The blaming culture-root causes and what can be done

A Story

When the “Ogen” software release hit the market, the shit hit the fan. 550 clients had to close down their electrical grid as software bugs caused many “early warning” systems to alert that a disaster was impending.

The CEO, inundated with angry calls, convened a management meeting and ripped his entire team over the coals. The Head of Sales complained that “Engineering will ruin my reputation”. The Head of Software Engineering blamed the “Deployment Unit” for not understanding how to install the software. The Deployment Unit claimed the software was a piece of horse shit. Finance blamed Sales for the fact that “we will face a huge revenue shortage next year.”

Definition-a blaming culture is characterized by shirking of responsibility by shifting it down to the next level, up to the next level, over to a peer, or on to a different unit..

The blaming culture is a mega epidemic, especially since 2008 when jobs become very scarce. Root causes for the blaming culture include-

  1. Parking the blame for unrealistic goals
  2. Maximization of the goals of each sub-unit
  3. Fear of being dismissed
  4. Email mail/chatting technology
  5. Lack of personal contact between staff
  6. Overdose of matrices
  7. Compromising seen as not worthwhile
  8. Overdose of “yes-we-can ism” coupled with lack of resources
  9. Leadership  Machiavellian-ism
  10. “Dumbing” of the workforce due to IT systems replacing common sense

The ONLY way to go about eliminating the culture of blaming is to deal with manifestation of blaming at the top of the organization. Nothing else works. Once the blaming issue is solved at the top, it trickles down to the rank and file within a few years.

In the case above, the CEO knew that the software release was faulty, but gave a “go ahead” because”we can always fix things on fly. None of clients will throw us out because  their CTO’s career is dependant on our success”.

For those who are interested on how blame is managed, click here.

 

 

 

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Interviewing people with poor English language skills

Allon asks-“tell me about the type of input you would like to get from HQ”. Answer- “Me no hap no sahlale inkalez lohne tahm, lah.”

Yes, interviewing people whose native language is not English is hard for for the interviewer! In the above case, it took me about 5 more minutes to understand that this Thai engineer had not had a salary increase for a long time, which did not even address my question as I had asked it!

Interviewing people whose level of English is poor presents a cultural as well as linguistic challenge. In many of my posts, I have provided tips on how to deal with cultural differences in an interview. In this post I will deal with the linguistics of interviewing someone whose English is substandard,.

  1. Prepare simply worded questions and pluck out all the tough words. Utilize becomes use; sinister becomes bad, harass becomes bother.
  2. Ask each question several times and in several ways. Please explain how Som deals with customers? Do customers annoy Som? How does Som solve customer problems? If you get very different answers, then try again, since many interviewees feign understanding.
  3. When there is a really hard concept to convey in a question, it makes sense to put the question in writing in the interviewees native language. One case I remember is asking “is there is an emphasis on the individual doing everything possible to get the job done”. This was really tough to convey to various populations.
  4. Some words don’t translate and you need to prepare a “work around”. For example there is no such word as “expedient” in Hebrew or teamwork in Chinese. So instead of asking if Dov solves problems expediently, you can ask if Dov is capable of functional compromise.
  5. Never assume you are understood. It is much better to assume that you are going to be misunderstood unless proven differently.
  6. Triple the time you allot for an interview.
  7. Take breaks frequently because in some cases, the interview process can be brutal. I remember one very painful migraine after interviewing one particular person in Seoul.
  8. Enjoy the ride. There are funny moments that can be enjoyed. Like when I asked how to pronounce someone’s name and it took me 15 minutes to get it right. Or when some asked me “you chew”, meaning “are you Jewish”?

 

 

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What happens when Indians and Israelis work together

Over the years, I have consulted more than a hundred teams of Israelis and Indians working together in all configurations. Israelis with Indian bosses, Indians with Israeli bosses and Indians and Israelis with a German boss.

Whilst India is a huge country and Israelis are a very diverse and individualist lot, there tend to be several common characteristics  that I want to share.

