Some Final Thoughts

20151104_144313This is the 63rd post in OUCH! The Misfit Between Theory and Experience in Organizations. It’s also the last post in what will soon be an eBook. But certainly not the last post on this particular topic I’m quite sure!

In many ways writing these posts has been about getting my thinking straight and as coherent as possible in terms of my perspective on organizations and our experience within them. To that end things have gone well!

In addition, as I have written these posts I seem to have become more sensitive to the amount of OUCH! in organizations and the multitude of things that cause it.

As an example, some time ago I was sitting in a large room listening to a senior talent management executive talk to about 50 or 60 people about what they were doing on the talent management front, right from recruiting, onboarding, development, retention and succession. Pretty much the entire gamut of an experience in an organization. What they were doing was also pretty much leading edge in this area; managing the employee experience from arrival to retirement.

I knew this person and it was nice to hear them talk about their leading edge work. Yet as I sat there I began to wonder, really wonder, what would happen if they simply stopped doing all of it!

I came to the conclusion that not much of anything would happen.

Of course there would be some transition to this place where none of this happened but pretty quickly those people listening to this presentation would figure out their own ways of managing their experience from arrival to retirement in their organizations. They didn’t need to have their experience ‘managed’.

However, we seem to have come to a place in organizations where we think and feel it is necessary to ‘manage’ everything. We no longer even think whether or not this adds any value, yet alone causes OUCH! and real damage.

As I began writing OUCH! I had a perspective that a lot of the reasons for this was our unquestioned assumption that we can ‘manage’ to a state of certainty. More or less 62 posts have illustrated and reflected on this. I still agree with this perspective.

As I come to this final post however I wonder if we may look back 50 or 100 years from now and recognize that these things we do in organizations that cause so much OUCH! are simply another form of an attempt at social control.

Not much different from the rules of behavior in the Courts of royalty from hundreds of years ago. Not much different than the rules of religion. We look back now and see many of these rules as nothing more than an effort by those in power to manage and control those not in power. At the time these things were not seen as this, they were seen as ways to create and maintain stability; certainty, of a particular way of life.  And many of these ‘rules’ created huge amounts of OUCH!. Yet of course you were not allowed to talk about that; that was one of the rules!

Changing these rules, these patterns, these left loops was not easy then and it is not easy now. Do we need a revolution? Perhaps, perhaps not. Do we need resistance? Definitely!

As I sat down to write this last post I assumed I needed to end this writing with some powerful insight, some moving words that would capture the essence of this work.

But it seems this is not the case. I will simply close with a question.

What will you do to reduce the OUCH! in your organizational experience?

You Will Be Compromised…

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I have worked in and with organizations for 40 years now (wow, time does fly)! Over that time there have been numerous times where I felt like I was doing something that just ‘didn’t feel right’; for me.

For example, going back to the scenario I began these posts with, the ice cream plant, you may recall we ended up doing a budget based on the assumption of hot weather. When that didn’t occur we ended up in a position of having to lay people off for a period of time. Some of those laid off were high seniority people who had never been laid off before. I was a new supervisor so now a member of ‘management’ in this unionized environment. I would not be among those laid off. I had come from that unionized environment so a year earlier I would have been laid off as well.

I can still clearly remember having to go around the plant floor and hand out layoff notices to people I knew well. It did not feel right; for me. I felt like I was doing something that compromised me in some way, even though it was perfectly acceptable and even expected in this organizational scenario.

That was about 37 years ago and since that time I have not met a single person who does not have their own personal story, similar in some fashion to mine.

Does this make us bad people? Not strong enough to live up to our personal standards or values? Does it make organizations demons simply waiting to make us feel lousy?

I choose to look at it this way. As I have noted in previous posts there is a fundamental difference in the purpose of organizations and the purpose of people:

  • The purpose of an organization is to be a viable economic entity.
  • The purpose of a person is to express identity.

