Manifesting enduring human and organizational capabilities
Can traditional thinking and mechanical responses ever be an action that amplifies organizational transformation?
Let’s begin this provocative inquiry focused on unsettling corporate leaders’ mindsets on deepening old paradigms in organizations! Organizations need new thinking that is integrative and premised on elevating natural human capabilities.
“An action is a physical manifestation resulting from the imaginary beliefs and imaginary desires. To the majority, action is a mere mechanical response to a challenge, but to those who pursue exceptional living, action is a demonstration of the belief in their magnificence. In the different dimensions of life, we are always responding to a challenge or situations, and we call that activity. But can that response ever be action? Surely, it is not action; it is only reaction. Any form of action based on reaction leads to confusion, because there is no newness, there is no freshness, no vitality, no clarity; it is a mere mechanical response based on the accumulated information, accumulated experiences, and the conditioning of the past.”
Justine Chinoperekweyi, Exceptionality Without Relapse, 2019.
We have used or heard of terms and approaches such as ‘buy-in’ and ‘cascading’ in organizations and in consulting. These concepts are normally associated with transformative labels when dealing with change or when evolving strategic plans into operational planning and implementation. Sounds interesting, right? Reflect on the quotation above in the context of activity, reacting, acting, and action. Can the response from ‘buy-in’ and ‘traditional cascading’ ever be action that is transformational? I use traditional cascading to denote the top-down approach that is characteristic of most organizations. To what extend do ‘buy-in’ and ‘traditional cascading’ stimulate human capabilities that birth newness, freshness, vitality, and clarity in organizations? By this, I mean stimulating curiosity, imagination, and enlightenment that facilitates transformation and sustainable strategic change.
In an article by Geoff Marlow, “’Strategy’ used to be the sine qua non of top management. But in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, it’s catastrophically sluggish, constraining approach to sense making.” I have noted with interest and sparks of curiosity that towards the end of the calendar year, it is a normal corporate practice that senior leaders travel for ‘strategic’ retreats, normally to a serene and quiet resort away from office and staff. Year-end becomes a peak season for Strategic Planning Consultants. These so-called ‘strategic’ retreats are usually a reserve for C-suite leaders and in a few cases middle managers. At these retreats, corporate leaders come up with the so-called strategic plan or strategic interventions mainly focused on incremental change. The majority of the so-called ‘strategic’ interventions from these ‘strategic’ retreats are simple initiatives that could have been arrived at through good conversations during regular management and staff meetings. Anyway, as one of my colleagues echoed, these are ‘holiday retreats’ camouflaged as strategic retreats – in most cases, these corporate events are surely holiday retreats coupled with nice lunches, dinners, boat rides, and nice social media photos. Pardon my gadfly thoughts and submissions! Nonetheless, reflect on the transformational value in some of these dominant, 20th-century type, corporate activities, and events! When folks come from these nice lunches, dinners, and boat rides camouflaged as ‘strategic’ retreats or management meetings, they normally seek ‘buy-in’ and/or adopt the ‘traditional cascading’ approach to bring everybody else to speed. Correct me here, is this not deep 20th Century management thinking? Are we not deepening old paradigms yet profess that ‘change is the only constant? Can we start doing things differently?
Let’s review these two interesting concepts, briefly.
An article by my mentor and colleague in Emergent OD, Patrick Trottier, titled Try ‘Ownership’! ‘Buy-in’ Just doesn’t make the grade… is a good read here. In this article, Patrick quotes Max Mallet, Brett Nelson, and Chris Steiner, Forbes 2012 who wrote on buy-in as ‘The Most Annoying, Pretentious and Useless Business Jargon’. In the same article, David Logan is quoted stating that ‘buy-in’ “means agreement on a course of action, of the most disingenuous kind.” Remove the 20th Century thinking cap or the traditional MBA stuff from graduate school, and reflect on ‘buy-in’ through the lens of cultivating and amplifying enduring human capabilities in organizations.
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘cascade’ as “flow downwards in large amounts”. Sounds familiar in management, right? Top-down action planning suggests that those at higher levels of the organization review business results and then cascade down key elements for action. But, in doing so do they get action or mere reaction and acting? Reflect on an approach to ‘çascading’ that brings real transformation and awakens people’s potential.
Why do today’s executives and managers prefer these dehumanizing approaches?
