A Powerful Tool for Organizational Analysis and Design (Part 3)

In my first two articles about this topic I described how to use the concept of open vs. closed organizations in order to gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses an organization possesses. To help a company transform successfully a change manager must adjust the organization appropriately so that its form is optimally matched to its function. I also covered a case study to show how the model worked on one of my own projects.

In this third and last installment I want do provide a little more of a deep-dive and cover the expression of an open and closed culture in different aspects of an organization. Hopefully this will allow you to record your own observations and build your own diagnostic capabilities when it comes to analyzing culture.

Don Harrison with AIM defines corporate culture as “the collective pattern of behaviors, values, and unwritten rules developed over time.”

Behavior of members of an organization is easy to spot; it is demonstrated in observable actions and guides operations on a daily basis. It is reflected in the structure of an organization, such as a functional organization versus a matrix organization. It can be tracked through organizational charts, ways of working or HR policies and typically is readily discussed.

The shared values of an organization are its underlying, driving beliefs to which anyone can refer, either as a guide to action or as a justification for having taken action. They are essential to personal and organizational integrity and provide guidance for making and implementing strategic decisions.

Unwritten rules determine what members of the organization perceive to be successful behaviors. These successful behaviors become replicated over and over until they become “the way we do things around here”. The rules are generally not openly debated and therefore very powerful. They are harder to lay open than the observable behaviors or the underlying values of an organization.

It follows, therefore, that if we want to assess whether a client’s culture is primarily open or closed we should look to the behavioral aspect of culture. Some dimensions that suggest themselves are how people perform their jobs, how they interact with one another, how the organization focuses on what is important and how it is structured.

As you conduct a culture audit and speak with stakeholders pay attention to the following information:

 Observations about people’s jobs – open vs. closed:

  • There are many ways to achieve performance vs. there is only one sanctioned way to do the job
  • Only the most critical aspects of jobs and methods are specified vs. jobs and methods are specified to the greatest extent possible
  • Jobs require a variety of skills and knowledge and training and development are lifelong vs. jobs are narrowly defined and training periods are short to enable quick placement

Observations about how people interact with one another – open vs. closed:

  • People work in groups to assure interaction and problem solving vs. people work mostly by themselves to minimize distraction
  • People stress the importance of work-life balance vs. people believe that working hard and going “above and beyond” is important
  • Emphasis is on self-organizing teams vs. emphasis is on leadership
  • Managers stress self-motivation and self-responsibility vs. managers stress clear goal-setting and control
  • Diversity in race, world view and gender tends to be higher than the industry norm vs. diversity in race, world view and gender tends to be lower than industry norm

Observations about how the organization focuses on what is important – open vs. closed

  • Mistakes are controlled as near as possible to the point of origin vs. mistakes are controlled by specialized functions if they cannot be eliminated
  • Information goes directly to the point where action can be taken vs. information flows up the management hierarchy for decision-making
  • Daily behavior is primarily motivated by high-level vision and strategy vs. daily behavior is primarily driven by policy and procedure

Observations about the structure of the organization – open vs. closed

  • The structure is mainly purpose and issue-based vs. the structure is fairly bureaucratic and mainly function-based
  • Decision-making is based on knowledge and expertise vs. Decision-making is based on power and status
  • Role descriptions are flexible and people self-determine their career path vs. detailed role descriptions and clear rules for promotions and advancement
  • Hierarchies tend to be flat and job-titles are fairly unimportant vs. a complex, many-tiered organization with emphasis on specific job titles

During your analysis you will rarely find a client who expresses culture in only an open or a closed way, but you will be able to see markers that give you an overall idea what you are dealing with.

Keep in mind that neither an open or a closed culture are inherently good or bad as long as they are the best fit for the function the organization or a group within the organization has to perform: if a team works regularly under hazardous conditions where strict rules and protocols need to be followed to ensure every team member’s safety it should adopt a more closed style of organization since the ad-hoc style of behavior typically associated with an open culture could endanger people’s lives.

As a change manager reserve judgment during your observations, seek to understand what the organization wishes to achieve and then determine with your client which aspects of their culture currently present obstacles to the proposed change and which ones could be used as levers to drive change – remember: “Form follows Function”!

A Powerful Tool for Organizational Analysis and Design (Part 2)

In my first article about this topic I described how to use the concept of open vs. closed organizations in order to gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses an organization possesses. In order to help a company transform successfully a change manager must adjust the organization appropriately so that its form is optimally matched to its function. Read Part 1 here!

In this article I will go over a case study and show how the model worked on one of my own projects by allowing me first to understand my client and then to successfully help them to adapt to change.

A few years ago I was able to use my analysis on a healthcare Program Management Office (PMO) project. My client wanted to establish a hospital-wide PMO for all of their IT functions, but felt that this kind of centralization would be a very hard sell, because many departments within the hospital had grown their own IT functions over the years: people who were embedded within different teams and had implemented a wide variety of tools and processes.

