An organization: a place where we progressively learn to take responsibility for the whole

Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.

Chinese Proverb

I don’t know the provenance of this quote. I got it from @mr_gadget on Twitter. But I like it.

We follow when

  • We see someone move in a way that is not easily reversed.
  • When others copy.

Our reasoning, if we could call it that, goes something like this.

  • Whatever they have noticed must be really important – well really dangerous.
  • So I had better run too.

The ‘reasoning’ sucks. This is what is happening.

  • We are startled and our startle response unleashes a wave of adrenalin or noradrenalin and we have an overwhelming impulse to run.
  • And so we run.

When we think about what we have just done, we justify our actions by saying that there might have been danger. Well, we justify our actions by what Daniel Kahneman calls anticipating our future remembering selves. We don’t want to look back and say we didn’t move when we should have done. And of we are wrong, we can easily justify ourselves to ourselves because other people were alarmed too.  So running when other people run checks the boxes for the future remembering self.

Reacting in panic is a bad idea; keeping cover is a good idea

But really, some people are volatile rather than observant. They might react in alarm to just about anything and run straight into the jaws of a lion.

Basic military training is geared-up to teaching us not to start running every time we get a fright. We can learn something from the foot soldier. Our job is not to scamper about wildly in all directions but to remain under cover where we won’t get shot at.

My more exuberant character chaffes as the idea of taking cover. It smacks of fear and deprives me of what I like – wide open spaces with distant horizons. So let me develop that idea.

I am able to walk freely and joyfully in my wide open spaces, not because they are there – though that certainly helps.

I can walk in my fields because at a collective level we have institutions that keep us ‘under cover’. We have gun control (this is the UK not the US). We are relatively prosperous and you don’t get mugged (much) in the countryside. We have time (contrary to all the grumbling).

We have safe spaces and though we take them for granted, we keep them safe through collective action.

But can we be too safe?

Of course, people who have never lived in unsafe conditions might never develop any awareness of danger. They might even become rather silly and use their biological flight response for entertainment.  How can we design spaces so that we each have to do our fair share of being the proverbial sentry?  Can each of us ask “What lions and marauders do we look out for on behalf of the greater community?”

I think that is why children are given responsibilities early, in like: to take out the trash, to feed the dog. Thinking ahead and thinking broadly – well thinking – is what they are practising. When they have to take out the trash because we are too lazy to do it – that is different – we are using them as servants and not developing them at all.

Create environments where people increasingly take responsibility for the group

Yup, I think I got it. We will react like birds given half a chance. Many of us are bored so we are fascinated by the idea of mobilizing people with as little effort as a cry or an irreversible action. This cannot be our goal. This is what relatively mindless birds do.

Our goal, or at least my goal, is to create environments where people share the responsibility for creating a safe space and we start taking on responsibility in an age-related way – taking full responsibility for an important task to that we learn to think and not simply react like an impulsive creature.  So we start to take out the trash and start to think about the business of keep a place hygienic. And we move on and up, learning to weave many responsibilities together.

Good quote but a different conclusion! When the birds take off, I’ll sit tight. Rapid, panicky reactions are not what it is all about.

Universities: parties and yawns or surprisingly vigorous enterprisess

What was your uni like?

Parties with casual yet dictatorial professors?

Most of us go to university and college and find something that looks like a lawless, unruly form of school where the lecturers and professors are the biggest outlaws.  And so we go out into the world thinking of universities as schools with no business-imperative and no business-sense.

The business of universities

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Universities are businesses, or enterprises; but with a business model  that is so opaque, few people understand it, unless they have worked in one for quite a while.   If you do business with universities, if you are in a knowledge business, if you have to hire graduates to get work done, you might like to read this brilliant description of university business models.

As greedy as bacteria

“As organisms in a system, universities evolve. They eat up smaller institutions to dominate a niche, or split of side campuses to enter new spaces. They relentlessly share their DNA, as Universities heads look over their shoulders and shamelessly copy the innovations of others. Universities fight for resources, funding, students among themselves, where a Society usually co-opts all of the resources in it’s zone of control and operates without competitive challenge.”

