What is your organisation made of? Slime?

Sometimes I have done Organisational Design (OD) work. OD is often part of the bridge between Strategy and Implementation. But we don’t usually talk about slime!

What is an organisation made of?

If we are building a new, or renovating an existing, organisation – what building materials do we need? Typically we may think about people, accommodation, IT, machinery, office equipment, etc.

We might think about connectivity between staff

and with customers and suppliers.

When we think about people we may think about grades, roles, specialisms plus a very long list of required knowledge, skills and experience (see almost any long form Job Description). We might even think about personality types (Myers Briggs, DeBono hats, FIRO-B, thinking styles etc). We might even think about values (if we are allowed to).

But where in all that do we build two core engines into the fabric of the organisation?

  • Firstly, hard work, high efficiency, high productivity (lean) and continuous improvement. And;
  • Secondly, how are we integrating change as a constant, promoting innovation, enabling free-thinking, experimentation and risk taking?

 Are these two separate types of employee or just one?

If we only want one type, then how is the people specification skewed? Towards innovation and change (in whch case we might take a hit on our productivity) or towards ‘the machine’ (in which case we might take a hit on competitiveness).

Is there another way to do this?

How about we build our people organisation out of ‘flip-flops’? Let’s assume that most people are flip-flops. I.e. they can operate in both modes (divergent thinking and convergent thinking / highly productive delivery and shooting the breeze).

Maybe which mode people operate in depends on how they are treated and how they are tasked? I have met and worked with people who are highly productive some of the time and totally chaotic but inspirational at others. The catalogue of personality types mentioned above may be useful for raising our own awareness of our default preferences but they may in turn trick us into thinking that these preferences are fixed or at least ‘sticky’. What if our preferences for thinking and behaviour and activity were all situation dependent? So when we want to shift from ‘factory efficiency’ mode to ‘design and creativity’ mode we don’t have to change the people.

Maybe we just have to change their situation.

Helping people to act differently

This is already done extensively in workshops and design seminars where people are encouraged to think strategically, envision futures, identify missions and wordsmith visions etc.

We take people out of their usual context to an off-site away-day or seminar. We   expect them to leave their ‘normal’ mode at the venue door and to somehow be a different thinker for the day. I have done lots of this – designing and facilitating change interventions. And it can work well. For a day. Then, back ‘at the farm’ the next day and it is back to situation normal.

So, where else can we turn to in order to explore ideas about sustaining two modes of working?

Slime!

Slime?

 Or rather to ‘non-Newtonian’ fluids, the goo that runs through your fingers like thick gravy but strongly resists a sudden tug or punch.

We want to build our organisations of a substance that is malleable to Change. So when the pressure is on we can innovate and adapt. But we also want a material that resists negative shocks and any attempts to unravel positive changes.

Collectively the slime moves easily when compressed and then holds fast when the  pressure is taken off.

So, slime is the perfect organisational fabric. Change and movement is easy when under pressure and yet resilient to unwanted movement once at rest. Snails, who use a slime to move about and to hunker down on rocks, are the new change heroes!

How do we design slime-like characteristics into organisations? 

People slime

How do we get people to behave like slime? Maybe they already do and it is just that we don’t notice it.

Can we see examples of people changing their mode of working under certain conditions? For example, post rotation. All change every 2 years. Handovers lasting up to 1 day maximum permitted, otherwise it is ‘use fresh eyes’ and ‘in at the deep-end’ heroics.

Maybe that act of being thrown in at the deep-end is a trigger that switches most people from productivity / efficiency to divergent, creative  thinking mode? And maybe it is the passage of time and increasing familiarity with our new domain that encourages us to strive for implementing and embedding our new ideas with a focus on efficiency rather than paradigm change.

When we want people to switch mode do we:

  • Alter their basis for getting paid?
  • Change their place of work (beyond that initial away-day)?
  • Mix up teams so they are working with new colleagues.
  • Amend their tasking (what they are asked to do)?
  • Provide active support for switching?
  • Reward their flexibility in tangible terms?

  How well do our HR policies and employment contracts support such ideas?

Key question: Does the slime metaphor help us to explore new ways of getting people to behave differently in our new organisations?

Here is the link to this week’s goo picture!

Happy goo hunting.

Nigel

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