Beyond the bull—t.

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

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

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

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At the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They saw the sea, and I felt free.

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Hans Fallada    ששונות זעירים

 

 

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Self management is a manipulation and cop out

Self management certainly has its place and time in the right context. The value of self management over command and control is  not disputable. This having been said, self management is often promulgated as an ugly manipulation. One fable will suffice.

The fable

Paul heads a team of 50 top notch developers based in Tel Aviv for US based company selling software for public electrical and water utilities worldwide. Paul’s team is overwhelmed due to the massive amount change requests flooding his team.

Clients are supposed to funnel their change requests via Change Request Management, which is part of the Product Management group based in New Zealand.

However, the Product Management/Change management group lacks technical knowledge, and so clients often turn directly to Paul or to the developers themselves for changes.

Alternatively, changes are requested via Sales, who have no problem forwarding these requests to Paul, ccing the CEO.

Paul has asked that Change Management acquire more technical skills in order to serve as a better filter. This however is too expensive to execute since it would mean hiring engineers to replace the present set of administrators, who serve as change managers.

Paul then asked for more staff, in order to build a technical change management team in Tel Aviv, through which priorities can be set. His request was put off till 2017 budget talks in November.

When the level of client bitching got out of control, the CEO summoned Paul to a meeting with EVP HR, a certain Gloria Ramsbottom. A decision was made that the developers “become better aligned with the principles of self-management”. A training vendor “specializing” in self-management was hired and a webinar on the virtues of self-management was commissioned.

The moral

Self-management can be used by management as a cop out to abscond from their responsibility  of setting priorities and applying more resources. Self-management, when applied in this manner, is a manipulation of the more evil ilk, exploiting the very people who need to be assisted.

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My British Grandmother

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My maternal grandmother was British. Born in the Shoreditch area of London, Fay came to Canada in her teens; she maintained her British accent until her death. All my friends called their grandmothers by the name Grandma or Buba (Yiddish) , but I called my grandmother Nana Fay.

Fay lived in Montreal for over 85 years and never learnt one word of French. And it’s not that she did not try. “I have a tin ear (eyah) for languages”, she claimed. However, once I dropped by a toy shop where she was working as a sales clerk. “Touchez-pas” she was saying to a few kids who were feeling out the merchandise. For years and years after, I used to ask her what does “touchez pas” mean in English, and we would both laugh.

Fay was also a dental assistant for Dr Vosberg. Then she owned a dress shop  named “Moleen’s” on Queen Mary Road in Montreal. A massive theft shut Moleens’s down and my grandmother was heartbroken and financially  busted. But she survived.

I heard my father say once that Fay was a “tough old bird”. I asked Nana Fay if she considered herself as such and she said, “I guess you can say so, but not as far (fah) as you are concerned”.

As she got older, Nana Fay had a craving for sugar and it was a family chore to make sure that she did not have access to chocolate because of her diabetes.  I used to smuggle her cubes of chocolate and Nana Fay used to say “this is just OUR little secret, isn’t it boychik”. I was about 10 years old at the time.

This was not the only secret I had with my grandmother. When I was studying at McGill, I dropped by my grandmothers for “tea”. After she poured me the tea and gave me some of her home made cookies , she said “if you ever smoke pot, or whatever it’s called, I wouldn’t mind trying the stuff myself.” And so we did. Another little secret.

Nana Fay and I joked a lot. I used to ask her how to convert Canadian dollars into British currency and she would go through a long explanation, doing calculations in her head and getting it all wrong….”did you say 2 dollars into pounds or 2 pounds into dollars”?

My grandfather who trained his famous boxer-brother was  also a Brit and died when I was young. My grandmother remarried. Her second husband was divorced. Fay and her husband got married  in the States to avoid any hassle with the then very conservative Quebec government, which did not recognize the divorced status. Nana Fay took me aside at her wedding and like a character from a John Irving novel, told me, “I certainly did not attend my grandmother’s wedding. You are a lucky boychik, you are”.

 She read me lots of children’s stories from the old country, and our favourite poem was “Albert and the Lion”, which she must have read me two thousand times. So, for those who ask me where the Ramsbottom name comes from in my satiric Gloria blog…….

I left for Israel in 1970. Before my departure Nana Fay told me that “I left England as a young girl and broke my parents hearts God bless them, so who am I to tell you how to live your life, boychik”.

My grandmother had a stiff upper lip and demanded it from me. Fay loved gardening; so do I. Fay was a real character. I appear to be one as well.

We loved each other very much, stiff upper lip and all.

 

 

 

 

 

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Towards understanding self-deprecative behaviour in a consulting relationship: My White Face in Asia

 

Rei’s boss, Alex, had forced Rei to work with me after a survey indicated that Rei’s management style was “totally unacceptable”. Attrition is Rei’s group was 47% a year! Yet Rei was an outstanding marketer, salesman and technical whiz.

For one year, I shadowed Rei for 5 days a quarter; every four hours we would have a feedback session, over lunch or supper.

