Tag Archives: change

A glossary of contemporary management terms II – transformation(al)

Transformation, a marked change in form or appearance, is one of the most widely used words in contemporary management vocabulary after leadership and delivery (future posts). Quite often it is used in conjunction with leadership: everybody knows since Burns and Bass that leaders are transformational and managers are transactional. It goes without saying. Linking transformation to leadership is another blast of air into the already over-inflated concept of leadership given that most leadership activity involves humdrum, every day tasks and conversations. It creates anxiety for leaders and unrealistic expectations from those they lead.butterfly

The idea of transformation is part of the charismatic tendency in management thinking and talking and fits well with other alluring, quasi-religious ideas such as vision and passion. It is no longer enough just to change something, or even to try and keep things the same, forgetting that there are many social traditions and practices which persist because they serve us well, there must be a commitment to transform them. The promise of transformation feeds into what one might think of as the anxiety narrative about change, which we can’t achieve completely enough or quickly enough, as other competitors catch us up and pass us by, particularly the Indians and the Chinese.

Implied in the rush to transform things are a number of assumptions about the role and capabilities of leaders and managers, time, and valuations of the good. Continue reading


From quantity to quality

I had been invited to work with a group identified as ‘talented potential leaders’ in a large public sector organisation in a European country. Workers in the organisation were highly likely to be users of the organisation’s services, a bit like workers in the NHS in the UK because of the size and scope of the organisation. To an extent, then, there is no inside and no outside, no clear-cut distinction between the employees and the ‘customer experience’: employees had very direct access to what it meant to use the organisation’s services, which were widely available.

My role was to encourage the ‘talent’ group to think about how they are thinking, to identify some of the organisational patterns they found themselves caught up in, and to think about how the organisation did strategy. To what extent were accepted ways of undertaking strategy in the organisation helpful? How did they square with their own experience of making plans and trying to implement them?

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Putting the ‘cult’ into culture

This week saw the publication of another report into an organisation, the Mid-Staffordshire hospital, which was deemed to have been poorly managed, and therefore to have seriously and dangerously failed its service users. Some of the contributing factors to organisational failure were thought to be the management team and board’s slavish persuance of government initiatives, which led to keeping an over-tight rein on the budget in order that the hospital might qualify to become a Foundation hospital, and/or superficial management to targets. By implication the inspection regime must also be at fault since the hospital seems to have passed a variety of inspections.

From this and other examples, what are some repeating patterns in organisational life, and assumptions informing them? What sorts of things do leaders and managers, board members and government ministers seem to be thinking about management and leadership that might be contributing to the mess?

Apologies in advance for the caricature – it is the weekend. Continue reading

Attempts to make the uncertain certain

I was rung up the other week by someone who worked in a management team in a development organisation, which wanted to try some new initiatives in three ‘fragile states’. It had become clear to them that traditional ways of working, adopting and following logical planning instruments, were inadequate in these particular dynamic and fast-moving contexts, and they were keen to try a different approach. I began to discuss the possibility of working experimentally: with the teams already working in-country, why not start with what they would like to do. Take the first steps, reflect on it, see how it had gone, and then take the next steps. Repeat the process over again. The programme would evolve as new possibilities emerged, although it would take a good deal of discussion and judgement. Programme coherence would build up with retrospective sense-making over time. ‘Yes, but can you prove that this way of working is effective?’, my co-respondent asked.

In a recent journal article I described the way in which staff in an organisation I had a great deal of experience with had tried over time to reflect systematically on the way they were working. This involved acting with intention, but regularly being open to puncturing and questioning these intentions through discussion, reflection and involving the subjects of their intentions by asking them what they thought of the work. It often involved taking two steps forward and one step back, and seeing the process of reflection and discussion not as an adjunct to the work, but as the work itself. The staff often had to work to tight deadlines, to cut short their deliberations to meet them, so were not in any way paralysed by talking rather than doing. Talking was a form of doing. One of the reviewers of the article commented that this was all very well, but what had I actually said about working differently? What would an ideal model of working actually look like?

I was supporting an organisation think about how they might assess work they were doing in East and West Africa where they had made an explicit commitment to their donor that they would focus on what they thought would be sustainable ways of working. That is to say, instead of providing services or materials as such, they would support local stakeholders, central and local government officers, local organisations, politicians and local councillors to work out what their problems were and what they wanted to do about them. The staff in the organisation I was supporting were clear that they had expertise to offer, but the problems were not theirs to ‘solve’. They would support, cajole, facilitate, discuss, offer training if necessary or seed initiatives. But since the inception of the programme the relations with the donor had changed, partly owing to a change in personnel in the donor. Now the donor required ‘objective evidence’ that this way of working produced results, and that these results would be transferable elsewhere. Exactly which kinds of ‘instruments’ were they using to encourage local discussion, and how could they be validated?

In each of these three examples I would argue that there is an illusory quest for certainty. Continue reading

Values and identity in organisations

In any consultancy one of the first things I pay attention to is the way that the temporary colleagues I am working with try and catch me up in their ways of describing the world. Employees in every organisation have a particular way of understanding the work and each organisation has its own particular history. In daily practice all of these ways of seeing are mostly obvious to those caught up in them and don’t need explaining. They are simply the way the world is. To this extent they are ideological, if by ideology we mean a way of presenting the world as though there were no other way of understanding it. With my presence, as an outsider, staff are obliged to explain what they mean by what they say. They bump up against difference and otherness, and from this encounter they are encouraged to detach themselves temporarily from their immersion in what seems obvious to them so that they explain things to me. One of the principal things a consultant brings, then, is difference. Continue reading

Caught up in anxiety III

In the workshop there has been much talk of renewal: we cannot continue as if it were business as usual, things have to change. This produces both excitement and anxiety amongst people and we take the opportunity to remind people that there is always change, but also continuity as well.

But what form will this change take? There is a tendency to think in terms of spatial metaphors. It will be a ‘new direction’, we will need to change our ‘positioning’, this is what we will be doing ‘going forwards’, where do we want to be in five years time? All of this is very future-oriented. A number of participants are beginning to worry that we haven’t defined enough new things to do: it doesn’t feel ‘concrete’ enough.

The difficulty is that there is a tendency to try and contemplate the new in traditional ways. So, for example, all week we have been discussing how important it is to explore similarities and differences, to agree to disagree, to stay with the difference that makes a difference. However, some of us would still like to do games and exercises that are based on consensus, even in situations where no consensus is needed to do what needs being done. This way of thinking manifests traditional organisational thinking, of  the need to share the vision, or align our values. It pretends to try and guarantee that what we would like to happen will definitely come about.

What very few people are paying attention to, however, is what we are becoming in pursuit of our renewal. In contemplation of what we might be we have already begun to change. Renewal, then, starts in the here and now, in our interactions and struggles over what we mean by what we say. How have we begun to change in the engagement with each other’s otherness?