Besides overconfidence and illusion of control, here are some of my gadfly reasons behind such thinking:
• Blindly following the corporate tradition and yearly corporate events calendar
• Most executives merely inherit traditional approaches as taught in graduate schools and remain fixed in that college assignment mindset
• Conditioned towards hierarchical structures
• Narcissistic mindsets and toffee-nosed managers or leaders
• Ignorance of the gap between theory and practice
• The need to safeguard power and control structures
Back to the question, can the response from ‘buy-in’ and ‘cascading’ ever be action? In most instances, the ‘cascading and buy-in’ approaches are followed by activity logs, implementation templates, and checklists. Eventually, people react, they start ‘acting’, and some form of change and development activity starts. In filming, they normally use ‘action’ to instruct participants to start acting. When the action bell rings, acting starts as a mechanical response based on accumulated information. Let’s reflect on our corporate practices, and assess if people are not demonstrating mechanical responses to challenges or expectations. Don’t we need action that is informed by collective imaginary beliefs and imaginary desires?
Besides depleting human capabilities, here are some drawbacks of these traditional approaches to corporate management:
• Mechanical responses facilitate employee split personality and impression management phenomenon just to fit in or conform to executives’ demands and expectations.
• People become disillusioned, apathetic and start questioning why they need to exert discretionary effort yet only decisions and action plans are imposed on them
• In the absence of consultation and effective engagement, people get angry and agitated
• People feel insulted when decisions are always made on their behalf. The parent-child syndrome cannot sustain organizations
• Rather than developing into self-agency, people get stuck in learned helplessness. As a result of management and senior leaders always making decisions, other people start believing that they are incapable of contributing something significant to the organization.
• Deepens a sense of alienation between management and staff (‘we versus them’ situation)
• Strategic drift occurs as a result of people’s low engagement and commitment
The good thing is that mechanical responses can facilitate incremental change, that is, stay the course and achieve business results. Then you might be asking, so why should corporate leaders and managers stretch themselves? The fundamental question that boggles most people and consultants is that: we have done everything according to our plans, yet we don’t see significant changes to our business, why? I have heard folks say, we don’t know where we are getting it all wrong, but we are not growing? In the corporate corridors, I have heard loud staff voices saying we met all the targets but still they are saying the business is not performing, how? All checklists have been smartly ticked and nicely signed as confirmation of attaining set metrics. We have nicely bound strategic documents and implementation reports in our cabinets? Unfortunately, we are not growing! The BIG question is, WHY?
Traditional ‘mindsets’ are mostly ‘problem-based’, as thus, the solutions are guarded by the parameters of ‘problem thinking’. This is safe and comfortable, but rarely manifests true innovation and creation of new products, services as well as novel ‘ways and means’ to continually emerge and sustain with the rapid changes, disruptors, and the growing complexities of the 21st Century.
In response to the above questions, corporate leaders will resolve to hire another ‘award winning’, ‘parachute’, ‘star of the year’, ‘bullet’ consultant in town, or hold an ad hoc EXCO meeting, or even prepare for another strategic planning retreat. The confidence-building message is, this time let’s be serious gentleman and ladies! Unfortunately, the same cycle repeats itself over and over again. Why?
Pay attention to this core message from Patrick Trottier, “avoid the pitfalls of ‘buy-in’; wasted effort, wasted time, ‘re-work’, wasted money and wasted results. Oh, you will get results, just not the results you desired or expected – or to the degree thereof.”
In an environment that demands increased productivity and competitiveness above co-creation, the sugar-coated ‘buy-in’ and ‘cascading’ argument is normally overridden by the need to drive performance. While hiding behind ‘buy-in’ and cascading narratives, corporate leaders ask employees to do more work in less time. The demands for quick results and pressure from boards and oversight committees always jeopardize the good story around these concepts. In the quest to fulfill their ‘strategic’ retreat promises, leaders start executing on people – forget about values, learning, or participation; we just need to execute. The notion of execution, that characterizes ‘buy-in’ and cascading, is quite violent. There is an intense focus on short-term results at the expense of all else.
