Assumptions at work

Models of organisation 2

In my previous blog I suggested that we are guided more than we may realise by the mental model we have about how our organisation works.  We deal with reality by conceptualising it, by creating a framework for interpreting and managing it: we do this in our organisations as we do with life in general.  I invited you to consider what your model might be and whether it is hindering or helping you.

The problem that immediately arises is that our models are usually held largely unconsciously and reveal themselves as the assumptions we implicitly make about how things should be done.  These assumptions may become more apparent (and thus, open to challenge) if we see how they manifest themselves in practice.  So I thought I would offer some sample solutions to the two common organisational problems I mentioned in the last blog but did not discuss further.  Perhaps some will ring bells with you.

Managers spend a large amount of time doing work that those who report to them should be doing – and no-one has any time to think and plan

How would you try to solve this one?

  • Appoint managers who are more inspiring and attractive?
  • Issue a memo reminding everyone of their job descriptions?
  • Encourage team-building across the organisation?

Despite a lot of effort, team-building sessions and perfectly amicable relationships senior teams find it extremely difficult to work constructively and productively together

How would you tackle this one?

  • Replace the CEO/General Secretary/bishop with someone more dynamic and exciting to inspire and unite the team?
  • Manage the team meeting agendas better?
  • Hold more and better team-building sessions together?

I know – it depends.  It depends on what you think is causing the problem.  But I want to suggest that the diagnosis as well as the solution you choose will reflect the way you see your organisation.

Here are three common models of organisation (1):

  • Charismatic. Sees organisations as depending on exceptional leaders who drive innovation and performance. Arguably this model is reflected in the oft-heard refrain that our major corporations need to pay ever larger amounts to ‘high flyers’ as their success depends on them attracting and keeping ‘top talent’
  • Bureaucratic (2). Organisations are like machines. They are hierarchical and focused on efficient process. You get results by dividing up the organisations’ activities into a set of units that focus on one part of the process. The aim is to reduce the extent to which organisations rely on human skill and initiative and achieve success through ‘mechanised’ and repeatable processes. This, the ‘classical’ theory has been and remains highly influential and is observed in such enduring organisational phenomena as the organisation chart and the job description.
  • Human relations (3). Organisations are first and foremost composed of people. Success follows when people grow, feel supported and fulfilled and relationships are working

The possible solutions suggested to the two problems above reflect, of course, the charismatic, bureaucratic and human relations approaches respectively (in a rather tongue in cheek fashion).

In practice, of course, in any given organisation, there is unlikely to be an entirely consistent ‘theory in use’.  But most organisations have a set of dominant ideas.  These are unlikely to be ‘wrong’.  It’s not as simple as that.  But are they helping you?  Any of the possible solutions I suggested might do the job, but are likely, on their own, to prove inadequate.  The charismatic approach has the major problem that it is difficult to whistle up or inculcate charisma – and yet, many organisations persist in the idea they can drive performance by appointing sufficiently impressive individuals to key positions.  And even if that proves possible can you sustain it given that no individual is forever?   The bureaucratic approach is good for driving efficiency but struggles in a fast changing world characterised by high expectations of human participation and fulfilment.  The human relations approach recognises (in what has become a cliché) that ‘the organisation’s greatest asset is its people’ but it may struggle to get them working in a focused and productive way.  All in all, organisations and the societies they are part of are more complex than these models tend to allow.  As soon as you present the problems as I have it is easy to see that you are likely to need more than one kind of intervention to address them successfully.  So how about we address problem 1 (managers too busy with everyone else’s job) by:

  • Generating agreement about the organisation’s purpose and strategy and of the roles of units, managers and teams in delivering it
  • Building ownership and commitment (so that individuals both understand their contribution and are motivated to make it)
  • Supporting this with processes and agreed ways of working that facilitate and encourage delegation and acceptance of responsibility and willingness to take the initiative

Or problem 2 (leadership team not productive) by:

  • Creating or reaffirming precisely the same shared clarity of purpose about the organisation , commitment and so forth as per problem 1
  • Clarifying the task so that its members see that that the leadership team will have to collaborate to achieve it (if it isn’t necessary, why are you worrying about it?)
  • Supporting this with good meeting discipline and by a commitment to ways of working beyond the meeting for which individuals will be accountable

No doubt other interventions (e.g. coaching, learning and development for individuals) may be required as well.  The key is that we need to approach problems from a number of angles, but not in a random or scattergun way.  We need to build on a way of thinking about organisations that does more justice to their multi-faceted and inter-connected nature and to see the parts within the whole.  In short, we need to think of organisations as I prefer to, as complex systems.  Developing that thought will the subject of my next blog.



