Archive | July 2011

Change: When is it metamorphic? And when is it an inevitable evolutionary step?

Whenever a new manager comes on board, she wants to make some “changes” to demonstrate that she is in charge and her ideas will bring something new and energize people under her changed structure.  Many managers want to do this regardless of whether changes are necessary.  Yet, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  The joke about the incoming manager/CEO is, “same tree, different monkey.”  Real, transformative change in the core of being, be that an organization, a group, or a person, is fundamentally different.  How to assess changes, and/or, how to engineer changes is a deeply complicated enterprise, at least if we want to be serious and genuine about it.

Most articles and books on organizational changes used to make me want to search for something more; they seemed to leave much unsaid and unanswered.  Then, when I was in graduate school, I came across Kenwyn Smith’s article, “Philosophical Problems in Thinking About Changes,” in “Change In Organizations,” edited by Paul S. Goodman & Associates.  Kenwyn was my professor, and later became a member of my dissertation committee.  His work is incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking.  This particular article helped me understand some of the disquiet in my feelings, but oh my, the content is ever so dense.  I loved it, and have worked hard at it.  Till this day, I am still not sure if I totally get it, but I am pretty sure I get the tenor and the basic meaning.  What follows is my attempt to introduce to you some of the key concepts for thinking about changes, and apply them to some specific examples in the next entry.  While I may be fuzzy, I will be honest, and perhaps you can help me out.

I think most of us have witnessed and experienced some organizational changes that seem to make organizations look or operate differently but remain essentially the same.  The prime example is the US government; every few years we have a new president, new Congress, etc. but the essence of the government is independent judicial, executive, and bicameral legislative branches and remains the same.  (If we experience the feeling that the government has been getting worse, I would contend it’s because the comprising individuals become out-of-synch with their environment, i.e. societal development.)  Hence the saying in the opening paragraph!  And then, there is the kind of change that is the inevitable evolution each creature experiences.  A duckling changes into a duck, a lamb grows up to be a sheep, and no amount of hard work would make that lamb into a duck excluding somebody fooling around with genetic engineering.  Even the metamorphic transformation of caterpillar to butterfly has destiny (of being a butterfly) built in, and so the metaphoric usage in my tagline is disputable.  I’ll come back to the usage of metaphor later.  These types of changes are termed “morphostasis,” in Smith’s article.  The more radical kind of change that would requires or results from altering the genetic codes is termed “morphogenesis,” in which the changes will be reflected in all future generations.

Needless to say, most organizations do not engage in morphogenetic changes (except perhaps for the period of time in which the organization comes into being), and the reasons are incredibly complicated.  I am reminded of what Einstein said, one of several versions being “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Before we even try to grasp how an organization is changing, or how to change an organization, we need to understand what an organization is.  In general, we get the sense of what GM is, what the US government is, or what a hospital or a school is, as an organization.  But how do we configure it?  We can’t see it; we can’t touch it.  There are several definitions of organizations, ranging from a linearly delineated frame of functions and goals to loosely constructed sets of behaviors with shared meanings.  Whether we see the organization as a collective of people, buildings, machines, and assets, the naming of these elements does not lead to any specific organization. They all have these parts in common, but what separates GM from Ford?  Or, how do we tell Whole Foods from Walmart?  Products are the outcomes of organizing efforts, not the definition.  Smith offers this perspective:  Organization is the collective entity based on the relations among parts, AND, relations among relations.

So, as we cannot see or touch an organization, neither can we do so with relations.  We can only infer, such as, we can “see” the wind through the movement, like the fluttering of leaves.  How we talk about an organization is all about how we use language, and metaphor occupies a big role.  But you can probably already infer further that there are limitations here too, because the mind that gives rise to the notice of certain organization is the same source from which the choice of metaphor comes.  How we experience relationships then influences what metaphors we choose, and vice versa.  This begins to feel like a Möbius strip.

The examples Smith gives illustrate a further consideration.  “Snow blanketing the ground” borrows the image and various associations of the “blanket,” such as, security, snuggle, slumber, etc.  If instead of “blanketing,” it’s “sitting,” the sense immediately changes to a suffocating feeling, with all that corresponding weight pressing down us.  Using the same word, “blanket” in “the thick fog blanketed the city,” definitely does not suggest security or warmth.  What’s at play here is context, the context of the relationship, between snow and earth, between fog and city, between what we experience and what we then infer.  It’s based on system; it’s about relationship.

