Enhancing a sense of personal ownership in an organization with very aggressive goals

I am not a magician. Far from it. Albeit my “in your face” style, I tend to be very realistic in my approach to managing and mitigating organizational pain,foremost by creating appropriate expectations. My interactions with Ed will demonstrate how this is done.

Ed called me a month ago;  we had 6  conversations. In our first meeting, Ed described the reason he had approached me “Allon, I want your help to install a sense of personal responsibility in order to grow our company by 7% per quarter for the next year”.

Ed’s  company is in a high growth area, so his growth goals were not all that bizarre. What was totally misguided was his desire to enhance the sense of  “personal ownership”.

Personal ownership is counter-indicated to achieving aggressive growth. I told him as such and explained.

“Ed, when aggressive growth goals are set, the major concern of staff at all levels is “what do these goals  mean for me”?  For example the developers do not  want to release sloppy code; account managers do not want to deal with angry clients who feel that they have been duped. Customer service wants scripts to  solve client problems and product marketing wants to maintain a stable product road map.

Aggressive growth is achieved by trading off the maximalistic goals and wet dreams of each function/profession to create a runway that enables a fast take off for growth. It’s all about trade offs, compromise, sharing of risks, not ownership of a subset of goals.”

I explained to Ed how a enhanced sense of personal ownership in the context of aggressive growth  will drive managers to set very high standards for their respective functions,  and subsequently to refuse to negotiate pragmatic trade offs/compromise. And worst of all, a culture of blaming and finger pointing will thrive.

As a result of our conversations, Ed went offsite with his team with me to discuss “how do we share risks?”

By setting appropriate expectations up  front, the intervention was shorter (less commercially viable) and very effective..But I built a reputation with Ed, and that will pay off over the coming years, if I am still around.

 

 

 

 

 

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Organization Developments’ dangerous fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is the strict unwavering, inflexible adherence to principle, most often  but not solely religious.

We all know what religious fundamentalism looks like as well as the damages/mass stupidity it can inflict both on its own believers and its enemies. The user experience at airports since 9/11 is a testament to this.

Not only religions have fundamental principles- so do professions, including organization development.

The fundamental OD principles were based on where, when and by whom OD was founded, and served as the platform for the profession and its subsequent development.  While the world of organizations has changed, the principles have not, rendering OD’s fundamentals as outdated as a man waving a sword chopping  off peoples’ heads off because he  wants to recreate his 6th century grandeur.

Let’s take a few examples.

Democracy:

OD was a response to the dangers of fascist regimes and many OD interventions encourage democratization. In 2019, it is democracy which is facing huge challenges. Not only is it clear that democratic processes can lead to extremely dangerous decisions, but over time the types of people who rise to the top can be very dangerous and corrupt.

The empowerment of the individual:

What a mess this has become! System problems (such as aggressive deadlines and enforced loneliness aka remote work) are ignored. Coaching the individual, wellness programs and engagement voodoo take the system problems out of the spotlight, wallpapering them with an irrelevant focus on the individual.

Authenticity

OD places a premium on authentic communication. However, in many cultures, authenticity is akin to farting in an elevator. Even in the west, authenticity does not pay off. Authentic people often get fucked, when they don’t get fired.

And I can go on and on. But I won’t. I will however end this post by a description of how an OD fundamentalist facilitates a merger. Ignoring Machiavelli and Darwin, the OD fundamentalist with try to take the best from each culture to form a new culture, based on the best of both worlds. This inevitably fails. However, an OD consultant who has moved beyond fundamentalist will assume that there are no mergers, just acquisitions, and let nature take its course, serving as a midwife for the inevitable survival of the fittest.

 

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Can organizations be helpful with the mental health of their staff?

Many years ago, while I was taking care  of my  wife who dying from cancer, I was prone to try absolutely everything that worked. We visited alternative medicine clinics, visited specialists who “rewire mental energy,” and frequented near-magicians. After a  few months ,she died. I look back at the days I dragged her around to various quacks and still feel guilty. She was tired and worn down- and we were being fucked over by quacks.

