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Monthly Archives: April 2011

The word avant-garde is little used  anymore these days. referring to advancement and new  the word innovation has replaced the modernistic word avant-garde in the domain in organisation. Reason could be the fact that avant-garde is refers to the world of art. Or maybe avant-garde  is surpassed by the reality and cynicism of the post-modern world. Or may be it is just old-fashioned and out of date.

And at the same time I think it is loss. Innovation is a bloodless word referring to a nearly mechanistic, rational and certainly businesslike form of advancement. Something that can be managed and controlled. Innovation implies a choice free of idealism or conviction, a way forward that just makes sense. It is the nec plus ultra of enlightened modern management.

And at the same time real advancement is rooted in conviction, in idealism, in a deeply felt need to change, in curiosity, in a drive to overcome a stalemate standstill, in pushing the boundaries, because they are there to be pushed. And the word avant-garde implies that kind of drive, mindset and behaviour, not just hyper professional management. Avant garde is about asking the questions that nobody else asks and at the same time it is optimistic, hopeful and human centered about the answers to these questions. Avant garde is about courage and taking risks without feeling so.

Avant garde is also funny, creative and sometime just completely mad. And always mind-blowing original.

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But avant-garde is also about progress. And if  beauty in organisation matters and is about new trade offs and ambitious moonshots, avant-garde is certainly an element that has a much deeper and stronger meaning than the bloodless innovation.

In organisation there is an inclination towards order, predictability, similarity, squareness, repetition, patterns, symmetry. An inclination to prevent chaos, fuzziness, disorder, havoc.

This is in a way  very logical because the reason that organisations exist is to organise something, to make things work in a certain way. That is the whole point of an organisation. And organisations bring a lot of wealth and security, things people can not achieveindividually.

But this natural tendency to fight anarchy can become extreme, in either totalitarianism or boredom.

An alternative approach is to allow or even stimulate  small distortions in a pattern. It gives interesting tension, it leaves room for questions, it provides a dynamic that prevents a stalemate, it allows for evolution.

Designers and artists are master in applying the concept of distortion.

In the realm of organisations the idea of distortion has very useful applications. Managers discretion for special rewards outside the pay grids, to recognise both the employee and the manager. A certain slack in projects to allow for space to find new, not planned solutions. Variations in the workspace of people to cater for individuality. A brochure that not matches the design guided lines, but  changes the guide lines. Price variations that might trigger new customer behaviour. Some non-standard sized teams that give a special meaning to its members.

Distortion is not chaos, distortion exist only when there also is order. In that subtle contradiction lies its power and its beauty.

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Managing by the quality of the coffee.

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People in organisations tend to gather at coffee machines and exchange the various kinds of information that make up the vibes of an organisation. The machines are scattered all over the organisation’s buildings and the quality of the coffee is more drab-like than barista-like. So only caffeine addiction and thirst drives us to these rather pitiful  meeting points of live interaction.

Starbucks proved that coffee can be of other dimensions. Not only in quality and variations of coffee, but also in terms of atmosphere.

Putting in some non-obvious places (at the end of the hall way of the R&D department or in the middle of a production facility, to name some places) a machine that makes the most excellent coffee, could indeed help to make these meeting points great places of interaction. Changing the venue regularly (without notifying anyone) will keep people moving and meeting in new and unexpected combinations.

When management decides that all this spontaneous interaction is just a waste of time, they can do the coffee trick again, but in opposite direction, and return the drab machine at every obvious place you can imagine.

Indeed, coffee can make a difference towards a nicer and more beautiful organisational environment.

The idea of smile is an unorthodox design principle in organisation design, but it can positively influence behavior in an organisation.

There are numerous organisation design principles. Design principles are a set of ideas and convictions that are leading in the decisions made with regard to shaping and forming an organisation. Design principles come in many forms and variations and cover various aspects of an organisation. One of these aspects is structure. Design principles in this field cover  ideas about the span of control, the allergy to matrices, conviction of the benefits of conglomerates, a love for customer segments.

Another design principle are about the interaction between people  such as driving responsibility down the hierarchy of an organisation, decision-making or installing a detailed process of monthly accountability.

Most of these design principles are based on management theory and experience.

A lot of organisations cherish a kind of serious professionalism, a way where convincing based on facts prevails (or the cleverness of politics). That is the way forward, that sets the examples, that is the norm.

Smile comes form another planet. It is a complete different dimension. Smile is about a positive approach. A smile makes people receptive, open. Ask something with a smile and chances that the other will help do increase. Smile as sign  of willingness to communicate, to open the dialogue, to be open to suggestions. And smile works in all directions in an organisation, up, down, horizontally.

Smile is an attitude that opens up relationships.  Smile is a kind of natural behaviour that should get a chance to flourish. Not in an artificial way, (plastic smiles have limited impact), but in true manner. Carefully applied it is a great instrument for designing organisations and providing natural beauty.

Imagine an organisation as a kind of pine tree of triangles that are stacked upon each other, with each  pyramid’s top based at the bottom of the pyramid above it.

The idea is that all leaders (the top of the triangle) are also part of the bottom (team) of a pyramid above them. And that all leaders have team members that are leaders of their own team (the underlying pyramids).

You could visualise that stack of interlocking teams as a pictured below.

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Although a simplified representation of  in many cases more complex organisations and although in reality this hierarchy is often augmented with all kinds of cross functional and networked elements, it helps to show some paradoxes in nearly all organisations.

The paradox of loyalty. By the overlap in triangles there always is an ambiguity in the primary pyramid of loyalty. To the team you lead or the team you are part of, although not in a leading capacity. Only the top and the bottom are free of this paradox.

The paradox of maturity. The maturity of a team evolves over time.  And this influences the view of its leader on the position he or she has in the stack. A manager that needs to focus on its own team has little time to take part in the above team. To the frustration that above team’s manager. A manager that has a well-functioning team might want to expand his of her scope and more actively participate in the team above.  These stages of maturity are seldom in synch.

The paradox of uniformity. In management there is a tendency to see all elements below (and above) as similar and to act accordingly. In reality there is a variety in size, function, leadership style, and these variations add to the other two paradoxes. The pine tree  picture that omits that diversity,  proofs this point.

Managers and employees can close their eyes for these paradoxes that interfere with standardisation and predictability and act upon them as annoyances.

Embracing these paradoxes and incorporating them in the actual practices and interactions, on the other hand, can provide a more realistic and rewarding balance between in the individual and the group at every level of the organisation and add to the overall beauty of an organisation.