How can OD become relevant as businesses reopen

As the current stage of the corona plague slows down and businesses reopen, OD consultants may identify a demand for their services. However with budgets becoming very tight, only the more skilled consultants will get work. In the present crisis, chicken shit pre packaged OD and training packages will not fare well. But there are opportunities for the better skilled.

I have always suggested that when clients turn to a consultant, their problem definition may be a symptom of the problem itself. “We have a communication problem”, or, “First line managers do not identify with the management”, or, “We lack customer intimacy” are all symptoms, and nothing more. Probably the most critical OD skill is the ability to redefine the problem with the client.

I want to suggest that albeit the initial (possibly inaccurate) problem definitions that will come our way on the part of clients, the real issues that clients will face will be:

  1.  Shifts of power within the organization from functions that generate revenue to those who save resources and  focus on efficiency.
  2.  Internal mergers between units and departments. Examples may include between Legal and HR; between Sales and Service; between Project Management and Engineering; from geography based sales focus to government -focus.
  3. Enhancement of risk management by sharing of risk, alignment of decision making to the appropriate level, and development of contingency plans.
  4. Replacing key players/leaders who are not capable of change.
  5. Implementation of extraordinarily painful cost cutting, without loosing  critical functionality and the trust of those who remain.

If you have a skill set which adds value in these areas, then you may have a fighting chance of survival. And if not, then like the Jervis Bay, your practice may go down.

sinking, still she faces her antagonist.
Then the waters begin to close over her.
The waters close over Fogarty Fegan,
And over the flag
That once was used for burials at sea.
And now night spreads its shroud.

                                           -Gene Fowler

 

 

 

 

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Mr Blackwell’s Latin Classes and our “unseen” passage

Time-1965

Place-Sir Winston Churchill High School,  Ville Saint Laurent, Quebec

At 10.45, we went out to the school yard for morning recess in the -20 weather. Unlike other days during which we played hockey, smoked in a corner, and gossiped about the girls, for example Coral’s hickey, we all appeared shattered by the unseen Latin test that Mr. Blackwell had just given us.

Frank said that he had to guess a lot, but he believes the unseen passage was a description of a battle that took place somewhere in Carthage, and there was a huge use of incendiary bombs. Glen, whose father worked for Air Canada, claimed that the unseen described the act of map making, especially the ways and means of delineating areas not close to a major landmark. Norman said that the piece he translated was about the court of a great emperor of a major naval sea power. I shared my view that a certain military commander was complaining that the chariots his men were using were of poor repair.

Mr. Blackwell was a typical school teacher in the PSBGM, the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. He had recently emigrated from England; he spoke with a very pronounced accent, and he was stern yet calm. True, Blackwell’s accent was much clearer to us than was that of our history teacher, Miss Chesney, who was from Scotland. No one, I mean no one understood Miss Chesney. But we all knew that her first name was Mildred.

By the time recess was over, we were all convinced that Mr. Blackwell had given each of us different unseen passages so that we would not copy from one another. That theory, however, was devastated after we came back from recess.

Mr. Blackwell asked Sharon what the unseen was about. She replied, “it was about the fire department in the City of Nicomedia.” The other brain in our class, Sheila, repeated her answer. Sheila and Sharon were sisters, twin sisters to boot. Then came the final blow. “And what about you, Roberta, what was the “ahticle” about”?  Roberta, class brain number one, who also was a soloist in our choir, chimed in her version about the Nicomedia Fire Department, describing the department in great detail. Or as Mr. Blackwell said, thank you Roberta for describing this ancient fire department in “grey detail”.

Two days later was a Friday, and Blackwell’s Latin class was the last lesson of the week. Just as the bell rang to set us free, Blackwell looked outside and said, “Now look here-what dismal weather awaits us all this weekend. Don’t sit like bumps of a frozen log; go to work on your Latin vocabulary. That’s “appeahs” to me to be a great way to spend a weekend.  Now-out!.”

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How does an organization’s culture change?

Consultants, trainers, change managers and OD consultants do not and cannot change the culture of an organization. I see that as common sense. Yet common sense is not so common.

(As an aside, this morning I read a fascinating article about back pain; if you take 1000 people off the street to give them an MRI-it is impossible for orthopaedic surgeons to predict whose back actually aches. Yet diagnostic tests for back pain are more numerous than cultural change programs).

In this post, I want to share with my readers how an organization’s culture actually changes.

1) External regulation-when the regulator steps in to dictate change, cultures start to change because things must be done differently. Safety and financial regulators are effective culture changers.

2) A one time success changes a culture, often by dumbing the organization down, lowing the level of awareness, or making it overly fat and out of touch with the changing needs of its customers. Similarly as Terry Seamon points out below in his comments, a huge failure can spark cultural change.

3) Massive immigration can change a culture by providing a ready made pool of talent that other global competitors do not have. The newly acquired competitive edge drives rapid growth which changes the culture.

