Tag: organisations (page 1 of 2)

On ‘unique’ organisational cultures

This article on Recode, which accompanies one of their podcast episodes, features some thoughts from Adam Grant, psychologist and management expert. A couple of things he says chime with my experience of going into a lot of organisations as a consultant, too:

“Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is, ‘Our culture is unique!’” Grant said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “And then I ask, ‘How is it unique?’ and the answers are all the same.”

Exactly. There’s only so many ways you can slice and dice hierarchy, so people do exercises around corporate values and mission statements.

“I hear, ‘People really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause, so we’re so passionate about the mission!’” he added. “Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, ‘We give employees unusual flexibility,’ ‘We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers,’ and ‘We live with integrity in ways that no other company does.’ It’s just the same platitudes over and over.”

If organisations really want to be innovative, they should empower their employees in ways beyond mere words. Perhaps by allowing them to be co-owners of the business, or by devolving power (and budget) to smaller, cross-functional teams?

Another thing that Grant complains about is the idea of ‘cultural fit’. I can see why organisations do this as, after all, you do have to get on and work with the people you’re hiring. However, as he explains, it’s a self-defeating approach:

Startups with a disruptive idea can use “culture fit” to hire a lot of people who all feel passionately about the mission of these potentially world-changing companies, Grant said. But then those people hire even more people who are like them.

“You end up attracting the same kinds of people because culture fit is a proxy for, ‘Are you similar to me? Do I want to hang out with you?’” he said. “So you end up with this nice, homogeneous group of people who fall into groupthink and then it’s easier for them to get disrupted from the outside, and they have trouble innovating and changing.”

I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but the short article is solid stuff.

Recode (via Stowe Boyd)

Rethinking hierarchy

This study featured on the blog of the Stanford Graduate School of Business talks about the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures. It cites work by Lisanne van Bunderen from University of Amsterdam, who found that egalitarianism seemed to lead to better performance:

“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate,’” says van Bunderen. “They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”

Context, of course, is vital. One place where hierarchy and a command-and-control approach seems impotant is in high stakes situations such as the battlefield or hospital operating theatres during delicate operations. Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, nevertheless believes that, even in these situations, the amount of hierarchy can be reduced:

In some cases, hierarchy is an unavoidable part of the work. Greer is currently studying the interaction between surgeons and nurses, and surgeons lead by necessity. “If you took the surgeon out of the operating room, you would have some issues,” she says. But surgeons’ dominance in the operating room can also be problematic, creating dysfunctional power dynamics. To help solve this problem, Greer believes that the expression of hierarchy can be moderated. That is, surgeons can learn to behave in a way that’s less hierarchical.

While hierarchy is necessary in some situations, what we need is a more fluid approach to organising, as I’ve written about recently. The article gives the very practical example of Navy SEALs:

Navy SEALS exemplify this idea. Strict hierarchy dominates out in the field: When a leader says go left, they go left. But when the team returns for debrief, “they literally leave their stripes at the door,” says Greer. The hierarchy disappears; nobody is a leader, nobody a follower. “They fluidly shift out of these hierarchical structures,” she says. “It would be great if business leaders could do this too: Shift from top-down command to a position in which everyone has a say.” Importantly, she reiterated, this kind of change is not only about keeping employees happy, but also about enhancing performance and benefiting the bottom line.

Like the article’s author, I’m still looking for something that’s going to gain more traction than Holacracy. Perhaps the sociocratic approach could work well, but does require people to be inducted into it. After all, hierarchy and capitalism is what we’re born into these days. It feels ‘natural’ to people.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Business (via Stowe Boyd)

Systems change

Over the last 15 years that I’ve been in the workplace, I’ve worked in a variety of organisations. One thing I’ve found is that those that are poor at change management are sub-standard in other ways. That makes sense, of course, because life = change.

There’s a whole host of ways to understand change within organisations. Some people seem to think that applying the same template everywhere leads to good outcomes. They’re often management consultants. Others think that every context is so different that you just have to go with your gut.

I’m of the opinion that there are heuristics we can use to make our lives easier. Yes, every situation and every organisation is different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply some rules of thumb. That’s why I like this ‘Managing Complex Change Model’ from Lippitt (1987), which I discovered by going down a rabbithole on a blog post from Tom Critchlow to a blog called ‘Intense Minimalism’.

The diagram, included above is commented upon by

  • Confusion → lack of Vision: note that this can be a proper lack of vision, or the lack of understanding of that vision, often due to poor communication and syncrhonization [sic] of the people involved.
  • Anxiety → lack of Skills: this means that the people involved need to have the ability to do the transformation itself and even more importantly to be skilled enough to thrive once the transformation is completed.
  • Resistance → lack of Incentives: incentives are important as people tend to have a big inertia to change, not just for fear generated by the unknown, but also because changing takes energy and as such there needs to be a way to offset that effort.
  • Frustration → lack of Resources: sometimes change requires very little in terms of practical resources, but a lot in terms of time of the individuals involved (i.e. to learn a new way to do things), lacking resources will make progress very slow and it’s very frustrating to see that everything is aligned and ready, but doesn’t progress.
  • False Starts → lack of Action Plan: action plans don’t have to be too complicated, as small transformative changes can be done with little structure, yet, structure has to be there. For example it’s very useful to have one person to lead the charge, and everyone else agreeing they are the right person to make things happen.

