When an OD intervention is stuck

OD interventions are not physics.

It is difficult to predict when an intervention will have sufficient traction to drive change only to slow down, unravel itself back to square one, or even suddenly regress only to be worse than it was in the beginning.

In this post, I want to provide a few guidelines (about what can be done when things get stuck)  that I follow myself and also suggest to the people I supervise.

  1. Defocus. Instead of working on one or two directions, try several directions, all at the same time. This will enable to work with what you have. Remember, organizations can be very unpredictable.
  2. Use the “stuck in a snowbank” routine. Well, I’d better explain. I learnt to drive in Quebec during January’s severe winters. When stuck in snow, you can move you steering wheel slightly to the right and left, then go slowly back and forward, then back and forward, rocking your way out. So, applied to organizational development, this would mean: look at your mandate, widen it or narrow it down, and/or don’t apply constant pressure in the same direction. Or, push forward and allow things to regress, then go forward again and again, and back, until there is change.
  3. Look for hidden agendas. Who is benefitting by the lack of progress? Is someone in HR trying to replace you as a vendor? Is the CFO trying to cut down costs? Is your client just stringing along with you to please his boss.
  4. And never think about you. Change is not about your success, but rather the success of the organization. If you want faster change to make yourself look good, you are in the wrong business. So when things get rough, don’t make stupid mistakes and get thrown out in a futile attempts to look good.

 

Share Button

Micro-aggressions of managers

I will give 5 examples of behaviours which managers exhibit that constitute micro aggressions towards their teams and/or organizations. I define micro-aggression in an organizational context as indirect, subtle and manipulative discrimination against members of a less powerful (groups of) employees.

I will discuss in brief examples of interventions in such situations.

1) Give an identical task to more than once person, each person being unaware of the other’s involvement.

2) Oversimplify the difficultly of tasks and then question why progress is so slow.

3) Set a certain goal to please a client which is totally undoable, and then apply immense pressure to get it done, finally putting the blame on one of the subordinates whose political skills are nil.

4) Evade problems by just another reorganization, postponing the real problems until the reorg stabilizes.

5) Obfuscating of issues with flowery words such as “complex issue” or “challenging few months”, when complex means that the product does not work and challenging means poor cash flow so no bonuses.

Skilled consultants should have several arrows in their quiver in such situations. These arrows include making the subtext explicit, constant questioning, paradoxical intervention and pointing out the secondary benefit to the manager of using such manipulations.

Example: CEO Jim initiated reorganization because of siloism which Jim himself promotes. I asked Jim if he thinks the reorg will include brain transplants to teach his teams how to coordinate among themselves just to spite him.

Example: CEO Howard asked 3 different engineers to re-write the product life cycle. I questioned the CEO why he didn’t just pay $50000 to a consultant, and dictate the process that he wants. 

Example: CEO John appoints Gregory as his CFO. John himself was the CFO and was promoted to CEO; Gregory was his deputy CFO. John constantly tells Gregory that Sales Recognition is very inaccurate and “I had no problem with that when I was CFO”. John fails to point out that Sales were sky high in his time as CFO, but not so as present. I questioned John why he had not maintained the Sales Recognition portfolio for himself, as “you managed to make the best of bad situation so skillfully.”

Example: CEO Yuri told Support Manager Hana that the next few months would be a challenge. (The challenge is that the new product is dead on arrival). I told Yuri that the challenge could be easily rectified if the clients were replaced. And yes, he was very angry.

But then again, if you don’t like the heat in consulting, get out of the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

Share Button

Driving Uncle Khil

How can I introduce you to someone who I did not know well; to be honest I hardly knew him at all.

I have already introduced him as an Uncle, but he wasn’t my Uncle. He was my late wife Hadassah’s uncle. Khil, by the way,  is a nickname for Yehiel.

Every year on Passover, Hadassah and I would travel to Haifa from our home in Jerusalem by train and bus (4 hours)  to spend the holiday with her parents and two younger brothers. Hadassah’s family lived in Tivon, south east of Haifa.

Year after year, Hadassah would convey a message in the late afternoon  from her father asking if I could drive to Haifa to pick up Uncle Khil (Dohd Khil) who was coming over for the holiday meal.

