Tag Archives: organizational development


James G. March, the eminent interdisciplinary scholar of organizations, was interviewed in The Harvard Review of Business in October. For me, March and Karl Wieck are, respectively, the Monk and Coltrane of organizational behavior research. Well, they’re much more than researchers.

Here’s an excerpt.

You’ve written about the importance of a “technology of foolishness.” Could you tell us a little about it? That paper sometimes gets cited – by people who haven’t read it closely – as generic enthusiasm for silliness.

Well, maybe it is, but the paper actually focused on a much narrower argument. It had to do with how you make interesting value systems. It seemed to me that one of the important things for any person interested in understanding or improving behavior was to know where preferences come from rather than simply to take them as given.

So, for example, I used to ask students to explain the factual anomaly that there are more interesting women than interesting men in the world. They were not allowed to question the fact. The key notion was a developmental one: When a woman is born, she’s usually a girl, and girls are told that because they are girls they can do things for no good reason. They can be unpredictable, inconsistent, illogical. But then a girl goes to school, and she’s told she is an educated person. Because she’s an educated person, a woman must do things consistently, analytically, and so on. So she goes through life doing things for no good reason and then figuring out the reasons, and in the process, she develops a very complicated value system–one that adapts very much to context. It’s such a value system that permitted a woman who was once sitting in a meeting I was chairing to look at the men and say,”As nearly as I can tell, your assumptions. But your conclusions are wrong.” And she was right. Men, though, are usually boys at birth. They are taught that, as boys, they are straightforward, consistent, and analytic. Then they go to school and are told that they’re straightforward, consistent, and analytic. So men go through life being straightforward, consistent, and analytic–with the goals of a two-year-old. And that’s why men are both less interesting and more predictable than women. They do not combine their analysis with foolishness.

How do you encourage people to be foolish?

Well, there are some obvious ways. Part of foolishness, or what looks like foolishness, is stealing ideas from a different domain. Someone in economics, for example, may borrow ideas from evolutionary biology, imagining that the ideas might be relevant to evolutionary economics. A scholar who does so will often get the ideas wrong; he may twist and strain them in applying them to his own discipline. But this kind of cross-disciplinary stealing can be very rich and productive. It’s a tricky thing, because foolishness is usually that – foolishness. It can push you to be very creative, but uselessly creative. The chance that someone who knows no physics will be usefully creative in physics must be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it. Yet big jumps are likely to come in the form of foolishness that, against long odds, turns out to be valuable. So there’s a nice tension between how much foolishness is good for knowledge and how much knowledge is good for foolishness.

Another source of foolishness is coercion. That’s what parents often do.They say,”You’re going to take dance lessons.” And their kid says, “I don’t want to be a dancer.” And the parents say, “I don’t care whether you want to be a dancer.You’re going to take these lessons.”The use of authority is one of the more powerful ways to encourage foolishness. Play is another. Play is disinhibiting. When you play, you are allowed to do things you would not be allowed to do otherwise. However, if you’re not playing and you want to do those same things, you have to justify your behavior. Temporary foolishness gives you experience with a possible new you– but before you can make the change

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When is organizational problem solving in name only?

Let me sketch a curious case I was apprised of recently. I’ll put it very generally and suggest this conundrum is very common.

Basically there are two aspects. First, there is a problem that is always being solved. In other words, it is a perennial problem. Second, up the management food chain it becomes apparent high level managers believe this ‘perpetuity’ is (counterintuitively!) evidence of the problem being solved, although it’s obvious the problem is never solved.

Without going into important details, here is something of my response during a very informal discussion at which this case was presented.

The inability to see the ongoing existence of the problem as having the problem itself as predicate is indicative of some other compulsion(s) at work. Note-the given predicate is the solution that never works.

Guess: these compulsions are enabling and cause a lack of concordance, but, crucially, the problem of managerial identity, (after all , the implicit denial is significant and evidence of lack of competence,) seem elevated in this case.

In plain language: underlings subject to being blamed certainly can figure out the problem isn’t being solved. They would per force ‘see through’ the assertion of managerial competence and, probably, wonder why the problem isn’t being properly analyzed and why any ‘real’ solutions aren’t being hypothesized.

My comment points in the direction of compelling albeit counter-productive reasons for this pattern where a problem always exists, and exists so for these other reasons, or, at least, is allied with these other reasons.

(Always telling: “I’m a great manager even if there are all these problems below me.”)

Obviously there is in all of this a failure of accountability. “The buck stops below me.”

