Saturday, February 27, 2021

Problems that refuse to remain solved : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

After my book on 'Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities' got published, I received multiple queries on how to correctly identify paradoxes in business organizations. This is a very important question, as not all the problems that we face in organizational life are paradoxes.

Many of the problems that we find in organizational life can be solved using regular problem-solving methods. Categorizing a simple problem as a paradox can complicate our lives unnecessarily. Some problems are to be solved, some problems are to be swamped out (by putting them in the broader context) and some problems are to be approached through paradoxical thinking. 

To me, the easiest way to spot a paradox is to look for problems that refuse remain solved. If an organizational problem is indeed a paradox, it cannot be solved in an algorithmic or prescriptive manner. If such a solution is attempted, it will create new problems. There are many fundamental problems in management that have not yet been ‘permanently solved’ - even after decades of efforts by managers, consultants and management gurus. So, when you encounter such a problem that refuse to remain solved, you are likely to be in the presence of a paradox. 

The domain of people management is rich in such paradoxes. A paradox occurs when there are multiple points of view on an issue, each of which are true and essential, but they appear to be in conflict with one another. That is why basic aspects of people management like hiring, employee engagement, performance management and rewards have become renewable resources, where solutions to the problems will create new problems to solve, and they will continue to provide opportunities for 'management' and  'thought leadership'. The good thing is that this phenomenon has sustained an entire ecosystem of ‘HR Professionals, People Managers, Consultants and Thought Leaders’ for many decades!

Paradoxical thinking is not about about endless analysis. In organizational life, decisions have to be taken, and often quickly. Paradoxical thinking is just about enabling better decisions - by developing a more nuanced understanding of the conflicting perspectives, wrestling with them for a while and taking a decision based on that higher level of awareness. Yes, it is highly context-specific, as the attempt is essentially to find the best possible equilibrium point of the conflicting forces(pushes and pulls) acting on us at that moment in the given context!

Yes, managers are paid to manage, and paradoxes can indeed be managed, if we use the term 'manage' the sense of 'to cope with effectively' instead of 'to fix it permanently'. If we approach paradoxes with the respect they deserve, they can reveal profound truths, spur creativity and help us to actualize the immense possibilities that come along with the inherent contradictions in organizational life.  Yes, it is this very process of identifying, understanding, wrestling with and responding to the paradoxes that opens up possibilities for creative living at the workplace (and in life)!

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Judging a Book by its Cover : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

One of the most frequent questions that I have received on the book is related to the image of a gyroscope on its front cover.  What is a rather scientific looking image doing on the cover of a book about the paradoxes, dilemmas and possibilities in organization life?

Let me make an attempt to explain the thought process that led to this. 

Managing paradoxes in organizational life is more about achieving the right dynamic equilibrium or
'dynamic balance' between the conflicting forces (the opposing pushes and pulls acting on us at that point in that particular context) as opposed to regular problem solving. A gyroscope is an example of dynamic equilibrium and it was further  shown to be balanced on a person's finger to bring in the human element.

The primary attempt in this book is to take a closer look at the some of the key paradoxes, dilemmas and polarities that we encounter in business organizations, and, to wrestle with them for a while. This can help us to reach a higher level of awareness that makes it possible for us to respond creatively to the contradictions in our specific context and to actualize the possibilities for living a more fulfilling and effective life in business organizations.

Paradoxes are divergent problems. While convergent problems should be broken into pieces and solved, divergent problems should be approached differently. They should be transcended using a higher awareness and scope.  This often involves arriving at a higher plane where the diverging forces converge. While this is indeed more challenging, wresting with divergent problems often lead to breakthroughs. Creative leaps and integration are made possible by the presence of divergent problems and simultaneous opposites.


Without the ability to hold competing perspectives in mind simultaneously, we risk losing sight of the wisdom and opportunities that emerge when we pursue paradoxical thinking. Holding contradictory ideas in the mind is not easy, as it creates cognitive dissonance, stress and anxiety. However, it is a very valuable skill in a world full of contradictions. While it is said that eastern cultures more naturally embrace opposites, it is indeed a learnable skill. It will also help us to resist the temptation to oversimplify the situation and to wish away the paradox. As organizations and individuals work though higher and higher levels of uncertainty and change, paradoxical thinking can enable us to differentiate ourselves


Dealing with paradoxes need a high degree of openness, mental flexibility, intellectual honesty and humility. It also calls for some sort of ambidexterity and tolerance for ambiguity at the organizational level, to live with conflicting perspectives. This is what differentiates paradoxical thinking from the typical management approaches that worship clarity, predictability and control. 

