5 basics about organizations that don’t change

If you read enough posts on social media and/or professional journals about organizational change, the impression of massive constant change is ubiquitous. Change appears to be constant, fast and furious and if you don’t adapt you to be left behind in a cloud of dust.

Which may be true, but equally may not be true. Because there are certain elements in organizational life which do not change.

 In this post, I want to point out 5 constants of organizational life which do not change, “or bends with the remover to remove. O no,  (they are) an ever-fixèd mark. That looks on tempests and is never shaken” (Sonnet 116-Shakespeare)

  • When people work together in physical proximity, the probability for trust to severely break down is less than if people work in different geographies. Yes, people in the same physical location often have trust issues, but people who work remote from one another always have chronic trust issues, and they are very difficult to manage. Each geographical site has hidden agendas that impact all interaction.
  • Hiring good people at a fair price is far more effective than hiring mediocre people at a better price; training cannot bridge the gap of mediocrity.
  • AI is a fad. It will cause “some” change, but it is not the game changer it is made out to be. Like TQM, MBO and JIT, AI has come in with a lot of noise; it will not change the basic operating system of organizing.
  • If you want to change culture, do things differently. You cannot change culture by talking-only by doing. And it takes a long time. After things are done differently, people will report a cultural change in a year or even longer.
  • There are no mergers; just acquisitions. It is a Darwinian process in which a stronger organization digests another. Taking the best from both cultures to form a new one is total nonsense that never ever happens. Never.
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Consulting a very stubborn manager

I got a hand written “thank you” note from a consultant whose work I supervise once a month. She is a very critical thinker, tough on herself and tough on me, so the note of thanks was appreciated all the more.

I have been helping her on how to consult with very stubborn managers; managers who have a fixed idea and stick to it in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

When I look back and examine what I have said, it comes down to the following basic ideas.

  • The stubbornness of a manager is his problem, not yours. “When a cancer patient dies, it’s not the fault of the oncologist” is a sentence I may have said a hundred times.
  • Try to identify the secondary gain that the manager gains by being stubborn. For example, if he refuses to acknowledge that the goals he sets are unreal, what are his gains for not doing so. (Like preventing an argument in January with the Board instead of slipping up in November).
  • Try to work around the issue, not taking it in directly. For example, if he has that “I will not add one more software engineer to R&D”, look for ways to add software engineers in Service.
  • Boxers often plan to take on a beating in the first few rounds until their opponent gets tired. Managers often stick to an idea just to buy time. Is your manager showing any signs of this tactic?
  • Perhaps try to examine if your manager’s ideas stem from his (or even her) ideology. If they are part of an ideology (such as I will not hire people without a BSc), then probably you’d better back off. Ideologies die hard if at all.
  • Very stubborn people will sometimes be willing to suffer and allow others to suffer so as not to show weakness. So, ask yourself if the manager you are working with can feel safe enough with you to change his mind or even her mind.

Now I remember a story that an Egyptian colleague told me.  A rich man hires a shepherd to take care of his flock. One morning the shepherd tells the rich man that a wolf is threatening the goats, and he had best fence them in. “There are no wolves in this area”, says the rich man. Next day, same story. And so on and so forth for nine days. On day ten, the shepherd comes to the rich man and says, “I am sure glad these goats are yours and not mine”.

One of the smartest managers I ever worked with had a sign on his wall, “in the end, I’m the boss. Do what I tell you”. Next to that sign, he had a boxing glove.

 

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Targeted OD interventions

Targeted OD interventions are aimed at solving specific problems without subjecting the entire organization to what is nowadays sadly seen as a long, tedious and unnecessary process.

Examples of a targeted process may include include improving the functioning of a certain department, mitigating turnover of a certain skill level of software engineer, or improving the process flow and overall effectiveness of onboarding.

A main challenge of targeted interventions is that they do no treat all the issues at hand. For example, if people are leaving 6 months after they join a company, if is doubtful that a targeted intervention to mitigate this will address the “deep state” issues which encourage this turnover.

Another challenge of targeting interventions is that they are often owned by Training and Development, which have the least political clout that any other function except perhaps the reception clerk, be it a he or a she.

And of course, targeted interventions which solve some problems create others, which are not solved. So the diaper is still dirty, it’s just worn by someone else. For example, new recruits are better paid, but the union now starts licking up a fuss for ” the new folks pushing in  front of everyone else” and starts blackballing the new recruits.

