Just a few tips about doing OD outside a North American context

For the OD practitioner who has work to do in geographies where the values upon which OD is based are not dominant, here are my top ten tips.

1) It may take more time to build trust. In a 90 minute initial interview, don’t expect to get reliable diagnostic input. And understand that this is an advantage, because when eventually people do open up, the level of cooperation will be higher.

2) Many things are left unsaid. And you must listen intensely to what is unsaid. If you ask a direct question and get a fuzzy answer, you know you are onto something. But do not probe. Listen to what is inferred.

3) If you prefer to be called by your first name, wait a while before you impose this on the people that you are speaking with. THEY need to be more comfortable than you.

4) You can use events that have not yet happened to get better answers than you can from analysing events that went wrong. Future events can help save face which has not yet been lost. Past events involve talking about lost face.

5) Don’t assume that just because someone you speak to has excellent English that this person knows what is going on. Quite the contrary; excellent English can indicate a returning resident who may not know that lay of the land.

6) If at all possible, don’t take notes in first discussion. Try to remember what you are told and jot down notes after the meeting.

7) Take into account that many of your values can be irrelevant or held as distasteful. If, for example, you are a 26 year old female interviewing a 67 year old man, there may so much background noise that all the data is tinted. Politically correct-no! Correct? Yes.

8) Show respect and understanding to people who are stonewalling you. Hint to them as follows, “I understand what you are saying, yet I would like to talk you again at another time, so that we feel more comfortable to develop a better understanding of the issues. I appreciate that this is not yet possible.” 

9) If local culture dictates that the best way to get information is to gossip, then gossip. And if you need to get drunk to get an answer, get drunk.

10) Take a stand and ask for a reaction. This may bypass an interviewees’ objections about being direct. For example, “It seems to me that Mike does not really understand the local culture. Am I wrong”? Then check one more time. “I think that Amy (a local) preferred working with Leonard (Mike’s predecessor). Am I correct?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Helping organizations evade the truth

Dr. Alice Goffman introduced me to the word “riding”;  in her ethnography On the Run: Fugitive Life in America “, I learnt that “riding” is  helping a fugitive evade the police/court when pursued. Riders and riding have many strategies, all spelt out in Goffman’s fascinating book.

Organizations have “riders” too. Borrowing Goffman’s term (actually borrowing the fugitives’ term), organizational riding is working to cover up  an organization’s lies.

When an organization lies, it needs a whole set of riders to keep it safe. Following is an example of how riders assist organizations to lie.

Chris (CEO) told  Johnny (Head of R&D) that he must release the new product fix within 2 months. Johnny knows that nothing “releasable” will be available for 8 months. Yet Chris issues an email to all key clients promising the new fix mentioning that  Dr Johnny is in full alignment with the realistic commitment.

No one, not one single person, believes that this commitment is doable. The product “fix” will be delivered 9 months late, and even then, the fix will be very partial. Yet the organization was never exposed, assisted by riders.

How did this happen? Take a look.

1-Amibiguous language was a key rider. “Pending unexpected difficulties; contingent on the purchase of new software; as things stand now”. All these terms kept the lie afloat.

2-HR muddies the water, blowing smoke up peoples’ ass. HR, the ultimate rider, puts plans in place to improve engagement, perhaps, in the future; a new work-life algorithm is put in place, which shows the ups and downs or hard work over a 15 year period. Ok, bust your ass now, but one day you will be saved.

3- Bullshit progress reviews are often delayed and cancelled, or bogged down in detail. The documentation of these riding-driven meetings is fuzzy at best and lacking in most cases.

4-There is creeping de-scoping of the eventual “fix”, de-scoping being a key rider allowing organizations to lie.

5-New, ambitious, fake riding- superheroes push top talent aside as they promise to deliver what old guard apparently cannot deliver.

6-New swear words appear: nay-saying (truth); risk-evasiveness (honesty); negativistic (integrity) .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dealing with white lies and blatant fibs in organizations. And in OD!

Budgets, sales forecasts, dates of product releases, product quality: these are all issues that organizations lie about in order to ensure their existence in turbulent times. False data is fed to the market, to customers, to investors, to boards and often to competitors. 

Very often, without these fibs, the liar would have become a goner.

