Making Organizations Smarter

It takes very little time to notice how stupid organizations can make smart people shirk responsibility and act stupidly. Add to that are the number of people who have grown up with very little content beyond what they read on Wikipedia.

Present forms of organization intervention focus mainly on the individual (and ignore/repress systemic issues).  Other more classic forms of classical organization intervention (diagnosis, intervene, follow up) are almost dead because of their cost, the slow pace of OD vrs the speed as strategy that characterizes most organizations as well as  the number of clueless consultants selling packages of pre-cooked crap which create a bad rap for OD’s reputation.

I want to share several simple ideas that I use to make organizations smarter.

They are not cure-alls. They are not magic bullets. Yet they have triggered change.

  • Weed out slogans
  • Focus on creating focus
  • Make sure that the mutual dependencies between functions are acknowledged, clarified and “well-oiled”
  • Use personal coaching to make good people better. Don’t waste your bullets
  • If something has not worked for a long time, create a by-pass.
  • Make things easier to so by creating opportunities to use common sense
  • Buy change if you cannot make it happen

Each of these points is the subject of a different post, because people do not read long articles any more.

That’s part of being stupid. 

I will follow in the next few weeks, albeit all points are self-evident, if you ask me. My first follow up post. Follow the link.




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Face Saving and Maintaining a Façade: The Difference


A few months ago, I decided to revive my French language skills, which over the years had rusted away. During Expo 67 (Montreal) at the world’s fair, I worked at The Human Cell Pavilion (aka la cellule humaine) with an Australian named Karen and a Quebecois named Arthur. The three of us spoke only in French; Arthur really got a kick out of making fun of our “over-correct” grammar and our avoidance of using any English even when Karen and I spoke to each other.

When I decided to “revitalize” my French, I found it was in a sorry state. I could not string a sentence together and often found myself translating directly all the time from Hebrew or English, which is impossible because French is so different. Finally after about 20 lessons, I am pretty fluent.

However, I am very ambitious and it is not enough for me just to be able to express myself. I want to be able to express complex ideas, so I choose difficult subjects to discuss with my French tutor.

Today I chose to explain “face saving”. My tutor knew nothing about the term; she teaches languages. C’est tout. After my explanation, she asked me what the difference is between maintaining a façade and face saving. Good question. I hope I gave a good answer.

The word façade implies that underneath the veneer of appearance, there lies an unpleasant reality. As in, her façade gave no hint of her anguish. Façade also implies an outer layer which hides something deeper underneath it-perhaps something more sinister or unpleasant.

This is not the case with face saving, at least as I understand it. Face saving means that relationship maintaining is more important than the “truth”. The truth is irrelevant because it undermines something which is far more valuable, that is the centrality of the harmony of close relationships.

When a Chinese gay filmmaker returns from the USA to visit his family and decides not tell his grandfather that he is gay, he is not maintaining a facade. He is asserting that harmony of his relationship with a very old man is far more important that authenticity and other values which pretend, incorrectly in his world view, to be in centre stage.

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Indicators that an Internal OD function is not properly focused

In a previous post, I described internal OD departments as chicken shit brigades, a pejorative term that I do not regret using.

I reread the post and instead of updating it which would force readers to re-read it and find the differences, I have put together a case study that illustrates a few symptoms indicating that an internal OD function needs to be refocused, to use a polite term.

  • CEO Stan stated in his yearly goals that middle management needs to assume ownership of problems, and not escalate almost every issue to senior management for resolution.The level of teamwork and alignment between Stan’s direct reports is non-existent. Stan over-delegates to his direct staff and they have become warlords, who micromanage middle management.

Stan’s HR VP, Gloria, has an internal OD department, which coordinates training programs, allots parking space, coordinates the health/wellness project and leads the Early Bird Retirement Plan for staff fired before the age of 40. Gloria is about to present how internal OD will support the changes Stan strives for. Here is her plan.

  • Middle managers will each be coached on how to assume responsibility. 2 hours per month. 5 external independant coaches will be commissioned from the National Coaching Institute.
  • The Middle Management Steering Committee will put together a mission statement and critical success factors. The committee will be composed of the top 3 middle managers, the HR director and the internal OD function.
  • Middle Managers will get a monthly lecture, on Zoom, on empowerment, out-of-the-box thinking and authenticity.

Internal OD departments which focus on people, not processes or systems, reduce the scope of the real issue to get senior management off the hook. They serve as a mild sedative which transfers blame and delays a solution. At best, they are often irrelevant. At worst, they make solving the problem much harder by delaying system changes until a crisis mode develops.