I lit upon the failure of deductive problem solving, the kind that concentrates on certain ineluctable causal factors. One thing about problem solving that misses the darn point of the problem is, if it plays out perpetually or perennially, it becomes evident that the complacent inductive problem solving is fascinated with a generalization or generalizations of the problem that aren’t attached to very worthwhile analysis and cannot be attached, then, to a cogent solutions.

But what drives the very odd resistance to solving the problem once-and-for-all? Somewhere are deposited implicit rewards for what is often bad management and, sometimes, what are very toxic behaviors. In such cases, simple problems are infected by other psychological factors, ‘people problems.’ These underlying features will only yield to a proper psychological analysis. In other words, the underlying blockage is about why people don’t really want to solve the problem, even if these same people believe that they are trying to solve the problem.

We know, in noting this, many organizations are not fit enough to “go there” and first try to get a handle on what seem to be compulsive divergences from actual effectiveness. So it is: the problem of accountablity often is the doorway into a dark organizational corridor. The perpetual problem is a kind of symptomatic chain barring this door.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.
– Upton Sinclair

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If an organization is narrow in the images that it directs toward its own actions, then when it examines what it has said, it will see only bland displays. This means in turn that the organization won’t be able to make much interesting sense of what’s going on or of its place in it. That’s not a trivial outcome, because the kind of sense that an organization makes of its thoughts and of itself has an effect on its ability to deal with change. An organization that continually sees itself in novel images, images that are permeated with diverse skills and sensitivities, thereby is equipped to deal with altered surroundings when they appear.

Karl Weick
The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd ed.,
McGraw-Hill 1979

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Several captures from the old web site. Subject: organizational oceanography! Weick and Mintzberg are two of my main guys.

Specifically, I would suggest that the effective organization is garrulous, clumsy, superstitious, hypocritical, monstrous, octopoid, wandering, and grouchy.

Karl Weick
On Re-Punctuating the Problem
in New Perspectives on Organizational Effectiveness; Jossey-Bass 1977

In fact, the real cause of this so-called turbulence may be planning itself, which by imposing formalized procedures on organizations has desensitized them and made them vulnerable to unexpected changes. — Put it more boldly, if your organization has formal plans but no vision, and if you then try to control your future so rigidly that you cannot adapt en route, then every unpredicted change you will encounter will make you feel as if the sky is falling.

Henry Mintzberg
That’s Not Turbulence, Chicken Little, It’s Really Opportunity
Planning Review; Nov-Dec.1994

Planning concerns man’s efforts to make the future in his own image. If he loses control of his own destiny, he fears being cast into the abyss. Alone and afraid, man is at the mercy of strange and unpredictable forces, so he takes whatever comfort he can by challenging the fates. He shouts his plans into the storms of life. Even if all he hears is his own voice, he is no longer alone. To abandon his faith in planning would unleash the terror locked in him.

A. Wildavsky
If Planning Is Everything, Maybe It¹s Nothing
Policy Science No. 4, 1973

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Cynthia McSwain

One of my favorites unearthed from the old web site.

The baseline goal that that the organization or any human system must pursue is the development of the person within it; other matters, other goals, must come after. — …the primary axiological commitment of transformational theory is not dominantly rational or utilitarian in motivation or behavior.— … indeed it is not an exaggeration to say that the technology of the field of organization development is at bottom a set of techniques for managing the resolution of individual and group projections, thereby releasing the energy that is bound up by them.

Cynthia McSwain
A Transformational Theory of Organizations
American Review of Public Administration 23:2.1993

I come back to this idea some ten years later. Almost no organization psychologizes itself to the extent McSwain finds worthy. This sense is very worthy too, but my gloss is: one hopes an organization’s idealization of itself does make room for a critical inquiry into its complex arrays of prejudices. In old fashioned terms, this unearths various critical tensions. There is a human scale implicit in this, yet it is also true that almost all organizations don’t report (to themselves) anything we might class as a refined sense of organizational “soul”.

The report is usually reductive, pragmatic and convergent.

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I’m always on the lookout for stuff that makes the connection between fun, feeling good, and anything that goes better with feeling better. (Of course I do work for a maven (and innovator) of positive psychology in the organizational behavior field but I’ve been tracking this stuff for years previous to making the professional match .)

Via Bruce Eisner’s Vision Thing.

The Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun

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Karl Weick is one of my main guys. The Social Psychology of Organizing and Sensemaking In Organizations are deservedly classics but each of his books are terrific. Anyway…in the aftermath of the earlier MAZE THE COURSE post, the following excerpts from an interview Dr. Weick gave in 2003 are timely. Incidentally, he’s speaking here of what he calls the HRO, the High Reliability Organization.

