Some Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You Will Be Compromised…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflect on Power


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

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

Interaction Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Be Critical and Ask for Evidence


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

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

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

Interaction Model

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

Some common examples of things that do this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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….