SUMMARY: We readily use the word “organization” and so easily overlook the complexity of its practical meaning in our lives at work, in our homes and on the sports field. Businesses tend to define “organizations” as profit-driven enterprises. Churches tend to define “organizations” as places or institutions of worship and praise. Government tends to define “organizations” as state institutions. Yet there is a common factor to all of these structural views of an “organization”. This common factor is the “human community”, since all organizations are gatherings of people to live and/or work together in achieving some kind of common purpose. They are, as Peter Senge would call them, “human communities”. And “human communities” are first and foremost about people. This is not theory or speculation. It’s what organizations are. This brief article will outline the “human community” perspective on organizations, and how we can make them more resilient, adaptable, effective, collaborative and cohesive.
What is a resilient organization?
The Oxford English dictionary speaks of resilient as “springing back”, “resuming original shape”, “readily recovering from depression”, “buoyant”. These are all characteristics of people who have set themselves an explicit or implicit goal and pursue that goal even when the going gets tough. They are people who persevere in the long term to achieve a goal or vision which is close to their hearts and worthwhile pursuing through all the ups and downs along the way. If organizations are human communities, that is, communities of people coming together to achieve a common goal or purpose, then it makes sense to explore what resilient “human community” look like. Here are some key requirements for resilient organizations. As resilient “human communities”:
- They combine systematic thinking with systems thinking: Unless we move away from linear thinking –simple cause and effect – to multiple cause and effect, and acknowledge that each part of the human organization affects each other part in some way, we end up working and thinking in silos. Like it or not, the truth is that we are dealing with holistic, interdependent systems.
- They require the individual to pursue personal excellence: As individuals we have to make a deliberate decision to learn and adapt. As much as we need each other in this human community we call an organization, no one can learn for us. Each of us is responsible for learning and adapting. Even though we may need the help of others along the way (e.g. as mentors), the decision to act is ours alone.
- They need to learn from the feedback from their choices and actions: What we decide and do has consequences, both immediate and long term, and often with easily-overlooked side effects. Failing to look for and learn from feedback will undermine the resilience of the human community – the human organization.
- They declare and internalize principles and practices: These principles and practices are not just what are learned as standard procedures, they are complex combinations of skills and competencies which move from conscious and determined application to built-in subconscious mental models.
- They move from “talk” to “walking the talk”: All that resilient organizations learn and understand is tested in practice so that learning from doing and acting is a way of life which helps to sustain ongoing experiential learning. Without application, what we “learn” can lay hidden in academic conceptual understanding.
- They develop and are driven by firm values and beliefs: Resilient organizations declare their values and vision, beyond what they say, to what they believe and do at all levels for all individuals. This is internal commitment which is not what written on paper as much as it is written on human hearts.
- They nurture individuals who know their roles and contributions: Jobs are not just roles and descriptions recorded and on file to assist with selecting the right people for the job. Jobs become “my job where I am making a difference to this organization through what I do and contribute”. Until more and more people in the human organization can honestly say, believe, and do this, organizations will be less resilient than they could be.
- They work and learn in effective teams: Team work can easily become a hollow cliché with little real substance of constructive conflict handling, and openness about assumptions, opinions and feelings, or people skate on the surface and fix symptoms but neglect the human issues underlying poor team work and cooperation.
- They encourage real dialogue rather than shallow quick-fix discussion: Dialogue is closely linked to effective team learning. Dialogue is an effective two-way exchange of honest ideas, opinions, information and feelings rather than a safe talking about an issue to keep it safe. People will often leave a meeting and say to each other “What a waste of time; the real issues were never brought into the open and discussed”. Dialogue is a conscious interactive skill which strives to avoid such responses to meetings.
- They keep in touch with the organizational and socio-economic context: Resilient organizations not only avoid people and departments working in silos, they see themselves as influencing and being influenced by their environment.
- They are ‘in touch’ with their history and learn from it: Human organizations aren’t just born complete communities. They all have a history which will influence what they do and decide. Being aware of the source of their actions and decisions enables resilient organizations both to understand themselves and correct what is not working for them.
- They welcome problems and seize them as opportunities for learning and growth: The expression, “We only think solutions, not problems, in this organization” is likely to be the road to failure. Not only can group- think take over, but such organizations can start to see themselves as successful when the unacknowledged signs of failure are gnawing away at their survival and success.
What role can joint problem solving (JPS) play in delivering on these principles?
Joint problem solving (JPS) is NOT just an approach to leadership or getting others on board in tackling a particular problem situation. It IS also a vehicle for change, learning, cooperation, team work and effectiveness. In short, it can be a vehicle for greater organizational resilience. It is a mistake to view JPS as something you learn on a programme with application on the job, but fail to see it is as a means for shifting the culture and performance of an organization from “checking and telling others what to do” to “encouraging others to get it done properly because they want to”. JPS can become a vehicle for expressing all the twelve principles mentioned above. It is, indeed, a useful tool or process we can learn to use – often referred to as STORPI (Situation, Tools to use, Others to be involved, their Readiness to be involved, Plan to involve them and Implementation of this plan). But, once having learned how to use the JPS tools, it is no more use than the weaver who knows how to weave, but has lost sight of the fabric design and quality of the fabric he/she is weaving. JPS provides skills for weaving together an organization – a human community together – but the skills and the weaving themselves don’t produce the finished fabric. For this reason, organizations – these human communities aiming at resilience – need to have a close in-depth look at these proposed twelve principles summarized above, and ask themselves, “How well are we applying them – not just understanding them but doing them in practice?”. Sometimes, having a good honest look at how well an organization is faring on these twelve principles, the central situation of concern (the S) may not be a particular performance problem , but the resolution of poor application of one of these key twelve principles. For example, a recent project of our JPS associates found that the values and principles undergirding a high performance organization had become a bit muzzled with the pressures of immediate business performance and expansion. This situation would, then, be an opportunity for a JPS strategy to be used as a vehicle for change and improvement towards the values and vision of a high performance organization.
24th November, 2017
 Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, Random House Business Books, Pgs. 267-271