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Understanding Organisational Landscapes

November 23, 2018

Hello Dear Readers,

This feels kinda weird, writing to you after a seven-month absence from the world of penning excessively verbose and lengthy pieces of writing on complexity-based organisational transformation. “Who is this stranger in my inbox?”, I can hear some of you say. I feel I’m lucky to have some very eager readers and so for those of you who have missed these tomes, I apologise. And of course, for those of you who haven’t missed them, you can unsubscribe.

If you’ve forgotten why you signed up for my writing and the question of “Who is this stranger in my inbox?” still lingers, please allow me to remind you: I run a small organisational transformation consulting practice which applies the contemporary sciences of complexity, networks, and evolution to organisations*. Of these sciences, the first two are only a few decades old (hence making this approach ‘contemporary’) and the third, whilst not exactly contemporary, is now being applied in novel ways. (Lots of different industries—from health to education to security and counter-terrorism—are beginning to apply these sciences to gain new and powerful insights into previously poorly-understood global problems. And while I’m at it, it’s also worth pointing out that I’m not limited to just these sciences—of late, I’m beginning to appreciate how an understanding of ecology can help us understand organisations, as well as some of the more traditional social and human sciences, such as anthropology and sociology).

* In addition to this, I also have a background in mountaineering. I sometimes use the mountain environment as a metaphor for the complex landscapes that we all find ourselves having to work upon and within, and the alpine style of mountaineering as an analogue for a more appropriate way of dealing with the uncertainty that increased connectivity and complexity brings to our world.

As much as I do love the writing process, my relationship with it is somewhat fraught and at times tempestuous. It takes up an incredible amount of my time and energy, and as any writer will tell you, the act of publishing one’s writing to a wider audience provides much opportunity for self-doubt and angst. As I become increasingly convinced about the limitations of individual agency alone as the primary mechanism for societal change, the irony of writing about my own experiences and perspectives (and indeed them being published on a platform which bears my name) is not lost on me. And finally, in addition to all of this, I’m constantly torn between which pieces of my writing I include here, and which pieces I save for my next book (which is still 12 months away, at least).

Much of the reason behind my seven-month absence is resource scarcity—I only have a finite amount of time and energy in each week, and as each year goes by that time and energy is increasingly being spent in deep exploration with a small group of people who are working on significant organisational and cultural transformation agendas. The downside to this is less resources available for me to write to you. The upside, however, is that the quality of content that you receive from me is now far superior than ever before, as it’s derived from what I can confidently say is some of the most progressive and contemporary organisational transformation work being undertaken in Australia at the moment. I hope you can appreciate this, and use this superior content to your benefit.

And so for now—i.e. in this newsletter, only my second and probably my last for 2018—I will continue with my exisiting approach of writing opportunistically and sharing what I’ve been learning from the deep exploration work I’ve been doing. However, it’s likely that next year I’ll change things up a bit. Perhaps I’ll commit to less frequent biannual or quarterly writing pieces, or look to focus less on specific organisational transformation approaches, and more on general approaches to living with the unexpected outcomes of a complex world—I’m really not sure. The only thing that I am certain of is that I want to provide useful content that is from a trusted source (i.e. me, and the various folk I work and associate with), is worthy of the time it takes for you to read, and which provides fresh perspectives on the ways in which humans create and manage organisations. If at some point in time I’m unable to do this, then I’ll stop.

Another reason for my seven-month absence has been my frustration and disappointment at the current state of affairs in some areas of the corporate landscape of my home country (Australia). It seems to me that the proverbial chickens have come home to roost: two decades of well-intentioned yet ultimately misguided focus on the importance of (a) profit and shareholder return and (b) segregated technical expertise and individual agency as a mechanism of change and (c) a tendency to view the organisation in isolation from its broader ecosystem has led to low levels of evolutionary fitness (i.e. a limited propensity for these organisations to be able to change with the times). This misguided focus has also led to some shocking corporate behaviour—none-more-so evident than what has been unearthed in the financial services sector, which (as most Australian readers would be aware) has been under the spotlight of a royal commission into misconduct*.

* For non-Australian readers, the royal commission has exposed a litany of actions which highlight the focus of profit over doing what is right for the consumer, including the ongoing charging of life insurance premiums to the accounts of dead people, the selling of insurance products to customers who would not be able to actually make claims under the products, and the falsification of clients’ loan documents by staff so they could achieve ambitious sales targets. Importantly, Australia’s four largest banks are highly profitable and are arguably well-protected under the Australian government’s four pillars policy.