Fundamental to making changes is the need to either change the metaphor or the context in which the metaphor is embedded.  To change metaphor is about changing the descriptor; to change context, we totally alter the meanings attached to the descriptor.

We often use metaphors borrowed from military or mechanical contexts to describe organizations, such as “authority,” “subordinate-superior,” “hierarchy,” etc.  (Perhaps this results from ancestral memories where military considerations dominated our existence even before the dawn of civilization.)  Let’s for the moment focus on “superior-subordinate” categories.  They can get us into a muddle since most people at work can be both superior and subordinate at the same time:  The feelings attached to these labels concern taking orders, ignoring or subverting orders, and may reside in us simultaneously and cause tension.  If we choose not to “follow the order,” we risk being labeled “insubordinate,” which may be followed by reprimand or punishment.

Furthermore, when we are attached to certain metaphors, such as the above, it is difficult to surrender them to other choices that maybe more appropriate.  So, often instead of changing metaphors, we want to change the organization or the relationships to fit the metaphors.  Crazy?  If we adhere to the usage of military-like or mechanical metaphors, when a system shows wear or breaks down, we want to improve by better “mechanization” or “control” (such as with more rules and regulations), instead of coming up with more modern metaphorical terms to describe a set of relationships.  Should hospitals and schools run like a military regiment with efficiency as the focus?  Or, have we acknowledged these organizations as having responsibility for the (militarily antithetical) caring, nurturing, healing of bodies and souls?  It’s kind of like mapping (yes, evoking metaphor):  When valleys and rivers have changed, do you not redraw the map?  But in human organizations, we seem to want to change the rivers and valleys to fit the old map/metaphors.  Crazy!

Adding to this complexity is the layer of where we focus the change (the jargon is “level of analysis”), at the personal level, at the group level, further up all the way to the industry-wide level, level above the industry, etc.  Smith provides an example of the balance in the nature between rabbit population and lynx population, akin to two separate organizations.  When rabbits thrive, so do lynxes, but when lynxes start decimating the rabbit population, they suffer too.  If the rabbits start acquiring some new skills to avoid the lynx and pass down those skills to the following generations, then, lynx will suffer, but the explosion in rabbit population will hurt the rabbits.  If the lynx gets a few more IQ points and puts rabbits into extinction, it too will suffer.  There is a natural equilibrium (and oscillation) working in the nature.  We humans tend to mess with nature.  I’d conjecture that to some extent, the Rupert Murdoch enterprise presently in the limelight has gotten too big for its own good.  Something bad is likely to happen to it.  We shall see.

Of course, it is not often wise to advocate letting an organization perish; people’s lives and assets are at stake, to say the least.  This is where clinical analysis and reality clash.  However, I could argue that if managers work really caringly and logically (these aspects don’t always have to be incompatible), organizations may evolve and grow just fine.  And pigs will fly!

I am saving my favorite concept to the last:  NOT.  “Not” is the boundary between what it is and what it is not; again, notice it’s about the relationship.  As Smith states, “…for ‘not’ is at the center of all change.  Anything that is changing is in the process of becoming something it previously was not.  As it matures, it is no longer as it was.  …’Not,” however, is not a thing; it is a boundary that summarizes a relationship.  It ‘belongs’ neither to the entity (such as organization, my explanation) nor to what it is not.”  For example, GM and auto industry are not the same; GM is part of it, and its relationship with that environment is in essence in the “not” zone.  While GM possesses many characteristics that the auto industry has, it has its own entity and identity.  If we want to change either GM or the auto industry, we cannot change either one only; we need to attend to their relationships.  And we don’t change relationships in an on/off digital manner; we treat it as a continuous process, an analog form.  Yet, we cannot be forever doing process work without ending in sight; that’s where on/off digital frame comes in because it offers the boundary.  It bears a relationship to the Möbius-Strip.