Finally targeted interventions are often carried out by OD consultants who are not yet skilled enough to do system interventions, so they get the bread crumbs. Happy to get any job that comes their way, they sell lots of cheap hours and bungle up the job.

Targeted interventions are not going away. So here a few things you can do to make sure that you get your bang for the buck.

1 Define and redefine the mandate of the intervention over a course of several months so that you are not stuck with an initial incorrect scope of work. Ensure that the contract signed supports this flexibility.

2 Hire a consultant who is over-qualified. He (or even she) will work less hours and not fear telling you what really needs to be done.

3 Targeted OD interventions need strong ownership; if Training and Development  owns it- it ain’t gonna work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Working with Israelis during wartime

If your job entails interaction with an Israeli site or you otherwise interact with Israelis at work, here are a few guidelines that may be of assistance during this very difficult time.

1) Israelis are very hard at work during war time. For most of us, it is important to be better than average;  it is axiomatic that life must go on as usual. Do not ask or inquire how that situation is impacting work. No one wants that type of sympathy.

2) It is more than fair to ask “how are you and your family doing”. This is basic common courtesy. Yes, not only YOU, but you and YOUR FAMILY. Whatever they tell you, listen and express understanding of the stress people are under.”That’s some challenge you are facing”. Furthermore, inquire if the person you are talking to has a family member in the service. On every call thereafter inquire, “how is X doing”?

3) Avoid all political comments. Anything can be misconstrued. “I hope that the hostages are returned soon” can be misconstrued as “stop fighting to get the hostages back”. Stay away from all comments of this ilk.

4) Comments like “Yes, the Jewish community just hired guards at most Jewish institutions”-are out of place. Again, in very hard times, everything can be misconstrued.

5) After initially approaching the issue of the wars impact on your colleague-stick to work related subjects. This is the best way to show respect. “Stick to knitting”.

6) End your calls with warmest regards. “Stay safe” is a great way to end a conversation.

And of course, if your own position is not supportive, there is no need to express your opinion. True, there is no need to be supportive if you aren’t. There is a need to use common sense and be diplomatic.

 

 

 

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Learning from the Failure of Israeli Intelligence in 2023: Dissenting Opinions in a bureaucracy

The ruling paradigm within Israeli intelligence was that Hamas had been somewhat coopted into a temporary but stable silent agreement to live alongside Israel, aided by Qatari money and periodic minor saber rattling.

One of the so- called “lessons learned” from the catastrophic failure of Israeli to prevent the Hamas invasion was that a “dissenting opinion” from the prevailing paradigm (that Hamas would not attack) within the military and intelligence community was not well tolerated. As a result, warned signs of impending doom were dismissed.

These events are a playback of 1973, when the Egyptians invaded Israel and for a time drove back the IDF. The 1973 lessons learned exercise was as follows:  there was a ruling paradigm (the Egyptians would not dare attack us) from which the Israelis could not see beyond which blinded Israel to the events which unfolded.

These paradigms in Hebrew are called: “conseptsia”, i.e. -preconceptions.

Again and again, the dangers that these paradigms pose are acknowledged and known to all; decisions are made to self-inoculate against such perilous rigidity of thought.

However, the ability of large organizations to tolerate dissenting opinions is non-existent. Let me explain why via a possible example.

A, B, C and D are all senior officers in Unit W-which monitors noise patterns picked up from underground tunnels in the south. Unit W’s commander, named himself W, believes that the noises in the tunnel stem from construction work being done to strengthen the tunnel, not expand it. A disagrees. A believes that within the tunnel, a railway track is being laid and the tunnel itself is being elongated and is thus a strategic threat which needs to be eradicated immediately.

W is about to be retire. W has a long legacy he wants to protect. B, C, and D have always agreed with W’s assumptions, and kissed his arse, as needed, to get promoted. W served as  B, C and D’s winning horse, as it were. These mediocre yes-men were dragged up by kowtowing to W’s complacency or rigidity.

A, the dissenter, if chosen to replace W, will only make W’s legacy into a laughing stock, by making a lot of noise to better verify what’s going on and rectify it.

B got W’s job.

A remained “side-show Bob”.

This is an inherent unchangeable dynamic in a large bureaucracy.  Bureaucracies have NO tolerance for self-correction from internal dissention.