Most concerning of all (at least from my perspective) is some of the commentary coming out of the royal commission as it relates to organisational culture and the need for systemic cultural change via rebuilding. Whilst the need for systematic culture change is unquestionably required, any commentary that talks about the need to rebuild a culture shows a fundamental misunderstanding of culture as a complicated and mechanistic entity that can simply be disassembled and reassembled (rather than as an emergent property of a complex social system—which is what culture is—and which has certain propensities and dispositions, some of which can be worked with to enable preferred directional change).

(Also of concern is the collective salivation at the prospect of a decade’s worth of engagement on cultural rebuilding programs that is currently dripping from the mouths of the industry to which I belong: leadership and organisational development and management consulting. Few people realise it but it too could do with a royal commission, the focus of which would not so much be misconduct, but rather ineffectiveness, complacency, intellectual laziness and rent-seeking.)

Speaking of epidemic failure, my last writing efforts — a 5,000 word monster in which I tried to highlight some the major problems currently occurring in many organisations in Australia—turned out to be incredibly divisive. Whilst I received feedback from a few respected and intelligent people saying that it was some of the best critical writing that they’d ever seen, it also led to the biggest number of unsubscribes I’ve ever had. But, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I’m OK with this—I’d rather have 20 readers who are genuinely interested in and committed to the application of contemporary sciences to the organisational and institutional problems that we face today than have 2,000 readers who are looking for feel-good (but ultimately meaningless) platitudes about new ways of working and the like.

(In case you’re wondering about your fellow audience—after the mass-exodus—my readership now numbers approximately 1,500 people and includes folk from a semi-diverse spread of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Germany, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore and Japan.)

And so, having established/re-established some context of where I’m at (and hence where this writing is coming from), let’s get to work.

Philosophers and Tourists, and Scientists and Explorers

In my last piece of writing, I introduced to you someone long-since passed who continues to be something of a role model in my life: Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist Professor Richard Feynman. (I described Feynman as an iconoclast, and for good reason: if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to watch the very compelling 1973 documentary in which he features here. ) Although I’m fascinated by all things quantum mechanics, spooky actions at a distance, quantum entanglement and multiverses, that wasn’t my reason for referencing Feynman. Rather, I was trying to remind you of three important things that can prove pretty useful when working in complex organisational and social systems. (I would also add that they would probably also serve you well in everyday life, too.):

  • Firstly, that it’s OK to question conventional wisdom and cultural norms
  • Secondly, that it’s OK to exhibit a child-like sense of wonder about the natural world and our belonging to it, and (by virtue of this)
  • Thirdly, that we ignore the natural world around us and our belonging to it at our peril.

Although I professed that my favourite quote of Feynman’s is the one about the birds, there is another quote of his which I equally adore. It reads as follows:

“Philosophers are tourists, scientists are explorers”.

Not surprisingly, I have a strong identity-bias towards anything which conflates scientists and explorers—after all, I studied the human, social, biological and geographical sciences at university, and I kinda get-off on exploring things, especially when those things involve mountainous landscapes. But that’s not the reason I love the quote. I love it because it encapsulates the key difference between the conventional/traditional and the contrarian/contemporary approaches to organisational transformation.The point that Feynman makes is that those who only think and talk (with most of the talking being about bird names, sans actual knowledge of birds)—but who are removed from any of the actual doing associated with their thinking and talking—pass through the world as does a passenger on a tour-bus in a foreign land: they view the landscape and its people from air-conditioned comfort, but they never taste, touch, smell or get their hands dirty in any way. The tourist sees the landscape and its people and forms ideas and opinions about them, but because they never step off the tour-bus and interact with the landscape and its people, they never truly understand the landscape and its people (and nor do they ever truly test the validity of their ideas and opinions).

Not only this, the tourist rarely has to deal with any lasting consequences associated with their visitation. (And knowing what we know about complex systems, it is not unreasonable to expect that even the slightest impact can manifest in unimaginable ways. Spanish director Alejandro González Iñárritu portrays this reality brilliantly in his 2006 movie Babel.)

Feynman suggests that the scientist, on the other hand, by virtue of their profession, cannot only travel on the tour-bus, but must also explore the surrounding landscape and its people. The scientist not only thinks and talks, but they also must do: they must be ready and willing to get their hands dirty so that they not only see from the comfort of the tour-bus, but also get off the bus and taste, touch, and smell. Through an iterative process of thinking and imagining (hypothesising) and talking (with others to question and challenge their own thinking) and then doing (experimenting and observing the results of the experimentation), the scientist truly gets to know the landscape and its people. The experimenting and observing is the interaction with and exploration of the landscape and its people.

But here’s the catch: the history of organisational leadership, development and transformation is more akin to philosophy, with most of its proponents being too addicted to the comfort of the tour-bus.

Conventional and traditional organisational transformation is philosophy and tourism

So why exactly is this the case?

