What makes your culture so fucking special?

What makes your culture so fucking special?

I was told my questions about organisational culture were too subtle. Change of tack.

And it's a serious question. What makes your culture so fucking special?

Because everybody makes the claim theirs is. With scant evidence. Let's look at why that's the case.

Then

Organisational culture became a thing in the 1980s. It died a bit of a death in the 2000s. It's now back with a bang.

There are two basic arguments about cultural forms.

  1. There is a 'one best' cultural form that will work for any organisation
  2. Different cultural forms fit different organisational types

The 'one best' argument was championed by Tom Peter. He argued that there were 8 components that made up a great culture. If your culture had all eight it would be excellent.

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A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

A Story of a Post-Truth Civilization

Imagine a country. For over fifty years, it was the dominant economic and military force in the world. Its people were prosperous. Its way of living admired. It led the world in science and art. Its culture admired the world over. It produced a wealth of fabulous artists, writers and thinkers. 

It then got involved with a costly overseas war. That lasted for decades. That it couldn't win. That bankrupt it. The faith of its people in the leaders was tested. They had believed that the country was invincible. Its religion mighty and true. Its army undefeatable. 

The result? Its political class split.

One group believed that the country needed to return to traditional roots. That the new ways of thinking had undermined the country's strength. That a return to the old ways would reinvigorate it. The old faith had to re-emerge. Stronger and more vital than before. 

Another group blamed the establishment. The politicians and the aristocracy. They wanted to suspend democracy. Impose an oligarchy of hard-edged money-makers who would return the country to prosperity. Permanently shut up those that thought and acted differently. Making sure they couldn't stay in the country. Or something worse. 

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How to get the best out of original thinkers during complex change

How to get the best out of original thinkers during complex change

Our businesses are crying out for creative, original thought. But we are training it out of our children. And developing management practices that inhibit it.  

In this post, I will look at how the practices of change management are hindering original thought. And preventing the people who can best help the change succeed from being involved.  

Why are original thinkers so much more creative than the average human being? 


This is the question that has made Adam Grant famous. He's arguably the leading organisational psychologist in the world today. The youngest tenured professor at Wharton. The top-rated professor for five straight years.

He's one of the world's 25 most influential management thinkers.The author of two New York Times best-selling books. And a number one national best seller. 

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Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?

Does 70% of change fail? If so, so what?

What do we know about organisational change ? We know that most change is step based, underpinned by Kurt Lewin's unfreeze-change-refreeze model. We know that it causes a lot of psychological and emotional stress for those experiencing it. And, according to HBR, 70% of it fails. 

But is that all true? 

Recently, we've discovered that Lewin's foundational step-based change model doesn't exist. He didn't design a model. He didn't even write unfreeze-change-refreeze. He just speculated, in a tiny minor subsection, that you might think of change like this. It was made "real" by one person telling us that's what Lewin thought ten years after Lewin's death. And then many other people assuming he wrote it (of which I was once guilty).

So, no surprise that 70% of change fails, huh? If the model sucks, then change will suck. But does it?

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You work with Irony in Management! WTF?

You work with Irony in Management! WTF?

The headline is something I hear a lot. An awful lot. How are you going to make any money out of that? Also a lot. And, to be fair, that's a pertinent question. 

I like to think my thinking is very insightful. Extremely novel. I've been told by people I trust it's potentially a game-changer. And, thanks to all the help I've had from you wonderful LinkedInners, I believe my writing is becoming pretty engaging. 

But one questions above continue to itch and wriggle. How can I use it to make the significant difference I was aiming for? Move it out of the margins and into the mainstream. For, make no mistake, that is my passion. And my goal. 

Taking research out of the academic realm and into the real world is complex and difficult. It requires a lot of extra thought. A lot of hard work. Reworking my writing style. Finding a new voice. And then making an impact. It's required posts about zombies, Apple and Steve Jobs, the death of organisational culture, tennis clubs, rock stars, my own life experiences and fears of a dystopian future. 

But I  finally feel confident I can answer the question. Irony in management? WTF?

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Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

Change Yourself: A Guide to Organisational Living

Look, a lot of what I write is extremely critical of conventional thought. Pushes a lot of buttons. Might piss people off. 

I accept that it makes me seem grumpy and cynical. Perhaps even revel in it a little. But ultimately, my message is full of hope.