As disregarding as dinosaurs

“Make no mistake, Universities are dinosaurs. They can crush you, outrun you and outbreed you. They dominate their ecosystem to the exclusions of all others, existing in astonishing diversity, and repeatedly adapting to environmental change. What it took to get rid of the dinosaurs wiped out almost everything else as well. The same is true here. If Universities become non viable institutions, then their collapse will be the least of our worries.”

As mutative as viruses

“Universities are not going to go gently into the night. They won’t wave their hands in the air, cry that it’s all to complicated (or was it complex?) and shut their doors. Some will no doubt go under, but most will adapt and survive, ruthlessly ripping out the DNA from models that work and re-engineering themselves for Internet Age. They will do it in University Time, not Internet time, but they have enough inertia for that not to matter. In fact, a slower response to change will insulate them from short timescale fads (Would you wish you had bet the farm on CD-ROMS? WAP?).”
Brilliant description of the strategic model of universities.  But who would know when you are yawning your way through another lecture?
FOR THE FULL POST:  Tertiary21

Shh! We are talking about status and pecking order and noone must hear!

I spent 6 years’ training as a psychologist and status and pecking order were rarely mentioned. Yet, both status and pecking order are central to much of what we do, and at the heart of how we feel about the way others treat us.

I think we should discuss status & pecking order more – at least in the circles of organizational designers and developers.

All important topics are subject to taboos, and status & pecking order is not exception. But it is the job of social scientists to break taboos. If a subject is too important to be discussed openly, then it is also too important to be ignored!

Status explains anger

Take this explanation for anger, for example.  We are angry when we feel we have been demoted.  Just writing the explanation creates a frisson of annoyance.

Resolving anger requires restoring status

Because demotion is often the cause of anger, the quickest way to restore someone’s good temper is to resolve the status issue. Apologize. Help them take their rightful place in the pecking order.

Anger often signals unnoticed shifts in status

Sometimes, someone’s anger takes us by surprise.  Children, for example, sometimes assert themselves rather unexpectedly.  Suddenly, they feel they should be consulted about something, and startle us with their asssertion.

We have to mark shifts in status of our professional colleagues

In professional groups, shifts in status happen too.  Sometimes status changes are marked by rites-of-passage, like graduation day.  We are reminded to start involving people much more deeply in decisions that affect them. But there are also moments where there are no rites-of-passage.

I not only studied psychology. I taught it too – in the last 3 years of the 6 year training period. My students were going from students to legally-qualified-and-registered-psychologists. Graduation was not enough for them. They needed to do something which marked the change. Sometimes they hired me as a consultant (they were the boss now), or they took me out to lunch (and paid)!

It took me one or two batches of students to pick up the trend, and then I began to enjoy the transition.

I also started to build ‘rites of passage’ into our professional internship system.  Students could request a slot at ‘conferences’ to show off a project that (in their minds) showed them using our professional skills at a professional level.  They volunteered, and no one ever missed these sessions because they were very good!

Slides down the status ladder are equally interesting.   In the world of management, which pivots around power, slides-down can be quite entertaining.  I’d be amazed at how quickly people noticed poor contributors, and the way non-performers began to fall off email lists and not be consulted when important decisions were being made.

How much of strife at work is due to mismanaged status?

It strikes me that many issues in the workplace come about because we haven’t considered status issues.

Active listening

Restoring a person’s status, when it has been lowered accidently and even innocently, is sometimes seen as an insult to the next person. Yet anger from accidental reductions in status is easy to resolve. Dealing with anger is one of the 3 scenarios in active listening. No one should be in management position or in a customer service role without understanding and applying these scenarios.