4) Too much cultural socialization as well as an overdose on making values explicit can change company culture by making everyone cynical and lowering the degree of caring people feel towards success. In one company I worked for, the overdose of getting people to “buy into decisions“ caused people to check out.

5) Customers force cultural change on organizations. When I work with Asian facing units as opposed to American or EMEA facing units, the huge impact of the customer on culture is clear. The American clients drive the need for documentation, stability and predictability whilst Asian markets drive down costs, encourage innovation and show tolerance for speed over quality.

What gives with CEOs and cultural change? It is my experience that replacing a CEO is not enough to drive cultural change, unless the CEO has the “tail wind” of an external factor.

And what about consultants, trainers, change managers and OD consultants?  Well, we are midwives, easing pain and nursing things along. Not quite side show Bob, but not the drivers of cultural change. And the more you realize that, the more impact you will have.

 

 

 

 

 

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Good teamwork is a result of compromise between strong people and their respective agendas

枪杆子里面出政权 (Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun) Mao

This is no country for old men (Yeats)

 

Much advice is available about how to improve team work-leadership, recruit for attitude, culture, team bonuses and what have you. If you ask me, the most critical piece of advice is often missing. 

It is critical to  ensure that power is balanced between team members, without which team work is impossible.

Frank is CFO; he is also the watchdog of Carmen, the main investor and director of the board. Efraim is R&D manager and CEO,  Chris run Sales. Eve runs HR and Administration. Dr Paco is Director of Clinical Trials whilst Claire runs purchasing.

Frank not only sets and controls budgets, but he controls budget utilization within each departments’ budget. Frank brings each and every purchase order of more than 3000 Euro to Carmen for approval. Eve must bring each and every job offer to Frank, who gets Carmen’s approval, or disapproval.

The team work in the team is atrocious. Efraim cuts Frank out of loop, and by passes process left right and centre. Eve has a slush fund for bonuses. Dr Paco once threatened to hit Frank after Frank said, “we pay you too much for too little.”  If Claire has to make a 10,000 Euro purchase, she makes five purchases of 2000 Euro each. When Frank calls her to task once too often, she tells him to “fuck off”. This happens several times a month.

Efraim has had 3 management coaches and the team has gone offsite for three times in five years. Twice, Frank was not able to attend for health reasons; he apparently  suffers from painful hemorrhoids.

There is no teamwork because Frank has too much power. Carmen runs the business, not Efraim. And Frank is COO in disguise, not CFO. In its present configuration, this team will never work well together.

Teamwork is the result of pragmatic compromise between strong people and their respective and often conflicting agendas. Too much emphasis on shared values and lovely-dovey do not create teamwork, any more than universalism creates a peaceful world.

Strong people work together well, especially if they are equally competent.  When some are strong and others are weak, there is a massacre.

I am sorry that I have not mentioned gender until now, but it is irrelevant to the issue at hand.

 

 

 

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Don’t mitigate an organizations’ pain

There have been screaming matches between Sales and R&D (Dev) ever since the market release of the last product.

Unhappy clients have communicated thousands of complaints which are besieging management! It is now very hard to get the  Sales and Dev teams to sit in the same room in order to solve problems. There are nasty emails threads going back and forth with personal insults, buck-passing and character assassination.

Stan, the CEO, has no time to deal with this. The investors are on his back for a faster return on investment. He needs to replace his CFO who he caught “chirping” to the board about revenue forecasts. Stan  expects the head of Sales, Lucien, and the head of R&D, Deepak, to be mature and handle the issues at hand like adults. “Boys”, said Stan, “get these teams aligned. Use HR or a consultants as needed”.

The HR manager ran an on-line survey to see what needed to be done to “calm things down”; staff described their level of pain as 9 (on a ten point scale). Job satisfaction was rated high (8) and interdisciplinary teamwork was low (6).

A consultant was hired  to do outdoor training to lower group pain. A  yoga coach  was hired to relieve the stress/pain of the last few months at the individual level. Lucien and Deepak were given each individually 2 hours of anti-stress coaching provided by an on-line vendor via Skype. As is said in the Merchant of Venice, the goal of both interventions was  “Hiding the grossness with fair ornament”.  Act 3, scene 2. Or as is pointed out in a comment (in Hebrew) below by a reader  Mr. Koren, the emphasis was placed on feeling well, not getting better.

However, this mess  was all about the risk taking behaviour of CEO Stan. In order to show his investors a pattern of growth, CEO Stan had oked the design and release of a totally immature project, which no one yet knew how to design let alone build. Sales numbers were high because the install base is in the third world, where agents pay off corporate purchasing to buy almost anything.

The product, now released, has cause huge pain. Sales cannot deal with the angry clients and expects R&D to send people to the client site to get the product working. R&D expects Sales to “manage the the customer” until a half decent “fix” can be concocted.

The moral of this story is that organizational pain is an important indicator, and thus need not be/must not be suppressed. Quite the opposite, the pain can lead us to the dysfunction, albeit not directly.

Mitigating  pain symptoms  in organizations is often the least indicated solution to organizational problems. Mindlessly mitigating pain is a happy happy, wow wow, useless useless exercise which has corrupted organizational development of the worst kind.

