The Problem of the Strategy, Culture, Change & Filters
Post #13 of 13
Author: Peter Jay Sorenson CMC®, StrategicOrganizationDesign.com
19 September 2013
Filters exist. They are a reality, an inherent characteristic of organizing. In and of themselves they are a neutral phenomenon.
Filters can be positive. Analysis and synthesis of data and the innovation process are the stock and trade of knowledge workers. They are a sophisticated form of filtering that is essential to a healthy, high functioning organization. The reason we go to the university to study the professions is to learn the filtering protocols of the disciplines and functions that are used in organizations to get important, value adding work done.
So filters can be a really important, positive part of organizations.
However, there is a down side. When filters are biased by self-interest and political, power based motives and intents, and are being used to preserve of a harmful status quo, they can do huge damage and even destroy an organization.
When I left graduate school and took my first job I joined an industrial manufacturing company that had the dominate position in the market place. Their first product had invented their product category. Their products were the “gold standard” of the industry. However, competitors, including a Japanese firm practicing a high quality approach to design and manufacturing, were taking them on head on. Unfortunately for this firm they chose to filter and ignore reality. They could not see the competitive threat and the potential of having their butt kicked in the marketplace. They filtered. They obfuscated. They denied. And they lost 30% market share in five years. They went from top dog to laughing stock in a heartbeat. Their efforts at self-redemption were too little, too late. The facility I worked at went from 2400 employees to 300 employees in 3 years. And demand for the product had not dropped. Their filters killed the business.
Needless to say that was a startling example of how not to run a business as my first professional work experience.
What have We Learned?
In our little exploration we have examined how leaders both succeed and fail in overcoming the resistance, filtering, obfuscating, and yes-manning that naturally occur in every organization. And we have examined how they formulate and implement strategy in order to create the results they need to achieve. So what lessons have we learned thus far?
We have learned that there are structural mechanisms that can be used to achieve the ends we need to achieve. Here are a few:
Organizational capabilities are a starting point. If you want a strategy to succeed you need to make sure that you have the people with the skills, expertise, and experience to get the work done. And there need to be enough of them to achieve a critical mass that moves from having people with individual competencies to having a group of people with those competencies that constitutes an organizational capability. Without the capabilities you cannot execute the strategy.
Cross-Discipline, Cross-Functional Teams:
And in complex settings where we need to integrate the work of many people into an efficient and effective whole we need to consider using cross-discipline, cross-functional teams. In many cases these teams become the basic unit of operations. They are the groups that make the horizontal business process work. That horizontal process connects suppliers to end user customers through the organization’s unique contribution to the value chain.
Interlocking Cross-Discipline Team Governance Structures:
Interlocking cross-discipline team governance structures are a powerful tool to align and combine the efforts of the horizontal organization with the vertical organization. These interlocking structures keep positive filtering (think knowledge work: analysis, synthesis, innovation, etc.) happening and root out negative filtering (think obfuscation, yes manning, self-serving, politically and power based manipulation). Without employing these interlocking teams hard work can become chaos and negative conflict can rip the organization apart. As you move up the hierarchy each level takes a broader view that culminates in seeing and integrating the whole system of the organization and the system within which the organization exists. Without that seeing and integrating the connecting of the pieces of the value chain together to create value will stop. And value will not be created.
Well Crafted Meetings:
Most organizations fail on this one. Whether they are large or small, formal or informal, meetings that should be forums for powerful deliberation usually sub-optimize and fall short of accomplishing what they should accomplish. Meetings are like organizations. If you fail to deliberately and intentionally design them the default mode will take over and meetings will be cast adrift in a sea of woos and tribulations without a rudder, keel, or sail. Destined to drift aimlessly across the horizon into oblivion.
And designing, preparing for, and facilitating meetings are imminently learnable and doable tasks that if used with discipline can mean the difference between success and failure.
And when you are trying to integrate a large complex mess1 of an organization, large scale, fast cycle time meetings can give you a leg up by getting the whole system in the room and getting everyone aligned in the harness together.
Intrapreneurial, Skunk Works Organizations:
Creating change in bureaucratic, monolithic, ossified, constipated organizations, large or small, is like pushing a rope uphill. It is filled with frustration and destined to fail.
The remedy is to create protected air space. A skunk works. Separate the project from the interference of the rest of the organization and exclude it from strangling entanglements of an organizational culture that is compliance oriented and risk-averse.
If you want innovation you need to build an organizational setting that is innovation friendly. It gets down to the mental models of people and the demands of the culture. If you want innovation people have to think and behave in a way that supports the innovation process. You have to intentionally and deliberately design a space where people develop and use productive mental models and innovation can flourish. And where they are protected from interference while innovating.
A Point of Commonality & Convergence:
One of the threads drifting through these paragraphs is that you have to use the structural mechanisms or organization design features discussed to align and connect the thinking and productive work done by people in the organization. Organizational capabilities are the mine from which the raw materials of knowledge work are extracted. Cross disciplinary teams, interlocking team governance structures, and meetings are levers used to align and connect the chunks of the value creation process (the organization) to each other so that productive work can get done and value is delivered. The skunk works setting or context is the deliberately designed environment in which innovation can flourish. Each of these elements is needed to design the powerful unfiltered whole.
Go Forth and Do Much Good!
This has not been an exhaustive summary. But it has highlighted a few of our critical to know levers that we must use to create the successful organizations of the future. It is now your opportunity to weave the lessons from the experiences from the 777, Corning, and others into your own work in organizations.
James Brian Quinn documented what he saw done by successful “C” level leaders in organizations. He indicated that these leaders deliberately developed multiple sources of information about what was happening in the organization so that they could get a more accurate picture of reality.
Effective change managers actively develop informal networks to get objective information – from other staff and line executives, workers, customers, board members, suppliers, politicians, technologists, educators, outside professionals, government groups, and so on – to sense possible needs for change. They purposely use these networks to short-circuit all the careful screens their organizations build up to “tell the top only what it wants to hear.”2
And Jamie Houghton showed us a simple, straightforward prescription for how to make change happen:
Patiently use a carefully crafted, persistent, consistent, deliberate, intentional, tenacious, flexible, hands-on effort that involves people at all levels of the organization over an extended period of time. There is no quick fix.
Now go forth and do likewise.
1 mess: This concept was introduced by Russell Ackoff: “English does not contain a suitable word for ‘system of problems.’ Therefore, I have had to coin one. I choose to call such a system a mess.” Ackoff, Russell, Redesigning the Future, John S. Wiley & Sons, New York, London, 1974, page 21. We can infer from his definition that all organizations are therefore messes. They are systems of interrelated problems.
2 Quinn, James Brian, “Managing Strategic Change,” Sloan Management Review, Summer 1980; 21, pages 03-20.