Why the results of OD interventions are not perfect

Recently, I have finished major dental treatment which I had put off for years, due to fear and dilly dallying; finally l decided to just do it. The treatments took six months.

During the tens of meetings I had with my dentist during this half year, I found myself observing his work . And as the work came to a close, it was evident  that he felt satisfaction at the near perfect results. Indeed, my smile is “luvly”.

I have executed many complex OD projects over the years: post merger integration, interventions with very senior managers, and working with cultures where OD values appear incompatible. I have also done lots of work with Fortune 500 companies and very demanding start-ups.

My business grows via referrals and although my style is an “acquired taste”, at the personal level I have a sense of humour and it is easy to interact with me, so clients “like” me. This having been said, I have never delivered a “perfect” result, like my dentist has.

If properly executed, OD interventions cannot be perfect. Organizations themselves are very imperfect. Once the human race started organizing and we all  became dependant on one another, there is severe anxiety built into the very essence of organizing, and all forms of organizations. This anxiety is not soluble.

OD creates more effective coping mechanisms, flexibility and a better breed of manager, follower and team. Yet often, once OD mitigates the noise caused by one problem, another problem surfaces, which is totally natural.

Many so called OD practitioners try and sell OD products  which can be “plugged in and played” , as it were,  to any organization. They promise “client satisfaction” and perfect results. This brand of OD practitioner, the snake oil salesman, wants his client to be thrilled. I don’t. Being thrilled with the results an OD project makes no sense at all, because at best, human organizing is so imperfect.

The OD which I practice delivers a professional service and not a product. The results that I deliver are very real and concrete, because they are not “perfect”. Certainly since most of my business is repeat or referral, the clients are satisfied, but they are not thrilled! Mais non!

And alas, in dentistry so much is dependant on the dentist, whilst in OD, so much dependent of client-consultant interaction. So here is a paradox to think over: in OD, only the unskilled deliver perfect results.

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When someone is professionally competent, cultural skills may be less important. (revised)

When a manager lacks professional competence, cultural competence becomes far more  important for success.

To illustrate: In 2 different companies, Lynn and Morris both lead a major Supply Chain/IT effort to regulate the suppliers to whom work is contracted.

Morris and Lynne have both been told “not to rock the boat with the remote offices too much during the transition” yet ensure that the software be deployed globally with one year.

Morris is a top notch professional with business domain knowledge as well as IT skills which garner huge respect. Lynne comes from project management. She is a manager and an integrator. She lacks the professional business and IT knowledge that Morris has.

Although their personal style is similar, there is far more noise/ rumblings about Lynne. Folks complain that Lynne “does not understand the mentality” of the local offices. Strangely, Lynne encountered the strongest resistance in France and Belgium, although she speaks French fluently!

The level of professional competence that Morris exhibits mitigates the importance of his lack of his cross cultural competence. His professional competence lessens his need even to be seen as culturally competent. For Lynne, without cultural competence to win over initial trust, she may be a goner.

I train dozens of managers yearly in “cultural literacy and competence”. Cultural competence can compensate for lack of professional competence, and professional competence can lessen the need to be culturally literate.

Training departments would be wise to take this into account instead of “across the board” one size fits all.

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When change is failing, don’t fall into a trap

OD consultants and other change professionals are commissioned at times by clients who are stuck and dither when facing a serious problem.

Two examples:

Take the merging 3 small companies into one and management insisting on “creating a new culture, based on the best parts of the 3 companies.” Management dithered on this issue for two years with the hope that things would somehow stabilize as the social fabric fell apart in political warfare.

Or, take the example of a company which needed  to really commit itself to transparency with its own staff to ensure credibility, yet focused on word-smithing, sweet-talking and sloganeering as the company employees become more and more “militant” and unionizes.

In such situations there is natural tendency of the consultant to push hard for decisiveness. And to make matters worse,  when  decisive action does not occur, the client may even blame the consultant for the slow pace of change!

Here is the crunch: If you push the client too hard because YOU want to succeed, then you may find yourself out on your ass. On the other hand if you accept the clients’ pace, you become part of the system.

This problem has no easy fix. For those of us who have learned to drive in heavy snow, it is helpful to remember how to free yourself from a snow bank….backwards and forwards, slowly, until you get the leverage to jolt forward.

And remember, ultimately it is the clients’ mess, not yours. If you feel that you are the one who is failing, your actions as a consultant will probably be less effective.

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Listening is a guessing game in many cultures

Some cultures are relatively blunt and to the point. One rarely needs to guess what a Dutch, German, French or Israeli means when they express themselves in business. True, nuances and cultural clues may be be missing, but after some exposure, getting the point is pretty straight forward.

In other cultures, corporate communication is much more difficult to decipher. In some cultures, this  difficulty comes from face saving (e.g. Thailand, Philippines) ; in other cultures the difficulty comes from a cultural uniformity which negates the need to be explicit , like Japan. In the USA, the difficulty in figuring out what something means is negatively impacted by political correctness, which obfuscates clarity.

In cross cultural communication, a key skill that one needs to acquire is how to understand corporate communication when a lot is “unsaid”.

