What to do when you do not understand what is going on in an organization?

At times, OD consultants observe organizational behaviours which appear irrational.

As a matter of fact, at times organizations can appear to be a theatre of the absurd, and you can’t get the plot or get a handle around the absurdity.

I have put together a very short check list of things I look for to make sense of what I see.

1) Things are rarely absurd. There is a plot to decipher. What is the plot?  E.g., it may be that functionally, nothing makes sense, but politically everything makes sense.

2) What do people/the organization GAIN by the perceived dysfunction? It may well be that there is huge gain in what OD diagnostics says is poor functionality. (Perceived gain may also be secondary benefit.)

3) What information is lacking? Often a small piece of information tells the whole story.


And…to illustrate-a small tale.

Larry and his 15 developers were working on 2 medical projects, one near completion and one in its initial stages. Larry’s company was in the pure research stage and fully funded.

Three months before a meeting with investors, work on the project which was near completion dropped off and the project  fell way behind. All developers started working on this new and yet to be defined project. I was flabbergasted.

The reason (as I found out later) was clear. Larry (correctly) assessed that if the investors saw an opportunity to gain back their investment now, all the work heretofore would be boring  productization and the next project would not be funded. So Larry’s  goal was to create a situation where he could continue to “milk” the investors”, leveraging the fact that the project was far from completion!

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12 thoughts on “What to do when you do not understand what is going on in an organization?

  1. Another short but powerful piece, Allon. . . You have captured one essential principle of Gestalt Psychology (something both Amy and myself are trained in): when something doesn’t make sense, it just means you don’t understand their world. ‘All behavior is functional’ (for the person doing it). It ALWAYS serves SOME purpose which is essential to the person doing it, no matter how irrational it seems to you.

  2. Great posting, Allon!

    Your second point made me think of the movie and TV show “Mash”. While hyped a bit, the fundamental truth was that “irrational” behaviors were tolerated because: a) they were deemed coping mechanisms and b) the skill of the characters were sorely needed so personality quirks and behavioral liberties were tolerated – for the good of the greater whole.

    Turning to the serious for a moment:

    I think an OD person has to actively consider where the relationship is in terms of development. As you know, Allon, I am a fan of FIRO by Dr. Will Shutz. For others tht may read this, Dr. Shutz theorizes groups develop in three stages: Inclusion (where the central question is “In or Out”?); Control (where the central question is top or bottom of the power hierarchy); and Openness (how vulnerable can I make myself to you, i.e. central question is “near or far”? in terms of relational closeness).

    The germane point is that each stage manifests different behaviors. Those behaviors might not make sense unless one understands the underlying relation-stage motivations. For example, it is common to make commitments at Inclusion (Yeah, let’s do lunch!) with no intention of following thru. The issue is that if the other party is working from Openness, then he or she may take that commitment seriously – and theater of the absurd can ensue.

    What your brilliant – as usual! – insight helps me see with greater clarity is that each stage has a different “normal”. For someone in a different FIRO stage than Other in a relationship, he or she sees Other or Others in the relationship as “abnormal” – and acts accordingly.


    Drive ON!

      • Allon,

        Is Gloria traumatized by the impending demise of Blackberry?

        Please tell her my heart aches for her! The pain of impending loss must be unbearable for her!


        Drive On!

        • My dear Mr Edward Hampton,
          The demise of Blackberry is a classic
          axe-ample of Miss Information.
          If you had installed a “knowledge management” packet, you would know that Blackberry is as global and sustainable as bipartisan politics in the USA.

  3. Allon – How could you write full time with Gloria as your editor? My guess is she would think there would be too many words written in “full time…”

  4. Pingback: What to do when you do not understand what is going on in an organization?-Part 2 | Allon Shevat

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