Why so many cultures mistrust “process”

Austin-based Alvin has had a bad start to his new role as senior VP of Process Release Control at the software company that he  joined recently. Alvin thought that challenge he would be facing was to upgrade the level of compliance by introducing friendlier systems; instead “I am facing an insurrection as well as a silent rebellion against all process; this place is a fuc-ing madhouse.”

Oh yes, Alvin put his CV out on the market in a clandestine manner after two months on the job.

Until recently, Alvin’s career has been with companies based in the US and Canada; now Alvin is working with a US based multinational with branches in the UK,  India, China, Russia  and Israel. So it is fair to say that Alvin has some learning to do. 

With the corona virus raging, forcing people to work from home, Alvin cannot get any face to face time; all his interactions take place via Zoom, which he finds exhausting and not much more than perfunctory communication. So Alvin commissioned a white paper (Alvin is not all that aware of diversity-compliance) to give him an idea how to approach the challenges he faces. 

Alvin was expecting that the white paper would provide him with a process to close the gap between current behaviour and the process; instead Alvin was actually confronted with a rude reality-he needed to adapt himself! Alvin turned whiter than the white paper; he was livid with anger as he read the white paper.

The paper suggested that some of the people in his company believe that process is a “trap” that management sets up to ensnare people into unrealistic commitments. Others in the company are convinced that only by working around process and bypassing it can things get done, because the process serves the bureaucracy and not the task. Others believe that a firm relationship between the developers and the client is the only way to deliver on time, because the process is so detached from the ever-changing needs of the client. And worst of all, some of his staff actually believe that one needs to bow down to process and feign compliance, while carrying out the task in sly and evasive manner.

In a recent call with 15 participants , one of the engineering leads said, “Fuck process, Alvin, we need to deliver-the client is a moving target; the clients’ marketing and operations don’t agree about what they have ordered from us. We cannot work from the formal specs”.

After 17 months on the job, Alvin left the company after he found a job in the HQ of a state owned utility in North Dakota.

And the moral of the story? Process can help to get things done in some cultures, not many. Other cultures get things done by beating the system, close relationships and even cheating the system via anti-process client centric entrepreneurship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why are Israelis so willing to vaccinate-a glimpse into Israeli culture

More than six million Israelis have been vaccinated; by March the economy will fully reopen (already happened) , with nearly universal vaccination for populations-in-danger, and anyone else who wants to put an end to the hellish existence of the past year.

In this post,  I will underline the cultural underpinnings which explain the willingness of our population to roll up their sleeve and take the jab. True, the government and our superb public health system did procure and provide logistic support for this endeavour, but that alone does not explain the willingness of the population to get jabbed. I trust that this short post add another layer of explanation

  1. Israelis are risk tolerant.  It starts with our history. The ingathering of the exiles from the Diaspora into Turkish and then British-mandated Palestine, into what is now the State of Israel, was always a high risk endeavour (which most Jews opposed until the Holocaust).  Against all odds, from the late 1800s until today, almost every single achievement has been achieved by risk taking. Many risks paid off; many others fail. But bottom line, we owe our existence to our risk tolerance.
  2. Israelis have a proclivity for action. Israel was a pioneer society, with something of a wild mid-west mentality. There still remains  an anti-intellectual streak which values doing over thinking. In Chinese, there is an expression “should I push at the door or should I knock at the door?”, which is used to describe dithering and dawdling. We do not have that in our culture-we do. Often with poor results, but usually with huge success.
  3. Fast and dirty. We bypass process, then mop up. Process takes the back seat to speed. Speed is strategy. Software is released quickly, then we clean up, We build apartments, then roads. We take the vaccine, and mitigate the fear of side-effects.
  4. Life is hard, and then you die, so cheer up. Life here means inevitable hardship-wars, terrorist attacks, threats, endless security checks when we travel, high taxes, shitty government and a religious minority trying to shove religious observance  up our asses. So cheer up and enjoy life while you can. Israel is a place with lots of fun and action. We do anything we can do to enjoy life. Drink, party, liberal sexual mores, great comedy, lively bohemian scene, great food, music and innovation. Get vaccinated, then be merry… until shit hits the fan, which it inevitably will.

Hope that sheds light on what’s happening. And on Jan 19th, I get the second vaccine. (Happened-no side effects)

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After an acquisition, the organization caste system changes

An acquisition is not a tea party, especially if you happen to be on the acquired side. Beside the very few people who get a hefty payment for selling off the firm, the acquired team’s patricians  are often stripped of their status formally and informally, visibly and invisibly, physically and emotionally.

