Don’t prescribe sainthood

February 2, 2017

One of the many things that has always frustrated me about too many organisational change theories and practices is the assumption of sainthood. A model of the organisation, or its leaders, or the ideal employee or whatever is created. Normally this is soon loose assembly of platitudes that no one can disagree with. This is then set as the ideal model, the goal or target and programmes are then initiated. Given that the ideal and the real rarely coincide this means that such programmes fail, increase cynical responses to future initiatives and generally mess things up. Any model of a human system based on sainthood is doomed.

Interestingly if you look into military models then the assumption is that they have to deal with what they get. Rituals, training, practice mean that ordinary people become extraordinary in context. Such approaches start with where people are and seek to make things better. The point about an average is that it is an average, it is not possible for everyone to be above it. The other key thing here is that the context is key. Everything in a complex adaptive system is context specific not context free. So in some contexts the ordinary can be extraordinary regardless of innate or personal qualities. Creating that context may be more effective than trying the configure a human unit.

When I first worked in Personnel and Training (my first industrial job) the Personnel Director was an ex Major in a retirement job. He knew how to handle bureaucracy and legal compliance, but he also understood people; what was possible and what was not. He didn’t get swept up in the jargon of the modern Personnel function. There were four of us in that department, with some contractors as needed. These days the same organisation would have a Personnel function three times that size, plus an organisational development function, plus leadership and so on. I wonder at times if the professionalisation of the Personnel function hasn’t created its own work, rather than responding to real need.

So maybe a little less of the sainthood, more understanding of sin?

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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