Example: A senior manager asks the Japan Office if he can visit the first week of August. The answer he gets is yes. Then, the senior manager asks how many people will be on vacation that same week. When he learns that 70% of the people will be on vacation that same week, he asks if the first week of September is better, and gets a “yes”, only to learn later on that this date is also unsuitable.

Here are a few suggested ways to get around this impediment of implicitness:

1) Don’t try to get people to be explicit. While it can be done, it is very humiliating for the other side.

2) Ask many people the same question and compare answers.

3) Learn to provide alternatives, as opposed to asking questions the answers to which are yes or no. (Do you prefer I come on this date or that date).

4) Listen very closely to what is not said. Watch eye content, pay attention, putting  all communication in (age, role, situational) context.

5) Watch for purposeful ambiguity. E.g, Is this a good time to meet? “Yes, it may be”.

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In praise of the global organization-and a toast

Nothing like spending the last month running to and from bomb shelters with my dog Georges to make me think. Today,  I  propose a toast to the global organization.

Coming from me, this may sound strange. This blog and my satiric blog focus on some of the more serious defects in global organizations.

Over the past  month, my thoughts were tortured watching the worst of human behaviour manifest itself in the Middle East-beating on the war drum, mutually exclusive narratives which drive fanaticism, so much hatred and senseless violence. I found myself asking how is it that global organizations, with all their weaknesses, never bring out such evil behaviour. When I compare the behaviour of people in global organizations to the behaviour of people in nation states, global organizations eat nation states for breakfast.

I work with one team of technical pre-sales engineers based in Tel Aviv, Cairo, Ankara, Dallas, Shanghai Munich and Riyadh. Yes, there are tensions, infighting and problems of synergy. And yes, there is squabbling about how does what. Yet folks work together, laugh together, and communicate well and strive for success together. Even In the hardest of geopolitical times, the team’s behaviour is matter of fact and to the point.

Here is what I believe are a few success factors which explain why global organizations succeed where nations fail.

1) Membership in a global organization is temporary and based on achievements. This provides clear focus, sense of purpose and direction, as well as a healthy sense of the  temporary nature of belonging.

2) While there is plenty of violence in global organizing, there is no use of physical force at all.

3) The desired  ways of behaving are defined, measured, policed and enforced.

4) Religion has no place whatsoever in the public domain.

5) There is no democracy whatsoever in global organizing, so a huge mob with the wrong ideas has no impact. Yes, there is heavy handed leadership at times, but shelf time is limited and there is periodic life cycle regime changes.

So, Georges and I propose a toast to global organizing. Cheers!

Le-Haim-To life.


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Focus on what needs to be changed, not what you have been hired to change

Companies use OD to drive difficult change in line with structure and values of the corporate, which are usually highly impacted by Western values.

Often the proposed changes may be the wrong changes, not do-able in  some of the local cultures where the company operates. The role of the OD consultant tasked with facilitating the change should be to raise a flag and prevent the change from happening, or at least do risk mitigation. In order to understand the issues in advance, the consultant needs to be aware of the cultural barriers to change.

The OD consultant  however is often in denial about his/her own cultural  bias, which stem from OD’s core concepts and tools.These cultural biases may lead to the ineffective imposition of an ill planned changed.

For example, let us assume that  headquarters dictates that two managers (two in a box) will co-manage a certain organizational sub-unit and share power. One manager is to focus on engineering, and the other is to focus on development and product architecture. The two are to “cohabit” in the “leadership space”.

Let’s assume that the local culture where these 2 managers are to co-manage  is characterized by “One hill is not for 2 tigers ”, i.e, power cannot be shared, and power is exercised autocratically. In such a case, there is no chance that two managers will share a management role if they hail from such a culture. Instead of two-in-a-box, we will have two in a boxing ring! Smile

An OD consultant with Western values who is asked to facilitate the change may take the 2 managers and  try to define clarity of decision making processes, build trust, or build various mechanisms to minimize conflict and power games. But the two managers want another type of clarity-who the f-ck is the boss?-and constantly battle, like two tigers on a hill.

And the more that the western consultant tries to push his values on the local culture, he may find himself looking like an American politician trying to organize a cease fire between intense enemies who want to knock the crap out of one another, and prefer death to compromise.

What can an OD consultant do to prevent using OD to implement change the wrong way?

  • Look at the cultural alignment of each change.
  • Understand what can change, and what cannot change.
  • Put your OD values on hold.
  • Focus on what needs to be changed, behaviour in the field or corporate policy.  Focus the OD effort in the right direction.(If you have been hired by someone junior or a possessed by looking good, this will be hard.)

In the above case in China, it is best to focus on not implementing two in a box policy.

Here is another example.

Corporate asked me to work with senior management on “the value of transparency”. One key manager in this process believed everyone is lying to him all the time by padding effort estimates. This manager hated the word “transparency” and thought it was “western propaganda”. The focus of my  work with him centred on building a group of people whom he could trust, and avoiding “religious” statement like “the value of transparency” which challenged his belief system. We totally avoided the use of the word “transparency” to the chagrin of the internal team “measuring OD’s effectiveness”.

It is important that OD work of this nature is commissioned by someone internally who is not obsessed with looking good, but rather someone who wants to get it right.

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