Banana is my least favorite fruit – I prefer juicy ones – but I eat it for the potassium kick, especially important during ski season. Of course, I don’t “see” potassium, but that’s what the yellow stick signifies to me. In truth, I much prefer Michael Pullen’s notion of eating “food,”- from his In Defense Of Food: An eater’s manifesto –– not “protein,” “omega-3,” or “potassium” for that matter. But I use this comparison to make a point about how our respective “realities” do not always nor necessarily coincide perfectly. Sometimes, these discrepancies become profound problems, far beyond the superficial “communication problem.” However, applied differently, one can also use these discrepancies to make changes for the better.
Gareth Morgan provides a much better example of our social-political differences with the image of “pig” in his Imagin-i-zation: New mindsets for seeing, organizing, and managing. So, “what is the pig?” is the caption for a drawing of a pig in the center, surrounded by a number of people with different perspectives of the animal, such as an unclean animal to a Muslim, livestock to a farmer and a butcher, a food source to a wolf, a story to a child (as in “The Three Little Pigs”), a sick animal to a vet, or just a plain pet, etc. A simple question, maybe, but the answer depends on who you are and what is your worldview; in other words, reality is socially constructed. (Note: I do subscribe to the notion that physical reality has more permanence. Gravity is here to stay; we do need to breathe in oxygen…till CO2 messes it up, etc. But even in this domain, relativity and quantum mechanics have shaken some of the foundations as well.)
While differences could create problems, different images can offer different insights. Morgan offers these interpretations as examples: If we see organizations as “cultures,” we will go look for all the shared meanings, values, ideologies, rituals, etc. If, on the other hand, organizations are viewed in terms of political dynamics, we’d see the power plays on a daily basis. Or, if we see organizations as a “prison-“like environment, we can probably detect how various individuals and groups seem to be trapped in their belief systems that bring about destructive outcomes.
Of course, organizations are likely to be all of the above and then some. The point is that once we latch onto a certain lens or filter with which to view our organizational environment, we tend to follow the assumptions associated with that particular lens and off we go.
We all love using organizational charts, for various purposes or realities. On the one hand, it may give us a sense of who’s who and the rung s/he occupies in the hierarchy. Immediately, we are bounded by a rather militaristic structure with all its attending features. Yet, often, the secretaries who typically occupy the bottom rungs of these ladders are the ones with most knowledge of how the organizational operations are actually run. So, flip the charts upside down, you may actually get the “real” picture. Nowadays, the rapidly evolving computer technologies and demands from globalization have made organizations much flatter, yet more complex and more dynamic so that at any given time, organizations are much more fluid. This presents very different challenges for managers than in those earlier days when operations were more mechanical and driven by routine. There isn’t, and has never been, a set of management styles from which to choose; a manager would be wiser and better off by creating her own styles, tools, and skills.
Morgan proposes using different images – imagin-i-zation — to help managers gain insights into their work styles for improvement. The principle is similar to the 360 review process where a manager gets feedback from direct report, peers, and supervisors, with major differences in the images people, including managers themselves, provide. It’s like looking into an infinite array of mirrors, except there would be different images looking back at you. Here is an interesting conundrum for you: Walking down the street, would you recognize a doppelganger coming your way? That you are facing yourself?
Anyway, in the example Morgan gave, a manager sees himself as “giraffe, tornado, spice, and Sherlock,” corresponding to, respectively, “overview of things;” “moving quickly in tackling emerging problems;” “add spices,” and “ getting into the bottom of things.” His colleagues, on the other hand, view him as, “ant, lion, whirlpool, kitchen blender, Robin Hood, and the brick-laying pig from the ‘Three Little Pigs’.” Some images here do overlap, though with different interpretations. He is industrious like an ant, but tends to want things his own way. He is strong and impressive, like lion, but also can be intimidating. Powerful like whirlpool but overwhelming at times. Robin Hood is a good image? Yes, but “it’s always for his own cause!” The pig image is about cleverness and resourcefulness, but the flip side of being “insensitive to the needs of others” also applies.
Now this exercise does require a degree of willingness and courage from all parties involved. Please don’t try it on your own without some experienced people, a good consultant for example, to provide guidance and a safety net. But the exercise can be very powerful; it offers more candid responses and room for vivid and meaningful discussions. And more fun and intriguing. I do often wonder about the degree of honesty in typical 360 feedback, even when given anonymously.
Morgan challenges some managers with the image of a “strategic termite.” Very few took heart to it right away, or even after explanations. We tend to be stuck with the negative connotations of the termite image. But Morgan has a good point in using termite, at least in the context of Africa. For most of us, we can appreciate from some nature films the image of termite mounds in which some mounds can be as tall as 10+ feet; some look like arch because different mounds connect at the top. The reason for Morgan to propose the “strategic termite” image is that termites, being blind, without any blueprint, somehow build these palatial structures bit by bit, incrementally, opportunistically. And the outcomes are rather impressive.
In certain type of situations, for humans, mostly when resources are limited, agile maneuvering is critical, culture is entrenched, and planning is futile with time and money wasted, managers need to be opportunists, taking small steps, to try, to nudge, to chip away, to build small mounds. In small experiments, failures are less likely to catch attention, but successes can be built upon. There are several cases presented in the book that would warrant some close study (worth a trip to the public library). One particular HR manager worked for a big retail business organization that is highly decentralized. He had little budget and staff. To attempt any grand training and development programs would either not be granted or would quickly drive to failure. So, he paid close attention to some line managers’ operations, and grabbed opportunities when he saw them arise. He offered tailored-made programs for these middle-level managers. As favorable results began to spread, more managers requested his assistance. Whenever budgets became tight, he had no worries since he largely used a small circle of outside consultants and could trim or expand as he saw fit. In this manner, the majority of his operating costs was covered by the requesting managers.
This HR manager did not have a strategic plan (not that he could afford a formal one), but he did have a vision of how he could add value to the organization. Based on his vision, he built his programs incrementally, and gradually earned reputation and respect. He knew his results would be difficult to prove, and so by focusing on small programs, he could avoid the evaluation and metrics-mindset that typically accompany any formal training and development programs, thus further minimizing his operating budget. The manager himself said it best,
“We try something, and if it doesn’t work we bury it. If it does work, we hoist it up the flag pole, and give others a chance to see what can be done…Many senior managers want to see change, but hey don’t know how to drive it, or how to behave…They find it threatening. But if we do good stuff for them and for the line managers, and people say that it is good (italic original), they support it…If you ask for permission to do something within the context of a formal plan, you find yourself having to go higher and higher in the organization. But if you can find a line manager who has an interest, and give him a modest proposal, he’ll usually say ‘yes.’”
And no memos, no reports. Sweet, isn’t?!
In a different example, under the subtitle of “just do the small stuff,” it was about a big government agency undergoing changes. Really. The unwritten slogan, from Red Tape to Green Tape, quickly caught on. People liked the concept, especially the distinction: “Red tape means you’re telling someone you can’t do that. That’s what the rules are. Green tape means helping someone to go forward…here’s how you can interpret the rules to meet our needs.” Indeed, when we start with a “NO,” we kill all possibilities.
So, think about “maybe’s” to open up possibilities. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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