Changing the mechanistic mindset

The latest question from Michael Cook (Organizational Development Talks: OrgDevTalk) continues from our last conversations:

Harold: I am still not certain about my future as a member of the blogging community but I have revisited our last exchange and rekindled my spirit for that dialogue…

Among the many things you said in your post of February 1st a couple have stuck with me as they pertain particularly to where I put my energies. Here is the first of these:

“Our industrial management models are based on a belief that our structures are merely complicated.”

To me this statement gets right to the heart of where I am stumped about how to support clients. Without fail, in the past five years every new client I have been engaged by has specified one of two things they really wanted to see change in their organizations culture. They said either 1) they wanted more leadership from their mid-level managers or 2) they wanted more ownership from their employees for the outcomes the business required. The phrase they often use is wanting people to “step up.”

In my dialogues with them I do my best to point out that to the best of my knowledge both of these changes are within reach, however, not without them, the client, making the first move. Among the moves that they need to make is to stop imposing a management structure designed to serve the interests of the ownership of the business on employees who are doing their best to fulfill the requirements of customers or clients.

The challenge of having this conversation make a difference lies in speaking this way into a system that believes that their company is really mechanistic in its operation and that they, the owner or senior manager, are really in control. This perspective is supported entirely by the belief that not only is the organization mechanistic, it is merely, as you have said, complicated.

How would you recommend breaking through this mythology? My guess is that a conceptual approach won’t cut it. Without releasing the grip of this perspective the outcomes they desire are virtually impossible to attain.

The second thought that you shared of particular interest was the notion of Wirearchy: a dynamic multi-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology. The truly stunning aspect of this idea is that it may in fact be possible to implement on some level without the use of technology. In my own experience some version of Wirearchies have been around for a long time, especially on complex development projects. What would you recommend as an approach to have a client see that the notion is less something new than something not yet formally recognized or empowered? Then, having accomplished that objective, how best to introduce the possibility of leverage deriving from some sort of investment in technology?

To me both your remarks and the questions they generated for me are interrelated and from an OD standpoint truly stand as the gateway to establishing new management models.

I think this may be a long response, Mike.

I recently gave a presentation to senior HR executives, discussing the need for new work and learning approaches premised specifically on the need to focus on complex (and creative) work.

Rob Paterson sums up complexity and why we need to understand how if differs from the merely complicated:

“It’s a simple message, really. But if you don’t get it, you’re headed for chaos.

Simple = easily knowable.

Complicated = not simple, but still knowable.

Complex = not fully knowable, but reasonably predictable.

Chaotic = neither knowable nor predictable.”

In that presentation to HR Execs I show that simple routine work is constantly being automated (e.g. automated tellers) and complicated work is being outsourced to the cheapest labour market (e.g. call centres). If companies want to be competitive in the global market, they need to focus on non-standardized, complex & creative work.


Work is changing as we get more connected. The old ways of organizing work are becoming obsolete, as 84% of workers in the US plan to change their jobs in 2011. They want out, in spite of a lacklustre economy. We are seeing mass, decentralized and social movements that confront existing hierarchies, politically and in the workplace. The recent examples of uprisings in North Africa are good attention-getters. There is no normal. All our institutions are facing the challenges of always-on connectedness and the need to adapt to Internet Time. Social media are just the current tip of the Internet iceberg, making work relationships much more complex. Workers do have to step up, but they also need the tools and authority. Encouraging workplace practices like personal knowledge mastery is a start.

When I show that our existing professional disciplines are like blind monks examining an elephant, I get some attention. The need for collaborative work and social learning increases as higher-value complex work requires passion, creativity and initiative. These skills are not taught in some training program, but shared socially through modelled behaviour and over many conversations. We need to understand complex adaptive systems and develop work structures that let us  focus our efforts on learning as we work in order to continuously develop next practices. The role of leadership becomes supportive rather than directive in this new knowledge-intensive and creative workplace. Artificial boundaries that limit collaboration and communication only serve to drag companies down and create opportunities for more agile competitors.

The last slide of that presentation shows a type of servant leadership, supporting the real work being done.

connected leadership

I have learned that I need to start a conversation on complexity but it has to be simple enough not to lose my clients’ attention and not to seem like an academic lecture. This latest presentation is one more iteration of that. If you can can reframe the conversation, then you can talk about new ways of working and integrating learning. For example, most managers would agree that more work and effort is required for exception-handling. Social networks are an excellent framework to deal with these. This can start a new business conversation.

Analytical tools like organizational or value network analysis are also good ways to show what is really happening in an organization and its environment. Visualization is a powerful change agent. The most effective technology to start with to see the value of more collaborative, less controlled, work practices is micro-blogging. This could be an open platform like Twitter or a cloud service like Yammer or Chatter or an in-house tool like

I agree that it’s not necessarily about the technology, even though technology is everywhere.

Sometimes it’s just giving up control, as the wirearchy framework suggests. Adam Kahane wrote in Solving Tough Problems:

“If we want to help resolve complex situations, we have to get out of the way of situations that are resolving themselves.”

According to the authors of Getting to Maybe, in complex environments:

  • Rigid protocols are counter-productive
  • There is an uncertainty of outcomes in much of our work
  • We cannot separate parts from the whole
  • Success is not a fixed address [perpetual Beta]

None of these require technology, but they all require a new mindset. I have worked with clients who accepted the need to deal with complexity and change their work structures. Patience is a virtue.


3 Responses to “Changing the mechanistic mindset”

  1. Brent MacKinnon

    Gosh, you opened up a the “cold heaven” landscape. I soaked up “Getting to Maybe” a few years ago and it was a game changer for me. I kind of forgot the cold heaven piece until you mentioned “the new mind set” (formless ground?). That’s a major step into new territory and I agree patience is a virtue. That book is a great read, particularly for discovering or finding that mindset.

    Best line when I took another look at the Cold Heaven chapter was ” Those that struggle to make a difference have to face two paradoxes. The first is that success is not a fixed address. The second is that failure can open the way to success.

    Thanks for reminding me how mindset and complexity are so entwined. I’m trying to give practical advice and steps to make things digestible (complicated) but sense that I’m dipping into the complex which leaves me a bit dizzy. Your helping reflect on this Harold…patience grasshopper….


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