The Formal Stuff Matters, But Not Much


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….

Systems Thinking – Being Hyper Critical

20151104_145251Before investigating what happens when systems thinking (applied where people are involved) is used to try and create certainty it is important for me to restate that I think the original contribution of systems thinking; that the relationship between things is as, or more important than the things themselves, is extremely valuable. I actually think that this premise is still at the heart of systems thinking and it is the way we have come to understand and use this premise that is problematic.

Nevertheless, since many OD practitioners DO use systems thinking in the service of certainty, the OD world has to take accountability for this and the non OD world has to be hyper critical of this kind of use.

To provide an example of this mainstream use I went to one of the LinkedIn groups I follow, did a quick search of systems thinking and the first discussion that came up took me to a web site espousing systems thinking. Below is some of the text on the home page of that web site:

When Stafford Beer originally created the Viable System Model (VSM) he was seeking to develop a “science of organisation”, a set of invariant laws that could be applied to any sort of organisation of any size. So far, we have not found any organisational context in which it does not apply. It is an approach which helps us to make sense of organisations, or groups of organisations of any degree of complexity and tells us something about how they operate, why they function the way they do and what we might be able to do to change them.

When you use the term ‘invariant laws’ and state that you have not found ‘any organisational context in which it does not apply’ you are talking certainty, or at the very least, giving the impression that if you ‘do’ this type of systems thinking you will get what you want. The last sentence is much truer to the premise of systems thinking I think but all too often some version of the preceding sentences disguise that premise.

Two concepts are critical to the idea of systems thinking; boundaries and feedback. Boundaries are a real problem for systems thinking and that problem messes up the concept of feedback.

In order to have a system that you can act on, that system needs to have boundaries, some kind of limit so you can study and model it. The problem is that it is extremely hard to define a boundary to a system; and it gets worse when people are involved!

The simple example often used to explain cybernetics (a form of systems thinking) illustrates this well. The example is that of temperature control using a thermostat in a room. The boundary would be defined as the room itself, plus the heating source, let’s say a furnace. The temperature is set and if it is colder than what is set the thermostat reads this feedback and causes the furnace to come on. Once the temperature reaches the set point the thermostat reads this feedback and turns off the furnace. Simple cybernetics.

However, let’s say you want to change this system. How do you do that? Obvious, right! You change the setting on the thermostat. Duh! Except your boundary defined as the room and furnace does not contain the person changing the setting. Well, easy enough, we will expand our boundary to include the person. But how is that person deciding on what new temperature to set the thermostat? Are they being told to? If they are then we have to expand our boundaries to include the person doing the telling. If they are deciding on their own, what are their criteria? What might be the impact on others that happen to wander into that room? Might they influence the person to make another change? If so, the boundary has to be expanded again. And on and on it goes….

So what does a mainstream system thinking do? Well they do not abandon the problematic concept of boundary. No, they create second order cybernetics!

This boundary problem is inherent in systems thinking and what happens is that the boundaries just get larger and larger, the feedback loops more and more convoluted and the systems methods created to deal with this more and more complex. Eventually what often happens is a jump into the mystical. Synchronicity, Gaia, Presence, metaphysical intervention; some jump into the realm of the highly subjective. And this jump into the subjective is supposed to create certainty, if we only get it right!

Forget the gentle in ‘ferociously gentle’, this just makes me ferociously angry!

OD practitioners get very angry as well when you put this in front of them. I have been chastised, told I do not understand systems thinking well enough, I probably can’t understand the complexity, or simply ignored. I have experienced the exact same thing that happens to systems thinking when a variable is introduced that doesn’t fit; jump to the subjective and make sense of things that way. A convenient way of ignoring the problem or masking it with complexity.


I remember years ago being in a session where we were investigating and learning systems thinking, We spent a couple of hours creating a systems diagram focusing on world hunger. It was huge and we finally stopped since the variables and feedback loops seemed endless. We then asked ourselves so what is this telling us about world hunger and what we can do about it? We looked at the diagram and came to the conclusion that we had no real idea about the dynamics of world hunger or what we could do about it. At least in terms of being certain what we did would solve the problem. That should have been a big red light right then and there! But it wasn’t. After all, organizations are not like world hunger.

Later in the session we had to work on our own organizational challenge using systems thinking. Of course this was way less complex than world hunger. But the conclusion I came to was that the real challenge was not in any system I could draw or model, it was the way people involved in the challenge, perceived things, how they made choices on that perception, the power that might affect those choices and the specific contexts in which those choices might be made. In other words, I had no idea about the dynamics of this challenge from a systems perspective. If I wanted to work on it, change it, I needed to go and interact with people and move on from there.