Example: The present budget for the new IT system is 4 million euro, claims the CEO to the Board, which oks the investment with great difficulty. Eight months later and 3 months before project completion, the CEO announces that 7 more months and 2 million additional Euros are needed to complete the project. The board caves in. Of course the CEO  knew in advance that this is the only way he could have pried out the money from the board, which eventually will cost 9 million Euro and 4 years to complete.

What are the main dangers posed by this “prologue” of initially lying? Well, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Within the organization, people need to pretend: fake goals; fake KPIs; fake updates; a culture of blaming someone else for the delay/quality/price. 

Or perhaps there is a double set of books! Like what we mean and what we say.

Or what we learn not to say.

And what happens to nay-sayers who challenge the fibs? Who thrives and who drowns in such a culture?

It all really becomes one big fucking lie. But the organization survives.

And of course we need to ask, what type of OD is done is such a context. Does OD help perfume the pig, as it were, stirring up the troops to do their level best to “make it happen”? Rah-rah; wow wow!

Or does OD unravel the web of lies, which poses short term existential threats which may cost the OD consultant his, or her, job. Yes, his or her. 

I have been fired 3 times for unravelling lies. I even consulted a company that had missed a delivery date by 3 years on a minor software release, on which no one was even working, albeit that the end customer was paying for its development.

Of course OD also has it little white lies, to say the least. Is what we do actually good for business always? Do the latest trends that OD practitioners push really add value? Like “love in the workplace” or “hire for neuro-diversity”. Is wellness achieved at work, for God’s sake?  Does teamwork pay off? Is process and value alignment necessary, or do the conflicting demands between the two create the necessary tension needed to get the job done? Can we strengthen middle management; Does it do any good? 

I suggest that before we attempt to undo the fibs and lies of our clients, we deal with our own shit. If you get my drift.

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Letter from Tel Aviv as cease fire comes into effect

Living in an area which was not spared bombing on 3 nights, as well as working on-site with clients which were constantly bombarded, made the last 11 days into a rough patch, to use some British understatement. The British understatement comes from my maternal British grandparents. All in all, I ran to bomb shelters over 50 times.

Yes, the body came back to my thoughts again. I had put it aside for years. In 1973, on the way to the Syrian front on the Golan Heights, we saw the body of a recently killed Syrian soldier. On the way back from the Syrian front the next day, the body was still there. However it stank something awful and there were flies all over it. It was bloated,  about to explode. The sites of that body never really haunted me; but I did think about it as I lay in bed with the sounds of rockets whizzing overheard, now, in 2021.

Last Wednesday, as  I left my client’s site this week (in Ashkelon) and travelled home, there was a huge rocket barrage. On the radio, I heard the warning to “take cover” for the very area I was travelling thru.  Most drivers stopped their cars and took cover. I heard my late Dad’s voice telling me “floor it and get the fuck out of there”. That’s what I did, as I closed the radio and returned to my audiobook Hidden Valley Road, a book about a family heavily impacted by severe mental illness.

Did I think about Gaza? In my military days, during one of the courses, I was stationed there for a few months. Not on the border of Gaza, but in Gaza City. I used to buy myself Seven Up and Hershy Bars, which were unavailable in Israel at the time.

To get back to my question! I did, but not the way that many of my readers probably did. I thought about what happens with the people there who have no say whatsoever about how their government operates. I thought about the devastating impact of religious beliefs on the Gazans. I thought how lucky I am to be secular. How lucky I am to have been born on the winning side, although I am aware that the world press is most sympathetic when the Jews lose. 

And I remembered all the time what my fate would be if we were not strong. No dhimi for me, thank you very much.

My daughter called me every day urging me not work. She rarely calls me once a week! My son called me often as well. I reminded each of them where the will is and told them that at 71+, I prefer death by bombing more than other health atrocities which await me.

Am I critical of my own government? It’s hard to expect too much from the thugs who run our show, influenced as they are by their right wing, fascist religious base.

Both sides have their lunatic fringe, yet if you take the most open minded and liberal people on both sides, they are still light years apart. This is a blood/religious/territorial  feud of the worst kind; no end is in site. Would a left wing government acted differently? Well I have a strange answer for that. My guess is that a left wing government would have have bombed Gaza much earlier due to the incendiary balloons  lobbed at us for years. Only a right wing government such as the one we have could have waited so long.

