Organizational Development at DEQ

Organizational Development at DEQ

Definition of Organizational Health                               1

A 10 Step Process to Organizational Improvement       13

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Part II:  Outline of Benefits of Strategic Thinking and

Organizational Development                                                             48


Part III  The Root of Management Issues at DEQ                             50


Appendix:  The Words of Others                                            63


List of References                                                                    75


Part I  Organizational Health at DEQ


The Department of Environmental Quality executives in the summer of 2007 expressed an interest in addressing organizational health, although the term remains undefined.  The term “healthy company” has been defined in a book, The Healthy Company, as a company “that embodies people and practices that combine and coordinate to produce an exceptional performance.”  Of the thirty listed symptoms of an unhealthy company, my observations suggest that at least twelve are apparent in DEQ.  There is great variation in the distribution of these symptoms, but no area (functional or regional) seems to be free of all of the following symptoms:  job dissatisfaction, poor morale, decreased commitment, disciplinary actions, indecisiveness, unnecessary turnover, decreased motivation, burnout, grievances, tense work relations, career stagnation, and poor communication.  A systematic organizational assessment is necessary to ascertain the distribution and severity of these and other symptoms.

The approach to addressing organizational health expressed by EMT (Who is EMT?) emphasized structural fixes.  That is, they want to develop hiring policies, procedure manuals, new employee orientation programs, work plans and put emphasis on performance management.  All of these actions are of value but do not directly address the fundamental forces that work against organizational health.  The symptoms of the lack of health in DEQ is expressed in many ways:  fearfulness, in-group and out-group dynamics, low morale, an exodus of many of its most valuable employees, high levels of stress, and a union whose concerns seem to revolve around expressions of concern for worker safety, and a lack of participation in decision making regarding areas of their expertise, as well as, the social aspects of work conditions.

The authors of, The Healthy Company, assert that healthy companies hold values that promote organizational health.  Those values are:  a commitment to self-knowledge and development, a firm belief in decency, respect for individual differences, a spirit of partnership, a high priority for health and well-being, an appreciation for flexibility and resilience, and a passion for products and processes.   The following are excerpts from The Healthy Company.


  1. Commitment to self-knowledge and Development.


This value is a commitment to one’s own personal growth and understanding.  On a personal level, people with this value are introspective, principle-driven, and constantly learning about themselves.  Managers translate this learning into leadership that inspires both personal and professional development in employees.


Organizations dedicated to self-knowledge are learning institutions… Through a broad, caring human-capital investment strategy, executives make large investments in training, managers cultivate employee effectiveness and their successors, and employees learn to innovate and take risks…


  1. Firm Belief in Decency


The basic precept here is decency:  instinctively treating others as would any feeling, thinking human being and as one would like to be treated oneself.  This value is founded on the conviction that people work best when they are respected—when they are genuinely appreciated for what they bring to a company.


In healthy companies, actions speak louder than words, promises are kept, discrepancies between what managers say and what they do rarely surface, and half-truths, prevarications, or deceptions are not tolerated.  Managers are honest with employees, sharing their knowledge and even feelings; and they are fair, apportioning rewards and criticism according to accomplishments and deeds.  Openness is a ground rule for all relationships.  Regardless of the forum, the feedback is always candid, helpful, fair, and constant.


  1. Respect for Individual Differences


People who respect individual differences know that an office is populated by individuals who look different, act different, and grew up in different cultures but who are equally capable and worthwhile.  Rather than insisting that everyone conform to a white, middle-class norm, employees and managers value the richness of diversity, and imaginative ideas dissimilar people bring to their jobs.


Companies show their respect by not promoting policies or tacit standards that imply a homogeneous work force.  For example, promotions are equally available to women and minorities; work schedules are flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of families; and employees are encouraged to express their personal differences.  There are no second-class citizens, only human beings of equal worth with special roles and responsibilities.


