Policy or Bravery? The True Nature of Organizational Change


You have a grand vision for changing your organization, evolving for a new business world that is changing whether you go along for the ride or not. Inspired by possibilities, you rally a team to set change in motion.

Then you hit a brick wall. People don’t get it, or they think they do and they oversimplify the problem to kill your idea.

“We just need new policies.”
“We just need better training.”
“We need to be careful and not rush into anything too quickly.”

 So you switch to persuading, making your case, sharing metrics and quotes and it goes on and on and you still end up with the same reactions.

Does it sound familiar? Don’t negotiate with this kind of obstructionism. Don’t be hostile either. Don’t become cynical. Don’t subvert people. Don’t do anything you might be tempted to when you’re frustrated and your ego is hurt.

Take a step back and realize that immediate resistance to change is not generally rational. It’s not actually policy your detractors want, it is vision. Don’t give them what they’re asking for, keep giving them what got you motivated in the first place.

They need someone with a vision – and it doesn’t need to be boisterous or forceful to be compelling. Just tell a powerful story and stand up for it. Don’t be defensive, just paint more pictures. Keep telling the story. Be a broken record.   

Too Rushed To Know Where We’re Going


Job descriptions often call for individuals possessing a “strong bias for action”. Businesses almost always need more execution-focused employees.

So it is natural that we shape the way we talk and interact with co-workers according to this ideal.  One way we portray ourselves as driven by an urgency to act is to speak in simple and punchy generalizations that help summarize massive amounts of information and make it look as though the path forward, what should be done in response to the information, was almost obvious.

Sometimes the path forward is clear, but not always. At least once a year, if not once a quarter, we need to practice the discipline of self-doubt, questioning, putting it all on the table. Deconstruction is one of the most constructive things I do personally and professionally. 

Our company culture asks us to move quickly, especially during difficult times, but we also tend to make hasty generalizations and decisions simply because we’re sitting in a meeting full of puzzled looks and someone has to step forward and cast a vision for the road ahead.

And that vision usually starts with some pretty big assertions about the company, competition and the market context:

“We’re the kind of company that…and not the kind that…”
“X is what we do best, we have to stick to X…”
“Our competition is doing A, but we have to do B better and more efficiently”

But because they are so far-reaching and simple, generalizations can cover much more important and complex internal and external environmental factors that should be factored into our strategy.

It’s important we’ve thought deeply about those generalizations ahead of time and in great detail. Yes, we have to speak concisely and make blanket statements. But had better do our homework beforehand.

That’s where deconstruction comes into play.  Not everyone has the patience for it, but good leaders must thrive off of it.  The only way to refresh your strategy is to have the ability to pull it apart and see it for what it is. Without maintenance, the machine becomes obsolete, fragmented, confused and falls apart.

Action determines whether we move forward, but strategy determines where we’ll end up. So which is more urgent?

Revise, Improve or Hold?


Revise, Improve or Hold?We all have our defaults, some more cemented than others.

It seems that one of the most common defaults we all have is how we respond to challenges.  The three default responses tend to be either: revise, improve or hold.

The problem is, our preferred way of tackling a challenge is not always the best response.  As a universal rule, any one of these on its own would be disastrous. 

Constantly revising the fundamentals is a recipe for insanity. Constantly striving to improve things that are inherently finite in their capacity for improvement will drive you crazy too (while wasting a lot of your time). Clinging to the obsolete breeds mindless, mechanistic stagnation.

So what would happen if we embraced each situation on its own merits, soberly and patiently facing its unique attributes?

If we were to discipline ourselves to practice such delicate respect for nuance, we would see entire industries revolutionized. If we approached our own lives with this level of care, what then?

Walls: A Pattern for Healthy Organizations


There are a limited set of life-creating patterns that must be followed for systems and the people within them to thrive.

One of these patterns is walls, without which it is impossible to maintain the complex relational harmony among successive internal layers.

In an ecosystem, an organism, a cell, a building design, or an org structure, there are smaller, more nuanced and specific groups the further down you go. Groups are formed and hold together by distinct delineations (walls) of where one ends and another begins. 

This is a continuation of a previous post in which I touched on how cells retain a distinct membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

Utility of Walls

In a healthy cell, the necessary and beneficial ingredients needed for their function are kept in, while useless or harmful stuff is kept out. The term for this is selective permeability.

Cell membranes keep stuff that is too big from entering the cell.  That is to say, an effective team doesn’t intake a resource, function or responsibility that exceeds its size. The membrane also regulates frequency. How often do we fail to standardize and control what comes in and out of our business units?

Not only that, cells contain channels and transporters that actually have fairly specific molecules they are designed to pass in and out of the cell. If you can’t do it well or you are not “shaped” to take on the task, decline emphatically.  If you are ideally designed for the job, stop at nothing until you get it.

Aligning scope/scale/frequency and core competencies with inputs and outputs are the essential decision points for any healthy cell establishing its role within a system. Agility is impossible without this level of focused selection.

