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Like many companies, yours probably has a set of values to inspire employees and serve as a code of honor. Corporate values statements are a great thing, because they can clarify a company’s identity and serve as a rallying point for its people. But values themselves do not drive your business, rather, they drive the people within the business. No matter how they were written or by whom, they are not based on the people who run the company, they are in the fabric of everyone who works there—from executive team to new hire. Here’s the question: if your company does have a compelling values statement, how truly meaningful it is to your people? Are your company values powerful tools embodied in everything you do, or are they just words?
Here is a real-world example: when I first started work in the early days of the dotcom boom, retail giant Walmart came to 80-person strategy event at my then-employer’s workshop space in Chicago. In those days, our clients typically spared no expense to bring a team to our offices, including business class flights, luxurious hotels and expensive dinners at fine restaurants. The works. Walmart, on the other hand, flew its party up from Arkansas on a budget airline and stayed two-to-a-room at a bargain hotel a few blocks from our office so they could walk to the workshop each morning. They catered the event through Walmart’s store deli (think tubs of potato salad and vats of barbecue), and in the evening the participants headed out together for a modest supper within a strict budget.
Why? At the time, Walmart was the single largest retail company in the world by several degrees. It’s not that they didn’t have the money for a more comfortable trip, it’s not that they didn’t have the power. It’s because their company values—a simple message of putting the customer first, personal responsibility, and teamwork—obliged them to adhere to a certain code of conduct. Expressing those values didn’t stop at store-brand cola and walking to work, it also meant that when it came time to develop a solution for an important strategic initiative, the workshop team in Chicago included representatives from all levels of the organization, including a woman who worked the checkout at one of their stores. Walmart had adopted that approach since Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 in order to keep their promise to provide the lowest prices to its customers. The employees we spoke to about it at the time seemed to accept that attitude at face value, because they were doing things “The Walmart Way,” and it chimed with their own personal value code.
Values, in a true sense, are basic, fundamental and enduring and mean something to the people who articulate them. They must be internalized, and importantly, this does not mean they can be pushed in from the outside. Morality and ethics are central to the issue: think of your personal values and the decisions they compel you to make. Start by drawing up a list of what you personally treasure—don’t be constrained by words like, “integrity,” or “respect,” but think of action words and phrases that mean something to you. Making family a priority? Maintaining lasting friendships? Doing work you are proud of? We each have different fundamental values; that’s why writing values statements for an entire organization is so tricky; how can five or six core values have meaning for thousands of individuals?
Innovation Arts has taken many different approaches with our clients in order to help shine a light on their organization’s true values, from company-wide Barratt Surveys as well as from delivering facilitated consultation and discussions during Employee Values Weeks to allowing a significant proportion of an organization to articulate for themselves what they really hold true. It may be that you have already defined your values, yet somehow, they don’t seem to be mobilizing your organization in the direction you would expect. Often, the trouble with values statements is not the values themselves but the corporate language chosen to express them, which can be so openly worded as to be vague. To play a meaningful role in creating an enduring organization, corporate values must be simply expressed and derived from fundamental philosophy about what constitutes the good for people both inside and outside the company.
When we performed our own values exercise at Innovation Arts, our team came up with some unique individual values. And, like most companies, we also defined the values that we share, and that link us to the clients with whom we work. These values are also easily translatable into specific behaviors that bring them to life in our organization, which is an excellent test of their worth. Over the years, we have discovered that if our clients can’t relate to our values then—given how closely we work together—we may not be a good fit for them:
Intellect: You learn rapidly and eagerly
Imagination: You create new ideas that prove useful
Impact: You accomplish amazing amounts of important work
High Performance: You care intensely about the success of (y)our business
Honesty: You are true to yourself and others
Humor: You take (y)our work seriously and yourself less so
If your organization has the right values—core values that cannot be compromised; aspirational values the company will need in the future but currently lacks; behavioral and social standards required of any employee; and accidental values that have arisen from the common interests or personalities of employees (i.e. “fun”)—they have to be integrated into everything. From the first interview to last day of work, employees should be constantly reminded that values form the basis for each decision and action the company makes.