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Major challenges facing Organizations (and OD consultants)

Recently a few incidents have occured that have ignited my curiousity about what new challenges organizations could be facing.

An airline changed the time of one of my flights a month in advance, causing huge inconvenience and a need to shift about plans. After a frustrating interaction with their customer service in which all my requests were refused, I got an survey by SMS asking me how satisfied I was from the level of service. None of the questions actually enabled me to tell them how they had fucked up my plans.

A client of mine is looking for 3 people who have skills that are in very very short supply. As a result of the inability to recruit these people, one piece of equipment is inoperable,causing quality issues with the final product.

Developers in a company are telling the users that the service and product they bought is fraught with problems, and they recommend not using their product which is “too expensive and not what it was dressed up to be”. 

A company which until recently branded itself as the greatest people place you’ll ever see in your entire life, just fired 28% of its staff. And that is just the beginning.

In the meeting, no one is paying attention, and everyone is texting on their phone. The meeting is well organized; am important issue is being discussed. Noa is texting her daughter. Fred is texting his first wife. And Sammyis texting his son.



When a company does not care about customer service, how can an (inevitable) total meltdown be prevented? What are the indicators needed to point out that customers are on the breaking point? At what point do we shift from an apparent, fake customer focus to a sincere dedication to the customer?

If skills are unavailable, what machinery, technology and know how do we need to phase out, instead of pressuring Recruitment to find people who don’t exist.

If “loyalty” is passe, what basic assumptions do we need to change in the way we communicate with our customers when selling products and services?

Is fun-fun, happy-happy or wow-wow a sustainable people strategy? Or are you setting yourself up to be knocked out cold.

How can we ensure focused conversations of complex problems, when no one has the span of attention to do so?















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Strange Ways that Organizations Change their Culture

Consultants do not change organizational culture. Consultants and management can change the way that things are done, and as a result culture is perceived as having changed. But there are much faster and different  ways that culture changes. Here are a few.

  • Get a major customer in Japan. This will drive a positive change in customer focus, product quality, and the creation of a long term account strategy.
  • Get heavily fined. If the court slaps a crippling fine on an organization for any one of many infringements, culture changes much more quickly. This works incredibly well especially if the management team is arrogant and self-serving.
  • Be acquired. If an organization is acquired, its culture is usually decimated with a few months to a few years. Cultures die upon acquisition.
  • Massive failures drive cultural change. This includes loss of major clients, severe prolonged fall in stock price or military defeat.
  • Departure or death of a founder. Departing dominant founders who fail to produce the next generation of leadership (especially but not only in family businesses) will trigger a rapid change of culture, not necessarily for the better.

Sadly, companies hire consultants to change culture and it always, always fails, unless external factors are leveraged to harness the change.

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Why things get worse when an OD intervention starts-and what to do about it

Don’t believe those who say that OD cannot make things worse. The truth is that OD does develop organizations, enabling them to better leverage horizontal team work between functions, mitigate unnecessary escalations, and repair organizational “bugs” by re-empowering people to evoke common sense. However this takes time and initially, things get worse.

Here’s why.

When people start talking about their problems, their expectations go up. However the speed of change is much slower than the rise in the level of expectations. The result is the perception that things are getting worse. This is common sense.

OD projects change the allocation of power generally from top to bottom, but also from side to side, ie, from one function to another. People resist these changes and fight back. How often? Always. For how long? As long as management is not consistent in supporting the change effort.

OD projects have opposition. The opposition arises from managers who see impending threats, from internal OD who moan and groan why they are not allowed to do the work, and from Finance since professional OD is expensive. Often the internal opposition initially creates lots of noise to undermine the success of the OD project.

OD efforts are often trial and error. The trials are sometimes unfortunately similar to finding a good antidepressant-it takes time and some pain.

Change is painful, and very often old problems disappear and new ones surface. Because OD does not solve problems, it replaces them with new ones, of a different magnitude. For example: we have now empowered our hotel maintenance staff to order spare parts directly without going thru the Hotels’ Management Chain’s purchasing bureaucracy. Maintenance is faster; guests are not complaining any more.  But now we need to change the methods/ culture of control and recruitment. New problems. New pain.

My suggestion is that an OD consultant always inform and explain this “initial setback” when before signing up for a job. If the management wants fun and wow, it’s better to clear this up front, and not get burnt.

And remember, HR and internal OD have a VERY low pain threshold, especially if they are the ones that have chosen you to do the work.

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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.


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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.






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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.

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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.

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