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Monthly Archives: November 2011

GO OUT! Leave your office now! Look and listen! Talk to people, ask silly questions. Leave the driving seat and sit in the back of the bus and enjoy or not. And think about why, why, why. Just use your eyes and ears and think and feel.

The comfort of mental and emotional constructs and models distorts the view on what really happens. Models and ideas help to understand the world around us. That is great but the danger of distortion looms. And a distorted view is not a source for beauty, on the contrary.

A fresh perspective on reality, proofs a better source for success.  A real perspective is for better and for worse, because there are nice and not so nice things to see and both matter. In organisational life there are many obstacles that block our view and experience of that reality. Layers in the hierarchy, over-optimism in the numbers of the future, high level and abstract requirements for market innovation, aggregated customer satisfaction survey outcomes, organisation charts, averages in employee’s satisfaction surveys (are you 7,7 or 7,6 happy?), indicators on service levels, all do not really help. There are endless lists of formalized views. These blockages need to be surpassed from time to time. Walk the talk with customers, visit a city, the streets and the houses, look how people spend their holidays, really, go back to the work floor and answer the phone, repair a car or wash a patient. Become a customer, an employee, a passer-by, a user, a supplier. And see what happens, look for what really happens, what really matters. Ask yourself the question: ‘what do I see?’ and ask it again, and again and again. New pictures will emerge.

The value of these new pictures is twofold. Firstly, the fresh views will help to solve problems and provide ideas on all aspects of your organisation and what it produces. The value and the essence of what your organisation stands for, becomes more obvious and more truthful. Secondly there is never an excuse to for shortsightedness, because it so simple to overcome it.

Any organisation with practices that makes it somehow inevitable  to keep looking at the real reality, will find a source of endless ideas. That is not only beautiful and worthwhile in itself, but the design of such an organisation will also honor honesty and will be by definition good and beautiful.

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A distorted view or real reality?

In a business environment one of the challenges of an organisation is its competitiveness. Organisations compete with each other on various levels like sourcing, hiring talented people and winning market and wallet share. The better the value for money compared to the competition, the better an organisation is positioned. So organisation look for increments in efficiency in their processes and in the effectiveness of their offerings to increase value for money.

In this area of competitiveness, where does beauty come in? Is beauty a nice to have, a luxury of the abundance, the hobby of a maverick leader or an excuse to ignore all basic business rules? That may be the case in the eyes of the shortsighted, it isn’t when you look at the business reality of beauty.

Beauty  touches the hearts of people, it goes further than a rational trade-off of money and value. Beauty distorts the value-money logic. Beauty makes greedy and initiates spending sprees beyond the reasonable (Think art, cars, fashion, housing). Or in the context of organisations, people who experience beauty contribute in ways that no money can buy. And even when the functionality of something beautiful has become obsolete, it keeps its value. Beauty is not about value for money, it is about value beyond money with a more than nice monetary dimension. That seems to me a good competitive position to be in.

Beauty of artefacts has another characteristic: it is by its nature scarce (and thus adding to its economic value). Beauty is not the norm, it is exclusive, it stands out and it does so for a reason. It takes a keen eye, a sharp mind, a deep conviction, a trust in your gut and a lot of transpiration and failure to achieve it. And the success rate can not be predicted or guaranteed. And just because it takes courage (or madness), any organisation striving for and realising beauty can remain assured that the large majority of the competition will not even try to compete in the domain of large returns and settle for just value for money.  You must be mad not to want that kind of competitive advantage by adding beauty to your organisation.

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The madness of Chambord generating 850.000 visitors a year.

The tone of communication in many organisations moves between to extremes: limitless optimism and deep gloom and doom.

The former represents a believe that people in organisation can and must be successful and  failure is a choice that can be avoided as long as you follow the strategy and work hard. All literature on management is written to assure success, follow the golden code and you win. (The elements of organisational beauty may be not that different, after all).

The latter is the external excuse to avoid blame. Exaggerate the unavoidable counter forces that you do not have control over and you have already found a good reason why things proof a little disappointing. In the true optimistic sense, it can be the adrenaline to become even more aggressive in achieving the goals.

