During the last few days I posted philosophies and real world stories alike, and the most striking thing when looking at all of it together is that it doesn’t sum up to one worldview! So what was it all about? Did I change my mind during these days?
The philosophies show how good people are and that we should just treat them well and with respect in the right environment – then each and every project and change program has a good chance of success.
Real world practice, on the other hand, shows how people cheat, steal and destroy wherever they go, and often they deliberately do things that will endanger or directly kill the project, meaning that each and every project and change has a miserable chance of success.
How can both be true? They can, because people are different: some are selfish most of the time, others just now and then, and the rest just about never. If we divide these into social action types, we get:
- The selfishness has been described by mathematicians as the Collective Action Problem. In short, this claims that an individual will act socially if it is to his or her own benefit, otherwise not. The actions taken do depend, however, on their knowledge about the equation – when does a social action in fact give a better outcome than a selfish action?
- The idea of non-selfishness is a humanist/social constructionist approach to describing the actions of human beings, assuming that people in general do good things if they just know what is good. And bad actions are usually only bad because they are perceived this way by others, while some others yet could perceive the same actions as good.
- The middle way is my own approach where I assume that most people might get confused or tempted at times to act selfishly (grab the money and run), while otherwise believing in doing what others (to the doer’s knowledge) would consider good.
How can these two worlds – selfishness and non-selfishness – plus the middle way, be joined into one successful environment for projects and change?
Quite easily! The keyword is knowledge. All three segments will do good more of the time if they have more knowledge about the expected and realized effects of their actions. This knowledge is mainly about other people – people in the same system – and their needs and expected counteracts.
Systems Thinking, applied as a general approach to situational understanding, problems analysis, and general knowledge exchange in the organization will provide most of the needed knowledge for each individual to act socially responsible or selfish – whatever person he or she is – in such a way that the outcome for the one is optimized. And my claim is that with systems thinking, this would a lot more often be to the benefit of the organization and its projects and change programs, than without.
What we need to add is then a mechanism for avoiding gamblers and those who have a too short planning horizon for their actions to really want to wait for needed knowledge to show up. That mechanism could be teamwork with mutual accountability. If people are accountable to each other in a small scale (a few people) on a daily basis, it will be difficult for anyone to get away with the bigger betrayals or ego trips, unless the whole team agrees on it. And to prevent that, it is important to have mixed teams, as I described on the page teams, with the expectation that a mix of different people with respect to age, experience etc. most likely also will represent a mix of the three social action types.
Of course, workers and managers alike should be working in teams – having management teams has more advantages than the one just described: teamed managers will make more sound decisions and catch up upon more topics than individual managers, and they will supplement each other on both time and skills, just like all other teams.
This – knowledge sharing, systems thinking, and teamwork – is beginning to sum up to something that looks like Peter Senge’s Learning Organisation, as described in “The Fifth Dicipline”.
So I will claim that in order to create an environment that will ensure a much higher success rate for projects and change programs, an organization should to move towards a learning organization without making a big project out of it (because: a project it certainly can’t be – and big is likely to fail, as described on the page Continuous Improvement).
It should start with rearranging both the organizational structure and the incentive systems to demand as well as support teams as the main unit type, and then follow up with introducing and requiring the use of systems thinking practices, of an accommodation building type like Soft Systems Methodology. This methodology was developed by Peter Checkland and has been described in several books, for instance “Learning for Action” by Peter Checkland and John Poulter.
Then things will get better: it will be difficult for anyone to deliberately harm a project, and it will be unattractive in most cases when the project is good for the team or the organization, and there will additionally be fewer mistakes and fewer bad decisions made on the basis of lack of knowledge or understanding of others’ needs.
What we then still need to put into this much better organization is a focus on customer value, for the sake of ensuring sustainability of the organization. It needs to work seamlessly with the three collective action types in order to have a chance, and it must support the team oriented structure. I will get back to this topic in future writings.