Why aren’t organisations shifting? Event highlights

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Why aren't organisations shifting? Event highlights

Yesterday a group of practitioners and work transformation enthusiasts gathered for an Open Space event hosted by Caterfly to discuss the question: why aren’t organisations shifting?

I’d like to share some highlights from the conversations I was involved in.

Can you shift an organisation from within?
One delegate shared an incredibly positive story about how he has been using Liberating Structures to facilitate change in his department of 50. Slowly but surely, he’s been able to effect change by giving a voice to employees and feeding critical issues and ideas upwards. It’s a work in progress and there have been some challenges but his plan is to develop a ‘Teal bubble’ (see this Q&A article with author Frederic Laloux for a definition of Teal). It was an inspiring example of someone experimenting and impacting the culture and mindset of an organisation from the bottom up.

We heard another story from the opposite end of an organisation – the CEO. She told us how she joined a voluntary organisation and started by speaking individually to employees to build trust. It became clear that the company needed a set of values to live by so she involved the whole company, across levels and functions, to co-create them. The process of whittling them down from many to just six was the most valuable part of the exercise, and she deliberately distanced herself from the activities so as not to impose. As CEO, she could have written the values herself or enlisted the HR department to do it (and I’m shocked at how many times I hear this happening in other organisations!) but she truly enjoyed the energy that was generated from the whole team designing their values together. Before long, the values were being discussed in meetings and everyday conversations, helping to guide behaviour and decision-making.

We also discussed how difficult it can be to influence a shift when the CEO or management team is stuck in a traditional mindset. Frederic Laloux himself writes that for a Teal organisation to thrive, “the chief executive must have an integrated world view and psychological development consistent with the Teal paradigm.” The same goes for owners and board members. Without this, it can become a frustrating battle of one step forward, two steps back.

The Human Organising Festival
In the next session, we discussed ideas for a new kind of event – The Human Organising Festival, planned for Spring 2016. Why is our education system so soulless and destructive? Why is it so hard for leaders to be vulnerable and share their mistakes openly? Why have so many people resigned themselves to the fact that work is dull? How can we organise ourselves better as humans in our education, work, political and social systems? All of these questions will be explored in a celebratory day with events happening simultaneously all over London. The energy and enthusiasm in this discussion was electric which for me indicates that there is a real need. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could spark a global movement?

Songs and stories to ignite the human spirit
One of the leaders of this discussion shared an example of how she had used Joseph Campbell’s ‘the hero’s journey’ as a framework to help and inspire women returning to work after maternity leave. Others in the group shared their own personal stories that had created a shift in their lives and it was incredible how quickly it generated a personal connection between us all. The power of story is that by sharing something personal, you make it universal.

We discussed what it would be like in organisations if leaders and team members shared their stories in this way to illustrate why they joined the organisation, or why they care about a particular. It would be a short cut to purpose and connection and create an authenticity that is so often lacking in the workplace.

Does a shift require a shift in organisation design?
I was curious to know if organisation design was a necessary element in creating a real shift, and whether a shift is really possible if the company is structured as a hierarchy. Frederic Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organisations‘, Salim Ismail’s book ‘Exponential Organisations‘, and research by WorldBlu are just some of the current works that suggest the future of organisations isn’t pyramid-shaped!

Some delegates shared examples of Teal or Agile units existing within a hierarchy (what Jacob Morgan calls ‘Flatarchies‘), but we concluded that without an aligned mindset at the top of the organisation, these will always be separate and the results limited.

Holacracy was mentioned several times as one of the alternative structures to hierarchy. There are many benefits to the system such as increased autonomy and agility, and similarly there are some challenges – some of the critiques are the length of time it takes to learn the system and its sometimes alienating language. In a conversation after the event, I expressed my concern that people are jumping on holacracy as the only alternative to hierarchy when there are many others. Holacracy itself is based on sociocracy which has received less press attention but shares common principles.

It reminded me of an interesting conversation on the Reinventing Organisations Discourse platform where Daniel Tenner (founder of GrantTree) said this:

“I think that looking for a pre-packaged system is self-defeating, since one of the fundamental features of Teal/Open cultures is their openness to change, and pre-packaged systems don’t teach people how to learn and change and take responsibility for it all.”

He explains more fully in this blog that there are no short-cuts to a cultural shift and in any case, culture should and will always be changing. Many people complain to me about the cult of Teal or holacracy or express frustration at the fact that many of these systems aren’t new, they just have jazzy new names.

My response is inspired by my brief career in the travel industry where one of the perks was travelling to Laos. One particular day I was walking around Luang Prabang with an ex-monk who told me the story of Buddha and the moon. One of Buddha’s teachings goes something like this:

“My teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon.”

So for me, it’s not about getting hung up on the latest ‘finger’ pointing at the moon, but to always be journeying in search of the moon. Every organisation is unique and must find its own way to evolve. As Tony Hsieh says, “A great brand or company is a story that never stops unfolding.”

Overall, the event was exciting. One of the most energising things for me was the coming together of many different groups and communities, all of whom are striving for the same thing: to make work better.

Finally, for the benefit of those who weren’t able to attend, here is a list of those communities (apologies if I miss any – please add them in the comments) and resources that I hope will help accelerate the shift in organisations that the world needs.

And some useful resources:

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