During interviews with many of the project stakeholders, managers, IT staff and HR personnel I found that the hospital was mostly influenced by financial and cost considerations. Teams judged their employer to be very bureaucratic in its way of working. Procedures were important, job roles for healthcare staff were very clearly described, regulations won out over discretionary judgments and hierarchies mattered. Overall the organization was seen as more cautious in its approach, rather than risk-taking. Interviewees also gave high scores to loyalty as a value in their working environment. All of these markers led me to conclude that overall the organization had more traits of a closed model than an open model.

Closed organizations organize from within rather than being driven mostly by outside factors, and the financial and cost considerations reinforced this assessment. Rules, risk-aversion, hierarchy and chain-of-command are also hallmarks of a closed organization and the feedback I got highlighted all of them.

Interestingly enough as I drilled down into how the IT team members perceived their own team culture I also came across some of the characteristics of more open organizations. People felt that priorities did not stay stable but could change very quickly. Most participants agreed that their workplace was a highly political environment, to the extent that it affected performance. Interviewees also highlighted that their way of working was customer-driven to a very high extent, that the organization was quite idealistic and that they would always go the extra mile to help hospital staff do their jobs and save patients’ lives. They also preferred consensus building when faced with the need to make a decision.

Generally one can find conflicting leadership directives, jostling for power and influence and the value of consensus over unilateral decisions in more open organizations. The same is true for a focus on customer needs, because this is an outside determinant, unlike the more internal financial considerations.

Overall the survey presented the picture of a large organization with a slight tendency towards a closed culture that managed to rally people behind it and inspired loyalty, but which for their IT teams failed to provide the associated focus, clear accountability, leadership and swift decision-making they needed in order to provide the best service they could to their customers.

If I placed this dynamic against the proposed change: the implementation of an overall IT PMO my analysis alerted me to several mistakes I would need to avoid and some powerful change drivers I needed to maximize if I wanted my stakeholders to believe that the PMO would be a win for them and not a threat.

My team had to tread carefully so they would not be seen as introducing yet another layer of bureaucracy. Instead we needed to sell the PMO as a way to shorten decision times, keep directives and requirements stable over time so people could do their jobs and establish clear lines of communication.

It was important to stress that a PMO would help everyone to be able serve their customers better. We set up a structure of standardized customer surveys and customer feedback that we used to report on projects and evaluate project success.

We also decided to make speed of decision making a Service Level Agreement between IT customers, project managers, hospital leadership and the PMO.

Establishing a clearly documented governance process and empowering IT project managers as well as the PMO director to request that everyone followed it reduced some of the politics and behind-the-scenes strong-arming that people had used before to get their pet projects implemented or prioritized over other needed work.

This also became a strong selling point of the PMO to hospital leadership. Because of their focus on financial performance we could show them how in the past IT initiatives had worked against each other and resulted in either only partial results or had even actively reduced the value of other projects. The gate-keeper function of the PMO would largely eliminate this since all projects would be assessed and their impact understood and they could no longer fly under the radar.

The PMO became an important tool to increase accountability and acknowledge and reward the appropriate people behind project success.

In line with the habit of the organization to maintain very clearly defined job roles for doctors and nurses including mandatory training, qualifications and levels of authority we generated a similar structure for our IT project staff which helped project managers to get the appropriate training, eliminated the phenomenon of the “accidental” project manager, allowed HR to make better hiring decisions and attracted better project management talent to the organization.

Overall we tapped into the elements of a closed organization that were already in place to build a robust structure while avoiding to be perceived as yet another layer of useless red tape. We also could use this rigor to remove some of the dysfunction of the more open environment that the IT staff inhabited while using their strength of customer focus as the rallying point behind the new processes that we put in place.

One of the lessons I have learned by working with this model over the years is that organizational models usually attract and retain the kinds of people that enjoy them: closed organizations are sustained by people who like clear boundaries and the stabilizing effects of following processes and routines. They want to understand their own role and responsibilities and have clearly defined relationships with their team-mates, managers and customers.

Open organizations will also attract their own set of employees – they enjoy more of a free-form way to organize themselves, the ability to try out new things, to have a more fluid role and to collaborate spontaneously rather than follow a pre-defined way of working. I sometimes think of it as the start-up mindset, because I have seen these kinds of people leave once an organization reaches a certain level of maturity and needs to introduce more clearly defined processes and standards just to remain manageable. You’ll happily find them joining the next start-up.

In this there is also a lesson for change managers: shifting an organization from open to closed or from closed to open can be done, but client leaders must be aware that if the transition is extreme there will be a price to pay in increased attrition.

It would be quite disruptive to change a relatively closed organization into an open organization over night. Employees would feel insecure, overwhelmed by choices and responsibilities, swamped by the amount of delegation they are facing, and unable to cope with the plurality and conflict of their new environment.