  1. Spirit of Partnership


This value us a strong belief in community, in the strength of shared effort, the value of teamwork, and the satisfaction of partnership.  Though personally capable, both manager and employees truly believe that two minds are better than one and that many minds are best…


Together, responsible employees and empowering managers form a special team—an entrepreneurial partnership of adults dedicated to mobilizing each other’s talents and producing results.  This group is not a collection of so-called “Indians and one chief” but a collaboration of co-equals, with individuals stepping forward to take the lead when they have more experience, specialized knowledge, or unique creative talents in a given area than others.  This partnership’s motto is “Everyone Is a Leader, Everyone is a Follower.”



  1. High Priority for Health and Well-Being


Healthy employees are a company’s most valuable asset.  Like a well-crafted piece of precision equipment, employees must be maintained and polished…


At the company level, health and well-being are emphasized through adequate health and disability coverage, wellness and employee-assistance programs, flexible scheduling, family leave policies, competitive and equitable pay, and profit-sharing.  Safety too is a concern, and healthy companies do more than tout its importance—they institute practical, vital safeguards in every corner of the workplace.


  1. Appreciation for Flexibility and Resilience


This value is founded on the inevitability of change and the necessity of taking charge of any natural evolution, be it financial, technological, or personal.  Resilient employees exhibit this value in their attitude toward new situations and obstacles.  They ask plenty of questions and are not easily discouraged. Rich with capability, not conformity, they don’t avoid tough jobs or duck responsibility…


Managers with this value know that regardless of what an employee actually does every day, whether it is mundane or unique, manual or mental, people need variety, flexibility, and a sense of completion and ownership.  The healthy company reinforces this value through a variety of offerings:  they give employees the tools to cope with change; they provide advance notice of layoffs and relocations, and they make transitions as smooth as possible.


  1. Passion for Products and Process


With a clear mission and plan of action, people with a passion for products are active, effective doers.  They set goals, benchmarks, and timetables and know where they are going and why…


However, their passion for outcome does not interfere with their respect for the process.  Although persistent and competitive, they care as much about how they produce something as the product itself; as driven as they are, they know they must take into account the interests and needs all of their constituents.


That is why patience and persistence are essential—a natural outcome of their strong belief in people, their respect for relationships, and their commitment to the company’s long-term mission.  Experience has shown these people that even if they achieve quick results, these results are often transitory and often undermine personal and economic success.


Ultimately, the healthy company views products and profits not as its immediate goal, but rather as the result of doing everything else right.  It economic success, improved quality, better service, and competitive advantage are the by-products of shared values and collective effort.


Organizational health at DEQ would be fostered by the endorsement and actualization of the values cited above.   The commitment to self-knowledge and development was raised an issue in the last labor contract negotiations.  The union strongly pushed for investment in human capital, particularly with regard to professional growth and career development, and career transitioning, specifically concerning the interests of VIP employees.

The importance of this value is normal in an organization composed primarily of technical experts.  Maccoby surveyed organizations and found that government workforces were composed primarily of social character types he labeled experts, helpers, self-developers, and institutional helpers.  From my vantage point I would argue that DEQ has fewer helpers than institutional helpers (a reflection of being a regulatory agency), but that Maccoby’s overall characterization fits DEQ.  These social character types exhibit very different values and motivations in the workplace.  Some employees actually represent a mixture of types, but it is not necessary to discuss mixtures here. The expert is primarily driven by mastery, control, and autonomy.  Many of DEQ’s scientists and engineers fit this profile.  Their need for mastery makes them very interested in professional development and personal growth.  Many of DEQ’s other professionals clearly fit into the self-developer—a category whose members are driven by balancing mastery and play, or knowledge and fun.  These employees are conspicuous in DEQ and there interest in self-development, camaraderie and community is evident.

A high proportion of DEQ employees tend to exhibit the traits of defenders, innovators, and institutional helpers.  While they may be interested in self-knowledge and development, they do not represent their main drivers in the workplace.