Patricians  of the acquired team have new masters, and these masters are not just the people in parallel positions of the dominant  company.

An acquired CFO (who is probably demoted to Business Unit Financial Officer)  does not only have to deal with his new boss, but also with the mindset of every finance employee who claims that “we bought you”, so do it our way. 

An acquired HR manager will see access to key figures blocked off; programs from the old company will be labelled legacy, and then killed off. The verbiage and lingo, titles and perk-management will be realigned with the ways of the new ruling caste.

Engineering management will force-feed new procedures and tools, hindering and crippling development efforts of the acquired company, even if the acquired company was purchased for its innovation.

Changes in the IT system will make life a nightmare for the acquired company, making it very hard to do the simplest things for months after months. 

In short the dominant caste of the acquired company is decimated, although there may be an OD violinist  playing a song in the background about “Merging Two Cultures into One”.

However, it does happen that people in the acquired company get enhanced status, far more than they had in the legacy company. For example-

If the acquiring company is Chinese or Israeli, Mandarin or Hebrew speakers in the legacy company will have more importance than it in the past.

If someone was extra cooperative in the due diligence process and spilled the beans about the weaknesses of the acquired company, these “turncoats”, so to speak, may be compensated with enhanced status.

And of course, key account managers of the acquired company get a “pass” into the new ruling class by dint of the relationships that they hold with legacy clients.

At the society level, caste dies very hard, if at all, in processes that last centuries. In organizations, death by caste reassignment happens quickly and thus, allows us to observe changes in the caste system at a galloping pace. Is all the above inevitable? I would say that the process is Darwinian, and the human effort can mitigate the pain by proper risk mitigation planning during the post merger integration phase, which takes up to six years.

 

 

 

 

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Working from home will end with the corona vaccine

Once the corona virus is eradicated, which will happen within less than a year from now,  people will return to work at their offices, perhaps working from home one day a week at the most.

Working from home allows less control of management over employees, or perhaps less perception of control. The need of  management to perceive  that they are in control will be a major factors in driving people back to work.

Creative and informal dialogue cannot thrive when people are working from home. With the informal chit chat and face to face interaction, innovation is starved of its oxygen and withers. That too will drive people back to work from the office.

Interpersonal interaction within homes has taken a huge blow as people under the same roof are under each other’s’ skin, inflicting huge emotional damage on the quality of life.  Friendships, marriages, parents, whatever: the pressure cooker in which we have all been boiling during 2020 will burst open at the first opportunity as humanity seeks to flee from the cage we all have been sharing.

The market place invests huge bucks which will get us back at work-with ads for cars and the need to dress fashionably being the major factors which will pry people out of their home.

Levi Eshkol, one of Israel’s wiser prime ministers, warned of making a tragedy into an ideology. Working from home is ok from time to time. But it is an emotional tragedy. And on the very day when our arms are aching from the corona vaccine, we’ll all be scurrying back at work.

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Ten Very Hard Questions and Suggested Answers: Guideline for an OD Consultant at Initial Stages of Contracting

There are no “pat” answers to hard questions that OD consultants are asked, especially at the initial stages of contact with a client. But I have tried to share the generic answers I have used over the years.

1 Client: Do you work for a success fee?

Consultant: If you promise to fully implement all suggestions and recommendations that I make, then yes.

 

2 Client: Why is your hourly fee so high?

Consultant: Because when you hire a highly skilled consultant, you will need to pay for far fewer hours.

 

3 Client: How can success be measured?

Answer: It cannot. If after a few months, you feel that change is starting to happen, it’s going well. If not, fire me. Btw, initially things may get worse; that’s a good sign.

 

4 Client: Can you kindly send me a proposal with the goals of the process, definition of the stages, and expected take-aways.

Answer: Not really. It’s guess work. I can write something for you, but it’s just a stab in the dark. The goals could remain constant, but on the other hand, they could be in a constant state of flux.

 

5 Client: Why is your report so short?

Answer: Because I invested a lot time in writing it.

 

6 Client: What is your personal experience in writing software/civil engineering/machining/refinery/fast food?

Answer: I have spent my whole professional career learning.

 

7 Client: Have you ever failed in a project?

Answer: Of course I have. More than once. And whoever you hire, I suggest that you be very wary of someone who has never failed.

