On Managing Lower Back Pain and Organizational Response to Crisis

 Five weeks ago, I was getting dressed to go to a weekly lecture at a History Club which I attend; as I tightened my belt, I strained my lower back. I was totally unable to move for 4 days, and now, five weeks later, I am on my feet and doing most things again, with the pain lessening slowly as time goes by.

This has been a  hard period because despite the fact that I am fit, getting back “up to speed” is so hard, although I have been exercising for decades. The learning process of managing this back pain is no less painful than the back ache itself!

The goal of this short post is to reflect about the process of my learning about managing back pain and organizational response to crisis. This post is meant as a metaphor.

Very quickly I learnt that lower back pain is a mass of symptoms with many (but no clear) cause. There is no real model of what treatment works and what does not. Sometimes walking helps, sometimes walking  hurts; sometimes rest helps, sometimes rest makes things worse. Sometimes it pays off to be mindful of the pain and sometimes it pays off to be distracted.

And symptoms do need to be treated, especially since the problem is nothing but a mass of symptoms. The term “just a symptom” makes no sense in treating back pain. A symptom is not a “just”. The problem has no root cause, but the symptoms are very real.

Treating back pain involves a certain degree of acceptance, a mindset of humility, many eclectic concepts and tools, some rigour and a flexible plan, which changes but does not overly waver. And patience is critical. . (I must admit that I am a very, very impatient person).

Now I look at the way that organizations respond to their pain: diagnosing root cause, changes of structure, engagement plans, new IT based processes, axing people and process clarity. Even when organizations respond with “agility”, they do so rigidly with agile theories and routines.

In organizations, those in charge KNOW what needs to be done. They project clear goals and vision. When things do not work, people/things are blamed because there is a need to prove the “fix it” plan is right.

The essence of my reflection is that while organizations are not individuals and this post is “just a metaphor”, I think that eclecticism, humility,  balancing the  polarity between plan & improvisation have a hell of a lot to bring to the table. And maybe positive changes in organizations come from a lot of little things being adjusted.

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Why internal OD departments are often unable to drive relevant changes?

Just last week, I was called to a meeting with a CEO who wanted to discuss the ramifications of “being forced to unionize”. The internal OD department in this very same organization was deploying 360 degree feedback at the level of junior supervisors, which was as relevant as chiropractic treatment for a corpse.

This CEO’s HR department employs 4 OD consultants, all of whom are irrelevant in dealing with the strategic organizational issues at hand. Instead of being relevant, they are dealing with chicken shit.  Why is this so characteristic of internal OD departments? In this post, I will try to make sense of this matter.

Large, bureaucratic government organizations, public utilities and veteran conglomerates develop internal OD department as they age ungracefully simplifying “organizing” into a set of processes and products which can be “administered” by what the Russian and Israelis armies both call a “politruk,” that is a political commissar, serving warm corporate lemonade.

These OD departments generally report into HR, which saves costs. Because of the growing anxiety of HR management about HR’s positioning, not rocking the boat becomes a dominant element of HR strategy. And nowhere is this conservative stance more apparent than in an internal OD department. Instead of positioning internal OD to be be strategic drivers of change, the emphasis is placed on delivering and administering regime goodies cooked up by the company kitchen. This breeds phenomenal cynicism and lack of trust.

Internal OD departments generally implement such routine tasks as the administration of surveys, and packaged training for middle management, commission outdoor training or perhaps force feed “engagement”, whatever the hell that means. As Levis Madore points out in comments section below, “castrated internal OD functions quickly become eunuchs who pose no danger to the executive levels as they proceed to (administer) cutbacks in the HR department which gradually (are)  transformed into process boxes with mere transactional tasks (to perform).”

The internal OD departments control access of junior external OD  consultants to the company. Very often when there is a budget to hire externals, they hire OD technicians who are controllable, inexpensive and slavishly  loyal. 

As a result, more experienced OD consultants are often commissioned directly by very senior managers, who ask these senior externals to “work in coordination” with the internals, or more often ignore them. Both scenarios are often ugly.

When does an organization need an external OD consultant? In my mind, the answer is counter-intuitive. A skilled internal OD consultant (not an OD product hack or what the Chinese call a barefoot doctor 赤脚医) is needed in the initial formative stage. That’s where organizations can get the bang for the buck, especially in organizational design.

However, very often start-ups in their formative stage commission external OD workdue to high cost, and end up “bringing the OD work inside”, after due castration by the HR manager, who may have been a senior admin or office clerk at the very beginning.


The inspiring  politruk

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