My father in law drove a white Volkswagen; I had a drivers permit but was too poor to own a car, so I was always glad to have an opportunity to drive. I willingly obliged to drive the white stick-shift car and transport Uncle Khil.

The drive to Haifa was 25 minutes. There were no mobile phones then, so I got exact instructions where to pick up Uncle Khil. And I always arrived on time. To this day, I am rarely late for anything.

Waiting on the corner in Hadar (an area of Haifa) stood a very, very old man, with a full head of pure white hair. He was dressed fastidiously as if going to impress a lady friend. His skin was thin and very ancient-looking as well, yet with just a little bit of imagination; I could subtract 60 years and see a real dandy.

Uncle Khil was missing a finger, which he cut off by himself to avoid conscription back in Europe. Unable to control myself, I often found myself gawking at the surgery. He had done a very good job. There was no stump-he certainly could not have pulled a trigger with that finger.

Now I was an officer in those days and one would think that Uncle Khil and I would be very little to talk about-which is why one “would” think is wrong in this particular case. Khil knew how to cook very well, and his cholent (stew) was outstanding. I cooked tsulent as well, and we used to compare recipes in very great detail. He told me about adding eggplant to the mix, which he had learned from an Iraqi woman.

During the meal, I used to stare a lot at Khil-he spoke impeccable Hebrew without any sloppiness whatsoever. He was cognitively on top of everything. I knew that he as a ladies’ man in the past, and I could see in him the young man, now missing a finger. When we read out loud  Passover prayers which can be tricky at times, Khil never fumbled.

When the holiday meal ended, I drove Uncle Khil back to Haifa in the white Volkswagen. Khil always told me what a sweet girl I had married, and we would exchange a few words on World War Two. When I let Uncle Khil off, I always wondered if I would see him again.

I did.

Hadassah always thanked me for driving Uncle Khil back and forth, but I was the one who should have been thanking her for opportunity to experience an interesting version of a healthy old man, full of stories and full life under his belt.

Hadassah never came with me on these short trips. Although she was very mild mannered, she protested against driving in a German car, having lost all her family on both sides during the war. We never argued about that, as I was smart enough just to keep quiet.

Share Button

Why try to mitigate pain instead of rolling with the punches?

Recently I have been reading yet again about an esoteric subject-this time about how boxers deal with pain.

I was driven to this subject by my grandson who is very, very good at judo. Recently, he had to get his mouth stitched. Faced with my questioning and worry, he told me that his training includes coping with pain, and to an extent, even enjoying it because “judo is also about enduring pain, and even reaching a stage where it does not bother you all that much”.

I went on to read quite a bit about the brutal Thrilla in Manilla, as well as as what it feels like taking punches from the hardest of hitters (Tyson, Foreman, Marciano). I also read what it feels like during the month after you have been knocked out.

These were great reads, because of both the pride and “working through” that boxers experience as they absorb the punishment that they take with such grace and acceptance.

Of course, enduring pain should not become an ideology. I suffer from chronic back pain (my height and genetics) and I do not like it when told that I need to embrace pain instead of taking a Aleve.

While enduring pain is not an ideology, it sure is a necessity especially in organizations; unfortunately, OD does not give pain appropriate focus.

There are imho several reasons for our professions’ misguided attempts to mitigate pain:

  • There are built in conflicts between individual and the organizational needs that cannot be resolved. We are often hired to make that inevitable pain disappear.
  • Mutual dependencies in organizations are often unfulfilled, and are unfulfilled by design. (build fast and build cheap). We are often hired to pretend that teamwork is a cure for unfullfilled dependencies.
  • Technology enables people to communicate far faster than they can act, causing massive overload and burn out. OD has a whole tool kit to “apparently” improve communication, which often does not address the source of the pain-we cannot deal with so much information coming our way so fast.

And that is just the beginning of the list.

Attempts to mitigate the pain, also called wellness, engagement or some other fancy fad, try to plaster over the pain, deny it, and can worsen it. As a result, some OD interventions (stress management) are seen as bullshit, or a derivative thereof.

Pain has a function. Feel it, roll with the punches, and don’t make it go away.

