28 June 2011

Practices Makes (Im)perfect Organizational Transformation

I am in the process of outlining my next book, Conversations with Nishida: Organization, Leadership, and Transformation in a Complex World. In thinking through some of the themes to do with Transformation, I wrote,
Transformation is fundamentally distinct and different from mere change. All transformation reflects change; not all change is transformative. In these Conversations, it is crucial to maintain a clear distinction between the two. BAH can change and remain BAH. In fact, the overwhelming majority of change in the BAH organization – change that is managed through explicit change management interventions, modelled by such programs as Six Sigma, LEAN, or Agile, guided by a preconceived and targeted outcomes as opposed to effects – these changes rarely, if ever, effect organizational transformation, although the changes themselves usually have a significant effect on the organization and its members.


Organizational transformation, in the sense of these Conversations, is ontological—transformative change that affects the organization’s state of being in the world. Transformative change fundamentally shifts how an organization regards itself in relation to its various constituencies, and how its members constitute themselves in relation to each other…
As I reflect on the challenges of organizational transformation, I’m thinking about an organization that is in the midst of a major transformation of its organizational culture. As part of its evolution, the organization is beginning to adopt what I call Appreciative Practices (AP) to inform many of its collective and individual behaviours with respect to development, coaching, and correction. Appreciative Practices are derived from Appreciative Inquiry, a form of organization development intervention that focuses exclusively on strengths, and positive approaches to effect change. (Note: I link to Jackie Kelm’s site because the project in which I was involved used materials that she co-developed.)

In my work with the organization in question, I suggested that the content of their current practice of disciplinary action (that, as in most organizations, is characterized by a suitably ironic euphemism) could be replaced with an application of AP. The benefits are clear: using AP is more readily “hearable” by members who need coaching and/or correction; it focuses on improvements and specific desirable outcomes and effects, rather than errors and wrong actions (as in that old chestnut, “don’t think of an elephant” that makes you think of an elephant); and perhaps most important, it is less stressful and easier to deliver for the manager.

To my surprise, several people in the organization said that they could happily adopt AP for development and annual reviews, but discipline had to be… well, disciplinary! AP just doesn’t feel like an errant employee is being punished, and it is mandatory that they feel that they’ve done wrong.

In this instance, the transition from conventional discipline to AP in correcting and coaching seems to be not so much about changing the employee, but rather more about asserting legitimated organizational authority. Thus, part of effecting a transformation of a traditional organizational culture to one that is more consistent with the aims of AP (and more UCaPP as well!), involves understanding the power dynamics within the traditional structures, and how they must be equally and simultaneously transformed.

In traditional, BAH organizations, the control-resistance power paradigm is a closed, recursive, and iterative loop. Employee does wrong. Manager disciplines. Employee resents. Repeat. (Add the complication of a grievance loop in a unionized environment.) The more control, the more resistance, the more errant behaviours, the more discipline and control, and on it goes. (This, for example, captures the dynamics of the Toronto Transit Commission, and many government workers across all three levels.)

How to break out of this seemingly never-ending loop of power-control-resistance that is fuelled by conventional disciplinary actions, and threatens to stifle the transformed culture? In organizational transformation, the members must first transform their construction of identity, that is the Identity-valence relationship that they mutually create with the organization among its various constituencies. When one constructs oneself as a surrogate for an authority figure (think, “parent” or “teacher”) that metes out discipline, it is unavoidable that a manager will easily give up this fungible aspect of Identity-valence. However, enabling members to first transform towards Identity-ba – one who creates an environment of shared values, sensibilities, and volition to common action – enables an environment in which Appreciative Practices will create the desired behavioural changes without coercion. More important, as the overall environment changes, “misbehaving” employees who choose not to change will soon realize that they do not belong. Employing traditional disciplinary actions in the midst of a BAH-to-UCaPP culture transformation undermines the process by signalling an ambivalence, that the transformational culture is merely nominal, only words with no substance.

Another reason that organizational culture transformation must begin with the leadership.

1 comment:

Mark said...

This is part of the book about which I asked, "would you read this book?"