And that was where the red light came on, even if it was very dim and still took a number of years for it to get blindingly red enough for me to put aside mainstream systems thinking in my OD work.

The interaction model is based on transformative causality. It does not predict anything.

Interaction Model

It illustrates the process by which transformative causality happens among people. It illustrates our day-to-day experience and while thinking about our day-to-day experiences it may provide some insight and perhaps some ideas for further interaction. It illustrates the tremendous complexity of transformative causality, a complexity that we all know exists. And when used it legitimizes these day-to-day experiences in a far more real way than does systems thinking.

The two primary perspectives of mainstream OD; psychological and structural or systemic lead us directly into the storm of shame, blame and guilt. The psychological perspective leads us there by telling us that we as individuals should be able to overcome anything in our way toward success and the systemic perspective by telling us we can overcome anything by designing and building systems that cause success.

I am reminded of a song lyric by the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn – If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die

I hesitate to use that lyric and song as what I am describing does not match the horror of the song but at the same time I do think we need to be very angry about what mainstream OD puts in front of us and as OD practitioners we need to be very careful about how we use the power we have.

The next post will look at a few other concepts where this dynamic is or has happened.

Systems Thinking – Being Somewhat Critical

20151104_145251In the last post it was stated that one of the ways of balancing mainstream OD perspectives required being hyper critical of current content and processes in the OD world.

Let’s look at systems thinking from a ‘somewhat critical’ perspective and we’ll work our way up to hyper critical in the next post

Systems thinking tends to be seen as one of the foundational disciplines espoused in the OD world. I was introduced to systems thinking in the early 1990’s (as many people were) through the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. I was trained in systems thinking by Innovation Associates and used the ideas extensively.

I think one of the biggest contributions systems thinking has made to our understanding of organizations is that the relationships between things are as important or perhaps even more important than the things themselves. Systems thinking asked us to think bigger than the pieces and to try and see some kind of whole, that whole being a system.

I still think this contribution is extremely important. I also think that systems thinking has morphed into a discipline of predictability and certainty, or at least an attempt to do that in organizations. A good way to understand this is to take a simple look at kinds of causality.

Formative causality.  This means that something is ’caused’ by design. An example is that of an oak tree. Within the acorn is the ‘design’ of an oak tree. If you plant the acorn and given the appropriate conditions for growth, the acorn ‘forms’ an oak tree. The process of formative causality is tremendously complex but the basic premise is that an acorn gives you an oak tree, nothing else. You can predict that you will get an oak tree by planting the acorn. Formative causality has a strong component of predictability.

Rational causality. This means something is caused by rational thought and thus rational causality is primarily focused on humans. A person can think something, make a choice about that thinking and then cause something to happen by acting on that choice. You cannot predict what someone’s choice may be, given a specific scenario, and the more complex the scenario the higher number of choices that are likely to be available. Predictability fades considerably with rational causality.

Transformative causality. This means something is caused through interaction between people. Two or more people interact within a given scenario and choices emerge through that interaction that cause things to happen by acting on those choices. For example you may go and interact with a colleague being quite sure of what you want to do, and during the course of that interaction new ideas emerge and a different choice is made. Predictability fades further with transformative causality but the outcomes are not necessarily unrecognizable.

What has happened to mainstream systems thinking is that it is based on formative causality. In other words, what mainstream systems thinking leads you to believe is that if you design your organizational systems well enough, if you think systems well enough you should be able to predict the outcome of those systems.


Most formal organizational processes, some of the ones we have been focusing on in OUCH! are based in systems thinking, explicitly or otherwise. The premise is, if you design the process or system correctly you will get the result you want. A good strategy gives you growth, a well designed performance management system gives you good performance, a good change management plan gives you smooth change and on and on it goes.

The variable that gets lost in all this is that where people are involved, formative causality is hardly at play at all. Even rational causality is not nearly as important as transformative causality in organizations!

Organizations operate from transformative causality and it is firmly founded on unpredictability and uncertainty. For the most part, mainstream systems thinking is at odds with how organizations actually function!

That last statement is not at all popular in OD circles. But lets look at what happens when you try really hard to make systems thinking, as it now tends to be used, ‘work’ in organizations.

That is the next post and I’ll call it hyper critical….


