As organizational consultants we work in very divers organizations as banks, municipalities, museums, health-care institutions, etc. The questions and problems we encounter there are just as divers as the activities, but actually what these organizations have in common is much more interesting.
The most striking similarity is that all these organizations are confronted with circumstances that are more pressing and dynamic then ever before. By far the most of these organizations have the greatest difficulty to adapt. It seems to us that signals and incentives from reality and context no longer lead to sufficient adaptation, change or transformation.
In other words: The adaptive capacity and the ability to react to stimuli is declining in the sense that it does not stimulate new and creative reactions but leads to repetitive, imitation behavior, defensiveness and emphasis on control.
We have observed the change in board rooms, but also in teams throughout organizations: There is little awareness of the repetitive and even narrowing repertoire that is used to deal with the changing reality.
Of course one can shrug one’s shoulders and hope for the best. But then you pass over the thousands of employees that have to deal with the consequences on a daily basis. Let alone the impact on clients and other stakeholders.
We would call this development a serious or even grave situation. All the more because we know all these traps and loops and their impact on an organization from experience. We have to conclude that this unprofessionalism leads to lots of people repeating the same old loops and traps without a second thought. And that is an alarming observation.
Hang on, are the both of you not overreacting? There are a lot of fine people in great organizations. There are a lot of new ways of working together popping up everywhere and even large organizations that have taken steps to improve these situations.
Sure. Everyone can (and will) give us an example.
So there are organizations – i.e. people working together – that have learned. But the common factor in by far the most of those examples is: they were able to learn and do it differently because there was no pressure, there was no crises, it was not mandatory. They had sufficient sense of reality to be able to create a free moment in time.
If how to adapt is prescribed because of a (imminent) crisis, change will always be at the cost of someone or something. Under pressure our ability to learn decreases and that shows short term, non-creative and single loop solutions. We know all the myths about pressure and creativity and we have learned they belong to the teaching system, not to the learning ability.
This type of adaptation, “you will have to do what we say because we are running behind the facts, desperately trying to overtake them”, has now become such a ‘normal’ practice that is has started to threaten the continuation of things. Everyone knows where that leads to: another crises and the same old reactions, the well known tune, maybe in another key.
There is however an increasing tempo in this loop, where we have less time and ample opportunity to learn.
It has to be first time right; we cannot take any changes. There is to much at stake. But you see, those conclusions are the result of non-learning or should we say the incapability to lead (to learn before it occurs) in the first place.
Leaders and directors of corporations, organizations and municipalities all are aware of these compulsory factors: share prices, turnover, pressure groups, politics, costs, obligations and so on.
The compulsory factor has, if taken as a base, this strangeness to it, that it amplifies itself once you are in its curve. One obligation leads to another and before you know it you are on a rollercoaster of consequences, steering, but no longer in the lead.
In this tunnel vision one gets so occupied with anticipation and prevention that there is no room for anything else. With a distorted image of reality as an untimed result.
Measures taken from this point of view almost always act within the same framework as where the problems occurred in the first place and will therefore be temporary and cosmetic. In effect, reality is not effected and the issues will show themselves in a different shape, with the same underlying questions but with greater urgencies. Same old, same old.
Our observation is: what used to be a reality, over time becomes an expectation and lateron a demand.
Over the past 15 years we have observed what happens to people and organizations if the changing dynamics of reality and context are no longer leading, but the compulsory factor is. Images and sentiments distort or should we say stand between the observer and reality. We have listed three causes that we most encounter in our work:
Fear: Focus on control, prevention and power is developed at the expense of the ability to observe cohesion, continuity, the broader picture and the connection between cause and effect. Fear has the tendency to visualize future obstacles, problems and conflicts beforehand and tries to avoid them, instead of developing the skill of dealing with it in real time. So all the ‘risk’ factors are managed out and with it all the possibilities to see beyond the loop. People focus much of their thinking and feeling capacity on creating a static safety bubble, where everything outside the bubble is ‘perceived’ a potential threat. We have found this to be the basic culture in a lot of organizations. Fear also makes us jump to conclusions, very helpful if we are in danger, not helpful in any other situation:
We were present in the board meeting (over 20 people) of a big company where the CIO told his fellow directors that the current ICT problems could be handled in three different ways: radical renewal, adapting and reacting, waiting until it collapses. The CEO jumped up and shouted: “If anyone votes for the first solution I resign”. Nobody said anything.