  1. Israelis challenge authority as a way of life; India based managers have a difficult time managing their “overly opinionated ” Israel based employees.
  2. Indians often request permission from their bosses if they need to overstep their role; their Israeli counterparts view this behaviour as “hiding” behind their bosses.
  3. Both Indians and Israeli bypass the system and leverage personal connections to get things done; this serves as an excellent platform for solving what seem to be insurmountable problems.
  4. Indian employees exhibit deference and their Israeli bosses often think that there is agreement on a course of action, when there is no agreement whatsoever.
  5. Both Israelis and Indians negotiate all the time as a way of life. The better the negotiation skills are, the more mutual respect is garnered. (These negotiation skills can drive US and German managers out of their mind.)
  6. Both Israelis and Indians work very hard and put in long hours, with constant availability via their mobiles. These similarities build trust.

Consultants who work with Israel Indian teams should focus on clarifying relationship to authority, defining expectations from follower-ship, communication styles under duress, ways to augment transparency and face saving. mechanisms.

On a personal level, I love working with Israeli and Indian teams. Both populations show consultants a lot of appreciation and warmth if the consultant does the work properly.

 

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Why do some OD consultants whore?


In her book about severely ill  mental health patients “Falling into the Fire”,  Dr Christine Montross illustrates how the psychiatrists  come to resent these patients who make them feel so inadequate. As Montross points out, this deadly dynamic works to the severe  detriment of the very people who need help the most.

In organization development, a parallel exists. Managers and organizations can present huge challenges to the feeling of competence of the OD practitioner, especially since 2008 when the shit hit the fan and people became more of a commodity than an important  resource, challenging OD’s basic assumptions.

Whilst psychiatrists tend to blame their patients, OD professionals tend to try and please their clients by pimping and whoring pre-packaged nonsense, useless tips and empty models and promises. The rational behind the whoring is not merely commercial. It is driven by a feeling of “if I do the right thing, I will be branded as incompetent by the idiot client, and fired for the wrong reasons.”

OD was not always about pleasing sycophant HR managers and narcissist CEO’s. My generation grew up trained to confront the client and challenge basic assumptions.

And if you are skilled and fear not, it is still possible to do a good job. I have encountered clients who make me believe that I would feel better had I participated in the boxing match between  Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, known as the Thrilla in Manilla rather than consulting them. But I try and stick to a core OD value -speak truth to power.

Let’s not forget the famous words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav-all the world is but a narrow bridge, and most important of all is to fear not. (kol ha olam kulo, gesher tsar mod, vhaiqar, lo lefached klal)

gesher-tzar-meod_0

 

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Yes, we have no bananas

Over the years, I have worked with clients who have verbally disagreed with ideas with which I presented  them, yet implemented these very ideas as if there had been no verbal disagreement.I can give hundreds of examples but one will suffice.

Example: CEO Herb told me that CFO Garry undermines him in management meetings. I suggested to Herb that he co-opt Garry into planning these meetings together. Herb disagreed yet a month later, I walked into Herb’s office and there sat Herb and Garry planning a management meeting.

I believe that there are several explanations for this phenomenon

  1. Change happens somewhat chaotically. So this phenomenon may not have a clear reason.
  2. Face saving. This behaviour allows the client to face save and not rely on “tips” from a consultant. This may be true, but it is too easy an explanation.
  3. Herb thinks he is tricking Garry, not co-opting him. So the consultants’ idea is being implemented but within a different context.
  4. People who get to the top learn to take credit for themselves without even realizing it. So Herb may not know how to manage Garry, but he sure knows how to manage the consultant!
  5. In the process of learning, there is a pro versus con, “back and forth” dynamic in the thinking process of the client.  Herb’s choice may have developed after the “no” and Herb had not bothered updating the consultant.
  6. Clients often say things and do the opposite.

I am sure that all readers know that there are clients who feign implementation….but that is the next post.