A paradox cannot be solved in an algorithmic or prescriptive manner. If such a solution is attempted, it will create new problems and do more harm than good. This is the reason why many of the fundamental problems in management have not been ‘permanently solved’, even after decades of efforts by managers and consultants. However, if we approach them with the respect they deserve, paradoxes can reveal profound truths, spur creativity and help us to actualize the immense possibilities that come along with the inherent contradictions in organizational life!   

Now let us come back to the image the gyroscope that was used to represent the concept of dynamic equilibrium or dynamic balance. While a gyroscope is indeed an excellent example of dynamic balance. a bicycle in motion could also have conveyed the same idea.  But, the gyroscope looked like a more profound metaphor!

I guess, I have a soft corner for gyroscopes as they are also used to stabilize/orient satellites in space, and I started my career with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as an engineer. Yes. this is a rather curious mix of rationality and emotions! Maybe, that is the way most of the human decisions are!!

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

The Why of a Book : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

I started my career as an Aerospace Engineer at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre of the Indian Space Research Organization. Engineering is essentially about problem solving. Yes, it also involves creativity, optimizing within constraints and making design trade-offs. However, the core reality remains that the problems in engineering are meant to be solved. After I made the ‘quantum jump’ from engineering to management, I started becoming more aware of another type of ‘problems’ – problems that cannot be, and even should not be, ‘solved’ in the engineering sense.

Slowly, it occurred to me that these kinds of  problems are probably the norm, as opposed to being exceptions, when it comes to life in business organizations, especially in matters related to people and people management. 

A paradox is a situation with an inherent contradiction. A paradox occurs when there are multiple points of view on an issue, each of which are true and essential, but they appear to be in conflict with one another. This implies that that we cannot resolve a paradox in the way we solve a typical problem. We cannot choose one of the options over the others without oversimplifying the situation. 

What is possible is to struggle with the paradoxical situation for a sufficient period of time so that we can reach a higher level of awareness and deeper understanding of the context and the issue, that will enable us to come up with the most effective response at a given moment. These responses are not necessarily solutions in the normal sense of the word ‘solution’. Sometimes, these are effective ways of coping with the situation. Sometimes, these responses involve totally reframing the situation and opening up radically new possibilities.

Here, we are using the term paradox and paradoxical thinking in a broad manner. Therefore, it will also involve dilemmas, polarities and dialectic, though strictly speaking, they are not necessarily paradoxes. A dilemma occurs when one has to make a choice between two mutually exclusive options, neither of which is clearly better than the other one. If these options are polar opposites, then we have a polarity. 

A dialectic is a pattern that begins with a thesis followed by an antithesis and resolved by a higher synthesis. This synthesis can be followed by another antithesis and the pattern can repeat, though at a higher level, as one point of view teaches the other point of view instead of invalidating it!  Another term that is relevant here irony. Irony occurs when what actually happens turns out to be completely different from what was expected. In a way, irony is the paradox of consequences.  

This book is the outcome of my struggle with these paradoxes, contradictions, dilemmas and possibilities over the last two decades. While this struggle can indeed be very frustrating, it also holds the key to achieve a higher level of awareness and more nuanced understanding that can open a wide range of possibilities for us – possibilities for responding creatively and effectively to the paradoxical situations that we face at work and in life.

This book is an expedition through the paradoxes, dilemmas, polarities and possibilities in the various aspects of organizational life. Our focus will be on ‘real world paradoxes’ that impact our effectiveness in business organizations, as opposed to ‘logical paradoxes’ that are more like logical riddles. The book is organized in a manner that anyone who works in business organizations should find it interesting. If you are a people manager or business leader or if you work in the Human Resources domain you will find many additional insights. I do not promise any algorithmic solutions or to do lists. However, I do promise a lot of triggers for insights!   