Why Balancing is Important

20151104_145251Imagine you are standing in a field that stretches out of sight ahead and behind you. On your left a little ways away is a deep chasm. The same on your right, quite a bit further away. You are walking along quite close to that left edge, not even thinking about falling into that deep chasm and disappearing forever.  The deep chasm on your right is hardly ever considered, it’s too far away.

The deep chasm on the left is a psychological end point, the one on the right is a social construction end point. The world of OD and I think the way we understand life in general walks very close to this left edge, this psychological end point. However, each chasm is eerily similar even though the journey to fall in is very, very different. You really don’t want to fall into either one, since once you do, meaning, our own personal meaning is swallowed up.

As you near the left edge, toward the psychological end point it is you, the individual that is primary, paramount and alone. What does this look like in organizations?:

  • A reliance on individuals that are deemed somehow ‘superior’ to typical individuals – gurus, experts, people with power
  • A reliance and focus on leaders and leadership
  • A belief that we own our individuality
  • A belief that ‘context’ is mostly irrelevant and the individual can overcome, transcend and conquer any context

As we move nearer the edge, the individual, distinct and separate from all else becomes primary, and as you fall off the edge, the individual is ‘determined’, something outside of the individual has determined what they are, what they are to do and what their purpose is. In this chasm nothing matters because the individual is swallowed by the belief they are determined, controlled, manipulated, owned by something superior to themselves.

This, I think is the end point of a psychological perspective on what organizations are and what people are, in those organizations. I think we are walking far closer to this edge, to this chasm than we are the other. What are the consequences of walking close to this edge? Look around you at work or look in the mirror.

  • An almost endless onslaught of messaging that if we do ‘this’ thing, whatever some expert tells us, we will, in essence, be better individuals.
  • A deep sense of guilt or shame that we are not good enough to do those ‘things’ that will make us better.
  • A belief that good leadership is the answer to our challenges and problems.
  • A turning away from accountability and choice at a personal level since that leader is the one that really is accountable.
  • A feeling of powerlessness.
  • A need to protect ourselves, our individual selves from anything that may be seen as detrimental to our individuality.
  • An insistent longing for something ‘better’, if only we could find it.

A little OUCH! this time; there is a need for gentleness I think. For the above are not inevitable consequences, but consequences of a perspective, a perspective that can be challenged, one that needs balancing. When we look closely at almost all mainstream OD work, almost all messages from organizational gurus, almost all writing on leadership you will find some version of the bullet points above. It is this that needs balancing.

As I have noted in earlier posts it is this psychological perspective that is dominant in the OD world at present. The other dominant perspective is structural or systemic. I think this perspective fits very well with the psychological perspective and may be two sides to the same coin.

More on that perspective in a future post. The next post will focus on the right side of that field and what it is like to walk near that edge and what that chasm is like….








Moving Forward

20151104_145251It’s time to move forward. To consider what OUCH!less organizational development might actually be. OUCH!less OD is not necessarily a smiley, happy place. It certainly is not a place of certainty. It is however a place with much less shame, blame and guilt; at least shame, blame and guilt caused by the way mainstream OD understands and acts within organizations now.

In the first post of this series I stated that the mainstream approach of OD at present focuses on psychology and structure and that this approach needs balance.

The balancing perspective of psychology is social construction. The balancing perspective of structure is interaction.

Let’s start with social construction. I am going to use an older post to get us going. It was written in 2012 and was originally published in the TMS Learning Exchange. Of all the blog posts I have written over 10 plus years this is one of my favorites. A little longer than usual but a good start I think…


We seem to live in quite a ‘psychological’ world. A world where everyone understands the words ‘ego’, ‘personality’, ‘psyche’, ‘identity’, ‘self’ and so many other words and phrases that, in some way or other, have a sense of individual creation and then ownership attached to them.

The starting point for a world understood psychologically is internal and individual. The first sentence of the prologue of Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, captures this well:

“My life is a story of self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole.”

One of my sincere hopes for 2013 and ongoing is that we find ways to take the best of this psychological perspective and balance it with a social perspective. A perspective where the words ‘construction’, ’emergence’, ‘transformation’ and ‘interaction’ are better understood as part of what makes us who we are at any one point in time. And that who we are is seen not so much as an identity we own, but one that is more fluid, contextual, and shared in its construction by the countless day-to-day interactions we have with others.