From our work on corporate values, we know that values discussions are best had by small teams; better if they can include a cross-section of the organization. Better still if they involve the CEO, any founders still with the company, and a handful of employees who have to make a lot of on-the-ground decisions. When you are working out how to really embed your values in culture and process, leadership and employee collaborative work can be vital to agree on nuances and behaviors, and how they work in practice to reinforce your strategy and objectives. We engage entire organizations on bringing values and behaviors to life in practice with our custom-designed game Dilemma,® which is the perfect venue for having meaningful conversations about values. Do you stick to your values no matter what, or do you cut corners because there is no one there to see? It’s the discussion about those decisions that ultimately proves to be the most valuable part of the experience. What do your company’s values really mean to you? What do they mean to your colleagues?
Thinking back to that event with Walmart many years ago, seeing their corporate values in action was an exciting part of working with them. When they talk about customer service and respect, they mean it. Remember the checkout lady? At the end of three days of high-stakes design and collaboration, she drafted the final plan the entire group—including the senior management team—signed up to develop. From company cheers to employee training and benefits, the retail giant’s management constantly stresses its values not only for their employees, but for themselves. What does that mean for you?
We asked our clients about the evolutions and transformations that are on their radar. Here are six hot issues that cross sectors and industries and will have noticeable impacts on both operating systems and culture:
Data and information are allowing brands to target individuals in a bespoke manner; no more will we see the need for mass marketing such as TV and print advertising. Instead, tailored messaging across dynamic channels and based around the needs of an individual or business will become the norm. We are seeing it already online, but this will advance rapidly over the next few years. Organisations that develop frameworks to capture and analyse data will be best-placed to develop leading marketing and selling approaches in the future. This requires digital transformation in tandem with a reworking of traditional organisational structures and job roles that need to be addressed quickly in order to remain competitive.
Artificial intelligence is already here; from roboadvisers (Nutmeg, Wealth Wizards and Wealth Horizon) to voice technology (Alexa, Siri and Cortana) we are already affected by new technologies that are rapidly permeating our daily work and personal lives. Despite some push-back from consumers and organisations progress in these areas is inevitable and those that resist may well lose their competitive edge. No-one knows how much AI will impact our homes and workplaces and even Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, admitted at this year’s Davos meeting that he did not foresee the artificial intelligence revolution that has transformed the tech industry. What’s clear is that organisations must still embrace and harness new technologies to at least replace mundane, time-consuming daily tasks that are not profitable or satisfying for individuals. This frees up its workforce to spend more time thinking innovatively and being more productive as echoed by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google who said: “I would hope that, as some of the more mundane tasks are alleviated through technology, that people will find more and more creative and meaningful ways to spend their time”.
We’ve heard a lot about what Millennials want and how they are re-shaping the way we do business. Now Generation Z is bringing their influence to the global economy as they come of age . We know, for example, that Millennials are demanding more of their brands than ever before; from ethical sourcing and environmental considerations to real and deep & meaningful community activities. Basically, they want brands to hold relevant values and exhibit behaviours that meet their expectations like no generation has done before them, and this applies to the Brands they work with too. At Innovation Arts, we spend a considerable amount of time talking to our clients about how their brand can evolve culturally and strategically and we advise building in responsiveness and agility to allow for these shifting needs.
We’re not talking about the latest iPhone or Samsung iteration but a flexibile, nimble approach that allows organisations to constantly be on their toes responding to customers, consumers, their stakeholders and wider communities. This requires a new way of thinking and a corporate culture that is designed against a new model – maybe a model that we haven’t yet experienced. The organisations that puts innovation at its core will win; whether your sector is financial services, charitable, education or manufacturing.
Leveraging the creativity and innovation within your teams should be a priority. If that means a blend of at-home and office workers, then so be it. If your teams are scattered across the globe and speak different languages, then your organisation’s design must be able to effectively support and benefit from this. Modular working, part-time and flexible working will reinvent themselves. Your teams may already be thinking (and hoping) that you are planning and designing for an agile and flexible future!
