OUCH! Interaction Model – The Right Loop

20151104_145213The last post looked at the left loop of the interaction model below. The left loop is typically the easiest to observe in terms of what goes on in organizations because it represents observable behavior.


The Right Loop

This post is taking a brief look at the right loop, comprised of intentions and interaction and the connections between the two.

Interaction Model

With the right loop interaction exists in the present and intention exists in the future, albeit at times not very far into the future! The upper arrow from intention to interaction represents the dynamic of bringing all our future intentions to bear on a present interaction. The lower arrow represents the influence of current interaction on our understanding and meaning of future intentions.

So the arrows in both the left and right loops represent very similar things conceptually, but play out very differently in the course of our day to day interactions.

Like the upper arrow in the left loop the upper arrow in the right loop represents part of the tremendous complexity we bring to any interaction we have. The right loop lower arrow however is different than the left loop lower arrow. It represents the dynamic of adaptation.

Interestingly, it is this arrow that is one of the most compromised dynamics with typical theories of organization, leadership and change and we’ll be looking at why as we delve into actual examples.

Taken as a whole the right loop represents movement forward. It is important to note here that this movement forward is not necessarily planned. It may be, but in terms of the model, planning is not a given and this is important. We move forward regardless of whether or not are intentions are planned and conscious or unplanned and unconscious. It is simply what we do.

Nevertheless in terms of individuals and organizations the right loop can represent things like:

  • Vision
  • Strategy
  • Projections
  • Budgets
  • Performance targets

And many other things that describe an intention for some time in the future.

Like the left loop there are a couple of really critical things about the right loop:

  1. The adaptations represented by this loop are part of a process that is constantly emerging yet also has stability.
  2. The primary driver of adaptation in this loop are the interactions we have, not the intentions we have.

Ok, that second point may seem a little extreme and may even seem to throw into question the importance of things like vision or strategy but as with the left loop we’ll be digging into this deeper with real examples.

For now consider if you have ever seen any of those 5 bullet points above actually play out or happen exactly as intended? My guess is no. My experience is no! And the reason those things noted above are adapted is that we start to do them, we interact with people and information, and things change. It is our interactions that drive adaptation.

I would also say that it is our interactions that primarily form our intentions in the first place.

A quick visit back to that budget meeting from 30 + years ago. Everyone in that room would have said their intention was to come up with a solid and workable budget for the ice cream plant. If we did a good job not much, if any adaptations to the budget should occur. In order to do a good job we had to look at as many controllable variables as possible and plan to control them. There was never a stated intention to create a budget that would proceed to cause a lot of angst and stress for the remainder of the year. But that is what happened

The problem was the process of budgeting had little or no room for interaction that was uncontrollable, like the weather.


A budget is loaded with a drive for certainty and there are a lot more uncontrollable variables than just the weather out there!

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Where have you seen variables that seem uncontrollable be ignored in planning scenarios?
  2. The drive for certainty historically is often translated into something like ‘doing a good job of planning’ in organizations. Have you ever seen people labeled as failures for not being able to plan well enough even though the main cause was uncontrollable variables?
  3. More recently, with the dismal experiences we have seen with formal planning, the drive for certainty has been translated to being adaptable or nimble etc. Have you seen examples where this newly minted terminology really just means doing a good job and the consequences are the same when plans fail?

OUCH! Interaction Model – The Left Loop

20151104_145213One of the foundations of this work and one of the important means of illustrating  the misfit between organization theory and our experience of being in organizations is what we call our interaction model.

It is what we use to understand our own organizational experience as well as how we do our own consulting work. In the next few posts we’ll focus on the main parts of this model and provide a brief overview of these parts. Then we’ll start to use this model to look at how it illustrates our experience of being in an organization and what happens to it when we engage in a lot of the formal things we do as part of our organizational lives. What happens to this model when the drive for certainty and seeing the individual as discreet and separate from the context in which they are in is overlaid.

