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Does the Change Plan Enable Effective Response to Emerging Issues?

Stephen Billing, February 28, 2009

In which change gets a life of its own and the plan gets in the way

I was once engaged to facilitate some change workshops to help an organisation implement new ways of working – what they were calling a new culture – it involved moving to a new building. These workshops were stage one of the change, and were to concentrate on the strategic picture, the vision of the organisation, and inspire them to see need for change, This was preparatory to more detailed workshops that would follow in stage two where the nuts and bolts would be worked through.

The workshops were highly designed affairs, designed in fact by a PR firm and included magnetic boards, glossy handouts with inspirational stories of pioneers, video with a well known comedian, fancy posters and other similar artifacts.

So, guess what the managers wanted to talk about in this workshop full of vision, inspiration, pioneering, and clever artifacts? Laptops – i.e. would they have laptops? Car parks, i.e. would they have car parks. And even, would there be space in the fridge to put their lunches? I kid you not – I couldn’t have made that up.

At the time, I was pleased to hear this stuff because I could hear issues relating to status and identify, which I wanted to explore.

However, the change project team could only hear "irrelevant detail," and was disappointed in the managers who were not supposed to be interested in these things until stage two, when logistics of this nature would be covered in the next series of workshops they had planned. The change project team, who knew the answers to these questions, did not want to talk about these things, which they dismissed as “detail.” I’m sure you can imagine the conversation “Those managers just do not understand the big picture – they’re only concerned about themselves.”

Sound familiar?

The managers were disappointed, feeling they could not get answers to their questions and that the project team were hiding things from them.

The project team was frustrated with me for not keeping it “strategic” enough.

And I was frustrated with the project team for having so much emphasis on the flash artifacts and not recognizing that when one of the General Managers said “Up until now I had not considered the impact of this on my people,” that this was a break through, not something negative, it was not resistance.

We have a problem in our thinking about change projects, which is that so often they are supposed to go according to the grand plan. And this means that after all the elaborate project planning and gantt charts, when things don’t go according to plan, such as when managers are interested now in where they will sit, instead of "strategic" things, project teams don’t have an adequate response.

If, instead, you are paying attention to what is going on NOW and responding to it in a genuine way in a spirit of ‘joint enquiry,’ then you will notice when people are interested in these other things and be able to flex with their needs, answer them and then carry on together.

Look, Ma, no resistance!


On the Relationship Between Organisation Development and Human Resources

Stephen Billing, February 26, 2009

Is Organisation Development part of Human Resources? Is Human Resources part of Organisation Development? Do they have no reporting relationship at all?

During my recent talk to the HR Institute, we discussed Organisation Development and how its reporting line relates to the HR function. In an earlier post, I suggested that Organisation Development in NZ at the moment tends to house a range of HR functions that have no other convenient home, such as Lominger competencies, Leadership and management development, engagement survey and others.

None of the participants worked in organisations with an Organisation Development function that was separate from Human Resources. I do think though that a lot of change projects are undertaken by project offices that may have change expertise in the project team. These are usually managed quite separate from the Human Resources function.

One of the things that emerged from my unscientific poll of the room through show of hands, was that quite a few organisations have Human Resources reporting to Organisation Development.

I think this is one of the problems facing Organisation Development. It has become such a vague and imprecise term that as many people think it is a subset of Human Resources as think that Human Resources is a subset of Organisation Development.

And then you’ve got the likes of me who think it is multi-disciplinary and therefore fits neither category.


The “Straw Man” – The Executive Team is Not the Dragon’s Den

Stephen Billing, February 24, 2009

I was meeting with a CEO discussing leadership programmes when he asked for the specialists to put together a draft programme, a "straw man" (straw person?) in a paper for discussion.

In response to this kind of request from a very senior person, staff, contractors and consultants often say "yes," think about the issue and put together a paper informed by their best technical thinking. After all, that is what they have been asked to do.

I have seen how papers of this nature are so often put up to decision makers, who, quite understandably (in my opinion), then reject them because they do meet their needs.

And when you think about it, how could people highly skilled in their technical discipline, associating with communities of other highly skilled technical people, develop papers to meet the business needs of executives whom they only meet in formal settings with strict agendas where time is very limited, they are on show and often not feeling comfortable? How could they have a good understanding of the subtleties, nuances and politics of a situation with such limited opportunity?

