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The Hidden Life of Organizations Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Where the Action Is Every organization lives on two levels: the level of the things we see and that of things unseen. The organizational life we see is made up of all of our daily involvements, including strategy, goods and services, customers, policies, performance management, visible parts of culture and much more. This obvious life of the organization is where we put almost all of our attention, but for all the hoopla, its not where the real action is. Theres a Secret Life to organizations. Its exciting, dynamic, and bursting with possibilities. CREATIVITY, innovation, commitment and empowerment all happen here. Real and lasting CHANGE, when it happens, happens here first. To understand THE SECRET LIFE is to understand the organization. Yet, for all its mighty potential, its almost always neglected and even consciously avoided. Change

Nothing ever changes around here. We tried that, and it didnt work. These are the familiar laments of those who have witnessed the seeming immutability of organizations. Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to implement major non-technical organizational change, and nearly impossible to sustain it?

Organizational culture plays a pivotal role in change. While small organizational changes that fall within the pale of the existing culture can take hold (as long as things are perceived as improved and as long as nothing too fundamental changes), it is almost impossible to initiate substantial and sustainable change without a culture change to support it. With intentional culture change, things in the organization DO change, and attempted changes that didnt work in the past CAN work in the future. Planned culture change that focuses on the organizations vision and mission can guide organizational change successfully towards a desired outcome. And herein lies the rub: the main job of culture is to sustain the status quo, so getting culture to support change is, to say the least, a huge challenge. But with a thorough assessment of organizational human dynamics, an systems understanding of the of environmental conditions in which the organization is operating, and the unflagging commitment of organizational planned culture change can take place. Thinking About Thinking: Health Care Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a focus group being held to test public acceptance of a proposed initiative for the California ballot. We werent told specifically what was being tested or what position the initiative would take, just that it had to do with health care reform and what part government should play. The facilitator was skilled at building a discussion without forwarding any particular point of view, so the conversation was lively and relatively unguarded. As the conversation went from a general whats-on-your-mind these days to health care, the participants began to tell their own health care stories. The surgeons wife told of how her husband retired because the pittance the health insurance companies paid him was barely enough to keep his office door open. The man whose wife had chronic serious health issues told of battling equally horrible insurance company red tape. For the nurse, hospital waste and duplication were destroying the system, and for the retired man Medicare paid too much for him to die but not enough for him to live. And so it went, the problem taking the shape of the needs and experiences of each person.

Or Not The facilitator asked whether or not the government should regulate health care, and whether or not there should be a public or a single payer option. What was most interesting to me about these questions was the or not. Or not is a phrase that is loaded with assumptions. It is a marker for the assumption that there are two contradictory possibilities of which only one is right. Inherent in or not statements is the assumption that in a complex issue such as health care there can be one right answer to the exclusion of all others. Stuck Between Equal Piles of Hay Finally, we were asked whether or not we agreed with each of the statements in the proposed initiative. I abstained. Like Buridans donkey stuck between equal piles of hay, I found the pros and the cons of each statement to be equally unsuitable. A problem as complex and ideologically divisive as health care, that has defied solution for as long as it has existed cannot be solved by passing another reform. I mentioned my concern. Someone suggested that maybe what was needed was compromise or a solution somewhere in the middle. Meeting in the middle doesnt work either: while its in the middle its still positional thinking. I kept quiet. Thinking in the Middle

Positional thinking means that our thinking on a subject, say health care reform, is rooted in a particular point of view to the exclusion of all others. Herein lies the problem. It tells us nothing about the workability of our position, or the realities of the world outside our view. When we are thinking positionally, even if we examine other points of views or options, we examine them from the assumption the our position is right. When we gather information, we do so selectively, favoring information that confirms our position, while excluding disconfirming information. While we say that we have been objective in our examination of other possibilities and have rationally chosen our position, in reality our choice is the consequence of engrained habits of thinking based in our unique assumptions, needs, and feelings, making effective decision making impossible. People in the middle are just as stuck in their middleness as people at the extremes are stuck in their extremes. Being in the middle is just another position. Compromise is a cousin of thinking in the middle. It is still grounded in the belief that our position is the only right one. However, in order to reach an agreement, we are willing to sacrifice a less important piece of our position and trade it for a piece of the others position that

they are willing to sacrifice. Nowhere in compromise is there the open-minded non-positional examination of other points of view. In the end all we have are sacrifices patched together, where each party has given up something right for something wrong in order to cobble together an agreement made of patches. All parties feel cheated and all await the next encounter in order to regain they have lost. What Would Einstein Do?