Interaction Model

One quick step back as an illustration. Remember that first budget meeting I went to over 30 years ago (post is here)? It was an interaction; lots of gestures and responses. I had limited experience with these types of meetings but brought what experience I did have with me. My primary intention coming into that meeting was to listen and learn. As the meeting progressed I also ended up with an intention of not being stuck with production volume numbers that might not be reached due to cold weather! I added to the interaction with my question about doing two budgets. My gesture was responded to by more or less ignoring it.

Lots more could be said about that meeting and this model but enough for now. It will be much more interesting using this model with all of our experiences as these posts emerge. For now, and over the next few posts lets look briefly at the different, main parts of the model.

The Left Loop

This is the part of the model that is comprised of experience and interaction and the connections between the two. Experience exists in the past and interaction exists in the present. The upper arrow, from experience to interaction represents the dynamic of bringing all of our past experiences to bear on a present interaction. The lower arrow, from interaction to experience represents the dynamic of the influence of present interaction on our understanding and meaning of past experience.

The upper arrow represents part of the tremendous complexity we bring to any interaction we have. The lower arrow represents the potential for change.

It also means our experience (the past), in terms of understanding and meaning is not static! The past, in terms of understanding and meaning is not etched in stone, it can change. This is represented by the term ‘forms and is formed by’ in the middle of the left loop.

Taken as a whole, the left loop represents patterns, typically patterns of interaction that provide us with a personal history constructed over the span of our lives. Over time these patterns can become quite stable both at individual and group levels.

So in terms of individuals and organizations this left loop can represent things like:

  • Culture
  • Values
  • Group dynamics
  • Personal, individual preferences
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Power dynamics
  • Policy and procedure

And many other repetitive activities that just seem to happen without much thought or consideration. Or critical analysis.

There are two really critical things about this left loop:

  1. The patterns represented by this loop are part of a process that is constantly emerging yet also has stability.
  2. The potential for change in these patterns exists in the form of different interactions.

We will be digging into this a lot more but for now just think about how something like culture gets talked about in your organization. Typically it will get described as some kind of ‘thing’, something you should be able to find somewhere and identify like other things such as desks or computers.

This has huge implications when we consider something like culture ‘change’ and I would suggest it is one of the most significant reasons why so many culture change initiatives fail so painfully.

The same can be said of individual preference, including personality preference. In the model above individual preference is seen as learned, repetitive patterns of interaction, subject to change through different interactions. It is not an innate thing we possess but a socially constructed pattern based on experience and interaction.

Back to that budget meeting and the left hand loop. The experience of most people in that room would have been that you budgeted for lots of ice cream to be needed. After all, that’s what gave you the most profit at the end of the year. So a question that threw this quite stable pattern into question was easily ignored by those in power and also by me, with little experience and confidence to justify that question. A variable, such as weather was best ignored.


And there are many, many things just about as uncontrollable as the weather in organizations that the drive for certainty requires to be ignored.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Your experiences of how culture is defined and talked about in your organization would be good to hear.
  2. What kind of things just more or less happen in your organization because they are a comfortable pattern, and not given much critical analysis?
  3. What would happen if you did apply some critical analysis to those things?

OUCH! What’s the Purpose of This?

20151104_145419A number of years ago I began a writing project that was called The Power of Uncertainty. I wrote quite a bit of content and yet something seemed to be missing for me. The premise of that writing was similar to what OUCH! is about; the problematic nature of the typical way we understand and thus formally act in organizations, and the problematic way we understand the individual within organizations.

I had interacted with lots of people on this topic plus wrote a number of blog posts with this focus and I realized that the interactions tended toward the more practical and the blog posts tended toward the more academic.  The interactions focused more on the real day to day experiences people had while the blog posts focused more on explaining the ideas underlying our understanding of those experiences.  The same pattern extended to the work I did with people; I could either just do stuff or explain why I was doing stuff.

I discovered sometimes you are just better off doing stuff than explaining it!