It’s there for a reason. Look the reason with honesty and see what can be done. Don’t try to fool people with snake oil.

Share Button

How to go about thinking differently about things you feel sure about

Could it be my age that makes me less convinced about things that I took once for granted? Perhaps.

Could it be that having watched certain events unravel unexpectedly push me along the road of seeing things differently?

That’s for sure. The downfall of the USSR, the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, my success as a parent, the peacemaking visit to Israel of Sadat, the election of Trump, the collapse of reliable information on most topics-certainly all of these have shaken previous beliefs that I have held.

However, and it is a big however, I have always made an effort to try to think differently about people, events, and ideas. I do so very systematically as well. I read differing opinions and seek out people who disagree. I acutually get bored speaking with people who agree with me. I love probing the motives and cognitive structure of opposing views.

Here are a few challenges I have posed to myself and sought out, systematically, to understand all points of view. 1) Why do so many Americans oppose abortion? 2) Why was/is Trump appealing? 3) Why does the Israeli right oppose all compromise on the Palestinian issue? 4) Why are so many very smart people so faithful whilst I have no religious faith whatsoever? 5) Why does OD (my profession) not acknowledge that so many of its values are now irrelevant? 6) Why doesn’t political correctness not collapse in face of the facts? 7) Was all colonialism bad? 8) Are some cultures inferior on all counts? 9) Why did so many British spies really identify with ideology the USSR? 

And I can go on and on.

In my profession as well, I try to see why certain axioms may not be so axiomatic. If, for example, everyone is so sure that the Sales force is demotivated, I will generally start by ignoring this and looking at product quality. I never buy the company line until I have crawled into every nook and cranny to disprove it.

I actually love learning all sides of issues. I read a lot of things I do not agree with; I meet with people (and actually like them) who disagree with what I believe in. When someone disagrees with me, I engage more and more.

Have my academic endeavours and personal interactions changed my opinions? Absolutely. The more I studied Middle East history, the more pessimistic I became about any long term settlement. The damages and disadvantages of the global economy are clearer to me than ever. Democracy is so deeply flawed that it may not be sustainable with widespread ignorance-and perhaps better that it should not be under certain circumstances.

And more. Most of my opinions are “for the time being”.

Maybe even once I utter something, it is already outdated.

I consider this mindset, or skill, as one of my better assets, which I hope compensates for my chronic lack of patience, my outspoken manner and infrequent lack of decorum.

And finally, books that have impacted my opinions recently.

Adults in the Room        Yanis Vardufakis (Greek debt crisis and role of Germany)

Stalin’s Englishman       Andrew Lownie   (motivations to support USSR in Cambridge 5)

The Righteous Mind      Jonathan Haidt    (Conservative thinking explained)

The Matrix of Race        Rodney Coates et al  (systemic view of racism)

Motherland                    Paul Therroux (American south as a 3rd world state)

Little Man, what next     Hans Fallada (the impact of WW1 on Germany)

Islam                               Bernard Lewis (basic religious beliefs)

How to be a Conservative     Roger Scruton (core beliefs of conservatives)

Crazy like Us                             Eithan Watters (on exporting mental illness)

Strangers in ther own land        Arlie Hoschchild (on Trumpism)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share Button

Why are we returning to the work place

Working from home is waning quickly  & the “future of work” prognosis about the office-less organization are dissipating.

Attesting to this, grotesque traffic jams have returned. One of my commutes takes me 2-3 hours each direction for a 70 km commute twice a week! And that is the easier commute.

Why have people returned to work? I will attempt to provide my understanding of this nasty development in this short post.

Every organization has what I call a “purely political dimension”, that is a limited domain in which power is unequally distributed. Some people have positions of power and tell others what do. Other people do what they are told. Power has visible manifestations and symbols. These symbols of power and position create a clear pecking order, even if subtle. For example office size, parking slots, who has a conference room, brand of laptop. These symbols of power are emphasized by various titles, charts, work flow and ceremonies.

The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman discusses the term “status degradation ceremony” in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The status degradation ceremony  transforms  the identity or status of an individual into an identity/status lower down an organization’s hierarchy. In other words, it is a political (power related) tool that stratifies an organization. The status degredation ceremony is best played out “in situ”, on site, and not on Zoom or Teams because the degredation ceremony has many visual components.