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Of espoused values and enacted values

"This slide has a spelling mistake", remarked one of employees attending the 'corporate values workshop'. "Sorry, I can't find it", said the puzzled facilitator. "The problem is with what is shown as renewal. The correct spelling should be removal!", replied the employee. 

We come across these kinds of tragicomic situations when there is a significant difference between the 'espoused values' (the values that an organization publicly states that it believes in) and the 'enacted values' (the values that the organization actually exhibits) of an organization. The enacted values get reflected in the manner in which the organization treats its stakeholders, including the employees. 

In the particular incident that we started this post with, the employee did have a point. The organization had gone through repeated cycles of trying to renew itself by firing a large number of employees and replacing them with new employees. While there was no evidence to prove that the newly hired employees did any better than the employees they replaced, it did give the management the satisfaction that they took quick and decisive action. It also created an illusion of progress (or even an illusion of renewal). So, 'renewal' in this organization actually meant 'removal' though it was referred to by means of more progressive terms like 'workforce refresh' and 'top-grading'!

It is indeed 'fashionable' to have well-articulated set of corporate values. Also, how can we even think of (let alone work with) an organization that doesn't have any values? However, the most essential thing about values is that they should be 'valued'. To me, something should be called a value only if it is so important (so valuable and so core to the organization) that the organization will exhibit it even when it leads to competitive disadvantage or results in a loss to the organization. Also, values are about 'who you are' as an organization and hence the values are 'discovered' (not 'designed'). 

Unfortunately, many organizations trivialize values and hence the values 'safely' remain in corporate presentations and on the walls of the organization. The arduous journey from the walls to the head to the heart and to the hands is never even seriously attempted. Ironically, this lack of congruence between the espoused values and the enacted values of the organization creates the highest amount of 'cognitive dissonance' and 'disengagement' in the case of those sincere employees who take the organization and its stated values seriously.

Any comments?

Friday, December 4, 2020

The silent organization

"I noticed something surprising during my induction program. While I met many employees from the various functions and levels in the organization, no one told me any stories about the organization. This has never happened to me in any of the organizations that I have worked before!", said the newly hired employee with a puzzled expression. 

The first thing that came to mind when I heard the above exchange was the Sherlock Holmes story ‘Silver Blaze’. The following exchange takes place in the story: 

Scotland Yard detective: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

Scotland Yard detective: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

Typically, employees like to tell stories (from the 'glorious past' of the organization) to a newcomer. These stories could be about a great leader who architected a turnaround in the organization, about a team that managed to accomplish a difficult goal in the face of overwhelming difficulties, about something that the organization did that made big impact on the society, about an amazing example of customer service, about a significant innovation or technological breakthrough made by the company, about outsmarting the competition etc. The stories also could be about something in which the employee was personally involved like an accomplishment, a great manager or team member or mentor, an incident where the company went out the way to support the employee during a crisis etc. 

Telling these stories to a newcomer allows the employees to 'relive' the incident and feel proud and energized. These stories can help the newcomer to connect to the heart and soul of the organization better than any facts and figures presented during the induction. It is said that a social group (including an organization) constructs its reality through the stories and legends. These stories embody the culture and values of the organization and serve as an effective enculturation tool. Also, the connect between the new employee and the organization (a key component of employee engagement that impacts the motivation and retention of the new employee) happens mainly through the connect the new employee forms with the current employees (and their stories!). So, this kind of storytelling is highly beneficial for the newcomer, the existing employees and the organization. 

If these stories are absent, it can be a sign of potential trouble for the organization and a useful 'early warning' for the new employee. Silent or 'story-less organizations' tend to be devoid of 'identity' and 'soul', and, hence it becomes impossible for the stakeholders, including the employees, to connect to it at an emotional level. After all, what is there to connect with?! 

Hence, typically, these kind of 'silent situations' occur when the employees are unable to connect emotionally to the organization or when they don't feel proud about the organization, their function or their job. While it is possible that 'nothing worth mentioning has happened in the organization', it is more likely that the employees 'didn't feel the connection and ownership' to what has indeed happened.  

These situations are more likely in organizations that take a more transactional approach to people management and don't pay sufficient attention to employee engagement, sense-making and creating a sense of belonging. Another possibility is that the organization has done something  trust-destroying (or even 'soul damaging'), like a 'mismanaged restructuring' or 'acting in a manner that very much at odds with the espoused values of the organization'. 