I think it’s because the conventional and traditional approach is based on lots of thinking and talking, but very little meaningful doing (other than contrived leadership workshops). The thinking and talking about organisational transformation is being done by tour-buses full of business school academics, big consulting firm employees, ‘thought leaders’, authors and conference speakers, but very few of them ever actually get off the bus and get their hands dirty in the landscape and its people (Taleb’s Skin in the Game supports this notion—it’s worth a read). As for the thinking, it’s usually pretty abstract and shallow, and as for the talking, it’s mostly inane babble about bird names.

The defining attribute of the conventional and traditional approach is that it is based on abstract thinking (and subsequent talking about the thinking), to which there are three associated mistakes:

  • Firstly, the conventional approach applies the same abstract thinking to all landscapes, and assumes that all landscapes are the same (or at least similar enough). This is what is sometimes known as false equivalence, where an assumption is made that because two things have the same attributes, they must be the same (i.e. they must be equivalent to one another). (It’s also known as confusing correlation with causation.) In the world of organisations, false equivalence is a particularly insidious fallacy that is becoming increasingly prevalent wherever you look. To understand false equivalence you only have to watch the video that I previously highlighted in which the CEO of Australian bank ANZ falsely equates his organisation (a 150-year old bank with 50,000 employees) with Spotify (a 12-year old music streaming platform with 3,000 employees). Just because two organisations share the same category (i.e. they are both commercial enterprises that employ workers) does not mean that the two organisations are the same!
  • Secondly, the abstract thinking of the conventional approach applies linear thinking to all landscapes, and assumes that all landscapes are causal in nature. Linear thinking is uses cause and effect logic, and is additive, proportional and sequential in nature. (I elaborated at length on this in my last newsletter, so there’s no need to do repeat it here.)
  • Thirdly, the abstract thinking of the conventional approach is reinforced by an ingrained fear of not knowing the solution (and fear of being seen to not know the solution). In fact, the conventional approach is so terrified of not knowing the solution and resorting to experimentation and getting it wrong that it avoids any experimentation whatsoever. In our society, especially in business, admitting publicly that one does not have all the answers is not often well-received.

It is this third mistake that really bothered Feynman, and it really bothers me too.

Now I’m not one to get too-far carried away with scientism (science is not the be-all and end-all), but I reckon that this unwillingness to experiment is the biggest downside risk associated with the conventional transformation approach today. And it really is a large downside risk. Conventional transformation is largely philosophy-based because it is an approach based on ideology and assumptions of universality of landscapes, and because it is based on ideas about organisations which are thought-up from the comfort of the tour-bus and which are not tested (remembering again the concept of false equivalence and that correlation does not mean causation, which means that the existence of correlation—and this is the fallacy most business books fall for—does not negate the need for experimentation and testing and validation).

Contrarian and contemporary organisational transformation is science and exploration

So how then is the contrarian approach more akin to science and exploration?

My contention is that it’s not only based on lots of thinking and talking, but also on lots of doing. It is the doing, in the form of experimentation and observation, that makes this approach scientific and explorative, and which differentiates it from the philosophical and touristic conventional approach.

By now you’ll be familiar with my earlier (here and here) contrasting of western and eastern philosophies, and in case the relevance of these to organisational transformation has never quite landed for you, let me make it clearly concrete for you now: the conventional approach has its origins in western philosophies and abstract thought, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and a desire to know the immutable essence of things as discrete and isolated entities removed from their context, whereas the contrarian approach employs not only western philosophies but also eastern philosophies, particularly their focus on the practical application of knowledge within their contexts, and their ability to recognise the importance of the relationships between things (as much as the things themselves).

Most crucially, the three fundamental mistakes associated with the abstract thinking of the conventional approach are avoided in the contrarian approach to transformation:

  • Firstly, the contrarian and contemporary approach is hyper-aware of false equivalence, and it understands that whilst there can be some general governing laws and principles that cover organisational systems (and which can be used very effectively to our advantage, particularly in terms of complexity, networks and evolution), each organisation is intricately different and unique, and that the unintended consequences of applying false equivalence can be disastrous.
  • Secondly, the contrarian and contemporary approach understands the limitations of linear thinking and cause and effect logic when working in complex systems, and as such takes the paradigm shift of looking at things as being dispositional rather than causal in nature. And I do mean paradigm shift—very few people truly understand the difference between causality and dispositionality, and yet it’s probably the most important thing for all of us to understand today as the world becomes ever-more complex.
  • Thirdly, the contrarian and contemporary approach is not afraid of not knowing the answers to the problems at the outset, and uses structured hypothesising, testing and experimentation as core components of the approach. As such, a certain amount of humility is required (and this is why I’ve previously argued, both in my book and in this earlier piece, that the Alpha Male poses such a risk to society).

