Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Architects of meaning - From CHRO to CMO

"It doesn't make sense!" This is a statement that one is likely to hear quite frequently in today's 'dynamic & complex' business organizations. This makes me wonder if the problem has more to do with the 'it' part (the situation) or with the 'sense' part (the implied definition of the term 'sense' in this context) or with 'make sense' part (making sense of the situation)?

All the three seem to be highly probable 'suspects' - individually and in various combinations. Corporate life often throws up many 'strange' and 'messy' situations for the employees (e.g. those created by frequent reorganizations, frequent changes in the strategy/operating model etc.). It can also be argued that since business organizations are somewhat 'artificial' entities (significantly different from the 'natural habitats' or 'natural social groups' for humans), the term 'sense' should have a different interpretation in the context of business organizations as compared to that in more 'natural' settings! However, this post let us take a closer look at the third 'suspect' - 'sense making' - in the context of business organizations (i.e. process of giving meaning to experiences in organizational life). We will also explore the possibility of using another concept that has often been discussed in this blog -myths - as an aid to sense-making (see here and here for examples).

It is said that nothing is more practical than a good theory. So let us begin by examining some of the theories on sense-making. According to Karl Weick, sense-making is about contextual rationality. It is built out of vague questions, muddy answers and negotiated agreements that attempt to reduce confusion. Our perception of reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs. Sense making is not interpretation as it encompasses more than how cues are interpreted; but it is concerned with how the cues were internalized in the first instance and how individuals decide to focus on specific cues. Two types of sense-making occasions common to organization are ambiguity and uncertainty. In the case of ambiguity people engage in sense-making when they are confused by too many interpretations whereas in the case of uncertainty they do so because they are ignorant of any interpretations.

Sense-making occurs when activity/practice (habit/pattern of behavior) is disrupted (e.g. by events or ambiguity). However, people first look for explanations or reasons that will enable them to resume the interrupted activity. In cases where no explanation or reasons for the disruption can be found, a sense-making process is initiated. The process of sense-making on a situation has two steps. Bracketing & filtering cues followed by creating meaning. This in turn serves as the springboard for action. But the process is not so linear. It is muddy and iterative. Social sense-making is most stable (and effective) when it s simultaneously constructive and destructive -when it is capable of increasing both ignorance (unlearning) and knowledge (learning) at the same time.

As you might have realized, while the above theory on sense-making seems very reasonable, there is one important problem. The sense-making theory is mainly 'explanatory' in nature. This does not directly help us in our objective of facilitating/helping sense-making in organizations. To remedy this, the concept of 'sense-giving' has been developed. Sense-giving is the process of attempting to influence the sense-making and meaning construction of others toward a preferred redefinition of organization reality. Logically speaking, this could involve influencing the way people do the 'bracketing & filtering' of cues (i.e. the first step in the sense-making process described above). I feel that interventions based on behavioral economics principles (see note 3 in 'The power of carrot and stick') can be of use here. We can also look at influencing the second step in the sense-making process (i.e. creation of meaning). This is where myths comes in!

A myth is a story that embodies a powerful truth. While the incidents in the original story might not be factually correct (see Too true to be real) the 'truth' contained in the story remains valid across time. Anthropologically speaking, one of the key uses of myths in a society (or any group in general) is to help the members to make sense of the events in their life -especially the profound and/or no so pleasant events - the events and transitions that shakes one up. Myths can serve the same purpose in organizational life also. By the way, if you are wondering if concepts from Anthropology are relevant for today's business organizations, please see 'Accelerated Learning and Rites of Passage' for a discussion on how another concept from Anthropology - 'rituals' - can be used to facilitate key role transitions in corporate life.

We create stories about our experiences to give meaning to them. This can happen both at the individual and at the group/team level. Teams work well when they share a common set of myths - stories that have powerful, emotional truth - truths the team learned during their struggles/experiences in organizational life - stories they have created to give meaning to these experiences. Leaders can be more effective if they can tap into these myths - to generate energy to pursue new opportunities and to hold the group together. As Karen Armstrong says, myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave.