An intriguing example, alcoholism, still has my head spinning at times.  An alcoholic treats the bottle as an object to be rid of, but as soon as he’s on the wagon, he has to get off in order to fight to get rid of that object again.  “Getting rid of the bottle” becomes the goal, and in keeping that goal alive, he has to constantly oscillate between bottle and no bottle.  The desire to drink gets conflated into the desire to get rid of the desire.  What the alcoholic neglects is the relationship between him and his own inner void/darkness (which we all possess) that he’s trying to drown, but which needs to be attended to continuously.  So it is with other forms of addiction; getting rid of the object (whatever form of the addiction) becomes a game itself, all wrapped in another form (a meta form?) of addiction.

This is not to say that all goals are futile.  However, haven’t you noticed that often when a huge group project is completed, the group is in a deflated and depressed mood?  Where is the next goal?  Haven’t we learned that some political leaders need perpetual revolution to maintain their legitimacy as, and even their definition of, “leader?” I am reminded of a comment made by one of my acquaintances in my study, “if I ever reach that ‘perfect’ design, I may as well die.”

May you never reach that perfection!  Attend to the journey, as my journey on change continues next week.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Of Mice & Cheese, And Little People: Resistance, action, and change

Many years ago, when I was working for a diversity office, my manager excitedly asked me if I had read this wonderful little book “Who Moved My Cheese?”  I was, and still am in general, very dubious about these popular trendy “how-to” books that pop up on the mass market.  They can offer a few gems and some wisdom, but like motivational speeches, readers and listeners may feel “good” about certain messages for a while.  But passage of time would dilute the enthusiasm, unless there is follow-up with actions.  Nevertheless, after the inquiry, I felt obligated to read it; it was a quick and easy read. Overall, I didn’t take to it, and it took a while for me to be able to verbalize my disquiet feelings.

I read it again recently, just in case I might have come to a different level of appreciation.  There are indeed some good tips, and because it’s a short fable with a mixture of rodent and homosapiens (albeit in rodent size) using simple logic, it actually does invite readers to contemplate.  But what bothered me then, and still does now, is the whole premise that since changes are inevitably coming our way, we should just adapt ourselves in order to move on.  There is nothing profoundly wrong with this particular stance, other than the notion that we would be better off blindly accepting all the changes, especially, changes imposed onto us from the top.  Perhaps I am too idealistic, but I believe that there are times we need to question the premises of some changes.  Not all changes are threatening, and not all are inevitably progress for us.

looking down from 14,000+ feet

I guess I’d better give a quick sketch of what the story entails before plunging in further with my reaction and analysis.  The story involves two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two “littlepeople” in the size of mice, Hem and Haw.  These four beings worked in a maze to search for cheese.  After they located a motherlode, they made themselves comfortable and made a living off that hunk of cheese.  Sniff and Scurry definitely were very comfortable; they built a “home” thinking that they’d have the cheese for life, Hem and Haw were always on the edge, ready to move on.  After a while, as the cheese got smaller, the littlepeople noticed it, left that chamber, and moved on to find other food sources.  The mice regarded the move silly and continued their comfortable living…till one day, the cheese was gone.  The mice discussed the issue but thought for sure more cheese would appear.  After another period, mouse Sniff began to think differently about staying put while mouse Scurry felt that the cheese was owed to him and didn’t see why he should bestir to look for new cheese.  More time passed, and eventually Sniff decided to face his fear of the unknown out there and moved on; at each turn of finding no cheese, he had to battle against his mounting fears and doubts.  But eventually, he did find the new cheese, as well as the littlepeople.  While they all enjoyed the new find, they were also always in the “ready to move on” mode.  Mouse Sniff left various messages along the maze walls in case his pal, Scurry, would decide to join them…

Nice little story, which seems to have inspired many people to buy the book (and probably read it) and some have indeed followed the cheese trail and changed the course of their lives.  I don’t mean to belittle the power of this message, I just question the premise that mouse Sniff’s adopting the change is the only or the best way of facing changes in organizational life.

another view from the top

Here is an important distinction:  Sniff’s decision to leave his friend, his comfort zone, and to step into the unknown, while courageous, is nevertheless an adaptive strategy.  During the process, he did learn about himself, and discovered his core of being, willingness to question, tenacity, possession of some sense of humor, etc.  He didn’t really change his core being; what he changed was his behavior in order to survive and keep on living.  His buddy, Scurry, didn’t even bother to change his behavior; he just kept digging deeper into his professed principles, i.e. cheese was owed to him and it wasn’t his fault that the cheese was gone.