During the initial two visits, the shadowing was a learning process for us. Rei and I did have a few things in common, and we “leaned” on them heavily at first.  Both of us are history buffs, read voraciously, and follow boxing. Naturally, it was not easy for Rei to accept my presence which at first undermined his authority, and both Rei and many of his direct reports speak poor English with a very heavy accent, which made the listening process very, very tiring.

A huge change occurred  during my third visit. We met for breakfast in a hotel in Bangalore, and he told me that “all this work with you is very humbling”. This was very much unlike Rei, who had been very reserved with me. I shadowed him for two days in India and we flew off to Bangkok on a punishing night flight. During the flight, he asked for my opinion on many issues in which I felt that he had a higher level of expertise. (For example, he asked me how I thought Mao had blended certain elements of Confucianism to drive communism into the Chinese countryside! At 3 am!)

As the week progressed, he continued self-deprecating ever so slowly, giving me more and more “face”. When he introduced me to his staff in Shanghai, he told them to watch the way they speak about me, because Professor Allon “may” understand you, which greatly exaggerates my ability to understand spoken Chinese. (I am not a professor, nor do I have a doctorate.)

On the fourth and fifth day of the third visit, Rei was more engaging with me than usual, and actively spoke with me. He stopped writing down my feedback, and started frank discussion. He told me that “we do not share the same understandings” about the motives of  team members”. He also told me that “although you are not naïve Allon, may I suggest that you re-examine the way that you read Paul’s behaviour.”

From then on in until the end of the project, a pattern emerged: Rei self-deprecated, praised me, thanked me, and then engaged me.

Rei’s self-deprecating was (and remains) to be a strategy he uses which allows him to open up to Westerners in positions of power and influence. Rei creates “credit” by self-deprecating and piling face onto the person he is dealing with, and this credit provides Rei with a springboard to actively engage without showing lack of respect.

Rei, 谢谢 .Thank you for reading this, commenting on this, and allowing me to publish it.

PS-For more on the westerner and OD, read this.

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Using a wow experience to enable change

Here is a sad but true story. The names have been changed to “protect the innocent”.The story illustrates the victory of form and wow over content.

Paul Wight is the Head of  R&D, is based in Denver. Paul oversees several development sites in Brunswick, NJ, Vancouver BC, Quebec City and Manchester UK.

Sales are slow, profitability is down and the management has  to cut costs. Paul has been asked to close down one development site as well as downsize his whole organization by 30%. Paul will convened all his site managers in Denver to execute this plan.

The biggest issue facing Paul  is which site to close. He plans to discuss this issue at the Denver meeting. Paul has asked his HR manager to prepare a short team building activity to facilitate trust to kick off the meeting.

The head of the Manchester UK  site is Chester who  really mistrusts Paul to make the right decision; Chester believes Paul does not like the time zone difference, the late night and early morning con-calls as well as the management overhead of flying to Manchester once a quarter in coach class.

Denise Thibadeau  leads the Québec site. She believes Paul will close the Quebec site due to a hidden agenda stemming from communication difficulties.  Paul always shows lack of patience on calls when he cannot understand what people say “the first time around”.

Denise and Chester have been speaking informally as of late on how to “throw a block” at Paul’s attributed attempt to close one “of the remote sites”.

Denise and Chester have agreed to form a coalition. Despite the technological animosity between Denise and Chester, they will agree to cooperate and assume joint responsibility for continuous engineering of a profitable legacy product, and jointly commit to develop a new platform in record time and very low costs. They have agreed to lie about how long the new platform development will take and “clean up the mess” later on.

The team building activity prepared by HR VP Gloria Ramsbottom was a cooking class, followed by a short webinar of a horse running faster and faster, albeit eating less and an interview with the horse’s trainer. After an hour, she told Paul the team has “loosened up” and serious discussion can begin.Gloria described the team building activity as wow.

The Denver meeting was superficial, rambling and indecisive. Two weeks after the meeting, Paul closed the Vancouver site. Denise and Chester grew their respective sites by 20%.

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Culture and knee jerk reactions to crisis

In a crisis, the cultural assumptions of staff often play a role in shaping their knee jerk, initial  reactions.

Lets’s look at the following case and see how culture impacts the initial reaction of Fred from the USA, Som from Thailand, Humi from Israel, and Mitsumi from Japan.

Mitsumi, the Key Account Manager for an unhappy Japanese client went straight to the CEO and stated that all business could be lost “unless we show a road map within 48 hours to the customer of corrective action”   Mitsumi knew the clients’ demands were unfair but Mitsumi sees her role as the advocate of the client whose role is to slavishly amplify customer demands because the customer is God in Japan.

An internal meeting was convened with all parties to deal with this crisis , led by Fred, the US based head of Product Delivery.