Now, let us come back to second step in the sense-making process that we have seen earlier - creating meaning. By helping individuals and groups to create stories we can help them to create meaning from their experiences. Stories can help people to 'find their place' in the organization. This is important as who people think they are in their context shapes how they interpret events and what they do. Stories can also help in making sense (deriving the meaning) of the inevitable not so pleasant/unsettling experiences in organizational life. All these can very useful especially for new entrants to the organizations (e.g. management trainees). HR practices that create time and space for introspection as a group can create opportunities the group members to collectively understand and share their experiences of organizational events. Hence they can facilitate the process of organizational sense-making.

This discussion becomes very significant as meaning (finding meaning in work) is becoming an increasingly important issue in the workplace. This is possibly because of ‘higher order needs ‘(where ‘meaning’ forms a significant factor) becoming more active in a greater percentage of the employees and because of the unnerving pace of change in the workplace (that push employees out of their comfort zones and prompt them to think about ‘deeper’ issues including that of finding meaning). It can also be argued that one of the key responsibilities of managers/leaders in such situations is to help the employees to find meaning in work. Thus HR interventions that can help the employees and managers/leaders in this endeavor should become one of the key focus areas for HR.

By the way, if we leverage power of stories in HR interventions like coaching and mentoring, they are likely to be more effective in helping employees to make sense out of their experiences and to be better adapted to the organization. Stories can be useful for sustaining/celebrating the existing culture and also for changing the culture. Taking an existing story (myth) and making subtle changes to it (to the story and/or the truth implied in the story) can be a great way for initiating change. When we are telling a story to others we are telling the story to ourselves also. In a way, by changing our stories (and the truths embedded in those the stories) we can change ourselves. Also when we interact with others and with ourselves through story telling, the stories evolve.

From a change management perspective, stories have many advantages. Stories can communicate complex meanings and ideas (that are required to be communicated in today's complex organizations/organization contexts). Stories can help people to organize and integrate experiences (even a set of experiences that are not internally consistent). Since stories and story telling come naturally to human beings they are inherently non-threatening and hence the stories can directly engage emotions without having to face too much screening/too many arguments from the analytical mind. This can be very useful in generating initial buy-in for a new/unfamiliar idea. More importantly, people can add on to the stories. This can lead to a situation where people consider the stories (and the truths contained in them) to be their own and tell the stories to others. This in turn can convert them from being passive recipients of the change to active advocates of the change.

What does this mean for HR professionals? May be, we should start talking about 'being Meaning Architects' in addition to our (increasingly annoying) talk about 'becoming Strategic Business Partners!Extending this line of thought, the Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO) should become the Chief Meaning Officer (CMO). This transition from CHRO to CMO is not without risks! I am sure that if 'creating meaning' becomes accepted as the key deliverable for business leaders, business heads (and possibly even the CEOs) might get tempted to 'steal' the CMO role and/or title from the CHROs! They can use the ‘tried and tested argument for these kinds of situations' - ‘the matter is too important to be left to HR’!!!

What do you think?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Renewable resources for thought leadership in HR

About 3 years ago, I wrote a post in this blog on “Thought leadership in HR in India” – based on an informal survey that I had conducted at that time. While the post mentioned that there does not seem to be consensus on the names of thought leaders in HR in India, it ended with a rather positive inference (especially for the people who want be thought leaders) that “There are a wide range of definitions of thought leadership. It seems that there is room for many types of 'thought leadership' and for many types of thought leaders in HR! This gives many of us a chance to become some sort of 'thought leaders' (or at least to 'call ourselves thought leaders’!) in some HR related domain, in some industry, at some point in our careers”. That post also raised an important ‘philosophical’ question - “Can leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers?”