So now it’s back to “normal” for a while, until the next break down of the “hudna” , a must know Arabic word for people who want to know how violence ends in this neck of the words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Arbitrary Nature of Authority-A case study

Hi Allon,

I run a think-tank with 75 scientists. Most of the staff have PhD’s or MScs; about one third come from 8200 (Israeli crypto-spying unit).

Of course, as a manager, I allow our staff a great deal of freedom. We have 8  units with independent, almost unlimited  budgets. There are no timetables, and each unit  gets a very broad mandate to produce anything they want in such areas as “bridges and railway infrastructure protection”.

As a manager, I face one major problem. Everything is an argument. I get push back about our taxi-policy; our pension plans are ridiculed although they are very fair, the restaurants we order from are decimated by our staff on social media. No caterer wants to work with us anymore!

All of our rules and procedures are very flexible and when I get push back, I go to great lengths to explain the rationale after the unit managers throw up their hands in despair.  Last year, we  trained all unit managers in “managing creative people” but it was a colossal failure.

Things are out of hand;  no one wants to be a unit manager anymore. Three unit managers have resigned; I fear  a meltdown of all authority. All the shit floats up to my desk.

Can we meet and discuss this?

Prof Noa D.

My work with Professor Noa lasted 3 meetings.

In our first meeting, I recommended that Noa implement one rule which was arbitrary in nature, and provide no explanation yet very severe consequence for non-compliance.

The rule was expenses had be given in by 900 AM by the 27th of each month; if not, staff  would be reimbursed 80 days later, not immediately upon the next paycheck. Since the law calls for reimbursement within three months, this rule was kosher, albeit “out of the blue” and not all logical;  the IT system was equipped to reimburse expenses at anytime in real time. 

Prof Noa was instructed not to be provide any explanation whatsoever, except “that’s the way it is.”

In our second meeting, Noa reported that the rule was extremely unpopular but was strictly implemented. Two scientists had suggested that Noa see a shrink, and she had ignored their comments, and told them “do as you are told”.

In our final meeting six months later, Prof Noa told me that compliance with all regulations was far better than it ever was in the past. “And Allon, you were right; authority needs to be seen as somewhat arbitrary, otherwise one doesn’t stand a chance”.

Noa then invited me out to long lunch in the Yemenite Quarter of Tel Aviv. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Acquire an innovative company; then choke it to death

Israeli companies (often start ups) are often acquired by European, American and Chinese companies which are in need of innovation. The acquired Israeli companies often already have a value-add product for the purchaser, or even a suite of products, and the expectation is that the acquisition will result in an endless stream of innovation.

Indeed, this is the very essence of the Israeli high-tech scene. Israeli companies often lack the ability to scale properly after innovation due to poor discipline as well as distance from the market place , and the acquiring company has proximity both to market, an install base as well as resources to make it happen.

The success rate of integrating innovative companies is impressive but there are failures, huge failures, and I want to point out the most frequent reason for these failures.

1-Too much “process” is thrown at the Israelis: development, methodologies, business process, new IT systems, all of which divert the focus of the acquired company from continuing to innovate.

2-Senior  management on the acquiring side puts the Israeli site at the mercy of HQ -based middle managers and staff members who have no skills in managing innovation, and micromanage the Israelis to death.

3-Upon acquisition, top talent and key developers leave, fearing becoming part of a “big company”

4-Frequent clashes occur as the Israeli site strives to gain favour directly  with very top decision makers to ensure that the Israeli site maintains strategic positioning in the company roadmap. This often is very effective, but puts the Israeli site in conflict with everyone except the acquiring CEO.

5-The acquiring company wants the innovation, but lacks the stomach to deal with the results of “fast and dirty”, so characteristic of Israeli high tech, where speed is strategy.

6-Israeli developers tend to tell customers what they need, as opposed to giving customers what they want; this causes huge clashes with the acquiring company’s sales force, who want innovation, but don’t like how innovators interact with their customers.

7 The sales force of the acquiring company is reticent to sell innovative products to their clients, so they choke the products of the acquired company to death, in a slow squeeze, to the dismay of the acquiring CEO and the Israeli site. This is often a mean and brutal power play.