A “real” change to the core of being, in this case, the mice (or the littlepeople, whose significance initially escaped me) would/could have said something to themselves, like, “do we really eat only cheese?”  Or, “could we try to make our own cheese?”  “Is this maze (now, how would they recognize it’s a maze?) the only universe for us to locate cheese?  Might there be more space outside these walls to look for “others” or create something totally different?  “In what ways can we change our very being to pursue the next food sources?”  And so forth.  A friend introduced to me the concept of “technical change,” to be differentiated from “adaptive change.”  I am not quite settled on this term – something is still missing – but for now it’s a good enough distinction.

There are a couple of minor points that also bother me.  In comparison to the “littlepeople,” the mice did not pay attention to the diminishing size of the cheese.  “The mice did not overanalyze things.  And they were not burdened with many complex beliefs.”  Yet, later, Haw somehow developed incredible analytical capabilities to help himself understand the dire situation, visualize future possibilities, conquer fear with humor, and to keep himself moving forward by asking this question repeatedly, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”  That is a very wise question.  I know this is a fable, but when the logic doesn’t add up, it bothers me.

storm coming…

Another bothersome point is the lesson that “old beliefs do not lead you to cheese.”  But how does one determine the belief in question is “old”?  When does it become old?  By what criteria?  Did the criteria come from the same source that adopted these “old” beliefs?  Or, did the source at some point stumble upon, or intentionally acquire a new language or new set of frames with which to view the world?  And should “old beliefs” include religious beliefs?  My point is:  What tools do we use to compare and judge one set of beliefs against other sets?  And how do we acquire these tools? And keep them polished?

My schedule from now till end of August is rather fragmented and busy, and so my entries will be somewhat uneven, in length and timing.  But I will keep on discussing interesting points.

Change is really a knotty issue.  I will attempt to delve into some philosophical lessons I have learned on change in the next entry.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Little Of This And A Little Of That: Life and organization

I had been away for the better part of the week, kind of a personal retreat into the mountains, with wildflowers in full swing.  My mind was pleasantly occupied, and my focus was rather inward.  So, I will write briefly about a few ideas that came to me.

snow in july…cool

On 6/12, the front page of the New York Times contained this headline, “For the Executive With Everything, a $230,000 Dog to Protect It.”  The dog in the picture was a German Shepherd.  She wasn’t a “guard dog,” but an “executive protection dog!”  Oh, please, as if the dog cares about the title!  The dog cares in ways that can’t be bought with $230,000.  As deeply as I could delve into this sickening social phenomenon, I will limit myself to these two comments:  (1) What the wealthy miss is the fact that when you love an animal (especially one like the German Shepherd) and work with her, she will protect you.  A pet and a friend is not status; if it is, you miss the point of pet companionship.  (2) Embedded in this type of executive behavior is the notion that “I am too important to deal personally with X (whatever the task in question), so I’ll hire someone to do it for me…and pretend that I care about this whole issue.”  I maybe cynical, but enough examples in our lives, inside and outside of organizations, have left a bad taste in my mouth.  I felt cheapened by this extravagance.

But on 6/29, there was a different animal story, “Delays at J.F.K.?  This Time, Blame Turtles.”  Evidently, this is an annual event where diamondback terrapins would have to cross a particular runway to the sandy patch on the other side to lay their eggs.  So, the authorities closed the runway for about an hour and caused some air traffic delays.  Must have cost a handsome amount of money, possibly well over $230,000 per turtle, but heartwarming nonetheless.

a few wild lupines

Okay, I show my bias here.  But I also think the multi-billion dollars spent annually, needlessly, on pets is obscene too.  People who enrich Burberry to dress their small canines, offend me.  People who voluntarily help train service dogs have my deep respect, for both human and dog. (I have to really restrain myself from touching those service dogs in training!)

Now onto an organization-related story, or two.

For a few years, my son loved going to our family farm to work in the summer, hay hauling and driving harvest truck were his major responsibilities along with whatever his uncle asked him to do, such as feeding the few cows we keep.  The farm is pretty big, but the personnel who do the operation are rather few.  There was one long-term hired hand, and he’s since retired.  Succession is a big issue in a small family business, and the last summer my son overlapped with the new hired hand who may be groomed to take over the management someday.  The new guy, Bob, is pleasant enough; though he had never worked on farms, he was more than eager to learn and seemed to really take to it.  My son wasn’t twenty yet, but is the nephew of the owners, and Bob had some power issues of his own.

