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: K is for Kindness

The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted. (Aesop)

The definition of organisational change can vary from ruthless mergers, downsizing and outsourcing that can and has adversely affected millions of workers’ lives, to fluffy learning conferences that amount to nothing more than getting your ticket punched on a jolly out of the office.

Do either of these extremes define or produce organisational success?  Well that depends on what you define as success – be it short-term profit focus or commissioning corporate entertainment to reward high-flyers.  Long-term organisational success?  I suspect not.

OD is neither of these extremes.  It is relentlessly focused on the change goal, considers the impact on the whole organisational system and is necessarily humanistic.  A colleague of mine often says you must be, “tough on the issues and gentle on the people.”  I think this defines what I mean by kindness in an OD context.

Believing in Kindness in OD (as I do), requires we pay deep attention to our clients’ wants and needs, enter equal partnerships with our clients, encourage them to go to the edge of their imagination, access their feelings, dig to uncover the information that will enable change and appreciate them when they make progress.  And that applies at the individual, team and organisational levels.  Attention, Equality, Encouragement, Feelings, Appreciation.  Curiously, these just happen to be five key components of another framework – a coaching framework based on Gestalt psychotherapy.  I wonder if there are things to be learned in our OD practice from that framework?  See OD Thought Leader: Nancy Kline.

OD Thought Leader: Nancy Kline

Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment is a Gestalt framework and method to help coaches act as their client’s thinking partner.  She outlines ten components that make for a good thinking environment.  I believe many of these are relevant to OD, so I shall introduce them here in that context.  What do you think?


Kline outlines that paying attention means listening without interruption, being interested in what your client says next in order to ignite their thinking.  As a thinking partner, “You understand that, as the catalyst for this fine thinking, you are both essential and irrelevant”.


The OD consultant simply must have an equal relationship with their client.  For external OD consultants, this is achieved by contracting well so that the boundaries of both the task and the relationship are well defined.  See OD Thought Leader: Peter Block, Flawless Consulting.  For internal OD practitioners, this can be harder to achieve, as it can be for any internal partnering relationship (e.g. Finance, HR).  The roles of servant and master are all too readily established.  Such relationships lead to a suboptimal delivery, a lack of fulfilment and often – in my experience – the closing down of internal change functions.


This is linked the paradoxical nature of change: if you try too hard to force it, it will not happen.  Our role as OD practitioners is to do less so that our clients do more.  To be the spark that ignites their thinking.  This can only happen if we are paying attention and in an equal partnering relationship. If not, then – for me at least – it’s not OD!


Kline asserts “people do their best thinking in the presence of Appreciation.  And they stop thinking in the presence of criticism”.  And I agree.  She also suggests Appreciation should be succinct, sincere and specific.  I do not believe in criticism.  I believe in appropriate challenge, which is done by discomforting the client’s worldview, checking for anxiety and offering psychological support (see The A to Z of OD: I is for Ice Cube Theory of Change).


There is Encouragement in the form of appreciating.  And then there is Encouragement in the form of emboldening, to spur others onto be more courageous.  Our role is to build courage to “go to the unexplored edge of ideas”.  “Courageous thinking needs freedom from pre-occupation with what others are thinking of our thinking.  It needs trust.  It needs Ease”.


Kline believes fear constricts thinking and allowing appropriate emotional release restores thinking.  This means change agents must tap into Feelings and I believe this is a core part of OD.  The act of making change work necessarily unlocks emotional, mental, physical and creative energy: the heart, mind, body and soul of our clients.


OD often surrounds generating a new understanding of our client’s situation.  The role of the helper is to balance challenge and support to jointly uncover this information, acting as a mirror to reflect information back to the client.

Kline suggests this information may include data such as facts and figures, but also includes the dismantling of denial, because “facing what you have been denying frees you to think clearly”.

I’m also reminded of Claes Janssen’s Four Rooms of Change (see OD Thought Leader Claes Janssen).  In the Denial room, the helper’s role is to give information and help the client into the Confusion Room.  Confusion is good because it generates choice, and choice liberates people.


Kline suggests the mind works best in the presence of reality and that reality is diverse.  She encourages thinking partners to encourage divergent thinking.  Important for successful OD.  People are diverse.  OD is humanistic.  if you believe in people, you’ll be just fine.

Incisive questions

Kline has a formulaic approach to constructing powerful questions to help people unlock their thinking.  Considered more generally, it is important for OD practitioners to consider the words they use carefully avoiding value-laden words and words that infer one has more (or indeed less) power then one’s client.  Remaining open and curious, assuming the ‘beginner’s mind’ and adopting the ’and’ stance (as in “and, what more is there to this?”) are good tips.


Kline recommends creating a physical environment that says to people, “You matter.”  When the physical environment affirms their importance, people think at their best.

Suggested reading: Nancy Kline (2015), More Time to Think, 2nd Ed., London, Octopus.