I believe that organizations create a lot of mental health issues. They set impossible goals, pit people against each other, measure your performance against ambiguous/fake yard sticks , rank and rate you, and force feed slogans the goal of which are to get more for less. Management is very often toxic. Change after change creates tons of anxiety. On top of it, people are asked to be authentic, and punished  when they are.

It is my deep belief that organizations should stay away from helping employees deal with mental health issues. They are suspect; they often exacerbate mental disorders and in some case cause mental disorders.They should provide no in house  counselling whatsoever. Wolves should not be allowed in the chicken coop, even if it is guard duty.

I also believe that discretion promised to troubled employees is often violated.

People with mental health and their support group should manage mental health issues outside of the work place if at all possible. Allowing organizations to meddle in employees mental health is akin to falling victim to quackery, or extreme naivete.

Wolf, stay away with your stretch goals, authenticity, play room, coaching-for-stress and toxic management.

 

 

 

 

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Fake information in organizations

Fake information has been around in organizations for more than two decades. It has had a devastating impact on the way that organizations function. In this brief post, I will document frequent manifestations of fake information which I have encountered in my consulting career in North America, the Mid East, Europe and Asia.

  1. Fake commitments. Company A competes for a tender by promising to deliver non existing product features in an impossible time frame. The tender is won, and the delivery as promised never really happens, or is delivered as a so called  “phased delivery” in a long and painful process of de-commitment.
  2. Fake planning. As a result of the fake commitments,  aggressive deadlines are driven down to the troops in Company A in order to deliver the non existent product features on time. The nerds provide feigned agreement to the plans.  As due date comes, things start to “slip” and no one is really surprised. New nerds are recruited, only to slow down the development process. Lessons learned passes off the blame left, right and centre, but never to the initial original sin of a fake commitment.
  3. Fake team work In order to drive costs down, people from all over the world are recruited to work in virtual teams. These teams are negatively impacted by trust issues, language issues and cultural differences. However these difficulties  are patched up with fake team work, a series of pyrotechnical activities which sort of, or sort of not, “put us all on the same page”. As a result, the hidden agendas flourish mainly under the surface, where they are harder to observe and treat.
  4. Fake wellness Caving in to management gurus as well as  slick salesmanship and fads, organizations hide their intention of getting “more for less”  via “wellness programs” for those nerds caught up in the above scenarios. These programs perfume the pig by better nutrition, gym membership preferably on-site, and perhaps breathing exercises.
  5. Lies in due diligence No where are there more blatant lies than in the due diligence phase before certain (though not all, obviously) mergers, aka acquisitions. The acquired company misrepresents its product, assets, liabilities, market share and pipeline in often a (desperate) effort to find a perfect “suitor” who can inject cash and put them out of their financial, client-related or technical misery.
  6. Mergers There are no mergers. Just acquisitions.

 

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3 Similarities and 3 Differences in the business culture of Israel and Singapore

Similarities

  • Both societies, at least at face value, appear as task focused and fast moving with a semi -Western veneer. Yet, when you scratch a little bit, the Western veneer disappears and therein lies a web of intense relationship based networks which serves as the great enabler. So both in Singapore and Israel, you do not always see what you get.
  • Both business cultures are survival driven: paranoid, focusing on the urgent and very flexible in the crisis mode.
  • Singaporeans and Israelis both adapt themselves to others rather than expect the other to change.

Differences

  • Israelis show a basic lack of respect to authority. Singaporeans will generally show apparent deference, expressing differences of opinions “wrapped up” in respect.
  • Israelis often tell clients  “what they need” ; Singaporeans will make more of an effort to provide clients with what they want, albeit they know that the client could benefit from something else.
  • Israelis have little tolerance for face saving behaviours, which are part and parcel of doing business with Singaporeans. Needless to say, Israelis find Singapore less focused on face than the Chinese or Thais.

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How organizations counter intuitively make people feel unsafe

Lots has been said about the need to make staff feel safe in organizations. It has been claimed that feeling safe is the critical success factor that make teams successful.

I want to suggest 5 ways that organizations and leaders make people unsafe. As usual, i will focus on the counter-intuitive, since much that has been written and talked about until now about making people safe is common sense.

