differently?”, or the agreement frame from NLP, “I appreciate you want to [insert other person’s desire], how can we do that and [insert your own desire]?”, e.g. “I appreciate you want to dramatically increase sales; how can we do that through influence rather than pushing our clients too hard?”

Of course OD practitioners need to have insight too. There is a time to inquire and a time to advocate your opinion. Usually in that order.

OD thought leader: Robert E Quinn (b. 1946)

Robert E Quinn is a professor at the University of Michigan School of Business, specialising in HR management and organisational behaviour.

He believes organisational change cannot happen without deep individual change. He believes everyone in an organisation has the power to change the organisation. These ideas are set out in Deep Change, in which Quinn articulates a set of principles for personal transformation.

He suggests too many people are living their lives out as a version of ‘slow death’ for fear of rocking the boat. He suggest you choose deep change over slow death. This requires courage, sacrifice and hard work. It requires reflection and self-inquiry, looking inwards to ask yourself what you really, really want, what you believe, and how you will find the strength to begin to change. You might well need the support of a coach yourself. It is worth it. Avoid slow, creeping death and discover the new you through deep change. The new you can change your world.

Recommended reading: Quinn, Robert E., (1996) Deep Change: discovering the leader within, Wiley, NY.

Next time: R is for Reflective Practice.

The A to Z of OD: P is for Psychoanalysis

In inventing the practice of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud had some original ideas that have shaped our understanding of the unconscious mind. He posited that as we grow through childhood, we develop our Ego as a conscious mental structure that protects us from our unconscious impulses. These unconscious impulses are located in the Id (which seeks unbridled pleasure – what we would really like to do) and the Superego (which holds our morals – what we ‘know’ is the right thing to do). The Ego attempts to hold these impulses in check with whatever we experience in reality and therefore seeks pleasure based on a rational response to the real world.

This psychic process causes anxiety and we develop defence mechanisms – denying, distorting and manipulating reality – in order to cope with that anxiety.

Organisations have anxiety too

Organisations are human systems directed toward a primary purpose and have developed sophisticated whole systems directed towards the primary purpose. They have also developed sophisticated unconscious defence mechanisms.

These defence mechanisms are most readily seen when people in organisations struggle to take accountability for pursuing the organisation’s primary purpose and instead focus on protecting themselves within what they perceive as an increasingly dysfunctional organisation. For example:

  • They deny knowledge of issues and their own part in being able to solve them.
  • They blame and complain about other people at work. This is an example of Splitting. Splitting is either/or thinking. For example someone is either a hero or a villain. It is a defence mechanism that fails to integrate into one whole both positive and negative qualities in others.
  • They make excuses for not taking action. This is an example of Rationalisation, i.e. justification that unacceptable behaviour is logical.
  • They wait and hope someone else will fix the problem. This might be an example of Repression, which is when unconscious impulses are blocked from consciousness (“I’ve tried to make a difference before and I got burnt”), or Phantasy, the unconscious fantasy that something will come true in a certain way (i.e. without their input).

Only when people become aware of these defence mechanisms as examples of powerless behaviours, can they choose to overcome them and take accountability for pursuing the organisation’s primary purpose. As such, OD can be seen as restoring organisational health.

OD needs balance between systems thinking and psychoanalytic philosophy

Under J is for Joint Diagnosis, I explored systems thinking and the importance of considering the whole system when diagnosing organisational issues. OD is also grounded in group dynamics from psychoanalysis. Systems thinking and psychoanalytic perspectives must be deployed together if real change is to be sustained.

If system thinking dominates, OD tends to be more closely aligned to power in the organisation, however it runs the risk of becoming a corporatist tool. Think of the all-too-common approach to business process reengineering or restructuring without attending to the people/cultural side of change.

On the other hand, if psychoanalytic philosophy dominates, OD can become marginalised and ends up as a technique used by coaches, facilitators and leadership trainers. Potentially useful for individuals and perhaps teams, but not typically useful for the whole organisation.

Neither situation is optimal. OD consultants must balance the two – deploying their expertise in systems thinking and undertaking diagnosis that is grounded in psychoanalytic interpretation. If they can do this, then they can implement humanistic OD interventions that impact the whole system. For me at least, anything less than this is not OD.

OD Thought Leader: David Pendleton

A duck can fly, swim and walk, but does not excel at all three.

Pendleton is a psychologist and Professor in Leadership at Henley Business School. Along with Adrian Furnham, in 2012 he wrote Leadership: All You Need to Know.

In this extraordinary work, Pendleton and Furnham liken leaders to ducks. Leaders must attend to strategy, operations and relationships. It is rare any one leader excels at all three leadership dimensions. So why do leadership guides often assume there is such a thing as an all round leader who can excel at all aspects of leadership?

The book has lofty claims… “all you need to know”. Really? Well, actually yes. I do believe there is little value in looking elsewhere if you want to begin to understand leadership.

