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Perceptions of change

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Management, as it is taught in business schools, is rife with abstractions such as “strategic alignment” and “organizational culture”. The incident I’m about to relate happened about nine years ago, a few days after I had read Claudio Ciborra’s brilliant critique of strategic alignment and published an article about it.

I was at a company dinner where I happened to be sitting next to a senior executive from headquarters.  At that time the organization was in the throes of a large-scale IT transformation initiative aimed at “aligning IT with the business.” As might be expected, the conversation turned to the impending changes and how they would achieve “strategic alignment.”

Perhaps unwisely, I started talking about Ciborra’s critique and the gap between management abstractions and coalface reality. The conversation segued into the differences between management and employee perceptions of the changes we were going through, and at some point I said, “employee perceptions tend to become their reality.”

 The executive set his fork down on his plate. “You’ve got that wrong,” he said with a tight smile, “my perception is your reality.”

–x–

Management theorists invented the concept of organizational culture to deal with the “problem” of aligning employee values with those of the organization.  However, as noted in a classic paper by Hugh Willmott, the concept is inherently flawed, not to mention a shade Orwellian:

“[the notion of organizational culture is based on] an implicit understanding that the distinctive quality of human action, and of labour power, resides in the capacity of self-determination [of purpose and action]. This insight informs the understanding that corporate performance can be maximized only if this capacity is simultaneously respected and exploited…corporate culture invites employees to understand that identification with its values ensures their autonomy. That is the seductive doublethink of corporate culture: the simultaneous affirmation and negation of the conditions of autonomy.”

And then, a bit later in the piece:

“[Advocates of organisational culture] take it for granted that the objectives of the organization can be engineered to become consensual. Since every employee is assumed to share these objectives, and to benefit from their realization, there can be no moral objection to corporate cultural demands.”

However, such thinking is morally ambiguous:

“Instead of contributing to the development of a societal culture in which individuals learn to appreciate, and struggle with, the problematical experience and significance of indeterminacy, [organisational] culturism promotes what is, in effect, a totalitarian remedy for this existential problem. [Organisational] culturism directly exploits the feelings of insecurity and ‘irrationalism’ that are intensified by the capitalist process of commodification [of skills and labour].”

Employees tend to toe the corporate culture line because of the security it appears to offer. However, such buy-in is largely in letter, not spirit: although you might be able to control what people do, and may even get them to pledge allegiance to “organizational values,” you cannot control what they think. This is the point I was trying to get across to the executive.

I left the organization three years later, surprised that I lasted that long.

 –x–

Perceptions of change depend on where one sits in the organizational hierarchy.

Many years ago, I was part of a project team that was working on replacing a venerable Lotus Notes–based system with a newer customer relationship management (CRM) product. I was tasked with integrating data from the CRM with other syndicated and publicly available data sets. The requirements were complex, but the system design evolved through continual, often animated discussions between the development team and key business stakeholders in an environment characterized by openness and trust.

The system was delivered on schedule, with minimal rework required.

Five years later, I was invited to participate in a regional project at the same company. The objective, which was set by the corporate IT office located in Europe, was to build a data warehouse for subsidiaries across Asia.  Corporate’s rationale for the project was quite reasonable. The data landscape across Asia was messy, with each subsidiary taking a bespoke approach to data management in order to address their local reporting needs. From corporate’s perspective, this was a situation crying out for standardization. On the other hand, the subsidiaries were happy with their existing systems. They perceived the push for standardization as a corporate power play that would result in a loss of local autonomy over data. 

To top it all, there were cultural differences around how such conflicts should be resolved.

Predictably, the discussions aimed at reaching a consensus devolved into heated Skype exchanges between stakeholders, forcing regional IT to step in and call a meeting to resolve the issue.

The story of how we resolved differences between corporate and local perspectives is documented in this article and this paper so I won’t reproduce it here. The point I wish to make is that the larger the change, the greater the effort required to align perceptions. Moreover, success depends entirely on developing trust-based relationships between warring stakeholder groups. This involves surfacing key points of contention and developing consensus decisions about them in a way that is acceptable to all parties. This is a matter of communication, not culture.

–x–

That said, I don’t like the term “communication” much. It glosses over details of what one must do to resolve differences, and the details matter because they are not obvious.

The anthropologist and polymath, Gregory Bateson once noted that “what [we lack] is a theory of action within large complex systems, where the active agent is himself a part and a product of the system.”