Let me digress a moment and discuss the almost religious hype created around remote work-which made it into an ideology instead of a tragedy.

Media and especially social media create illusions that sometimes exist in parallel to reality (every country needs to do its part in climate control*; soon we will all be driving electric cars) and sometimes create a false reality (Zalensky is a hero, and not an idiot**).

Working for home became a serious topic of academic research on one hand. Unfortunately, it also became a hot topic on social media, which created the illusion that working from home is the future of work-peace in our time. Social media tends to ignore unpleasant truths. We all have bad breath in the morning;we all fart from time to time and politics is far more dominant in determining the future of work than Rob or Rachel from Twitter think.

So yes, social media created a positive hype about working from home, making it into the “new tomorrow”. Nonsense.  A false prophet. A Zalensky, if you were, hailed by social media as his country goes to shit.

Management may not have  lost control during the pandemic, but they certainly did lose the feeling of control, and lost some of the little “status degredation ceremonies” at their disposal. This loss of power was unbearable, as most people do not give away power easily.

And thus, as the pandemic crawls to an end for the time being, people are forced back to work where they will sit opposite their computers, attend a few meetings, and be at the beck and call of management who will assert their superiority from time to time via various degredation ceremonies. 

 

*Some countries need to do a lot about climate control; others’ contributions are meaningless.

**If you live next to a bear, don’t poke him in the ribs.

 

 

 

Share Button

On very very aggressive goals

In this post, I want to define what constitutes very very aggressive goals, run though their upsides and downsides for both managers and employees, and finally  discuss the practical implications for consultants who deal with organizations which have very very aggressive goals.

For the sake of this post, a very very aggressive goal is a goal which requires very hard work (often but not always) over a protracted period of time within a rigid and non-negotiable set of stringent budget, performance and quality requirements. Very very aggressive goals are often not achievable without some “slippage” or retreat , especially schedule, budget or “scope retreat”.

Why do organizations set very very aggressive goals?

1) To promise a key client something that they are demanding. Example: upgrade your last release or we will uninstall your software from our system.

2) To help build the career of a key decision maker. Example: Colonel Yair wants to use his unit to take out the enemy, because he is up for promotion in a few months.

3) In order to survive. Example: Ghetto Warsaw uprising. Or competitor emerges with prices that will destroy your market share. Or life saving medicine in a pandemic.

4) To gain huge strategic advantage in a very short time. Example: an application in the area of cyber security in a state under constant immediate threat.

Now let’s look at very very aggressive goals’ impact of various populations:

1 Employees

Newer employees and fresh meat can be very motivated by very very aggressive goals because of the platform it provides to shine quickly and get ahead without the tedious process of seniority slowly down the runway to promotion.

Veteran employees, who have seen this all before, take out their protective armor which includes making the “right” promises, “apparently agreeing”, prepare excuses and think who can be blamed when the shit hits the fan. “I did my piece but the specs we got were not accurate”, or “the client doesn’t know his ass from his elbow”.

I cannot overstate the protective armor that staff develops against very very aggressive goals. Example, “I won’t start working hard yet, because when the pressure really comes, I will already have ruined my family life”.

As Bangalore based OD guru Dr Joseph George points out in his comments below,  “sustainable achievements require a psychologically safe work environment in which one can attend to challenges as they occur, and deal with the stress of taking on initiatives that look promising, before they are completed”. The veteran recognizes the threat; the newcomers sees only the opportunity.

 

2 Managers

Middle managers are in a real quandary.  To maintain the trust with their employees, they need to listen to and factor in all the constraints and problems that surface to them, which often force them to ask the men in charge for more time and resources. The middle manager is often very aware that some goals are undoable, but cannot say so freely.

The senior managers at first often whip their horses more often than they plan to. Then, they pooh pooh away constraints, they show disdain for defeatism, they eventually start to hear only what they want to. They show little fear when they see cracks in the wall, but rather anger at the “incompetence of the troops”. Finally, senior managers craft stories about why the goals were not achieved: “circumstance changed”; the market changed-and/or they chop off a head or two and or pull off  a reorg which buys time from the board or key stakeholders. In other words, they provide a context that paints the failure as a non-failure, pushing forward doomsday to a later date.