Next time: The A to Z of OD: L is for Leadership

The A to Z of OD: J is for Joint Diagnosis


I’d like to thank David D’Souza for suggesting Diagnosis, Perry Timms for suggesting Analysis, Russell Harvey for suggesting Collaboration (“You have to do OD with others”, he says.  “OD can’t be done alone!”), Inji Duducu and Francis Lake for suggesting Systems Thinking and Simon Daisley for suggesting Uniqueness as topics for the A to Z of OD.  I have attempted to draw these seemingly disparate topics together, along with my own musings on Consulting, Contracting and Whole-system events under the auspice of conducting robust diagnosis before enacting change.  J is for Joint diagnosis.

OD by another name

We have already seen that the terms OD, Change and Consulting are somewhat interchangeable.  I have at time acted as an OD consultant, change agent, change manager and OD manager.  Peter Block suggests consulting flawlessly requires the consultant complete the work of a five-stage consulting cycle.  These stages are: (1) Contracting; (2) Discovery and data collection; (3) Feedback and the decision to act; (4) Engagement and implementation and (5) Results.  At each stage, he recommends the work is done jointly between the consultant and client.

Joint diagnosis

Joint diagnosis is undertaken in stages 1-3.  Meeting a prospective client or internal change sponsor and contracting for what OD can achieve is an act of joint diagnosis and discovery.  It is also the moment the OD practitioner can acknowledge the uniqueness of the situation, whilst seeking commonalities with other systems and hence suggesting she is able to help.  Specifying and then collecting the data required is also a joint diagnosis exercise, which can be undertaken as a series of whole-system events.  Such events engage representatives from right across and up and down the organisation.

Feeding back the findings so client and consultant can both decide what to do is best undertaken as a joint decision.  In this way, the OD practitioner role models working in collaboration and establishes a ‘partnering of equals’ working relationship.  I go so far as to say, “If it ain’t collaborative, then it ain’t OD.”

Diagnose the whole system

Furthermore, I am firmly of the opinion that you are undertaking OD only if the scope of your diagnosis considers the whole client system.  And that means diagnosing the current system and likely impact of the change on the overall organisational system.  Anything else is just tinkering and is likely to have unforeseen impacts on other areas of the system.

There are many whole system thinking models out there.  Allow me to outline the thinking behind below my version – the Whole System Leadership Model – in the diagram below:

  • Firstly, there are three main levers leaders can pull to make change happen: Strategy; Business process and People
  • These are interconnected by three further systemic elements: (1) Organisation (things like structures, policies and planning and performance management routines) links your Business Processes to your Strategy; (2) Engagement links your People to your Strategy; and (3) Team culture links your People to your Business Processes
  • Leadership is right at the heart of the model. Leaders must hold all the other elements together in some sort of alignment.  They are the both glue and the lubrication that allow the whole system to function effectively.
Whole System Leadership

© CMdeltaConsulting 2018

You might also spot that the top half of the model is outward-facing (towards customers and other stakeholders) and the bottom half faces inwards (staff and internal workings), so the leaders must balance the tension between the two.  Equally, the left of the model represents rational, design-led thinking (the organisation led by the ‘Head’), whereas the right of the model represents the emotional connection to the organisation (the organisation led by the ‘Heart’).  For a system to be effective, leaders must find a way to balance the head and the heart.

Joint diagnosis at this depth of systemic understanding can yield insights into the mindset and emotional capability of the whole system, and the overall culture, and yields a joined-up OD plan. The plan is fed into the following phases: decision to act and implementation.  The results that follow positively impact the whole system and lead to the change sticking.

While we are here, it is worth mentioning the implementation phase can also be enacted as a series of whole-system events.

OD thought leader: Claes Janssen

I’d like to share a story.  Recently, I was driving home from Bristol after a long day delivering a facilitated learning session (incidentally, the topic was ‘leading change’).  This was some 225-mile trip.  I had just stopped about halfway home to get something to eat, fill up with fuel and grab a takeaway coffee to keep me going, after which I returned to the motorway, filled with a sense of Contentment.

A few miles up the road and unexpectedly, an amber warning light illuminated my dashboard against the rapidly-darkening evening sky.  This warning light was shaped like an engine!  “I wonder what that means?” I mused.  “Well, I’m not stopping again…I’m sure I’ll get home okay.”  And on I went, in Denial as to the possible ramificationsAs I drove on, uncertainty and Confusion entered my head.  “What if the engine suddenly packs in, or if I do more damage to it by driving on?”  I thought.  “Perhaps I should stop and look up in the manual what it means?”

And so I bargained with myself, oscillating from the childish denial of “it will be okay… press on… I wanna get home” to the more grown-up response of stopping and at least knowing what the problem might be and perhaps even following the manual’s recommended course of action.

I did not stop.

I drove home in this state of somewhere-in-between Denial and Confusion.

Thankfully, I made it home.

It was only the next morning, when I referred to the manual to seek guidance, “Stop immediately.  Seek diagnostics from your dealer.” it said. Or something like that.  “NOTE: you may experience significant loss of power if you continue to drive; your vehicle may enter ‘limp home’ mode.”  This made me chuckle as I imagined a cartoonish version of my car limping home like a scene from Roger Rabbit.  Anyway, I set myself on the path to Renewal by phoning the garage and booking the car in for diagnostics.  It was a fault on a sensor with the engine, by the way.  Nothing serious, but it did need fixing.