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3 very strange things that happened in my career

There is an expression in Arabic, “live a lot and you’ll see a lot.” (Ish ktir-betshuf ktir)

I am approaching my 67th birthday and that is a long time on the road; perhaps now is the time to share a few of the very strange things that have taken place during my career.

Year 2016

I was invited to meet with an investor who was very disappointed by the results of the startup in which he had invested. He was about to cut funding in half, but before he did so, “I wanted to ask you if you know how to double the productivity of the staff who will remain after they downsize by 60%”.

Year 2012

A CEO told me that I was to report only to him. “However, make sure that HR is in the loop so that she does not walk out on me”. Therefore, I set up a monthly meeting to update HR. The HR manager called me 2 seconds after I set up the monthly meeting  to bellow at me that “I want a daily report on your progress. Not monthly, not weekly, but daily.” People who read my satiric blog are well aware of the “daily” term.

Year 2001

I was sent to Seoul to interview 12 people because of the low level of communication between the Seoul group, the Toronto HQ and R&D in Tel Aviv. The local manager (Canadian) warned me that “their English ain’t to good Allon, so instead of 60 minutes per person, I gave you an hour of a half. And I’ll arrange them in order of their English language skills”. After the first interview, I told the manager that I did not understand one word. And he told me, “she’s the best English language speaker we have”. He was right. And you know what, it’s hard to get an Advil for a migraine in a Seoul pharmacy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Coping with very severe organization problems-Primum non nocere

The commercialization and productization of OD (as performed by magicians or wonder-consultants)  has masked some of the real issues that an OD practitioner faces. The OD “vendors” are reticent to discuss the hardest issues they face, like a surgeon who does not want to discuss how many died under his or her knife.

This is not a blog written to promote my profession, so I allow myself to deal with the “dirt under the finger nails”.  So……

Strategies for dealing with very difficult organizational problems which are almost insoluble are the subject of this post.

First I shall illustrate two such problems.

  • A senior team has been in place for 12 years with more or less the same leaders. They are located in 3 continents. There is a low level of transparency, very poor teamwork, and having worked together for so long, there is a lot of mutual contempt. The company that they run is very profitable.
  • There is constant bad blood between Customer Service and Development teams. Due to market conditions, a company has released a very immature product to the market, against the recommendation of the Development Team. The clients are furious. Customer Service does not know how to handle customer complaints, so they demand that the Development Team deal with the customers. The developers refuse to see customer demanding that management must “give us time to write the bloody code, not deal with customers who are justifiably angry.”

Now let’s look at a few strategies.

First there is a matter of mindset. 

  • The superman “I can fix it all” mindset which many snake oil consultants use leads to nowhere, except great revenue for the consultant.
  • The mindset of impotence and despair, whilst rationally justified perhaps, obviously makes no sense. The appropriate mindset is being pragmatic, avoid wow-wowing to maintain credibility and risk mitigation.

Now let’s address the question of how much intervention is needed. My suggestion is that for very difficult organizational problems, the best intervention is of low intensity spread over a long time, as opposed to intense happenings, like a quarterly offsite.

The role of the consultant in such a mess is primum non nocere (“foremost do no harm”. ) Great damage can be inflicted by applying snake oil to severe problems. For example, a teamwork session for the senior team mentioned above is counter-indicated.

I also  suggest a focus on containment of pain with compassion and humour, if possible  addressing issues whilst managing appropriate expectations and keeping things from getting much worse.

 

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Forcefeeding Engagement

Dr Andy is giving a course in organizational diagnosis to a group of students in Asia, His students are in classrooms in Beijing, Bangkok and Taipei. Andy gives the course via Skype from his home office in Montreal.

Andy is having a hard time with this course; he feels his students are not engaged. “They never ask anything unless asked. There is too little ‘learning traction. I seem to be talking to myself”’.

Let’s look at what is happening under the surface.

Jie from Bangkok believes that were she to ask about the many issues that go through her mind, she would stick out like a braggart. Her English is perfect since her mother is British and this is very embarrassing for Jie.