It is quite tempting for senior managers to get the technical experts to put together a draft paper like this, because at first blush this seems to be an efficient method. First, it gets the technical experts debating an issue and putting together their best thinking so that the executives can make the decision without having to spend a lot of time getting involved in the issue. Secondly, it puts the problem back onto technical people to come up with the solutions, and frees up executive time for other things. This also has the by-product of allowing the executive to feel that they can tick an issue off with minimum effort, which all seems to be very efficient.

Because I approach developing solutions as joint enquiry, I have a different perspective on this. (more…)


Employee Engagement Surveys – A Distraction from the Real Business

Stephen Billing, February 22, 2009

Once more on engagement surveys

Employee engagement surveys are attempts to measure how strongly connected with the orgsniation its staff are.

I was talking to a client in HR who pointed out that for a group like HR, the emphasis on engagement scores meant that HR was concentrating on measuring its engagement with itself.

For example, the leadership-type questions ask the respondent about his or her relationship with colleagues and manager, and the direction and tools provided.

There ain’t nothing about the customer in there.

To my way of thinking, the measures are important to the degree that they influence what people talk about together. This is because the patterns of what people talk about together actually constitute the organisation, so initiatives like engagement surveys can have a significant influence on the organisation itself. From this stand point, engagement surveys, which purport to measure an aspect of the organisation, actually construct the organisation through the influence they have on the patterns of conversation occurring in the organisation.

Employee engagement surveys influence managers to talk about the scores and how they can improve them. That sounds fair enough. But is this at the expense of your engagement with internal and external customers? As a manager you need to be focusing on both.

Good managers and teams will be talking with their teams and customers anyway. The engagement survey is an abstraction that purports to provide objectivity, although it amounts to nothing more than some anonymous ratings and comments. It diverts managers and staff to talk about the scores and the items on the instrument (it seems that NZers don’t really go for "I have a best friend at work"), instead of talking about what is going on in the ordinary everyday experience of the members of the team, with each other and their customers.

If your organisation has an engagement survey, then maybe you have to go along with it as part of being a manager. But don’t let it divert you from helping your people to make sense of what is going on for internal and external customers as well.


Organisation Development – HR, PR or White Space?

Stephen Billing, February 20, 2009

What the hell IS organisation development?

Over the last few days I have had fun writing my speech and thinking about story vs narrative. I want to return to the question about what OD is. In my last post about this (here), I suggested that OD is in danger of becoming an assortment of HR functions that don’t fit anywhere else. And this is a long way from the roots of OD in humanistic values and behavioural science.

Not that I’m enamoured of either humanistic values and behavioural science – while these were great breakthroughs in thinking at the time and created the field of OD, I feel that we are building on these foundations and that new insights, e.g. complexity science and in particular the complex responsive process thinking of Ralph Stacey enable us to radically develop the thinking that originally started OD as a discipline.

While OD seems to have become subsumed under human resources in many organisations, I have been thinking about the skill sets that it takes to do the difficult work of organisational change and development. A deep understanding of people in organisations is required, along with project management skills and the ability to communicate internally – which often means with large numbers of people in short time frames. A view of leadership seems to me to be important (is there such a thing as leadership? – see this guest post by Russell Ness) because it will inform how you work with the leaders of the organisation.

The internal communications part of OD is often downplayed, if not missing from the OD literature and I notice that PR people see this as their space. And yet in the past I have often written "communications strategies" that are very similar to those I have seen written by PR people.

As a discipline, PR sees internal communication as a logical extension of its work with external stakeholders. In fact if you see employees as another stakeholder group, it makes perfect sense to give PR the internal communications portfolio for your projects.

Unfortunately so many PR and communications people spend their time on the production of artifacts – being so concerned about production values, key messages and award-winning design that the actual point of the communication (making meaning of what’s going on) gets lost. However, OD people also fall into this trap, so this is not an indictment on PR and communications professionals alone, more a comment on the way PR, HR and OD people are thinking about their work in organisations. The tools and artifiacts are elevated in status and importance above regular interaction.

I am indebted to my colleague Robyn Hogg for her idea of working in the ‘white space’ on the organisation chart. She says that the white space is ONE of the places you can work in when ‘doing’ OD which she sees as working to develop an organisation’s health and functioning. She observes that this ‘white space’ is not on the  radar of many people, suggesting that this is because there are no recipes and you need experience to be able to pick up the cues.

This resonates with my own view that OD and its HR relatives pay too much attention to the formal organisation chart and communication lines and not enough to the informal. Robyn further points out that to be able to get into the ‘white space’ the OD practitioner needs a wide brief in which to operate, time for scanning and close enough relationships (which requires the ability to establish credibility) to fish out the good oil from people.

