Everything Changes Eventually

I read this recent article from Jim Womack, one of the co-authors of the early 1990s book, The Machine That Changed The World. Reflecting on ‘lean thinking’, a systematic approach to the elimination of waste, Womack says:

“… our efforts to dramatically transform large, mature organizations haven’t worked and aren’t going to work, even when these organizations encounter crises”

He talks about the “organizational immune reaction” being “immediate and crushing” to suggestions he had agreed with several CEOs. Despite this, he says he is “in no way daunted”. Rather, the lean community needs to:

“rethink our tactics, stick to our purpose, and better understand the challenges preventing us from staying on course”

Process-based Organisational Design

Lean is far from the whole story, though. Process-based approaches to organisational design, like lean, quality and just-in-time, evolved over the decades. They expanded from lean’s limited focus on waste and efficiency to include agile and multiple possible ways of creatively delivering customer value through networks and coalitions.

Inspired by a visit to the Ford plant in Cologne, my PhD research twenty years ago explored the structures, processes and practices associated with lean, quality and just-in-time. What made me curious about process-based approaches to organising?

They are philosophies of work for generating customer value. For that to happen means:

  •  innovation and problem-solving has to be everyone’s business
  • learning not as an add-on but integrated into day-to-day work
  • performance systems that enable people to acquire, share, and use knowledge
  • people are expected, and trusted, to take decisions at the point where the work is done
  •  autonomy and self-management
  • communication and co-ordination across teams, departments, and organisational boundaries.

It would be wrong to say that this was all going swimmingly back then. Chris Argyriscommented at the time that “the battle between autonomy and control rages while the potential for real empowerment is squandered”.

Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations

Inspired by a friend’s enthusiasm for Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, I decided to read it again – but this time with an open mind. I read it when it first came out and dismissed it for a number of reasons, one of which was that I saw nothing new in what he was saying.

The popularity of Reinventing Organisations means that we now have a shorthand description of what is needed in organising to cope with operating complexities that arise from the use of new technologies and materials, networks and coalitions, customers demanding extreme levels of personalisation, and the social dynamics of highly connected, open workforces.

Laloux categorises the evolution of organisations, ‘evolutionary teal’ being the latest that is evolving to cope with organisations as living systems, which incidentally they have always been.

‘Evolutionary teal’ organisations are designed around self-management, wholeness (“bringing all of who we are to work”), and evolutionary purpose. Laloux correctly points out a number of misconceptions linked to self-management. It is easy to underestimate the structures, processes and practices that need to be in place to make self-management possible.

He says:

“We have, perhaps for the first time, a good grasp of the structures, practices and cultures that are needed to create purposeful and energising ways to come together in organizations.”

I don’t know what he means by “the first time” but the evidence has been mounting for decades.

It struck me writing this post that while current accounts of success might mention difficulties in passing, older and more reflective accounts might be more candid about problems encountered. Armed with accumulated insight, past and present, we can now be prepared for possible obstacles that we might experience and have tactics to prevent or overcome them.

Diffusion of Innovation

For some years now, I’ve allowed my past knowledge and experience to colour what I thought might be possible. I saw people thriving in teal-like organisations all those years ago when I was researching the PhD, and I have experienced working in more than one. But those organisations are rare, it seems to me.

It’s not only my experience that has made me pessimistic, it’s also the gap between what I know friends and family experience at work and the self-managing, future of work hype. My friend’s enthusiasm for Reinventing Organisations really made me stop and think.

Her influence on me brought to mind a favourite article, Atul Gawande’s Sharing Slow Ideas. In it, he quotes Everett Rodgers as saying that:

“Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.

Gawande tells the story of a senior nurse being persuaded by a junior nurse to do something new. It happened because they used to share details of their families over cups of tea. The senior nurse decided that the young nurse “was nice”, and so gave it a go.

Under my friend’s influence, I have now become cautiously optimistic. One reason why my pessimism has been replaced by cautious optimism is the energy in the conversations I hear on Twitter, especially on Twitter chats where people come together to share insight and experiences on a topic like leadership, or learning and development.

This morning’s #ldinsight conversation for L&D people is how and why they, and the companies they work with, use webinars. Responses to the question are typically insightful. Conversations via webinars are just one of many ways we can digitally share knowledge and experiences.

Since we are all so digitally connected, we have many new and exciting ways to discover ideas, share them, be persuaded to try them, and then swap experiences of how things turned out.

Flat Army

The other reason I’m cautiously optimistic about the spread of ‘teal’ ways of working and organising is to do with leadership. In Laloux’s case studies in the book, he talks about senior leaders like chief executives. This is also my experience – that new ways of working were instigated and sustained through the influence of Chief Executives and Production Directors.

But organisations are fractal. Leadership is distributed throughout teams and departments. In Flat Army, Dan Pontefract talks about the role and influence of connected leaders. It is this army of leaders that I think will be at the forefront of a mass movement – talking and sharing with each other, and socialising with the people they are seeking to influence.

Laloux says it takes inspired, courageous and formidable leadership to build organisations ahead of their time. There’s a job to be done in equipping all leaders, wherever they are in the organisation with the insights, tools and techniques on how to generate ‘teal’ structures, processes, practices, and cultures.

As a professor I used to work with was fond of saying, onwards and sideways!

p.s. The image at the top of the article is of the entrance to our village cemetery. It says “Nous avons été ce que vous êtes, et vous serez ce que nous sommes.” – We have been what you are, and you will be what we are.

It’s a reminder to myself that time is flying past and there’s no time to waste if I want to achieve anything.




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