It is this fundamental difference in purpose that makes personal compromise inevitable in our organizational lives. I would say that for me, most of these compromises don’t make me a bad person or ethically weak. It is simply part of the economic game that is the purpose of organizations and for most of us we need to play this economic game.

So it is not helpful to participate in organizational life, blaming organizations for having a purpose that is quite different from us as people. It is also not helpful to heap guilt or shame on ourselves for feeling compromised; it is inevitable.

But the reason these things are not helpful is that they become distractions, perhaps even unconscious or convenient distractions from recognizing, reflecting on, and trying to change things that ARE more serious compromises.

In light of having to distribute those layoff notices it was quite easy for me to think that this is just what being in an organization is when you don’t meet your budget and we all know that. It was part of my job to hand out these notices. I could easily forget that the cause of this was primarily the ridiculous and OUCH! filled budgeting process! Could I do anything about that? At the time, that question did not even cross my mind.

So while it is important not to blame the game for having the rules it does, and not blame ourselves for playing the game, it is just as important to really question the rules of this game we all play and try to change them when we think the compromises are important.

A lot of what these posts have been about, the OUCH! in our organizations are things that DO compromise people. Compromise people significantly, and for the most part we are willing participants in this compromise. And our left loop to deal with this compromise is to exist in environments that we have filled with blame, shame and guilt.

So again we find the need for balancing. Balancing the need to be gentle with ourselves as we participate in organizations that compromise us, and the need to be ferocious in our efforts to see and change the causes of those compromises.

Reflect on Power

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The last three posts have looked at ways of taking our own small steps in reducing OUCH! in our organizational lives. This post continues by looking at something that is best ignored if you are trying to convince someone, or believe that you can design certainty. That something is power.

Power is present in every second of our lives and yet overall it is rarely dealt with in mainstream understanding of organizations. The reason power is best ignored in mainstream understanding of organizations is that it is the primary thing that throws a wrench into this idea of creating certainty. Power, in a very fundamental way is the most significant output of our gestures and responses, the actual way the interaction model plays out in our day to day lives.

Interaction Model

There are almost endless ways of considering and understanding power and the processes in which it affects us. Within the interaction model power can be considered fairly simply. The way we use power is identified in the gestures we use and the way we are affected by power is the way it affects our responses. The dynamic of power is the interplay between gestures and responses in any given interaction.

For example if you are reading this, you are reading my gesture. That gesture has a certain power in that it is affecting your responses such as taking up your time, perhaps influencing your thinking, perhaps helping you to sleep! You may respond back to me with a comment and it would be your specific response that I would respond to that would identify the ongoing dynamic of power emerging between us.

As you can see power is at play all the time, and it is at play primarily and most practically through our ongoing gestures and responses.

There are two important reasons to reflect on power in an effort to reduce OUCH! in our organizational experience:

  1. Power is often ignored in mainstream understanding of organizations.
  2. Understanding how power plays out for us as individuals gives us the potential for more considered gestures and responses.

In the last post I said once you have asked for evidence (and typically do not get any) regarding something you are being asked to do producing the result espoused, that you have a choice; keep pushing or not. This is a recognition of the real and important power that will be at play in your specific situation.

Most mainstream approaches to situations like this will ignore this power and you will be given the ‘tools’ or the impression (subtle or not) that you should keep pushing! After all, only by ‘keeping pushing’ could you create the certain result you want! Well, the power at play in these situations is the most real and important thing happening! Much more important than any tool or impression. And that power can negate any plan for certainty! It should not be ignored to any degree!

When you do not ignore power you have the opportunity to consider the most important dynamic happening between people in organizations; how power is affecting the gestures and responses of people as they move along in their day to day organizational lives.

From here you can reflect on your own gestures and responses, and those of others and consider them; ask why they are what they are, ask if perhaps they can be different, how you might alter your gestures and responses to affect change. You can consider yourself and those around you in a much more practical way, one that may be very difficult but also has less OUCH!