I think the pendulum has swung too far to the psychological side and has created a place, for the individual that psychology has created, that too often is lonely and full of guilt, shame and blame. Perhaps with a little more balance toward the social we can find more ‘human’ places to ‘be’.

As the psychological perspective has taken precedence the idea of the individual has become paramount. We, as individuals, are seen as both born with and having created the identity we now own. We are alone in its goodness or badness, its rightness or wrongness, its worth or lack thereof. And it is the I, the individual, who is seen as having sole and unfettered domain over this identity.

As the concept of the psychological individual has become dominant, what that individual should ‘be’ has been idealized in almost every walk of life. We are inundated explicitly and implicitly with what we should be like as a leader, a manager, a mother, father, daughter, son, consumer, citizen and on it goes. These idealized identities are virtually impossible to attain, yet we are somehow supposed to measure up, and as sole proprietors of our identities it is up to us alone to attain these mythical standards of personhood. And when we cannot reach these heights on our own, we find ourselves in this place of guilt, shame and blame.

The gifts of the psychological perspective; deep reflection, a search for greater awareness, comfort with the transpersonal experiences we all share as well as the vast differences we do not, get lost as the pendulum swings too far. No perspective, exclusive of others, is healthy, and I hope we can let the pendulum swing back a little, and our health as perfectly normal humans can be reclaimed.

What does a social perspective bring, and how might it help us to find balance?

A social perspective brings context into focus. A perspective that reminds us that who we are is significantly affected by the place, time, and people we find ourselves in and with. A focus on context allows us to be a little more the product of the space we find ourselves in and a little less of the person that should be able to transcend that space.

A social perspective brings relationship into focus. Relationship and interaction as immediate causal factors in the emergence of our very selves. As we have discovered through complexity science, the relationship between things may be more important than the things themselves and this can be another way of seeing ourselves. A focus on relationship allows us to believe that the potential for true personal and social change resides in every interaction and allows us to see ourselves less as the expression of innate, unchanging characteristics.

A social perspective brings a focus to the present. A realization that the future resides in the here-and-now and that history can be reimagined by how we think about it today. An acceptance that nothing is more important or real than what, or who stands before us at this moment. An understanding that, while we are dramatically influenced by the weight of our histories and the lightness of our futures, we are not shackled to them since we have the capacity to choose in the present. We have the capacity to choose to act into an uncertain future.

A social perspective brings acceptance to irresolvable paradox. Where context is important, rightness and wrongness become more relative, truth is no longer absolute. The heroes and heroines of yesterday can be the pariahs of today. What is accepted in one place and time is not in another and this can be understood. We can find space for difference while not losing our sense of belief. Paradox need not be resolved.

The social perspective allows for the natural existence of uncertainty. George Herbert Mead talked of a ‘conversation of gestures’, where meaning is not found in the initial gesture alone. Meaning emerges from the interplay of gesture AND response. The incredible complexity of our past and as well as our hopes for the future come to bear on each interaction we have and the outcomes of those interactions are founded on this complexity. Uncertainty exists in every interaction we have. It is normal and natural. Acceptance of uncertainty allows us to fail or succeed and move on, rather than being racked by the impression we should have been able to somehow manage the uncertainty away.

Finding a little more balance toward a social perspective is a challenge. A broad challenge. The psychological perspective has influence from our first realizations that we are a separate being: from the first time we are scolded and told to ‘think about what you have done!’; from the first time we walk into a school and experience a teacher; from the first time we are told who the heroes and heroines of our society are; from the first time we are measured as an individual. We are taught from childhood that we are individuals, and that we are separate and distinct, and these teachings spread into the makings of our institutions, organizations and societies. It no longer seems to be a choice of which perspective we shall take. It is more like the water in our fishbowl, simply an unrecognized need of our existence.

My hope for more balance is not unfounded. As we struggle with the individual consequences of a pendulum swung too far, there are hints that perhaps a choice of perspective does indeed exist. The challenges of unprecedented levels of depression, stress, bullying, and a resurgence of fundamentalism are not being adequately addressed by a psychological approach. There are hints of change needed, some even from within:

James Hillman and Michael Ventura in their book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse say “…Because psychotherapy is only working on that ‘inside’ soul. By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can’t do its job anymore.” Robert Aziz in his book The Syndetic Paradigm: The Untrodden Path Beyond Freud and Jung states, “In great contrast then, to the highest symbol of the Jungian Paradigm, the archetype of the self – which is linear as opposed to nonlinear, concretized and fixed as opposed to dynamic – the highest symbol of the Syndetic Paradigm is that of the Empty Mandala.”