I believe there is a better way to live. We can design better organisations. Develop better managers. Inspire better leaders. We just need to face our reality. See it for what it is. Learn how to survive and thrive in it. And then take steps to improve it. 

This blog suggests a way of doing just that at a personal level. 

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Our Irrational Fear of the Negative Employee

Our Irrational Fear of the Negative Employee

Conditions of change. The only constant for leadership, management and organisation. How to plan change. How to implement change. How to react to change. How to cope with change. 

How do people deal with conditions of constant change?  Research suggests in three ways. In the exciting terminology of business, people can be early adopters or late adopters to change. In between, a range of middle-stage adopters. You can read vital research on the exact percentages if you wish. 

This article is about how badly we understand the middle-stage adopters. How our fear of failing to change has marginalised them. And turned them into focus pieces.

Marginalised focus! That's oxymoronic. A paradox. How can this be?

Because change "science" tells us we must focus our efforts on this group. Work hard to get them accept and cope with change. Train, teach, guide, cajole and bully them. For if they don't go along with it, then change overpowers the company. Hence the focus. 

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HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

The cover of HBR's April 2016 issue. Big, bold and bright orange. You Can't Fix Culture! An article explaining how culture emerges from good business practice. It's not something you can impose. Or design. Or change from the top. It just happens. 

This challenges conventional thinking about culture. And about time. But it doesn't go far enough. 

It only looks at how a few CEOs have launched new initiatives that are more strategically purposeful than the standard cultural model. A new culture will then supposedly emerge from the new purposeful direction. It's a shift. But not much of one. It's still about designing culture. Just from a different direction. 

It's not widely known, but there is a bunch of research that predicted what HBR is now saying.  Some of it written a quarter of a century ago. Shows how the culture model is decaying. Illustrates the environmental conditions of a failing culture. And the characters who live in it. 

But those that write for HBR rarely read this type of research. Because it isn't "serious" enough. Isn't manager-centric enough. Is too critical. Too challenging. 

But, hey, HBR has made a strong claim. So let's take this opportunity to talk about this research. On a public forum full of professional people. See if it strikes a chord. Because it's too important not to extend the argument. Make it deeper and richer. Try and put out there. 

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Creative Thinking & The Entrepreneurial Journey

Creative Thinking & The Entrepreneurial Journey

I became a management researcher to make a difference. To become deeply knowledgeable about the dominant institution of our time, the corporation/organisation. And help those that led or managed them to become better managers and leaders.

To do so, I wanted to learn how to think differently. To meld my creative, artistic background with academic rigour. To use the combination to create something beautiful, profound and practical. And create something that would make a difference to the world of work. 

I've hit every personal target I set myself. First in my master's. Check. Win international scholarship. Check. Meet the best academic minds of my generation. Check. Get the best of the best to evaluate my research. Check. Pass PhD with best possible marks. Check. 

Get a job in the field. Beep! Stop. Do not pass go. 

The irony of all ironies. I have yet to make anywhere near as much money per annum as I did before my research. When I only had a Fine Art degree to my name!

Finding people who want to employ me. Who can understand what I bring to the table. A wasteland of blowing sands and drifting tumbleweed. 

Figures right! The thing that most defines management research is how little management thinks it relates to them. But an artist teaching some creative thought and soft communications. Pow! Get him onboard!

Didn't know that when I set out on my research journey. Do now!

An Entrepreneurial Strategy

So, what to do? I'm not getting any younger. My research and knowledge can make a difference. A significant one. But it needs to have an avenue. Or it dies in a cul-de-sac of frustrated endeavour. So, how to turn creative thought into impactful practice? 

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Organisational Culture (and why it's dying)

Organisational Culture (and why it's dying)

Organisation life has beliefs, routines, and rituals that make it cultural. We can measure it. Describe it. Even change it. I don't think anybody would deny that organisational culture is everywhere. Unavoidably part of our everyday reality. 

But this is a benign interpretation. So benign as to be meaningless. It has no power to motivate. It's just a measurement of practice. Yet a whole industry has arisen around it.

We know there is a gap between what management wants to happen and what is actually happening. The classic definition of irony. So, we look at espoused organisational values. See where they differ from how things happen in reality. Then try to close the gap. It's a big thing. That's why words like "alignment" are so trendy.  