I also discovered that it helps to have coherence in what you do and how you do it. One of the most fundamental ideas behind OUCH! is that nothing, nothing happens in organizations outside of the interactions we have. So if I was going to engage in this writing project I should have as many interactions as I could. When the idea of blogging this book came along it seemed to fit on a number of levels:

  • The potential for lots of interaction.
  • Lots of this interaction would be emergent and unplanned.
  • Adaptation would occur based on these interactions.
  • While there was a sense of knowing what the intent of this work was about I could not be certain what that intent would actually look like as it progressed.
  • While I had a good idea of the messages I wanted to put out there, how people responded to those ideas, including ideas and applications of their own was very uncertain.

This format seems to be very coherent with what I (hopefully to become a we) am trying to do here. It is also not very comfortable.  Uncertainty and interaction quite often are not very comfortable. But uncertainty and interaction is what we experience and do every single day in our (organizational) lives.

So here we are.

And what are my intentions with this work? I have 6 primary intentions at this point:

  1. To illustrate that what we experience in organizations is not the typical way we understand organizations.
  2. To illustrate that most organization theory and thus formal practice supports a drive for certainty as well as seeing the individual as a discrete and separate entity distinct from the contexts they experience; and that this theory does not match our experience
  3. To illustrate a way of thinking about and understanding organizations that balances social construction with psychology and how this balance can affect our view of the individual in organizations.
  4. To enable people to use our interaction model intuitively and within their interactions to help make sense of their work experiences.
  5. To have the word OUCH! gain usage and meaning to capture the misfit between theory and experience in organizations.
  6. By doing the above, to reduce the amount of blame, guilt and shame we generate and are exposed to in organizations.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

What are your intentions for participating in this work?

OUCH! The Misfit Between Theory and Experience in Organizations – Introduction

20151104_145408A little background

As an excited and enthusiastic newly promoted production supervisor I arrived at my very first budget meeting. It was late in the year and snow was deep outside but inside the ice cream factory we were planning for the New Year. Not quite knowing what to expect at this meeting I only came armed with my experiences of running a piece of ice cream making machinery for the last couple of years. I was prepared to mostly listen and learn and I remember how cool I thought it was to now be part of planning what would transpire over the next year.

The numbers! Oh geez, the numbers! How many numbers could it actually take to figure out how this place was supposed to run! It seemed like it was an endless amount! But what did I know. My ears perked up when I heard the projected numbers for production of ice cream since that was MY area and I knew what those numbers meant. I also knew that if the weather was hot in the spring you needed a lot of ice cream and if it was cold you needed less. And spring weather seemed to affect the whole year. After all, I had been asked to work a lot of overtime running that machine last year because of a hot spring. The year before it was cold and not much overtime was to be had.

So as I saw the projected production numbers it didn’t take long to figure out the expectation was for a hot spring. Hmmmm, don’t new supervisors get into trouble if they don’t meet production numbers I thought?

So I asked a question. “Why don’t we create two budgets; one for a hot spring and another for a cold spring and then whatever we get we can go by that budget?”

Lucky for me it seems new supervisors ask a lot of these crazy questions so I was not chastised; just more or less ignored and we ended up with a budget for a hot spring. Well it wasn’t hot and through that spring, summer and fall there was an awful lot of angst in our plant.

That was over 30 years ago and I really don’t think much has changed in organizations; not just ice cream factories but all organizations.

We want certainty in our organizations, and we want individuals with power to deliver this certainty.


This is not our experience of actually being in organizations.  We don’t experience certainty and no one, no matter how much power, delivers it. But it is what we say we want, it is how we design the processes of our organizations, it is how we measure success and it is how we value our own contributions. It is how we typically understand organizations and it seems, no matter how much misfit there is between this and our real experience of actually being in organizations, we continue to do the same things.

It’s like we have a very bad fitting pair of shoes and every day we just put them on again and suffer the consequences.

A really, really big OUCH!

So now, after quite a long time of being in, and thinking about organizations I am convinced that most of what we formally do in organizations and how we formally understand them is deeply, deeply flawed.