The book summarises all the best bits of leadership theory that preceded it, and then synthesises a remarkable leadership model aligned to personality traits that provides a blueprint for assessing leadership strengths that I believe will stand the test of time in the burgeoning digital age.

They also bust the myth of the rounded leader. Instead, they advocate building, developing and sustaining a rounded leadership team that has strengths in all three leadership domains.

Recommended reading: Pendleton, D and Furnham A (2012), Leadership: All you Need to Know, Palgrave, London

Next time in the A to Z of OD: Q is for Questions

The A to Z of OD: O is for Open Space

According to Guy Browning in his wonderful book Office Politics: How work Really Works, “Conferences are the business equivalent of going for a curry, in that everyone thinks having one is a great idea, but you always end up drinking too much, talking rubbish and feeling sick for days afterwards. The biggest fear in the business world is having to make a speech at a conference. This is because generally you have nothing of interest to say and no one in the audience has the slightest interest in anything you have to say anyway. For example, when you are the IT director, it’s your job to make sure the IT works. If it does work, they know that already and if it doesn’t, they don’t want to hear your pathetic excuses.”

Why are conferences so bad?

Joking aside, a lot of conferences are bad. They are expensive to arrange and take people away from work. The benefits are often questionable as you get either expert content presented inexpertly – think of that dreaded feeling when the first slide containing too many bullet points appears – or entertaining presentations with little valuable content.

Delegates become distracted by their phones and pay little attention to the presenters, dipping in and out and kidding themselves they will read the material later. The most value is generally from the networking opportunities and side conversations in the bar.

Great conferences require delegate involvement and interesting content.

Open Space is an OD technique

Open Space technology was created by Harrison Owen in 1985 as a way of engaging a large group of people in discussing content related to a theme or issue. The technique is used by industry groups, communities of interest or for finding solutions to issues. Such conferences are particularly useful when you want to engage a large cross-section of people impacted by an issue by drawing out different views on the topic. These happenings might be referred to as Whole Systems Events.

These days, organisers of Open Space events often call them Unconferences – a term introduced in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. Open Space and Unconferences are essentially the same thing. You may also come across them in different contexts labelled Accelerated Solutions Events, Design Sprints or Design Thinking Workshops.

What is Open space?

The crucial aspect of an Open Space event is that there is no agenda until the attendees turn up. This approach overcomes some of the issues with a traditional conference as it reduces costs, minimises centralised administration and often lowers or even removes fees for attending!

How does it work?

Self-organisation is key. You will need: a large conference area; several smaller meeting areas; a large blank agenda visible and accessible to everyone; and delegates with something to say!

The event starts with a facilitator inviting delegates to propose discussion topics. That person steps up and pitches their idea. The delegates demonstrate their approval, sometimes with a vote (show of hands or more often these days with a polling app such as Sli.do) or sometimes the facilitator will take on this role on the delegates’ behalf. If agreed, the presenter writes their topic on the agenda, scheduling it in one of the smaller meeting spaces and time slots available.

This continues until you have a full agenda with multiple sessions now scheduled to run concurrently… just like a regular conference, but with no fees paid to the speakers and a guarantee that the topics are of interest.

And then you can begin. Typically, delegates are invited to go wherever they feel they have something to learn or to contribute to a discussion. And they are invited to use the “Law of Two Feet”. This means they are free to wander in and out of sessions at will – should they feel they are neither learning nor contributing, then they obey the law and go somewhere else where they will.

At the end of each session, reflections, conclusions and actions are captured and shared back with all the delegates.

Good conference organisation often means doing less so your delegates do more. The result is a creative, collaborative conference with engaged and empowered delegates. This is no jolly out of the office to get your ticket punched!

And as Guy Browning reminds us, “[Well-organised meetings] are meetings for which you have to prepare, in which you have to work and after which you have to take action. Fortunately, these meetings are as rare as a sense of gay abandon in the finance department.”

OD Thought Leader: Eddie Obeng (b. 1959)

Eddie Obeng is a Professor at Henley Business School and the founder of his own virtual business school, Pentacle.

Obeng believes that somebody changed the rules of the world. At midnight about 20 years ago. He believes the real 21st Century (the ‘New World’) operates to a whole new set of rules and that we are responding to a fantasy version of the world that we learnt in the 20th Century (the ‘Old World’).

The argument goes something like this: the pace of change is ever-increasing. The amount of information available to us has increased exponentially. It is, for example, estimated that 50% of the information on the Internet was created in the last two years. By being connected to the Internet, we are effectively at the centre of a global corporation that we no longer understand.

In comparison to this explosive pace of change, the pace of learning is effectively flat. Consider the usefulness of a business plan covering the next five years against that context. It is worthless the instant it is approved, if not before.

The moment the pace of change exceeded the pace of learning is the moment we lost our grip on the reality of the New World. This happened at midnight about 20 years ago. And nobody noticed.