In the opposite situation, stakeholders would resent the loss of freedom, the need to suddenly follow orders, the amount of control that’s taken away from them, and the loss of their individual voice and uniqueness. This is particularly true if the change is following in the tracks of a transition from one company to another during a merger or acquisition.

Change managers need to be aware of these dynamics and talk openly with their clients about some of the people risk involved during far-reaching transformations, such as losing valuable talent.

A Powerful Tool for Organizational Analysis and Design (Part 1)

Louis Sullivan: Carson, Pirie, Scott Building; Detail

The architect Louis Henry Sullivan who taught Frank Lloyd Wright and developed the concept of the tall steel skyscraper in 19th century Chicago famously coined the phrase “Form follows Function”. He tried to break free of the old school approach of making skyscrapers look like French chateaus or gothic cathedrals and believed that the design of a building should reflect its purpose and not try and pretend to be something else.

In Change Management, and particularly its discipline of Organizational Design this tenet is still eminently valuable and important. A hospital emergency room has to be structured differently from a technology company’s research and development department; a start-up will have processes and leadership practices that will distinguish it from a legacy company that has been in a specific market for half a century.

A concept that will help a Change Manager to analyze the kind of organization they find themselves in and then determine how it may need to be shifted in order to optimally serve its function is based on one of the concepts developed by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. In The Open Society and Its Enemies he laid out the concept of an open vs. a closed society.

Popper developed this approach for the realm of political philosophy and as a strong defense of a free and democratic society, but sociologists have since taken the concept into smaller units of human interaction, such as religious communities, organizations and companies and have developed it into a very helpful analysis tool. I came across it several years ago during a seminar in Germany held by Prof. Diether Gebert of the Technische Universitaet Berlin and have found it to be a great concept in Change Management ever since.

While Popper’s original thoughts gave the open society model superiority over the closed model the approach I have been using provides even weight to either form of organization, because in their tempered version we encounter them both every day and they each have their own advantages and flaws.

The analysis tool postulates that human beings organize themselves along a continuum with two very extreme end states. On the one side we find the open model with its extreme end state of complete anarchy where all rule of law fails, everyone looks out for themselves and we have no guiding principles that would put any curb on what people can and cannot do. On the other side we find the closed model with its own rather unlivable extreme of absolute totalitarianism where everything, including people’s thoughts is prescribed and the slightest deviation from the norm is punishable by death.

Obviously most organizations that would require the services of a Change Manager will not be stuck in these dystopian scenarios, but anyone who has worked as a consultant has sometimes shaken their head at the chaos and dysfunction of one of their clients or groaned in frustration at the complexity and tedium of some red tape they have encountered somewhere else. They have seen examples of the kinds of open and closed systems we are surrounded by every day.

If we return to our Louis Sullivan quote of “Form follows Function” we can see that each organizational model has its own strengths and weaknesses and depending on the function an organization wishes to fulfill it may have to adjust its current state from open to closed or vice versa.

In general open organizations are characterized by fairly democratic and participatory processes. Hierarchies tend to be flat, everyone is encouraged to weigh in and to a certain extent define their own job role and the work force tends to be fairly diverse. Organizations like this may also be pretty invested in encouraging flexible work hours or work by remote teams. Often “younger” or smaller organizations fit this profile.

Closed organizations value clarity of direction and clear objectives, and strong leaders or a single visionary CEO will be setting the agenda rather than all of the employees participating in this process. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and there are rules and processes for how to do things. Efficiency is valued above exploration. These organizations can be “older” and are generally large enough to have established hierarchies. People are encouraged to identify strongly with the organization, spend time at the office and cultivate a sense of corporate identity.

While these two ways of organization convey very specific strengths to a company they also have some down-sides – remember at their extremes they promise anarchy or total supervision and conformity. An open organization can descend into chaos. Individuals may pursue selfish goals rather than act for the good of their team members or the good of the company and it may take forever to come to consensus to make a binding decision.

Closed organizations can become very rigid and if their leadership pursues unsound goals and ideas they can fail without anyone daring to question increasingly toxic decisions. Since leaders are also unlikely to fly in the face of their own success they tend to be more focused on the status quo rather than try something new. Because of their focus on protocol and process and asking for permission rather than forgiveness they can also evolve elaborate bureaucracies that slow people down.

To complicate matters some organizations also have “micro-climates”, for example a fairly open organization in a heavily unionized market may have a very closed HR division due to the many rules and regulations that need to be observed. A fairly closed organization may still have a very open marketing  department, because they want to encourage innovation and a collaborative work style rather than top-down leadership.

What is important for a Change Manager is to try out the model to get their bearings when they start analyzing and interacting with an organization or part of a transformation. Depending on their findings they will be able to both put problems into context as well as understand an organization’s strengths. This will allow them to define levers as they begin to implement strengths and to anticipate risks or issues.

In my next article I will talk about some case studies and show how the model worked on some of my own projects by helping me first to understand my clients and then to successfully shift their “form” so it would fit their new “function”.