The objective of this post is to outline how my thoughts on some of the aspects covered in the previous post have evolved during the last three years. I hope that my thinking on this topic will continue to evolve (and that I will be writing another post 3 years from now).

At this point, what interests me more is the ‘nature of thought leadership’ in HR as opposed to the names of thought leaders in HR. Obviously, these two are not unrelated. A particular interpretation of the nature of thought leadership in HR will result in a particular list of thought leaders and vice versa.

Let us start by taking a closer look at the ‘philosophical’ question that was mentioned above - “Can leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers?” This will depend on the definition of leadership. My preference these days is to think about leadership as an emergent phenomenon that takes place in the context of a relationship (or in the context of a set of interactions – face to face and/or virtual – including indirect interactions). Going by this definition, leadership can’t exist without followers*. So the focus of this post is on thought leadership in HR that others (e.g. fellow HR professionals, Business Managers etc.) find useful.

From this perspective, thought leadership in HR has to deal with key challenges and opportunities related to people management. It also has to focus on those aspects where others (potential followers) feel the need for such thought leadership. Hence ‘core’ ‘messy’ areas in HR – where standard/algorithmic solutions are not feasible - are good candidates as domains for thought leadership. Often, this path can lead to the key ‘Paradoxes in HR’ that we have discussed often in this blog (see here, here, here, here and here for some examples).

Attempting ‘thought leadership’ in these areas related to Paradoxes in HR has interesting implications for the nature of thought leadership. As mentioned above, it won’t be feasible to prescribe effective standard/algorithmic solutions (that can apply to a wide range of contexts) in these areas. The kind of thought leadership that is likely to be useful here will be more in terms of providing a new perspective, deepening the richness & understanding of the paradox, providing an experience that provides company (‘provide a feeling of being understood’/ demonstrate compassion) hope and amusement to the people grappling with the paradox etc. It can also be inferred that this kind of thought leadership need not necessarily involve providing any sort of 'answers' - it can exist purely in the form of providing questions - questions that would help others to see the problem/paradox in a new way - which in turn could enhance their understanding and trigger solutions in their mind. Thus, the purpose of thought leadership in these cases will be to trigger solutions in the mind of people dealing with the paradoxes as opposed to prescribing solutions directly. Since these questions are about the essential nature of the issues involved, they might sound like riddles (or even like koans in Zen) that can be solved only by struggling with the same for an extended period of time to reach a level of understanding/awareness where the solution presents itself.

Obviously, this creates difficulties in terms of mass-production and marketing. But there is also an advantage here. The basic paradoxes in HR (and hence the pains/problems created by them) are unlikely to be ‘resolved’ (in terms of having a final and permanent solution). With effective thought and action (possibly aided by thought leadership!) they can be ‘managed’ (if we use the term 'manage' to mean ‘to cope with’) and even celebrated. But these paradoxes/problems/ needs won’t go away. Thus, these are the ‘renewable resources for thought leadership in HR’ – where solutions to problems will create new problems to solve -that will continue to provide opportunities for thought leadership – that will sustain an entire ecosystem of ‘HR Managers, Consultants and Thought Leaders’ - for a long time!**

Now over to you for your comments/thoughts/ideas!

* Note 1: Technically speaking, this does not preclude the possibility of ‘self-leadership’ as ‘interactions with self’ can also be interpreted as interactions. Moreover, the question “Will I follow my own advice if it came from someone else?” can serve as a useful reality check – to guard against some types of ‘delusion’ that can affect some of the thought leaders.

**Note 2: I feel that these paradoxes/problems won’t go away in the foreseeable future as these arise directly from the very nature of people management as it is practiced today. Hence, unless there is a fundamental change in the nature and philosophy of people management, they will continue to exist.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Driven to insights

Over the last few years, I have spent quite a lot of time driving my car. This post covers two of the interesting thoughts triggered by that experience.