To combat this, Obeng believes we must exponentially accelerate our learning. Many organisations now say to their managers, “Innovate, be creative!” Yet they mean, “Do something quirky and fail and you’re fired.” He believes we must be allowed to fail faster – he calls it Smart Failure­ – and be rewarded for it.

Sure, if you know what to do and how to do it then you can’t afford to fail, and you should be fired! It’s like painting by numbers – not much opportunity for failure unless you’re incompetent.

However, change these days is about achieving things when you know neither what you’re doing nor how you’re going to do it. How could you know these things when you do not understand the New World? He calls this ‘foggy change’. It requires innovation, collaboration and Design Thinking. It requires organisations protect people by encouraging smart failure.

Or you could continue to respond as if it is still the 20th Century. Continue painting by numbers. It will keep you occupied for a while longer, but it will not create anything new or innovative.

Recommended reading: Obeng, Eddie (1995): All Change!: The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook, London, Pitman/Financial Times

Next time in the A to Z o OD: P is for Psychoanalysis

The A to Z of OD: N is for Nudge Theory

What is Nudge Theory?

Let’s suppose your organisation is trying to recycle more of its waste. You might write a new policy and lay down some rules for employees to use recycling bins. Then, you might inform them of this policy through briefings that explain why you are introducing recycling bins. You might even engage your employees in deciding where the bins will be located, what to do about confidential waste, and other matters they may be concerned about.

Or you could simply ‘nudge’ your employees into doing what you want them to do.

According to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (‘Nudge’, 2008), most people choose the default option. They walk down the stairs but take the escalator up; they stick with the same energy provider; they us the bins provided.

A branch of behavioural economics, a nudge is a friendly push in the right direction. Footsteps stencilled up the stairs encourage people to walk; including average annual costs for a typical family on an energy statement encourages people to consider switching supplier; providing a range of bins encourages people to recycle appropriately.

How can Nudge Theory help with OD?

The right nudge in the right context can help employees choose a new default option that supports the organisation’s goals. And this can be done without policies, rules, briefings and staff engagement. In other words, it can be done more cheaply and more effectively than traditional approaches to introducing change.

Does it work for more substantive change than introducing recycling bins? You betcha! In one example, using positive feedback, targets and small charitable donations, an airline saved over £3m in fuel costs by nudging employees to use it more efficiently.

Why would I choose to use Nudge Theory?

Some say nudges are manipulative. However, a crucial aspect of being influenced by a nudge is that it is voluntary. The choice to be nudged rests with the individual. However, social norms can significantly help to lock in the new nudged behaviour. For example, a sign above the new recycling bins that says something along the lines of “Join 70% of your colleagues in recycling office waste!” will have significantly more success than “Help us recycle our waste.” In behavioural economics, this category of nudge is called ‘social proof’.

Another category is ‘status quo bias’. People stay with what is already in place. Therefore, the UK Government moved from employees having to opt in to a workplace pension to automatically enrolling all employees into workplace pensions, so they must elect to opt out if they do not want to be enrolled. This was a deliberate use of nudge theory and has resulted in only around 10% of workers opting out and an estimated £17bn more money per annum invested in pensions in the UK. And they are at it again with opting everyone into organ donorship.

So, next time you’re planning to change something in the workplace, think about how nudging behaviour might help you achieve that change and make it stick.

OD thought leader: Edwin Nevis (1926 – 2011)

Ed Nevis was a Gestalt therapist who worked with clients in an experiential way, not just from a therapeutic perspective. He was faculty member at MI Sloan School of Management and co-founded the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.

His major contribution to OD consulting was in applying the use of the Gestalt Cycle of Experience to the role of consultant.

What is the Gestalt Cycle of Experience?

The Gestalt Cycle of Experience was formulated by Fritz Perls in the 1940s. It describes the intrapsychic experience of an object, from initial sensation and awareness, through to full contact, resolution (closure) and withdrawal of attention. The full cycle is sensation; awareness; energy mobilisation; action; contact; resolution; withdrawal of attention.  The object move from being part of the background noise of our lives (in Gestalt, this is called the Ground), to being in uncosciously in the forefront of our minds; we become uncosciously pre-occupied with the object.  Gestalt calls this ‘Figure’.

As a very simple example, it explains why I now know what a Skoda Roomster looks like. My wife was thinking about buying a replacement car. “I quite like the Skoda Roomster,” she noted one morning over breakfast. I had no awareness of this vehicle. Later that day, she pointed one out on the road. It was then in my awareness. They suddenly appeared everywhere! I had (unconsciously) put energy and action into spotting them on the road.

I (consciously) made full contact when we visited a showroom and explored the features of this car. I achieved resolution when she decided it was not the model for her and I could then withdraw my attention. Oddly enough, I hardly ever see these cars anymore, although I know they must be out there, just like I know they were out there before I became aware of them.  In Gestalt language, they had moved from ‘Figure’ back to ‘Ground’.