1 It might be fairer to describe these ‘models’ as guiding metaphors – on this theme see Morgan, G. (1986) Images of Organisation, Sage, London

2 Both the charismatic and bureaucratic models are identified by Weber: Weber, M. (1924) Legitimate Authority and Bureaucracy, in, Organisation Theory, Selected Readings, (D. S. Pugh, Ed.) 3rd Edition, 1990, Penguin, London.

3 The human relations model has been developed by a number of theorists, but has its foundations in Mayos’s work: Mayo, E. (1949) The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London

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2 thoughts on “Assumptions at work

  1. This reminds me of a people-and-organisations analysis tool called SDI, which looks at people’s motivations and how that affects their behaviour in different situations. It is a remarkably good aid for understanding behaviour (at both an individual and organisational level) and thus implementing changes to improve team working and productivity.

    SDI has three axes: people who focus on getting things done (by any means) – the “charismatic” approach in this article; people who focus on doing things right – the “bureaucratic” approach here; people who recognise that people are the important factor – human relations. The point in this article, as in SDI, is that no one of these approaches is correct, or appropriate in every situation, or will work in isolation.

    As an example, there are many “charismatic” leaders who bluster around, “motivating” their staff by demanding ever-higher productivity at ever-lower costs. They think they are inspiring their staff to achieve greatness. They have no clue how their staff should achieve these unrealistic goals, but that’s not their job: they have led, they have shown the direction, and that is their role. Meanwhile, their staff, particularly the “bureaucratic” ones (using that word in the positive sense it is meant in this article), can see the ridiculous impossibility of the demands placed upon them. Rather than feeling inspired and motivated, they just lose respect for their leader who quite obviously can’t know what he or she is talking about, and actually become less productive as a result because they don’t know what goal (that is actually attainable) they should pursue. A motivational leader only succeeds if they are leading and motivating towards a sensible, realistic and achievable goal – and if they can show by example how to achieve that goal.

    That is, the “charismatic” leader must have an understanding and empathy for the way the organisation they lead will think. They may (indeed, should) have high demands and expectations of their staff. But they will only inspire their staff if they articulate these demands in ways that make sense to the staff, and which the staff can then pursue in the context of their own frames of reference.

    It is a truism that the only person you can change is yourself. A successful leader will modify their own behaviour to inspire their staff, not demand their staff change to match the leader. That simply doesn’t work – as centuries of slavery and oppressive regimes have taught us. Of course, some organisations do have staff complaining of such treatment – but those are not the world’s successful organisations.

    Further, a leader must ensure they are leading all their staff in the same direction. Too many organisations are crippled by conflicting internal goals in different divisions. In my own line of work, I have seen too often an IT department proudly meet its cost-cutting goals (thus thinking they are meeting their leader’s wishes), while other departments flounder to the point of collapse because they cannot get the IT services they need to fulfil their objectives. The tragedy is that those other departments are then punished in isolation for failure, when it is not their fault – is is a higher-level organisation failure.

    Of course, none of this is easy. Organisations are large, complex beasts. In all but the smallest, no single person can have a complete view of what is going on. This is where the different axes need to recognise each other and pull together.

    The charismatic leaders must ensure the whole organisation is behind the overall goals – not pursuing their own petty sub-goals that ultimately cause more harm than good. The bureaucratic attitude needs to ensure the teams, systems, monitoring, etc, necessary to achieve the goal are all in place and functioning. The human relations part needs to ensure all the people fit comfortably into these systems and goals – and that the systems and goals fit the people.

    Mostly, these three different axes need to be acutely aware of each other’s existence, and all modify what they do to suit the needs of the others, in common pursuit of the same goals. Only then, by considering all aspects, and their interactions, can they build a truly effective organisation.

    The best leaders are not the ones who are the most charismatic, or can build the most structured organisations, or who have the greatest human compassion. The best leaders are the ones who can balance all these factors (and many others), and moreover understand when to change that balance as the organisation and the situations it finds itself in change.

  2. The questions you propose seems to be an invitation for others to write a response….so that’s what I offer, although reading over my thoughts, I get a sense that my thinking is more radical in today’s culture and therefore not popular thinking!
    An organisation for me is an organism that comes alive through those committed to its purpose—that is from GRASS-ROOT to CEO. What holds these different levels together is the respect and the responsible of each person involved in the organisation—what I see as the life blood of the organism. Grass-root to Team Leaders, Team Leaders to Senior Team Leaders, Senior Team Leaders to CEO and CEO to Grass-root. The circle of life within the organisation.
    Respect and responsibility—two sides of the same coin, is seen in how we relate, listen, and work together as a team for the good of the organisation. How can someone walk in another’s person’s shoes, if they don’t first remove their own shoes (their assumptions and prejudices) so that they can walk in the shoes of other.
    What creates the challenge is how to define ‘respect and responsibility’ and how it is lived out so that it creates the life we want within the organisation?

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