Technology, culture and society are intricately connected and in the 20th century these relationships constructed a period of cheap, disposable, large scale mass production and consumption. The early business:cultural construct is symbolised by the 1908 Ford Model T car, its production methods and the famous phrase “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. Business:culture refined this industrial production:consumption model over the century to what might be regarded as peek saturation in the early noughties and culminating in serious environmental, resource and social pressures and parodied in the Little Britain “computer says no” comedy sketches. For 20th century business:culture there is a “line on the horizon” – an event horizon of environmental and social stress from which there may be no escape.
Through the 20th century business:culture organised itself in the image of its creations and industrial production processes: hard, machine efficient, cheap (costs driven) and disposable (short term) often resulting in effective but dehumanised, rationalist, machine-like, fixed, tightly integrated, command and control organisations on iterative cycles of ever diminishing returns. Perceiving the spirit in the machine as “evil” inefficiency 20th century business:culture exorcised spirits in the machine with a litany of pseudo-scientific, “rationalist” management techniques that externalises people’s motivation resulting in lifeless zombie organisations with forms of organisational learned helplessness . Organisations became increasingly efficient, industrial and machine like – driving out variation through ever tighter process and quality control systems. “Machine organisations” produce standardised products as efficiently as possible on a large scale and like machines they are dedicated to purpose. “Machine organisations” like machines are dedicated to purpose and designed for equilibrium around a purpose and direction – process and quality systems work as buffers providing negative feedback loops to maintain equilibrium, direction and purpose.
20th century business:culture was highly effective.
The environment changed.
Communications technologies accelerated cultural change – from the Model T and car travel in the early 20th century through air travel, radio, TV, telephones through to the Internet and to the web 2.0 revolution. 20th century business:culture connected into these communications revolutions to spin production:consumption at an ever increasing speed – centrifugal forces have started to stress and separate many organisations as they try to meet the problem of producing greater diversity at faster speeds.
The 21st century environment is becoming faster, more diverse and complex – people want greater choice, customisation and speed. 20th century “Machine organisation” is not suited to fast, flexible and complex responses and cannot thrive in an environment of speed, choice and customisation. “Machine organisation” cannot easily cope with complex environments that change ever faster.
While technology, culture and social changes have stressed 20th century “machine organisation” they have at the same time provided the models and tools that can save them. Just as 20th century organisations used tools and techniques from their environments to create environmentally adapted “machine organisations” then 21st century organisations need to use the tools and techniques of their environments to create environmentally adapted systems.
21st century culture:technology is information-communications rich, symbolised by the Internet and most potently by web 2.0 and the emerging real world, real time, exponential change ideas of web squared. This culture:technology is distributed, decentralised, networked, interactive and collaborative. Organisations operating within information-communications rich environments need become environmentally adapted and become information-communications rich – they need to use web 2.0 type tools and ideas to become loosely coupled, distributed, decentralised, networked, interactive and collaborative. I would describe these organisations as live “organic organisations” – connected to; interactive with, and part of their environment. Their boundaries are soft and “porous”, the separations between employees, customers and competitors are increasingly blurred. Rather than exorcising human spirit “organic organisations” call back life and spirit by recognising people rather than suppliers, customers and “human resources”.
The ultimate organic organisation we know of is the human brain. Constructed from small and simple parts, intelligence and consciousness emerge from its complex and highly networked organisation. Not only should organisations allow people to use their brains they should also consider organising themselves like brains. A major feature of brains are their plasticity – the ability to re-organise. Plasticity allows the brain to change, learn and be resilient and “according to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning, and acting actually change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology) from top to bottom.” The idea is that through the exercise of rich interconnections an organisation learns, changes and adapts to its environment by networked feedback from itself and its environment.
“Organic organisations” are complex, variable and non-deterministic – this gives them the agility to cope with a similarly complex, variable and non-deterministic environment but at the same time this makes them so different to the “machine organisations” we have grown up with and within that the change needed is just too scary. However, change is a journey and not a destination and the first step on the journey from “machine organisation” to “organic organisation” starts with the brain – think soft and richly networked.