In the very next line to the one quoted above, Bateson offered a hint as to where an answer might lie. He noted that Kant’s categorical imperative – “act so to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means – might provide a starting point for such a theory.”

He then went on to say something truly intriguing: “It seems also that good teachers and therapists avoid all direct attempts to influence the action of others and, instead, try to provide the settings or contexts in which some (usually imperfectly specified) change may occur.”

This line resonated deeply when I read it first because it spelt out something that I had learnt through experience but had not found the words to articulate: change is best achieved by framing (or creating) a context within which individuals will see things differently and change of their own accord.

–x–

“I can’t handle failure,” she said. “I’ve always been at the top of my class.”

She was being unduly hard on herself. With little programming experience or background in math, machine learning was always going to be hard going.  “Put that aside for now,” I replied. “Just focus on understanding and working your way through it, one step at a time. In four weeks, you’ll see the difference.”

“OK,” she said, “I’ll try.”

She did not sound convinced but to her credit, that’s exactly what she did. Two months later she completed the course with a distinction.

“You did it!” I said when I met her a few weeks after the grades were announced.

“I did,” she grinned. “Do you want to know what made the difference?”

Yes, I nodded.

“Thanks to your advice, I stopped treating it like a game I had to win,” she said, “and that took the pressure right off.  I then started to enjoy learning.”

–x–

The student reframed her thinking in a way that changed her perceptions of the task at hand. Instead of treating it as an obstacle or race, she began to view it as an opportunity to learn. Doing so enabled her to meet the academic requirements of the university. Paradoxically, she passed the course with ease when she stopped obsessing about doing well and focused on learning instead. This echoes Bateson’s advice about changing a system from within and is an example of what John Kay calls obliquity: the idea that certain goals are best achieved indirectly. 

You do not get people to change their perceptions by telling them to change. Instead, you reframe the situation in a way that enables them to see it in a different light. They might then choose to change of their own accord.

As a change agent, isn’t that what you really wish for?

–x–

Written by K

January 10, 2023 at 7:57 pm

Making sense of entrepreneurship – a conversation with Craig Brown

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KA: My guest for this instalment of my “sensemaker” series of interviews is Craig Brown. I have known Craig since about 2009 when he was a project and program manager. He has since transitioned to running his own software development company, Everest Engineering. So, welcome Craig, let me begin by asking you to introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your journey that got you to where you are now.

CB: Thanks Kailash. How far back do you want me to go? Would you like me to start right at the beginning or just the last few years?

KA: Mostly the transition from project and program management to entrepreneurship. What made you do it? What drove it?

CB: OK. Well, early in my career I worked at different companies and corporations, as many of us do. I even did a very small stint in consulting.  These experiences were interesting because I learned a lot about how things happen in organisations – what works and what doesn’t.  Early last decade, I started working at a SaaS company in a general management role. That was interesting because the culture in those places, the way they operate, is very different from the established corporate world. You’re much closer to “life or death” issues on a month-to-month basis. As a result, you’re much more invested in delivering customer outcomes and value than in compliance, rules and process. That was refreshing and super interesting because I had never been in that situation before.

Anyway, then the day came when it was time to leave that organisation. One of the guys that I worked with, Ranganathan, used to manage part of the team in India while I managed the team in Australia. The two of us decided we would start a software product development agency together, and so began Everest Engineering.

The switch from working for someone to working on your own business is a big one.   Many of the differences are well-known, entrepreneurs have talked about them: it’s a lot of work, it can be very stressful, you’ve got to be multifaceted, you’ve got to be wherever the business needs you at any particular time. So, being able to switch modes and roles is really important.

As the company has gotten bigger, we’ve hired other people to help manage the business, grow it, support it. Ironically, this next stage is about breaking our old habits of being everywhere all at once, its about learning to delegate authority, share responsibility and all that sort of stuff.  What I think is particularly interesting about what’s happening to us now is that it’s kind of the opposite journey to what large companies are trying to do: i.e. they try to reduce bureaucracy and increase entrepreneurship by giving people autonomy and responsibility. We’re headed the other way, not towards bureaucracy (I hope!), but towards more structure and order from what can be described as chaotic, freewheeling entrepreneurship. Yeah, it’s stressful but a lot of fun.

KA: OK, before we get deeper into the conversation, what does Everest Engineering do and where are you located?

