With People, It’s Always an Experiment


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….


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.


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 doe 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 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.

Craving Certainty – Biology

20151104_145251Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist and spends a lot of his time trying to figure out just what is happening inside our heads from a biological point of view. I tend to get rid of a lot of books once I’ve read them but the four I have of his won’t be leaving my book shelves.

But why a neuroscientist and certainty you might legitimately ask?

One of the things Damasio (and others) have discovered is that the brain spends a lot of time and energy mapping the body’s physical state, monitoring what is going on in the body and working very hard to keep the body in a state of biological homeostasis. I am equating biological homeostasis to a version of certainty. Our bodies operate with some very narrow parameters to sustain not just health, but life itself. While you might be able to tolerate your coffee 10 degrees cooler than you would like, your body is in deep trouble with a 10 degree difference. And while you may be able to consume a fairly significant range of ph foods and drinks, that same range could be deadly to the function of internal organs.

Biologically we need certainty to survive and the brain and body work very hard to create and maintain that certainty. And we rarely have to consciously think about this as our brain and body sustain biological certainty.

One of the drivers of certainty is completely out of our conscious thought and control. It is hard wired and genetic.

This of course is not all that new. A further step that Damasio takes however, is.

When you look at nature, including our own bodies and brains we find the phenomenon of fractals. Basically fractals represent a self similar pattern and/or design at various levels of size and scale. A common example is that of broccoli. You can look at one broccoli floret and it more or less looks like the whole thing, just smaller. Fractals are incredibly common in nature, including our natural selves and occur at many, many more levels of scale than the broccoli example.

Damasio applies the concept of fractals to the human body, from the cell to the organs, to body systems, to the brain and to the body/brain connections. And then that further step; that step outside the body/brain, to the plural, to people and societies.

Damasio is saying that the dynamics seen within the human body, that create homeostasis, life regulation and biological certainty, extend as fractals do, to societies, which of course include organizations. From the book Self Comes to Mind:

‘By the time minds and consciousness were added to the mix, the possibilities of regulation expanded even more and made way for the kind of management that occurs not just within one organism but across many organisms, in societies. Consciousness enabled humans to repeat the leitmotif of life regulation by means of a collection of cultural instruments – economic exchange, religious beliefs, social conventions and ethical rules, laws, arts, science, technology.’ (Self Comes to Mind – page 63)

Most of us tend to think that it was our brilliant, individual selves that imagined, planned and created those cultural instruments noted above. We do not consider that there may be a very natural, non conscious and biological impetus for such creation and that this impetus is firmly founded in a drive for certainty.

We may indeed have a very real, biological need for certainty that ramps up from our single cells to the ‘cells’ of our organizations.

Hmmmm, if the drive for certainty is genetic is OUCH! then biological, genetic and unavoidable? Well, let’s look at social evolution and social process first before we revisit where OUCH! is coming from.

Craving Certainty

20151104_145251In the last post I noted that it would be good to better understand where this drive for certainty may be coming from since it is so prevalent in mainstream understanding of organizations and within the OD world that works with these organizations.

Certainty however, was not ‘invented’ by OD or any other person or group. Certainty is a very important aspect of any living being. Without certainty of various forms and types we would cease to exist at all; let alone exist to question why certainty is a big OUCH! in our organizational lives.

We are going to look at the idea of certainty from three different perspectives:

  1. Biological
  2. Social evolution
  3. Social process

From the biological perspective we will use some of the work of Antonio Damasio and specifically some of the ideas from his book Self Comes To Mind. From a social evolution standpoint we will use some of the ideas of Yuval Noah Harari and his book Sapiens. For social process we will use some of the ideas from Norbert Elias and his book The Society of Individuals.

There are of course countless other perspectives on this idea of certainty. I have picked these three because they have been very important to me in shaping my thinking regarding how organizations function and in particular how mainstream thinking of organizations is problematic.

In addition, while we will not go into very much depth of the people and ideas mentioned above, I think there are critical ideas that can be extracted from these works that are very relevant to what has happened to this idea of certainty.

As noted above, certainty is fundamental to our existence, it is not something we can ‘choose’ to do without. The three perspectives we will use to look at certainty will establish this point. From there we can look at what has then happened to this idea of certainty that makes it problematic in organizations and what we might be able to do reduce these problems. What might we be able to do to reduce the OUCH!

I am keeping this post short to introduce where we are going. Plus you may want to investigate some of the links above.

We are on the home stretch of OUCH! It is time to begin to put it all together in some coherent fashion. That coherence begins with understanding where our craving for certainty comes from.

However; a question for you to consider. What do you ‘want’ to be certain about?