I also am convinced that this is a flaw in expectation and intent, not one of content.  By this I mean the expectations and intent of certainty, and power delivering that certainty, are the flaw and it is this flaw upon which most of what we formally do in organizations is based. I do not think the actual content; the conversations and interactions we have within those formal activities are flawed, it is the expectations and intentions we have for them that is.

It is this mismatch, this OUCH! that causes much of what we say we most dislike about organizations. And it seems we do not have, or don’t want to have other ways of understanding and being in our organizations.

This is what OUCH! The Misfit Between Theory and Experience in Organizations is about. Finding different ways to understand and be in the organizations in which we work. At very fundamental levels. In ways that make much of what we formally do now in organizations irrelevant, at least from an expectation and intention perspective. Not from an interaction perspective.

So as we participate here, as we interact together, let’s really question everything about organizations.  Maybe the OUCH’s! can have less impact.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What is your biggest OUCH! in your organization?

Some Final Thoughts

20151104_145237Chances are you’ve recognized some of your team’s behavior in 10 Good Reasons to Hate Work Teams. If you haven’t, you are either on the most amazing team in the known universe or you’re choosing not to recognize things too well. Teams are a fact of life in organizations. Perhaps there was a time when a single ‘heroine’ or ‘hero’ could manage everything and tell people what to do and they would gladly or otherwise go do it but that time is long gone. Life, and organizations are too complex, too busy and too big for mythical roles of leadership and management anymore. We really do need others in our organizations if we are going to succeed. Many leaders and managers still trying to play those mythical roles are finding this out the hard way as they become more and more irrelevant with each passing day and their teams and organizations become more irrelevant as well.

Maybe you were able to laugh at your team a little too, as you recognized behavior that described it pretty well. All teams experience similar problems and the only problem that’s really unacceptable is not trying to do something about them. That’s when teams become horrible, time-wasting, resource sucking monsters. Perhaps in the midst of your laughter you were also able to see, or try some solutions that will work for your team.

If you look back over this e-Booklet you will notice a couple of words that have been used a number of times when describing what is needed to dig your team out of the hole it might find itself in. The words are courage and honesty. Some situations are just darn ugly and some are wonderful. In order for a team to be effective both these states need to be honestly recognized to be able to continue to move forward. It takes courage to be honest and honesty to be courageous. It also takes courage to share honest information with your team so it can do the work it is supposed to do. All the bells and whistles ever invented to help teams be more effective are useless if you don’t have the courage and honesty to apply them. It can be pretty tough at times. Good teams do their best to ride the roller coaster of good times and bad and press on. Amazing teams learn to love the roller coaster. They learn from each up and down and press on just a little bit better.  Or perhaps even know when it’s time to get off, which can be the toughest choice of all.

There are choices to be made. Do you choose to have a useless team you can’t stand being a part of or do you choose to push yourself and your teammates to be amazing?

Which choice will you make?

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What are some of your final thoughts (on this initiative, not your final thoughts ever!)?

Reason 10 – Ideas to Try

They Involve You in Team Building Exercises

Some key questions to ask yourself and your team.

Basic, really important ones:

  1. Will this exercise really do anything to help us perform better as a team?
  2. What usable links and learning back to our work has this exercise surfaced?
  3. How do we intend to transfer this learning into work performance?
  4. How will we practice these new skills and learning?
  5. Is the application of this learning a performance objective?

Interesting ones:

  1. Do we have the capacity to skip the metaphorical exercise and jump right into a debrief of a real work experience and think differently or deeper about that experience?
  2. Why do we need to think differently or deeper?
  3. How can we push and surface honesty in the debrief of this exercise?
  4. Is this exercise really more of a fun diversion from a design and potential perspective?