CB: We are a software product development agency. Capability wise, we have software engineers, platform engineers, product people, designers, testers, business analysts etc. Our team members live in about half-half on the east coast of Australia (mostly Melbourne) and India. We also have a few team members in North America and have just started building a development team in Malaysia as well. So, we’re kind of distributed across the globe. At the moment, most of our customers are in Australia but we’re growing the customer base around the world as well.

KA: Hmm, there are a lot of companies in the software product development business. It must have been difficult to get traction. How did you do it?

CB: The traditional story (in software development) is that you either a) find a niche that no one is addressing well and zero in on that or, b) you come in cheap and claw your way to the top. When we started our business, we didn’t want to do either of those things. We also wanted to build a generalist software product company, not focusing on a particular domain or particular skill set as many small outfits do. Our vision is that we become a big global company that can engage with lots of different problems. At the same time, we knew that if we swaggered in to client discussions saying that, no one was going to be interested.

So, what did we do?

We started by focusing on the Melbourne market, primarily because that’s where I live. To get traction we decided that we would be compelling in terms of the match between price and quality. In the world of software, you can rent services from agencies which are poor or average quality on the cheap, or you can pay a lot of money for top shelf quality. What we wanted to do is not be the cheapest in the world, but be reasonably inexpensive while also really focusing on quality. Interestingly, over time the price-quality trade off has become less important, which has enabled us to focus on quality. I’m not sure why this happened but I guess it has to do with a common experience in life: when a piece of work is completed, what’s remembered is the good outcome, not the cost to get there.

There’s a kind of irony about day rates versus outcomes. It’s a weird one. For example, the price of some of our India software development teams might be double or even more than what some of our competitors provide. But the deal is that we’ll get it right the first time, within the timeframe and the budget that you’re asking for. Compare this to having an expensive rework nightmare, which often happens when the upfront focus is on cost. I’m aware that this could be sounding like an ad, but it’s really that focus on delivering a quality, delivering an outcome the first time that is the key. Our customers don’t necessarily understand this upfront because quality is hard to talk about, but it is easy to understand when you see it.  So the deal is that after our customers have worked with us, they begin to appreciate the quality aspect we bring.

Another aspect of our strategy is maintaining relationships and sticking together over the long haul.  It’s really simple to state: win over customers through doing good work and keep them through being compelling in our value proposition. However, it is not easy to do. Indeed, it is work in progress, we’re not perfect. These are aspirational goals, and we’re working our way towards them.

KA: I understand the price-value proposition. However, because it is such a crowded market, your first few gigs must have been hard to get. How did you go about doing that?

CB: Yeah, I think it’s a trust-based decision making process when buying expensive, large services. The customer will not know upfront what the quality is going to be like. Fortunately, over the last two decades, I’ve built good strong relationships with lots of people across our industry. So, a lot of people know me, and I’ve had interactions with them through my work or contributions to our professional community (Kailash’s note: For example, Craig is the founder of Last Conferences). That’s gotten me access to a lot of people.  To add to that, in the early days of Everest, we would straight up give people a money-back guarantee. We could do this with confidence because we knew our team members – we knew they were smart people with a lot of enthusiasm for doing right by everyone around them. That enabled us to say to our customers, “if you don’t like the work, you don’t have to pay for it.”  That combined with my personal connections meant that we were able to cut through and get that first round of trust that enabled us to build the company.

KA: It must be doubly challenging to maintain quality and align expectations with a distributed team. Can you talk us through some of the challenges that you have faced?

CB: Yes, and there some nuances around this. One is that the software labour market in Australia is older, on average, than in India. So, there’s an asynchronicity of experience, and with that comes a misalignment of expectations. A really important aspect of this is that we try to be explicit about expectations from different teams, and this is mostly about managing people’s expectations of what’s going to happen and when. Another aspect is for us to develop a shared understanding of what Agile means to us: things like  transparency, focus on throughput, customer value, responding to feedback etc. Once we agree on what they mean, we have to do those things on a day-to-day basis.

It gets even more complicated when you bring the customer in. As you know, every organization has got its own version of what Agile looks like, and different understanding of what “good” means. So, we try very hard to moderate our version and meet the customers where they’re at. In other words, we co-develop shared Agile practices. A phrase that I think really resonates with the customers we work with is let’s improve together.  When there are cultural differences, we don’t see them as barriers. Instead, we reframe them as strengths. It is like, “right, we see things differently, and that is interesting because I hadn’t thought of it that way.”  These differences aren’t necessarily country to country, they can also be industry to industry or organisation to organisation. Of course, there are things that are cultural too. For example, if we’re doing retail websites, the online retail experience in India is different from one in Australia and, therefore, so are expectations of how things should work. You have to step back and go to first principles of user experience design and product management; you have to slow down and talk about what good looks like, and how we’re going to get there.  