Loyalty to our colleagues

We are also only pleased by an increase in someone else’s status when our own status is fairly secure. Those of us who are organizational designers and developers can’t expect people to manage or deal with customers when they are uncertain about their own status. Where management have reached the LCD of asserting will, rather than talking about joint goals, we can expect status wars to erupt spontaneously.

Rituals for status shifts

We need rituals for younger people to show off their new skills and be accorded the status they deserve. Without these rituals, only a few will discover for themselves appropriate ways to claim the status that is their due. Others will be angered by the lack of recognition. And when we miss that signal too, we hurt ourselves. We should expect passive aggression or outright hissy fits.

Do you think we should talk about status and pecking order more forthrightly?

I’ve noticed that not even the new ‘service designers‘ talk about status and pecking order. Funny that. Must ask them.  Why do we ignore status & pecking order?

How many problems at work do you think we could resolve if we were more thoughtful about status and pecking order?

And could we be more thoughtful about how we adjust our status rankings ‘as play unfolds’?

Social media has raised the ante in events & conference management

I am not an events manager.  If you want information on events management, follow @tojulius and @carmenhere.

I am writing this because someone asked me how an event could be better.  Events are a highly specialized and skilled form of organizational management, but as a sub-class of organizational management, some general rules apply.

My question is this:  if apply the four basic rules, do I arrive at any insights of value?

1. Make it easy to join in

If we stumble on the sign up, or forget our passwords, nothing more will happen.

The basics are having the event at a place we can reach with public transport, on a day that isn’t filled with competing events, etc.  You get the point?  I can move on?

2.  Make it easy for people to connect

I still go to conferences where I cannot see in advance who is attending, let alone connect with them.  And the attendance list does not include email addresses or twitter handles.  There is no way to find anyone at the conference once we get there.  We are under-utilizing the social, or connect-potential, of the meeting.  Grossly.

I know why we continue to organize like this.  It is not technology. Amiando and Meetup have full social capacity.  It is the ‘control-freak’ nature of British-society.  We like to dis the government for being control-freaks, but it start with us.

Maybe we should give every meetup a control-freak rating?  Anyway, it is time to stop.  I don’t come to your meetup just to meet you!  I want to meet other people too.  I don’t want to meet up with 1% of people I could meet.  I want the full potential!

3.  Find a way for people to learn

We learn whenever we ‘do’.  We are learning animals.

But just as there are levels of convenience in #1 and levels of sociability in #2, there are levels of learning.

When I introduce myself and the other person struggles to understand what I am on about, I learn.

I also learn when Twitter feeds go up on a big screen. Those big screens can be distracting though.  Sometimes they are just a techie gimmick.

Whether they add value or not seems to revolve around ‘feedback loops’. Which feedback loops can we add to highlight great examples of what we do?  And is there a way of making data available so people with the skills and inclination can mash it up, dress it up, and present it back to us?

A raffle in which we put our business cards in a bowl for a prize is an example of this principle.  The pile of cards grows and we feel good to be at a popular event.  The lucky winner is highlighted for being present (and being lucky).   I am sure the organizers are looking through the cards too, to see who came (with cards and who will have a gamble)?

What else can we amplify in this way?  How can we help people learn?

4.  Find a way for the event to add meaning

We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  I don’t mean belong to a group bigger than ourselves.  We want our group to fit into a wider landscape in a meaningful way.  The existential purpose of the group must be clear.  Not just the instrumental purpose or the social purpose.

How does this group fit into the wider community?  Why would the wider community be happy that we are there?  Why would they mourn if we were not there?  How does our meaning change with our activity?  How does the wider community thrive and flourish because we thrive and flourish?

This is the big ask.  So many old organizations feel rotten because they are no longer connected with the wider well-being of the community – in the community’s eyes, that is, not their own.  Does the community see them?  How does the community see them?  What is the symbiosis?

What is the symbiosis between our event or startup and the wider community?  How do they see us? When they talk about us, or our activities?  Which parts of our work bring a light to their eyes?