3) OD consultants

I have been falsely accused of explaining how not to do OD,  and not focusing on what needs to done. Anyone who reads this blog knows what this is not true. I have  written many posts on how to deal with over-commitments and I will provide a few links. Like this. And this.

Now,  some practical tips on how to consult with companies whose goals are very very  aggressive:

The key to understand how to do successful consulting in such a situation is to understand how the organization will eventually de commit. (Goffman calls this process  “cooling the mark”.)

The first step and the most critical is bridging between what the managers say and what the employees know. 

De-commitment from the initial commitment may look like this:-

  1. Wow wow wow-we can do it.
  2. We are doing our best.
  3. There are some difficulties but we are confident
  4. There are some features we want to improve and this will take time,
  5. We will do “phased delivery”,
  6. We have a crisis!
  7. Renegotiation.

My experience is that the OD consultant needs to initially try two or three tricks that are known a priori will not be fully effective, yet will allow the gradual breaking of very bad news to the CEO. Interventions may include “coaching” for the head of R&D or one of his teams, various team building sessions or whatever. Within a month of two of OD being commissioned, “things are in process and while there is some improvement”, this change is not fast enough; then the management team can stop perfuming the pig both internally and with the client and come clean.

My experience also has taught me never to lose the trust of the programmers/first line employees. I once consulted on a project which management thought was “almost all done” while proof of design was severely flawed. I resisted all attempts to consult  people to “manage their priorities better-aka work even harder”. The moment that a Dilbert  feels that a consultant is there to apply pressure, the Dilbert  starts lying to you as well.

My experience has also taught me in situations of severe over commitment, people who “step up to the plate” and try to “make the impossible happen” may be very opportunistic and looking for a short term PR win. There are no fast fixes when the gap between the commitment and reality are too large. The OD consultant must be wary of factoring in commitment from these heroes-in-waiting.

Finally, 5 things you may not know about very very aggressive  commitments.

1 Culture counts. Risk tolerant cultures accept very very aggressive commitments because they are more tolerant about failure.

2 Very very aggressive commitments can be achieved especially when the winds of luck blow in the right direction.

3  Truth and facts die in an organization whose OS (operating system)  is based on constant very very aggressive goals. No one ends up knowing what is doable.

4 There are some very successful organizations which over commit and under deliver. In the real world of course, not in OD text books.

5 Very very aggressive commitments do breed positive by products in the short term-short cuts, risk taking and in-house innovation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share Button

Learning not to plan-and not worrying about it

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”, said world champion boxing champion Mike Tyson. Very wise words, not only in the ring.

Corona has struck us in the face. And the new variants of the corona virus may well do the trick and finally  teach the world how to deal more effectively with exceedingly prolonged ambiguity as an ongoing state of affairs.

For the middle east and third world, this is nothing new. There simply is no clarity in the middle east. Everything is up in the air and unknown. Leaders are fickle; geopolitics are like volcanos which rumble and spit out periodic lava, and there is no rhyme and even less reason. It is what it is-unknown.

As a result of this, Israelis for example see planning as a waste of time or a ritual one has to go though to please those who come from more stable environments, in which planning is the staple of life, as in-“shall we book a trip to Tenerife this summer?”

  • “Will the bus I am travelling on explode?”-let’s hope not.
  • “Is the guy who just got on the minibus a terrorist?”-let’s not think about that.
  • “Is it safe to take Road 6 or is it being targeted from Gaza?”-drive to road 6; you cannot let terror guide your everyday decisions.
  • “Can we book a room in Jerusalem?”-is it ever safe to go anywhere?

In many third world countries as well, people know better than to plan all that much. You miss a train-maybe the next one is in a day or two-or next week. Maybe. Or-a typhon puts the internet service out of service, for a month or two, or six. And that apartment  I just rented in that new building-will it be ready in 2 weeks, or perhaps two years? Is that a real cop at the intersection, or a crook? 