I love Robyn’s idea of the ‘white space’ because it is a graphic way of highlighting the informal rather than the typical formal communications that OD, PR and HR people usually focus on.

While we all know that there are informal networks as well as formal channels in any organisation, the disciplines of OD, PR and HR mostly concentrate on the formal channels. I think we can improve our effectiveness, no matter what discipline we come from, if we focus our attention deliberately more on the informal channels – if we pay more attention to the "white space."

Thanks Robyn.


Five Excellent Reads for Your Professional Development Bookshelf

Stephen Billing, February 18, 2009

If you have come to this blog after coming to the HRINZ session last night, here is a bonus extra for you. I mentioned a few authors and here are the references if you would like to do further reading.

There is also plenty to explore on this blog, there are about 90 articles (or posts) on here now. Please feel free to comment, or you can contact me through the contact page.

French W and Bell C (1995) Organization Development, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

This is the "bible" on Organisation Development that I mentioned. It has an excellent potted history of the field written by people who knew famous figures like Lewin, Likert, McGregor, Argyris, Blake and Mouton, many others.



Elias N (1978) What is Sociology New York: Columbia University Press

I mentioned the sociologist Norbert Elias whose writings about power, interdependence, involvement and detachment have played a big influence on my thinking. This is a good introduction to his thinking.



Shaw P (2002) Changing Conversations in Organizations London: Routledge

I’ve introduced Patricia’s book to several people interested in Organisation Development and it has proved a fascinating read for every single one. She gives narrative accounts of her OD consultingn practice and contrasts her way of approaching organisations with others such as living systems, open space technology, communities of practice.


Stacey R (2001) Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations London: Routledge

Ralph was the supervisor of my doctoral thesis and has written extensively on complexity in organisations. This book outlines his radical theory of complex responsive processes that has made such a difference in my own consulting.



Taptiklis T (2007) Unmanaging London: Palgrave McMillan

I have written about this book here. A very engaging book by a New Zealander, Theodore puts together ideas from a range of sources in an insightful way.


More on Narrative vs Story

Stephen Billing, February 16, 2009

A blinding flash of the obvious hits me in relation to the ‘narrative’ vs ’story’ discussion

Driving to work this morning I had a blinding flash of the obvious in relation to the story vs narrative question raised in previous posts where I express my preference for the term narrative over story (here and here).

I have talked about this preference in terms of my thinking that the term narrative seems less emotive and less ‘made up’ than the term story. And I have now realised that my preference is due to the fact that my doctoral thesis and book chapters I have contributed to two other books (Complexity and the Experience of Values, Conflict and Compromise in Organizations and Consultant-Client Collaboration: Coping with Complexity and Change), were all based on narrative accounts of my practice as a consultant in organisational change.

No wonder I prefer the term narrative when I spent three years of my life writing the equivalent of a book based on narrative. (We called it narrative not story). And I had to go to some lengths to justify why this narrative approach qualified as research, making me even more wedded to the term!

So it’s probably less to do with the ‘made up-ness’ of story, or the emotionality of the terms. And more due in part to the emotional attachment I personally feel to the term narrative given how much of myself I invested in these narratives and the ensuing research.


Story, Narrative, Emotion and Making it Up

Stephen Billing, February 14, 2009

In which emotion comes to the fore – no, I just made that up

I have had a couple of comments about my post a couple of days ago about the past being an ever changing narrative rather than a recall from long term memory like a computer (post is here).

We have a tendency to think of time as like a line with the past at one end, the future at the other end and the present as a point moving between the two. This tendency, reinforced by our experience of the world of computers leads us to think of our human memory as being a recall of never-changing factual data like a computer that retrieves a certain document that will never change once you’ve saved it.

In the post, I am saying that this is not how we actually experience time as we live our lives. Rather, we are constantly reiterating the past in story or narrative form that changes each time we tell the story.

The comments on the post have both picked up on my statement that I prefer the term "narrative" to "story." I said that stories seemed made up while narratives seemed less made up, and the comments have both pointed out that narratives are made up just as much as stories are. These comments have caused me to reflect on what I meant. I agree 100% that it is not accurate to say that there is less emotion in the term narrative. But somehow the term narrative, to me, seems more acceptable in formal settings and I think this is because it seems a less emotion-laden term.

Bernie White in his comment asks what I see as the role of emotion in narrative. To me the term "narrative" does seem less emotional and I would be more likely to talk about narrative in a board, academic or other formal setting. This led me to think about the place of emotions in our working lives – somehow to be emotional is a weakness, is not seen as being appropriate for professional situations. And this is why the formality of the term narrative appeals to me more for my work in business. Yet we are of course all human beings with emotions that figure very much in our professional lives as well as all other aspects of life. And emotions play just as much a part of any narrative we might tell as they do in any story (if in fact there is any difference in meaning between the two terms).

