Thursday, November 19, 2009

Invigorating Organizations

What happens when two great ideas collide? We could get a new element or a nuclear explosion. The two great ideas that came together for me was when I was considering the problem of invigorating an organization that is disempowered and hobbled by age and size.

I'm speaking generally, of course, of a pattern of any organization of a certain size that is old enough and battle worn enough to have lost it's way. Individual employees simply do not believe that or understand how they contribute to the whole. Leaders are flummoxed by the scope of problems, and are tempted to throw bandaids at them. Flying bandaids don't exactly inspire the staff, but the staff also have no voice to say so.

The revelation when considering the problem is a combination of ideas from Jim Diers and Malcolm Gladwell when they consider community. What if we were to view an organization as a collection of communities with assets that can be harnessed for the greater good?

Why assets?

Asset based assessment is based on the idea of energizing a community to contribute what it can, rather than pouring resources in to it's weaknesses. The first step to reform is to find out where our great assets are in the community and engage them. People are involved, rather than passive participants. I compare this to the traditional organizational assessment where it's weaknesses are identified. Any one of us could go home depressed if our weaknesses are exposed and analysed. Not to say that such assessments have no value. We do have to take stock once in a while. But the trick is that resolution is not based on what we don't have, but on what we do.

Why community?

What does an organization have in common with a community, and why would we engage communities rather than, say, indivitual change champions or consultants? Organizations have a lot in common with communities. It is a collection of people with common (sometimes) interests, gathered at a place and time. Gladwell and Diers point out that communities can be nurturing places that allow people to be great. In his book "Outliers", Gladwell shows how apparently "self made men" and women were given a great boost by the environment they were raised in. Communities make a great contribution towards individual health and development. Revitalized communities attract.

We need consultants, too. Sometimes we need those kind outsiders to gently point out what we already know. But anyone who has worked on a project with a change champion or with a consultant will know; reporting or consulting on the problem, and coming up with a list of recommendations, is only the very start of the show. We still have an organization to engage. And they haven't been invited to the party yet. All they've seen so far is flying bandaids, and how do they know that this time it will be any different? How do we engage every person in the organization towards positive change?

What does community do better?

When I heard Jim Diers speak this week, he gave a handy list of what communities do better.

  • Care for the earth

  • Power to prevent crime

  • Care for one another

  • Demand justice

How could this translate to an organizational community? Well, right off I could see that energized groups of staff would be great at:

  • Implementing green solutions in the workplace

  • Increase compliance with internal checks and balances (reduce white collar fraud)

  • Care for one another (more positive interactions with the public)

  • Alert their leadership to weaknesses within (before, say, it gets public)

I am reminded also of the principles of Kaizen, where individuals are engaged to make small, incremental changes in areas they can control, and leadership is engaged to promote the large scale innovations that will help the organization leap forward. Middle management, as usual, are in the middle, helping both groups stay engaged.

Ideal Size and Bumping Places

A spin-off idea from all this is in the engaging and implementing of such an idea. What is the ideal size of an organization or community so that individuals are engaged? In Gladwell's book, Tipping Point, he suggests the ideal size is 200 people. Jim Diers says the ideal size of a community is about 6,000 people. Any bigger, and people are not engaged. Within that community, however, there must be gathering places, or bumping places, where we see the same faces and meet the same people on a regular basis. It's this sense that we are part of a larger community that helps people be engaged rather than be a faceless sojurner.

I'm running out of time but not ideas. I must pick up this thought and expand on it. Where, in a large organization, can the communities of practice bump in to each other and engage? I don't know about you, but the idea of energizing a large organization, as Diers did so effectively in the city of Seattle, inspires me. I think we've got a new element here. Not an explosion. And certainly not flying bandaids.