So my western friends, join the club. Life is now one big unknown. The world health crisis has not caused a bad case of disruption as much as it has replaced order with constant and ongoing, endless disruption playing havoc with our adaptive mechanisms. And put this is your pipe and smoke it: Planning is counter indicated when the semblance of order has vanished.

It makes much more sense to focus on now, the next 100 meters ahead of us, the next few days. Less vision-more bread and potatoes. More fun-less anxiety. More que sera, sera-and less tight-ass attempts to stay young, healthy forever, and “ahead of the curve”.

All of this has a huge impact on the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of OD, in terms of our focus upon changing, as opposed to adapting to, reality. We have far less control that OD as a profession would leave us to believe.

But that’s another post-although I would love to read your comments about that.

 

 

 

 

 

Share Button

When a good company is acquired by a lesser company-what is the focus of OD?

This is a highly specialized article about doing a post merger OD intervention in a situation whereby a less successful  company with fewer competencies acquires a more successful and competent company and/or when a large, rigid behemoth acquires an innovative company, as illustrated by consultant Terry Seamon in his comments to this post.

First of all, let’s talk about what not to do:

  • don’t focus on creating one culture or merging the two, which cannot be done in any case.
  • don’t initially focus on the interfaces.
  • don’t work on cultural differences.

The initial focus should be on:

  • structure that accommodates as much autonomy as possible for the short term as well as minimizing interfaces where the gaps in competency are overwhelming.
  • short-term decision making forums based on parity, i.e. an equal number of decision makers from both sides, if at all possible. It’s not perfect but it’s probably the best that can be done.
  • preservation of competencies in the acquired company. 
  • reputation management with the client base with special attention to account managers
  • as much relocation as possible for as long as possible; this can be used to mitigate impact of less successful layers and augment the impact of more competent if done properly
  • creation of a House of Lords in order to relocate members of the acquiring company who need to be moved aside elegantly

For a cookbook on how to choke an innovative company to death, here is a link.

 

 

 

 

Share Button

Leadership and Management are a real-world activity-with a bright side and a darker side. A very dark side.

The way that people lead and manage is a function of the economic system in which they serve. Years ago (1961), David Granick illustrated this ever so skilfully in his book the Red Executive.

Of course, the present “capitalism-on-steroids ” develops a certain brand of leaders as well. Leaders and managers do some pretty awful things to get to the top, and  to stay there. As consultant Robin Cook points out in his comments to this post, this is due in part to the instant gratification’ culture (served by)management…most decision making has been short term (and is) based on tomorrow’s stock price &/or next quarter’s earnings statement”.

First, I shall provide a few examples of managerial behaviours which serve the system -after which we will have a look at what all this means for OD practitioners in our practical consulting work.

  • They say contradictory things to different audiences. Not just different emphasis! Different things altogether. 
  • They promise things that cannot be done, and then, slowly decommit, or recommit to yet another unachievable set of goals.
  • They allocate blame ensuring that very little “sticks” to them.
  • They please certain powerful stakeholders to the detriment of others. 
  • They set deadlines and apply pressure that endanger people’s mental health.
  • They pay as little as possible to get as much as possible, especially in labour intensive industries.
  • They scheme to crush organized labour. 

These activities are practised not only by poisonous and “loser”  managers, but also by very good and effective managers. Yes, management is a real-world activity-with a bright side and a darker side. A very dark side.

So what does this mean for OD and the people who train managers? Well, I’ll tell you what it has meant for me in my 45 years of practice with some pretty senior people. I always talk about things as they are-discussing all the possibilities and the trade offs.

  • “Yes, you can fire the present R&D manager to take the blame for the delay-but let’s examine what that means for your positioning  with the team, who knows you force fed these crazy deadlines.”
  • “The re-org you are proposing will buy time, but the shit will hit the fan anyway. If you take appropriate corrective action now, you know what you are facing. If you delay action by a bogus re-org, you will deal with the devil you don’t know.”
  • I avoid discussing the role of the leader as do most OD people, ie as a super hero and passionate visionary who walks on water, inspiring people by dint of his (or hers, or its) personality, charisma or  whatever. Leadership and management just do not work like that. Sugar-coating the art of management ruins your credibility.

 

Share Button