The key difference between HROs and other organizations is the sensitivity or mindfulness with which people in most HROs react to even very weak signs that some kind of change or danger is approaching. In contrast to HROs, most companies today are hugely unprepared for the unpredictable. Managers are under the illusion that they know more or less what’s going to happen next or how other people are likely to act. That’s both arrogant and dangerous. Not only do those managers ignore the possibility that something unexpected will happen but they also forget that the decisions they do make can have unintended consequences.


Can organizations learn to be more mindful?
They can, by adopting some of the practices that high-reliability organizations use. For instance, besides being fixated on failure, HROs are also fiercely committed to resilience and sensitive to operations. Managers at these organizations keep their attention focused on the front line, where the work really gets done. For example, among wildland firefighters, the most successful incident commanders are those who listen best to the people out there actually fighting the fires. HROs also defer to expertise, and they refuse to simplify reality. This last point is particularly important because it has profound implications for executives. As I have often written, leaders must complicate themselves in order to keep their organizations in touch with the realities of the business world


he problem with defining and refining your hypotheses without testing them is that the world keeps changing, and your analyses get further and further behind. So you’ve got to constantly update your thinking while you’re sitting there and reflecting. And that’s why I’m such a proponent of what I call “sensemaking.” There are many definitions of sensemaking; for me it is the transformation of raw experience into intelligible world views. It’s a bit like what mapmakers do when they try to make sense of an unfamiliar place by capturing it on paper. But the crucial point in cartography is that there is no one best map of a particular terrain. Similarly, sensemaking lends itself to multiple, conflicting interpretations, all of which are plausible. If an organization finds itself unsure of where it’s going, or even where it’s been, then it ought to be wide open to a lot of different interpretations, all of which can lead to possible action. The action and its consequence then begin to edit the list of interpretations down to a more manageable size.

And this is the point I wish to underscore: Action, tempered by reflection, is the critical component in recovering from cosmology episodes. Once you start to act, you can flesh out your interpretations and rework them. But it’s the action itself that gets you moving again. That’s why I advise leaders to leap in order to look, or to leap while looking. There’s a beautiful example of this: Several years ago, a platoon of Hungarian soldiers got lost in the Alps. One of the soldiers found a map in his pocket, and the troops used it to get out safely. Subsequently, however, the soldiers discovered that the map they had used was, in fact, a drawing of another mountain range, the Pyrenees. I just love that story, because it illustrates that when you’re confused, almost any old strategic plan can help you discover what’s going on and what should be done next. In crises especially, leaders have to act in order to think – and not the other way around.


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In synch with yesterday’s post, I note today Dr. Kets De Vries’s article, Reaping the Whirlwind:Managing Creative People (pdf:2000; INSEAD) is available on the web.

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Steve Hardy at Creative Generalist has done a valuable capture from Caterina, in turn captured from a presentation by Intuit’s Keoki Andrus. Moreover, comments to the post of origin elaborate a fuller itemization. Here’s two of the lists compiled by Steve.

Seven Deadly Deficiencies
1. Contempt for others
2. Obsession with self
3. Commitment dysfunction
4. Inflexible mindset
5. No productive focus
6. Unrelenting pessimism
7. Embraces Dilbertian views of leaders

Eight Ways to Wipe Out High Performers
1. Work overload
2. Lack autonomy (micromanagement)
3. Skimpy rewards
4. Loss of connection
5. Unfairness
6. Value conflicts
7. Let low-performers ride
8. Create an environment of fear, uncertainty and doubt

These are ways to wipe out colleagues and subordinates regardless of the ‘height’ of their performance. I, or anybody, could add to these lists. The deadliest deficiency in my experience is hypocricy, talking up commitments and principles while walking them down, right out of existence.  #2 Obsession with self,  is especially destructive when it is paired with deficits of self-knowledge.

This latter pairing can result in very annoying, hypocritical, behaviors. The ready example, because I’ve been subjected to the behavior so many times, is when someone presents for approval a strength that is actually a weakness. If I had a dime for every time a piss-poor listener tried to get me to acknowledge that they are a really good listener, I’d have a lot of dimes.

(For the record, I can be a good listener but it takes a big effort on my part!)

It is a common aspect of the positive face people wish to present that people elevate some of their weak characteristics. Yet, it is also my experience that the hunt for validation is often a red flag. In other words, people don’t need to be reminded of what your best qualities are; they should be self-evident and speak for themselves.

As an old timer, this subject always brings to my mind the great work of Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, and, also, the framework concerned with the problem of the Personaprovided by C.G. Jung; see CW7, |Two Essays on Analytic Psychology|. Between the two the continuum between typical eruptions of self-deception and horrid narcissism is brilliantly covered.

