Archive for May, 2010

Overcoming Your History- Part III

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

We are in week three of a series that began by asking the following question, why do some organizations find it next to impossible to affect real cultural change even when faced with the clear signs of decline or with a crisis that threatens to undermine or destabilize them?  My answer, they have not developed the muscular leadership and courage necessary to overcome their own history.  Overcoming your history could be defined as the ability to critique and honor your history simultaneously.  

I have been using Edgar H. Schein’s work on organization culture to get at this issue of overcoming history.  This week we examine level three, structures and processes.  It is at this level that the dysfunctional nature of an organization is most clearly evident.  Dysfunction can be defined as an environment where employees use most of their imagination and energy to create processes that maintain a broken system.  Over time these valuable people become accustom to the dysfunction and begin to view it as normal until a new hire arrives that needs to be trained.

Level three-organizational structures and processes:  Why do we do it that way?  Does that make sense?  Is this an efficient, cost-effective or a good use of time and energy? Are these decisions being filtered through the organization’s vision and mission?  Anyone who has experienced a rookie year in an organization knows about the honeymoon period when you are allowed to ask obvious, disturbing and often accurate questions about the organization’s unique structures and processes. This honeymoon period is allowed in order to bring a newcomer up to speed on how things are done.  Certain amounts of history and information must be shared in order to acclimate this person to the convoluted way that the culture has learned to cope with the crisis and change that occasionally threatens its values and shared assumptions.  This orientation is done to help a new colleague learn the copping mechanisms necessary to function in a dysfunctional manner.  The result is a culture given to passive-aggressive tendencies where employees are taught to survive by smiling, not disagreeing and flying below the radar.  People in these cultures are afraid to criticize and reluctant to change because they are exhausted by continual directives to implement one hair-brained scheme after another that promise to fix the problems on level three but ignore the obvious failures at levels one and two.  This is not change, it is insanity disguised as innovation.

Quick Point:  most organizations do something known as “exit interviews” when supposedly departing employees are asked for their insights and observations regarding their experience with the organization.  Rumor has it that upper management distills these insights and observations for data that could be used to make the organization more effective or efficient.  This is just a rumor.  My suggestion is that organizations do “entrance interviews” immediately following the training of a new hire.  The new person is asked if anything seemed strange, bizarre, inefficient or just plain bonkers.  Then they are asked if they have any ideas or suggestions for correcting the situation.  I know this sounds crazy but it’s worth a try.

I planned to stop at this point but I changed my mind.  Next week I will discuss how an organization overcomes its history to create a healthy, creative and thriving community.

Overcoming Your History- Part II

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Last week we began this conversation about why some organizations find it next to impossible to affect real cultural change even when faced with the clear signs of decline or with a crisis that threatens to undermine or destabilize them.  I believe that a primary skill all growing and healthy organizations must acquire is the ability to overcome their own history.  Overcoming your history could be defined as the ability to critique and honor your history simultaneously.  Most organizations are all about the honor part but it is the ability to critique one’s own history that allows the freedom to create a new future.

I am using the work of Edgar H. Schein to highlight the three levels of organization culture that if not understood and addressed will prevent an organization from realizing the kind of changes that allow it to overcome its history and create a new future.   Schein’s three levels of organizational culture from the least visible level to the most visible they are:  1) underlying assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and feelings, 2) values expressed in terms of strategies, goals and philosophies, and 3) structures and processes. This week we will discuss level two.

Level two contains the values that have been constructed to maintain the underlying assumptions of the organization.  These values are often attributed to the previous leader or to the founder of the organization and they reflect the institution’s strategies, goals, and philosophies that are the source of the culture’s shared assumptions.  Originally these values are productive, successful and provided the organization with a sense of stability and security.  The organization comes to depend on these values in times of crisis and instability; however, if over time they begin to prove inadequate or inappropriate for managing crisis the organization can be faced with a high level of anxiety caused by the growing discrepancy between its underlying assumptions and the failure of its values.  Rather than questioning its assumptions and assessing its values, some institutions resort to distorting, denying, projecting or falsifying the data as a defense mechanism against the possibility that its shared assumptions and values are no longer accurate or adequate.  Even if those in the organization know that the values have become mere words used to market the organization to its external constituents, the very idea of challenging either the assumptions or the values is taboo.  The point where this dysfunctional response of denial has the most immediate and visible effect is at level three, the structures and the processes of the organization. 