I’d perhaps use different words, as anxiety can be cause by a lot more than not having the skills within your team. But, otherwise, I think it’s a solid overview and good reminder of the fundamental building blocks to system change.

Source: Intense Minimalism (via Tom Critchlow)

Owners need to invest in employees to have them feel invested in their work

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes:

As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What’s clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.

I think it’s great that forward-thinking organisations are trying to find ways to make work more fulfilling, and be part of a more holistic approach to life.

Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.

Whitehurst suggests that there are three things organisations can do. I’d support all of these:

  1. Connect to a mission and purpose
  2. Reconsider your view of failure
  3. Cultivate a sense of ownership

However, what I think is startlingly missing from almost every vision from people 40+ is that they should be thinking about actual employee ownership — not just cultivating a ‘sense’ of it.

Don’t get me wrong, forming a co-op doesn’t automatically guarantee worker satisfaction, but it’s a whole lot more motivating when you know you’re not just working to make someone else rich.

Source: opensource.com

Anonymity vs accountability

As this article points out, organisational culture is a delicate balance between many things, including accountability and anonymity:

Though some assurance of anonymity is necessary in a few sensitive and exceptional scenarios, dependence on anonymous feedback channels within an organization may stunt the normalization of a culture that encourages diversity and community.

Anonymity can be helpful and positive:

For example, an anonymous suggestion program to garner ideas from members or employees in an organization may strengthen inclusivity and enhance the diversity of suggestions the organization receives. It would also make for a more meritocratic decision-making process, as anonymity would ensure that the quality of the articulated idea, rather than the rank and reputation of the articulator, is what’s under evaluation. Allowing members to anonymously vote for anonymously-submitted ideas would help curb the influence of office politics in decisions affecting the organization’s growth.

…but also problematic:

Reliance on anonymous speech for serious organizational decision-making may also contribute to complacency in an organizational culture that falls short of openness. Outlets for anonymous speech may be as similar to open as crowdsourcing is—or rather, is not. Like efforts to crowdsource creative ideas, anonymous suggestion programs may create an organizational environment in which diverse perspectives are only valued when an organization’s leaders find it convenient to take advantage of members’ ideas.

The author gives some advice to leaders under five sub-headings:

  1. Availability of additional communication mechanisms
  2. Failure of other communication avenues
  3. Consequences of anonymity
  4. Designing the anonymous communication channel
  5. Long-term considerations

There’s some great advice in here, and I’ll certainly be reflecting on it with the organisations of which I’m part.

Source: opensource.com

Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish

This is an interesting read on team and organisational culture in practice. Interesting choice of image, too (I’ve used a different one).

Compensation helps very little when it comes to aligning culture, because it’s private. Public rewards are much more influential. Who gets promoted, or hangs out socially with the founders? Who gets the plum project, or a shout-out at the company all-hands? Who gets marginalized on low-value projects, or worse, fired? What earns or derails the job offer when interview panels debrief? These are powerful signals to our teammates, and they’re imprinting on every bit of it.

In my mind, organisational culture is a lot like family dynamics, especially the parenting part. After all, kids follow what you do rather than what you say.

When role models are consistent, everyone gets the message, and they align towards that expectation even if it wasn’t a significant part of their values system before joining the company. That’s how culture gets reproduced, and how we assimilate new co-workers who don’t already possess our values.

People stop taking values seriously when the public rewards (and consequences) don’t match up. We can say that our culture requires treating each other with respect, but all too often, the openly rude high performer is privately disciplined, but keeps getting more and better projects. It doesn’t matter if you docked his bonus or yelled at him in private. When your team sees unkind people get ahead, they understand that the real culture is not one of kindness.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, yet most organisations I’ve worked with and for don’t spend nearly enough time on it.

Culture is powerful. It makes teams highly functional and gives meaning to our work. It’s essential for organizational scale because culture enables people to make good decisions without a lot of oversight. But ironically, culture is particularly vulnerable when you are growing quickly. If newcomers get guidance from teammates and leaders who aren’t assimilated themselves, your company norms don’t have a chance to reproduce. If rewards like stretch projects and promotions are handed out through battlefield triage, there’s no consistency to your value system.

When you strip away everything else, all you’ve got are your principles and values. I think most organisations (and people) would do well to remember that.

Source: Jocelyn Goldfein (via Offscreen Magazine)

Irony doesn’t scale

Paul Ford is venerated in Silicon Valley and, based on what I’ve read of his, for good reason. He describes himself as a ‘reluctant capitalist’.