A combination of artificial intelligence, a changing workplace and a redefining of roles should lead to a more productive life-work balance. But where does work and life start and end? Whose responsibility is it to support employees in eating well, getting fit, productive relaxation time, enjoying their family and friends? The lines will blur as employers and employees merge to support one another – look at Google whose sole job is to keep employees happy and maintain productivity. Their efforts may just be the start, but they go beyond a couple of bean bags thrown into a brightly-painted corner and free gym membership. Their offer to employees includes free breakfast, lunch and dinner, free health and dental, free haircuts, free dry cleaning, gyms and swimming pools, hybrid car subsidies, nap pods, on-site physicians and death benefits.
We believe that leadership teams should already be investigating, imagining and modelling for their own organisation in order to prepare for and capitalise on these issues. But the way we do that is changing too:
In the past, responsibility to reshape corporate culture, values and behaviours was the domain of the leadership team, and the leadership team only. From our experience of working with many leading global brands, your employees and teams are often one step ahead in their thinking when it comes to the future of their organisation. That’s why our Design Thinking approach is so effective at helping organisations to re-design their culture as it requires the wider team to design, model and iterate a brighter and more effective future. When strong leadership engages with all levels of the organisation, nothing can stop you. If you would like to know more about how our Design Sessions and Games Science can address issues around the future of work within your own organisation, please contact us for a free consultation at email@example.com.
For a recent design event, we looked long and hard at the idea of “tipping points,” or the instant where the forward motion of a movement increases to the point at which it becomes unstoppable. In his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell defines tipping points as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point,” when a collection of small events suddenly “tips” over like a wineglass, and the resulting contagion becomes inevitable. Inspired by Gladwell, we studied a number of different movements, from the US Civil Rights movement, the rise of streaming media, the mainstreaming of hip hop music, the adoption of the hybrid/electric car, to the improbable rise of Donald Trump, and discovered that within each, there was a specific point at which the movements tipped, and the subsequent outcome became unavoidable.
And yet many times have you experienced efforts to create a movement – perhaps to launch a product, a way of working or create a whole new culture shift – and seen them fall flat? What about that restaurant you love that despite your best efforts at evangelization has closed anyway? Or that time you tried to get your team to go paperless? What is it that movements with tipping points achieve that these efforts have not?
Gladwell’s research indicates that a tipping point is reached by three very specific means: the “law of the few,” or the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts which allow a small number of them to influence a wider population of the rest of us. Perhaps the most influential of the three, the “law of the few,” relies upon connectors, the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions—the kind of people who know everyone, know who needs to know someone else, and whom everyone is happy to see (word of mouth epidemics are the work of connectors). Secondly, mavens, the information specialists we trust and rely upon to connect us with new information. For example, the friend we all have who knows everything there is to know about computers or television sets or restaurants. And finally, salesmen, who are just as they sound, the persuaders with charismatic personalities and powerful negotiation skills who have an indefinable trait—beyond what they say—that makes others want to agree with them.
Our experience with the movements we’ve helped create within client organisations backs this up: it’s the people within any movement who are most likely to make it tip. We know that you are more likely to follow that lone nut if he is a friend of yours, or even, if you have seen his work and likes what he’s doing. The 2016 US presidential election was swayed by content shown on Facebook’s news feed, a mechanism so massive that it filters content by what your most active friends are saying. You don’t read what the larger population is saying, only what your friends post. And if your friend is voting one way, you are more likely to follow her. Simon Sinek, in his book “Start with Why”, says between 13 and 15 percent of a population must be affected in order for an idea to catch fire. In most of our social networks that’s a small enough number to reach personally, and indeed, within the movements we studied, we found that when people were influenced and supported by their friends or people whom they knew personally, the movements were more likely to gain momentum.
The implications for creating a movement – culture change, employee engagement or reinforcement of core values and behaviours – in a large organisation are therefore clear. How do you meaningfully reach those hundreds and thousands of people who will be your firestarters?
The other two criteria for a tipping point are the “stickiness factor,” specific content of a message that renders its impact unforgettable, and the “power of context,” or the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which the epidemic occurs. When Gladwell says that the environment must be right for a message to spread, what he means is that there must be a critical mass within the population already, such that it is ready to tip on a slight change. For example, my efforts to get my family to adopt a vegetarian diet were destined for failure because none of them enjoys eating vegetarian food (in our case, vegetarianism was neither sticky nor in context).