I encourage you over the next while to really reflect on the power at play in your work environment. Consider how your power shapes your gestures, how you respond to the power in the gestures of others and how the dynamic of power has both patterns and uniqueness for you.

You may find that you begin to understand you, and your work experience quite differently.

 

 

Be Critical and Ask for Evidence

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The last two posts have looked at changing our perspectives about the formal things we do in organizations and the expectations we have about our interactions. Changing our perspective tends to be an internal and reflective process. This post is about taking those perspectives and making them more visible. More visible when confronted with OUCH! producing activities. It is about saying things are full of shit (as noted in the last post) but through gestures that may produce responses that keep things moving forward!

There an awful lot of OUCH! producing activities built into our organizations and thrust upon us by so called ‘experts’. Due to this I think it is best to adopt a critical perspective about most mainstream and formal things that happen in organizations. This way you are constantly looking for the subtleties that so easily can slip by us and end up creating OUCH!. This doesn’t mean you have to be always negative or resistant, just be very sensitive to those things that are asked of us, or we are exposed to that create OUCH!.

What might some of these things be? In terms of the interaction model it will be anything that eliminates  or ignores the left facing arrow in the gesture response dynamic, anything that eliminates or ignores the bottom right arrow in the right loop ( the arrow depicting a change of intentions based on present interaction).

Interaction Model

When these two parts of the interaction model are eliminated or ignored it is the clearest sign that what you are being asked to do or being exposed to is somehow supposed to create certainty and this means OUCH! at a very real and personal level.

Some common examples of things that do this:

  • Almost anything that has a certain number of ‘steps’ that when taken are supposed to end up with some concrete result.
  • Almost anything that has a defined end point that is supposed to be reached by someone who has organizational power.
  • Almost any single learning event that is supposed to change behavior or produce a concrete result.
  • Almost any acronym that when applied is supposed to create a result of some kind (this is a variation on the first point).
  • Almost any set of behaviors that are supposed to create success of some sort.

Given the above you can see why it is good to start off being critical!

From this critical perspective you will readily see the OUCH! causing things we are all exposed to. From here it is good to then ask for evidence that any of these activities will actually do what they are espoused to do.

In my experience when you do ask for evidence there are often two common outcomes:

  1. You will be given evidence based on ‘stories’ of when these activities were done in other organizations and the result was positive. This is very common ‘evidence’ when experts are involved.
  2. Your question gets answered without evidence ever being mentioned but that it is necessary to do something and this something is good. This is very common within the power dynamics of organizational hierarchy.

You now have a choice to make since neither of the above is evidence that these activities will produce what they are supposed to do. Your choice is whether or not you want to push harder and risk entering into conflict or just leave things alone, say this is full of shit in your quiet voice and apply what was discussed in the last two posts.

In my opinion, in our given organizational environments, either choice is viable, sensible and just fine. If you do choose to push harder, you may find you end up with some very positive and powerful interactions. Personally I am finding this is occurring somewhat more often and this is certainly positive but I cannot say why this might be the case. Only you know the details of your situation and which choice would be best.

Now, if you are in a position of organizational power I do think you need to choose to push harder. I do think you need to enter into these interactions about evidence and see where they go; perhaps reducing OUCH!. Keep in mind that when you really dig into this idea of evidence, when it comes to people, you will likely not find much; remember with people it’s always an experiment! Nevertheless, there are choices to be made, things to try, things you think are better to try than others. There is your own left loop of experience and the left lops of others, along with the right loops of intentions that will inform your choices.

Being critical and asking for evidence, exposes OUCH!, after that you move forward doing the best you can, even with very little evidence that your choices will work or not. And that movement forward will be a little less burdened by the expectations of certainty.

With People, It’s Always an Experiment

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In the last post we looked at changing our perspective regarding the formal things we do in organizations. Seeing them as just one more interaction among hundreds we have day-to-day on various topics.