Too many open loops

This intrapsychic process happens whenever we mobilise our energy into making contact with any object. You have probably heard people say they have ‘too many open loops’. They are referring – probably unconsciously – to the Gestalt Cycle of Experience. If we have an incomplete cycle, we are unable to be fully present with others in-the-moment. This is because we are psychologically distracted by something other than the person present that we need to make full contact with in order to get closure and withdraw our attention. It is why we feel a sense of satisfaction when we put a significant piece of work ‘to bed’.

How does this apply to organisational change?

Nevis applied the thinking to organisations, associating the stages of the cycle to consulting interventions.  See also J is for Joint DiagnosisHis seminal work details how the consultant uses himself as an instrument to effect change: “using the cycle as orientation, the [Gestalt consultant] acts as an instrument that observes and monitors the decision-making process of the client system to see that each phase is carried out well.” In this way, the consultant educates the client system “in how to improve its awareness of its functioning.”

Recommended reading: Nevis, Edwin, C. (1987), Organizational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach, The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press, Cambridge, MA.

Next time: O is for Open Space

 

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: L is for Leadership

People get awfully confused about leadership.  What is it?  How is it different from Management? Can anybody be a Leader?

At the risk of adding to the confusion, here’s my deceptively simple definition:

“Leadership is the power to organise ideas into action.”

Leadership is not the same as Management

Let’s start by contrasting Leadership with Management.  Management is the act of overseeing a process.  In an organisational context, the processes managers oversee are often referred to as business processes.  In manufacturing, business processes turn inputs into outputs.  This concept can be extended to business processes in other sectors – there will always be some form of inputs (data, designs, resources) and business processes turn these into outputs that customers want (information, products, services).

Leadership, on the other hand, is the power to organise ideas into action; the power to change.  World-renowned wellbeing guru Deepak Chopra argues the power to change derives from a combination of creativity – the seed of an idea for the future – and the desire to enact it.  The desire to enact it requires organisation.  Such organisation requires you pay attention to the present to make your intention a future reality.  This is the essence of organisation, the essence of leadership.

Anybody can be a Leader

I believe everybody can be thought of as a leader.

The desire to enact a future intention, coupled with the capability to make it happen is all you need to be considered a leader.  You do not need a job title.  In an organisational context, the future intention is sometimes called a vision.

I believe there are really only three levels of hierarchy in any organisation: strategic leaders, operational (or service) leaders and individuals (who to some degree lead themselves).  Everything else is ‘fluff’ to justify job titles, pay grades and HR functions.

  • At the individual contribution level, you are a leader if you choose to do something that aligns to the vision, then make it happen
  • At the operational/service leader level, you are a leader if you organise others to deliver the activities that deliver the vision.  You probably have ‘supervisor’ or ‘manager’ in your job title, or perhaps ‘head of…’
  • At the strategic leader level, you are a leader when you – collectively with others – organise the whole system to deliver the vision (the whole system comprises things like strategy, operations, people, structures, planning and performance mechanisms, engagement and team culture – see The A to Z of OD: J is for Joint Diagnosis).

Leadership development at any level is about developing the Four Cs of Leadership

The skills and experience you need at each level are different, and depend on the organisation, the nature of its activities and the scale of the activities in which you are involved.

However, the leadership behaviours are uncannily similar across organisations, industries and sectors.  And they relate to the power to organise ideas into action.  Four elements must be present:

  • Commitment to the idea itself – the commitment to a vision
  • Competence, i.e. the ability to act – the leader must be good at some aspect of the activity in which they are engaged, and must be able to organise themselves to make progress towards that vision
  • Communication – the vision and the steps needed to move towards it must be articulated to influence and mobilise others.  Even at the individual level, turning thoughts into actions involves saying what you are going to do (even if you only say it to yourself inside your own head)
  • Change orientation – whereas management is about overseeing a defined process, which is fundamentally about stability, the leader must embrace change to make the vision a reality.

These are the Four Cs of Leadership.  You can build your leadership capability by considering the extent to which each of these is fundamentally embedded and working effectively within your organisation.

OD Thought Leader: Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947)

Through conducting field experiments in social science, Lewin proposed many models and techniques that formed the bedrock of early OD practice and endure today.  He created an action-oriented approach to his research into everyday social problems and drew from Gestaltism and psycho-analytics to create the new academic (perhaps ‘pracademic’? i.e. both practical and academic) field of Social Psychology.

On individual behaviour and group dynamics: Lewin’s equation

Lewin proposed that how individuals interact with each other create the world in which we’re living.  In turn, the world we have created shapes individual behaviours.  This proposition strikes at the heart of the nature/nurture debate, demonstrating that both nature and nurture interact to shape who we are as individuals.

He coined the term ‘group dynamics’, meaning how groups of people interact to survive and thrive in changing circumstances.  He suggested that groups unify as a whole system and cannot be understood by only studying individuals.  The whole is different (and greater) than the sum of its parts.