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OD and Lessons Learned Exercises

When an organization as a whole or a subunit goes thru a lessons learned process after a major failure, Organization Development can bring meaningful value, both in designing the exercise and facilitating it, when appropriate.

Herein I shall describe several of the flaws and frequent faults of lessons learned, with the hope that my accrued experience will be of value to the OD practitioner who wants to dip his or even her toes into this water.

Flaw #1: Hidden Agendas

In lessons learned, the big turd on the table is who will get most of the blame. Organizations produce blame, and this blame needs to be parked somewhere. Generally, blame is parked at the politically weakest place. Lessons learned is not about blaming, but learning. While the stated agenda may be learning  there is always another agenda. Very few people will “just” have learning on their mind. There are hidden agendas.

Steve is VP R&D. He committed to an impossible delivery date and failed to deliver. Steve will blame Recruitment’s ability to hire new engineers in the lessons learned process.

 

Flaw #2: Blaming Process

Lessons learned often surfaces conclusions like “there was deviation from process” in order to “explain away” a major failure. Much process is made of “cover your ass” material, and should not be evoked in lessons learned unless very appropriate. People often don’t follow process because the process is useless, time consuming or irrelevant. So invoking process in lessons learned can be a lesson in futility.

Flaw #3: Put on clean underwear; don’t flip them and wear again

The people who do lessons learned are often the same people who made the mistakes. Thus, lessons learned will also express their weakness and limitations. Incompetence easily seeps into the lessons learned exercise. Or as my Dad used to say, “you cannot look up your own nostrils”. (Actually he said something much cruder).

Flaw #4: Often the flaw is untreatable

When an organization exists because of risk taking, you win a few and you lose a few. It makes no sense to debrief a loss, since it’s parts of a basically unchangeable so called genetic code.  In such a case, it makes sense to focus on secondary or tactical flaws, such as “why were we SO surprised when we failed”.

Flaw #5: Genetic, built-in frequently occurring flaws

One needs to factor in and try to mitigate genetic flaws in the lessons learned process. Sales and engineering blame one another; so will Finance and HR. Armies will blame government’s unclear goals, and government will claim that armies don’t use enough force. These patterns are trite & must be cleansed as much as possible, focusing on facts and not on stereotypes.

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Cultural Roots of Incompetence-A painful post

There are generic and shared reasons for incompetence that transcend cultural borders: lack of skills, corruption, nepotism being the most frequent forms of incompetence which are applicable across the board.

There are also culturally unique reasons for incompetence which impact certain cultures and not others. For example, excessive planning/rigidity stemming from a sense of control of destiny (USA) or excessive bureaucracy (France, we can invent a perfect system) or ancient tribalism (Rwanda).

In this post I want to point out a some of the underpinnings of incompetence unique to Israel (but not only Israel). This will hopefully help understand how Israel could have been so duped in the present war against Hamas.

1)      Lack of discipline

Lack of discipline stems from the idea that “systems” probably have holes embedded in them and a lack of discipline allows people to survive the horrors of obedience. Only “suckers” follow the system.

2)      Lack of enforcement

Enforcement is unfair. Everyone deserves a second chance, and a third, and maybe a fourth. This stems from dysfunctional compassion towards an individual and lack of respect for systems.

3)      Over-reliance on technology

As a high-tech nation, we inhale our own smoke, stocking up on lots of technology, full of bugs, but ahead of our times, when it works. When it does not, we have no more boots on the ground; we just throw more technology at the problem. This is the most severe strategic weakness in understanding the present shortcomings.

4)      Fast and dirty-and sloppy

Israelis are faster at developing and deploying technology than most of the other nations. The speed and innovation are naturally sloppy and “cleaned up” afterwards, sometimes too late.

5)      Too little discretion; too much talk

We talk too much on the phone-hack our mobile phones or just ride the train or bus and a world of secrets is exposed. The assumption is that “field security” is not needed as long as you remember your password.

This post may seem to be written with detachment. But it is written with pain because we are paying a huge price and what’s more, these cultural attributes are very hard to change.

 

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The new Tel Aviv Subway-and the mobile phone

This week I went to see a documentary film about the Samaritans at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.

I live in one of the suburban towns north of the city; a train + subway ride takes me about 45 minutes door to door, as opposed to a 90 minute commute by car and probably, no parking anywhere to be found. So going to the film gave me an opportunity to ride the new subway.