Product Manager Humi from Israel paid no heed to the “moaning” of the Key Account Manager Mitsumi. “These new product releases take time to stabilize so  let’s roll up our sleeves and start working. I’ll fly to the client site tonight and give a detailed explanation; the clients’ expectations need to be managed. Fred, please ask Mitsumi to come with me to the customer to translate exactly what I explain. ”  Humi places a premium on action, and believes in talking straight to the customer, which are very Israeli characteristics.

Fred from the US said that “an overall high level comprehensive plan” is needed-then “you can fly wherever you want, Humi”. Fred believes than plans and planning enable more control of the environment, which is a frequent American assumption.

Engineer Som from Thailand smiled during the entire meeting-her team had developed a major component and she was very embarrassed. “What are you laughing at, Som? What is so God damn funny, asked Fred. Som was smiling the Thai smile of shame.

Hans, the German PMO wanted “more detail before we “mof+ forward”. And he started delving into detail which drove the other team members to distraction. Hans believes that without details, the team cannot make proper plans or appease the fuming customer. Fred told Hans, “look at the forest Hans, not the trees”. Som smiled and Humi checked flight schedules.

Summary

One of ways to avoid situations like this is to have an apriori discussion with your team members about culture and crisis. This provides team members insight about knee jerk reactions of their peers.

+move

 

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Read this if you work with the Israelis (or Chinese)

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                                                     At the post office  בדואר

This morning when the postman came, I was in the shower. So he left me a “Package Waiting Stub” which read, “You were not home when we came to deliver package number 12345. Your package will be available from next Monday, and we will hold  it for 10 days”.

I  put the stub in my pocket,  traveled to Tel Aviv to meet with 2 clients and then returned home to walk my dog, Georges. We walked over to the post office, although the package will only be available in 6 days. The post office was closed. (There is also a sign saying no dogs allowed).

I walked to the back door of the post office, where postmen return after their rounds. I showed Ziad the stub, and he said, “Why are all of you so impatient. Your package is probably not here, but go up to the 2nd floor and ask for Diane. Are you a professor? What a nice dog. Make sure he does not piss in the corridor.”

I found Diane sorting mail and showed her the stub. “I need your help,” I said. Dianne asked “who sent you here to drive me crazy. Do you have thorns in your ass?” ( i.e, Why is this so urgent?)

It was very very very hot, and I ask Diane why the union has not arranged for air conditioning. She cursed the union.

Diane then went to a huge bag, emptied it, and after 20 minutes of searching, I got my package. She told me Georges was cute.

So, what can be learnt from this?

1-Formal systems may have a work around via parallel systems.

2-Don’t jump to conclusions when people are not polite.

3-Question the limits, build relationships and negotiate everything.

Mon chien

                                      Georges

 

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Responsiveness to email and culture

Astrid from Munich, Neta from Tel Aviv and Harry from Newark are on the same team.
When Astrid (Germany) gets an urgent request via email from Neta or Harry she puts together a detailed and full answer and gets back to the sender within 3-5 days.
Harry (US) regards Astrid’s email replies to urgent requests as too long and detailed. He would have preferred a shorter answer, in “a bit less time”. Harry thinks that 48 hours is “enough grace for something urgent”.

Neta (Israel) expects a daily update by email from Astrid as to the status of her urgent request. She views Astrid’s approach as “totally non-responsive”. “By the time I get her answer, “I forgot the question”. When Neta gets an urgent request via email, she puts everything aside to provide the answer, often backing up her email answer with a text that the urgent request has been answered.

Harry “puts time aside” for urgent requests, but does nothing after 7pm and nothing on holidays “unless the world is coming to end”. Harry believes that were people to plan better, some of this urgency could disappear.
Neta does not like to plan at all and believes that planning is an empty ritual.
Astrid could spend all her time planning and wishes that Harry and Neta were more orderly.

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The dangers of “organizational utopianism”

A major component of organizing is balancing mutual dependencies between people and functions.

The fulfillment of mutual dependencies is the very essence of successful organizing, yet the dependencies which enable organizing always create anxieties. I am fully aware that people skim articles, but the stuff in italics is really important! 😉

There is no way whatsoever to eliminate the inherent anxieties of organizing; they can only be mitigated. Any attempt to “cure these anxieties” is organizational Utopianism.

Political utopianism, be it communism or nationalism, has bred disaster. Bread lines, racial hatred and massive use of force are the direct results of ideologies which purport to have all the answers. (I will avoid discussing the “salvation” promised by religious Utopians.)

In the realm of OD and change management, there is plenty of Utopianism, which expresses itself in stylish one size fits all models, universal truths and so called shared values. Utopian solutions come along with high priests who implement these total solutions.

Organizational utopianism is no less dangerous than political utopianism. Utopian organizational solutions breed cynicism, disengagement, sloganeering (which castrates communication) and exploitation. Total solutions for organizing end in disaster.

Organizing is very complex at the emotional level. There are no quick fixes, none whatsoever. An awareness of the inherent anxiety bred by organizing itself is probably the most important tool in the arsenal of organizational practitioner.

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