A firm belief in decency is probably not a value people would argue with, at least not on the surface, but a form of this value also was an issue in the recent labor negotiations.  The union sees a clear class structure divided into employees and managers and they frequently complained of a double standard—one for managers and one for staff, with the implication that it was unfair.

Many employees at DEQ (and at various levels in the agency) have spoken of feeling disrespected, about not getting honest feedback from people, and about the distribution of rewards and benefits in the agency in terms of promotional assignments and opportunities.  The latter was also an issue in negotiations, but individuals throughout the system have intimated concern about disrespect, honest feedback and fair-haired boys and girls.

The issue of respect for individual differences is a major issue at DEQ.  Respect for individual differences may not have been major issue in the past because the agency was fairly homogeneous.  Diversity is becoming an issue as it seeks to recruit new people to replace people who have left the agency for philosophical reasons, burnout, and having reached retirement age.

The need for conformity that seems prevalent in the agency probably made sense when divisions acted autonomously and the organization was adrift a few years ago.  Now it seems to be an impediment to strategic thinking, recruitment, and organizational health.  Of course, this issue is directly related to diversity in terms of ethnicity and age, but the major complication around diversity seems to be associated with differences of professional opinion.

Some of the most significant current tension in the agency has to do with the apparent displacement of people with dissenting views about regulatory enforcement and environmental management.  There seems to be a real intolerance for differing views–not even dissenting in DEQ.  There is a “with us or against us” dynamic in many interactions concerning management.  Decisions about management including environmental management are where the defender, institutional helper, innovators, and expert social character types clash in a major way.  For defenders service means policing and protection according to Maccoby.  In regulatory environmental agencies this often means strict enforcement of environmental regulations.  These employees entered DEQ because of a strong environmental ethic, which in their minds means that they support a strong role of environmental stewardship and regulation.  Some of these employees sympathize with the environmental interest groups who think that DEQ has been too accommodating of business.  Some defenders have left the agency, others have become disaffected and unhappy as they have seen DEQ subscribe to what they consider a more business and industry-friendly orientation at the expense of the environment.  Those who have stayed in the agency have also felt career opportunities elude them in favor of people who do not share their environmental ethos—people Maccoby would call innovators and institutional helpers.

The innovators are problematic for the defenders because they are willing to make changes that move the agency away from the traditional regulatory role.  Additionally, the type of innovator that has risen to management positions in the agency tends to enjoy teamwork with a homogeneous team (one that thinks like them, talks like them, and works like them), and is more focused on the survival of the agency than the environmental ethos of the defenders or the people in the agency.  These innovators are focused on a viable machine and are predisposed to replacing and disposing of parts that do not subscribe to their methods and aims.

The traditionalist experts and defenders, the new innovators, and the rare but salient institutional helpers are clashing at DEQ.  The defenders and experts represent the old guard and they dislike what the innovators have done in the last seven years in terms of the diminution of the power of the expert and the compromises that have been made environmentally.  The union has attracted institutional helpers and disgruntled experts and they are now pressing the innovators for changes that address the human needs of members of the organization.  Helpers typically do not like experts because of their focus on hierarchy, status, and measurable performance, but some of them have formed an uneasy alliance with them as they feel the human aspects of work being neglected.  Experts are becoming more appreciative of the institutional helpers’ need to enable the institution to survive and their interest in promoting positive social relationships.

DEQ does score well on two of three of the major structural aspects of respect for individual differences.  It does offer promotional opportunities to women—the number of minorities in management is still small, and it certainly offers flexible work schedules that accommodate all kinds of families.  DEQ falls down on the social aspects of respect for individual differences by sometimes directly demanding conformity via messages to behave like others (or indirectly by sending less than subtle messages by moving people out of positions), and by discouraging the expression of personal differences of opinion.

