A conceptual tr…

A conceptual trap is to the thought world of the mind what the astronomers’ black holes are to the universe. Once inside, there seems to be no way of getting out or seeing out…Margaret Mead said that when she journeyed in her anthropological studies from tribe to tribe she discovered that it did not matter what was done in a particular tribe–it only mattered who did it. If the weaving in a particular tribe was done by men, it was an occupation of high prestige. If twenty miles away weaving was done by women, it was of low prestige…It is interesting that [most economists] thought this way too. When they speak of labor creating value and about payment for that value, it is very clear the labor they are talking about is not the labor of women in the home. The labor that creates value and is “productive” is industrial labor and in most generations has been the labor of men. The labor of women in bearing and caring for children, for example, was not considered, despite it being absolutely fundamental to an entire economy and culture.

From “Patriarchy as a Conceptual Trap” by Elizabeth Dodson Grey

Clarity Circles

A clarity circle is a process by which a group of people helps a person through an important life choice by ONLY asking questions — to help them perceive the realities, assumptions, and emotions that underlie their dilemma. The person facing the important choice sits in a chair, and the other members form a semi circle around her. The circle starts with the person in the middle explaining their dilemma or life choice. The other members then take turns asking open-ended and non-leading questions, which are each answered by the person in the center. The process continues until the person in the center has achieved clarity around the issue.

…Too often in…

…Too often in organizational life, people begin analyzing problems by personalizing them (“If only Joe was a leader…”) or attributing the situation to interpersonal conflict (“Sally and Bill don’t collaborate very well because their work styles are so at odds”). This tendency often obscures a deeper; more systemic (and perhaps more threatening) understanding of the situation. For example, “Sally and Bill represent conflicting perspectives on the tough strategic trade-offs that need to be made in our harsh economic climate, and each is protecting the functions and jobs of their own people. The conflict is structural, not personal, even if it’s taken on a personal tone.” To counteract the personalization of problems, start with diagnosing and acting on the system (“moving outside in”) and then do the same for the self (“moving inside out”).

Heifetz, The practice of adaptive leadership, p. 8

You know best w…

You know best who you really are by watching what you do rather than listening to what you say. The only way you can really know what you believe in comes from the times when one belief comes into conflict with something else you say you believe in. It does not mean much to say you believe in something if it is so far down on your list of cherished values that you never have to act on it.

Heifetz, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, p 45

Fritjof Capra’s Dual Nature of Organizational Structure

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Fritjof Capra, in The Hidden Connections, poses a dual nature of business organization. (In the term “business” I am including any group of people that constitute a workplace both for profit and not for profit companies.)

Businesses are both 1) social institutions designed for specific purposes (such as making money, managing distributions of political power, transmitting knowledge, or spreading religious faith, and 2) communities of people who interact with each other, build relationships, help each other, and make their daily activities meaningful at a personal level.

Peter Senge (in Capra) characterizes one as a “machine for making money” and the other as a “living being.”

The first type of organization is mechanistic. It comes from classical management theories of the early twentieth century. All the thinking is done by the managers and designers, leaving all the doing to the employees (Taylor, in Capra). A fast food chain is a perfect example of the first type of organization. It doesn’t matter who is hired, they fulfill the same role each time. It is characterized by formal structures–clear lines of communication, coordination, and control. This approach has been successful in increasing efficiency and productivity, but workers in these types of organizations feel animosity and resentment to the organization.

At the same time, there exists the second type of organization in any business–the informal living organization comprised of human beings. This is a fluid and fluctuating network of communication. This is where the organization’s flexibility, creativity, and learning capability reside. Skills are exchanged; tacit knowledge, “common sense”, and meaning are generated. When new people join or leave the organization, the informal network changes or breaks down and restructures itself. Smart managers recognize that there is an interplay between the organization’s formal structures and its informal living networks. Typically, they will allow the formal structures handle the routine work while relying on the informal structures to handle work that doesn’t fit within the routines.

Interesting Quotes:

“People [in organizations] do not resist change; they resist having change imposed on them.”

“If organizations were truly living communities, buying and selling them would be the equivalent of slavery, and subjecting the lives of their members to predetermined goals would be seen as dehumanizing.”

“A machine can be controlled; a living system . . . can only be disturbed. Working wtih the processes inherent in living systems means that we do not need to spend a lot of energy to move an organization. There is no need to push, pull, or bully it to make it change. For or energy are not the issue; the issue is meaning.”