The difficult thing here (for the organization) is that the situation can't be remedied just by getting the internal communication function to hunt for/write a large number of stories and do an intense campaign based on those stories. It is because the problem is with the 'emotional connection' to the stories and not with the absence of stories. In a way, it is a like the type of diabetes that occurs not because of lack of insulin but because of the loss of sensitivity to insulin! 

At the most fundamental level, this is exactly the way it should be. Storytelling is an intensely human activity and unless the human side of the organization is given adequate importance and nurturing, storytelling (and culture building and employee engagement/retention based on the same) would be an impossible dream! 

Stories come alive (for the storyteller and for the listener) only when they come 'straight from the heart' and that can happen only if the employees can connect with the story (and the organization) emotionally (and not just rationally). So, in an organization that doesn't invest in building and sustaining an emotional connect with the employees, employees are unlikely to connect with 'corporate-sponsored stories' and they are even more unlikely to tell those stories to newcomers. Yes, the employees might derive some pleasure in ridiculing the 'corporate-sponsored storytelling' attempt!    

Postscript: One of the queries that I have received in response to this post is whether this kind of storytelling can happen without face to face interaction (as virtual working is the norm in the current pandemic situation). I think that storytelling and the connect through the same can take place through virtual interactions also. These days, even psychotherapy is being done effectively through virtual meetings. It has been said that one of the advantages of virtual meetings is that one can observe the other person very closely without making that person feel uncomfortable. Of course, it works the other way around also!

Any comments/ideas?

Monday, October 26, 2020

Metaphors for coaching

"Over the last ten years, the company assigned six high-profile executive coaches to develop me. But, none of them could change me!", declared the business leader triumphantly. This was my third encounter with this gentleman (See 'Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters' and 'Of reasons, rationalizations and collective delusions' for my earlier encounters with him).

This conversation came to mind again when I was thinking about metaphors for coaching.

Metaphors create new understanding. Also, a new understanding merits a new metaphor! Hence, as my understanding of coaching evolved, I have tried to develop new metaphors to capture that new understanding. There are many types of coaching. Here, I have focused only on my evolving understanding of 'non-directive coaching' and the metaphors corresponding to that .

My initial metaphor for coaching was that of a plane mirror, because I looked at the coach as someone who listens deeply and plays it back to enhance the self-awareness of the person being coached. Rhetorically, the thought was something like this: "May be, if the coach can 'hold a mirror to' the coachee, the coachee himself will 'speak to the man in the mirror, and ask him to change his ways"! 

Then, I started feeling that the role of the coach is a more 'active' one - someone who helps to convert the abstract thoughts and feelings in the mind of the person being coached to a more concrete form that would make it easier for him/her to understand and analyze his/her thoughts and feelings. This brought to mind the metaphor of a musical instrument (e.g. a piano) that can convert abstract 'music notation' into music that can be heard and enjoyed. This is very useful, because, while the music notation contains the music, most of us can understand music only when it is instrumentally interpreted!

After that, I started feeling that the above 'musical instrument' metaphor was 'too active' as different musical instruments convert the abstract music ('thoughts and feelings') differently. That is when the metaphor of the concave mirror, that not only reflects without distortion but also focuses reflected light, sounded more appropriate to me (as the coach focuses the discussion so that the person being coached is able to work towards solutions more effectively)! 

A concave mirror can magnify when it is close enough, like what a shaving mirror does (similar to a coach who is fully present in the moment being able to help the person being coached to 'see' things that are not apparent to him/her). However, if the concave mirror is moved too far away (or when the coach doesn't stay in the 'here and now' of the person being coached) the image can get inverted (or the coaching can go topsy-turvy)! 