A common problem we’ve seen within a lot of the populations we touch is the misleading idea that “if we build it, they will come.” A fantastic, world-beating idea doesn’t necessarily guarantee people will rush to embrace it. If that were true, everyone would eat healthily and get 30 daily minutes of brisk exercise. When you’re trying to create a movement for lasting change, great content must get into the hands of the influencers who will touch other influencers, who will bring their whole tribe with them, and only human connections can make that happen. It’s because his best friend was sitting next to him that black student Ezell Blair was brave enough to sit at the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in 1960, an episode widely regarded as the tipping point of the American Civil Rights movement. It’s because my friend encouraged me to buy an iPad Pro that I did. Without specific personal connections, any movement will ultimately fizzle, because accountability is weakened: there is no one to answer to when you make a decision, no one to get you up out of bed when you just don’t feel like marching, no one to encourage you to reach for the next level, the next flag, the next victory. So, if you’re trying to get a movement off the ground, make sure you count among your number the connectors, mavens, and salespeople with infectious personalities who will spread the idea like a virus. Then the next step is working out how to mobilise them…and even in this day of virtual connectivity, nothing works better than face-to-face interactions.
This is not to say that social networks don’t have their place, if there are genuine connections between the people within them. You might be able to have a thousand Twitter followers, but it’s a person within your real-life network who will be able to tell you which restaurant to visit, or who will connect you with the right person to get your project off the ground. Twitter and Facebook make it easier for activists to find other activists, but harder for their activism to have any impact, because social networks favor the sharing of information over accountability.
What happens next? The main thing to remember is that ideas will travel faster through personal networks than they will through institutional ones. In January, the original Facebook post about the Women’s March was posted on a specific group page with millions of like-minded followers, but I probably wouldn’t have put on my pink knitted hat and marched if I had seen only that. I marched because my best friend and my sister told me they were going. If the idea of stomping around outside on an icy winter’s day can spread throughout the world by word of mouth, it’s hard to imagine what couldn’t.
Do you want to create a tipping point in your organisation but not sure where to begin? Give us a call, we’d love to help.
“How you organise the future has an awful lot to do with what you do with it … an optimist tends to have a pretty good future and a pessimist has a pretty bad one, but interestingly they can have exactly the same thing happen to them”.
Since this book was first written, the world is a very different place, in fact arguably it is one that is not only more tolerant but also more supportive of individuals and groups striking out on their own. Bolles, who regularly updates his book, more recently commented: “Four areas, in particular, have changed. First, jobs today are temporary; you don’t know how long your job is going to last. Thirty years ago, before the onslaught of downsizing and such, you could count on spending your working life at the same job. Second, jobs today are really seminars; change is happening so rapidly that you’ve got to pay close attention and learn. Third, today’s jobs are adventures; you never know what’s going to happen next. And fourth, you must find job satisfaction in the work itself; your self-esteem must come from doing the work rather than from some hoped-for promotion, pay raise, or other reward – which may never materialize. Fortunately, that dim outlook is not universally true: Some organizations appreciate, praise, and celebrate their employees, but not as many as there once were – especially not when an organization has more than 50 employees”.
Interdependence makes a case for a very different type of organizational perspective and one surmised in the idea of a ‘corporation of one’. In real terms this means we, as individuals, are our own venture, responsible for our own lives, our own ‘ways of working’ our own ‘brand’ and our own integrity – if to nothing else then to the brand we ourselves have chosen to create.
In that sense, it is a lot more about individual possibility and creating a present – and future – to live in to. Just as the corporate boys create brands evoking dynamism, agility, creativity, beauty, safety, professionalism (just take a look at some of those brands out there) we too are our own brands. Already. The only significance in doing this beyond the realm of the traditional employment contract is that it is we that are responsible for making it work. There is nowhere to hide. It’s make it work or compromise yourself. It is putting yourself on the line. More so than you ever will have to do in a large company.
Corporation of one forces us to continually reflect upon where we are – like a cybernetic loop – and monitor that position with our own desired end-state always in mind, taking on responsibility for our own learning and development and constantly re-evaluating what we are best at and what we enjoy doing the most.