“…intelligent, alert people rarely carry out instructions exactly to the letter.”

On the profound conflict between biological time and computer time:

“People feel that they have hardly any time for quiet reflection, and since reflective consciousness is one of the defining characteristics of human nature, the results are profoundly dehumanizing.”

“What to do with that spare time [created through technology and increased efficiency] becomes a question of values. It can be distributed among the individuals in the organization–thus creating time for them to reflect, organize themselves, network, and gather for informal conversations–or the time can be extracted from the organization and turned into profits for its top executives and shareholder by making people work more and thus increasing the company’s productivity.”

Is the belief in efficiency getting in our way?

In reading the book “Walk Out, Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now“, I am reconsidering the idea of efficiency and how it might be a hindrance to our ultimate success in organizations and communities.Author Wheatley talks of an unreachable “optimal state” and how this makes efficiency elusive. She advocates instead for a resiliency model. Such a system, “…has the capacity to rebound from disturbance…by increasing its diversity and redundancy, by forgoing growth and speed in favor of sustainability, and by engaging in a wide range of small local actions that connect to one another.” A resilient agricultural system might be local so as not to rely on a single element like supply of oil to transport food grown far away, or it might practice a labor intensive form of agriculture like permaculture. A resilient community might use local herbs to treat disease rather than relying on access to pharmaceutical drugs that are made far away and are in short supply.

Similarly, a resilient business might embrace the “local” concept by cultivating leadership and a diverse skill set in its employees–and spread out decision making authority beyond its executive team so as not to rely on the “oil” to spread leadership from the executives to the other workers. It would consider the strengths of its workforce, and consider paths toward its purpose utilizing these skill sets. It would empower its employees to find ways to get their work done without relying too heavily on organizational policy or other departments.

In contrast, efficiency models try to get the most done in the least amount of time. Wheatley says, “The more you optimize elements of a complex system of humans and nature for some specific goal, the more you diminish that systems’ resilience. A drive for an efficient optimal state outcome has the effect of making the total system more vulnerable to shocks and disturbances.” An efficient organization tries to eliminate redundancy and streamline decision-making and processes through specialization and hierarchy.

In order for an organization to value resiliency over efficiency, there would need to be a shared understanding about the illusion of the optimal state. The optimal state does not exist!

When I am planning a project, I try to build in extra cushions of time to make up for the unexpected setbacks that are, in fact, to be expected. As the author said, “Life always bursts through the door–why not expect it?” When I try to explain my cushions in the project plan to someone who wants to or needs to believe in the idea of the optimal state, they want to decrease these cushions and get the project done faster and for less money. If I remove the cushions, then the project ultimately comes in behind schedule. The response then is that we need to work harder, do more, and next time make sure that nothing unexpected happens or gets in the way. Inevitably, something happens again the next time–someone on our team gets sick, our outside vendor is behind schedule, or a computer breaks, and the cycle continues. This leads to discouragement when people work harder and harder, but still see that they are not meeting the goals.

The optimal state illusion is embedded in our political systems, our agriculture systems, and our organizations. Is the drive toward greater and greater efficiency getting in the way in our organizations? How do we break out of this cycle and come to a shared understanding about the illusion of an optimal state so we can work towards resiliency?

Reflection in Action

Recently I had the experience of co-facilitating a group along with a very experienced and skillful facilitator. I found that my response time was lagging, and that she would often jump in to the group discussion before I had formulated my question or comment to the group. I talked to her about the 30-second-delay I was experiencing, and she said that she used to have a 5-minute delay! She had attained her swiftness in response to the group by what Donald Schoen calls “Reflection-in-Action”. In his book, The Reflective Pracitioner (1983) Schoen describes how through a feedback loop of experience, learning and practice, we can continually improve our work and become a ‘reflective practitioner’. The skilled facilitator was improvising, much like Schoen wrote about conversation, “In a good conversation–in some respects predictable and in others not–participants pick up and develop themes of talk, each spinning out variations on her repertoire of things to say. Conversation is collective verbal improvisation. At times it falls into conventional routines…which develop according to a pace and rhythm of interaction that the participants seem, without conscious deliberation, to work out in common within the framework of an evolving division of labor. At other times there may be surprises, unexpected turns of phrase or directions of development to which participants invent on-the-spot responses.”