One day, Bob, needing to secure his “first line manager” status, told my son to go and clean up the shop since it was raining that day and most field operations stopped.  My son has worked on the farm many summers by now, and knows how his uncle operates and thinks, and grasps his philosophies and principles.  The shop is a big structure that can accommodate one enormous combine with room to spare.  Shelves are lined up against two sides, with tools and parts strewn all over the counters and then some.  But everyone who’s worked there knows where things lie and does not go about disturbing them without good cause, and would automatically put things back where they are found.  There is madness to this method.  So, my son resisted Bob’s instructions, and tried to explain why he wouldn’t go “cleaning up the shop.”  The shop, as it was, was organized to everyone’s satisfaction, except the new member.  But eventually it had to take his uncle to convince Bob that shop is fine as is.

a WHOLE LOT of lupines

In another incident, Bob, being still unfamiliar with running the farm’s big machines, turned over a tractor.  He was unharmed, but probably utterly embarrassed.  So, he took it out on my son for being “lazy and standing about doing nothing to help.”  Later when the machine was put back to upright, my son explained to him that, “If I rushed in to ‘help,’ I might inadvertently get in the way of others who really know what they are doing. This wasn’t the time to take ‘initiative,’ I’d be more effective carrying out what I am told.”  This was from a kid who usually doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do!

mist over sunflowers

These farm incidents portrayed perfectly a classic dynamic of top-middle-bottom organizational structure.  The middle rank managers, such as Bob, are often caught, literally in between, and feel powerless.  They don’t quite grasp the whole picture that the top typically owns, and at the same time are too far away from the operations on the floor to have the first-hand knowledge of the operations.  All it really takes to provide remedy for this awkward position is the humility to ask — the first step of learning.  However, the top-middle-bottom isn’t limited to the structure presented by an organizational chart.  The dynamics really depends on the issues in focus.  Sometimes, the top can be at the bottom and other times, the bottom rank possesses more power.  I will address this intricate dynamics in a much later post.

For now, just remember, when feeling threatened, take a deep breath, pause a moment, and ask, “what can I learn from this situation?”  Chances are you’d come away a little wiser.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Change In Organizations Is Very Personal: If it’s not about “me,” why would I resist/embrace changes coming my way?

Once in a while, I let my fingers make the decision on what to review and write about.  These ten digits came across two decade-old articles in my file.  Both are Harvard Business Review (HBR) articles about “change”; one is by John Kotter, a big name in organizational change, but his article didn’t do much for me.  The other is by two psychologists, Robert Kegan & Laskow Lahey; after my initial irritation subsided – which I will explain below – I found the content intriguing and useful.  Between these two, I had a small “aha” moment:  Any organizational change, big or small, touches every individual’s life within it; so of course, it becomes personal.  Therefore, executing changes ultimately rests on all those who do the groundwork (and sometimes although not always, grunt work).  It is the lowest level of managers who can best gauge (if they have ample emotional intelligence) how changes may impact their people’s lives, both within and outside the organization. (Remember the mantra: work/life is not dichotomous but intertwined!)  Decisions on changes are mostly made at the top level, but the execution is local.

So, why did Kegan & Lahey’s article irk me at the beginning?  They set up their frame by using the conventional “employees vs. management” stance.  If we keep separating managers from the ranks of employees, we only help feed their sense of  (underserved) entitlement.  Granted, I haven’t come up with a more economical expression to discuss issues touching managers and “other” employees – will keep at it – I do believe that part of the responsibilities for students and scholars studying organizations is to take the effort and space to make these distinctions.  Back to the article, the initial tone continues to discuss the “fears” employees may experience during the change, the shift in their power and their career track, the rendering of old skills obsolete or the requirement to invest time and commitment in new skills, etc.  The resistance is understandable but all the hard work seems to be in the court of employees, while managers should “help people overcome their limitations to become more successful at work.”  At least, they do acknowledge that such would be what effective managers would do.  In order for managers to be this effective, it means that they themselves are wise about their own limitations and have learned how to deal with them!

recent fire is 40% contained,air is still smoky…and fairly closeby

But the rest of article improves on me.  The authors’ focus is at the individual level, in particular, why a person would espouse the need for change and the readiness to embrace proposed changes, but act in opposition.  The authors term this situation, “competing commitments.”