The first one is regarding the utility of certain kinds of knowledge. Many years ago, when I was learning to drive a car, my driving instructor spent quite a bit of time telling me about how to stop the car on a slope using just the clutch and the accelerator (i.e. without using the brake/handbrake). Being a ‘good student’ I tried my best to apply this knowledge. But I failed consistently. So I had to revert to the suboptimal technique of using the brake/handbrake to deal with this situation. Many months passed and I ‘forgot’ all these. One day, while I was stuck in huge traffic-jam on a slope, I was surprised to realize that I was actually using the technique that my instructor had told me about – without consciously trying to do so. Now, I am not sure if I would have achieved this even if the instructor had not told me about this possibility. Anyway, it helped me to really understand (i.e. beyond the level of intellectual understanding), the meaning of something (regarding the utility of certain kinds of knowledge) that I had read a long time ago – that knowledge is 'useful' only in those situations where it is almost superfluous. I also think that this could be the main problem with the most of the knowledge (suggestions) in self-help books!

The second one is regarding the nature of ‘focus’ that is most appropriate in many situations in life and work. The basic challenge here is to determine the optimal balance (equilibrium) between exclusive focus on a particular (predefined) thing (goal/result/approach/path/ idea/framework) and flexibility (openness to take in new information and to make changes/course corrections). I think that the experience of driving a car can be helpful in exploring and explaining such a balance - in two ways.

(1) It can serve as useful metaphor - helping one to think about this balance

(2) It can provide confidence/hope that one can achieve such a balance ("If I have already been able to achieve such a balance in the context/task of driving a car, why can't I achieve something similar in other tasks/situations in life/work?)

Now, let us look at the experience of driving a car in more detail - in the context of the above discussion. When one is driving one is aware of his/her destination. One might also have a preferred route to the destination in mind. At the same time, he/she is also intensely aware of the immediate surroundings (i.e. road conditions, traffic situation, weather, state f the vehicle, ‘condition’ of self, other relevant information that one receives while driving etc.). Based on this one makes course corrections when required. While these corrections happen mostly at the level of path/route (e.g. taking a different road), corrections at the level of destination/goal can’t be completely ruled out! I must say that this is just a metaphor and that there is often a significant gap between ‘metaphor’ and ‘method’!

It is interesting to note that there is a paradox here - if we consider the two 'insights' at the same time. The first 'insight' (regarding the utility of certain kinds of knowledge) can dilute the utility of the second 'insight'. The discussion on second 'insight' (the utility of an insight - in terms of serving as a metaphor and as a source of inspiration/hope) can soften the blow of the first 'insight'. I also feel that this (serving as a metaphor and as a source of inspiration/hope) might be the primary utility of self-help books mentioned above. Speaking of the first 'insight', it can be argued that since the first 'insight' is also a kind of knowledge (at least for those who haven't yet experienced/applied the same) the first 'insight' itself has limited utility- and hence it needs to be 'rescued' by the second 'insight'.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Accelerated learning and Rites of passage

The words 'Accelerated Learning' appear in my current business title. This gives me an 'excuse' ('obligation' !) to think about the methods that can be used to accelerate the learning process in organizations - at individual and group levels. I must also mention that I have dabbled in the field of Anthropology and one of things that struck me (in Anthropology; see here and here for other examples) is the very useful role that 'rituals'/'ceremonies' and ‘rites of passage’ play in tribal societies. Somehow, these themes ‘fused’ in my mind and this post is the result of that fusion.

To ensure that all of us are on the same plane of understanding, let us begin by defining the two key terms - ‘learning’ and ‘rites of passage’. Of course, these are just 'working definitions' - for the limited purpose of our discussion here.

Learning: Learning is said to occur when there is a relatively permanent change in a person’s behavior. So we are using a ‘behavioral’ definition for learning, as opposed to a definition that talks merely about ‘gaining knowledge’. We will focus mainly on learning at an individual level that happens through experience.