There were other metaphors also that came to mind:

  • an 'electric charge' which creates a field around it, like as a coach 'creates a field of learning' or 'holds the space' so that exploration, solutioning and change becomes easier for the person being coached
  • a 'positioning system' that helps you to figure out where you are without telling you where to go
  • the 'Socratic method' that enables you find your own answers though a series of questions, like a coach who asks questions without giving answers etc.)
  • a 'stock option' which is an option but not a compulsion to exercise the option to buy the stock, just like coaching is an invitation and not a compulsion to explore
  • a 'cartography' where the coach enables the person being coached to create/revise his/her mental maps so that he/she can navigate better towards the desired state
  • an 'alchemy' that transforms 'base' metals (thinking) into 'gold' (or refined thoughts)
  • a 'catalyst' that makes it easier for a chemical reaction to take place without actually participating in the chemical reaction, like a coach enables the person being coached to find and implement his/her own solutions without offering any solutions/getting involved in the implementation.
  • the 'Cheshire cat' who engages in amusing and insightful conversations without actually giving an answer :)

It also gave rise to compound metaphors for coaching like 'Socrates holding a concave mirror'!

I am sure that as my understanding of coaching (and I as a coach) evolves, I will find better metaphors.  This is even more appropriate because metaphors are also a great tool for coaching, as the unconscious mind prefers to speak in the language of metaphors. Yes, we must explore what a particular metaphor means to the person being coached as the same metaphor can mean different things to different people. Again, 'generative metaphors' are immensely valuable for the person being coached, because they enable him/her not only to crystallize the desired new reality, but also to generate the energy to work towards it!

To me, coaching at its core is a deep human connect and joint exploration that changes not only the coachee but also the coach. While the processes and tools are useful in coaching, the 'super power' that the coach brings is his/her presence, being completely there in the 'here and now' of the moment with the coachee without judgment. To me, the most important consideration during the coaching interaction is simply 'what would be most helpful to the coachee at that particular moment, keeping in mind the objectives agreed with the coachee'. This also requires a very high level of self-awareness and awareness of the context on the part of the coach. In a way, coaching is more of a 'state of being' than 'doing'. 

Now, let's come back to the conversation at the beginning of this post. What the business leader was really saying was that "if six high-profile executive coaches couldn't bring about any change, then it proves that there was nothing that required changing in the first place!". This brings us to a very important point : no change will take place unless the person being coached wants to change. This is especially true for non-directive coaching. 

To me, the coaching works best when it is the coachee who feels the need for coaching and pays for it, because, both the conviction and commitment of the coachee are highly probable in such a scenario. It is true that in most of the cases,  the coaching is paid for by the employer of the person being coached. In that kind of a situation, we get the best results when the employee is offered coaching as an option (and not a compulsion)! Also, this works better if the coaching is offered as an investment that the organization is willing to make to enable the employee to accelerate his/her development or to realize his/her full potential (as opposed to the coaching being remedial measure). Again, confidentiality has to be assured and the employee (the person being coached) should be empowered to drive the 'direction' of coaching. After all, coaching is an invitation, and not a compulsion, to change!

Any comments/ideas?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Of change, progress and a kaizen story

Let’s start with a kaizen story, that I heard a long time ago. A particular organization had rolled out kaizen (continuous improvement). An incentive scheme was also launched to reward the employees who make any such improvement in any part of work. So, one person successfully claimed a ‘kaizen’ for putting some flowerpots in the work area and thereby ‘improving the work environment’.  After sometime, another person successfully claimed a kaizen for removing those flowerpots and thereby ‘improving the flow of people and materials in the work area’. So, we were back to square one though it counted as two kaizens (making the organization appear ‘continuously improving’) and both the employees received their incentive payout!

While the above story might come across as a caricature (and not a portrait) of what actually happens in business organizations, it has more than a grain of truth. The biggest source of waste in many business organizations, that so deftly escapes even lean six sigma and productivity improvement efforts, is that results from frequent changes in direction and the tendency to equate ‘change’ with ‘progress’. Yes, rapid changes in direction, including fast U-turns, helps in creating some sort of illusion (or even a convenient collective delusion of) progress and of taking 'decisive action'. The point here is not that one shouldn’t change the direction when it is required or that one shouldn’t correct one’s mistakes. It is just that one should have some accountability for one’s decisions and the organization and human costs associated with them.

This works well in Human Resource Management (HR) also. One of the great ‘advantages’ of being in HR is that one can get credit for both hiring and firing the same person, that too in rapid succession. Similarly, we can get credit for adding a reporting layer to ‘integrate’ and also for removing that layer to ‘increase efficiency’. Yes, this leads to the HF2 model of HR, where HR is reduced to Hire (sourcing), Feed (payroll) and Fire (exit). Of course, one can have other (more ‘fashionable’) functions in HR. But they are more of ‘show horses’ than ‘plough horses’!