Social media has raised the ante in events management

Tough.  In the olden-days we were a star to get #1 right.  It is not enough any more.  We have to step up through the levels. So point me to good examples, please, because I am still learning too.

Ask your Chief Social Officer 5 questions

I love a good protocol.  Today (Saturday),  Harvard Blog published 5 ways social media will challenge your business.  I’ve rewritten the list as the opportunities we should be look out for.

The list will work as a job description for your Chief Social Officer. Or, a  checklist for your Social Media Consultant.  Or, to focus the minds of employees who are dead keen to use Social Media in your business.

And if you cannot answer these questions, pick out a clutch of bright Gen Y in your company and ask them to answer them for you.

1  Where and how can we use social media tools, and where and how can we run our business much more easily (and lucratively)?

<        Tool                             Example                                                    >

<         Socially mediated linkages affecting our industry       Tools>

2  What issues might arise from social media (whether we use it deliberately or not) and how can we respond?

<          Situation                         Protocol, people & tools to respond >

3  How do our customers enjoy helping us and helping each other?

<          Example                                 Tools & resources to help them >

4  How do our employees enjoy helping us and who do we talk to away from work?

<          People we talk to                                        Resources we need >

5. When and where do we discuss the usefulness of our procedures for our business?

<          Discussions we have                     Key factors of our business >

5 pretty petals of future work

I can see clearly now

Today, I visited Wirerarchy, Jon Husband’s blog. I was delighted to find the 5 principles of future work in plain language.

I do encourage you to go over and read his version.

To make sure I fully understood what Jon was saying, I rewrote his five points in my own words and compared them to other writings on the future of work.

Yes, Jon’s principles almost perfectly match the work on positive organizational scholarship, poetry and work, Hero’s Journey and positive organizational design.   Jon uses much more accessible language though.

Here is my version. I’ll add links to other versions below. And then I’ll walk the talk and tell you how I used the principles in the most unlikeliest of circumstances!

1 Changing focus

The future of work is not about institutions and organizations.

The future of work is about you and me.

2 Listening to the people who do the work

We don’t want to talk about abstract theories any more.

We want to hear the stories of people. Directly. With no translation.

3 Valuing what we can do for ourselves

We don’t want organizations and institutions to decide things for us.

We ‘ll support changes that allow us to do things for ourselves.

4 Representing ourselves

We won’t listen to so-called experts who secretly represent other people.

We’ll listen to people we know or who our friends recommend.

5 Being active and positive

We aren’t interested in being told to wait.

We will begin with what we do well. Right here. Right now.


How would you phrase these rules-of-thumb?

I would love to hear what you think of these rules-of-thumb and the way I have phrased them.

Links to my previous posts and slideshare

All phrased a lot more esoterically –

Previous posts on future work

The essence of a happy life is a point of view

5 point comparison of the Hero’s Journey, Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology

5 poetic steps for exiting a Catch 22

Lighten your personal burden for navigating 2009

Be still: Kafka and Joseph Campbell

Slideshare on future work

Positive organizational design

Positive organizational scholarship

So how will we get things done in this enchanting, new world?

For three years, I taught Management to a very large class of 800 to 900 students in a lecture theatre with 400 seats. You may remember attending lectures in one of these oversized rooms yourself. Hordes of students come in and sit in rows and struggle to stay awake as the lecturer drones on.

Of course, no lecturer wakes up in the morning intent on being deadly dull. But they do feel constrained. After all, how much can you do with this format and the size of the class?

Well, a surprising amount – if you follow the principles above.

The world through the eyes of the individual

I was teaching Management and Organizations. Students simply aren’t interested in perspective of the organization. But if you can think of how they view the organization from the vantage point of their part-time jobs and where their careers are going, then you have their attention.

Give me the whole story at once – circumstances, goal, steps, feedback loops, quirks and fancies

Students aren’t interested in the rules of organizing. No matter how elegant these rules are or how much work we put into thinking them up and trying them out!. They do like case studies, though, where they could follow a story. Then their active intellects take over. They imagine themselves playing a similar role in similar circumstances and start asking probing questions.