Rites of passage: A rite of passage is a ‘ritual’ that facilitates and marks a change in a person’s status. Hence we are using a broad definition for ‘rite of passage’ that includes ‘facilitating the change’ in addition to ‘marking the change’ in a person’s status. Also, the word ‘status’ that we are using here covers not only the ‘social status’ but also the ‘psychological status’ (or state of mind or mindset).

This post explores two main themes - the importance/value of rituals in accelerating the learning process in organizations and usefulness of the 'rites of passage concept' in facilitating & accelerating role transitions in organizations.

Now, let us come back to our definition of learning. If learning happens through experience, then some of the ways to to accelerate learning should be

(a) to provide a larger amount of experience and/or

(b) to provide experiences with a larger learning potential and/or

(c) to help the person to derive more learning from the experience

Another important aspect here is to 'make the learning stick' - that is to facilitate transfer of learning/application of the learning in the workplace. I feel that 'rituals' can be very useful - for helping a person to derive meaning from experience and for making the learning stick.

Rituals can increase the mindfulness of the learner. Rituals can also increase importance/value of the learning experiences in the mind of the learner. Rituals are especially important when the learning/new behavior requires a significantly different way of functioning. Rituals can signify a break from the old way of functioning and the beginning of the new way of functioning. So in our efforts to be rational and lean, if we remove rituals from learning initiatives, we might be adversely impacting their learning potential!

Now let us come back to 'rites of passage'. A rite of passage marks and enables a leap forward in maturity. They can also indicate initiations into specialized groups. Most of the cultures in the world have rituals associated with the passage from childhood to adulthood. Growing physically into adulthood happens naturally. But the psychological transition to adulthood does not always take place automatically along with the physical transition. The objective of the rites of passage is to enable the psychological transition. The rite of passage also serves as a clear signal/statement - to the people in transition and also to the community/group they belong to - that the transition has taken place. Again, it serves as an acknowledgement from the group regarding the new status of the individual. Rites of passage are not restricted to the transition to adulthood. They are also applicable in the case of other major changes/transitions in life - like marriage, divorce, death/loss of a loved one and retirement.

It has been observed that many of the tribal societies use rites of passage to accelerate key transitions in life (e.g. the transition from childhood to adulthood). Tribal societies that have very limited resources (and hence require everyone to contribute for the survival of the tribe) can't afford a situation where many of its members are stuck in a transition state for an extended period of time where they (the members in transition) don't contribute much to the tribe. Thus, these societies have a critical need to accelerate the life transitions. There is an obvious parallel between this situation and that in many business organizations today, where it is critical for the organizations to ensure that employees making role transitions become fully productive in their new roles as early as possible (e.g. they can't afford to have a situation where a new manager takes a couple of years to discover the manager in him/her !).

Thus, I feel that rites of passage are relevant in the case of transitions in organizational life including career/role transitions. As mentioned above, an excellent candidate here is the transition from an individual contributor role to a people manager role. I think that this transition is not just a matter of developing some additional skills/capabilities. It also requires a change in the state of mind/mindset - a psychological transition. I am not saying that managers are a 'higher form of evolution' (or are 'superior') as compared to individual contributors. My point is just that the manager role requires a different state of mind/mindset.

In most of the organizations we are likely to find examples of managers who have 'become managers' without having made made the psychological transition to 'being a manager' - making life difficult - for themselves and the people around them - especially the people they manage. I feel that designing suitable rites of passage that are appropriate in the particular organization context & culture(in addition to the necessary skill building initiatives) can help the managers in making this psychological transition faster and more effectively and hence in bridging the gap between 'becoming' and 'being' that we have seen above.

Now that we have seen the 'business case' for using rituals to increase the effectiveness of learning initiatives and for using the 'rites of passage' framework to facilitate career and role transitions, let us look at more pragmatic issues. What kind of rituals can be used to increase the effectiveness of learning programs? How exactly should one go about designing rites of passage to facilitate role transitions? After all, we are talking about implementing these in 21st century business organizations where esoteric rituals and rituals might not be appropriate. Complete treatment of these issues will require a much longer discussion than what is possible within the scope of this post. So let me provide some pointers - for the time being.