Taking this model of perspective, where employees are not dependent on a company, but exist as interdependent individuals in a complex, adaptive system, what are the implications for the organisation of today?
This has spurred the knowledge and experience economies in which we now find ourselves where the models of old, such as Maslow’s, do not necessarily reflect the reality in which we live. As we are increasingly and systematically bombarded with information, the need for systemic thinking has never been more apparent.
The information economy is serving to commoditise goods and services at an ever-increasing rate and, conversely, knowledge (‘know-how’) and experiences are the primary sources of value and, it follows therefore, competitive advantage. The ‘Blurred Economy’ where speed, connectivity and intangibles pervade, where the notion of the ‘offer’ supersedes product and service-orientated mindsets and where the notion of the exchange between producer and consumer has taken on far more profound implications than previously understood economics ever explained.
These changes are already upon us. We can already bear testimony to changes in our expectations as consumers as we become increasingly demanding as to the value we get for our money. As consumer expectations change so must the cost of doing business as transparency in the global economy comes to the fore. This is the real tangible effect of the internet revolution: The ramifications in terms of stock market valuations alone have been tremendous.
The notion of an ‘Atomic Corporation’, where the effects of the information economy will cause today’s big corporations to break-up under pressure and ensure the evolution of a new landscape populated by much smaller business entities is not unrealistic. None of the factors above is in itself capable of turning our business world upside down but in combination they are enough to tear apart even the biggest of our giant corporations.
At the heart of it all lies a single phenomenon – an emerging information infrastructure that alters dramatically the costs of co-ordination and dispersion of knowledge.
As Camrass and Farncombe suggest; “a new focus on agility is needed, and as you can’t be big and agile at the same time (the internal cost of movement is too high), fragmentation is looking more and more attractive. And breaking up has never been easier. The availability and breadth of communications channels between organisations is growing exponentially, which is sharply reducing the costs of doing business”.
Regardless of your view of this radical prediction, the truth is that in order to simply survive, an organisation has to be willing and able to mobilise and engage its people and supporting infrastructure when and where customers demand. Many will be dependent upon their ability to recruit and retain the best brains with the best attitudes who are able and willing to meet such extraordinary demand.
How is your organisation responding to this challenge?
In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow developed a model known as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs and Objectives’. The assumption behind the model was one of linearity – one cannot progress to the next level until the current needs and objectives had been satisfied. His model is comprised of five orders of needs and objectives that human beings seek in life.
The lowest order need in the model is Physiological. This refers to the promulgation of life and includes, therefore, food, water, shelter and reproduction, also referred to as sex. The next order need is safety, referring to security and protection from danger. Next is the social need: We are social beings and as such need social interaction. Cybernetics also gives us the notion of the purposeful system, which can mean family, community, organisation and so on.
The next order need is esteem. This is concerned with the need for recognition individuals have in themselves and in their behaviours. It implies that humans seek positive experiences (and therefore concurs with a view held by cybernetics: the view that systems do not purposefully seek to impinge upon the desired state of others). The final order is that of self-actualisation. This is the human desire for a sense of purpose.
Critics of this model rightly demonstrate the weakness of the underlying assumption that, as a linear approach, progression is deemed a systematic response to the realization of previous orders. The model also assumes that there is no regression in position. Yet we are all aware, especially in recent years, of how our need to feel safe and secure can frequently be at the forefront of our minds, challenged by our unstable external environment. Also, conversely, how culture can flourish even in wartime situations, or in environments such as refugee camps, where people reach ‘up’ to the arts even when their physiological needs are far from being met. You may well have seen the tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Maslow, where these days even before their physiological needs are met, many modern humans have an even more pressing need – the need for WIFI (cue groaning and rolling of eyes)…!
Maslow’s model may not be quite ‘right’ these days, but it is, I believe, useful, and modern evolutions give it further potential.