 

8 Client: Can we get a reduced rate on volume?

Answer: The more I work for you, the more dependent I become on one source of revenue. I am not interested in having my revenue  stream depend on one major client, and you certainly do not want a consultant who is dependent on you. 

 

9 Client: Can you start your work with middle management?

Answer: Absolutely not. There are problems which manifest themselves at middle management but these problems are very often if not always symptoms of deeper problems.

 

10 Client: What is your approach to unions?

Answer: I respect unions; they take care of employees just like management takes care of themselves and stakeholders. They mistrust OD consultants and this is natural, because often the type of dialogue OD promotes is counter to their interests. However, I always tell union guys that I will never ever step into their sphere-and I keep my word.

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Phantom and referred pain in organizations

Until this very day, with over 45 years of experience, whenever I have even a challenging meeting with a client, I get strange pains in body. My eyelids twitch, my breathing becomes shallow, my digestion backfires or my clothes feel tight. In the past, I had baffled many doctors with these pains. Once, a week before a meeting in LA between 3 companies that were merging into one, I was sure that my eyesight was declining in one eye. And my shoulder ached something awful. After the meeting (which was difficult but successful), I was fine again.

The aches, pains and weird symptoms, that is the transfer of mental and emotional stress to other symptoms are called referred pains. The “something that hurts, is something else”.

I am never ever stressed about the upcoming events themselves; no CEO is too challenging for me. I can facilitate the most difficult of problems with ease. I simply get aches and pains that vanish after the event.

The “transfer of symptoms” from actual source of pain itself to somewhere else occurs in organizations as well as people.

Here are a few examples.

1-People do not speak up in meetings about certain slips in schedule. Progress reports step-side quality issues. Risks are played down. The not-at-all obvious reason? A client has been sold a very poor product that will not work as promised when delivered. However, some of the features of the dysfunctional product will provide just enough value to provide the client with a strategic advantage over its competitor. That is the skeleton in the closet. The CEO’s of the seller and the buyer know that explicitly-no one else does, except for everyone.

2-Jimmy is a horrendous CEO. His technical skills are outdated; his relationships with investors are tense and his staff hates him. He has been managing the company for 5 years. The hidden reason: the 5 investors each think that they can run the company better than the others. Jimmy allows them to continue to fight, and not resolve their differences; this status quo preserves another company of theirs which is doing very well and funding all their escapades.

3-JIT has 14 outlets in 3 districts. All outlets are doing well, except for one outlet in each district. Every attempt to get these three failing district outlets to change course fails. What’s the skeleton in the closet? Management needs a failed outlet in each district to write off expenses in order to pay less tax.

4-Beware if asked to “strengthen middle management”; that issue is almost always a phantom pain, the root cause of which is a double message from senior management, contradicting priorities, poor teamwork at the top, or overzealous HR manager, who wants to control something but is not strong enough to be relevant.

So how do we get our hand around issues which surface like phantom or referred pains?  Here are a few guidelines:

  • The obvious may not be so obviously obvious.
  • What is not said is part of the diagnosis. There are problems no one talks about.
  • An impacted tooth may not hurt.
  • Look for hidden agendas even when things make sense, and always when they don’t.

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OD during Covid : Bailing out the ship

To my absolute surprise, my workload has increased ever since it became clear that this virus is not going away; not only are  the lemons not about to become lemonade, but  the plague is  worse than expected . As the poet Ogden Nash wrote in Seaside Serenade

It begins when you smell a funny smell,
And it isn’t vanilla or caramel,
And it isn’t forget-me-not or lilies,
Or new-mown hay, or daffy-down-dillies,
And it’s not what the barber rubs on Father,
And it’s awful, and yet you like it rather.
No, it’s not what the barber rubs on Daddy,
It’s more like an elderly finnan haddie,
Or, shall we say, an electric fan
Blowing over a sardine can.

Yet it is a time for good OD practitioners to find work, much to my surprise. I want to share some of the characteristics of work that has come my way as well as some reasons why I think this is happening.

Life with covid is not going away. And the reality of the world is now nasty and brutish. I am not an optimist  nor am I known as an optimist. Quite the opposite,I am a pessimist with a good sense of humour as well as a love of the absurd, which makes it easy to deal with what I say because of how I say it.  Furthermore, once people realized that  ‘back to normal” is messianic nonsense, my pessimistic nature has become more appealing.

During my entire career, I have held two principles as my compass: say things simply and be practical. So, my message has been -“we are up shit’s creek and no one knows anything; let’s take this hour by hour and yes, give me a can and I’ll help you bail out the boat”.