  1. Promoting authenticity can and does make many people feel unsafe, especially those who come from cultures where emotions need to be repressed. Encouraging people to be authentic can be akin to asking people to sit in a room naked if the air-conditioning is not working, so that they feel comfortable.
  2. Delegation of authority can make people very unsafe, especially those people who expect that the privilege of being a boss comes with the price tag of protecting staff from risk and exposure.
  3. Asking people to express an opinion can make staff tremble if they come from cultures where opinions need to be kept to yourself in fear of being seen as rude or a tall poppy.
  4. Giving rosy and positive feedback can make people who are highly self critical feel that they are being lied to or deceived.
  5. Asking men from conservative cultures to report into a woman in general and a younger woman in particular can make men feel very unsafe.

I do know that item five is politically incorrect. But because I prefer being correct to be politically  correct, so I feel safe about writing this post. To wrap things up, making staff feel safe has a lot to do with addressing the basic cultural assumptions and needs of a global and  diverse nature.

 

 

 

 

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Organizational Panic Attacks

Panic attacks include crippling, extraordinarily intense, sudden fear of a general/specific nature, pounding obsessive thoughts as well as  physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating and increased heart rate. As  the French Canadians say, c’est pas un cadeau or loosely translated- it’s no great fun. (Literally, not a gift).

Individuals with panic disorders are treated by drugs and counselling. The therapies lessens the frequency and intensity of the panic attacks and in many cases, eliminate them entirely if one adheres to therapy. Panic attacks however are not limited to individuals.

Organizations also have panic attacks. Sensing either an intense internal or external threat,  an organization can loose  its judgement and  respond to  threats with irrationality,  often damaging itself more than the perceived threat,

When an organization panics, its response to the untrained eye may appear as routine managerial precaution. However, to the trained eye this is not the case.

In my experience, constant reorganizations, ongoing resizing, overly obsessing about values like religious fanatics, incessant  aggressive finger-pointing and a culture of constant escalation indicate an irrational response to threat. Furthermore, when “what do we need to do” is not proceeded by “how do we need to think differently”,  it is highly indicative of an organizational panic attack.

There are other responses to panic attacks that organizations have: throwing bodies at a job, intense time pressure, self deception and looking for one silver bullet.

Sometimes consultants are commissioned to implement inappropriate responses to panic attacks.

My suggestion is to work the management to identify triggers to anxiety, and map out effective and not effective coping mechanism for the rampant irrational fears which characterize organizational life.

Learning to discern panic and its triggers and developing healthy responses to threats  is a critical component of an advanced organizational skill set.

 

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6 phenomena you may notice in business meeting with Israelis- and what they mean

Lois Martin is the Americas sales manager for an Israeli firm which sells drug detection technology to police forces. Lois, a Toronto resident, was recruited 9 months ago; she has just finished her first visit to Israeli HQ, in Tel Aviv. Lois was absolutely shell shocked after a week of meetings.

Lois and I met for lunch today to debrief her on her impressions. Here is what shocked Lois, and the meaning I ascribed to augment her understanding.

1 Lois-Decisions appear to be final; then they are revisited and then undone.

Allon-Correct. No decision is binding until the very last second. It is common practice to challenge decisions all the time. This does not detract from commitment, rather it is a sign of commitment.

2 Lois-No one follows a meeting agenda. They jump from subject to subject.

Allon-Indeed. Issues get discussed but not as per a planned agenda. Free association and “I have something related to this” constantly shift the focus of discussion. However, everything get done but just in a different order.

3 Lois-Everyone is glued to their cellphone, all the time.

Allon-Everyone is glued to their cellphone, all the time.

4 Lois-People interrupt one another all the time, and raise their voices; it’s pandemonium.

Allon-People talk at the same time, butt in and contradict people before the other has finished speaking. It is not pandemonium; it is a discussion with different rules of engagement. You don’t use the rules of baseball in a football game. Discussions in Israel have their own rules. Join the mob or sit on the sidelines. And there is a lot to be said for almost total absence of “feigned commitment” so frequent in more polite cultures.