We are frequently engaged by clients seeking to understand, address and embed the values of their organisations. One of the tools we might propose early on in our approach to these kinds of values projects is a Barrett survey. Concerned with how the values and cultural traits of an organisation are perceived from within that organisation, Barrett evolved Maslow’s model for his own purposes. In the Barrett model, we find seven levels of consciousness, from survival, relationship and self-esteem – which roughly mirror Maslow’s physiological, safety and social levels – through transformation and up to internal cohesion, making a difference and service. Unlike in Maslow’s model, an individual or organisation does not progress through these levels; rather it is a spread of values across the spectrum that shows a healthy balance.
Whatever models we choose to apply to Complex Adaptive Systems, be they individuals or organisations, they need to be appropriate for the situation. Now we’ve gone back to basics, which still give us a solid foundation, it’s time to look at the challenges the modern business world throws at us.
For many years leaders have wrestled with the discomfort of giving up management-style control in order to reap the benefits of achieving mastery in personal and organisational leadership. Leaders have looked to various theories which offer possible ways to ‘safely’ approach this ideal. For example:
Considering the X, Y and Z theories in the last post, and applying them in the practical sense, we could conclude that at a deeper level of understanding, there is no ‘one best way’ to influence people; it is largely a consequence of a number of different elements. Situational Leadership defines these as being the amount of guidance and direction (task behaviour) a leader gives, the amount of socio-emotional support (relationship behaviour) a leader provides and the readiness level that followers exhibit in performing a specific task, function, or objective.
The concept defines four leadership styles: Telling, Selling, Coaching and Delegating. The ultimate aim is to be able to reach the level of organizational maturity where delegation is pervasive. Hersey and Blanchard, the proponents of Situational Leadership, argue that when we take on a new task we all begin on the ‘dependent’ end of a continuum from fully dependent to fully independent. Then, each of us will move up the maturity scale at different speeds, depending on our experience, our abilities, our sense of self-worth, and the responses we get from our leader. At each stage, the leadership style to be employed can be determined by two points of view: the worker’s ability to do the task and the worker’s willingness to do the task.
J. Stacy Adams identified that workers are in a constant process of observation of the fairness of the outcomes of their own work compared with the outcomes of the work of their perceived peers. In this sense the worker defines his or her value based on a notion of equity with the organizational environment, implying a strict relationship between the two. Where there is little or no discrepancy, the worker perceives equity and is therefore satisfied. Where there is discrepancy, there is a perceived negative equity and the worker then actively seeks to restore the imbalance. This may take the form of negative action such as a drop in performance or a psychological or physical withdrawal from the status quo.
Positive equity, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. The role of the manager in this situation is to identify, understand and take appropriate action to stem negativity and build positivity; this means re-establishing and building ‘willingness’ through dialogue and, if appropriate, matching perceived value.
Victor Vroom’s 1960s theory states that an employee’s ‘Motivational Force’ is dependent upon three concepts: Expectancy, Instrumentality and Valence. Expectancy is the belief that the worker’s effort will result in the achievement of the desired performance goals (the desired end state of Cybernetics?). Instrumentality is the belief that should these goals be achieved a reward will be given. Valence is the value the worker places upon the value of that reward.
This provides a closer match to our understanding of situational leadership: if a worker is to be motivated, he or she not only has to believe the performance measure (or ‘task’) is achievable but that, once achieved, the reward will be of an appropriate value.
In OB Mod, the motivation of workers is said to be a direct result of the external consequences of that workers behaviour. As such, behaviour can be seen to be reinforced according to a continuum of consequence, the poles of which are positive and negative.
Positive Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the application of a pleasant consequence. Negative Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the removal of an unpleasant consequence. Within this continuum also lies a neutral consequence which is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour through no reinforcement at all and a punishing consequence which, again, is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour.
The above theories are all interesting models which in the past have provided leaders and managers with a set of tools to understand and maybe develop their own mental models. However, they all share something in common: a very pragmatic way of managing and one that is not necessarily appropriate in the world of today.
The term cybernetics was coined in 1947 for a new discipline that had emerged out of research into the control of physical systems. Norbert Wiener and colleagues chose a name adapted from a Greek word meaning ‘steersman’. This, it was felt, would invoke the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback and response in systems of all kinds: mechanical and physical systems, but also biological, cognitive and social systems, abstract intelligent processes and language. Wiener’s own simple definition for cybernetics was this: Communication and control in the animal and the machine.