In this post from last year, he discusses building a positive organisational culture:

A lot of businesses, especially agencies, are sick systems. They make a cult of their “visionary” founders. And they keep going but never seem to thrive — they always need just one more lucky break before things improve. Payments are late. Projects are late. The phone rings all weekend. That’s not what we wanted to build. We wanted to thrive.

He sets out characteristics of a ‘well system’:

  • Hire people who like to work hard and who have something to prove.
  • Encourage people to own and manage large blocks of their own time, and give people time to think and make thinking part of the job—not extra.
  • Let people rest. Encourage them to go home at sensible times. If they work late give them time off to make up for it.
  • Aim for consistency. Set emotional boundaries and expectations, be clear about rewards, and protect people where possible from crises so they can plan their time.
  • Make their success their own and credit them for it.
  • Don’t promise happiness. Promise fair pay and good work.

Ford makes the important point that leaders need to be seen to do and say the right things:

I’m not a robot by any means. But I’ve learned to watch what I say. If there’s one rule that applies everywhere, it’s that Irony Doesn’t Scale. Jokes and asides can be taken out of context; witty complaints can be read as lack of enthusiasm. People are watching closely for clues to their future. Your dry little bon mot can be read as “He’s joking but maybe we are doomed!” You are always just one hilarious joke away from a sick system.

It’s a useful post, particuarly for anyone in a leadership position.

Source: Track Changes (via Offscreen newsletter /48)

Product managers as knowledge centralisers

If you asked me what I do for a living, I’d probably respond that I work for Moodle, am co-founder of a co-op, and also do some consultancy. What I probably wouldn’t say, although it would be true, is that I’m a product manager.

I’m not particularly focused on ‘commercial success’ but the following section of this article certainly resonates:

When I think of what a great product manager’s qualities should be, I find myself considering where the presence of this role is felt the most. When successful, the outside world perceives commercial success but internally, over the course of building the product, a team would gain a sense of confidence, rooted in a better understanding of the problem being addressed, a higher level of focus and an overall higher level of aptitude. If I were to summarize what I feel a great product manager’s qualities are, it would be the constant dedication to centralizing knowledge for a team in all aspects of the role — the UX, the technology and the strategy.

We haven’t got all of the resourcing in place for Project MoodleNet yet, so I’m spending my time making sure the project is set up for success. Things like sorting out the process of how we communicate, signal that things are blocked/finished/need checking, that the project will be GDPR-compliant, that the risk register is complete, that we log decisions.

Product management has been popularized as a role that unified the business, technology and UX/Design demands of a software team. Many of the more established product managers have often noted that they “stumbled” into the role without knowing what their sandbox was and more often than not, they did not even hold the title itself.

Being a product manager is an interdisciplinary role, and I should imagine that most have had varied careers to date. I certainly have.

There is a lot of thinking done around what the ideal product manager should have the power to do and it often hinges around locking down a vision and seeing it through to it’s execution and data collection. However, this portrayal of a product manager as an island of synergy, knowledge and the perfect intersection of business, tech and design is not where the meaty value of the role lies.

[…]

A sense of discipline in the daily tasks such as sprint planning and retrospectives, collecting feedback from users, stand up meetings and such can be seen as something that is not just done for the purpose of order and structure, but as a way of reinforcing and democratizing the institutional knowledge between members of a team. The ability for a team to pivot, the ability to reach consensus, is a byproduct of common, centralized knowledge that is built up from daily actions and maintained and kept alive by the product manager. In the rush of a delivery and of creative chaos , this sense of structure and order has to be lovingly maintained by someone in order for a team to really internally benefit from the fruits of their labour over time.

It’s a great article, and well worth a read.

Source: We Seek

Charisma instead of hierarchy?

An interesting interview with Fred Turner, former journalist, Stanford professor, and someone who spends a lot of time studying the technology and culture of Silicon Valley.

Turner likens tech companies who try to do away with hierarchy to 1960s communes:

When you take away bureaucracy and hierarchy and politics, you take away the ability to negotiate the distribution of resources on explicit terms. And you replace it with charisma, with cool, with shared but unspoken perceptions of power. You replace it with the cultural forces that guide our behavior in the absence of rules.

It’s an interesting viewpoint, and one which chimes with works such as The Tyranny of Structurelessness. I still think less hierarchy is a good thing. But then I would say that, because I’m a white, privileged western man getting ever-closer to middle-age…

Source: Logic magazine

Succeeding with innovation projects

There’s some great advice in this article for those, like me, who are leading innovation projects in 2018:

Your role is to make noise around the idea so that potential stakeholders are excited to learn more about it. At this stage, it’s really important to reach out to key individuals within the company and ask for advice, so you can more easily establish an affiliation between them and the new activity, and cultivate a community of internal supporters.

Source: TNW