What makes OD projects easy

A potential client interviewed me for a new project on Thursday. I was asked about the more challenging projects I had facilitated and I mentioned these three.

1) A wealthy company of 30 people acquired a company in crisis of 400 people and took over full command.
2) Mexicans, Americans, Japanese and Israelis worked together in a split-site development project which was 8 months behind schedule.
3) Two huge independent vendors (Chinese and Israeli) , working for a German client, ask me to do an OD between the 2 vendor organizations, along with the client.

Later on during the day, I thought to myself how easy these 3 projects had been for me, because they were free of the filthy politics which traditionally accompanies OD work. How did this happen?

Projects for which there is no cook book or protocol allow the OD practitioner freedom to “develop” solutions along with his/her clients, and not deliver some well packaged snake oil products. Furthermore, there is no competition from motivational pep talkers and magicians who solve all issues within 45 minutes.

Furthermore, in all the projects I mentioned above, OD had been commissioned by the folks on top; as a result:

• The eager beavers of procurement have little say to say about price or scope
• The project is owned by the CEO, not HR, so that there is less need for apparent effectiveness and wow wowing
• Leadership will support the consultant, not step aside and download the risk to the consultant, as often is the case in Change Management


Towards designing an ecosystem in the changing world of work

There are lots of organisational design questions about managing in general and managing change in particular with teams full of contractors, permanents, and virtual teams.

While present ecosystems are coping with these changes albeit with great difficulty, the major challenge that remains is that technology change is so frequent and so massive that everything else lags behind. Organizational design is always trying to catch up with technology.

In this post, I want to focus on what I see as five design issues (there are many more) which can serve in redesigning organizations which are more adaptive to the world of work which is being dragged/pushed along by technology.

  1. The approach to design needs to be piecemeal, that is constantly in flux, not too rigid, not too orthodox, without assuming that one size fits all. A purchasing process will look differently in China and the USA. Hiring may need to adhere to a few basic principles, but there will be exceptions. In brief, French grammar….a few rules and thousands of exceptions. Oui!
  2. Fairness is a key design element which needs to be factored into organizational design. In the present political climate, the left sees fair as egalitarian and the right sees fair as proportional. In post modern organizations, lack of fairness has yet to be fully understood, categorized and re-engineered. A contractor working side by side with a salaried employee have totally different motives. The contractor may want to get the job done now; the salaried employee wants to fill up the hours he or she works. It is impossible to avoid the fairness issues. It is so blatant. It cannot be defined away by process or legal means.
  3. Some cultures are not transparent by design. Some cultures believe in win lose. Some belief systems are exclusionary of the legitimacy of other belief systems. Thus, behavioural codes must factor in (or out) the immense diversity that is obfuscated by the massive use of the English language, messaging and other technologies by making us all seem/appear similar. To address this variance, there needs to be far more, or far less, tolerance. Probably both!
  4. Except for a the western rich educated liberal, people have tribal needs of belonging. These tribal needs are neglected when contractors, salaried and temps work together. When tribal needs are somehow met to foster a sense of belonging, we will have come a long way. Oh yes, if the model of belonging  is to be ‘multiculturalism’, forget it. It doesn’t work all that great except in the mind of  rich educated liberals and on social media.
  5. Leaderless solutions need to be flushed down the toilet. The complexity of the ecosystem, the inherent lack of trust, the inevitable silos and the competitive  economic model all dictate the need for wise, mature and very flexible leadership. And the vast majority of followers outside of the rich democratic countries prefer strong autocratic leaders.

Thanks to my friend Andy Spence for the inspiration.


Why is OD so parochial as to be nearly irrelevant?

When Wang (China) looks at the marketplace, he looks for, and finds, people with whom he has trustworthy relationships. Into these relationships, he plugs in business, leveraging on the value of the relationships.

When Moshe (Israel) looks at the marketplace, he sees a bunch of clients who think they know what they want, but Moshe knows what they need. Moshe sees the gap between what clients want and what clients need as the area where he can creates value and does business.

When Francis (USA) (f) looks at the market, she sees clients who expect to get what they want, when they want it, with high quality and low cost.

When Hans (Germany) looks at the market, he sees the need to be predicable and reliable to his long term customers, producing very high quality products and services which compensates for high costs.

Naturally, Wang, Moshe, Francis and Hans naturally prefer different forms of organizing to achieve their goals.

Wang prefers organizations with a solid insider culture of which he is part. Moshe prefers a lose, undisciplined semi structured blob, where he can innovate. Francis prefers clear structure, a defined process and roles and responsibilities which are clearly delineated. Hans like a very well controlled process, heavy in detail.

To enable effective sustainable global organizing, OD practitioners must mediate between very different sets of expectations people have about the ideal form of organizing, and not try and change these basic instinctual desires unless absolutely necessary.

At present, we do not do that. OD pedals North American values about organizing. That makes OD very parochial. And irrelevant.


Truth and lying in organizations-advanced short case studies

Morris (US)  has just finished supper and said to Jean-Marie, his visiting colleague from France, “you should come over next time”. Jean-Marie wonders how Morris can be so dishonest.