Lastly, there’s the issue of managing timezone differences. To be honest,  we don’t find this a problem. The overlap between Australia and India is sufficient, and can lead to some good patterns where there’s like a half a day of focus time and a half a day of collaboration time. But again, this requires planning and preparation. You can’t just turn up to work and go; you have to be thinking ahead about what you are going to do.  As long as you’re able to level up your planning you can take advantage of this.  This also has general positive downstream effects: if everyone’s more organised, there’s less waste, better decisions are made better, and so on. However, it does take effort to get there.

KA: You used a phrase, “let’s improve together with our customers.” Can yougive me some sense of how this works in practice?

CB: The examples are quite mundane to be honest.  When a bunch of people come together to work on a new project, there is some learning required on how you are going to work together. As I had mentioned before, patterns and practices will differ between organisations.   For example, should you focus on Continuous Delivery and DevOps stuff. or should you focus on better product management or sensemaking and design work? The answer is: it depends. We (the customer and us) bring different strengths to the table, so we look at the situation in front of us and decide how to work together.

First of all, we agree on how we communicate, how our day and week runs – all that kind of normal sprint cycle stuff. Then we can get into specifics such as, how do we optimize (our ways of working) around the product that we’re working on?  What is a good outcome? What are the constraints?  In addition, we will have patterns and practices that we can kind of share with each other and learn together.  This is not about telling people about your practices like you have some special access to the truth. Instead, we slow down and go, “Alright, cool. I see this problem here. Do you see it too?” And then you might go, “Yes, I do.” Or you might go, “huh, I see a slightly different problem.” Or you might even go, “I don’t see a problem.”  That opens a dialogue and, before you know it, we’re solving the problem together instead of telling each other what to do. How that manifests could be as simple as changing how you run stand-ups, or set up sprint plans, good coding standards, or the emphasis you put on product design versus shipping a product. These are mundane, well-known things but the trick lies in how you customize them to the context of a specific relationship.

KA: Interesting. So, when you actually hire and get people in, you’d be hiring for technical smarts on the one hand, but you’d also be looking for, a kind of propensity to collaborate. Is that right?

CB: I hire certain kind of certain roles but the bulk of the workforce hiring is done by other people so I’m not actually close to the details. However, I do know that the notion of culture fit is taken pretty seriously in the recruiting process. From this perspective it is mainly about managing the tension between being an individual contributor and a team member. On a team, you will be an individual contributor so you do need to master your craft, be good at the job and all that sort of stuff. However, you also have to think about where your ego is. Do you have this deep need to be the hero, telling everyone what to do and being the master programmer.  Or do you deploy value through a collective effort?  By doing good work, but also looking around, seeing your teammates, recognizing their work and supporting them when needed. We draw these kinds of things out in interviews through storytelling, by asking for examples.

KA: When I look at what you’ve done, it seems like, such a simple idea: to not go on price or quality alone, but somehow marry the two. It’s like you saw a gap in the market, an anomaly that nobody else noticed – or if they did, they did not think it worth pursuing. I find that really interesting.

CB: Yeah, it is kind of like that. There  are a bunch of software agencies that I used to work with, here in Melbourne, they are full of great people. They are also what you would call the premium software agencies in Melbourne or in Australia – quality is top shelf but so is price.  Then at the other end, you’ve got these big factory warehouses of people who are lowly paid and not well supported.  And then there’s this place in the middle that’s almost unseen. What we thought we should do is compete on the one hand, at the quality end, and then also come in cheaper by leveraging the cost differential between the two countries.

You might say we are reinventing the outsourcing experience by maintaining the connections and relationships like small agencies but being able to do things at scale by having the staff, skills and experience commonly found only in much larger outsourcers.

KA: Right, and the interesting thing is that you grew the business in some pretty challenging times. Could you tell us about how you handled the challenges thrown at you by Covid, for example?