They offer a few good examples, including one of low level of manager, but I like the following one the most.  John’s career was promising, and he seemed to enjoy his work.  But while he talked about welcoming his colleagues’ suggestions, he often shot down their ideas using sarcasm.  Working with these psychologists, he uncovered his competing commitment.  John is a person of color in an otherwise all white work environment.  What emerged was that if he worked “too” effectively with his white colleagues, he’d feel as if he sold out his family and friends.  By pushing his colleagues away, he would remain on the margin where he was more comfortable.  In other words, his personal identity was clashing with his organizational identity.

a few miles away…but can still be a threat

In order to change, of course people have to face what’s in the current system that demands and warrants the change.  Basically, what are people complaining about?  Conversely, what do they really care about?  However, just because they complain about an area, and therefore would likely accept changes in that area, doesn’t necessarily translate to their willingness in actions and commitment to bring about effective changes.  To uncover what’s hidden in the form of competing commitment, these authors offer a series of questions:

  1.  “What would you like to see changed at work, so that you could be more effective or so that work would be more satisfying?”      So, John might respond to this question with something like, “I would like to see a more coherent team,” or, “we should appreciate others’ ideas and suggestions.”

But in order to understand the root of these possible commitments, we need to be able to answer this next question:

 2.     “What commitments does your complaint imply?”      For John, it could be,                           “others don’t accept my suggestion/idea,” or, “sometimes, communication                           gets very tense in the team.”

Almost always, individuals (I would add, managers included) quite unwittingly contribute to situation on which they lodge their complaints.  This leads to the third question:

3.   “What are you doing, or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from                            being more fully realized?”      Answers to this question would help people                            see how their own actions can undermine their potential success.  In John’s                          case, he would realize that he needed to stay marginalized, often by pushing                          people’s ideas away via sarcasm.  Now, John had to contemplate what the                              consequences might be if he overcame this need for marginalization.

4.    “If you imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior, do you                               detect in yourself any discomfort, worry, or vague fear?”

All the questions thus far require one to be brutally honest with oneself, which in itself can be embarrassing, frightening, and threatening enough, but I think this question requires even deeper emotional commitment.  If we are not accustomed to grasping our emotions and giving words to them, we may be really stuck here.

But this is where John would uncover his competing commitment, where he would understand his work and life felt out of kilter because if he got too chummy with his white co-workers, it might mean that he had abandon his “own” community.  This then is reflected in the final question:

 5.    “By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcomes are                          you committed to preventing?”

The answer to this question lies in the life “outside” John’s work, his community of people of color.

sunset in smoky air

Competing commitment is one of the most natural self-protective reactions in us.  Except, protect us from what?  To keep peeling the onion…to protect us from some basic assumption we have established long ago; in fact, so long ago, that we have internalized it as if it is the truth, a taken-for-granted truth.  In John’s case, his personal identity might be threatened by his work relationships with whites.  But his fear was based on an assumption that he’d be rejected by his community if he hung out with whites or became integrated into the white people’s world.  It was an assumption never tested.

Once a person identifies such a basic assumption, it doesn’t automatically lead to the “correct” action that will right everything.  If only changes in our thoughts and behaviors would be that easy!  The authors identify four steps:

I.     Notice and record current behavior.

II.     Look for contrary evidence.

III.     Explore the history.

IV.     Test the assumption.

At first, pause, let the new realization sink in…has one missed opportunities elsewhere due to one’s big assumption?  Look for examples of people in similar situation, and see how they handle it.  John noticed an African-American manager who seemed to enjoy working with her white colleagues without compromising her personal identity.  The roots for one’s big assumptions can go a long way back, but trying to grasp the history will help toward the elimination of them.  Then, one takes a small step to test such an assumption.  John signed up for some community work outside the organization for the sake of his personal identity while getting involved in a different work project and practicing his new commitment to listen to and consider others’ ideas.

sunset in smoky air, II

Real life is a whole lot messier.  That’s why Kotter’s short article, which basically lists eight steps to “transforming your organization,” is akin to saying “buy low and sell high.”  Very true yet very unsatisfactory for execution.  His eight steps are:

1)   Establishing a sense of urgency

2)   Forming a powerful guiding coalition

3)   Creating a vision

4)   Communicating the vision

5)   Empowering others to act on vision

6)   Planning for and crating short-term wins

7)   Consolidating improvements and producing still more change

8)   Institutionalizing new approaches.