This post focuses on changing our perspective of the expectations we have of our interactions within our organizations, especially those formal interactions that are intended to create some kind of expected result. Things like strategy, performance, change, vision. Even things as seemingly concrete as job descriptions or performance objectives.

No matter how hard we try, and no matter how often we hear that what we do should lead to a specific, measurable and concrete result, if people are involved, every one of these things is much, much more of an experiment than a mapped out journey.

No one has yet been able to figure out how to predict human behavior past the innate, autonomous reactions related to biological certainty. There is a good, logical reason for this.

Interaction Model

As I have noted in earlier posts if we look at the top two arrows of the interaction model, each individual brings to bear on every interaction they have, the tremendous complexity of their past experience and their future intentions. Adding to this complexity is that much of this past and future complexity is not even conscious!

So in the midst of our countless interactions it is quite simply not possible to predict what responses we might receive. And the idea of prediction gets even more absurd as greater numbers of people are involved and greater numbers of interactions occur.

There is no doubt in my mind however that YOU and ME are going to be asked, expected or required to produce some kind of certainty in our organizational roles. To reduce OUCH! our small step is not to necessarily fight this expectation (although great if you can/do) but to recognize, for yourself, that this expectation is absurd, for good logical reasons.

As described in the last post everything may look just the same in your organization, but you can think about this differently. It may be quite frustrating to have this perspective but I think frustration is far better than guilt, shame or blame.

A short example and an excerpt from a blog post I wrote in 2011 about a Twitter exchange I had:

The exchange was with a very well known management guru (unless they use a ghost tweeter) who was posting about 4 steps needed to get the culture you want in your organization.  Without expecting a response and pretty much sick and tired of ‘4 steps to get anything you want’ programs I simply posted something like…”So if we follow these steps and don’t get the culture we want does that mean we’re incompetent?”  Well I actually got a response back – “Not sure about ‘incompetent,’ but yes, if you pull those 4 levers effectively you will create the culture you want.” ( see entire post here)

If I was in an organization dedicated to implementing these guru’s 4 steps, it could be pretty risky to stand up and say this guy was full of shit. Worse yet, if I believe this guy I am well on my way to being seen as incompetent or some other crappy description of my value and worth. Worse still, if I don’t recognize any of this I quite easily begin to see myself defined by those crappy descriptions.  This is the pervasive nature of OUCH!

So in a nutshell, this post is asking you to say this guy (and so many other expectations of certainty) are full of shit! Just say it in your quiet voice!

Keep in mind as you adopt this perspective that an awful lot of expectations in organizations and an awful lot of ‘experts’ are full of shit! You may find this silent mantra becomes highly repetitive for you. OUCH! may very well be replaced by high levels of frustration and a creeping feeling that all this formal organization stuff is quite possibly not just absurd, but mostly meaningless as well.

When you get to that point you will perhaps smile….

 

The Formal Stuff Matters, But Not Much

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One of the quickest ways to remove some OUCH! from our work environments is to change our perspective on the formal things we do in our work environments. Everything else can look and be exactly the same; everyone else can have lots of OUCH! in the same scenario but you don’t need too.

This is not some magic answer, or some contradiction to most of what I have been writing about for months! It is simply a logical and rational way to think about those formal things we do in organizations. Things like our roles in performance management systems, strategy sessions, learning and team building events, budgeting sessions, sales projection meetings, communication strategy development, change management planning….. and add your own.

Of course these things matter, but not that much. The logical and practical reason for this is that the FORMAL interactions we have in these areas are numerically tiny compared to the number of day-to-day interactions we have about these same topics. The FORMAL interactions are just one or perhaps a few of countless interactions we have in these areas (see this post)!

So the best way to get some OUCH! out of these formal things is to think about them as simply one more interaction about an area of focus that it is important.