CB: Yes, there’s been a few things right, there’s been the COVID pandemic and now we’re on the cusp of another economic crisis. Indeed, the pandemic hit right after we got started. One of the things that I think enabled us to be resilient has been spreading our bets. So rather than chasing after a handful of big customers, what we’ve done is pursue a relatively even spread of customers in different segments, sizes and organisations types. So, as these crises ripple through different parts of the world economy, it hits us at different times rather than all at once. Don’t get me wrong, the middle of 2020 was really tough, but the fact that we had our spread was what got us what got us through that. I’m not sure if I’m using the term antifragile, properly, but it kind of leans into that. By spreading your bets, you discover all these new people, markets and domains that can grow into opportunities.

KA: That makes good sense. So, what next for Everest?

CB: We’ve been fortunate to have attracted these really interesting and diverse bunch of people to work for us. Equally, we’ve attracted an interesting and diverse bunch of companies that work with us as customers.  We’re only a few years old – four years this November – so we’re still focusing on our core business which is software development. I think in a year or two ahead, I think we will start to see that antifragility or diversity blossom into new opportunities. For example, we definitely want to work in the data space.  We’ve got data engineers and some people who have done projects, with machine learning and so forth, but we don’t actually have it as a practice. It’s kind of ad hoc at the moment. So, maturing these things into proper business units that have got sustained impact on the world will be something for us to do. And then there are other things we’re looking at – for example how product management works in the industry. Specifically, the patterns and the strengths and weaknesses in the product management industry and whether there are ways in which we can contribute to that community.

At heart we are a bunch of explorers and experimenters still…and hope we will remain so. We are on a journey through adjacent possibles. It is the only way to stay fresh and ensure that we don’t get pigeonholed.

KA: So, you’re continually scanning the periphery and horizon to see what new things you can do by adapting what you have. That’s brilliant!

CB: A lot of it comes through the diverse talents and interests of the people we work with, right? We’ve ended up attracting quite interesting people to work with us. Interesting people have – well –  interesting interests! So, for sure, the key thing is to get work done and ship products in time. But another important thing is to make the mental space so that you can actually invest time and energy into the things that you’re curious about. Ultimately that’s what spawns new ideas and new opportunities.

KA: That’s a nice place to close our conversation. But, before we do that I want to ask you one final question: what advice would you give someone who wants to start doing their own software development (or any other) business?

CB: The advice you hear from people that study new businesses is generally something along the lines of: it’s going to be harder than you think; it’s going to take longer than you think; you’re going to get very stressed and have these moments where you wonder why you’re doing it. But at the end of it, you’ll look back and love the fact that you’re doing it. And I think that’s actually true, right.  That said, I think that embracing the chaos and uncertainty isn’t for everyone. Like, here I am, I grew up poor, in a single parent family in regional New South Wales. In my late 20s, early 30s, I started working in corporate Australia in tech. All along I have been burdened by the usual mortgages and lifestyle costs and all that sort of stuff. And I haven’t climbed out of that yet: I’ve still got a mortgage I can’t afford. But yeah, it took me a while to get started on the entrepreneurship thing.  I was 48 when we started Everest, and it was driven partly by events outside my control. As I said at the start, the company I was working for got acquired and that gave me the push I needed to do my own thing. So, there you go. It’s not for everyone and, yes, the right circumstances have to be in place for you. But once you start, I think you’ll embrace it.

KA: That’s an inspiring story and some great advice Craig, particularly for older people who want to start doing their own thing.  You were driven to entrepreneurship in a way but you stuck to it and made it your own. Brilliant stuff, thanks so much for making the time to have a chat.

CB: Thanks Kailash, always a pleasure.

Written by K

November 1, 2022 at 3:42 am

Making sense of management – a conversation with Richard Claydon

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KA 

Hi there. I’m restarting a series of conversations that I’d kicked off in 2014 but discontinued a year later for a variety of reasons. At that time, I’d interviewed a few interesting people who have a somewhat heretical view on things managers tend to take for granted. I thought there’s no better way to restart the series than to speak with Dr. Richard Claydon, who I have known for a few years.  Richard calls himself a management ironist and organisational misbehaviorist. Instead of going on and risking misrepresenting what he does, let me get him to jump in and tell you himself.

Welcome Richard, tell us a bit about what you do.

RC  

I position myself as having a pragmatic, realistic take on management. Most business schools have a very positivistic take on the subject, a “do A and get B” approach. On the other hand, you have a minority of academics – the critical theorists – who say, well actually if you do A, you might get B, but you also get C, D, E, F, G.  This is actually a more realistic take. However, critical management theory is full of jargon and deep theory so it’s very complex to understand. I try to position myself in the middle, between the two perspectives, because real life is actually messier than either side would like to admit.