Postscript : This post, especially the 'kaizen story' at the beginning of this post,  generated quite a bit of discussion on social media. It left me wondering why such an old story could connect so well. Now, I realize that it is because the story almost perfectly matches the definition of a 'myth'. A myth is a story that keeps on happening again and again in various forms, because it contains a deep truth (a deep truth about the nature of reality in organizations, in this case)!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Talent's progress

Is there a perspective that can throw light not only on the progress of  employees, but also on the effectiveness of people management in the organization? Tracking the changes in the positioning of employees on the talent grid over a period of time can be an excellent option!

There are many ways in which the progress of an employee ('talent') in an organization can be depicted. The most concrete one is in terms of the roles the employee takes up in the organization. Then there are aspects like compensation, responsibility level etc. that can also be used to track the progress of an employee in the organization.

In this post, let's look at the progress of employees in the organization in terms of a more abstract (though very widely used) representation - in terms of the changes in the mapping of the employee to the performance-potential grid. This grid, often called the talent grid, is typically a 9-box one, with box 9 corresponding to high performance coupled with high potential. 

If we track the changes in the positioning of the employees on the talent grid over a period of time, say for 3-5 cycles of talent review process that lead to the mapping of the employees on this grid, the trends emerging from the same can give us very interesting insights on the effectiveness of Talent Management in the organization. 

Ideally, employees should shift right and/or up on the grid. This would mean that the Talent Management in the organization has managed to help the employees to improve their performance and/or potential. Similarly, if the general trend in an organization is that employees would shift left and/or down and then out of the grid (and the organization!) it can be an indicator of lack of effectiveness of people management in the organization. 

Of course, these movements are also dependent on the employees (their performance and demonstrated potential). However, the overall trends in the movements on the grid (for a group of employees) can provide valuable indications on the effectiveness of people management in the organization.  These employees went through the selection process of the organization before they started featuring in the talent grid and hence the organization can't easily disown them or their movements on the talent grid! 

Yes, there could be other factors at play. For example, if the organization has imposed some sort of normalization on performance ratings and/or on potential ratings, this would limit the percentage of the employees who can be in box 7, 8 and 9 (the boxes in the talent grid that denote the best talent positioning). Also, if 'long term' performance (and not recent performance) is what drives the positioning on the performance axis of the grid, the degree of  'fluctuation' along the performance axis of the grid is likely to be lower. 

There is also this interesting phenomenon of stickiness of the ratings, especially potential ratings.  The extreme case is when the organization takes the stated or unstated position that the 'potential' is a non-modifiable factor, in which case no movement on the potential axis would be possible. Mercifully, most organizations consider potential to be some sort of a combination of ability, aspiration and leadership and somewhat modifiable. 

All this assumes that the definition, the rating scale and the calibration norms for performance and potential (that lead to the positioning on the talent grid) remains consistent over the years/over the period used for trend analysis. Else, there is a possibility of scenarios similar to that of 'reducing poverty by redrawing the poverty-line'!  

There could also be deeper factors like the tacit definition of 'what good looks like' and  the unstated assumptions regarding people management in the organization  (e.g. 'we hire a person based not only on the fit to the current role but also on the fit to the future roles' or 'we hire people mainly to solve a particular problem at a given point in the organization's journey'). 

As we have seen in 'Type N and Type O Organizations', in  the case of 'Type N' organizations, the relatively new employees have a great advantage over the other employees, though this advantage vanishes quite quickly as they become 'old' (tenured)! This can lead to rapid changes in the grid positioning as the employees tend to get over-positioned on the grid initially and then shift left and down (and out!) very quickly. This creates a lot of action (and an illusion of progress) on the people management front, though over a period of time it might become apparent (if the organization is open to see it) that quality of talent in the organization hasn't improved and that 'the new is not really outperforming the old'!

 So, where does this leave us? Though Talent's progress (or lack of it) on the performance-potential grid is a rather abstract way of capturing the Talent trajectory', it can indeed provide very useful insights on the effectiveness of people management in the organization! While the movement of a particular employee on the grid is mainly a function of the performance and demonstrated potential of the employee, the trends in these moves at the group level points to the effectiveness (or lack of it) of people management in the organization. These organization level trends can also be very useful in unearthing the unstated assumptions that the organization has made on people and on people management!