Don’t leave me out of the story – let me try out parts of it

Students don’t like being passive. Taking notes is better than sitting still. Solving puzzles is even better. I used questionnaires a lot in which they could see illustrations of concepts and relate them to themselves. Or I used two sets of power point slides – theirs had blank spaces and mine had the answers. In this way, they could anticipate (not just fill in) what I was going to say.

The way I relate to other people is part of the story – I’ll do this with others

Learning is social and students are influenced more by their peers than by us. They like to see and hear what other students think. There is a surprising amount of feedback from the noise and murmuring in a lecture room which is why so many students come to class in the first place! We also took polls often with a show of hands. It is active in an minor way. More importantly, students could see how much opinions varied. Developing a keen acumen of how much we vary in our preferences will be important to them as organizational leaders and influential citizens.

Harvard has a video of 2009 Reith lecturer, Michael Sandel, using the Socratic method with 800 students in one lecture theatre. Our students would have liked that – as long as we were able to be as courteous as Professor Sandel. Students really don’t like being put in the wrong in front of their friends, particularly in such a large room. (Who does?)

There is no journey unless I can take the first step

The jobs my students imagined after graduation were, to my surprise, not particularly ambitious. Though I didn’t fully approve at the time, now I think they had a well developed sense of starting with the ‘ground beneath their feet’ and growing from there.

These students particularly liked techniques that helped them do their jobs better, right now, or helped them put in words something that had puzzled them for some time.

Am I exaggerating the good points and dismissing the weak points?

You might be thinking that this was a University – we set the curriculum and the exams and the students did not have much control.

It is true that we began each year with a ‘classical’ textbook. But we would take topics that students had responded to well and use those as cornerstones to introduce new topics -or extend the conversation, so to speak. Thus as the year proceeded, a theme would emerge that was distinctive for that class.

One year, for example, the refrain became: “I will be me as I am. Not who you want me to be”.

You might recognize this line as coming from the film about Steve Biko, Cry Freedom.

Organizing for  “Me as I am.  Not who you want me to be.”

The challenge of management, as we put it to that class, is to design organizations where each of us can be “Me as I am. Not who you want me to be.”

What do you think?

Can you imagine organizing along these lines? Would you like to give me a case and see if I can rephrase it using Jon’s five principles?

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Which skills will be valuable in 5 years time?

Day One at Xoozya (cont’d)

Mary, the HR Body put her cheerful face around the door and said “Lunch”.  Yep, I was keen.  There is just so much that I can take in at one time and the Dashboard at Xoozya is pretty comprehensive.

She dangled a key.  “Bring valuables,” she said, “but leave everything else as it is.  We’ll lock the door”.

The canteen wasn’t far and I could hear the buzz as we approached.  It was just as hyped.   Salads, fruit and hot food and the refreshing absence of the cloying smell of old fat and overcooked vegetables.  Sweet.

Mary, ever the professional, asked nimbly whether I ate fish.  I do, and she said, “I’ll get two fish pies – they’re good.  You grab some salads.  I’d like plain lettuce and tomato and pear or some fruit.  Water OK to drink?”  I caught up with her at the cashier where she introduced me as noobe and I put my food on my tab.  We grabbed napkins and cutlery and she led the way to a corner table.  “We’ll join Peter Wainwright, the HR Director.  You remember him, of course?”

As we approached, Peter rose, smiled warmly, and said “Hello, Jo.  Welcome to Xoozya!  Here’s to a prosperous and happy alliance.”

We fumbled around, as one does, arranging trays and getting comfortable and he asked about my morning.  I told him it was clear I have some thinking to do to set up a communication system that leaves me informed but not overwhelmed with information.

He nodded and added: “Well, take your time.  Every minute that you spend in exploration now pays off handsomely in comfort and organization later.  We also want you to base your judgments on what matters. You’ve joined us with your skills, as has everyone else here,” he said, waiving his hand at the crowded canteen.