Chris Rodgers in his comment points out that the meanings we make of what is going on (in other words, our stories or narratives) are personally and socially constructed. In other words, they are made up. I agree with this. He also talks memorably of how we ‘stitch together’ various memories, experiences and interpretations through the narratives we construct with others in our everyday interactions, and how we talk about the past from the vantage point of the present. I think that the present is always changing, and so this changes, perhaps only in subtle ways, the story (or narrative!) we tell about the past.

Thanks Chris and Bernie for stimulating further thought on this.


Targeting Targets

Stephen Billing, February 12, 2009

In this post, our guest Dr Chris Mowles demonstrates the risk that in pursuing targets we may be missing the point.

To take a common sense view of targets might lead you to think that in the best case they are helpful, bringing focus to what staff should be achieving, and in the worst case they may be illusory, but at least they are motivating. Scholars have written in a similar way about strategic planning: surely the mere fact alone that strategic plans decrease anxiety amongst staff is a good reason for doing them, irrespective of whether strategic planning is really predictive.

Two recent incidents have led me to realise how much the setting of targets conditions what it is that it is possible to talk about and how this can cover over important facets of the work.

In a recent two day meeting set up to review the work of a social development organisation where I was a co-participant, the standard format for presentations about the work of the organisation was to review it as a series of discrete projects. Each presentation described the original objectives of an individual project, reviewed the milestones, then went on to discuss the next set of objectives and how they might be met. We spent no time discussing if, as a consequence of undertaking the work, we now understood what we were doing differently and how that would affect the new work we were considering doing next (see Stephen Billing’s posting on theories of time and my own posting on the same. [Ed note: Chris Rodgers has also posted on this topic]). We spent no time discussing the difficulties and dilemmas that meeting the targets had thrown up and what those would tell us about what we thought we were trying to do as an organisation. We spent no time talking about how we were working together and our differences in how we understood the tasks we had set ourselves. We found ourselves disaggregating the work and rushing towards an ‘end point’, with a will towards the future. I was also interested to notice how setting targets encouraged dualistic thinking: targets were either met or not met, projects were either on course on not on course, and participants were keen to ‘correct their mistakes’.

Of course it is important to cut the crap, but in the field of human development is it ever possible to say that a project is on course without taking a broader view of what we are doing? ‘On course’ according to whom? What does this target in this project mean for what we think we are trying to achieve in general?

In another institution, one that is concerned with education, a senior manager had written to the trustees demanding a pay rise. She had, she said, met all her targets, and therefore she was entitled to one. What struck me in this instance was the extent to which targets had individualised the work for her. She demonstrated no awareness of how achieving her targets may have been dependent upon the cooperation of her colleagues (nor was she lobbying for her colleagues to have their pay raised for meeting their targets). She expressed no concern about the general work of the institution. In this instance this particular senior manager has a reputation for so doggedly pursuing her targets that she alienates all those around her. You might make the case that she may have hit her targets but she has missed the point.

In any complex co-operative undertaking we are obliged to disaggregate what we are attempting to do and break it down into bite-sized, manageable chunks. We find ourselves abstracting and synthesising from the complex environment into which we are trying to act as a way of co-ordinating our activities. We may also be obliged to make a fist of predicting what we think is likely to happen and in what order: if it is helpful to call these predictions ‘targets’ then so be it. But the moment we forget that these are merely abstractions, best guesses in advance of immersing ourselves in the complexity of the task we are undertaking, then we engage with a poor shadow of the daily work. There is a danger that we doggedly pursue our imperfect ideas about what we thought we wanted without taking the time to check out whether we still want it, or realising just how imperfect our assessment was back then of what we now find ourselves doing.

What strikes me about both these incidents is how the focus on targets disaggregates, individualises, reduces and simplifies and renders the work either done or not done.  Whether what we have done is of sufficient quality, or whether we needed to have done this thing at all become secondary questions. At its worst, unquestioning pursuit of targets with all the anxiety that often surrounds the discussion, diminishes the work and covers over the important enquiry into what we think we are doing and why.

Contributed by Chris Mowles, whose blog ReflexivePractice also explores Ralph Stacey’s complex responsive processes and is well worth a visit.


Complexity and OD – Fully Booked

Stephen Billing, February 11, 2009


Apparently my presentation on Tuesday night is fully booked already. The notification only went out a week ago.