 

 

 

 

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On the inability of the EU to vaccinate its population-an annoying OD perspective

The media is full of stories as to why the European Union has failed to vaccinate its population against Covid 19. I am adding on one more.

My unique vantage point on the EU vaccine crisis stems from looking thru the lenses of an OD practitioner with (I hope) relevant experience in global organizations. As usual, I’ll keep it short and answer comments and queries that readers leave in the relevant section below.

Mergers take an awful long time to heal and as such, the European Union is still naturally experiencing severe post-merger integration issues. Post-merger organizations make decisions slowly because the centres of power are not developed enough to make coherent decisions. As a result, post-merger organizations suffer from decisional constipation, with key issues stuck in the system because no one is quite strong enough to push decisions thru even after these decisions have been made.

Post merger organizations are larger, but they cannot yet leverage their size. Their size becomes a major liability because it slows them down until they figure out how it all works, which can and does take  generations.

Procurement and deployment, when left in the hands of bureaucrats, becomes self-serving, because there is no one powerful client who has to be pleased and/or no dictator holding a gun to your head. Thus, negotiations go on for ever because the sense of urgency is lacking. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more dangerous to a project than a self-serving bureaucracy immune to immense pressure from a powerful stakeholder.

Values prevalent in the major EU countries are liberal, with lots of slogans like about “no one is safe until we are all safe”. When these values impact a rigid bureaucracy and an organization with weak ultimate stakeholder pressure, another crushing blow is dealt to an effect coping strategy. So what’s wrong with these values, one may ask? To be honest, lots is wrong. Demand creates supply; central planning creates shortages. The Soviet Union taught that lesson very well. The strong help the weak because they are strong. You put on your child’s emergency mask on an airplane only after put on your own, otherwise you both die. Strong healthy nations can export vaccines only when they themselves no longer feel threatened. That’s common sense, except that neither common sense nor value consistency is common during post-merger integration.

When Mr. Yu asks his supplier, Mr. McGraw from whom he buys from millions of dollars, to hire his good-for-nothing-son, McGraw thinks Yu is corrupt. Yu thinks McGraw is thankless.

But Yu is right; favours do work, when they are mutually agreed to. As a matter of fact, favours work much faster than do negotiated contracts. If I were Italian, or Spanish, or Greek, I would prefer my procurer had pockets full of money to better leverage pressure (bribe) a vaccine supplier, rather than a book of procurement rules written by some clerk who wants to follow process and be “fair”, and immune from stakeholder pressure. 

Is this crisis a defining moment which will speed up the post merger integration of the EU? Well that’s another post, and it’s a crap shot at this point. Too early to call. It depends how many bodies will pile up and how ruinous the economy becomes within the nation states composing the EU. 

 

 

 

 

 

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How organizations kick themselves in the ass by making teamwork impossible

It never ceases to amaze me how organizations kick themselves in the ass by making teamwork almost impossible.

John from Sales, Edna from Product Marketing and Paco from Customer Service are at one another’s’ throats. They were summoned into the big boss’ room and told to “get their act together and act like a team”. John has been promoting products that do not exist; Edna has been accused of ignoring customers’ unique needs (especially in low cost markets and the Japanese market)  in her product road map and Paco keeps telling his customers that he will ask a design engineer  from R&D to fix bugs, because his own department lacks the needed documentation and some of the features are “immature”. Customers have complained to the big boss that “no one in your organization gives the same answer”.

Thus the boss stressed the need for team work; however, he ain’t gonna get what he asked for.

The standard definition of a team is a group of people with shared common goals, mutual dependencies and a feeling of partnership. However, this definition is very misleading. Indeed mutual dependencies may exist, but these dependencies may not be acknowledged due to the very way that an organization is designed. As a result of poor design and the wrong assumptions, infighting, finger pointing, endless email threads and inter-departmental warfare predominate-not team work.

Back to the gang of 3. John, Edna and Paco are not a team. Indeed they may have a common goal, mutual dependencies and a feeling of partnership as expressed by some nebulous commitment to the company’s vision, but when the rubber hits the road, not only are their goals not aligned, but their mutual dependencies are unacknowledged. John needs to sell, Edna needs to produce a coherent product road map, and Paco needs to fix what does not work, or cool off the customer until a new fix is available. And above all, Paco, John and Edna need to make their respective  bosses (not one another)  look good.