The spirit of partnership seems be in opposition to the values of hierarchy that are clearly evident in DEQ.  There is a clear demarcation between staff, managers, and executives.  This is expressed innocuously by the attention executives place on the need to improve the plight of managers, but their tendency to overlook or discount information about the plight of employees coming from the union.  There seems to be little appreciation of the fact that the union is the one source of information about the views of employees that is not intimidated by management, for whatever reason.

The union has complained that information is not shared with it in a timely fashion.  It also complains that individual employees who going to be personally affected by management decisions do not receive information in a timely fashion.  This was another major issue in recent contract negotiations. The union expressed frustration with not getting timely information about health and safety matters (like the Bend fire and sick building reports in the Dalles, etc.), and they wanted current statistics about recruitment and retention.  The union felt that the lack of up-to-date information and candor on the part of management excluded employees from participating in a meaningful way in decisions that had impacts on them.

Employees of DEQ care as much about how they produce something as the product itself.  They are also concerned with how management solves problems and makes decisions, especially when those decisions affect the way they do work or their self-identity.  The means can be as important as the ends when the means gives people an impression of how much they are valued.  This is at the core of the controversy about the “glidepath”—an issue raised repeatedly by the union in negotiations, but also by individual employees in unsolicited conversations.  Objection about the outcome were rarely voiced; objections were primarily about how things were done.  Employees felt that their notification about the problem was late, that they did not have a chance to participate in the exploration of the problem and alternatives, and that their options were unnecessarily constrained by a flawed problem-solving process.  Management on the basis of the quality of the outcome resists this view and argues that it did not want to create unnecessary alarm and conflict.  The point is not whether management was right or wrong, just that the process created bad feelings and still generates conflict.

Satisfaction with how things are done (procedural satisfaction) is a real issue for employees regarding management issues.  It is the value associated with a passion for products and process.  How management treats employees gives them a clear signal about how much management values them.  Procedural satisfaction is a critical factor in psychological or emotional satisfaction, although it does not guarantee it.

Dissatisfaction with a lack of participation in decisions that affect the production of work seems to be a major issue at DEQ.  Union representatives have complained about their inability to understand how management actions are consistent with stated goals and policies.  Employees have spoken of feeling patronized and treated like children, and technical experts have been so offended by their lack of meaningful participation in technical problem solving that they have made an issue of professional differences of opinion as a means of forcing management to attend to their views. 

Lack of satisfaction with decision making processes has led to a great deal of stress and internal conflict in DEQ.  The union’s proposals in contract negotiations reflected many of the emotional issues commonly associated with procedural dissatisfaction.  Issues revolving around power (or control) and its use are prevalent in situations where people feel disrespected or excluded from decision making.  It tried to use the contract as a means of gaining access to decision making around safety and health issues, as well as recruitment and training and development issues.  It also tried to include language in the contract that would stipulate how to discipline managers because of another emotional issue—fairness.  The union believed, as do many people at DEQ, that there is a class system that results in differential treatment.  It asserted that members of the rank and file are punished severely for some infractions, particularly around communications and bullying, and that managers seem to get a free pass for even more egregious transgressions. 

The last and most prevalent emotional issue generated by procedural dissatisfaction at DEQ is associated with issues of identity.  Psychologist Daniel Dana, an expert on workplace conflicts, explains that issues of identity derive from individual needs for autonomy, self-esteem, positive self-image, self-determination and affirmation of personal values.  Many of the issues that fall under the category of professional differences of opinion, controversy about the “glidepath,” and many of the customer service issues in the Management Services Division are fundamentally issues of identity.  Experts do not like to feel that their expertise is being disregarded or that lesser qualified people are making decisions that they have been trained to make.  Many scientific experts have been socialized to believe that framing problems and generating the range of viable solutions for management to choose from is one of the rights and privileges associated with their diplomas and certifications.  They are deeply offended by non-technical people usurping their authority.  Experts do not see themselves as interchangeable parts that can be moved around at the whim of management.  The issue of self-image and self-worth is also relevant to conflicts about the allocation of resources, timeliness of response, and access to timely information in the cross-agency dealings of BSD, budgeting, procurement, and accounting.