Back in the health care focus group I found myself channeling Einstein, you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. Nowhere in the discussion was there the possibility for a kind of thinking that went beyond the ruts of the thinking that brought us to this seemingly impassable point. What no one in the room was talking about, no one in the healthcare debate, as far as I could see, was that the issue is not health care but how we think about health care. It All Comes Back to Thinking

In the 1960s Chris Argyris proposed that all complex problems are problems of thinking: how we think about a problem IS the problem. Thus, problems are never what they seem to be. We look at them and see the obvious, the symptoms, not what lies beneath. He suggested that solutions that purport to solve the problem without examining the thinking behind it can never be complete or lasting. The problem will always resurface, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in an altered form, but resurface it will until we address the structure that is keeping the problem in place. This can only be done with non-positional thinking. Non-positional thinking requires that we lift ourselves above the lineup of positions and adopt the greatest possible perspective. From this vantage we can see that all positions, no matter how extreme or centrist, including our own, are deeply established mind-sets that must be examined and understood, both for the short and the long term. Ultimately we have to ask the life changing question, What is it that I am NOT seeing, which if I saw would transform how I think about this issue or even about life itself? The focus group was a metaphor for the health care debate in general, where old thinking and old solutions are continuously resurfaced, recycled, traded and

patched together in the name of reform. Health care reform is like a pair of pants that have been patched so often that nothing remains of the original cloth, just sacrificial patches hanging on sacrificial patches all cobbled together with a thread, and the thread is unraveling. Organizational Culture and the Secret Life Thursday, August 25th, 2011 What is This Thing Called Culture?

Culture influences everything we do and think within the organization. It extends out to the farthest reaches of the organization surmounting geographic and social barriers, and it is amazingly resistant toCHANGE. Culture is the social container in which everything in an organization takes place. Ignore it at your own risk! Why is culture so pervasive and so strong? Well, its the job of culture to make sure that nothing in the organization gets so out of balance that it becomes unstable, unpredictable or threatens the survival of the organization. Better safe than sorry, is the motto of culture; its core unifying principle is values, and the enforcer is the norms. Its also the job of culture to make sure that important survival and success-based knowledge survives and is passed on. A lot of this knowledge has to do with skills, but more importantly and subtly it deals with the transmission of the groups values and norms, assumptions and beliefs. Thus, we can say that the purpose of culture is to maintain order and the status quo, and to contain and transmit the sum of organizational experience and knowledge to ensure continuity. When we understand this we can see why CHANGE in organizations can be so difficult to bring about: change by its very nature IS discontinuous; even continuous change is discontinuous if only in small increments. The Visible Life Look at an organization. What do you see? Youll likely see goods and services, employees and customers, sales materials, business strategies and plans. You could see a building, a web site and some other tangible artifacts. But, try to gaze into the mire we call culture, and the first thing youll see is that you cant see much. But keep looking, and some things will phase into view. You might notice a mission or vision statement written somewhere. You might observe that people tend to dress in a certain way or that the building has a particular layout or decor. Youll probably notice there are stated rules, standards, and behavioral norms that people are expected to follow and a set of espoused values in place to guidewell, everything. If you listen hard you might hear some stories about the deeds and exploits of prominent people in the company that are designed to drive home those rules, standards, norms and values.

One thing youll probably notice is that theres an awful lot of measuring going on: just about anything that can be measured is measured, and all these measured things are used to design strategies and make plans. This is the visible organization. We put our energy here because its what we can see! The Secret Life Imagine an old fashioned wall clock. What do you see? A case, face, numbers and hands. The hands do the work of telling us the time. But the more complicated and vital part of the clock lies hidden behind the face. Likewise, in an organization, you cant see the vital working parts. You wont see unexpressed shared meaning, thoughts or feelings of employees, or their real shared assumptions. You wont see the hidden values and rules that govern behavior. The hidden aspects of an organization are important, because it is here that, for better or for worse, the full power of the people in the organizations is contained. Invisible: The secret life Unexpressed rules of the Game Actual norms, standards and values Shared unexpressed basic assumptions Latent organizational knowledge, unsanctioned stories and history Unexpressed shared meanings Unsanctioned channels and content of COMMUNICATION including gossip How the organization informally and punishes What really motivates and de-motivates Climate and practice of leadership; actual distribution of power and leadership norms How we think, solve problems, handle conflict, and make decisions Metaphors or symbols Creativity Hidden individual and group dynamics Leadership Groupthink and the like Un-discussables Organizational learning Can only take place in the space of no-blame Requires critical and double-loop thinking Hidden needs and motivation