The Masochism Tango

August 3, 2006

One of the really depressing things about being on the circuit of conferences and seminars is to hear the same old tired solutions being proposed time and time again even when they have demonstrably failed in the past. I was reminded of one today. When faced with something that wasn’t working the consultant presenting, by way of general advise, trotted out the standard solution: (i) re-organise, (ii) change the culture and (iii) restructure and align processes. It is the normal use of an ideal approach in which a perfect world is designed, and then human agents within the system have to be conformed to that ideal through cultural change programmes and retraining. Its a pity someone doesn’t start with the people and evolve to a more sustainable future. It used to be the case that you might go through a re-organisation maybe every few years, now most people face a root and branch re-structuring on an annual basis. Now let me tell you a story …..

In one large organisation to which I belonged there was a seasonal pattern linked to the budget cycle. Round about July it started to become evident that things were not working Secret discussions then took place during August so that changes could be incorporated in the budget for the following year. Round about September anyone with good social networks had heard what was going on and positioned themselves for the new structure. The people doing the work, just got on with it and were politically shafted in consequence. In November with much fanfare the new organisation was announced, with the promise that the future was secure as the company was now (at this point insert two or three platitudes, it doesn’t matter which just make sure they sound good).

A frantic period of re-organisation would now follow through the end of the financial year and into the first month of the next so that by the end of January things were almost ready and money would be spent on “getting my new team together”. Towards the end of February with the Quarter End looming the new managers would suddenly realise that that they had forgotten their task was to make money and the blood letting would start in Q2. With continued failure, the consultants would be brought in and by July secret discussions were being planned …….

Of course there was some blood letting at the time of the re-organisation just for good measure and to pay the consultancy bills.

The real nonsense here is that it normally takes people some months to get used to a new structure, and then a year or so for the informal networks so critical to the success of an organisation to build around the new formal structure. The problem is that the engineering mind set sees humans as widgets who will perform to spec.

The trouble is one day we may. There is an old Joke which goes like this: Do you think computers will exceed human intelligence in the next decade? Yes. Why? Because we are planning to meet them half way.

It all reminds me of the Tom Lehrer song which forms the title of this post. Come to think of it Poisoning Pigeons in the Park would also be appropriate. Remember it?

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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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