Many organisations appear to exhibit irrational behaviours and loss of function – this blog explores the application of psychological ideas about anxiety to the issues of organisational culture and change
Anxiety is the feeling of fear we all experience when faced with threatening or difficult situations. It helps us to avoid dangerous situations, makes us alert and motivates us to deal with problems. People have different responses to anxiety but for as many as 18% of Americans it can be a debilitating condition resulting in irrational behaviours and loss of function.
Recent research from Tel Aviv University looked at abnormal behaviour of wild animals when held in captivity. “In the wild, animals perform automated routines, not rituals, but in captivity, the animals’ attention focus is on persevering rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance – just like they had OCD.” I wondered how productive it might be to consider the artificial environments of organisations as “zoo like” – a “naked ape” type approach to organisational culture from the perspective of anxiety responses.
People at home, “out in the wild” can be quite willing and able to engage with new things, ideas and technology, yet at work, “in the zoo”, responses to similar things can be quite different – often defensive, avoidant and phobic or learned helplessness type responses to new things and change.
Processes are necessary for organisations to function but it seems to be the natural progression of organisations to add processes and process layers over time (bureaucracy). Many processes become rigid, self reinforcing and difficult to change and in some (or many) cases could be regarded as ritualistic with “attention focus is on persevering rituals, with an explicit emphasis on performance” rather than function – just as if the organisation had OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). As with OCD, organisations worry about not performing their rituals – they take comfort in the rituals themselves and make them increasingly elaborate (bureaucratic) over time. It can be quite striking that ritualistic behaviour can be reinforced through process measures – marking and grading according to the performance of the rituals rather than the function – organisational “comfort blankets”.
Phobic and OCD responses are common but become a problem when they interfere with function – anxiety disorders often become problematic and evident with a change trigger event. Organisations also experience change trigger events which can expose anxiety like behaviours that interfere with necessary functional responses to change. Organisations need to be able to adapt to changes to their environment (competition, regulation, technology, economics etc) but for some organisations anxiety disorder can make them too rigid, phobic and ritualistic to change appropriately.
Organisations differ in their responses to change – for some it is a crisis yet for others it is an opportunity. The approach here is to look at this difference through the lens of anxiety – the argument is to reduce organisational anxiety using the techniques psychologists use to reduce anxiety with individuals.
The key problem with anxiety is the avoidance of situations which the sufferer thinks will induce anxiety. The key behavioural treatment in this is to break the cycle of avoidance and demonstrate to the sufferer that “nothing bad happens”. Shock tactics make things worse, instead the sufferer is incrementally exposed to the anxiety inducing situation – building confidence and getting used (habituating) to the new situation. This technique is called ERP (Exposure Response Prevention).
The common traditional organisational response to anxiety disorder like symptoms is either more avoidance (rituals, phobias and bureaucracy) or the high anxiety shock tactic – the “you are dysfunctional and must change” speech followed by command and control, top-down large scale process changes to do something to the organisation. Sometimes these approaches work but other times they can make things work.
Here I argue the case for low anxiety approaches to organisational culture and change.
Some suggestions to reduce “organisational anxiety”
Change is often dealt with in big sudden jumps (the big initiative) like being thrown into the deep end to learn how to swim – this will usually lead to fear, anger and even trauma.
If change is managed in small achievable steps it is less feared and can even be enjoyed – learn how to swim in the shallow end first.
Change should be part of everyday life for everybody. Everyone is capable of trying something new – no matter how small. Explore and experiment “try it – you might like it”.
Fear of failure causes the anxiety sufferer to avoid trying and reinforces problems. Big change programs have big risks and big fears – as projects they often have problems due to anxiety responses that generate rituals and bureaucracy. Even worse however are the projects that don’t take place when people fear the consequences of failure.
Smaller projects have smaller risks – if the consequences of failure are smaller then the risk of failure is smaller and people will be more willing to try. Also, if the consequences of failure are smaller then the amount of risk can be higher and the project more radical.
Characteristics of a high anxiety organisation
Anxiety disorders are often accompanied by symptoms of fatigue and depression. A high anxiety organisation is rigid, defensive, tired and depressed; “running round in circles” performing comforting bureaucratic “rituals” and blaming others for failures. Once in this state it can be difficult to recover.
Characteristics of a low anxiety organisation
A low anxiety organisation is flexible, energetic and self-motivated. It has low bureaucracy, is willing and able to change and try new approaches.