The integration of organizational system for which John, Edna and Paco work is not to be downloaded to these three players; it is a matter of organizational design, prevention of sub system maximization, and allowing integration and trade-offs to be made at the lowest possible level. Example: John will sell only from the product road map, Edna will make this road map more flexible and Paco will ensure that his service agents have more product knowledge.

But this won’t happen, because the organization does not want it to happen. The basic assumption guiding the present dysfunction is that if John, Edna and Paco do their very best and over-perform in their specific areas, the organization will succeed. Nothing is farther from the truth.

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Using coaching to avoid change- a case study

The Boston based AI division of an Nasdaq traded company acquired a start up based in Paris and Tel Aviv. Due to faulty due diligence, the decision to retain the founders of the start up as joint CTO’s (chief technology officers) was abandoned and they were asked to leave the company. As a result, a massive rupture of trust occurred between Boston HQ and the brain power in France and Tel Aviv.

Marvin Duvalier was hired to integrate the acquired start up into HQ. Marvin had perfect credentials: he had vast experience in M&A activity, he spoke English and French as native languages, his wife is Israeli so he had an amazing  understanding of Hebrew, although he could not speak well. He also had vast domain expertise in AI.

Two months after he was hired, Boston acquired another start up in Moscow, which had competed with the French Israeli start up. Marvin was tasked with “putting this all together into one working unit”.

Six months into his role, Marvin is seen as a “failure”. In his initial performance review, he was told that he was seen as untrustworthy, manipulative and a professional bull-shitter, trying to please all of the people all of the time.

Marvin was asked to hire a coach, to hone his trust building skills. Marvin hired a coach as requested, and immediately started looking for a job, which he found after two months.

“Those fuckers in HQ make decisions based on excel sheets, faulty due diligence, and revenue scenarios crunched out by hacks, and then assign me a coach!”, he told the recruiter who found him his next job.

The Head of Business Development who recommended these failed  acquisitions and the CEO of the AI unit, are very close friends from their days in university. Three years down the road, the AI Boston based  Business Unit’s entire management team was replaced. Moscow was closed down; the French team could not be downsized due to labour law and drained huge financial resources. In Tel Aviv’s hot high tech market, the company got a bad name and talent walked out. It was a veritable disaster, which the coach did not prevent.

Coaching is often used to frame individuals as “guilty” of individual incompetence,  thus evading focusing attention on the real  system problems. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s ever so rare that Organization Development is commissioned for the right reason

“How will we know that the service that we are purchasing is effective? How can we measure the results”, are questions posed by clients at the outset of an Organization Development project. These queries are posed either due to the need to justify the expense, or out of ignorance, or in order to gain control of the vendor. At times, perhaps, they are asked naively.

What’s the answer to such a question? Let me start with two stories that I have shared potential clients.

An organization decides to measure customer satisfaction by discovering how many times the phone rings before it is answered, and how many complaints are received about poor service per customer service agent. Software is purchased and an OD vendor is commissioned to implement that change. Immediately, customer service agents beginning answering calls immediately and saying “please hold”, and when they identify themselves, they mumble their name so that it’s hard to complain about someone specific. Later on the consultant learns that the product itself is faulty and its non functional features were, and are still, over promoted.

Another client wants to enhance the long term commitment of the ultra-skilled staff, and hires a consultant to enhance their engagement. Over time, it becomes clear that this very staff has become a monopoly of knowledge, systematically keeping new recruits in the dark for years, making their experience into a power bloc that makes incredulous pecuniary demands.

OD, I explain, deals with the “underworld”, the subterfuge that prevents change from happening effectively. And up front, it is very hard to define exactly what success will look like. The “success” we strive for changes constantly. OD is often initially commissioned for the wrong reason, or the intervention is aimed at the wrong people. It is ever so rare that OD deals with the problem that it was initially commissioned to deal with.

So the answer is that success cannot be defined a priori. It can be initially defined every few weeks, and each definition will be vague and not binding. Success is not even progress, because in the initial stages, things get worse, or much worse. If the client shies from this truth, it can be likened to planting a flower bed in the wrong direction with no/too much water. It’s not going to work. And it’s best to make this clear as early as possible, as early as possible.

 

 

 

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