But perhaps more importantly for me are the hints of change I see with the people I work with. Having shifted focus away from many of the dominant perspectives that inform organizational development work, most being psychologically based in the service of certainty, I now focus with people on the day-to-day interactions they have. And how those interactions create patterns that may be sustaining and how we might consider changing those interactions. We talk openly about the uncertainty of our organizational lives, and that even in the midst of this uncertainty we will move on together, because that’s what we do.

The stories and experiences people have in organizations resonate with this perspective. We see ourselves much more fully. In many cases we can position the trappings of organizational process and procedure as simply more formal platforms for the continuing conversations that make up what we call organizations.

It is a more balanced perspective I think, and one that seems to fit, just a little better, with what we experience, what we live in our lives and our organizations.

I hope for a balance since a swing too far to a social perspective may create a focus where context is paramount and individual choice is meaningless, where irresolvable paradox swallows belief, and where uncertainty paralyzes decision. No perspective exclusive of others is healthy.

In 1914, on the brink of the first Great War Natsume Soseki in his book Kokoro wrote “Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern world, so full of freedom, independence and our own egotistical selves.” We have been paying this price for quite some time and my hope is that we now can begin to choose not to pay it quite so much.

I hope that we choose to balance a psychological perspective with a social one and perhaps find ourselves with a different way of understanding where such wars, both internal and external are no longer a price to pay.

Are You Doing What You Love?

20151104_145251There is little that irritates me more than hearing OD people, or anyone for that matter talk about ‘doing what you love’. I close down videos and web casts, walk out of rooms, throw out articles and come close to banging my head against walls when I hear someone pontificate on doing what we love. We are encouraged to seek out, in a job, what we love, our deepest calling, our destiny, and other endless piles of rhetoric that just make us feel inadequate when we cannot find it.

Keep in mind that the foundation for interaction in organizations is economic (its purpose). Rarely do you find those things listed above in economics. I will be questioning their actual existence in a future post.

It’s a good time to re-use an older post that deals with this topic with a little addition to the end.  This post was originally written in 2012 and edits and additions are in red.


There’s a lot of talk in the OD world about passion and doing what you have a passion for, what you love.  So just imagine what it might be like if everyone in the world took this sage advice and went looking to find the work they had this wonderful passion for.  You’re probably now wondering where your next meal is going to come from, you have no place to live in and you’re walking the streets naked.  Well, there likely wouldn’t be too many streets to walk either.

Too much of this OD rhetoric treats passion and doing what we love as something to be found, a wonderful destination ‘out there somewhere’, and our work is to search until we find this nirvana.  Besides being an arrogant slap in the face of the 99% of the world that has to work at something to get by economically to the next day, week or month it is a devastating message about passion itself.

The message is that passion lies outside of us somewhere.  That passion is not a choice to be made but a destination to be discovered.

To me it represents another example of the problems with the creative tension model  However; this example grates on me like nails down a chalkboard.  Certainly, I hate what I see as the arrogance of it but perhaps more importantly I think it compromises our capacity of choice.  And when it comes right down to it, is there anything more central to our identities than the power to choose.

I think it is far more powerful (and realistic) to see passion as a choice.

When passion is seen as a choice we cannot escape ourselves and off load the idea that somewhere out there is a place, thing or job that will ‘unleash’ our passion.  Yes, ‘unleash’ which is another very popular word in OD circles these days.  Unleash our passion like it has been chained up somewhere; probably by some boss, teacher, circumstance, whatever we might choose that is outside of ourselves and getting in the way of us being passionate.

Those who see passion as a destination tend to be always looking for something better.  Their ‘current state’ is never good enough and typically the reason for this lies somewhere outside of them.  They’re always waiting for something better and looking for someone or something to blame when the wait gets too long.  They tend to be generally unhappy in a subtle way and a drain on the energy of those around them.

Those who see passion as a choice do good work, even if it may seem mostly meaningless.  Primarily because it is them doing it and they have the power to choose to do good work or not.  And even if the work is mostly meaningless they choose to bring meaning to it by building relationships with those they work with.  The choice may have little to do with the actual tasks at hand and more with the context in which those tasks are done.  And those that see passion as a choice see the most important context in the work they do is quite simply, them.

A few weeks ago I heard a CEO talking to a small group of new employees I had the privilege of working with.  One of the things he said to them was to be passionate about what they do.  The ‘do’ of that statement could be anything; the passionate part was their choice.