5 Lois-There are many off colour jokes; I was shocked.

Allon-Isn`t that refreshing-not to have all that PC rammed down your throat? Lois smiled, clearly not in agreement.

6 Lois-I noticed that people come to meetings late, and at times deal with family issues or bureaucracy during work.

Allon-Being on time is not all that important. A minimum ten minute delay is common practice, And Israel has a crushing bureaucracy which drains endless effort, especially if people are taking care of elderly parents or dealing with an insensitive government agency. For example, it can take 2 hours waiting to get a package at the post office, which often is open only until 2 pm. Or another example, cars have a compulsory “test” at a government accredited garage, a procedure which often entails quite a few hours. There are many more chores which need to be done, often on company time.

 

 

 

 

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Consulting individuals who are severely misreading reality

CEO Liz leads a company with an outstanding product suite and market leadership, yet sales are missing the numbers due to  market slow down and increasing price sensitivity. Liz believes that her last 3 sales managers have been incompetent.

Liz hired me to look into the Sales organization. I found a group of highly skilled and highly motivated people who were doing a great job under the toughest of circumstances.

When I presented my findings to Liz, she was upset. “I did not hire you to hear that”.

I have been working with Liz for 9 months. She has not changed her espoused opinion about the Sales organization, but she is happy with the work I am doing with her (about how she manages).  I have not managed to change her views about how Sales is run, but I have changed some of her behaviours towards the Sales organization, Liz talks the same, but acts differently.

Here are a few things I have done with Liz,

  1. Used paradoxical interventions. “Liz, how about firing the whole lot of them now and biting the bullet. I’m sure you could turn this around in a quarter”. Or, “Liz, you aren’t busy enough, why don’t you run sales as a pastime?”
  2. Put Liz’s misunderstandings into context. Liz rose to the top quickly. She never failed. She prides herself on her spectacular career. She sees people as winners or losers. Once I understood this I could be more compassionate. (She sees me as a winner.)
  3. Winter driving techniques. Having learnt to drive in Montreal, I know how to get out of a snowbank, thanks to Mr Canning, my driving teacher. Back and forth-slowly. No force-just go back and forth. With Liz it’s same-same but different. Sometimes I entertain two opposite ideas, rocking her mind back and forth. because it’s stuck. “Liz, how about putting pre-Sales under a different manager, or setting up a technical pre-Sales department, or better localizing the Sales team”..Such sessions of “rocking her mind” are the ones she appreciates the most, subsequently settling back into rigidity.
  4. Giving Up. Sometimes I tell her that she looks at a giraffe and does not see its neck (an Israeli euphemism). That I cannot do anything. That she has defeated me. This gets her very angry, then she softens up.
  5. Humour. Liz and I share a sense of humour, Making her laugh about her own rigidity is very helpful.
  6. Understand the personal bias. Liz comes from a technical background. This is what we have cooked and it tastes great, Just sell it. Liz does not understand the complexity of other peoples’ non technical roles, yet.

 

 

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Anxiety in organizations

Anxiety is built into organizations.

The anxiety stems from peoples dependence on one another.

  • If I build something but you do not sell it, I may get blamed.
  • If I cook a feast but the person who designs the menu makes it appear unattractive, then fingers may be pointed at me.
  • If I teach a course but the room is too hot, people may walk out on me.
  • If I answer the clients’ queries but the IT system is too slow, then the level of service provided gets knocked.

This inherent anxiety happens both within organizations and well as between organizations. Lawyers are used to lessen the anxiety between organizations. Sometime SLA’s (service level agreements) are used, with very partial success, to mitigate anxiety between people and functions within one organization.

Nothing whatsoever can eliminate this anxiety.  It is a built in feature. The only way to mitigate the anxiety is to talk about it, acknowledge overlapping responsibilities, maintain realistic goals, reward cooperation and hire-for-both-attitude and competence.

In the framework of the supervision I constantly hammer my young flock to avoid jumping to wow-wowism and sloganeering to paper over the basic anxiety  all organizational members carry on their backs or in their gut.

It’s there, and we need to learn to live with it. It cannot be otherwise, nor should it be. Depending on others is no mean feat.

 

 

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