These are Swedish psychologist Claes Janseen’s Four Rooms of Change: Contentment, Denial, Confusion and Renewal.  He suggests we all live in one of these rooms at any one time, and there really is only one path from contentment (before change happens) to renewal (when we have found the way to internalise and survive/thrive following the change).  And that path goes through Denial and Confusion.  How long we spend in each room is about our energy for change, our resilience and our experience of coping with and leading change.  It is also worth noting there are many doors out of the Confusion room, and many of them lead back to denial.

It is a simple model – much simpler than a detailed change curve – and it is one that has many practical uses.  These include monitoring your own state and spotting the signs in others, so you can help them through change.  Curiously, I had referred to this model in the learning workshop in Bristol earlier that day.  Oh, sweet irony!

Recommended reading: Four Rooms is a copy of chapter 1 of his book The Four Rooms of Change, Förändringens fyra rum (Wahlström & Widstrand, 1996)

A to Z of OD: I is for the Ice Cube Theory of Change

The Ice Cube Theory of Change is a deceptively simple metaphor.  Some might say it is too simple and that change is more complex.  Perhaps it is, and yet there is deep learning to be gained from the practical application of this idea.  And as it’s creator, Kurt Lewin – the Godfather of Action Science – once said, “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.”

In Lewin’s metaphor, there are three stages to effecting change: Unfreezing, Movement, and Refreezing.  Think of an ice cube.  It can be unfrozen, moved into any other shape that its volume will allow (this is the limit of it capability) and refrozen in that new shape.  Lewin argued that before people can change, they must unfreeze.  By this he means unfreezing their ways of being and doing.  This starts with unfreezing their mindset.  The changes in the way they then do things are then locked in or ‘refrozen’ into new ways doing.  And so, we have new ways of being and doing.

But, are people like ice cubes?


Lewin suggest there are three things a change agent can do to check that somebody they are trying to help change is unfrozen:

  1. Disconfirm their world view – this is about providing hard evidence that they their mindset is not in the right place to take on the change, indeed that it is fixated in the wrong place
  2. Check for anxiety – here you are seeking to confirm they are feeling anxious about the facts you have just provided.  If there is no anxiety, then there is no discomfort.  If there is no discomfort, they are not unfrozen.  They are literally frozen within their comfort zone and hence have not yet acknowledged the need to change, i.e. they still hold their existing world view that things are okay as they are
  3. Provide a psychological safety net – this is where the change agent offers to help them through the change, so they do not feel alone.  Isolation is not the right environment for change.  So, you must provoke anxiety and then offer to provide support to soothe it.

This has profound practical implications for managing change.  Think, if you will, of a relatively commonplace change that people face in their working lives: a manager’s message to them that they must improve their performance.  Yes, it’s the dreaded difficult conversation during a performance appraisal.

If you follow the unfreezing process, you are far more likely to achieve a change in performance than following any other method of having such a conversation.  Re-read it carefully.  It is NOT the oft-mooted sh*t sandwich – whereby difficult feedback is sandwiched between two good bits of feedback.  This does not work.  Unfreezing does!

And the principle applies to more transformational change too.


I often say that leading change is about getting three things right – clarity, support and consequences.  Unfreezing is about clarity of expectations and agreeing the support required.  The change itself comes from the change targets (managers, teams, organisations, whatever), with the support as agreed from the change agent (leader).  Again, this is profound.  The change agent is not there to drive change, rather she is there to remove blockages so that the people who are going to live with the change find it for themselves.  The ice cube metaphor suggests that people can take on any change that is within their existing capability.  Perhaps this is where the theory falters as we know, people can learn new things too!  Or perhaps, we can extend the metaphor by pouring a little more water into the ice tray before we refreeze it?


Consequences must be put in place to freeze the changes in place.  These include making it harder for people to revert to old ways of working (policies, business processes, etc), positive reinforcement, and negative consequences for those choosing not to take on the changes.

You will find many richer models of change and thousands of more complex tips, tools and techniques for managing change.  Yet in most if not all of these, there is something simple at the core, and that is the ice cube metaphor.

OD Thought Leader: Ikujiro Nonaka (May 10, 1935 – )

Okay, I cheated a little.  Ikujiro is his first name.  Nonaka is a Japanese organisational theorist, who, along with Hirotaka Tekeuchi, proposed speedier and more flexible product development processes.  These led to Japan’s rapid rise to technological product supremacy following the Second Word War and are the foundations of Agile and Scrum methods widely used in IT development (and beyond) today.

He also proposed a model of spiralling organisational knowledge accumulation that demonstrates the movement from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge.  This proceeds as knowledge accumulation through socialisation (e.g. apprenticeships), that is then formalised and externalised through explicit process design, embedded as organisational routines and learnt individually to become deeper tacit knowledge.  And so the spiral deepens trough individual and organisational learning.

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good men, are going to have ideas of their own, and are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.“

Recommended reading: Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi (1995) The Knowledge-creating Company (1995), Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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

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.


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


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?


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