I like to call myself a misbehaviourist because the mess in the middle is largely about misbehaviours – real but more often, perceived. Indeed, good behaviours are often misperceived as bad and bad behaviours misperceived as good. I should emphasise that my work is not about getting rid of the bad apples or performance managing people. Rather it’s about working out what people are doing and more importantly, why. And from that, probing the system and seeing if one can start effecting changes in behaviours and outcomes.

KA 

Interesting! What kind of reception do you get? In particular, is there an appetite for this kind of work – open ended with no guarantee of a results?

RC 

Six of one half a dozen or the other. I’ve noticed a greater appetite for what I do now than there was six or seven years ago. It might be that I’ve made what I do more digestible and more intelligible to people in the management space. Or it might be that people are actually recognising that what they’re currently doing isn’t working in the complex world we live in today. It’s probably a bit of both.

That said, I definitely think the shift in thinking has been accelerated by the pandemic. It’s sort of, we can’t carry on doing this anymore because it is not really helping us move forward. So, I am finding a larger proportion of people willing to explore new approaches.

KA 

Tell us a bit about the approaches you use.

RC 

As an example, I’ve used narrative analytics –   collecting micro narratives at massive scale across an organisation and then analysing them, akin to the stuff Dave Snowden does.  Basically, we collect stories across the organisation, cluster them using machine learning techniques, and then get a team of people with different perspectives to look at the clusters. This gives us multiple readings on meaning. So, the team could consist of someone with leadership expertise, someone with expertise in mental health and wellbeing, someone with a behavioural background etc.

We also use social network analysis to find how information flows within a organisation. The aim here is to identify three very different types of characters: a) blockers – those who stop information from flowing, b) facilitators of information flow, c) connectors – information hubs, the go-to people in the organisation and d) mavericks, those who are thinking differently. And if you do that, you can start identifying where interesting things are happening, where different thinking is manifesting itself, and who’s carrying that thinking across the organisation.

KA 

Interesting! What sort of scale do you do this at?

RC 

Oh, we can scale to 1000s of people – organisations that have 35000 to 40,000 people – well beyond the scale at which one can wander around and do the ethnography oneself.

KA 

How do you elicit these micro-narratives?

RC 

I’ll give you an example. For a study we did on remote working during COVID we simply wrote, when it comes to working from home in COVID, I like dot dot, dot, I don’t like dot dot, dot, I wish dot dot, dot, I wonder dot dot dot,  plus some metadata to slice and dice – age bands, gender etc.  Essentially, we try to ask a very open set of questions, to get people into a more reflective stance. That’s where you begin to get some really interesting stuff.

KA 

Can you tell us about some of the interesting things you found from this study?  The more, I guess, interesting and surprising things that you’ve seen that are  perhaps not so obvious from a cursory glance,

RC 

The one thing that was very clear from the COVID studies was that the organisation’s perception of work from home was the key to whether it actually worked or not. If management gives the impression that work from home is somehow not quite proper work, then you’re going to get a poor work from home experience for all. If management isn’t trusting a person to work from home, or isn’t trusting a team to work from home then you’ve got a problem with your management, not with your people. The bigger the trust gap, the worse the experience. Employees in such environments feel more overwhelmed, more isolated, and generally more limited and restricted in their lives. That was the really interesting finding that came out of this piece of work. 

KA 

That’s fascinating…but I guess should not be surprising in hindsight. Management attitudes play a large role in determining employee behaviours and attitudes, and one would expect this to be even more the case when there is less face-to-face interaction. This is also a nice segue into another area I’d like to get you to talk about:  the notion of organisational culture.  Could you tell us about your take on the concept?

RC 

How cynical do you want me to be?

KA 

Very, I expect nothing less!

RC 

Well, if you go back into why culture became such a big thing, the first person who talked about culture in organisations was Elliott Jaques, way back in the 50s. But it didn’t really catch on then. It became a thing in the early 80s. And how it did is a very interesting story.

Up until the early 70s, you had – in America at least – a sort of an American Dream being lived underpinned by the illusion of continuous growth.  Then came the challenges of the 70s, the oil crisis and numerous other challenges that resulted in a dramatic loss of confidence in the American system. At the same time, you had the Japanese miracle, where a country that had two nuclear bombs dropped on it thirty years earlier was, by the 1970s, the second biggest economy in the world. And there was this sort of frenzy of interest in what the Japanese were doing to create this economic miracle and, more important, what America could learn from it. There were legions of consultants and academics going back and forth between the two countries.