Geoff Marlow wrote that “the historical reliance on strategy consulting to help senior executives in their decision making has, for far too long, prevented them from dynamically harnessing, learning from, and improving the sense making already going on in the body of their own organisations.” What then do organizations need? I cautiously, though as a gadfly, share my humble OD Practitioner thinking on this provocative discourse. If we need action that is not a mere mechanical response to executives’ call but is premised on imaginary beliefs and imaginary desires; then we need to rethink ‘buy-in’ and cascading in favor of manifesting ‘real ownership’ and effective organizational alignment. Organizations need approaches that cultivate and amplify enduring human capabilities. Buy-in and cascading focuses on the momentary cultivation of capacity and efficiency without awakening curiosity, imagination, and enlightenment. In fact, the so-called leaders are the only ones privileged with exploring and exploiting their natural human capabilities. Hence, we need to question their leadership. In fact, they are not leaders.
Patrick Trottier recommends trying ownership over ‘buy-in’. He wrote that “Having ‘ownership’ means that they have participated in something to a degree that they have invested a part of themselves both cognitively and emotionally so that they now ‘own it’.” This facilitates action which is not a mere mechanical response because have assimilated, internalized, and integrated the ‘thing’ freely.
Real ‘ownership’ seems to instill passion, commitment, accountability and the support to follow-up to do something. ‘Ownership’ increases the curiosity to understand how things are going and the willingness to put time and energy in to make it happen – thus, it increases the probability of success to achieve the desired result.
How about we foster Action Research, Action Planning, Emergent Learning, and Action Knowledge in developing, translating, and implementing strategic plans? Action Research is an interactive inquiry process that balances problem solving actions implemented in a collaborative context with data-driven collaborative analysis or research to understand underlying causes enabling future predictions about personal and organizational change. Action strategy provides real-time agile strategy making and implementation in shifting, fast-changing environments. It arises in the context of evolving future-directed conditions and emerging opportunities and risks. Embedded in the process of Action strategy is Emergent Learning. Simply, by developing continuous learning cycles as we proceed, such guides us in shifting our thinking, strategies, and actions as our priorities and environments shift relative to our goals, objectives and in how we implement strategies to achieve our desired results. Action strategy with Emergent Learning produces emerging Action Knowledge. Action knowledge provides requisite information and insights about real time implicit and explicit factors underlying and driving action strategy processes.
Consultants need to shift from labels of strategy and strategic planning popularized by traditional graduate school programs and books. Unfortunately, most strategic planning approaches taught in graduate schools were developed for 19th and 20th Century organizational perspectives that are not relevant to the rate of change and challenges modern organizations face. To shift from the traditional models of strategy and strategic planning, it is important to embrace continual strategy review processes and emergent organizational alignment processes that translate strategic plans into operational and implementation plans with multiple feedback loops that continually align with rapid change and shifting complexities.
There is need to shift from ‘cascading’ to integration and organizational alignment. Through this approach, organizations promote collaborative partnerships, bottom-up and cross-functional engagements rather than traditional top-down models. ‘Integrated organizational alignment’ will promote processes of self-organizing as well as manifesting ‘self-agency’ through removing organizational boundaries that inhibit the flourishing of natural human capabilities.
In conclusion, sustainable organizations need to adopt approaches that cultivate, elevate and refract (manifest) enduring human and organizational capabilities. As organizations expect people who demonstrate problem-solving, curiosity, imagination, innovation and creativity, and so on; it is important to create spaces that allow people to flourish. Adopting 20th-century strategies premised on leader-follower, manager-subordinate mindset does not enhance the capacity of organizations.
As we proceed into the 21st century, organizations need new ways of thinking, organizational designs, ‘ways and means’, working together, and a new appreciation for human capabilities, and the human spirit.
Justine Chinoperekweyi, is an internationally recognized Organization Development & Change, Corporate Governance and Leadership Scholar-Practitioner, Facilitator, Thought leader, & Author. He supports individuals, work groups, and organizations turn breakdowns into breakthroughs through the application of OD practices and values; and with a focus on measurable outcomes and results. He has been organizing generative dialogues and numerous webinars, international forums and conferences around OD. He is CEO of Centre for Organization Leadership and Development (COLD) and President of Organization Leadership and Development Network (OLDN). He is also Academic Director in Abu Dhabi and Visiting Faculty and post-graduate supervisor for MBA and doctoral programs in different countries. He is Board of Director for International Society for Organization Development & Change (ISODC), USA and The WorkBooth Magazine, Nigeria. His OD-informed mission: 'Leading Sustainable Strategic Change, Facilitating Continuous Improvement, and Improving the Human Condition'.