SUMMARY: We can’t take a tiger out of its jungle, train it to do circus tricks, then expect it to go back into its jungle and still do its circus tricks. We can’t take people out of their jobs to learn how to tackle problems in a conference room, then expect them to go back into the world of organizational life and tackle problems as they learned to tackle them in the conference room. The context for learning to change is of vital importance. If we don’t factor the organizational context into learning to change, our programmes and interventions are unlikely to happen back on the job. What is the significance of the context? How do we factor the organizational context into our projects for organization and behaviour change?
What organizational “contexts” discourage learning and change?
We can’t factor in all the aspects of the context which discourage learning and change, but here is a list of some that we can easily overlook, and that may be painful to admit.
Bureaucratic context: Bureaucracy aims to keep things steady through standard practices and procedures. I once worked for a large chemical industrial enterprise where their human resource policies and procedures were in a special Green Book which catered for almost every people-problem a manager was likely to encounter. It was wonderfully and professionally compiled, and became the ‘bible’ for tackling practically every people-problem situation at work. However, when the organization was faced with external and internal pressures to advance young graduates (Black, White, male, female) into leadership positions, there was nothing in the Green Book to tell managers what to do. The standard practices did not cater for finding ways of helping young trainees to adapt, and also help the organization itself to adapt. The Green Book didn’t help managers to assess each situation and the people involved and then take the appropriate action to suit the particular situation and people involved. It had taught managers to carry out correct routine human resource procedures and policies in a consistent and fair manner. But when the situations fell outside the range of correct routine procedures and policies, managers were uncertain about what to do. They often reacted rather than taking time to think and be proactive. The efficient bureaucratic context of the organization had equipped leaders to handle HR problems in a standard, fair and consistent manner; it had not equipped them to think through complex and exceptional behavioural changes.
Political context: Striving for position and power in an organization is normal. The problems arise when the need for power and position takes over from the interests of the organization or even the interests of the particular job. Results and objectivity don’t matter any more, and ‘what I want and can become more important than the interests of the business and the interests of others’. Some of the indicators of excessive power utilization in an organization are:
- Make sure that you get the credit for successes even if you don’t deserve it
- Form alliances with important and powerful people who can serve your interests
- Make sure that failure and mistakes are diverted away from yourself to someone else
- Never show compassion but keep others down when they are down – making sure it ‘looks’ fair to do so
- Talk and show success in all you do and say in a credible way, even if it has no substance
- Make sure you look good and confident on the outside even if you aren’t on the inside
- Drop the names of important people to give the impression you’re “in the know” and have good “connections”
- Drop negative generalizations about competitors in the guise of ‘objective’ generalizations
Subjectivity context: While objectivity encourages us to make a serious attempt to look at the facts and apply sound arguments and reasoning to reach conclusions from these facts, subjectivity often comes disguised as creativity and as being a “good-ideas person”. The problem arises when those with good ideas and creative thinking fail to put aside their creativity and good ideas and spend quality time on well-argued conclusions. I can recall working with a colleague who earned very high acceptance as a person because he seldom, if ever, questioned and challenged opinions and new ideas. Subjectivity often goes along with a strong sense of concern for the approval of others. This colleague was quick to affirm almost every idea and suggestion that came his way. He achieved very high acceptance for his approach, but important projects were seldom brought to conclusion or practical action so that there could be learning from application. I can recall a management team of young enthusiastic people who reacted negatively to any suggestion that required an organized and structured approach to running the business. They were all well-educated, intelligent and knew their respective fields of expertize – marketing, accounting, information technology – but when asked to take time to think through an important business decision against clear objectives, criteria for success-failure, alternatives and potential hazards, they dismissed the idea as too time consuming – relying on their “ natural common sense” which would tell them what to decide. The whole culture of the business prided itself on creative innovation, resulting in some serious strategic mistakes which brought it to the edge of bankruptcy.
Authoritarian context: No organization can survive without controls and accountability for producing the desired results. However, if the culture of the organization gets too top-down, it will fail to generate a flow of upward information and effective decision-making close to the coal-face, where quick and effective decisions are needed in order to achieve the required output, quality and waste control. It is perfectly natural (and common) for leaders to avoid losing control for fear of the negative consequences for the organization – and perhaps for themselves and their own self-image. So to save time and keep performance on track, it is tempting to prescribe, by-pass others, make quick decisions and rely on one’s own ability to think through situations on one’s own. The effects of this top-down decision-making on cultivating a learning organization are extremely negative. “Let’s wait for the boss to tell us what to do”, or “don’t make a decision or you’ll get into trouble” become common responses. Meanwhile the bridges are burning and undermining the road ahead for the organization. Balancing over-control with under-control isn’t easy. An authoritarian culture which fails to involve others because of excessive top-down decisions or decisions made in isolation, can not only lead to managers making decisions with inadequate information and ideas from other levels and other functions in the organization, but can also (a) deprive people of the learning and development which comes when they are required to think and make decisions for themselves, and (b) discourage learning from others’ insights, experiences and challenges.
What’s this got to do with Joint Problem Solving?
JPS (Joint Problem Solving) is not a “quick-fix”. It may, through some of the practical tools it offers (e.g. problem analysis and decision analysis), produce some good solutions to difficult technical and human situations. But the real pay-off goes much deeper than this.
□ JPS is, itself, a learning process since staff get into the habit of using their mental powers to tackle difficult situations. This is mental exercise. And mental exercise produces development of brain power and confidence.
□ JPS involves a range of stakeholders in the organization at different levels to provide information and to think things through. And the overwhelming evidence is that, when we involve others appropriately, they feel included and valued. They then start “owning” their jobs.
□ JPS can counter the destructive effects of excessive bureaucracy, politics, authoritarianism and subjectivity; sustained application of JPS will slowly and surely erode these counter-productive organizational contexts.
□ When JPS is applied on the job, things start to change. It is not a quick-fix (although there are many occasions where it can provide quick results). Its value lies in shifting an organization towards a context and environment where people are encouraged to think and share in the accountability for results.
□ Above all, JPS generates a greater sense of being part of a team, and can counter some of the negative effects of working and thinking in “silos”. Sustained and appropriate application of a JPS approach will build positive team relationship laterally and vertically in an organization.