Emotional issues spawned by procedural dissatisfaction predispose employees to generate what some mediators call pseudo-substantive disputes.  A pseudo-substantive dispute is an emotional issues disguised as a substantive dispute.  Since these disputes are not really about the stated issue, they are almost impossible to resolve as advanced.  The mold issue at the Dalles field office, the toxic files issue in Bend, and the air issues at the Eugene office all had features of pseudo-substantive disputes, or disputes generated by negative perceptions of managements regard for employees.

Research in public involvement has revealed several important facts about processes that affect the implementation of policies and programs.  These have led to the following principles:


If the public (employees) feels that a major project decision was made in a manner that is not appropriate or legitimate—even though they might like the decision itself—they will not accept the decision.


Most lay citizens (employees) will not participate in a project’s planning process unless:

– they are tangible issues

– they consider the issues significant

– they consider themselves capable of making a contribution to the   project


When there is a clear, concrete issue that is important to a people, virtually any community can and will organize so their concerns in the issue will be represented.


Lay interests—as well as professionals—base their actions not on “reality” but on their perception of “reality.”


Appreciating these principles should help managers at DEQ understand some of the conflicts they have encountered surrounding their actions.  Understanding their import should make them think about the means as well as the ends in their problem solving and decision making.


A Ten Step Process to Organizational Improvement

The following ten-step process designed to produce organizational health at DEQ.  It is a process that will accomplish more than a management change, but a cultural change.  It also addresses the need for a shared vision and facilitates its development by helping employees learn to relate to each other in new ways that are both more intelligent and more humane.


Step 1.    Assess the Culture

Step 2.    Promote the Positive

Step 3.    Make the Workplace Safe for Thinking

Step 4.    Reward Risk-Taking

Step 5.    Help People Become Resources for Each Other

Step 6.    Put Learning Power to Work

Step 7.    Map Out the Vision

Step 8.    Bring the Vision to Life

Step 9.    Connect the Systems

Step 10. Get the Show on the Road


STEP ONE  Assess the Culture
There is a need to do a comprehensive assessment of the organization.  There has not been an employee survey in the past couple of years and the previous survey does not foster much employee interest or enthusiasm.  Employees lack confidence in the surveys that have been conducted in recent years because, from their perspective, the surveys do not identify real issues and management has not followed-up on those issues that have been identified.

A survey that addresses organizational health and organizational thinking and learning is available.  Issues that such a survey would report on have to do with people’s willingness to:


  • Speak their minds
  • Learn from mistakes
  • See better ways to do things
  • Encouraged different points of view
  • Encourage experimentation
  • See mistakes as opportunities
  • Try new ways
  • Improving Work life
  • Learn from each other
  • Learn from all levels
  • Develop awareness beyond specialty
  • Replace obsolete practices
  • Expect improvement
  • Emphasize employee training
  • Get relevant training
  • Pursue cross-functional learning
  • Acknowledge the key role of middle managers
  • Learn from the unexpected
  • Employ flexible systems
  • Manage stress
  • Make improvements not just talk
  • Foster self-directed learners
  • Middle managers prepared
  • Recognize learning styles
  • Respected differences in learning
  • Seek resource for learning
  • Reward teams
  • Enable managers to cope with change
    Enable staff to improve


It is important to assess the culture on two levels.  At the institutional level, the focus is to find out what people think is going on.  At the individual level, the objective is to start taking responsibility for what you think and what you do.

Knowing what people think is the first step.  This process will most likely uncover a lot of denial and fear.  You can’t just appoint a team and ask them to transform the culture, as if you are asking them to repair the walls.  The first step is an honest and fearless assessment of the climate and culture within the organization.  Unfortunately, we are all pretty much blind to our own cultures.

The early part of the report is based on an informal, ethnographic assessment of DEQ.  I talked with union representatives, marginalized individuals, a variety of employees, executives, and managers to create a general picture of the state of DEQ.  The focus of the process was on looking at symptoms and doing root cause analysis.