Any comments/ideas? 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Appropriate metaphors for organization progress

“We are on an upward spiral; while it does look like we are going around in circles most of the time, we are actually making progress”, said the business leader. “Well, the upward displacement is so small as compared to the total distance traveled and this does create a lot of inefficiency and human suffering”, replied the Organization Development Manager (see OD Managers as Court Jesters for an earlier interaction between the business leader and the OD Manager).

Metaphors are highly useful tools for thinking. Metaphors facilitate the understanding of one  domain (typically, an abstract one) by relating it to another more familiar domain (typically a more concrete one). They are so much a part of our lives and thinking that often we are not fully conscious of the metaphors we use. By examining the metaphors we use, we can a learn a lot about ourselves, about our values and assumptions!

So, let’s look at the appropriate metaphors for organization progress. The simplest is a linear one. Organization is supposed to move from point A to point B within a stipulated period of time. In a fast changing environment, a linear metaphor for progress might not be appropriate. That is when non-linear metaphors become more appropriate for organization progress. However, they can also be so easily misused to create an 'illusion' or even a 'convenient collective delusion' of progress.

This can be dangerous, as the apparent ‘progress’ allows the leaders to sweep the inefficiencies and the human costs created by the repeated changes in direction under the carpet. Sometimes, the degree of flux in the business environment is overestimated and it is used as an excuse for poor strategic planning and inefficiencies in the organization's response to changes in the environment. 

While a fast U-turn looks like a 'decisive' response, it is not necessarily the most efficient one. It is also the most significant source of (hidden) 'waste' in organizations and of human suffering (e.g. arising from a feeling of Sisyphus-like meaninglessness when one's work output gets discarded again and again and from the repeated cycles of hiring and firing that also create 'survivor syndrome'). 

Since the valuation or share price of the company is often more about speculation regarding future of the company than about current performance of the company, the investors or board also might not have too much of an incentive to intervene. Hence, this can go on for a long time!

One interesting variation of this is that of  ‘vision that is always in the future’. It works something like this. In 2020, a company sets up a 2025 Vision. Around 2023 or 2024 the same company replaces the 2025 vision with a 2030 Vision.  Once this 2030 vision is in place, the 2025 vision is discarded and no one is any longer bothered about seeing if the company achieves the 2025 vision (or about holding anyone accountable for the failure to do). Hence, 'future becomes a great place to hide' the lack of progress in working towards the Vision!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

When HR Philosophy is not just a 'philosophical issue'...

These days, many 'pragmatic' HR professionals seem to have an aversion to the term 'HR Philosophy'. They seem to think that paying attention to 'esoteric' things like this would be a needless diversion when they are busy with their HR initiatives and HR Transformation efforts. Some of them even seem to worry that paying too much attention to 'HR Philosophy' would come in the way of their 'business-orientation' and 'flexibility'. This often leads to a situation where organizations haven't given serious thought to crystallizing the basic tenets of their people management philosophy. 

There is nothing sacred about the term 'HR philosophy'. What is important is to make an attempt to reflect on, crystallize and leverage the key tenets of people management in the organization. It can very well be called the 'guiding principles of people management' instead of being called 'HR philosophy'. This term  'guiding principles of people management' also drives home the message that this is about an organization-wide aspect touching everyone in the organization and not particular to the HR function.  

The key problem with the aversion to 'HR Philosophy' is that no HR initiative or HR transformation effort can be effective if it goes against the basic nature of the employer-employee relationship in the organization. For example, no 'employee engagement' (in its original meaning of 'deep emotional connect with the organization leading to discretionary effort') is possible if employees are viewed primarily as costs. If employees are primarily as costs, then 'business-orientation' of HR should require that the primary job of HR is to control this cost - through downsizing, limiting development investment  and reducing the people related spend in general. So, an HR Transformation effort that aims to transform HR into a more developmental role would be irrelevant in that context. 

When it comes to HR initiatives, lack of a clearly articulated and consistently practiced HR Philosophy  can make the organization susceptible to 'taking up the latest fad in people management and discarding it soon after to take up the next one'. 