Difficult problems have become almost impossible during covid. Things move much slower; decisions take longer to make; everyone looks bad; stakeholders are worried; managers are worried; staff are worried. Ok, what’s new? If you believed that things were much better, then this new reality is all but unbearable. Yet I have believed for the longest time that stakeholders worry only about themselves, long term commitment between management and staff is feigned propaganda-so for me, the present situation is just a bit worse than it used to be, It is not paradise lost. I have confidence and I am neither appalled or frightened of being seen as incompetent. OD is not perfect. It has huge value,but it ain’t rocket science.

(This reminds me of people who claim that America is more divided than ever. America has almost always been divided for heaven sakes.Trump is the most racist president ever? No more than Carter was (his days as Supervisor of Education were horrendously racist)  and certainly less than Kennedy acted as he dragged his feet on civil rights.)

The problems that my new clients have asked me to lend a helping hand to alleviate are difficult, multi dimensional and stubborn. I am not sure exactly or what approach to take, and I have no tricks up my sleeve. My new clients respect my lack of conviction about how to proceed.They feel safe that I am thinking as well as acting with caution seasoned with pragmatism, not peddling some elixir like cod liver oil or employee engagement or “we are all in this together”.

Probably my present value proposition to my clients is my sense of humour, my ability to learn,and my lack of ready made solutions.

In memory of Alex Kornhauser-brilliant, fair, exact, humane and humble. A great leader, a fine man; sadly missed.

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Israel is losing its battle with Corona-and here’s why

With 3000 new cases a day, Israel is ranked at present as number one in the ratio of corona cases per million inhabitants.

And there are very good reasons why this has happened. I want to point out the major ones,  most of which stem from Israeli culture, which has been a periodical subject of articles in this blog.

  1. Everything in Israel is political. Sports, flight schedules, licensing food outlets, planning bus lines, advertising, accreditation of universities; you name it. Because of our political system, or lack thereof, neither the left or the right can form a government without the ultra-religious factions, and so-most decision making serve as a platform to placate the ultra-religious minority. In the case of corona, religious politicians want to preserve their style of communal life, which means life-as-usual.
  2. Due to their life-style dominated by lots of family-based activities, large families living in cramped quarters and large study halls for religious studies, the ultra orthodox cities and neighbourhoods are petri dishes for breeding corona. Yet the political power that they hold (see 1), prevents decision making which would negatively impact their way of life.
  3. Arab Israelis have a lifestyle rich in family occasions with multiple generations in one home. They also tend to view themselves as victims all the time, and dish out blame and responsibility to the state at the same time as not fully cooperating. This mentality when coupled with religious based fatalism creates a “what will be will be” mentality, which impacts the lack of mask wearing and social distancing.
  4. The secular Israeli community are sprint runners. Creative, highly undisciplined, innovative and short cutters, this community has created a plethora of innovations in telefonia, agriculture, water management, IT solutions, fintech,  traffic control and what have you. Most of this has been done by doing things differently and challenging common accepted practice. This community can solve impossible problems, but cannot deal with problems that need routine and discipline. “We can outsmart problems” is a typical mindset of this sector. Which is the major reason why almost all Israel innovation gets acquired by companies abroad and does not scale up from Israel; our behaviours are not disciplined or scalable. Fighting corona entails following routine with discipline. Need I say more! 
  5. Israel is held together by a state of conflict with our Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian neighbours. Other than that, there is very little cohesion between the sectors of Israelis society. We all go to different schools; we do not pay the same level of tax; the threads which bind us together are very thin. The solidarity needed to fight corona is totally non existent. For example, when the government wants to limit prayer to 20 people, it quickly comes to “we cannot agree to limit prayer participation if people flock to the beach by the thousand”. So no decision gets made.
  6. There is very little enforcement in Israel, except for tax collection and speeding. Everyone has an excuse and the heavy hand of enforcement just isn’t there.
  7. The political elite  initially set down a list of limitations on public behaviour and then were the first to violate them, caught red handed. So leadership lost the trust of the masses. No one believes anything that leadership says anymore.
  8. Israelis have the capacity to live in very tough situations for the longest time. In other words, life can and does go on as we absorb a severe and constant beating. So Corona has become another missile from Gaza or Lebanon, that is, something that you need to live with. This ability to live along side of tragedy is a gift, yet a two pronged sword as well.