But so far I’ve mostly pointed out the utility of the cell membrane. The cell is only in the crudest sense like a machine.  Let’s not forget: machines imitate cells, not the other way around. By my analogy of the cell I am actually suggesting something much deeper than controlled systems.

Life Creating Properties of Walls

The cell membrane also creates a local environment for direct and rapid exchange.  Even in a business context, this is more than just the passage of information.

Having a defined functional, structural, financial, cultural and even spatially defined limit to your team is a critical pre-condition to feeling psychologically oriented as individuals and united as a group.

This directly impacts our motivation, focus and outputs. Place matters and the organization as a whole must support and respect these boundaries, giving teams the right to keep out inactionable meetings, unfocused conference calls, irrelevant metrics, wasteful spending, rabbit trails, meaningless corporate speak, bureaucratic sloth, pet projects and so on.

My central observation is that, for a group of individuals to produce life, to create a sort of musical harmony, to create unique and irreducibly complex instances of life, they absolutely must be selective, located, centered, protected, walled in.  

In one post I can’t possibly exhaust the analogy, but I hope I’ve touched on some aspects that invite your imagination. This post is more a scratch pad of clustered observations.

If you are intrigued as I am with the magic that happens with life is allowed to flourish at a small scale within a broader system, consider strong emergence theory in this context for future reflection on the magic of protecting teams. Christopher Alexander elaborates on the application of boundaries, walls, transition areas and centers to designing cities, building, homes and all sorts of spaces in A Pattern Language. It’s quite a fascinating work.

Lychnaspis Miranda; one of Haeckel’s incredible drawings of Radiolaria.

Yes, Philosophy is Practical.


The single most common question I get about my choice to study Philosophy is whether it is practical: “What do you do with that?”

My answer is – EVERYTHING.

Philosophy is a tool, but more than that, it is a more deliberate and deliberative way of using other mental faculties.

What exactly does Philosophy offer us?

  • Philosophy guides, organizes and disciplines our curiosity
  • Philosophy prompts us to ask about the nature of our world and how things work
  • Philosophy exposes our subjective bias and protects us from making hasty decisions
  • Philosophy helps us become more virtuous people (we need all the help we can get)
  • Philosophy trains us to constantly ask, “How could I approach this differently and do it better?”

With such obvious benefits, how could we not all choose to pursue Philosophy at some level?

Yes, there are those who think that perpetually playing the devil’s advocate and making snarky remarks is what philosophy is really about. There is no love of wisdom in that.

Real philosophy gets stuff done.

“But X is always a struggle for any company.”


… Which is all the more reason to give greater attention to the subtleties involved in addressing X.

We are all tempted to normalize mediocrity.  It is easy to dismiss common, pervasive, daunting problems in this way.

In our personal lives, the problems that feel to big to conquer, to complex to work through are usually the ones holding us back from meaningful growth. The same seems to be true of organizational sociology.

Just as with personal identity, organizational identity is formed by the aggregation of thoughts, words and actions of the organization. Over time, we begin to see the good, the bad and the ugly in our company and, unless challenged, these beliefs and attitudes cement and preclude the possibility of change.

So the next time “group think” takes over a meeting and demonstrates collective denial of a problem (and a possible solution), intervene! Your own future is at stake.

 

Living the Ethos of Customer Experience


I design user interfaces & workflows, communications, perform marketing analysis, and I work on developing brand identity.  It is easy to get disconnected from your customers when you’re interacting over a virtual medium of a website.

And when I ask friends in my field questions about the specific pain points, desires & needs of their customers (as they relate to the website), I almost always get a blank stare.  So it appears I am not alone in seeing the potential disconnect.

So, through mistakes and successes, I’ve jotted down a few things I’ve learned about the ethos of customer experience management:

  • Get Your Hands Dirty with Deep Customer Analysis – Without acute segment analysis, you might not even notice you have a customer retention issue. The inflow of new customer revenue sometimes covers up the loss of revenue from recently departed veteran customers.
  • Welcome Feedback – Provide ongoing platforms for direct customer feedback within your inbound channels of communication. Encourage honest feedback and continually reiterate and demonstrate a commitment to acting on customer feedback.  It builds trust, reduces customer frustration and feelings of alienation, demonstrates transparency and seriously contains issues from exploding into PR disasters so you don’t need to worry about reputation management on communication channels over which you have very little control.
  • Initiate One-to-One Contact  – Marketers shouldn’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to individual customers.   To improve customer retention, throwing out blanket apology emails can help, surveys can help, offering refunds through customer service channels can help, but it means a lot more to customers when marketers and other managers of customer experience proactively contact them with the express purpose of fixing their pain.
  • Create a Culture of Perpetually Re-evaluating Customer Experience – “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the antithesis of a customer-centric mindset.  There is always room for improvement in customer experience, so build a culture of ongoing revision and enhancement.  You’ll do a much better job of preempting customer service, satisfaction & retention issues. Rain or shine, evaluate retention.  Just because customers stopped complaining doesn’t mean the problem is fixed – it might mean they’ve given up and left already.