On Organisational Learning: Field Theory and Action Research

He excelled at turning everyday problems into psychological experiments, which he termed Field Theory.  An early observation revealed, “intention to carry out a specific task builds a psychological tension, which is released when the intended task is completed.”  This was the foundation of social psychology.

Action research (another Lewin-coined term) involves participating in resolving a social problem, whilst simultaneously conducting research into that problem and how it is solved.  It is inherently reflexive.  It is related to Action Learning (see the A to Z of OD: A is for Action Learning).

On Change: Force Field Analysis and the Ice Cube Theory of Change

Lewin found that people, teams and organisations tend to become frozen by a combination of driving forces that are propelling them forwards towards their goals and restraining forces that are holding them back.  By analysing these forces, individuals, teams and organisations can prioritise the actions to remove restraining forces and encourage driving forces so that they unfreeze and then can move forwards towards their goal.  See also The A to Z of OD: I is for the Ice Cube Theory of Change.

Recommended reading: Jay Marrow (1977), The Practical Theorist: the Life and Works of Kurt Lewin, New York, Teachers Press.

Next time: M is for Metaphor

The A to Z of OD: H is for Human

Thanks to OD Practitioner Dorothy Matthew, who challenges organisations to put ‘human beings’ as opposed to ‘human doings’ at the forefront matters… and then make the shift; Human was also suggested by Perry Timms.  H is for Humanising workplaces.

“Are we human, or are we dancer?”

Human is a thought-provoking song by The Killers. In it, frontman Brandon Flowers suggests being human is to have agency.  To be a dancer is to be a puppet, controlled by others.  This is a song about emancipation from those who would seek to control us.  In a work context, this is the organisation for whom we work.  It strikes me too many organisations still choose to do dumb things to people: by over-rationalising business processes, over-engineering restrictive policies and infantilising their people.

For me, OD is about humanising workplaces.  Technology, robots – thus far the antithesis of humanity – were supposed to give us humans more leisure time.  Yet we are working more and harder than ever.  We haven’t managed to systematically humanise workplaces yet.  Perhaps what we choose to delegate to the robots will enable us to humanise the work we keep for ourselves?  Perhaps we can humanise how we choose to lead the robots?

“Take a look in the mirror and what do you see?  Do you see it clearer or are you deceived?”

Human is a thought-provoking song by Rag ‘n’ Bone Man.  The lyric is about taking responsibility for yourself and not trying to pass blame onto other people.

I use psychometrics in my OD practice to help people understand themselves and others better, so we can all play to our strengths and achieve more together by choosing to take responsibility for furthering the purpose of the organisations where we work.

We can’t go through life blaming others and we also can’t go through life using the excuse “I’m only human”.  Give yourself permission to make mistakes AND choose to take responsibility for your own behaviour.

Humanising workplaces

The results we get when know the dynamic between people and, in the future, know the dynamic between the humans and the robots – the ‘aha!’ moment I look for when working with my clients – is palpable.  It manifests as more collaboration, more empathy, more generative work practices, more humanised workplaces.  It takes time.  There is no magic potion.  There are no superheroes.  Just humans choosing to make a difference.  Practising some fundamental principles of human processes and relationships – the doings and the beings – of a humanised organisation.

American entrepreneur Jim Rohn once said, “Success is neither magical nor mysterious.  Success is the natural consequence of applying the basic fundamentals.”  Never truer than when choosing to be human, never truer than when humanising organisations.

OD Thought Leader: Jerry B. Harvey

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles north) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that she would rather have stayed home but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

We fail to manage agreement and end up doing things nobody wants to do.  In the original anecdote above where Jerry Harvey established the Abilene Paradox, this happened at the expense of choosing to #JustBe.  Why are we programmed to find stuff to Just Do, when we often find our greatest breakthroughs come from choosing to #JustBe?

The paradoxical nature of Change: Oh, Sweet Irony!

Recommended reading: Jerry B. Harvey (1988) The Abilene Paradox and Meditations on Management, New York, Wiley.

Next time: I is for the Ice Cube theory of change

The A to Z of OD: G is for Growth Mindset

Many thanks to Francis Lake, who suggested The Tipping Point as a topic for this A to Z of OD.  I’ve included it here under G for its author, social science research debunker, Malcolm Gladwell.  But let’s start with bona fide social science researcher Carol Dweck and her best thinking about mindsets.  G is for Growth Mindset.

The Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.  Dweck has dedicated her lifelong research to mindsets, particularly in students.  She noticed some students were resilient, rebounding quickly after setbacks, whereas others appeared to be devastated by even minor hiccoughs.  She attributed this to their mindset – i.e. their belief systems – and coined the terms ‘fixed’ mindset and ‘growth’ mindset.

The Fixed Mindset: Many people view their own potential, talent or intellect as innate and fixed; “either you have it or you don’t.”  They assume outcomes are fixed.