Oh yes, coaching for individuals is often (certainly not always)  the mother of all pain mitigation elixirs. Coaching for the individual often means, “Let’s work together on how you overcome other peoples’/system problems”.

 

 

 

 

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Understanding rapid changes of opinion by Israelis

Case

Gilad is an Israeli engineer working in Cleveland on a three year relocation assignment. Tommy is his Nevada-born and bred boss.

During the course of a discussion in the Planning Committee (Plan of Record) on the expected development time for a new feature, developer Gilad strongly expressed three opinions.

  1. There is no way we can make the May 9th deadline; let’s be real.
  2. The May 9th deadline is challenging but clearly doable.
  3. I’m absolutely against promising the client a May 9th delivery date, but who knows?

Tommy, was aghast. Tommy called Gilad into his office and told him that he would be wise to understand the facts, then form opinions. Tommy told Gilad that his wavering behaviour appeared unprofessional, “which is a shame because you are one of our more talented developers”.

Explanation

The rapid changing of opinions by Israelis is common; it baffles and annoys managers who have been raised to think differently. I shall attempt to provide a few reasons why Israelis appear to change opinions at the drop of a hat.

  1. We tend to have less distinction between facts and opinions. Very often, people have opinions and then look for facts to support them. This is a manifestation of a very ideological society.
  2. Words are important yet less significant as a commitment to action than is western cultures. There is even an expression,`just words`, IE, meaningless prater. (רק מילים)
  3. Entertaining very opposite opinions  at the same time, and then reaching a decision, is the very essence of the way Israelis think out a problem. Faced with impossible situations on a daily basis, this is an ultra pragmatic defense mechanism.
  4. There is no need for a safety net when changing an opinion,  because contradicting yourself is part of thinking things out. There is no expectation that people in a constant case of crisis be consistent.
  5. Anything that you say is true at the moment you say it, but everything changes all the time. This is survival mode in action.
  6. Any decision made (except for written contracts) can reopened for further discussion. This is also survival mode in action.

A common Hebrew idiom explains it all, אז מה שאמרתי (az ma sheh amarti). Here is how it is used.

  •      A-Let’s work this out over supper tonight.
  •      B-I thought you said that  tonight you need to take your daughter to see your mother.
  •      A-Az ma sheh amarti! (so what if I said it).

 

 

 

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Doing and believing – On “changing” company culture

Readers of my blog may be surprised to learn that despite my being a complete atheist, I have made a point to study (adult) university courses in religious thinkers over the past 4 years.

To be specific, I have studied the teachings of Paul, Augustine, Spinoza, Maimonides (Rambam) and Leibowitz.

I have been introduced to the vast differences between a focus on dogma, beliefs and faith on one hand, and a focus on  deeds, behaviours, and actions on the other. I find this area fascinating, full of paradox, intrigue and extreme cognitive/emotional complexity.

In this post I want to share with my readers a few free associations I have had about changing company culture, based on the stuff I have been studying from a totally unrelated area, ie, religious thought.

Although there is almost no parallel between the subject and the metaphor, whilst studying the complex link between between beliefs/action in religion led to me to thinking about company culture/ which I have always claimed cannot be “changed” as consultants claim it can. And I got myself thinking about the amount of focus on beliefs and dogmas in promulgating company culture, as opposed to the focus on acts and deeds.

I thought about a company that has a poor level of customer support, because their product is unstable, the service engineers get no cooperation from development team, the IT system is too slow and tier support level 2 and 3 are understaffed. In this company, over $200,000 has been invested in creating a culture focusing on “client intimacy”.  Of course, nothing changed. Except that $200,000 has been pissed away.

Culture cannot change by inculcating a series of beliefs or dogmas.Things need to  done differently, as this may  result in a  “change of culture” after a certain time gap.

Naturally, things need to be done differently within a given context,  and that context  is no doubt on based on beliefs.  Yet the major focus must be on consistent action, otherwise nothing will change.

Action without appropriate beliefs may result in some change. Belief and dogma not translated into action are a futile effort. As a matter of fact, belief and dogma do NOT impact culture at all. Culture is changed ONLY by concrete actions.

One more free association. Do staff need to understand why they are asked to behave in a certain way? Here is a true story, I worked for a company  that promised that clothes purchased could be returned NO QUESTIONS asked. The salespeople were furious because they claimed that customers bought clothes, went to a wedding and then returned them. Staff refused to comply because they felt humiliated, or “frayers” in Hebrew, dumb suckers.  Finally after a few people were disciplined, the automatic refund started to be implemented.

So yes, there is an element of “just do it” in company culture. And if you do not understand it, do it anyway.

 

 

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Organization Developments’ dangerous fundamentalism

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

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

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

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

Let’s take a few examples.

Democracy:

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

The empowerment of the individual:

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

Authenticity

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Consulting individuals who are severely misreading reality

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

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

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

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

Here are a few things I have done with Liz,

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

 

 

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