There is simply no need to get all hyped up and stressed out about having a huge impact in a performance management meeting, or a strategic planning session. These meetings are nothing more than a different context for interaction! Mathematically they have a much smaller chance of making any difference than your day-to-day interactions about the same thing.

The best way to help yourself think this way is to recognize all those day-to-day interactions that you do have on these topics. What do your performance interactions look like day-to-day; your strategy interactions; those about change? When you recognize these interactions, stepping into the formal context is simply a continuation of existing patterns of interaction. In fact, when you look at these formal things in this way, you can look at these formal interactions as another valuable context, one perhaps more focused and direct than those day-to-day ones. They do not have to be loaded with false expectations however, and it is this that removes so much OUCH!

Now, if you try to recognize day-to-day interactions about a specific area of focus, let’s say performance, and can’t think of any, you are either in denial or in trouble, and 95% of the time its denial; just look honestly harder and you will find them. If it is the 5% at play, you are in trouble since you are not interacting with people nearly enough about these important areas of focus in your organization.

Strategy, performance, learning, change, communication ARE important! It’s just the formal processes we inflict on ourselves to deal with them that are not!

So give it a try:

  • Think about an important area of focus
  • Recognize the day-to-day ways that you interact with others regarding that area of focus (you should be able to recognize lots!)
  • Think about your next formal interaction about this area of focus and see it as simply one more interaction
  • Reflect on how this ‘feels’
  • Act on that feeling when it comes time for that formal interaction

You may notice a reduction in OUCH! (as explained in this post). You may also notice an increase in your discomfort with your day-to-day interactions in these areas of focus. You may also notice that the reasons the formal things are important in your organization have nothing to do with that actual thing! They are just means of social control and a misguided sense of understanding organizations. Reducing OUCH! doesn’t necessarily make things wonderful. It just means you probably have more important and realistic things to think about and act on. It means there is a better fit between your experience of being in your organization and how you understand your organization.

If we are going to be concerned, let’s be concerned and focus on things that actually matter. The above may help you do that….

Small Steps; Ebb and Flow

20151104_145345‘… in the course of history, a change in human behaviour in the direction of civilization gradually emerged from the ebb and flow of events. Every small step on this path was determined by the wishes and plans of individual people and groups; but what has grown up on this path up to now, our standard of behaviour and our psychological make-up, was certainly not intended by individual people. And it is in this way that human society moves forward as a whole; in this way the whole history of mankind has run its course.’  (The Society of Individuals – pages 63 – 64).

I think this quote used earlier from Norbert Elias is a good place to start as we look at what small steps we can take to reduce the OUCH! we now experience in organizations. It is also a good reminder of the ebb and flow of things.  Most of the formal things we do in organizations, so many of those things causing OUCH! came about like many of the things that supported our drive for certainty as we came to live in larger and larger groups. Not much initial thought or planning, not much consideration that these things were even involved in a drive for certainty. Just things that emerged through our countless interactions in organizations that we thought might help organizations succeed.

If we follow this line of reasoning we would expect that many of these formal things will eventually disappear and be replaced by potentially more effective ‘things’. Indeed, there already is a lot of noise about replacing or abandoning performance management systems.

So why not just wait it out and all this OUCH! soon will pass?

Well that would be like deciding not to take any small steps at all! And even if those small steps cannot predict what might grow up on our pathways, they do hold the potential of contribution. As well, OUCH! creates a lot of shame, blame and guilt and we can take our own small steps, planned steps to reduce this OUCH! in our own experience and perhaps for some of those that we interact with on a regular basis in our organizations.

Even though as individuals we may be very tiny parts of the very large ebb and flow of organizational life we do not have to tolerate the very large amounts of OUCH!, the very large disconnect between mainstream understanding of organizations and our actual experience. And who knows, perhaps some of our small steps may have a large impact!

We will be looking at these small steps within the context of our direct and actual day to day experiences. Things we can try in our day to day interactions that have the potential of reducing OUCH! We will also be using the interaction model.