The Growth Mindset: Dweck’s research suggests that people who view their ability to grow, learn and develop through hard work, practice or progressive improvement tend to succeed more.  They believe their ability is just a starting point that can grow.  Growth can be nurtured, and outcomes are open-ended.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.”  Carol Dweck might say, “If you believe you can, and then are prepared to put in the effort, then you can succeed.”

To put this in practical terms, people with a growth mindset choose lifelong learning.  They make choices rather than decisions, they try things out, they fail, they learn from their mistakes, they do it again, they get it right, they grow, they practise until they make new habits, they succeed, they develop mastery of their chosen subject, they never stop learning.

Recent advances in neuroscience support the claim that practice makes permanent; our neural networks grow, strengthen and speed up our cognition.  We become masters of what we repeatedly do and learn from.

Model I / Model II

Dweck’s research was with students.  Chris Argyris proposed another mindset model, more directly appropriate for the workplace.

In Model I mindset, people try to seek unilateral control of situations, they try to win, and if they can’t win, they make sure they don’t lose; they try to act rationally and suppress negative feelings.  It is a “win, don’t lose” mindset; the pie is fixed.

In Model II mindset, people seek to learn, seek to find win/win solutions with others by seeking valid information and joint commitment to action.  It is a collaborative mindset; the pie can be bigger; the pie can grow.

I’m struck by the similarity of these two mindset concepts: (1) the fixed pie: “try to win, but if I can’t, then try to save face, it’s probably something I’m not good at anyway.” (2) the growth pie: “let’s work together to see what’s possible, we can achieve more together than working independently, we can learn”.  (2) is an organisational learning model; it is a generative model; it is a model of true collaboration.

Noughts and Crosses

Here’s a gift for you – a group exercise / collaborative mindset icebreaker – that I have been using with groups for several years.

  1. Pair up all participants
  2. Invite each pair to play five games of noughts and crosses (that’s tic-tac-toe, if you’re Transatlanticly-inclined)
  3. Rules: take turns to go first; three points for a win, one point each for a draw
  4. Goal: maximise your points
  5. Once everyone has completed five games, ask them to add up their points, and then add the two players’ points together to obtain a score for each pair
  6. How many points did each pair of players achieve?
  7. If it was not 15, what happened?

In my experience – I’ve asked hundreds of people to take part in this game – almost all pairs of players fail to get the maximum 15 points. This quick game demonstrates how locked into a “win, don’t lose” mindset we all are; how locked into a fixed mindset we all are.

In the training room, we can then explore the merits, strategies, skills and behaviours and, most crucially IMHO, the mindset needed to become more collaborative at work.  Collaboration is one of the typical goals of many organisation development programmes.  Collaboration is my speciality.

OD Thought leader: Malcolm Gladwell (1963 – )

“Ideas and products and messages and behaviours spread like viruses.”  Gladwell looked how epidemics spread an applied the thinking to social epidemics.  To exemplify his ideas, he cites significantly reducing crime rates in New York, a huge uplift in sales of Hush Puppies and the number of teen suicides in Micronesia, among several others.

The Tipping Point is that point when critical mass is achieved in a social movement and it then starts to spread significantly more quickly than it did before.

Gladwell suggests there are three things needed to harness The Tipping Point.  Get all three right and you can generate a tipping point for your social movement:

  1. Law of the few (20% of people will do 80% of the work needed to gain momentum – the trick is about recognising who are the connectors, the mavens (information specialists) and the salesmen who will entice others to follow their lead)
  2. Stickiness factor (how easy and sticky is the new idea?)
  3. Context (if the environment is right, then more people will take on the idea).

In organisations, this social movement is – of course – the case for change.  And so, generating a tipping point has become something of an ambition for many change agents and change leaders.  The advice on how to do this usually surrounds making the new world more appealing, enticing early adopters and changing organisational systems and processes to make it harder not to change.

Gladwell went on to write Blink about the adaptive unconscious, and Outliers about the odd factors that come together to create success.

Recommended reading: Malcolm Gladwell (2000), The Tipping Point: How Little Things can make a Big Difference, Boston, Little Brown.

Next time: H is for Human

 

The A to Z of OD: F is for Facilitation

Many a jobbing OD consultant will tell you that there are three strands to what they offer: OD or change consulting, coaching and facilitation.  Today, I will explore facilitation: what it is and isn’t, a simple checklist of things to consider when facilitating and the tricky question of managing your own and others’ anxiety.

What is facilitation?

Webster’s (1913) dictionary defines to facilitate as:

“To make easy or less difficult; to free from difficulty or impediment; to lessen the labour of; as, to facilitate the execution of a task.”

I like this definition because it implies facilitation is helpful when there is difficulty in executing a task.  Clearly this will always involve following some sort of process, and there needs to be a task (content) and difficulty in completing it.  If tasks are not difficult to complete, then surely managers would complete them without needing a facilitator?

