"There never has been a moment when I felt fully alive in this organisation.”
- Long-serving manager in European merchant bank
Research by the International Labour Organisation has found that across cultures, across industries and across countries people report a deficit of meaningful interactions at work. It seems that many people, possibly the large majority, fail to find engagement at work with anything human in themselves. It can feel as though pay is a reward for putting up with a meaningless waste of time.
Most initiatives to change or improve our organisations are focused on goals that already discount the humanity of the people there. Where issues of respect, trust and commitment are raised they are packaged as subordinate to the utilitarian pursuit of the organisations goals. Why?
Organisations are complex socio-technical systems. They are more complex than anyone can understand. Undeterred by this reality, there is still no shortage of people who believe they can cure their ills and make them perform better.
There are some common assumptions in designing workplace interventions. Partly they are assumptions about what needs doing and partly assumptions about what people will pay for:
* There is a problem and the organisation would be better off if the problem were fixed. In practice focussing on problems rather than paying attention to what works can take the heart out of an organisation.
* One can see by comparing organisations which ones have found better ways of doing things and by borrowing best practice the organisation will become more competitive. In practice this style stifles creativity and ownership and can lead to general mediocrity and loss of direction.
* Well structured and effective business processes come from an explicit design function and a strategic planning function. Research seems to indicate that these activities are ceremonial rather than pragmatic. Often the real strategy is only visible with hindsight.
* So long as the goals are clear it is possible to steer towards them across a wide range of programme initiatives. Often the politics of being seen to contribute measurable progress towards the goals masks the degree to which initiatives actually destroy the capability needed to reach the goals.
A DIFFERENT ASSUMPTION
Organisations are more complex that any of the tools we use to study them. In particular they actively respond to the ways we study them in a fashion that tends to destroy the basis of the study. An organisation is alive and intelligent: its response to being studied already includes its interpretation of the underlying purpose of the study and already compensates for the likely impact of the study. We have no ground on which to stand and “simply” observe an organisation, even if we are talking about ants!
The most complex and highly adapted tool we use is the human intuition of members of the organisation and of researchers. Although in work organisations that intuition is systematically ignored and repressed, people know when what they are engaged in is:
* Alive and full of potential
* Meaningful and connected to the wider world
* Principled in a way that allows support to be built
Rather than believe in external “solutions” to an organisational issue that someone in power has focussed on, we can focus on promoting the self-healing properties of the organisation. If people know what is alive and what lacks that spark, then they can learn to recognise which patterns support life and which inhibit life.
From this perspective, external ‘solutions”’ and the objectivising tools around which they are organised (accounting, project management, HR policies, performance management, etc. etc.) are surrogates. They stand in for the real issues that the organisation is unwilling or unable to deal with in a more straightforward manner. These processes all have the same drive towards making issues visible without taking account of what has been pushed underground in doing so. The solutions are part of what kills the life of the organisation, they are bad medicine, or some of them are.
A DIFFERENT ORDER
The intervention assumptions hide a set of values about what is important. If our approach is to find out what promotes and supports life (for these people in this organisation in this context at this time) then actually we can engage in any of the intervention types from this overarching perspective. For instance we can investigate effective business processes from the perspective that if they are not conducive to life then they are probably not much use.
The purpose of a (complex) system is what it does. (POSIWID) Understandably, we are reluctant to believe that systems that we find repressive in the workplace actually have that repression as their underlying purpose. That is not to indulge in conspiracy theory, only to say that people do strange things in large groups, and that building social systems they all claim to dislike is one of them.
Instead of claiming we know ourselves well enough to be able to design better systems, we would do better to investigate what works. If we can find systems and patterns that support life (without assuming that such patterns will necessarily resemble a Garden of Eden) then we can try and mimic those systems and patterns to gain the same POSIWID purpose.
When we benchmark we look at the wrong outputs. It is highly unlikely that the underlying purpose of our systems is what we say it is, i.e. some notion of business effectiveness or success. People are never that straightforward. If we want to learn from systems elsewhere we need first to understand their purpose. Only systems capable of sustaining life, and having life-support as a purpose, are suitable models for us in building organisations that are alive.
To build on these insights is to try to work with the grain of the way socio-technical systems work. Instead of privileging conscious design against external goals, we want to privilege patterns that are found in practice to support organisational qualities that feel alive, vibrant and creative. We can list some of the qualities that we want to find in such systems:
CHARACTERISING LIVE SYSTEMS
* Trust. We have already indicated that we need to trust ourselves and our own intuitive understanding of complex systems if we wish to build systems that support life. It should be no surprise that we cannot trust others until we can trust ourselves. Trust is a foundation for all positive actions in groups: for communication, for challenge, for dialogue, for taking risks.
* Emotional range. We expect to see appropriate expression of a full range of emotions and a general acceptance that emotion is one window into our unconscious understandings. There is no undue privileging of rational and objectivising thought.
* Sense-making. People know that there are many valid ways to make sense of what is going on and that there is no need to push for consensus. There is a richness to the narratives people use to support their sense-making.
* Inquisitiveness. There is a child-like energy in pushing for personal understandings of why things are the way they are, for exploring the world. Nothing is a priori off limits.
* Responsiveness. There are a huge variety of responses available and used in different situations. Responses don’t get limited to a few stock actions.
A GROUNDED CONCLUSION
To use the tools we usually employ to understand organisations is to rely on low-resolution newspaper pictures, taken by somebody else for their own purposes. We need our tools but we need to know that the newspaper doesn’t define the news. We are the news – and we are infinitely closer than any journalists to the wonder and the intricacy of what is unfolding.
Just as newspapers generate a self-serving demand for news, so all the tools we use generate a need for more analysis and more information. Managers who have commissioned the right report are excused the need for action in the interim. We need a human answer to the question “what for?” before we are buried by the response to our request for guidance.
By paying attention to life in its fullness we can open up the space in which it may be safe to use the different interventions discussed above. Without a sense of the patterns that support life and those that smother and repress it, any intervention, including all the standard analysis techniques, are like the wizard’s spell that we don’t know how to countermand. To be humble is to recognise life first and to be prepared for the Emperor’s stylish nakedness.
We don’t have the answers and it would behove us to admit it. Then we can get on with trying to hear what is going on underneath the noise of our immediate concerns. If we pay attention, the noise of those concerns may abate enough for them not to drown out the things that matter.