This might be just a summary of his body of work, which is substantial, but it really could be a lot more interesting and illuminating.

Someone made an observation to me about organizational change:  The changes usually have positive impact on the top organizational level but often negatively impact the rest of the organization.  Unfortunately, I think this remark captures a significant truth.  Contributors to the management literature should consider ceasing to harp about “employees’ resistance” to organizational changes and instead re-examine the whole dynamics of changes in organizations, with more attention to the personal dimensions of people’s lives in organizations.  All people, from bottom upward.  In other words, changes impact everyone in the whole organization, and even a local change is likely to have ripple effects on others.

the red is not fire…but plum sauce mixed in milk & cream…ready for ice cream

Until you can find and embrace a change coming your way,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Few Fire Related Thoughts

It’s amazing how one does a lot of stuff while waiting for the order to evacuate — which never happened, for our community — yet seemingly accomplishing so little.  Some fidgeted, some did housework; a few continued their yardwork, and others whacked away at the scruffy underbrush around the house.  Concentration was definitely a scarce commodity.  So I will relate only a couple of ideas I noticed during this trying week.

Watching the firefighters battling the menace and hearing what they had to go through simply moved me.  It wasn’t just putting out the fire, but also making strategic decisions on where to focus and where to draw the lines.  Cutting down trees, clearing brush, pre-burning (paradoxical and risky) to hold the fire lines away from dwellings and important structures.  Firefighters came from neighboring districts, and from other states, and they worked toward one goal, relentlessly.

In the meantime, civilian organizations still observe their bureaucratic entanglements.  Imagine if the firefighters have to collect even half a dozen signatures before they can move forward?!  I am reminded of my first published article on innovation, in particular, teamwork on innovation.  In that, I argue that there are two parallel aspects of teamwork: one aspect is about the actual work on the product, and the other is about work on building and maintaining the team.  Pursuing product breakthroughs is difficult enough; without a coherent team, it’d be next to impossible.  But when to work on the team? Working on aspects such as, understanding each other, grasping the team dynamics, how best to work with each other, when to do what and by whom…  These seemingly mundane issues often get neglected, but on peril of the success of the ultimate product, because that which one wants to sweep away tends to trip one up, especially during critical moments.  The best time to do the teaming work is when things are calm, so that when the next crisis – you can always count on it – occurs, the team is in a better position to face it.  I call this “anchoring.”  It’s akin to working on your boat while it’s at anchor, so that when you set sail, the maintenance work will pay off.

Firefighters spend the majority of their down time preparing, training, retraining, checking and maintaining equipment so that when they are called, they are ready.

wishing we had this kind of moisture…

However, while most of us honor and admire the firefighters’ work, there are others who help create fires, sometimes intentionally.

In an area where precipitation has been practically absent for more half of a year, it’s like sitting on a tinderbox.  But officials are not allowed to place an outright ban on fireworks and the sales of them.  Seriously?  What happened to our common sense?  You only need two ingredients to set a fire which can rage in such a dry condition:  greed and stupidity.  Yes, liberty is a big deal in this country, but so is civil behavior for the common good.  I hear people talk about how they cannot deprive their children the tradition of July 4th fireworks!  How about teaching children to be concerned citizens?  The merchants argue that it’s up to the public whether they want to purchase.  This is what I call “atomistic” or mechanic thinking; basically, it’s the “not my job/problem” syndrome.  It’s antithetical to community and organization.  And then there are those who always underestimate risks when they want something badly; they claim that if you use caution, do it in open land, have plenty of water standing by (when we are in serious draught?) etc., it’d be alright.  Equally weak is the argument that July 4th and fireworks are intertwined national symbols…what’s the percentage of these fireworks that is made in US? This may be a social/political (why political is beyond me!) issue, but the underlying attitudes and thinking are present everywhere in organizations all over.

Enjoy your July 4th.  Be safe, be creative, and be contributory.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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