State Your Assumptions

Feynman

Positive change. How do organizations achieve it?

Part 1 – A mechanism for coordination

“Top-down” and “bottom-up” are familiar concepts for discussing where change originates within an organization. They’re based within some level of organizational hierarchy, with a simplified view being that there are two levels of power: workers and managers. The power they each possess stems from the fact that they need each other.

As an aside, this has been a very hard post to write and edit. It’s been difficult to distill into not only something of interest, but hopefully something useful. The underlying assumption I’d like you to embrace is that our goal is positive change. Let’s take this apart and agree that change is a fact of life, and that there is always room for improvement. Hence: positive change.

With the goal of positive change, success is found when both entities find agreement and are aligned in a common direction. Without alignment, change is difficult. The sheer potential for change is stymied when the groups don’t even have a mechanism in place to listen… let alone an ability to work to agreement.

Another main point I’d like to introduce is that your organization needs to be intentional with how it approaches change, and have processes in place to evaluate whether change is positive or negative. If you wish to be an advocate of positive change, you need to understand how your organization handles change.

Part 2 – Institutional limits on innovation

A concept of which I was recently made aware is that of a conversational ‘anchor’. These anchors are the biases or preconceived views that we bring with us. They anchor us to one way of thinking and as a result shape how others interact with us.

If organizationally rooted, these anchors define the ideology of an organization. If they are leadership rooted, they will have the same general effect. It’s simplistic, and it is a spectrum, but I’d like to introduce the idea that organizations are either solution-focused or ideology-focused. Either entity may have an inspirational vision of the future, an action-oriented mission to support their vision, the goals to support their mission, and the strategies to achieve their goals. But, I suggest that they differ greatly in the anchors that they carry and how they carry them. How do anchors limit positive change? I would hypothesize that the more anchors there are, the more limited an organization is in finding and implementing positive change. At its most open, an organization engages with its staff to tackle issues and develop solutions. This becomes less and less effective the more anchors that there are.

Part 3 – Assumptions vs. Premises

I don’t think there is any judgment of either organization type. Another way to view anchors is to call them assumptions. In our everyday lives (and episodes of Three’s Company), assumptions can be quite damaging because we’re not operating with all of the information. The scientific/logical approach to assumptions can be very powerful (and necessary), when we state them, recognize them and ideally confirm them. They serve the purpose of narrowing down the scope of a discussion, ideally beginning with people having agreement on the assumptions that will be made.

So… for the sake of this post, let’s say that an anchor is something subconscious (or undeclared) that we bring with us… whereas a premise is a declared assumption. A solution-focused organization is likely to be built on declared and agreed upon premises that are open to change. In other words, the organizational type predisposes itself to always questioning. Whereas, an ideology-focused organization will need to protect itself from the potential negative impacts of anchors. It is an organization that is already predisposed to a particular way of thinking. Extra effort will be required to ensure that any ideology has a solid premise, and is only applied the way that is intended to be applied.

Part 4 – Engaging the Highest Level of Expertise

Back to positive change. Each of us has our highest level of expertise. We are at our best when we focus on that, and others consult with us for our abilities. That’s where we provide our highest value, and often it provides us with happiness when we are engaged at that level. In a perfect world, that means that everyone is vested with vision and mission where they understand and support the goals and strategies. When this is the case, challenges are approached with a more comprehensive understanding… and we open an organization to an opportunity: people will offer solutions that may solve multiple problems… or… they might stop and challenge the question, helping the right question be asked.

This requires an organizational approach that is open to critical thought. This is a very simplistic discussion as it’s not as easy as saying, “you need to be solutions-based”. That could lead to amazing chaos with everyone being enabled to suddenly be philosophical. There is a hierarchical overlay of a number of levels of leadership, but the idea is to enable people to grow and initiate growth.

[As an aside, are you familiar with kaizen? A system of continuous improvement. If you’re not familiar with it, take a moment to check it out on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen). The foundation of this system is a solutions-based system where everyone is integrated meaningfully within every corner of the organization. If someone sees an opportunity to improve the organization, the systems are in place to hear them, evaluate ideas, and implement positive change.]

Part 5 – Right Person, Right Place, Right Time

Let’s also realize that an organizational challenge is to find the right place for the right employee at the right time of their career. The Peter Principle (not named after me) is summarized as being people rise to the level of their incompetence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle.  People usually receive promotions based on how well they do their current role, rather than assessing their effectiveness and skills as suited for the role they will rise into. So, you are amazing at your job and you get promotions… until you are in a role that you aren’t as good at. Then you stay there. Ideally, everyone would be at the level just below their incompetence. Easy to say. Our culture is grounded in the idea of upward mobility, and organizations and individuals aren’t good at saying when they’re in the right place.

So, a solutions-based system needs to enable all employees and ensure that the right person is in the right role at the right time in their career.

Part 6 – Bringing it home

So… I’ll pick on ideology-based systems. I’m maybe really getting into the realm of opinion and bias here, but the reason for this is to address a system that has preconceived notions. An example of this is polarized government. Investing any organization with vision and mission is a challenge, and has an inherent weakness in the face of people who aren’t integrated. If they are just ambivalent, the system rolls on with them in it (but not the better for it). If they work counter to the system, a few can severely damage the whole. Unfortunately, being an elected system, government doesn’t typically reflect an integrated system of vision, mission, goals and strategies (sadly)… people are often elected based on specific strategies or goals (election friendly soundbites). Organizational effectiveness requires a continuum, so in a system where vision/mission/goals/strategies can change drastically… long-term benefit can be crippled.

What I’m getting at in this is that a solutions-based system maintains a high level of flexibility in how to achieve a vision. An ideological based system has more constraints on how to get there. It’s the difference between trying to solve a problem with a single tool versus having a tool box. “Our mission statement guides us to use a pipe wrench,” versus “Let’s assess the problem and figure out the ideal way to solve it.”

Part 7 – Epilogue

Phew. The above was hard to write, and I’m uncertain I did a great job of leading you with where my brain was going. At the end of it, I likely just restated the obvious. I think the most important part of this is to state that to work toward positive change, we need to understand the system within which we are working. Each system can offer advantages, and it likely depends on how much of a paradigm shift is needed for the positive change that is initiated.

The point is that we recognize that we are surrounded by systems that are grounded with assumptions/premises of which we may or may not be aware. Many entities predispose themselves toward certain solutions for one reason or another. This could be politics, religion or just doing it the same way it’s always been done. My worry is that these organizations are complacent to existing within these anchors, and they become an accepted organizational mentality with unintentional (?) limitations. If an organization has been taught that direction comes from the top, it doesn’t encourage personal engagement. People begin to show up, do their job like they’ve been told, and go home.

So. Does your organization clearly state its assumptions/premises? Do they recognize that these do frame how they operate? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises are used correctly and don’t influence other areas? Do they have strategies in place to ensure that these premises encourage and spur positive change around them? Can these premises be changed? And to take it back to something I asked at the beginning of this post, does your organization have a mechanism in place to genuinely listen, assess and implement?

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