My initial assessment was that the three most salient issues were:  a lack of emotional safety, boundary management problems, and poor communications.  The observed symptoms were:


  • An inability to complete actions (fully implement policies, etc.)
  • Crisis-oriented living
  • Manager burnout (multiple iterations of tasks, unspecified stopping points, inability to delegate)
  • Mental exhaustion
  • Feeling of disrespect
  • Exclusion and disapproval
  • Paternalism; feeling manipulated or patronized
  • Feeling left out of decisions that affect their personal welfare
  • Feeling like professional opinions are being disregarded
  • The “walking wounded”
  • Pervasive fear


Outside Assessors


People outside of the organization can be very useful in efforts to assess situations.  They are in a position to observe three behaviors known to strongly affect change:  responsibility, blaming others, and justifying one’s own position.  Responsibility suggests that you’re taking an active role in making things work the way they should.  Having the BSD manager and the primary staff people associated with a specific project talk directly with the executive and relevant managers or staff in the customer organization about the issue of customer service with the assistance of a customer service guru was one way to make both parties responsible for their part of the customer service relationship.  They would have to arrive at a common definition of the term and negotiate responsibilities, as well as, discuss priorities.  The facilitated discussion would naturally lead to an assignment of accountability.  The customer service consultant would facilitate accountability by injecting reality into the situation based on expertise in service delivery, by challenging the assumptions of both sides, and by making explicit the problems with the current state of affairs.  Accountability in this context would be a willingness to say exactly what happened and what can be done about it.

Negotiating new expectations and a new service delivery arrangement should address the issue of customer satisfaction while improving the morale of service deliverers if for no other reason than the fact that they have clear expectations tempered by the reality of their resource limitations.  They are also likely to be motivated by the fact that the customer will be doing everything reasonable to facilitate the successful management of projects.  Responsibility and accountability have to be experienced by both the customer and service provider to ensure success.


Start The Assessment

The organizational assessment tool is designed to provide an overview of the organization and stimulate discussion about the organization’s ability to learn and adapt to changing situations and external forces.  First, it will surface the major issues which must be addressed by any group on its way to becoming a healthy organization.  Its focus is on the agency’s capacity to learn and adapt.  Second, it shows which of ten steps applies to issues identified in the assessment.  While it is tempting to approach the change process by focusing on a single aspect of the results, organizational change requires action on all identified steps because all steps are interdependent.

The Assessment can answer some questions and raise new ones:

What is the spread of attitude throughout all members of the organization on each issue in the questionnaire?

How does that spread shift as we move from top management to middle management to white collar and blue collar workers, and ultimately to the customer?  Also, how does it differ among the various divisions, regions, and functions of the organization?  What are the points of greatest differences between these groups, and what can we learn from these differences?


What To Do With the Results


The results of the assessment can be used to powerful effect even before consensus is reached on all issues arising from it.  For example, if there’s a widespread belief that the current culture does not support risk-taking, then a report could be published dealing with this issue head on, committing the new learning culture to make risk-taking easier at every level of the enterprise.  Focusing on areas of agreement and taking action immediately, while suspending discussion of disagreement, may help to bring together towards common goals.


STEP 2  Promote the Positive


The next step is changing the attitudes of people in the organization so that they learn to think positively.  The objective is to move people from seeing the proverbial glass as half empty to seeing the glass as half full.  This does not require a denial of reality, quite the contrary, the effect is to foster hope and create the conditions for cooperative behavior toward group goals.  Becoming more positive and supportive towards each other and the outside world facilitates change.


Where’s the Message?


The message is not always found in changes in procedure manuals.  Some of the most significant changes are subtle.  Small gestures are often the most effective because they recognizable and easily copied.  What are the kinds of changes that people can enjoy and are most willing to make?