It can also result in highly inconsistent people management practices in the organization. For example, this can lead to the organization swinging wildly between
  • high empowerment and high control
  • large investment in employee development and no investment in employee development
  • describing the organization as a 'family' and describing the organization as a 'talent market place driven purely by supply and demand'
  • 'encouraging employees to form deep emotional bonds with the company' and ''downsizing at the first available opportunity' 
  • high degree of differentiation for top talent and low degree of differentiation for top talent 
  •  wanting to the 'career destination' for most of the employees  and wanting to look at employment relationship as a 'short-term contract to accomplish a particular task' 
  • high degree of emphasis on organization values and no emphasis on organization values etc.
This, in turn, can cause a lot of avoidable suffering, confusion and waste! More importantly, the 'way the employees are managed' will influence how the employees respond to that/how the employees behave in the organizations. For example, 'Theory X' kind of assumptions/philosophy (i.e. that the employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can) in people management will promote 'Theory X' kind of behavior among the employees. This makes people management a very dangerous domain, unless we pay close attention to the (unstated) assumptions that govern people management - which is exactly what is meant by the HR philosophy of the organization. 

Examining the unstated assumptions, similar to the ones mentioned above, can also help to avoid the strange 'new normal for HR' that has emerged in some companies in response to extraordinary situation created by the Covid crisis. It goes something like this : 'Make large contributions to Covid relief, fire a large number of employees in parallel to reduce cost and conduct mental health sessions for the remaining employees'!

Now let's look a bit more deeply at the paradoxical issue of 'business orientation of HR'. There are multiple possibilities here - each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, HR can agree to whatever the business leaders say on people related issues ('after all, we get paid to support the business'). HR can take this approach to the next level by trying to ‘guess’ what the business leaders will be comfortable with and advocating that ('business leaders are our primary customers and we should be anticipating customer needs'). HR can also avoid surfacing issues (or suggesting solutions) that they think the business leaders will not be comfortable with ('business leaders are already stretched, how can we risk annoying them at this point').

This approach might help in reducing the number/intensity of possible conflicts between HR and business leaders on these issues, leading to faster decision making and smoother relationships. In this case, business leaders might ‘like’ HR and hence they might be more likely to cooperate in the roll out of basic HR processes and less likely to come down heavily on HR when HR makes a mistake. Hence conflicts are avoided - making life easier for both the parties involved. However, this can also lead to HR becoming essentially an 'order-taker', to sub-optimal decisions (see 'Training the victim' for an example) and even to HR 'perpetuating the convenient collective delusions' in the company.

Of course. we have to be mindful of the possible conflict between the stated HR philosophy in an organization and the 'actual' HR philosophy practiced in the organization. What really matters is the HR philosophy (basic assumptions about people management) that emerges from/that can be inferred from (or that gets reflected in) in the decisions made by the organization. 

There is no conflict of opinion on whether HR should be business oriented. HR exists to support the business and hence it should be aligned to the business needs/goals/strategy. ‘HR for HR’ (‘I want to do some HR interventions and I will get the business to agree’) is definitely not a good idea. The paradox occurs when we look at how exactly should HR demonstrate this 'business orientation'.

A more effective option is to work with the business leaders to crystallize the HR Philosophy/the basic tenets of people management in the organization. This would also enable HR to come with effective responses to various issues/situations – based on the people management philosophy of the organization, HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation. 

This is not to say that the people management philosophy is cast in stone. The people management philosophy can be revisited as the organization and its environment evolves. Also, if there are extraordinary situations, extraordinary responses are required. The idea is to be as mindful as possible about the basic tenets of  people management in the organization (HR philosophy) while coming up with those responses. For example, some companies will have to downsize because of the headwinds created by the current Covid crisis. However, if the extent and manner of that downsizing should be in line with the basic tenets of people management in the organization. This would also help in reducing the 'survivor syndrome in organizations'.

While it is unpleasant (or even traumatic), employees understand that 'surgery' is sometime unavoidable in organizations. But they would also expect that that the organization uses it after exploring all non-surgical options, that the organization uses a surgeon's blade (and not a butcher's knife!) and that too with skill, sufficient post operative care and compassion! Of course, in a connected world, the organization's actions under a crisis situation would speak much more loudly than any employer branding efforts in the future!

Any comments/ideas?