Cybernetics is neither holist nor reductionist. Rather, it takes the philosophical perspective that the whole can be analysed as a set of components within the context of their organisation. It is that organisation which will account for interactions between components, and the way they in turn affect the system.
One of the most fundamental concepts of cybernetics is its approach to equilibrium and change. Cybernetics takes the position that an entity behaves in a way to keep certain conditions as close to a desired state as possible – an equilibrium – and then seeks to understand the actions required to maintain these conditions. This understanding is also fundamental when applied to a system’s effort to effect change by moving towards a goal (or new equilibrium).
These efforts will be composed of, for example, observing or perceiving, organising observations, comparing these organised observations to the desired state (which is a function of memory) and taking corrective measures should the gap between current and desired state be too large. A further role of the memory may also be to record previous corrective measures used and the context in which they were taken.
The ability of the system – be it the human body or a complex enterprise – to observe, make comparisons and decisions and then be in action is the very essence of ‘steersmanship’ and hence is cybernetic.
As you can see, the implications of cybernetics touch on the most philosophical questions of our work: observation, interpretation, meaning and understanding. They touch upon who we are, where we stand in the face of reality, what decisions we make and how we make them.
In business (and in life) we like to think we make decisions based on our knowledge of a situation, yet cybernetics’ epistemological approach – where the observer and the observed are both seen as parts of the same system – suggests that our perspective, and our behaviour, cannot be separated from the system itself. Cybernetics forces us to consider what the limits to our true knowledge are and we understand that our reality may be nothing more than a self-maintained mental construction to help us get along: A mental model. And as we’ve said before, (and will likely say again!) “all models are wrong. Some are useful.”
Cybernetics puts human perspectives and behaviours at the heart of any attempt to model the complex system of an enterprise. Since humans are capable of developing their own goals and desired states the implication is profound: We can define organizations as being purposeful systems of purposeful components – people. Thus by understanding more about the motivations of the people we will come to know what truly controls the system we desire to shape.
Porter created the idea of businesses having a value chain – ideally designed so as to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of business processes as understood by the customer.
When we talk about processes we mean the specific ordering of work activities across time and place, with a beginning, an end, and clearly defined inputs and outputs. They are the structure by which a business physically does what is necessary to produce value for its customers.
By mapping out and improving individual processes, and how they worked together as a system, planning and organisation could be facilitated throughout a business. By focusing on common process goals – and the collaboration required where processes span two or more functional lines, the value chain could deliver more value for fewer resources.
Re-engineering was the most comprehensive, far-reaching, enterprise-wide option for process improvement. It was also the most radical. The most prominent proponents of this approach were Hammer and Champy who, in their book ‘Reengineering the Corporation’ stated that managers “must abandon the organizational and operational principles and procedures they are now using and create entirely new ones”.
Their view was that business reengineering meant starting again from scratch, forgetting how work was done as well as understanding that old job titles and old organisational arrangements would cease to matter: How people and companies did things yesterday wouldn’t matter to the business reengineer. They tackled the organisation’s core processes instigating “radical change to achieve quantum process improvement”.
During this time I was a young process consultant, analysing clients’ business processes and assessing the degree to which they satisfied the organisations’ customers. A process focus meant I was less concerned with things like people and technology and although there were associated ‘Hard’ issues (including the tools, techniques and Information Technology available to support the re-engineering effort) and ‘soft’ issues (individual and team behavioural reactions to the instigation of change within the organisation, the management of which spawned further growth within the consultancy industry as ‘Change Management’ shot to the top of every CEO’s agenda) the ethos was that all would flow from the customer and be process-driven as that was the pathway to value creation. Specifications for skills, jobs and even the technology to enable each process would be created and fulfilled as a consequence of the process.
All in all, this process-centric model was a beautifully scientific theory, rational, bursting with logic, and it certainly delivered improvements, but even then I sensed it was missing something fundamental, something intuitive. Maybe the fact that we humans are complex and irrational. Or maybe that in a dynamic context we were moving from one static ‘wrong’ solution to another, static, ‘right’ solution.
The world and the way we look at businesses have since moved on, but I took away a very valuable lesson from this era: All models are wrong, but some are useful.