But this is not where the real irony lies. No, the real, bitter irony lies in the lost promise of culture. And how we've found nothing to replace it. Which is why everyone is so cynical, sarcastic, anxious and disengaged. 

The Promise of Organisational Culture

The above benign interpretation is completely different than the original concept of organisational culture. This promised long-lasting meaning at work. It would produce loyal and hard-working employees. Great engagement. Fantastic enthusiasm. Wonderful lives. 

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The Future of Organisation

The Future of Organisation

I'm trying to develop a framework of leadership and organisational design which integrates with contemporary socio-cultural life. The two theories of human society I work with are the hypermodern and the metamodern.

This article attempts to explain their relevance. I will appreciate any comments, whether supportive, critical, challenging or dismissive. 

The Hypermodern

Hypermodernity is a society characterized by movement, fluidity and flexibility.

Hypermodern society aims at expanding wealth, better living standards, medical advances, and life easing technologies. The driving motivation is to pull away from the natural limits that constrain human life.  It rejects history as a source of knowledge. The past teaches hypermoderns nothing. Everything changes too quickly to learn anything of worth from the past! 

Instead, there is an excessive faith in the ability of reason to solve the problems of humanity. The promise to improve individual choice and freedom. Money flows to companies and universities promising technological and rational solutions. Social projects are irrelevant and unfunded. 

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Are Millennials Unmanageable?

Are Millennials Unmanageable?

Millennials are enthusiastic, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, opportunistic, lazy, unproductive, and self-obsessed.  Apparently! In recent weeks, this "The Generations in the Workplace" infographic meme has been causing some distaste in millennials.  They, perhaps not surprisingly, objected to some of the negative generalisations. 

So, is it fair?  There has to be some reason for such an infographic meme.  As Fox Mulder would say, "The Truth is Out There." 

Fortunately, we are in a happier position than Fox Mulder was. We don't have some shady military agency hiding all the clues from us. It is perfectly possible to piece together a picture of the millennial environment. To understand why they behave in certain ways. To see where the negative generalisations come from. And then challenge them. 

In a Nutshell: Millennials are (a) serious about mocking past forms of existence, (b) inspired to find new ways to work and live and (c) on a journey of discovery and self-improvement.

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Is this the Future of Leadership?

Is this the Future of Leadership?

What makes one leader sustainably great whereas another is only temporarily great, one moment a god amongst mortals, the next, like Icarus, hurtling back to the ground, his wings scorched and blackened by the sun, hoping the landing isn't too hard?

As with all questions about greatness, the answer to the second part of the question (why does a once great man fall?) is the easier. 

Reason One: The smartest leaders tend to get self-dazzled by their previous successes and end up in a myopic wonderland, feeling invulnerably magnificent in their sycophantic towers of luxury (as discussed by Dr. Travis Bradberry here and wonderfully illustrated in The Big Short, as detailed here).

Reason Two: If you become concerned and speak freely about what you see happening, you risk losing your head (as analysed by the Harvard Business Review here)

Reason Three: Because of problems one and two, irony, cynicism, sarcasm, mockery and ridicule manifest in the workforce as they are the only way to safely express what you are thinking about the increasingly obvious shortcomings of the powerful (as discussed by me, here). 

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The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

The idea that culture was the best way for companies to ensure the beliefs and values of senior management were shared by their employees became extremely popular very quickly in the early 1980s. Books such as Corporate Cultures: The Rise and Rituals of Corporate Life, Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge and In Search of Excellence kickstarted a powerful trend in research and practice. Given further credibility by John Kotter and James Heskett's Harvard-sponsored research, Corporate Culture and Performance, organisational culture became the hottest topic in management theory since Frederick Taylor first started thinking about the mechanistic organisation in the early 1900s. 

Culture gurus were everywhere, speaking at keynotes, offering consulting advice to anybody who wanted it (and a lot of people did) and generally making obscene amounts of money. If any company struggled, business magazines and newspapers would rush to blame some aspect of the culture and suggest it needed to quickly change into something else for the company to regain its feet (which kickstarted the change management boom, but let's not get started on that (too late, already have, here and here!)). But here's the thing. Companies that had been held up as the be all and end all of excellent cultures were also struggling or failing. Hewlett-Packard, one of the excellent companies named In Search of Excellence, is is the obvious No 1 contender after it very publicly fell into very hard times a decade or so after the book was published, but many others were too. So what happened?