If we look closely, we are likely to find that rites and rituals are very much present in 21st century business organizations. It is just that these rites and rituals look very different from their counterparts in tribal contexts.

Let us begin by looking at some of the rituals that can increase the effectiveness of learning initiatives/accelerate the learning process. As we have seen earlier, to make this work the rituals should - increase the perceived value/importance of the learning initiative, make the learners more mindful and help them to derive more learning from the experience faster. So any ritual that meets the above requirements (and that is appropriate in the particular organization/ program context) should be useful.

Hence these can include 'nominating rituals' (e.g. in terms of an in-depth interaction between the employee and his/her manager before the program that will help the employee to better appreciate the value of the program to her/him and the investment the organization is making for her/him and to be more mindful of what can be learned from the program and how it can be applied on the job), 'opening rituals' (e.g. a senior leader doing the program launch to signify the importance that the organization is placing on the program and the participants) , 'experience assimilation rituals' (structuring the learning experience and reflection on the learning experience to increase mindfulness, learning and assimilation of experience), 'action planning rituals' and 'program closing rituals'. In a way, there is nothing really new/esoteric about these activities (they are part of most of the well-designed learning initiatives). The idea is just to put ceremony/rituals (back) into these activities to enhance their learning potential.

Now, let us examine how the elements of rites of passage can be used to facilitate the psychological transition associated with role changes. If we analyze the rites of passage, we will see that there are some common elements/phases (even though the rites might look very different from one another) - separation, transition and and re-incorporation.

The key requirement for the first phase is to detach/separate from the current status/position in the social structure and from the current identity/self. The transition phase is the in-between state where one has separated from the previous state but hasn't yet 'reached' the desired new state. The key requirement here is to remain in this state of uncertainty (without regressing into the previous state) so that the self has an opportunity to reconfigure itself in a manner that is appropriate for the desired new state. The objective of the re-incorporation phase is to re-enter the group/society with the new status/identity. Let us examine how these elements can be built into a new manager orientation program.

Conducting the manager orientation program at a site away from the office has a lot of value. The physical separation from the previous state (previous role in the office) can help in the psychological separation also. Having the space and time where one can reconfigure the mindset (not being burdened by the demands/activities of the previous state) - in the company of people who are undergoing a similar transition - that too under expert facilitation/help - can be very useful in psychologically tuning into the new role. Performing 'difficult' tasks - tasks that can't be accomplished with the previous mindset/task that require the new mindset can also be of immense value here (as they drive home the point that the previous mindset is not effective in the new role and as they help the participant to discover the mindset that is required to be effective in the new role). The key is to create an environment in which deep learning can occur and in which shared experience contributes to the creation of a new identity. Ceremonies to mark the successful completion of the program ('graduation rituals'), especially if they are witnessed by the senior leaders (and hence signifying their acknowledgement/recognition of the new status/state of the individual) can help in re-incorporation to the organization - in the new role. By the way, new manager orientation sessions (like rites of transition) also provide an opportunity for cultural indoctrination, where company values/leadership traits/ perspective/ 'world view' can be made very explicit ('Who we are and what do we stand for as an organization', 'How do we do things around here', 'What does it mean to be a manager in this company etc.).

It is important to get the 'positioning' of these programs exactly correct. There requirement is to help the participants separate from their previous role (and mindset) and tune into their new role (develop the new mindset) without making them feel that they are an 'elite class'/'superior to the people who are doing roles that they were doing previously'. So while branding this program is very useful, the essential signal/message to the participants should be that "You have made a very significant and valuable transition and have become more suitable for your new role; but this does not necessarily mean that you are superior to the people you manage" !

Any comments/suggestions/ideas?

Links : Carnival of HR - March 3, 2010, Career Development & Sublimation, Career Planning & the Myth of Sisyphus