Sunday, April 21, 2013

Undercurrents, saboteurs and control freaks

Sometimes there is a complaint about undercurrents in an organization. Undercurrents that slow down a change and make the transformation difficult.

Find the saboteurs. Make undercurrents visible. An open culture of mutual respect and sincerity is a necessity to work efficiently and effectively together

Really? Or is this a selling point of control freaks who want to push their own agenda?

Undercurrents is nothing but the thinking and behavior of the informal organization. It is probably too abstract to talk about the informal organization. A better image might be that of a collection of many dynamic interactions between individuals and small groups in varying compositions. Dynamic interactions driven by both work, social and other related aspects.

IMHO this puts a different light on undercurrents. Dynamic means also flexibility. If an organization is a solid block is exactly the same thinking and acting, the other extremity, than any change is 100% impossible. The implicit claim is: informal organizations are precisely the mechanism by which changes will take place.

But it is even more than this. The formal organization is not so well suited to cope with incidents. We all know plenty of examples where a small crisis was quickly tackled. This happened in most cases not by the formal part of the organization. If you had to wait for the formal part ...

Consider also social aspects. A sudden death or a very joyful event. It is the informal organization that deals with this things. And it is this accumulation of 'incidents' (or lack of) that largely determines the 'bond' and also the resilience of the organization.

We all know that if a major change is needed, there are many undercurrents in the organization that consciously or not at work against it. Viewed from a top-down, autocratic leadership model this is very undesirable. Plenty and often popular organization theories have 'the solution'.

Interestingly, the more serious change and organizational experts tend to have a different view. Significant change can only be achieved by interacting in small groups on a local level (eg Caluwé, Weick). Not that strange because changing = learning.

I was involved in some high organizational impact projects. Many of these projects were under high pressure and everyone knew the need. And yet many of those projects initially failed to take off (otherwise I wouldn't be involved, kind of last resort thing). I have also worked on projects where many of the stakeholders didn't agree with the objective and yet we made it together to realize the change.

The lesson was, inter alia: take the undercurrents seriously. Don't pressure or manipulate the undercurrents, but help them to do this themself.

Saboteurs are trying to undermine a change. The reasons and motivations are diverse; and sometimes impossible even to figure out and put a 'reason' on it. Saboteurs are very good people blocking change. They are therefore essential for a change. They will ensure that the change is permanent.

Here, the same lesson tends to work nicely: take saboteurs seriously. Don't try to pressure or manipulate the saboteurs, but help them to do this for themself.

Control freaks
Also control freaks have their usefulness. Often they want with the best intention to realize a change. They want an ideal type of organization. Well in my eyes this is dangerous. The more transparent the organization, the aligned, the easier it is to control the organization. But the transparency and clarity creates rigidity and lack of diversity and thus a lack of innovation, flexibility and resilience.

What can we learn?
Ultimately it is as always a question of balance. There is no optimum there are only organizational killing extremities. Some situations require more control, other situations require more "freedom".

The only thing for managers and executives is, this is rarely at the organizational level. Often this is not even on a department or team level. It is not a hierarchical control problem, it is what is needed at that moment.

A healthy organization consists out of numerous small "liquid" organizational relationships. These relationships can be nurtured, these can be killed. Sometimes it is possible to 'direct the focus ... but you can not manage it. The paradox is, as soon as you can manage it is part of the formal organization and then it become rigid. How to direct the focus ...maybe through a 3.0 Consultant.

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