So what will happen? My guess is that when the virus subsides, it will subside here as well. Israel is like a boxer with a glass chin. We have a great punch, but corona has landed a left hook and we are out on our feet. Or, when someone finds a vaccine, the nightmare will end. Until then, wish us luck.

 

 

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OD in the age of Corona

Luckily I have been fully employed since the corona  shutdown was lifted; some economic activity has returned, albeit certainly not to “Normal,” RIP.

Managers are rethinking every aspect of work that is humanly possible in order to survive: cost cutting, downsizing, choppy choppy and hacky-hacky, eliminating layers of management, redesigning work-space and dealing with health and safety regulations. The work domain is an absolute nightmare.

On the way home from north of Israel to home (Tel Aviv) last week after a day of work, I closed down my Audible book (on the life of Disraeli) and pondered  how has OD challenged itself recently vis a vis its skill set, relevance, diagnostic techniques and methods of intervention, to adapt itself to survive.  Whilst there is a lot of great stuff going on about telecommuting and trust building in a virtual environment , it is but a small component of the need for reinventing OD for the current environment.

In what ways does OD need to be re-invented? By the time I answered  this question,I was already half-way home. The answer I gave myself (as I passed by Nazareth) was that we need to be faster, more short term focused, less non-directive and far more creative, shaking off values which hold us back from being relevant.

This is a tall order for a profession so enamored by its past, that it fails to introspect and acknowledge the relevance of some Oriental values (such as discretion) over Occidental values (authenticity)  in global organizations.

I got home, went up to get my bathing suit which I had typically forgotten, and headed off to swim, just before the misguided Israeli government closed our pools, only to reopen them the next day.

 

 

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6th letter from Tel Aviv-The Return of Corona… and Israeli culture

Yes-700 new cases a day and going strong. Corona is all over Israel. And the numbers are soaring. Five will get you ten old Mackie’s back in town.

It’s close to home as well. A verified Corona carrier swam at my country club three times (I was not there at the time); one Corona carrier ate at the Thai food joint I frequent one day after I last downed my ultra spicy corn soup and Phad Thai with tofu, and there are 4 recorded visits in a shopping centre near my home.

Israel which prided itself on an early flattening of the curve, now is getting the full monty. 

Initially, the response to the virus was based on paranoia, which is a national characteristic which we came by honestly given our history. The response was a fast a shutdown, followed by a severe and total curfew. Cases dropped off.

But paranoia is useful only for so long, especially when the enemy seems vanquished. Subsequently,  the next enemy surfaces, IE, the economy is destroyed. (And it is indeed destroyed). So all people need to back to work, immediately, now, which means we need to open schools instantly. Schnell!  No time for a plan.

The open schools let loose a massive number of  corona cases. From child to child to grandparent to old age homes. It’s everywhere.

Why no plan you may ask? Because Israeli culture is characterized by paranoia and improvisation. Planning is what others do. We act quickly, and then we’ll have time to figure things out on the fly. That’s a major component of Israeli culture.

But it did not work this time. Like a boxer who does see the opponent`s lightening punch, the back-to-school policy and lack of a plan when the shit hit the fan caused a disaster.  We have been knocked out. Not down, out. Corona is everywhere.

All this is exacerbated because our government is morally corrupt. So the scum at the top compete to open facilities such as movie theatres and sports matches as fast as possible. And Netanyahu is busy with his upcoming trial, and steps aside so that the stench of failure sticks to his enemies.

Indeed our government cares for the dead more than the living. The glorification of death gets more attention than the sanctity of life. The population is now blamed. For example a girl who did not feel well asked for a test. She was put through the grill of the Israeli bureaucracy (which has not yet decided who can be tested on demand) and denied the test-and she went on to infect 30 people. Yet politicians blame “youth, pubs, weddings and the beach.“

And to make things worse, the government is composed of either of indicted criminals, ex army hacks who are clearly clueless, lack-lustre conformists and survival agenda-driven, scum that floats to the surface from the bottom of the barrel of municipal politics or tycoon lobbyists. (Truman was so right about army men being useless in politics).

Let`s add to this a lack of discipline on the part of the public,  like the uneducated religious mob who either listen to rabbis (who have had their heads up their ass since the plague broke out), or the secular Israelis who tune into Israeli TV which is staffed by uninformed panic mongers, or more often to their smartphones.

With no clear, consistent plan in place, an incompetent government, systemic ignorance, a lack of discipline, too few regulations and almost no enforcement, a huge black cloud is moving in.

We are in deep trouble.

 

 

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