Rei from Beijing often has ideas different from those of Dr Andy. However Rei always censors himself because he loves the course and wants to show his respect by not sharing controversial thoughts.

When Norman from Taiwan does not understand something, he fears that were he to ask Dr Andy,  he would be hinting  that Andy does not know how to teach. Norman does not want to hurt Andy’s “face.”

“Engagement” with authority figures (asking questions, taking ownership to be active, sharing opinions) is seen in many parts as insulting, rude and arrogant. While digital reality  and globalism have dented this slightly, cultural codes have not been rewritten.

It is not only difficult to “engage” certain populations, it is downright wrong and disrespectful to try and do so.

In other societies, levels of engagement levels need to be tempered because there may be  too much counter productive engagement. In Israel for example, there is a tendency to speak out all the time, have firm opinions and not show respect to people in positions of authority. Israelis tend to argue for the sake of arguing, which has deep roots in tradition. It is not uncommon for experts to face an Israeli audience and totally lose control of a discussion because of “too much engagement”.

 

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Beyond the bull—t.

There are so many organization and management fads out there that you can virtually drown in a sea of verbiage, or even get a case of mild indigestion from overdosing on slogans.

The goal of this post is to provide 5 organizational principles which apply to most types of organizations and cut through all the fashion-based repackaging of the basics.

  1. You cannot define away complexity. If your organization is complex, as most organizations are, the complexity will not disappear by only defining roles, responsibilities and processes. Definitions help, but only up to point.
  2. Distance breeds mistrust. One can use Whatsapp, Snap chat, Skype or the most sophisticated of tools. But distance breeds anxiety, lack of trust and deep control based issues.
  3. Staffing is strategic. Bad hires cause phenomenal pain which cannot be mitigated by coaching, management development or change management plans.
  4. Business processes do not replace common sense.
  5. Over reliance on IT systems dumbs. The dumbness does not appear immediately, but develops over time. If one does not deal with this dumbing, you end up with great IT systems and a bunch of stupid behaviours, like no accountability, and 120 emails on every issue.
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They saw the sea, and I felt free

atthesea

At the sea

I must have been to the Tel Baruch Beach in Tel Aviv thousands of times. But today, I had the time of my life. I started volunteering for Min el Bahar.

Min el Bahar (From the Sea) is a program which provides Palestinians from the occupied territories a fun day at the beach. Accompanied by two wonderful nuns, a bus transports them from one of the despicable roadblocks in the occupied West Bank to Tel Aviv where a group of volunteers (me included) greets them and, together we have a wonderful day at and in the Mediterranean.

Today on my first day, I served as a volunteer life guard, and my tasks included coaxing them to take their very first footsteps into the sea. It was so good to see and feel the sea via their eyes.They had never been to sea before; they were born in the wrong place and on the wrong side of history.

3 girls pointed to a few  high slippery rocks which were off limits. They asked me if we could sneak away and take some pictures from the rocks. I agreed and we stole off. The nuns and lifeguards all called us  back, but we took some pictures anyway and ran back, laughing. All 3 girls thanked me effusively  for the rest of the day, often smiling at me. When they got on the bus, I got a few winks!

I saw one girl who was trying very hard to swim and kept swallowing the ocean! I gave her a short lesson (knees straight, hands cupped, breath properly) and she then swam at least 500 meters on her own.  A real “batal” (champion in Arabic)!

Over the past decade, I have read almost all of of Hans Fallada’s books, one of which, “Alone in Berlin (Everyone Dies Alone) ” describes the heroism of people trapped in the tyranny of a fanatic political regime. Fallada has inspired me to think about what can be done under a regime of oppression.

Unlike Fallada’s characters, I  am not a hero. But today, I did not feel like an oppressor. I felt I was doing what I can, at grass root level, to create contact at a human level. I will never forget today.

They saw the sea, and I felt free.

hans-fallada-jpeg

Hans Fallada    ששונות זעירים

 

 

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