The facilitator’s role

So far, so good.  We have identified the need for process, content and management.  Facilitators can choose their role to control combinations of these three aspects; however, it is clear to me that they must control process.  I also find it useful to separate content from management, so the facilitator avoids taking on the role of the manager.  Unless of course, he is the manager.  In which case, I’d urge caution.

That said, the facilitator has a choice of three roles:

  • Process only – and the opportunity to provide observation and commentary on group dynamics
  • Content & Process– a typical role for hired experts who have something to offer on content. Paradoxically, it is oftentimes easier to facilitate when you do not know much about the content.  This I because you are uninhibited from becoming drawn into technical discussions
  • Management & Process – IMHO, best reserved for internal OD practitioners, or managers.

The process of facilitation

Let’s keep this simple.  (1) Make sure you understand the exam question; (2) Get the right people together[1]; (3) Control everything you possibly can before you start – plan your process, timings, agenda, breaks, materials, refreshments, meeting space, whatever else you can think of; (4) Let go of control on everything you possibly can once you start!

The process of facilitation is quite simple to describe; however, it is not so easy to do.  Your job is to facilitate the process.  Control that.  Control yourself.  Do no try to control other people.  Work with them as you find them.  Give them control, do not infantilise them by stepping in or taking over.  Do less yourself, so that they do more work.

Control yourself

The facilitator’s role ‘in the room’ is to encourage participants to follow the process, and to intervene as little as possible.  This is so that the participants do as much of the work as possible.  She will hold the space on behalf of the group, so they can focus on helping each other to answer the exam question.  She will ensure ground rules are observed and she will manage the processual flow of the session.

Arguably, she is totally irrelevant to the group, who are quite capable of being responsible for themselves.  Equally, she is essential… her presence will create the right conditions for the group to maximise their chance of finding a solution.  She will surface her observations of how the group is working and what might be holding it back.  Not only does facilitation help solve the immediate problem, but it also helps to build capability to solve similar problems in the future.  She does this by role modelling process.

To succeed, the facilitator must pay attention to what’s going on in the meeting and be reflectively aware of her responses to it, whilst remaining relatively objective.  She will feel anxious and will pick up on others’ anxiety.  That is natural and inevitable.

She must be utterly dependable.  That means, when the inevitable anxiety is projected onto her, she must be able to take it.

If she does her job well, they will hardly notice her, they will feel confident they could have run the session themselves, and then her continued presence may well become be totally irrelevant…

She will, however, know her presence was totally essential.

So, what?

I believe that better facilitative outcomes come from managing the conditions under which people interact.  Content should come primarily from the participants and the only behaviour the facilitator should seek to manage is his own.

As organisational issues become more complex, the players become highly specialised in what they do, and yet the whole organisational system – when working effectively – can produce more than the sum of its parts.  Our job as facilitators is to structure meetings so that people can accept their differences and find common ground by harnessing their capabilities for the greater good.  Facilitation is a core organisational development skill.

OD Thought Leader: Wendell L. French (1923 – 2009)

We have focused on the practice of OD is this blog series, so let us not forget that OD is an academic discipline.  French, and co-author Cecil Bell, are two of the godfathers of the study of organisation development.

They define OD as the “applied behavioural science discipline that seeks to improve organisations through planned, systematic, long range efforts focused on the organisation’s culture and its human and social process.”

First published in 1972, their classic text is a superb, if a little dated, academic discourse on the history, founding principles and practice of OD.  You can trace many contemporary OD authors’ work back to what French & Bell outlined all those years ago, with a little twist here and there to suit niches or to apply in certain situations.

If you are serious about studying OD, this is a great place to start.  And it is not all impenetrable academia, for example they neatly reframe their definition of OD: “organisation development is really about people helping each other to unleash the human spirit and human capability in the workplace.”  Sounds like a good idea to me, and as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago.

Recommended reading: Wendell French and Cecil Bell (2000) Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement 6th Ed.  London, Pearson.

Next time: G is for Growth Mindset

[1] Follow the RACI principle and determine who: Is Responsible (or has the Resources needed under their control) for completing the task?  Is Accountable for completing the task? Can provide Consultative input (i.e. the specialist subject matter (content) experts)? Can provide the Information you will need and who needs to be Informed of the outcome?

The A to Z of OD: E is for Energy – Managing Energy

Suggested by Perry Timms, Simon Daisley and – notably – Dorothy Matthew, who suggested to me that time management is outdated, and the focus today needs to be on managing energy as opposed to time, and Russell Harvey, who reminded me leading change means checking in with others to see how they are managing their energy for change.

