Monday, April 30, 2012

Pyramids and Plum Trees - on Organisational Philosophy

Everybody at some level has a thing against the rigid pyramids of organisational hierarchies, and the inflexible bureaucracy they harbor.  Okay, it may just be the people I mix with... but at any rate, Gordon MacKenzie certainly does, and his Orbiting the Giant Hairball provides some provocative reimagination that is fruitfully atypical.

We tend to think of ways to open up communication, get people collaborating, or flatten the org chart.  In Bourgon's New Synthesis for instance, she advocates government combining vertical hierarchy (for accountability purposes) with horizontal networks.

MacKenzie once upon a time was asked to contribute to a Hallmark organisational restructure.  But he didn't buy into the premise.  What he did instead was seek to understand his own objections, and articulate how an organisation could be reimagined.  He came to give a presentation advocating Hallmark look to develop 'plum trees'.

Photo from Gabemounce blog

I don't think there's a particular rationale for plums... but the metaphor is interesting.
MacKenzie sees a hierarchy where the top is assumed to be the most clued in (having the clearest vision), and the bottom works seven levels of delegation away from an actual view of the world.  Of course, this is not exact reality any more than the next simple model, but it is the philosophy for how organisations work in 99% of cases.
In contrast, he envisioned the organisation with an executive trunk and management branches, which are all built purely to foster the creative production of the employees that make up the leaves and fruit - not the other way around.  The tree's vision and connection to the outside world is primarily through its foliage, not the trunk.  It is also flexible and adaptable to growing conditions and feedback from the canopy.

I'm not without reservations for the metaphor.  It simplifies things, and in a few ways is just an inversion of the org-chart triangle - in particular it suggests management's function is just to support the 'real work' that employees do, and that the fundamental relationships should still be hierarchical (if inverted). I also think his exploration of the roots was more about completing the metaphor than actual illustration...

But that's not the point. It was still an invigorating read. It made me realise how pervasive a metaphor for the organisation can be, and how drastically different org structures and relationships can be imagined simply by changing these assumptions.

Taking the plum tree as an example... it could be implemented without real change to the organisation's network and positions. But it would have dramatic changes to the way people relate, and to the organisation's systems and processes.  Priorities would be completely altered, with 'supporting staff' now suddenly being number one priority, and 'gathering intel from staff' as the number one means of developing an understanding to make decisions.  Lots of organisations talk about these being priorities, but when you watch the decisions that get made in the higher halls of the org-pyramid, you usually notice a discomforting disconnect (and believe me, the staff notice too).

The way internal systems are set up - performance management systems for example - are usually heavily stamped with a pyramid philosophy. Think about the performance reviews you have done, the way you have been involved in business planning, or the last time an IT system was rolled out. You know something is a little amiss when an organisation has 'employer of choice' as a high level objective, that cascades down through the structural tiers, and leaves employees scratching their heads trying to create personal objectives that match their managers' interpretation of their directors' interpretation of the executives' interpretation of 'employer of choice', so that they can be properly accountable for how well they are contributing to corporate strategy.  Which presumably is the only way we can be sure they are actually doing something worthwhile, right?

Yes it's silly - but when your philosophy is a pyramid, that's what you get.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Orbiting the Hairball is not Painting by Numbers

I have just finished reading Gordon MacKenzie's 1996 'classic', Orbiting the Giant Hairball and highly recommend you do the same.

MacKenzie closes with a chapter on painting by numbers.  He talks about the artwork that we are all uniquely able to create with out lives.  On the other hand, social expectations lead us towards filling our canvas with brushstrokes that are only superficially ours - we are lead to follow in the footsteps of others, meeting normalised and derivative ideas of success. It's quite simple, if subtle, but it really made me sit back and take note - it's possible to feel like you're creating something worthwhile, but only realise well down the track that it was nothing of the sort.  It is a little tangential to the book's key points, but I think it's a rather clever metaphor and a good prompt to get out there and do something with what you've just learnt.

The book revolves around the metaphor of the 'hairball' of a (corporate) social environment - 'an entangled pattern of behaviour'. (Interview @Fast Company.)  To maintain vibrancy in this environment we must understand and play off the rules in that space, but keep a sufficient distance to avoid becoming trapped, and losing perspective and the freedom to move.

It's no wonder that government driven by rules and compliance will struggle to find creative, new solutions to deal with shifting issues.

One of MacKenzie's provocative points is that if you're to be creative, you can't know what will eventuate - so focusing on outcomes is counter-productive.

The Book
The book is driven by a series of anecdotes that make it an engaging, light read.

What I love most is the way it's illustrated and presented, with lovely use of sketches and typefaces. It leaves me feeling - nay, demanding! - that more books should be like this. It's made me think about how I present my own thinking as well.  Even if you don't read it, take the chance to pick it up and flick through it.

I will write a longer post soon, synthesising some of my thoughts from the book - about how we think about 'organisations'.  In the meantime, see if you can't find a copy to have a look at.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Austerity measures - digging out of the fiscal hole

Governments constantly tell us of the need to cut costs. Fair enough that it is important not to waste money - spending should be stripped back wherever we can identify how to stop wasting it. But usually cutting costs is more about struggling with too much worthy* stuff to spend it on, and just not enough dollars to do so.