One of the groups that was trying to learn from the Japanese was McKinsey. But this wasn’t really helping build confidence in the US. On the contrary, this approach seemed to imply that the Japanese were in some way better, which didn’t go down particularly well with the local audience. There was certainly interest in the developments around continuous improvement,  The Toyota Way etc – around getting the workers involved with the innovation of products and processes, as well as the cultural notions around loyalty to the organisation etc.  However, that was not enough to excite an American audience.

The spark came from Peters and Waterman’s  book, In Search of  Excellence, which highlighted examples of American companies that were doing well.  The book summarised eight features that these companies had in common – these were labelled principles of a good culture and that’s where the Mckinsey Seven S model came from. It was a kind of mix of ideas pulled in from Peters/Waterman, the Japanese continuous improvement and culture stuff, all knocked together really quite quickly.  In a fortunate (for Peters and Waterman) coincidence, the US economy turned the corner at around the time that this book was published and sales took off. That said, it’s a very well written book. The first half of In Search of Excellence is stunning. If you read it you’ll see that the questions they asked then are relevant questions even today. Anyway, the book came out at exactly the right time: the economy had turned the corner, McKinsey had a Seven S model to sell and then two universities jumped into the game, Stanford and Harvard… and lo behold, organisational culture became a management buzz-phrase, and  remains so to this day.  Indeed, the idea that special cultures are driving performance has bubbled up again in recent years, especially in the tech sector. In the end, though, the notion of culture  is very much a halo effect, in that the proponents of culture tend to attribute  performance to certain characteristics (i.e. culture). The truth is that success may give rise to a culture, but there is no causal effect the other way round.

KA 

Thanks for that historical perspective. In my experience in large multinationals, I’ve found that the people who talked about culture the most were from HR. And, they were mostly concerned about enforcing a certain uniformity of thought across the organisation.  That was around that time I came across the work of some critical management scholars who you alluded to at the start of this conversation. In particular, Hugh Willmott’s, wonderful critique of organisational culture : strength is ignorance; slavery is freedom. I thought that was a brilliant take on why people tend to push back on HR driven efforts to enforce a culture mindset- the  workshops and stuff that are held to promote it. I’m surprised that people in high places continue to be enamoured by this concept when they really should know better, having come up through the ranks themselves.

RC 

Yea, the question is whether they have come through the ranks themselves. A lot of them have come through MBA programmes or have been parachuted in. This is why, when I teach in the MBA, I try to teach this wider appreciation of culture because I know what the positivists are teaching – they are telling their students that culture is a good lever to get the kind of desirable behaviours that managers want.

KA 

Totally agree, the solution is to teach diverse perspectives instead of the standard positivist party line. I try to do the same in my MBA decision-making class – that is, I challenge the positivistic mindset by drawing students’ attention to the fact that in real life, problems are not given but have to be taken from complex situations (to paraphrase Russell Ackoff). Moreover, how one frames the problem determines the kind of answer one will get. Analytical decision-making tools assume the decision problem is given, but one is never given a problem in real life. So, I spend a lot of time teaching sensemaking approaches that can help students extract problems from complex situations by building context around the situation.

Anyway, we’ve been going for quite a bit, there’s one thing I absolutely must touch upon before we close this conversation – the use of irony in management. I know, your PhD work was around this concept, and it’s kind of an unusual take. I’m sure my readers would be very interested to hear more about your take on irony and why it’s useful in management.

RC 

I think we’ve set the stage quite nicely in terms of the cultural discussion. So what I was looking at in my PhD was a massive cultural change in an Australian company, a steelworks. We had unfettered access to the company for six and a half years, which is kind of unheard of. So anyway, one of the interesting things we noticed during our fieldwork was that everybody was identifying the same group of people as being the ones that were giving them the best information, were the easiest to talk, had the most  useful data sources, etc.

We then noticed that these people seemed to have an ironic sensibility. What does that mean? Well, they poked fun at themselves, their teammates, managers and the organisation…and indeed, even our research, but in very subtle ways. However, these people were also doing their work exceptionally well: they had more knowledge about what the hell was going on than anybody else in the company. Everybody liked them, everybody wanted to work with them, everybody was coming to them as problem solvers. You know, they had all of this interesting stuff happening around them.