Art (US) asked Wang (China) “what does this quarter look like” on a concall with 6 other participants . Wang said “looks good”. After the concall, Wang called Art and told him that the quarter looked bad. Art told himself that Wang cannot be trusted as he is a pathological fibber.

Oya (Japan) call Max in Detroit and told him emotionally, “Max-san, if you do not fly over 3 engineers now to Japan, the customer will throw us out”. Max thought to himself, “Oya always bs’s to get me to act with a false sense of urgency because he thinks we so not care about his Japanese customer”.

Peter (UK) told Moshe (Israel) that “that’s a good idea which needs more work”. Moshe wrote off Peter as a sweet-talking phony.

Stan (US)  told Miyamoto (Japan) that the product was “commercially deployable”. When 4000 bugs were discovered, Miyamoto thought he had been stung because Stan claimed the bugs were not “revenue impacting”.

Bill (US) corrected Zhang (China) in front of Zhang” subordinates on a minor factual issue.  Zhang believes Bill’s “vulgar correction” means than he has lost Bill’s trust, because face to Zhang is a more important truth than stupid facts.

So, when working globally, leave your personal judgement about truth at home. Understand the cultural context which basically says, truths are  often culturally defined artifacts.


5 errors inexperienced Israelis make with their US management counterparts

1-They blend discussion, arguing and negotiation at the same time. Americans appear to resent the constant negotiation and the elephant (intuition as per Haidt) leading the driver (ratio).

2-Israeli organizations often tell  clients what they really need which upsets their ‘satisfying clients’ American counterparts.

3-They misinterpret American unwillingness to be blunt as a weakness. They do not often understand cultural clues, forcing the Americans to be “overly” direct.

4-They reopen oral decisions, not understanding that this is a trust buster for Americans, although not for Israelis.

5-Israelis are far less politically correct that their American counterparts. And even when the Israelis adopt the PC lingo, it’s more fake than real. The Americans smell it from a mile.


On formality in organizations and culture

The degree of organizational formality manifests itself in the use of language, dress codes, existence and use of formal titles, the way rooms and offices are organized, seating arrangements, office design, and many, many other things and artifacts, big and small.
Formality enable some people to feel comfortable to do business in a global setting; others need informality.
• There are cultures where people need to break out of formality in order to feel comfortable enough to do business. “Just call me Bob; I gotta get this company out of the muck soon-so let’s get a move on it!”….in first meeting, with sleeves rolled up.
• There are cultures where people need to booze in order to relay messages that cannot be relayed due the formal etiquette (and linguistic structure) of everyday business. “You know Oya-san, this idea of yours really needs more work”…..after 5th drink.
• There are cultures where the only way to do business is within a framework of strict formalities. “Dr Muller, sir. I am ready to give you the report”, says Hans who has been working under “Dr” Muller for ten years.
When OD is practiced in a global setting, the degree of formality needs to be adjusted; this is often a daunting task.
Here are some rules of thumb for an OD consultant in a global diverse setting.
• As a facilitator, overdress, all the time. Many populations do not respect a facilitator who is casual.
• In a meeting, you need to relate to people as they relate to you. Call Bill by the name of Bill and call Dr Muller by the name of Dr Muller. Decide how to present yourself, and let people call you whatever they want.
• Introduce people as if you are a host; do not ask them to introduce one another before you say a few words.
• Make sure to prepare people one on one before more formal meetings as much as possible. Use more structured meetings as a default, slowly migrating to less structured as you see the level of tolerance for this developing. Unstructured meetings are harder to run in a very diverse setting.
• If there is a gap in the way people address one another, bridge the gap at the beginning. “Bill and Dr Muller, how does each of you see this issue developing and what are the gaps? Then, start to translate intent. “Dr Muller, when you call Bill by the name Mr. Thomas, he feels uncomfortable”. “Bill, Dr Muller is only called Hans at his golf club, so you make him feel out of the aquarium”..
• Avoid humour because it is too informal. (I ignore this advice all the time).
• Always issue a formal written summary, with action items and ownership.


Culture and resistance of corporate regulations-a case study

Travel policy has now been changed; business class travel is permitted only for the second trip each quarter.

Charles from Ohio complains but adheres to the policy. He has started looking around for a new assignment in the company where no travel is needed.

Edna from Tel Aviv has requested an exception, “unless the first trip is more than 6 hours”. She is presently trying to change company policy, bombarding the corporate with emails and threats.

Ratana from Huahin Thailand said nothing. Nevertheless Ratana started a job search that very evening, since all her trips are gruelling 19 hour flights to New York.

Abhay from Delhi has a friend who works in corporate travel. Leveraging his relationships, Abhay orders his first quarterly ticket at the very last second on flights where the coach class is full, and as per corporate policy, gets an upgraded flight, “if the flight is a customer visit”, which it always is.


Things are foul at this chicken farm-a case study

The heat was already over 100 when I arrived at 0730 to MBD (David’s Poultry Farm), on the Israel/Syrian Border. There was calm on both sides of the border, and one could see the outposts of the Syrian Army.  In MBD however, things were less than calm.