In between these extremes is loser-dom. Failure for which nobody is to blame, but yourself. Mediocrity is the most gentle wording for what is to be avoided at all cost. This is however a somewhat distorted view on reality. And a view that preclude organisations from a large source of beauty.

In organisations luck and misfortune do exist, like in life outside our institutes. Portraying somebody who is unfortunate as a loser is  shortsighted. Misfortune is a tragedy; you also can feel pity. In literature the unlucky character is a person who we can identify with and we do not see Hamlet as a loser. In the result-oriented-ness of organistions, which in a way is their raison d’être, there is little room for tragedy and its beauty is a not a self-evident concept.

But fate is a reality and calls for realism. Limiting the world of organizations to success or failure misses the opportunities of luck and misfortune. Embracing fate and appreciating it in how we react to misfortune (and thus to fortune) could be a more realistic approach. A more true full communication, in that sense, provides a richer and more human tone and it could prove consolatory for the unfortunates, while creating room for their recuperation. So recognizing and even celebrating tragedy may indeed add to the beauty of an organisation.

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People within an organisation interact not only with each other on a personal level, there is also interaction with the organisation as an institute as a formalised entity. It is the interaction with the processes and the systems: how people are hired, how items are procured, how people are rewarded, how hours are registered, how budgets are managed, how customers are serviced. The rules, the formalities, the it-systems, the forms, the hierarchy all are man-made instruments that people in- and outside the organisation are confronted with.

The organisation as a mechanistic concoction that is supposed to make it function better. The parameters steering the design of these functions are mostly efficiency, through-put, standardisation, control, predictability. All very applaudable objectives, as such.

But this utilitarian focus often results in systems and procedures that are difficult to interact with. The function and the objectives become dominant and people are supposed to adapt their ways of working and interacting. “The system is there for your own benefit” is the mantra. Whether this is a convincing argument for intense and satisfying use of the system, remains to be seen.

Anyway, in the case the dysfunctionality of the interaction is tackled, the most common fix is an increase in complexity. For example: a reward system gets more and more detailed and finer granulated because the basic system does not allow an interaction between managers and employees resulting in a remuneration that is considered fair. When the system does not allow natural and fair interaction, people will become really smart and begin to play the system and misuse it in order to let it meet their interest. So the system reacts and is modified with complicated controls and even more user unfriendly features. A downward spiral (or upward, if you are of the mechanical kind) is the result.

In man’s interaction with physical machines there is a growing attention to the design of man-machine interaction, with Apple products as one of the most celebrated examples. We can develop organisational systems that have an Apple like appeal: focussed on thought-out functions and humanised interaction.

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Black and white

Chaos and ordening

Up and down

In and out

Rich and poor

Left and right

Grouped and dispersed

Quite a few words get their meaning in juxtaposition. Standing alone they have a meaning, but together with their counter party the meaning increases. New dimensions are added. In a sense the opposite pairs  are inseparably connected and by that bond they reinforce each others meaning. Good and bad.

In organisation there is an aversion towards juxtaposition. The norm is uniformity. Organisations tend to have their own mono culture, based on its assumed DNA. That culture is also a way to distinguish itself from the environment and other organisations.  Although the politically correct diversity is embraced, most of the time it are shades of the same color. Organisation are held together by a joint sense of purpose, or by a fascination for products or by the stability provided by an effective bureaucracy or  by the common believe that greed is good (and allowed) or by an interest in science and innovation or by the drive to care for the less fortunate in this world.

Organisation seldom allow for the benefit of the juxtaposition, the reinforcing power of two opposite ideas. It seems impossible and feels unnatural, crazy and bizarre, against every logic of organisation design.

But it could be interesting to challenge this aversion to juxtaposition. Can an organisation exist that is both open an closed? Can a company be global and local? Can an organisation be big and small? Can managers allow for unity and fractions. Would it not be interesting to follow both a centralised and a decentralised strategy? Can it be one while being schizophrenic?

In many aspects of life we see juxtaposition as interesting and even beautiful. In organisation there might also be room to allow for and embrace opposite sites, not to divide, but to bind, with some surprising beauty (and certainly not boring) as an outcome.