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The Sophistication of American Irony

The Sophistication of American Irony

The clichéd critique of Americans is that they “don’t do irony” and are thus somehow lacking in sophistication, intelligence, or both. My last post, The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm, prompted Giles Watson to ask me the following question:

Is there any validity to the arrogant assumption that English have a superior instinct for irony?

Short answer. No! The longer answer actually turns the question on its head and suggests Americans, not the British, are the current kings of all things ironic. Why may, or may not, be a good thing!

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The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm

The Difference between Irony and Sarcasm

One of the great ironies of irony is when people think they are being sarcastic they are being ironic. Given the amount of irony and sarcasm generated in modern culture and its institutions, it is vitally important to understand the difference between the two. One can really help leaders and managers develop novel solutions to complex problems. The other just makes people look like idiots. 

Irony

What irony means has been debated for millennia and is hotly contested. Let's ignore all the confusing complexities and look at it via three categorisations:

  • The ironic perspective: perceiving the gap between expectations and reality
  • The ironic performance: transmitting that perception by saying one thing and meaning another
  • The ironic personality: being comfortable living with such gaps
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Are You an Ironic Manager?

Are You an Ironic Manager?

Management and leadership are traditionally seen as a deadly serious things, full of efficiency, decisiveness, effectiveness, clarity of vision and focused strategies. Drawing from en vogue ideas on purposefulness, mindfulness, authenticity and emotional intelligence, the current popular trend of management thinking illustrates how serious leaders can mould their organisation into an excellent shape, ensuring it is populated by hard-working, committed and enthusiastic employees who embrace the organisational vision, mission and strategy. Sounds good, eh?

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

There has never been a school of management thought that hasn't promised to deliver hard-working, committted and enthusiastic employees who embrace the organisational vision, mission and strategy. All previous theories informing these schools have fallen by the wayside, victims of internal contradictions and an enthusiastic myopia that ensured they imploded from within. Will that always be the case? Are we so lucky to be the humans living at the exact moment of the birth of the perfect form of management? Probably not. Some flaw will appear and undermine all the good work being put in. So, what do we do? 

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8 Steps to an Authentic Organisation

8 Steps to an Authentic Organisation
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” 
― May Sarton

The above quote, on authenticity, is one of my favourites. Before reading on, I'd like you to consider the following: Is it the same level of daring if you are in a position of power to when you are in a position of no power? If not, why not? Keep it in mind, because it will help prepare you for the latter steps in the article.

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Sarcastic Employees & Cynical Managers | Is This Your Life?

Sarcastic Employees & Cynical Managers | Is This Your Life?

Just before Christmas, I was contacted by an academic in Austria who had seen me present in Vienna on irony and ambivalence in organisations. She was coming to Australia and wanted to chat to me about her recently published paper on "anti-essentialist" management, which had further piqued her interest in irony. Her research findings are excellent, need to be read by senior managers and almost certainly never will be. Here's what she wrote about and why it won't mean a damn!

Employee Sarcasm and Management Cynicism

Before reading on, the following Dilbert cartoon will perhaps help anticipate the content.

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Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

The last great development in organisational theory was that of the strong culture movement, originating in the seventies, developed in the eighties, dominating in the nineties and still, despite a decline, highly relevant today (just note how many job adverts you read talking about the great organisational culture and how interviews check to see if you're a fit for it).  There have, however, been increasing amounts of critique about the tenets of strong culture theory that are hugely impacting the market today, resulting in the rise of concepts such as authenticity, emotional intelligence and purpose. 

In simple terms, the development proceeded like this:

  1. There was a surge of interest around the idea that organisations with a strong culture would be populated by loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees. 
  2. It became apparent that such cultures actually produced (a) employees who saw no meaning in these cultural values, finding them absurd and (b) employees who became so emotionally bound to the culture they broke under its pressures.
  3. The above was explained by the idea that such cultures produced "fake emotions", resulting in either existential meaninglessness or psychological breakdown as employees lost touch with their "authentic emotions".
  4. There was a surge of interest around the idea that organisations allowing authentic emotions would be populated by loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees.
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