Continue reading

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Patti Anklam, as is her marvelous way, weaves valuable threads leading to thought provoking places.

“Virtual” is a funny word for me right now, as I’m deep into writing Net Work, and the distinction virtual works for online communities as well as distributed communities, but there’s a difference and I’ve not yet found the right pair of words to signify the difference.

I don’t use “virtual” much but I might have the same problem if I did! It’s got the virtu; virtiiroot. Virtual rolls better than ‘temporary’ or ad hoc. In online lingo it refers to semblance, as in the virtual world resembles the real world. There’s a need for disambiguation here.

If we pose two polar qualities to better hinge the conception of the virtual, my initial choices would be: primary< -->secondary, and, similitude< -->analogy. The rich differentiation is found in the secondary/similitude and.or secondary/analogy. So, a real world virtual network could be secondary to, and similar, or, analogous to the primary network. Also, virtual networks in organizations tend to be spontaneous and this evokes for me their tacit in waiting and emergent status.
Her recent post got me wanderingwondering and it contains some valuable links about networks, communication and learning to explore.

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Wow. Value Based Management.net is a goldmine. Almost every resource is linked internally to pithy descriptions of conceptual and methodological frameworks. The amount of material is overwhelming. The search engine allows me to note important omissions, such as no no mention of Appreciative Inquiry, but, with a jungle so amazonian, so what?

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In fleshing out the squareONE links page important thinkers on the periphery of experiential learning theory demand highlighting. Weick, who’s methodology of sensemaking is experiential remains a central influence to my own ‘galumphing,’ (a Weickian term for exploration). His book <The Social Psychology of Organizing> is an accessible, thought-provoking inquiry. As was the follow-up, <Sensemaking in Organizations>.

Henry Mintzberg stands a bit outside experiential theorizing, yet his work on strategy-making as a real-time activity tips the balance toward flexible designing and away from chilly planning. <Mintzberg On Management> and <Structure in Fives> and <The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning> are essential. Weick, Mintzberg and Peter Drucker, as I see it, are in a league of their own. (Okay, maybe Warren Bennis too.)

Karl Weick: | KW @business.com (links) | KW@veryard | KW @onepine |
Leadership When Events Don’t Play By the Rules
Henry Mintzberg:
henrymintzberg.com | HM @business.com |
5 Basic Parts of an Organization | HM @theworkingmanager |

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Although I have no experience working in large or even middling small businesses, the question of leadership, what it is, and what it concerns, and how it is to be developed, arises through my interest in organizational development and professional development practices. (Leadership is germane to entrepreneurial businesses too, but entrepreneurs aren’t very often very thoughtful leaders.) There isn’t one optimal model of leadership, mostly because there isn’t one optimal vision of what it concerns. (There is agreement about one aspect: leaders are almost always very intelligent.)

Three classic books on leadership have come to the top of my reading stack recently. Their particular visions of leadership are different. Two of the books are about the same vision, Servant Leadership. The other is even more fascinating, because it is about synchronicity and leadership. The books with links to Amazon are:

(1) Servant Leadership. Robert K. Greenleaf
(2) The Power of Servant Leadership. ed. Larry C. Spears
(3) Synchronicity. The Inner Path of Leadership. Joseph Jaworski

Jaworski’s fine autobiographical book doesn’t directly comment on Greenleaf’s equally interesting concepts. However, Jaworski’s psychological view, drawn from Jung, implicitly expands upon the concretized, (thus engaged with institutional and social reality,) and less psychological views of Greenleaf, et. al. There is no ideal concrete relationship between these two ‘realities’. They stand in dynamic relationship to each other. But, this flux of relationship between business/personal spirit and business/personal soul nevertheless promises radical possibilities: above all, leadership forged in the crucible of the experience of reflective psyche.

This very same critical tension first came to my attention nine years ago in two superb books, Leadership Without Easy Answers. Ronald Heifetz; and Kinds of Power;James Hillman. Both are classics; Hillman’s would be so just for his suggestion that profit is not just one kind of profit, and his psychological and imaginal exegis of both power and profit.

While I on this subject, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner’s The Leadership Challenge is a must read book in the field. Both authors have been asserting intrapersonal and interpersonal ‘values-oriented’ perspectives against the conventionalist instrumental and ‘scientific-operational’ perspectives for some time. Warren Bennis may be the most cogent analyst of leadership of them all; see: On Becoming a Leader may be the most read book about leadership. My favorite Bennis book is his recent Geeks and Geezers.

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