Managing time is out

I remember attending a training course on time management when I first started out in my career.  We were encouraged to schedule important tasks in our diaries and treat them as of similar importance to meetings, for example.  At the end of the course, the delegates paired up to check-in and support each other with our agreed actions.  I can’t remember the name of the chap I paired with.  Let’s call him Dave.  So, a couple of weeks later, I dutifully phoned Dave…

“Hi Dave, it’s Jez.  How are you getting on with managing your diary?” I asked, politely.

“I’m far too busy to start with any of that crap!” he retorted, paradoxically.

Perhaps even then, the concept of time management was outdated.  Dave was living on adrenaline, managing all the tasks he needed to, performing adequately, perhaps, surviving, just.  But for how long is such an approach sustainable?

Managing energy is in

Fast forward a couple of decades or so and I now work with groups of senior leaders who are coping with gnarly transformational changes in their organisations.  My work is concerned with how to lead change so that it sustains.  I’m struck that today’s rapidly changing world gives rise to rapidly changing pressures on leaders.

I’ve said before that leading change starts on the inside.  We all react to change when it happens to us from the outside-in.  Learning to recognise our own emotional response means we can make more active choices in how to respond, rather than react.  How we can maintain our own energy for change, so we can help others cope with it too?  How we can internalise the change, so we work with it from the inside-out?  This, I believe, makes us better change leaders.

The way we are working is not working

I am reminded of the words that describe working in different zones as articulated by Tony Schwartz in The Way We work Isn’t Working.  Schwartz suggests we tend to operate in one of four zones:

  • Performance Zone, when our energy and activity are high, and we feel optimistic
  • Survival Zone, when our energy and activity are high, but we are running around doing so much. In this Zone, our emotional state is negative, we become pessimistic about work, we retreat into silos, protecting ourselves from the outside world.  We are just about surviving
  • Burnout Zone, when our energy dips catastrophically and it all becomes too much
  • Renewal Zone, when we find time to recover from the pressures of work, energy remains low (we are recovering after all), however we regain our optimism and become ready to move back to the Performance Zone.

So, what?

When the pace of work and change becomes too much, our performance slips, we can find ourselves operating in the Survival Zone.  We might find ourselves feeling lonely or moody, we may become narcissistic and unpredictable.  We might also become apathetic, appearing to others as stubborn or intense.  These are the signs we are moving towards the Burnout Zone.

The trick is to find ways to move freely between the Performance Zone and the Renewal Zone, so that we remain optimistic and enthusiastic, while slowing our energy and activity to recover, and then using our renewed energy to keep our performance high.

And so, the question becomes: what can you do to maintain your energy for change?  To find time in your routine to recover from the pressures of work – where the pace of change is ever-increasing – and keep your performance high?

Three tips to maintain your energy for change

  1. Find your own words to describe the four Zones. Then, notice when you are feeling that way, it is probably an indication you are already in that Zone, or moving towards it
  2. Work out what renews your energy – this might be mindful meditation, sport or exercise, social activities, hobbies or clubs. At work, it might simply be finding time to leave your desk and go for a walk or have your lunch with others away from the office.  It might be finding time to #JustBe.  Outside of work it might be reading, listening to or playing music, painting or simply have a long soak in a hot bath.  This tip helps you discover your own Renewal Zone.
  3. Mindfully choose to spend time in your Renewal Zone. Schedule it in your diary if needs be.  Dave, are you listening?  I was listening, I have time blocked out in my diary entitled #JustBe.

You might find you start to spot the signs of the Survival Zone or Burnout Zone in others.  If so, you might want to encourage them to think about their own Renewal Zone.  You may also find you can spot the signs of the Performance Zone or the Renewal Zone in others and choose to appreciate them, to celebrate their achievement!

OD Thought Leader: Chester Elton, “The Apostle of Appreciation” (1958 – )

Chester Elton is one of the masters of employee engagement.

Elton and his co-author, Adrian Gostick, conducted research with 200,000 managers and literally millions of workers to evidence the thinking behind their ‘Carrot Principle’.  The research found that feeling appreciated is one of the highest ranked (top three, worldwide) workers’ motivations.

They propose, “a carrot is something used to inspire and motivate an employee. It’s something to be desired… Simply put, when employees know that their strengths and potential will be praised and recognised, they are significantly more likely to produce value.”

Their research has spawned an industry of formal employee recognition schemes. But it is the informal, cultural aspects that often have the most impact. A carrot does not need to be monetary. Simply being thanked or publicly recognised is enough for many.

If I may borrow from another great thought leader, Nancy Kline, “people do their best thinking in the presence of Appreciation.” I’d suggest ‘their best thinking’ translates readily into ‘their best work’. And so, managers showing their honest appreciation improves organisational performance.

Creating a climate of appreciation enables organisations to sustain what Elton calls a ‘Carrot Culture’.

And if, as I believe, Engagement is one of the engines of organisational effectiveness, this can only help to humanise the workplace in a systemic way. And that, dear readers, is what OD is all about.

Recommended reading: Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton (2009): The Carrot Principle, London, Simon and Schuster

Next time: F is for Facilitation