We will be focusing on the following:

  • The formal stuff matters, but not much
  • With people, it’s always an experiment
  • Reflect on power
  • Be critical and ask for evidence

As we go through these areas perhaps some others will emerge but for now, this is where we will start; considering our own small steps.

OD’s Fatal Flaw

20151104_145251The last three posts have investigated our drive for certainty and established that this drive seems quite natural, normal and needed. It is also a drive for certainty that creates so much of the OUCH! in organizations.

So what is going on here?

When we look at the last three posts there are two very important points about the drive for certainty:

 

  1. This drive is very broad and far reaching; it is not specific.
  2. This broad drive requires very little conscious thought and planning.

I think the quote from Norbert Elias fits well here:

Every small step on this path was determined by the wishes and plans of individual people and groups; but what has grown up on this path up to now, our standard of behaviour and our psychological make-up, was certainly not intended by individual people. (The Society of Individuals – page 63).

What our current and mainstream understanding of organizations has done; and what mainstream organization development supports is a perspective on the drive for certainty that is:

  1. Very narrow and very specific.
  2. Requires copious amounts of thought and planning to achieve this specificity.

Basically the opposite of what has occurred normally and naturally throughout history. And it is this specificity accompanied by the assumed thought and planning needed to achieve it, is what causes the current environments in organizations that are filled with blame, shame and guilt.

OUCH!

What is going on here is that we have taken the ‘small steps’ mentioned in the quote above and come to believe that these can indeed define what will grow up on our pathways, no matter how far those pathways may extend out to the future. And because of the specific nature of this viewpoint, this belief gets concentrated at the individual level and we come to believe that some individual should be able to create certainty.

This is the perfect breeding ground for OUCH! since certainty, quite simply, cannot be planned. And in our current world even the small steps are getting smaller.

Interaction Model

The reason for this can be illustrated in the interaction model. Interaction between people exhibits transformative causality (see this post). From transformative causality emerges outcomes that cannot be predicted or planned for. Those outcomes will not be unrecognizable, but they cannot be predicted to any degree of accuracy, especially as time frames increase.

We hear a lot of noise these days about the increasing pace of change. There is one reason for this. We are interacting more. With each interaction comes the possibility of novelty and change emerging. So as interactions increase the possibility of novelty and change increases as well.

It takes time to understand and adapt to novelty and change, it always has. Humankind has always and necessarily lagged behind in their understanding of the emerging novelty and change in their environments. This is not a failure, it is simply the nature of interaction, transformative causality and the capacity to understand and adapt.

We are not experiencing anything different from what people experienced when they first gathered together in larger groups; more interaction. Now however, our ability to interact has grown exponentially; our capacity to understand the emergent outcomes of this exponential growth has not.

Physical evolution has always lagged behind social evolution.

Yet mainstream understanding of organizations, supported by mainstream OD tells us not only should we be able to understand these increasing levels of novelty and change, we should be able to plan and account for them in ways that will produce some kind of certainty.

This for me simply feels so, so wrong….

I don’t actually think most people in OD have thought much about this. Humankind seems to have a very legitimate drive and need for some kind of certainty so why not try to invent things that we think will help this happen in our organizations?  This makes sense to me.

But it also makes sense to ask if any of these things are actually working? The resounding answer is no! There is no evidence indicating that a strategic plan creates future success, no evidence that a performance management system creates better performance, no evidence that a vision leads to itself or that a ‘wonderful’ leader creates any kind of certainty at all!

It is this lack of reflection on what is actually happening in our organizational settings that angers me most about the OD discipline. The people we work with deserve better from us!

As I have been writing these posts I have become more and more convinced that if we simply stopped doing 50% (maybe more) of the formal OD type of things we now do in organizations, nothing of significance would change at all, except maybe a lot less shame blame and guilt.