What choice are you making?

2017 – This tendency that OD has to place passion, loving what we do and other emotional components as something to be found ‘somewhere’ in organizations (like the holy grail) contributes greatly to the dynamic of shame, blame and guilt. It is an example of anthropomorphizing organizations beyond the metaphorical and into perceived reality.

If we are brutally honest, most of the actual work we do is personally meaningless! How we do that work and how we do it with others has meaning, it is an expression of our identity that could occur in any organization, anywhere at any time.

So the next time you hear someone babbling about doing what you love; just leave.

Learning and Development – Measurement

20151104_145237It’s pretty much unavoidable to look at the topic of learning and development in organizations without looking at measurement. Unfortunately the topic of measurement in learning and development often creates levels of frustration that no other area of learning and development does.

I think a lot of this frustration, a lot of the OUCH! is created by the typical way in which we understand organizations which of course informs how we understand learning and development. As noted in earlier posts the primary way learning and development occurs in organizations is through content focused events. Even though these are seen as cost effective they are still expensive. The real problem though is that they are typically seen as the only thing, the only activity that is supposed to change behavior and thus positively affect performance in the organization.

If you have a single event that has a large price tag and that single event is supposed to be the primary variable in affecting performance it makes all kinds of sense to ask, ‘what is the return on this investment?’

I think that in many ways the frustrations felt in trying to respond to this question are not so much frustrations with the question itself, but that the question surfaces the real problem of content focused learning events.

They don’t change behavior!

We all know this but we continue to engage in these singular events and then end up doing a whole lot more non valuable work trying to measure their impact and it cannot be effectively done!


Given that the point of L&D initiatives is to change behavior you have a real problem when the above question is asked if your primary design for learning is a content focused event.

A lot of the OUCH! in measuring the effectiveness of learning and development disappears when the design shifts to extended time frame context focused initiatives. When we look at things like executive coaching, mentoring and even action learning initiatives two things tend to happen in terms of measurement:

  1. It is not a priority
  2. It takes a subjective or qualitative format

It could be argued that this happens because this type of learning design tends to be reserved for more senior people and they have the power to legitimize these two points. You could also argue that the effectiveness of the design itself is what is causing the above to occur. My guess is that it is both. But if you are in an organization or situation when measurement of L&D is a priority the second point is very important.

The most effective way to measure the impact of learning and development is to use subjective or qualitative methods.

If you want to go deeper into the details of qualitative measurement I have found value in the book  Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods: Integrating Theory and Practice by Michael Quinn Patton. There are other resources focusing on this area as well if you check into it a little further.

In a nutshell however, especially with L&D initiatives qualitative measurement is most effective when it takes the following format:

  • Collection of individual ‘stories’ of application and impact of the learning initiative to business scenarios.
  • Analysis of enough stories to extract ‘themes’ of the impact.
  • Sharing of these themes and making the actual stories available for review by others.

In many ways the informal process of sharing stories is what sustains the use of things like coaching and mentoring. You will often hear people (often senior people) who passionately tell their stories of how valuable a coaching process has been or how much impact a mentor had on them early in their career.

As you move to extended time frame, context focused designs you are really just formalizing and doing a bit more analysis of this story sharing process.

This type of measurement or evaluation is a shift from the typical attempts at quantitative evaluation so it is important to incorporate this shift right into the design of any initiative. Trying to add this on to the end of an initiative typically is quite difficult. People need to know how evaluation is going to happen so they are prepared and can consider their stories right from the start.

The other thing this type of evaluation does is put the primary accountability for evaluation on the learner and how they are applying their learning in a business context. Most quantitative evaluation methods of learning initiatives do a very poor job at this.

If you are in an organization that is adamant about measuring the return on investment of learning, the faster you can get to qualitative evaluation the better. The causal factors affecting the value and impact of learning are very complex. Quantitative evaluation of learning almost always will force you into looking for simple causal (often one to one or A to B) factors. Since these do not exist for complex learning topics your quantitative measures are always at risk of scrutiny by someone who wants to question them and you will be mostly defenseless when this happens.

Moving to a qualitative evaluation process inhibits this significantly. It is very hard to refute a large number of practical stories from participants that say the learning is having a business impact. On the other hand it is also very hard to refute a large number of stories that say the learning is having little impact!

However isn’t this what we want from our evaluation of learning?

What are your learning evaluation stories?