So if your wondering what it looks like to work in one of these organizations,  tune in next week for Part III.

Overcoming Your History-Part I

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Have you ever wondered why it is that some organizations just cannot seem to create or facilitate real change no matter how much they talk about it or how many meetings, confabs and informal discussions they schedule?  Well, there are many reasons but one of the most ignored reasons is that they are unable to overcome their own history.  This problem of  institutional history is especially difficult if the organization experienced a period or periods of significant success.   Affecting change in any organization presupposes the ability to do two things simultaneously:  celebrate and honor your history while also allowing an honest critique of it.  This honor/critique balance is what provides an organization the freedom to create its future by thinking strategically and empowering its leaders to make the needed changes necessary to realize that future. 

Over the next three weeks I will be utilizing the work of Edgar H. Schein to highlight the three levels of organizational culture that if not understood and addressed will prevent an organization from realizing the kind of changes that allow it to overcome its history and create a new future.   Schein identifies three levels to any organization that must be recognized and evaluated if one is to understand the culture of that organization. From the least visible level to the most visible they are 1) underlying assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and feelings, 2) values expressed in terms of strategies, goals and philosophies, and 3) structures and processes. This week we will discuss level one. 

   

Level one, underlying assumptions, poses the most difficult challenge because it is the least conscious level of an organization but drives most of the decision-making.  One of the reasons this level is unconscious or subconscious is because its power to shape the culture depends on a shared history, but that shared history is not fully understood or shared by everyone in the organization.   Most people working in a organization have little if any knowledge of the “whole history” that has shaped the institution.  Their knowledge comes in bits and pieces and is seldom accompanied by an interpretive grid that helps them negotiate the rituals, behaviors and practices that have become institutional tradition.  If an institutional history has been written, it is seldom a critical piece of scholarship that serves as a helpful road map for the organization as it attempts to evaluate the more dysfunctional habits that frustrate attempts at real change. 

The unhealthy power of subconsciously shared assumptions is that they utilize a fragmentary history of former institutional success to create an environment in which any attempt to question the current leadership or decision making is viewed as awkward, inappropriate or just plain disloyal.  Dysfunctional cultures tend to produce dysfunctional leaders entrusted with the task of being true to the organization, which being interpreted means, they try to maintain the institution as it was when it was at its best.  Another way of saying this, the organization’s future is based on its past success and its leaders will be chosen based on how well they can create a future that reflects its past.

Next week, Overcoming Your History-Part II.

 


Holding the Tensions

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

The Christian faith is full of tensions that make living the faith difficult at times.  Christians have been wrestling with these tensions for over two thousand years.  Though we would like to finally resolve some of these tensions and be done with them, I would suggest that a great part of learning to live life with true joy and freedom is found in learning to navigate life’s tensions rather than trying to fix or control them.  I just thought that I would list a few of the tensions apparent in the Christian faith that make it a challenging way to think and live, because after all, Christianity is a faith that demands both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  That, by the way, is the first tension.

Trintitarian Theology- God is 3 and 1, that is not even good math but it is the long standing testimony of the church since the first century.  How this understanding of God works itself out logically and theologically is, well, it’s a tension.

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, simultaneously, one person, two natures, where the two natures are not in conflict with one another.

The Church is the body of Christ, visible and invisible, one and many, born of the spirit yet struggling with sin.

Christians claim to be citizens of two worlds, heaven and earth.  How does that work exactly?  So do we strive for justice and mercy in this world or believe that God will provide them in heaven?  Or is the answer yes?

According to our faith, Christians are incarnate spirits living through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.  So we are more than our bodies and we live everyday via a power that defeated death. 

I think that is enough for today.  Just listing these six tensions left me needing a nap.  If you manage to resolve any one of these during the next week please let me know so I can cross it off my list.  Oh, and explain to me how you did it so I’ll have material for my next blog.