It is unlikely the above is going to happen too soon. But we can make our own changes, our own ‘small steps’ and see what might emerge on our own pathways.

That is where we are headed next.

Craving Certainty – Social Evolution

20151104_145251Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and his book Sapiens provides an excellent brief history of humankind and poses some very challenging questions about both the past and the future. It is also, I think, a very good illustration of the socially constructed nature of our world without ever mentioning the term!

Why a historian and certainty?

Harari outlines some similar things as Elias in terms of the social process of large groups living together. Again, he points out the need for social certainty in order for these groups to function together and as well that there was very little conscious or individual thought required for this social certainty to emerge.

Harari adds a component that I think is important. After looking at the ancient history and evolution of humankind he outlines what has happened relatively recently in human history. This being a belief in the certainty of the future. In order to have this belief we must imagine this certain future. It is therefore an act of imagination to believe in a certain future and yet this act of imagination is typically not seen as imagination. From the book Sapiens:

‘When the Agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands, and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links. While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.’ (Sapiens – pg. 103)

We rarely think of things like a stock market, a religion, laws and institutions as acts of imagination but these things have all emerged, without any conscious big picture or strategic thinking through social interaction.

This phenomenon of an imagined and certain future is quite recent in human history but is now so much a part of our experience (our left loop) that it seems very natural and normal. Below is a simple, economic story/example that Harari noted that I think illustrates in a very real way how much this drive for certainty has become needed and entrenched in today’s societies.

Example of belief in an imagined, certain future (Sapiens – pg. 305 – 307):

Samuel Greedy, a shrewd financier, founds a bank in El Dorado, California.

A. A. Stone and up-and-coming contractor in El Dorado, finishes his first big job, receiving payment in cash to the tune of $1 million. He deposits this sum in Mr. Greedy’s bank. The bank now has $1 million in capital.

In the meantime, Jane McDoughnut, an experienced but impecunious El Dorado chef, thinks she sees a business opportunity – there’s no really good bakery in her part of town. But she doesn’t have enough money of her own to buy a proper facility complete with industrial ovens, sinks knives and pots. She goes to the bank, presents her business plan to Greedy, and persuades him that it’s a worthwhile investment. He issues her a $1 million loan, by crediting her account in the bank with that sum.

McDoughnut now hires Stone, the contractor, to build and finish her bakery. His price is $1,000,000.

When she pays him, with a cheque drawn on her account, Stone deposits it in his account in the Greedy bank.

So how much money does Stone have in his bank account? Right, $2 million.

How much money, cash, is actually located in the bank’s safe? Yes, $1 million.

It doesn’t stop there. As contractors are wont to do, two months into the job Stone informs McDoughnut that, due to unforeseen problems and expenses, the bill for constructing the bakery will actually be $2 million. Mrs. McDoughnut is not pleased, but she can hardly stop the job in the middle. So she pays another visit to the bank, convinces Mr. Greedy to give her the additional loan, and he puts another $1 million in her account. She transfers the money to the contractor’s account.

How much money does Stone have in his account now? He’s got $3 million.

But how much money is actually sitting in the bank? Still just $1 million. In fact, the same $1 million that’s been in the bank all along.

Current US banking law permits the bank to repeat this exercise seven more times. The contractor would eventually have $10 million in his account, even though the bank still has but $1 million in its vaults. Banks are allowed to loan $10 for every dollar they actually posses, which means that 90% of all the money in our bank accounts is not covered by actual coins and notes. If all the account holders at Barclays Bank suddenly demanded their money, Barclays will promptly collapse (unless the government steps in to save it). The same is true of Lloyds, Deutsche Bank, Citibank, and all other banks in the world.