So, what does it mean to have an ironic stance or an ironic sensibility in the midst of a shifting culture while doing quite complex work in challenging conditions? Well, there are three elements to it, firstly there’s there’s a perspective that you take, secondly there’s a performance that you give, and thirdly there’s a personality or character you develop.

The ironic perspective is that you see the gap between the rhetoric and reality, you see the gaps that most others do not. Then you’ve got this feeling that maybe it’s only you that sees the gap, and that can be quite scary. Especially if you’re trying to transmit that there’s a gap to powerful people who haven’t seen it,  and may even think everything’s going well.

How do you do this without losing your head?  And I mean that both literally (as in going crazy) and metaphorically as in losing your job.

That’s where the ironic performance comes in  – you say one thing while actually meaning something else. You’re trying to get people to deconstruct your message and work out where the gap is for themselves rather than confronting them with it and saying, “look, here is the gap”. So, this is where all the witticisms and the play on words and the humour come in. These are devices through which this message is transmitted in a way that helps the ironist keep her head – both metaphorically and in terms of her own sanity. These people are critical to the organisation because they call things out in a way that is acceptable. Moreover, since such people also tend to be good at what they do, they tend to have an outsized influence on their peers as well as on management.

So, our argument was that these folks with an ironic sensibility, they’re not just useful to have around they’re absolutely vital, and you should do everything you can to find them and look after them in the contemporary organisation.

KA 

So, there’s a clear distinction between a cynical and an ironic personality, because the cynic will call it out quite bluntly, in a way that puts people off. The ironists get away with it because they call it out in a very subtle way that could be even construed as not calling it out. It requires a certain skill and talent to do that.

RC 

Yes, and there’s a different emotional response as well. The cynic calls it out and hates it; the ironist expects it and takes joy in its absurdity.

KA 

So, the ironist is a bit like the court jester of yore: given licence to call out bullshit in palatable, even entertaining ways.

RC 

I like that. The original ironist was Socrates – pretending to be this bumbling fool but actually ridiculously sharp. The pretence is aimed at exposing an inconsistency in the others’ thinking, and to start a dialogue about it. That’s the role the ironist plays in achieving change.

KA 

That’s fascinating because it ties in with something I’ve noticed in my travels through various organisations. I do a lot of dialogic work with groups – trying to use conversations to frame different perspectives on complex situations. When doing so I’ve often found that the people with the most interesting things to say will have this ironic sensibility – they are able to call out bullshit using a memorable one-liner or gentle humour, in a way that doesn’t kill a conversation but actually encourages it.  There is this important dialogic element to irony.

RC 

It’s what they call the soft irony of Socrates – the witticisms and the elegance that keeps a difficult conversation going for long enough to surface different perspectives. The thing is you can keep going because in a complex situation there isn’t a single truth or just one right way of acting.

KA 

It gets to a possible way of acting. In complex situations there are multiple viable paths and the aim of dialogue is to open up different perspectives so that these different paths become apparent. I see that irony can be used to draw attention to these in a memorable way.  These ironists are revolutionaries of sorts, they have a gift of the gab, they’re charismatic, they are fun to talk to. People open up to them and engage with them, in contrast to cynics whose bitterness tends to shut down dialogue completely.

RC 

Yeah, and the conversation can continue even when the ironists depart. As an extreme example, Socrates chose to die in the final, ironic act of his life. Sure he was old and his time was coming anyway, but the way he chose to go highlighted the gap between principles and practice in Athens in an emphatic way. So emphatic that we talk about it now, millenia later.   

The roll call is long:  Socrates drank hemlock, Cicero was murdered, Voltaire was exiled, Oscar Wilde went to jail, Jonathan Swift was sent to a parish in the middle of Ireland – and so on. All were silenced so that they wouldn’t cause any more trouble. So there’s always a risk that however witty, however elegant your rhetoric, and however hard you try to keep these conversations going and get people to see the gap, there’s always a risk that a sword will be plunged into your abdomen.

KA 

The system will get you in the end, but the conversation will continue! I think that’s a great note on which to conclude our chat.  Thanks very much for your time, Richard.  I really enjoyed the conversation and learnt a few things, as I always do when chatting with you.

RC 

It’s been a pleasure, always wonderful to talk to you.

Written by K

March 29, 2021 at 7:35 pm

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