MBD is the largest Poultry farm in the North of Israel; the proprietor is David, a 55 year old native of Tiberius. David is trying to enjoy the fruits of his 35 years hard work by stepping back, and he has transferred almost all of the managerial responsibility to Alexandra (a native of the Former Soviet Union), who immigrated to Israel in 1973.

Alexandra is a PhD is agricultural science and served in the Soviet army in Logistics of Food Transport. Since Alexandra has joined and stepped into her role as “Operations Manager”, all hell has broken loose. Sick leave is up, the new time clock was sabotaged 23 times, and there have been all sorts of maintenance issues cropping up which are unjustified.

BUT-Production is up 75% and market share has grown drastically due to accurate shipments.

David, who remembered me from McGill where we studied in the same years, asked me to visit and make recommendations.

Alexandra said that David was soft on the workers and this is a transition period which will be painful. “It vill take a year”. David treated the Russian workers softly, so they came late, left early, and malinger when there is no work or it is too hot, claims Alexandra. The “native Israelis” workers are constantly arguing and asking “why” and David never demanded obedience. “They must stop asking “lama” (why) or dey vill be fired”

The workers from Arab villages,  come very early (515 am) after morning prayers, and David paid them for sitting around and waiting till work begins simply because David loved to banter with them-since David’s native language is Arabic. “Ve now have shifts dat start at 0700, and if they come early it’s der problem”, said a proud Alexandra.

Alexandra told me that David must FULLY step back and ” I vill whip dem into a team in a year.”

A former supervisor named  Igor (m, from Ukraine) told me that Alexandra is an OK technologist and has no idea how to manage. Igor told me that Alexandra stripped him of his title as supervisor and his peers laugh at him for taking commands from a Babushka (Russian Granny). Igor and David run together on the weekends.

Igor is married to David’s cousin.

Inam (f, Arab) told me that Alexandra installed a time clock, and checks daily if people have stamped in. This is highly insulting because David worked on the trust system “and when there were problems, we dealt with this quietly, via our oldest worker, who acted as an intermediary between David and the workers”. Alexandra does not understand that the girls need to travel ALL TOGETHER in in one truck organized by her village in the morning, or else, “there may be trouble” and added “We do not set the timetable of the village truck with the male escort.”

David had hired a consultant before me and he had done a “group discussion” and “outdoor training” which failed to produce changes.

Since each population requires a different style of management, David now needs to make some tough choices.


The power of being blunt

Michael Wu is the new EVP for Israel & Singapore Offshore R&D Division in a San Jose based software firm.

Avi is the Head of the Israel  R&D centre. Since Michael’s appointment, Avi has been in constant contact with Michael’s boss, with whom he studied at Stanford. Avi shows low responsiveness to Michael’s emails and when Michael gives marching orders, Avi argues.

Michael hired Naomi, a coach from Billings Oregon. Naomi flew to Israel 3 times, met with Avi and planned an intervention called “Mutual Adaptation in a Changing Environment” ;  Avi showed up for two meetings and then checked out.

Michael then hired a consultant who was brought up an educated in North America, but was also Israeli with a long military career. Michael had a one hour conversation, which was “ten times more expense than the hourly rate paid to Naomi” , yet proved very effective. One month later, Avi was fully aligned with and respected Michael; Mike said “we have come a long way”.

Here is an email Mike sent to the consultant,

Hi A—n,

It has been a month now since we spoke and you guided me how to deal with Avi.

I was very reticent about inviting him to fly in from Israel 17 hours on coach class  to San Jose for a half hour meeting with me. I was even more reticent about telling him that “if you mess with me one more time, you’re fucked; now my friend, let’s close this issue and move on-followed by lunch” during which I give him a major project! But it worked. We are well aligned. And as you mentioned with bluntness, he was neither offended nor intimidated. He no longer thought me to be weak.

Thank you so much.

Michael Wu


Risk evasiveness -an anecdote

Tel Aviv based start up TVS purchased a US based competitor USC in the field of IT marketing services for bloggers. TVS is fast innovative, sloppy, undisciplined and years “ahead of the curve”. Their product line is super sophisticated, yet not fully stable.

USC was solid, stable, close to the customer and moderately innovative. Slowly they were losing market share, but highly profitable when TVS purchased them.

TVS initially fired most USC US-based developers and retained their sales force. The US based sales force was reticent about pushing “half cooked crappy products” into “our sophisticated customer base. “If we sell TVS products as they presently function, we will be sued.” Slowly but surely, TVS replaced the entire US based sales force with ex-pat Israelis, who were more willing to take risks. And take risks they did, losing two thirds of the US based clientele in a year!

In Taiwan and China based clients of USC however, TVS quadrupled their sales, without “ex-pating” one Israeli, The Taiwanese and Chinese offices complained that the Israelis were still a bit risk evasive, albeit less than their former American masters. One Taiwanese salesperson said, “as long as we can maintain customer relationships as we seriously commit to increase product performance, we can help the clients drive innovation with our cutting edge products.”