Key points of this reason to hate work teams:

  • The debrief of a team building exercise is ALWAYS the most important part of a potentially good exercise. Squeeze every ounce of learning out of it by asking for and giving honesty.
  • Activating the ‘potential’ of a good team building exercise depends on demanding the learning be applied back in the workplace in the form of changes in behavior. You need to design in lots of practice for this new behavior. The team should take accountability to sustain this practice.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Why do you think so much emphasis is put on team building exercises/workshops to change behavior?
  2. How do you bring honesty to a debrief?
  3. How do you think behavior changes?
  4. What’s your best transfer of learning story?

Reason 10

20151104_144313They Involve You in Team Building Exercises

It’s inescapable. Sooner or later someone will inflict a team building exercise on your team. You will survive a mythical plane crash in the desert, fall backward into the loving arms of your teammates, dissect your personalities, climb ropes, perch on platforms, build models and solve puzzles. If you’re really ‘lucky’ you might get to brave the real wilderness for a few nights! Every team building exercise ever invented is designed to get the members of the team to do two things:

  1. Look at things differently.
  2. Look at things more deeply.

The reason we grow to hate these exercises is that we really don’t want to look at things any differently than we do right now. It’s too hard and we’re too busy and we’re not convinced it’s really necessary.

So step one in making these things matter to the rightfully skeptical team is making a connection to something that does matter; performance. It never ceases to amaze how many team building exercises are concocted and inflicted without any consideration of performance.

Team building exercises typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Fun diversions
  2. Potentially good
  3. Transformational

Fun diversions are the one category where a link to performance doesn’t matter. They are activities that the team normally doesn’t do together. You go bowling or out for dinner and have a good time. No one brings a flip chart to record ‘takeaways’ or ‘next steps’. No great learning or change is expected. These are valuable since you see different sides of people. It’s nice to be on a team that does this sort of thing (well, unless you haven’t dealt with Reason #9).

By far the majority of team building exercises fall into the second category, potentially good, which consists of activities designed to enhance the potential and performance of the team. So keep in mind, if you can’t answer why a team building exercise will enhance performance, you are doing a fun diversion.

In order for potentially good exercises to work, the learning MUST transfer back to the workplace. And this is where most of these exercises fall short. Transfer of learning requires two things:

  1. An exercise and debrief that make sense in the context of the teams work.
  2. A process for practice and application outside of the exercise (i.e. once back at work).

To point one, the best team building exercise ever designed is the debrief of an actual piece of work the team has done. The problem with this is that the team is often so immersed in the work the debrief does little to help the team see things differently or deeper. So an exercise that is somewhat abstracted from the work and then applying the learning back to the work scenario is potentially good. This means the debrief of the exercise is of primary importance. Who really cares if your teammates caught you when you fell into their arms? Did you really think they’d let you fall with everyone watching? In the debrief, someone has to say, ‘Sure, you caught me here but when I made that mistake last week at work you let me drop like a rock!’ That takes more courage than it does to depend on your team to catch you physically. Without the courage to speak the truth in the debrief the necessary links cannot be made back to the work world and the potential for improved performance is lost. And it’s easier to find this courage if the exercise is meant to improve performance.

To point two, a team building exercise in itself is never enough. People and teams see things the way they do because they have a pattern of seeing things that way. That pattern has developed and been sustained for long periods of time. To actually change such a pattern requires incremental change over extended periods of time. Practice, and lots of it. That’s why you need a process for practice and application of what was learned in the exercise. You can do this by making the use of learning a performance requirement and by building in real-time practice over time. Do both.

Transformational team building exercises are so rare you’ve probably only read about them in books. Never expect, or design for transformation; you will be disappointed. And be rage-fully skeptical of those that promote their transformational exercises. If transformation takes place, let it be a wonderful surprise, a gift. Transformation is 99.99% dependent on the person, or team being ready. When this occurs almost any exercise will work.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. In your experience, is more effort, from a design perspective, put into the team building exercise/workshop or the process for practice and application outside of the exercise workshop? Why?
  2. What’s the most effective team building exercise you use?
  3. What’s the most effective design for practice and application that you use?
  4. How have you dealt with the challenge of getting teams to see things differently or deeper?