Future capability and value

“There are skills that are essential to what you do and there are skills that will change with technological change.”

  • “We want you to jot down the skills that are absolutely essential to what you do.  These we will nurture and respect.”
  • “Then there are skills that are going to change significantly over the next five to ten years.  We want those on a separate list because those require significant investment in time and energy”.
  • “And there are skills that we don’t use anymore.  Those we give a respectful burial.” He smiled.  “When we have identified a skill or process that we no longer use, we get an occupational psychologist to document it and we make a display for our skills museum.  Then we have a little wake,” he chuckled, “to see it off.  It’s quite cathartic.”

Nostalgia for skills & practices of the past

“So which skill in the museum is best-loved?” I asked.  “Which grave attracts the most flowers?”

“Ah, we hadn’t thought of doing that.  Good idea.  We should put the skills up on the intranet with the choice of . . . flowers or . . . a good kick . . . or a big ? mark for ‘who was this!’.  And see what we get back!”

My induction so far

Well, I obviously have some thinking to do.  It is only lunchtime and I have to think about

BTW

Which skills are utterly essential to your work?

And which will change so fundamentally in the next five years that you will need to retrain?

And which skills deserve a respectful burial?

Which are you happy to see go and which will you miss?

And if you are enjoying this series, please do feel free to join in!

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And PS, if you are new to this blog, Xoozya is an utterly fictitious organization.  This series began on the spur of the moment as I started to explored the principles of games design and Ned Lawrence of Church of Ned mentioned how much time people put into designing their avatars, or online identities.  Xoozya is an attempt to imagine what an organization would look, sound and feel like if it were run along lines recommended by contemporary management theorists.

And PPS Ned is an online writing coach and is available for hire.

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I don’t need to see my boss to communicate

Day One at Xoozya (cont’d)

While I waited for the kind HR body to take me off to lunch, I doodled away on my nice clean notepad thinking how much organizations have changed since I first studied management.

Classical organizational structure

Eight soldiers march across the country side careful to walk in a straight line so they don’t shoot each other.  They are also spread out so that no more than one soldier is hit in a burst of machine gun fire from the opposition.

And they are limited to 8, because only four either side of their leader can hear his voice and see his hand commands.

The army makes a choice to use ‘voice and hand’ to communicate and that, amongst other factors, constrains their organizational structure.

Social media is a choice and available now

Now we have social media tools available to us to communicate, our choices have broadened.  We can communicate with people out of sight and sound.  We can communicate with more people too.

If I knew more military history, I would know more about how communication has changed warfare through the ages.  I am sure the changes were huge.  And they will be huge in business with the arrival of social media.

Well lunch calls so I will think about this more later.  I wonder what face-to-face communication is like in Xoozya.

Communication channels constrain structure

How does you organization communicate and coordinate?

Have you adopted social media?

How do the physical choices you’ve made determine your structure?

Does your structure allow you to move faster than your opposition?  What structures do they use?

Do join in

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Thank you for reading and do come back to here what happened at lunch.

Simple rules of communication in organizations

Simplicity is a world-beater

There is a wonderful cartoon about computer interfaces doing the rounds contrasting the simplicity of Apple and Google with the interfaces most of us construct.

Simple rules of communication

That reminded me of a place I worked at for many years, which had inherited three simple rules of communication.

FIRST. Write down what you want on ONE side of a piece of paper – no more. And the top third of the side will be used for routing instructions – you don’t get more paper for that.

SECOND. Send it to me in time for me to read it before we meet.

THIRD. When we meet, explain what you want fom me verbally or through your emissary.

What I will do

If I cannot understand what you want in one minute, with a further one minute for questions, I ask you very courteously whether “you would like to withdraw your paper”.

It is possible to keep things simple!

PS The accountants had another simple rule. On no account, ever, will we approve expenditure retrospectively. Decisions occur before actions.