The Art of Reframing


Reframing is an essential skill and prerequisite for creating a learning culture.  For most decisions, organizations already have a frame.  It knows that it wants to hire new employees, it knows that it wants them to perform well, and it knows that it wants to invest resources in certain ways.

One of the most important skills in problem solving is the ability to recognize when an issue needs to be reframed.  It is also an important skill in facilitating organizational improvement as it increases the potential for change by allowing a situation to be seen in a new light.  It allows people to sort out facts and ideas so the positive ones emerge with greater clarity and the more negative ones can recede—not to be forgotten, but to be addressed at the right time.

Reframing does not change a situation as much as adjusting your thinking.  Step One surfaced areas that need to be addressed for effective change.  Reframing is the opportunity to initiate the change process by reframing the negatives found in the assessment.  A positive attitude is critical to reframing in service to effective organizational improvement.

The Management Services Division recently was able to do two significant reframes.  The first opportunity came as it received the results of the 2007 DAS audit.  Management knew that there were problems in the fall of 2006.  Two newer employees in the section had reported significant deficiencies and discrepancies.  However, difficulty securing resources and managing day-to-day operational issues prevented efforts at adequately addressing issues.  An unfortunate series of events eventually led to a DAS audit of the human resources section.  The section could have become discouraged by the audit, but instead chose to see it as a learning opportunity and solicit the assistance of a DAS consultant.  As a consequence, HR was able to make significant strides toward improving record keeping, the processing of requests, and identify specific issues that had to be resolved.

The second opportunity came about accidentally while trying to address some management issues in the Business Systems Development section.  The group was unaware of management issues and misinterpreted a conversation that the administrator had about organizational performance.  The ensuing controversy and conflict was converted into an opportunity to make people BSD staff aware of managerial and customer service problems.  It took some time to reframe the situation from one in which they felt that they (the staff) were being thought of as defective, to understanding that there was a need for a change in the way they interacted with customers and the way they conducted internal operations.


Manipulating the Prevailing Climate

Managers responsible for implementing new projects and services are the ones who can effectively introduce a new, more positive prevailing climate into the daily work activity.  A prevailing climate is a group mindset, a collection of beliefs so deeply imbued by the majority of people that it is their reality.

The prevailing climate in DEQ is less than positive.  There is growing dissatisfaction with the workplace climate.  Many people have voted with their feet by leaving and finding more rewarding and lucrative positions.  A malaise is spreading among those that remain.  Many managers, in the senior and middle ranks, feel overwhelmed and unable to exercise control over their situations, while many in the rank and file feel demoralized and disrespected. 

Escaping the crippling effects of these beliefs will require a change in attitude and perspective.  The basic premise of this reality should be that we are all capable of making significant changes in a situation and that any situation can be improved.  It’s an attitude of respect for people and what they can do, and it challenges all members in the organization to become the very best they can be.


STEP 3  Making the Workplace Safe for Thinking


The most pressing problem confronting DEQ is the need to improve its problem solving throughout the organization.  Operationally, this means improving thinking in a knowledge work organization.  DEQ has been grappling with this problem for a long time.  It manifests itself in many different ways.  For example, a well-respected administrator, a few months ago openly asked why people couldn’t see problems and address them.  Last year, the former deputy director asked why the EMT couldn’t implement policies and decisions effectively.  Staff members complain that they do not know where the organization is going, and they that they feel disconnected from many decisions or fail to see how the decisions will lead to stated objectives.

Ineffective problem solving is often a matter of faulty framing, and faulty framing in DEQ is based on a lack of emotional safety and job security.  A lack of safety debilitates capacities and skills necessary for grappling with challenging problems.  Employees do not actively participate in framing problems either because they are not invited to, or they don’t feel safe contributing their ideas and feelings.  In the former situation, top management frames the problems according to what makes sense to them without regard for how staff and managers might see the issues, thus leading to people to not understand the logic of decisions and make “local” decisions that suboptimize major decisions.  In the latter situation, people do not contribute to framing decisions because they do not want to expose themselves to criticism or demotion.  Instead, they “muddle through” while feeling disrespected and demoralized by their impotence.  Both of these conditions tend to activate unions.