Exploration of landscape and people—is there even a difference?

When earlier explaining the Feynman quote, my reference to both landscape and its people is quite deliberate, although it’s also a little misleading. The reason I refer to both is because some tourists tend to travel to a country to specifically experience its landscapes, whereas others are more interested in experiencing a country’s people and culture. As a scientist and explorer, however, the interest must not only be in one or the other, but in both*.

*Seven expeditions to the Himalayas have certainly taught me this. If you travel to the Himalayas to just look at mountains and fail to deeply engage with the local ethnic populations, you’re effectively blind to what’s actually going on around you.

And then to extend this idea (and to identify the reason why I describe it as being misleading), the scientist and explorer must understand the interplay and connections and relationships between them (i.e. how does the landscape shape the people, and how do the people shape their landscape?), and ultimately be able to recognise that a landscape and its people are one and the same. The landscape and its people (along with many other constituent parts, including ideas, rituals, processes, rules, systems, buildings) create an emergent ecosystem* (which means we can now add ecology to the long list of sciences we need to be across when learning and applying the contemporary approach).

*Understanding how ecosystems function, create structure and evolve, and then being able to apply this understanding to organisational transformation is crucial to the contrarian approach. However, trying to cover such topics as the dilemma of the structure and agency dichotomy, whether structures even exist, and why Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory is a much better way to view organisational systems would lose me even more readers, and so we’ll leave that for now.

In case it’s not clear, the contemporary approach to organisational transformation is as much interested in the landscapes of an organisation as it is in the organisation’s people, and, even more importantly, in the relationships between the landscapes and its people. In other words, the focus is upon the ecosystems that emerge from these relationships.

This means that the approach is not distracted by everyone else’s obsession with individual agency (in the form of leadership development) upon which the traditional approach is built. Whilst recognising that leadership development may be important, it understands that it forms only one constituent part of a much broader approach. (And so from this point forward, when I refer to landscapes, please understand that I am referring to landscapes as ecosystems in which people are but one of its constituent parts).

What are we seeking to understand when we explore landscapes?

Knowing what needs to be understood when exploring an organisational landscape is far more difficult than it sounds, because as I’ve referred to previously, each landscape is different.

Hence, knowing what to understand in a landscape is entirely contingent upon context.

Right now, my organisational transformation work is focussed on understanding how constraints within an organisational landscape can both limit and enable that landscape to evolve, and how catalysts and modulators can act (and be used) to amplify and dampen these changes.

This is particularly relevant to organisational landscapes, because constraints that limit autonomy (e.g. excessive policy) have a long history as one of the preferred mechanisms for uncertainty reduction and efficiency maximisation in complicated systems. When applied within complex systems, however, I’m finding find that limiting constraints often manifest in order-of-magnitude-worse undesired and unintended outcomes. This in turn results in minimal organisational evolutionary fitness, which in turn makes the contemporary approach to transformation all the more valid.

Warning: cliched metaphor ahead

And so to conclude this piece of writing, allow me to give to you what I like to call the Milford Sound Metaphor.

Milford Sound is a popular tourist destination in the mountains and fiords of New Zealand’s South Island, and getting there requires travel along a stunning 120 kilometre road from the small town of Te Anau. It’s a road that takes in the majesty of deep lakes and fiords, staggeringly steep granite peaks, u-shaped glacier-carved valleys, dense temperate rainforest and literally hundreds of rivers and waterfalls, owing to the region’s almost unbelievable eight metres of annual rainfall.

Over 400,000 people travel the road annually, with most journeys occurring in the summer months. On any given day during the main summer tourist season, approximately 200 tour-buses pass along the road, in addition to about 400 cars. The overwhelming majority of people who travel along this road are tourists. From the comfort of their tour-bus they see the magnificence of the landscapes, but they never taste, touch, smell or get their hands dirty in any way. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with being a tourist.

From when I was less fat. Off the bus and getting dirty exploring the landscape. The Milford Road is below, complete with it’s 100’s of tour-buses and tourists. By the end of their trip they’ll have lots of photos, but they won’t truly understand the landscape.

"However, if their circumstances changed—let’s say something catastrophic happened and they were forced to make there way back to civilisation on foot—then it would be  an entirely different story. They would need to understand their landscape deeply. They would need to understand not only the broad, overarching ecosystem, but all of the smaller systems that comprise it. They would need to understand the relationships and interplay between the lakes and the fiords, the valleys and the peaks, and the rainforest and the rivers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they would need to understand that this process of understanding the landscape would take a lot of time. There would be no quick journey back to safety.

And so it goes if you are working on organisational transformation. You must get off the tour-bus and be prepared to explore and deeply understand your landscape, and most importantly, give yourself the time that is needed.

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