At the moment, the need to be frugal - or austere - is particularly pertinent. Ministers are stressed about debt levels and retaining surpluses - as always. Commissions and taskforces (like the Victorian IRSF) are modeling future expenditure and telling us we need to find ways to reduce it, particularly given pessimistic income forecasts.

One thing no government taskforce will bother doing is looking at the past and identifying what spending paradigm put us in this position, or what we should have been doing a decade ago to have a more financially sustainable public sector.

Just imagine if they did - the conclusion would probably be that we needed to devote resources to investing in and adapting for the future. You know what that would mean? More spending. It's not really ironic, unless you think the most important fiscal imperative is austerity, cutbacks, and forcing 'efficiency' by limiting funding (rather than identifying waste). But it is incredibly important.

Einstein said - apparently - that you don't get out of a hole with the same thinking that got you in there. But that's exactly what governments around the world are attempting to do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The priority of impetus

I have been thinking about how to do good things, and why lots of great ideas and ideal solutions don't work. I've come to think that it's more important to focus on sensing and working with impetus (e.g. motivation, which I've posted on already) than being right, or having the best idea.

Discussions on the success of entrepreneurs and changemakers often come down to it being 'the right time', or to an idea or context being 'ripe'. (Not only is a given business idea likely not original, it's quite possibly already been tried.) It's also important to have the drive to see it through and to engage people to come with you.  There are a lot of factors that can make or break a good idea (or even a bad one).

For entrepreneurs, we all know you need to understanding the market, your own motivations, and how to 'sell' your idea to others.  Defining a 'problem' is a bit more nebulous and ill understood, but it's useful for refining the business concept.  I don't think it's appreciated that this is a way to identify the most important factor in success - impetus, not necessarily for the entrepreneur, but in the system that is being remodeled for business purposes.

For changemakers otherwise, I'm yet to come across similar systematic ways to understand the task at hand, rather than just determining the ideal solution. There is an understanding of the need to be 'systemic', and foster transformation, but not of actually how to make being systemic core to the task at hand. As a result, most efforts are driven by a vision or a good idea, with 'how to get there' something worked out along the way - not central to the idea itself.  In this case, the impetus of the individual (or group) is provided by the strength of the vision - but that's not enough to motivate broader change.  I think it may help to make working with impetus for change (in the system, other parties etc) the central priority, and working out how to shift or catalyse this.  So for changemakers working within other systems (rather than setting up their own business), impetus is even more critical than for entrepreneurs.

These thoughts are highly personal, in the sense that my background has always been to work out the best solution.  My history is weighted towards one end of a spectrum of impetus/action thinking, and idea/ideal thinking.  I am reacting to this, and for me I need to flee these inclinations - ideally, I presume there is some happy halfway point (but it would be rather ironic of me to try to find that in a post about sidelining idealism).  They also tie into friends' thoughts on the need to making research real, because we've done so much reductionist, specialised and abstracted work already.

By way of example, these thoughts arose reading Jocelyn Bourgon's New Synthesis of Public Administration, and thinking about the role the book may play in fostering change. I think the book crystalises current ideas, but doesn't necessarily offer new insights.  What it does do, however, is provide real authority and credibility for ideas that are otherwise at the fringe of thinking about government. So it potentially (with the help of other contextual circumstances) help provide the impetus for a discussion about change, and revision of how best to govern.  Nobody is going to run out and go 'okay, we have a new template for how government works, we're going to introduce a change plan to get us up to date' (Bourgon emphasises the 'New Synthesis' as a framework rather than a model, clearly conscious of the danger of this). But it might provide a touch point - or an excuse - to take a step back, or to give credibility to ideas that otherwise may have been seen as unnecessary (or worse).

John Baxter

Friday, April 6, 2012

'Why' manage performance?

People - and organisations - sometimes get so caught up performing a role that they don't serve a purpose.  They focus on the 'what', do detriment of the 'why'.  This is a pet hate of mine because it has so many knock-on effects, in particular preventing people from working together.  Many organisational cultures of defensive isolation, finger pointing etc. are fed by the prioritisation of roles over creating value, particularly in a high pressure and highly accountable environment.

So in other words, places like the public service.

Under a 'managerial' approach, internal performance systems are usually set up to do exactly this.  It is assumed that managers can identify the best way for those accountable to them to do what the organisation needs to do.  Often, this means taking the 'why', of the purpose of the organisation, and translating it into a 'what', of what other employees need to do.

This isn't always the case, but often good employees (including good managers) need to fight against their performance system to break through with the 'why' of the reason they are there - and restore a bit of humanity to the work.

Listening to Simon Sinek's TED talk on the central importance of 'why' in leadership (despite its frequent relegation to being a footnote), really highlights how back-to-front a performance system is when based on roles and activities, and strips the 'why' out.  I comfortably call it an anti-human approach - it strips leadership and motivation out of the work relationships.

So why manage performance like that?  It doesn't need to be like that at all - there is plenty of room for the 'why', it just needs to be returned to its priority position.