The above sounds pretty normal in the financial world but the only way this can be normal is for us to believe in the certainty of an imagined future. In this case, that the bakery will be a success. And since it is now imperative to believe in this imagined future certainty for our societies to  function we believe in other imagined things that we have come to assume will help create that certainty. Things like business plans, projections, strategic plans, people’s appetite for baked goods etc. As Harari notes:

‘It sounds like a giant Ponzi scheme, doesn’t it? But if it’s a fraud, then the entire modern economy is a fraud. The fact is, it’s not a deception, but rather a tribute to the amazing abilities of the human imagination. What enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and flourish is our trust in the future.’

We need certainty in our imagined futures for current society to exist.

So with a very cursory look at three perspectives; that of biology, that of social process and that of social evolution it seems the drive for certainty is a normal and natural occurrence for us humans. I have said that it is a drive for certainty that is the primary cause of OUCH! in organizations.

So is OUCH! normal and natural as well? I don’t think so; at least the type of OUCH! I am focusing on.

I think the OUCH! I am focusing on is not normal and natural. Let’s look at why and then what we might try to reduce it.

Craving Certainty – Social Process

20151104_145251Norbert Elias was a sociologist and lived (1897 – 1990) through what can be considered one of the most significant and ‘compressed’ times of social change in history. For me in many ways Elias’ work made social construction ‘clear’ and was a great influence on our interaction model.

So why Elias and certainty?

Elias studied the process of the development of societies and had particular interest in the civilizing process; the process by which individuals in society exist together.  How formal processes such as laws, institutions etc. and informal processes such as behavioral constraints developed over time. I am equating the idea of laws and informal constraints on behavior as a form of certainty; things that are required for large groups of people to exist together.

One of the points Elias makes is that as people became more specialized in the things they did, they became more interdependent. This interdependence required changes in the way people interacted, the way they behaved and the very way in which they understood ‘how to be’ given this interdependence.

Way back in history, hunter gatherer tribes were relatively small and everyone knew each other. While there was some specialization of tasks this was not the main influence on how people behaved together. The main influence was the knowledge each person had of the others. As the agricultural revolution emerged the nomadic life of hunter gatherer people ended and much larger groups of people began living together and there was a much greater specialization of work. If you were a tool maker you had to rely on a farmer to provide food and the farmer needed to rely on the tool maker to help the farm function. This interdependence created a need for differing ways of behaving with each other so both the farmer and tool maker could effectively get by.

To get a feel for where this idea of interdependence is now, just take a moment to look around you and consider how many other people you have relied on to have what exists in your immediate environment. I would guess it’s quite a lot of people. And you probably don’t know, or have ever met any of those people!

Yet, our societies exist with an astounding level of certainty that this interdependence will work!

We are pretty darn certain that we can go to the grocery store and buy food, send our kids to school, go to the movies if we want and all the other things we consider very, very normal. Yet the only thing that makes these things seem normal are countless formal and informal constraints and enablers of behavior that create this certainty! As we have become more and more specialized in what we do we rely more and more on ‘social certainty’ to enable us to get by in our normal worlds.

Society requires a very high level of behavioral certainty!

Not only did Elias illustrate this ‘civilizing process’ he noted something very important ABOUT this process. From The Society of Individuals:

‘… in the course of history, a change in human behaviour in the direction of civilization gradually emerged from the ebb and flow of events. Every small step on this path was determined by the wishes and plans of individual people and groups; but what has grown up on this path up to now, our standard of behaviour and our psychological make-up, was certainly not intended by individual people. And it is in this way that human society moves forward as a whole; in this way the whole history of mankind has run its course.’ (underlining is mine) (The Society of Individuals – pages 63 – 64).

Elias is pointing out that this drive for certainty that is such a necessity for societies (which include our organizations) to exist, ’emerged from the ebb and flow of events.’ Much like the biological certainty noted in the last post, we really didn’t have to think much about this certainty, it was simply a requirement for societies, and organizations to exist.

Hmmm… does this mean that certainty is a requirement for the existence of organizations? Meaning (again!) that OUCH! is natural, normal and inevitable. This may be getting depressing!

But let’s look at social evolution before we get too depressed.