Conviction: Acting on the basis of believes, well-known practices, personal world views, habits or procedures leads to lack of innovation and creativity. Even more it slowly loses believe in the capacity of people and situations. A conviction looks for expertise and methods that fit in the already existing patterns. It has the tendency to hear and see only the likeminded and react irritated, “I know better” or even angry when different or unknown points of view are offered. It is also a well-known experience that convictions produce a lot of social pressure. Convictions assess the outcome of observations from a fixed point of view:
We once took a group of directors from companies in the City of London to a high achieving organization that operates without hierarchy, targets or incentives. Although most of them liked the experience, they had a hard time understanding or even hearing what was told. One of them summarized it brilliantly during supper: I would never have guessed that it was possible to surpass Darwin.
Rationalization: A system, an analysis, a test, a model or a statistic that colors or simplifies reality has the tendency to estrange and even enchant people. It is not the system or the analysis that does that, but the fact remains that the outcome gives organizations a false sense of understanding and being able to handle reality. Structuring data in a particular way is very helpful at the start of a process to find out what needs to be done. It is never sufficient information to base your transformation upon because it has lost the dynamics of reality. Furthermore, a simplified sense of reality gives us a simplified sense of identity. Making sense of reality is something much more dynamic, complex and daring.
Sense of reality
Reality in our line of work has gradually changed from overseeing the current situation and creating a sustainable future, to dealing with crises, competition, stakeholder demands, pressure, complicated personal situations, narrowed consciousness, talented people in the grip of egoism and so on.
We almost started to believe ourselves that all these issues, which have become so common in organizational life, indicated the need for change. Stronger still: were actually necessary for change.
Until we saw their real significance: These situations occur only when people have lost their connection to reality. We are now dealing with problems in organizations (businesses, cities, societies) caused by not being able to get a clear sense of reality, let alone deal with it. They are the effect of playing the same old song over and over again.
Understanding organizations has become an increasingly complex and interconnected discipline, because there is much more information available and we are much more connected. We needed to upgrade our sense of reality through the training of our observation skills and dynamize our “making sense of it” abilities. The old ways of dealing with information and circumstances were simply not good enough anymore.
The courage factor
Why is it such a difficult task for leaders to show a sense of reality?
Sense of reality is often confused with a sense of urgency. Something quite different, although in the current leadership thinking, necessity and urgency are not seldom mistaken for reality. Urgency, necessity and even crises are situations that occur when the sense of reality is absent or neglected.
It takes a lot of courage to step away from the usual and short term solutions, the demands that come from believe-systems and the archetypal pressure on leaders, the common opinions that see reality in a certain perspective. It is hard work to come to the conclusion that you have been busy with effects instead of causes.
In the last few years our work has been recovering a sense of reality, before anything else. We help the client to step away from his/her sense of urgency (compulsory factor), carefully examining the three factors (fear, conviction and rationalization) that create traps and loops. In a joined effort of collective learning we then start to make sense of the reality.
This process always creates perspective and possibilities. It is like a breath of fresh air if we succeed to observe reality without fear, conviction or simplification. Our living ability of adaption is recovered.
We simply wanted to say: crises do not indicate change, they just show you that you are trapped. All the old tunes that you play to deal with the trap, just keep you in the same old loop. Frankly, we like to hear and make some new music together.
Huibert van Wijngaarden & Peter Paul Gerbrands