The network is not easy to to navigate the pay-your-fare and the transfer-to-Israel-rail stations are really challenging.

The fare system allows the passenger to pay with any one of many apps, credit cards, loaded train/bus cards, cash and monthly subscription cards. There is a huge line of different machines where one can top up  payment cards and/or pay. Too many payment choices are available. Navigating this is complex and many people, even technologically competent people, are baffled.

In the stations where one can transfer to a train, the signs are incomplete. In Kiryat Aryeh, a major station, there no way to know which trains leave from Platform Two and many people go to Platform One and go the wrong way. I am one of those people.

To deal with this mess, the subway hired many “travel assistance” personnel, who are supposed to help the public. Generally they are “heads down”, playing with their smartphones or talking to one another. Questions are often greeted with “I don’t have a clue” or “don’t know” or an incomprehensible answers comes your way- spoken like the way Mumbles used to talk in Dick Tracey films.

And I ask myself, how is it that such a negative organization culture develop so quickly? There is so much to be proud in the new subway-why is it that service providers don’t give a shit. And yes, they are well paid.

My educated guess is that were they not allowed to keep their mobiles on their shift, they would want to interact with people.

But when faced with a choice between “whats-apping” their friends or working, they prefer the former. Perhaps phones should be confiscated at the work place-I guess not. I’m too told to be accurate.

 

 

 

 

 

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Organizational dialects

This post is directed at people who are bilingual, but may be of interest to “uni-linguals” as well.

People who speak more than one language know that it is common to go back and forth between languages. You don’t generally speak either or, but both, using words or sentences or expressions from both languages. (At times, this is funny. Many automobile spare parts are in the German language. Mechanics, Jews and Arabs, often throw in words from 3 languages when describing an issue at the garage).

On a recent trip to the UAE, I got around using the Metro, and observed people mixing between languages (like Hindi and Arabic; Arabic and Persian) like I do between Hebrew and English.

There are words that “belong” in one language, albeit they are translatable. A good example is the word “project”-which is SO English. Or enfant terrible in French, or halas in Arabic. Going back and forth between languages is natural. Speaking ONLY in one language at a time is rare.

Some words mean different things in the same language. “Check it” may mean “take a look” to English speaking Africans. “La” may add emphasis to Singaporean English speakers. “Don’t be late la.” 

Organizations are “multilingual” by nature. There are several languages spoken and /or words mean different things, depending on who is talking and who is being addressed.

Understanding the dialects by carefully dissecting the words/terms can provide a clear understanding of what’s going on.

A few examples will suffice. Strategy can mean “where we are going” to very senior management or “what they want today” to the troops.

“Working more efficiently” may mean better planning by understanding customer needs” or “working us into the ground by not aligning tasks to resources”.

“Diversity” may mean (and often does) mean meeting quotas and avoiding bad press, or less discrimination.

“Customer satisfaction” may be a score as compared to last month, or how do I keep the customer happy given that our product is not performing.

A “deadline” may be what what we will do, or what we say we will do until we fail, and then apologize. 

“Delegation” may mean “I am giving the responsibility to you” or, “my boss is setting me up to fail”.

“Corporate culture” may be seen as the way we strive to do things, or “corporate Kool-Aid”.

A word of advice-go beyond the words, and look at the way key words are used differently by different populations. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The appointed consultant

Unpleasant as it can be, OD consultants can be appointed by someone to help someone else who either does not see the need for help and/or has no say in the identity of the consultant.

I have been appointed by owners, and more often boards, to work with managers who resent the very act of suggesting that they need help. And I have formulated a few guidelines for such situations which I am sharing in this post.

1 Acknowledge that awkwardness of the situation. I often use a metaphor that “I’m the guy that needs to do root canal and you don’t even see the need to visit a dentist”. Discuss the awkwardness as an issue.

2 Allow the person with whom you have been asked to work to cease the consultation at the drop of a hat.

3 Agree that all updates that you will give the folks who commissioned your services will be transparent-that is, your assessment will be shared a priori with the person with whom you are working.

4 Spend time cementing the relationship, Trade favours, create a feeling of “safety” and stick to your word.

5 If you think that your client and the person who appointed you are a system problem, then work with both of them as a system, or resign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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