John Baxter

Collaboration - combining shared values, and valuable diversity

Increasingly, I am seeing the virtues of collaborative intent, and appreciating better understanding how this happens.  I have also been very lucky to have been involved in some of the strategic thinking underpinning collaborative activity (like @CollabMelbourne), so I'm also getting a sense of how this works in practice.  (One of the many upsides to going out and getting involved in what you believe in!)

At the last @CollabMelbourne strategy session, Andrew (@drfroth) talked about his conceptualisation of the Collab network.  He saw that people are drawn together around a shared set of values, with mixed overlapping interests, but diverse areas where they actually apply themselves.  So I should note - this post is just my articulation of his idea.

It seemed insightful at the time, and over the last few weeks it has come up a few times, and is proving itself useful as a frame for thinking about shepherding collaborative endeavors.

A few days later, finally watching Simon Sinek's TED talk on leadership (and the importance of the 'why'), I had an inescapable - very graphical - sense that his concentric circles were describing the same thing.  Perhaps - where he talks about motivation and what speaks to us - it is this psychology that underpins why it is so effective for the Collaboratory to bring people together around their values.

This is how I see the mesh of Andrew's conceptualisation (the top line) and Sinek's three concentric circles. The idea is to describe how a network can organise around ideas, despite a valuable diversity:

As it turns out, Andrew has been even busier putting these thoughts into action, applying the principles to @VivMcW's upcoming conference (re the uses of improv in organisations - note she's looking for organisations to get involved).  Centralising the 'why' in understanding the conference is valuable.  I was also really excited to hear his thoughts on the 'what' - using time at the conference for participants to envision and design how they are going to be able to apply what they take away in their own organisations.

This is a fantastic idea if it can be done well (following some trial and error), and may really bridge the gap between the excitement of an inspirational event, and how to make that mean something more significant for us.  So many events are great while they're on, but processing and applying the experience only happens - if at all - in the following days and weeks, with variable results.

The 3-element model has clearly been paying its dues, and I'm very interested to further explore how it can guide the formation of collaborative groups and events.  Do you have thoughts or experiences?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

'Agile' - much to learn about working in complexity

I have been able to get a sense of what 'agile' is over the last month and I've had to conclude that, yes, there is vast experience in programming that will be of value for those helping government manage complexity better.

The method parallelogram
We can create a neat parallelogram, combining

  • Waterfall > Agile
  • Government (as it is typically today) > Redesign (and like design-thinking methods)

Waterfall programming gets its name from an approach to work where each step is completed in-full before progressing to the next stage. The issues with Waterfall programing and typical government methods are the same: the methods are built on an industrial-era philosophy of the world and work that is much simpler, and can be reduced to predictable bundles to be addressed efficiently in compartmentalised steps (along with other traits that are no longer applicable).

Agile is much more fluid, and includes (re)design-like elements, including rapid prototyping.  The heart of agile isn't a rule-book, but rather a manifesto and a set of principles.  Those familiar with design-thinking will see an obvious similarity - strip out the programming-specific elements and the heart of the approaches is much the same.

Programming methods and language generally
Programming methods and ways of understanding tasks tend to pop up in unexpected places.  I asked someone (Matt @Collabforge) their opinion on how well government manages complexity, and in response he talked of how government seems to not deal with complexity, but rather be counter-productively reductionist  - which in programming would apparently be understood as 'inappropriate compartmentalisation'.  In government, you won't have much luck explaining it, let alone have a word for it.

There's something about the very conscious logic and structure of software project management that appeals, and I'm curious about how much one can learn.

The thing that is getting me excited - particularly about 'agile' at the moment - is the experience of making this very different approach work.  The experience fighting up the other arm of the parallel. Practitioners that have had a clear vision for years, of a working method appropriate for complex systems, but still seem to need to fight to make those principles work.

So how do they fight? And where they do, how do they win?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Curiosity never killed any cat

I realised today how valuable it has been for me to be curious.

I caught up with Mark and Matt at Collabforge for a discussion on government, collaboration, consulting and complexity.  By all rights - at least according to my CV - I shouldn't be able to engage on any but the first of these topics, and I certainly shouldn't have anything to contribute.  My CV shows a few areas I've been able to lay some foundations of expertise, through experience. I'm the first to admit there isn't much there (I've written before about how shallow my skillset is). But my curiosity has served me well.

I've always been a proactive learner. So in a workday I would chase references and leads to understand the policy context, rationales, mechanisms, alternatives... irrespective of whether I could identify its value. Often I would stay back for the sake of chasing things up - and though I enjoyed it, at times I definitely questioned whether I was wasting my time.

Curious cat! It never hurt (... or at least, it was worth it anyway)

But the investment is paying dividends, as my understanding proves useful in exploring new options, making connections, and in general finding my way.

In particular, understanding is a critical base for forging my own path.  If I hadn't taken that time to look out at the world, I wouldn't know how to leave the public service, even if I had a sense of the need to move.  I'd have been, in short, where I was when I left uni - a wealth of opportunities, but clueless as to how to find them.

So - be curious! It can be good for you, even if it seems like a waste at the time.

John Baxter