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One important element of any organisation is the way the people who are involved in the organisation achieve the goals that are the base of the very existence of that organisation. According to what mechanism do the people deal with eachother’s contribution to that organisation? What motivates people?

Except for the most repetitive and monotonous tasks, where monetary incentives  improve outcome, autonomy proofs to be an important motivator. As long as people can decide on how they work on their creative and complex tasks and responsibilties, they are intrinsicly motivated and the results are much better. No money can compete with autonomy when it comes to results.

This nice animation shows this point.

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But with autonomy so important, where does the organisation with its structure and interaction come in? Does total autonomy not equal the disolvement of any organisation? I don’t think so.

Autonomy can be an interesting mould for the structure and the interaction. Autonomy becomes even more interesting when people involved in an organisation recognize that together they are more than the sum of the parts. At that point the design of the organisation has to be truly innovative. Then we have to depart from the 19th and 2oth century ideas of organisation as machines; the ideas that still dominate so much of organisational thinking given the attention for  all kinds of inventive bonus and reward schemes.

When wanting to achieve a common goals, some kind of framework is necessary. But the framework should allow for room for autonomy. Some guidelines and agreements, some kind of strategic direction, shared values, a common view in what the organisation provides, will help to give autonomy a the context to thrive in.

Or even better: start with the essential autonomy and then determines which structure and working practices can help. In that way the autonomy shapes the organisation. Autonomy becomes the centre piece of the design and that might result in experiences that match beauty.

Meetings are important building blocks of an organisation. Its attendees are a often a good representation of the structure of the company and a place where the interaction is more or less formalized to exchange views and opinions and come to decision that shape and move the organisation. It also is a most abused instrument, forgoing all its potential beauty.

Most meetings are conducted around a table, have some sort of agenda and results in a set of decisions and actions. It is a rather predictable format, aimed to avoid anything exiting happening. The meetings are conducted according fixed time intervals and agendas, rarely adjusting to the dynamics of the environment. Rythm and structure can help, but for most meetings they are incredible standard, missing any organistion specifics. Meeting skills are aimed  to reduce open exchange of thought or explosions of creativity and to increase the predictability of the outcome. You get the picture:  the top brass in their board meetings rubber-stamping in highly choreographed processes  pre-cooked decisions. And that behaviour trickles down the hierarchy rather smoothly.

This bleak picture is luckily augmented with the off-site meetings in inspirational locations. Nice locations look great, but when you take a closer look, these retreats have many things in common and are not that surprising and inspirational, behind a very styled, quasi creativity enhancing environment. The off-site meeting predictability is often as big as the meeting room predictability. And in the event the off-site gathering proofs to be successful, the old habits remain unchanged when returning back at the working place and a lot of the great experiences are not incorporated in the daily meeting practices.

And with these sad observations one would nearly forget the potential of meetings as the building blocks for a great organisations. Meetings can be regarded as instruments to experiment with, as objects that can be designed, prototyped, enhanced and discarded. You use meetings as forms of interaction that mimic the values of an organisation, that shape the organisation in innovative ways. Meetings can be a proxy of the whole organisation. The word meeting can have a completed overhauled meaning and don’t have to resemble what is currently seen as boring and a waste of energy.

People working collectively on creative productions seldom use a table in meeting rooms. They practice on stage, they talk around their prototypes, they sketch collectively with dance, their voice or their pencils and brushes. They exchange information and take decision in way that helps their goals and is very directly linked to what they actually do. Imagine a board improvising like a jazz combo (only some kind of recorder is needed to effectively reproduce the proceeds of such a meeting), think a team that tries way to improve their way of working like a group of dancers working on their show. Envision strategy consultants that work like architects or designers, working on and talking about sketches and prototypes and discarding innumerable alternatives.

An important and practical attribute of a beautiful organisation is the well formed meeting. Thinking about the meaning of a meeting, designing and trying new forms of meeting, staging unfamiliar manners of exchange and decision making, opens up new ways of get together. New kinds of meetings that are exiting and rewarding. Innovative forms that fit and contribute to the success of the organisation.

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Let’s meet