The DEQ executive management team demonstrated its tendency toward groupthink and nonstrategic thinking at its summer retreat.  The challenge is not to develop strategic thinking among them, as much as it is to develop problem-solving skills.  The lack of EMT expertise in addressing strategic thinking comes from the fact that strategic thinking is generally done elsewhere (in Salem or the director’s office).  In other words, the problem is framed in operational terms by the time it gets to EMT, or EMT frames it in tactical terms to avoid pain.

One of the main issues identified by an outside consultant during the retreat was a lack of diversity in thinking.  This is a problem at DEQ, but hiring or consulting with people who present different ways of looking at problems is not the answer to the challenge of effective problem solving.  These people will bring little to problem solving if they feel unsafe and unsupported.

It is important to look at individual thinking styles before considering the group thinking processes because group strategies are actually a composite of individual styles.  Understanding the individual’s thinking style can be done most efficiently by using the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), although there are simpler, less revealing tools available for such purposes.

EMT has to rethink the way it operates.  Four interrelated types of thinking that should be considered are:  strategic thinking, power thinking, creative thinking, and analytical thinking.  Strategic thinking is the thinking skill used when thinking about planning for the future.  It connects today with tomorrow in an organized way and sets a course of action.  It is disabled by denial, conflict avoidance and defense mechanisms that distort real assessments of current conditions or real future ambitions (addressed in steps 4 and 5).

Power thinking concentrates on the positive aspects of any situation and enables people to get around barriers to planning for the future and making correct decisions.  DEQ is currently experiencing a deficit in this area (addressed in step 2).

Creative thinking provides a way to look at the future and solutions from a fresh angle.  It is a thinking skill that opens up possibilities and gets people out of traditional thinking.  You can’t get creative thinking in the midst of hostility and fear.

Analytical thinking is necessary for maintaining organization while looking for answers that will promote success.  DEQ has a proclivity for this type of thinking, but political correctness has somewhat compromised it.  These thinking styles work together to enable people to make the “right” decisions.  Consequently, it is important to be aware of them no matter what problem we are trying to solve.  DEQ needs to improve all four styles of thinking at all levels of the agency.

For example, developing a long-range plan requires strategic thinking skills,  but power thinking skills are needed to help people overcome negative roadblocks.  And creative thinking skills facilitate the generation of many possible solutions, while analytical skills help people come up with the best possible plan.

“Strategic thinking” is about planning for the future.  When you know where you’re going, why you’re going and how you’re going to get there, you’ll get there successfully—and strategic thinking tools give you the where, why and how.

Safety is the Key to Thinking


The most essential resource in any knowledge work organization is the thinking capacity of everyone in the organization.  A fundamental challenge is to create a climate where everyone will look for ways to do their jobs better, where the attitude behind quality control and continuous improvement is built into everyone’s behavior and expectations.

Learning and thinking are intertwined when grappling with wicked, ill-structured, or even just complex problems.  Learning well requires an environment where there is no fear of consequences of what might be discovered.  Thinking requires the same condition, as well as, and the opportunity to work within one’s capabilities and with just enough stress to focus attention and energy, but not so much as to create high levels of anxiety.

One of the most dangerous and liberating activities in life is walking.  We don’t think of it that way as adults, but as small children it was both.  It was dangerous because it involved losing one’s balance and falling.  Were it not for a horde of people trying to encourage walking and providing a safe environment for it, we would all probably still be crawling.  Thinking, like walking, is best developed through practice, and again like walking, it is best practiced in a supportive environment.

Stupidity and bad problem solving are also examples of disabling learned behaviors.  Not providing information critical to effective decision-making results in faulty decision making, and so does attacking ideas before they have had a chance to be fully developed.  These behaviors encourage weak problem solving abilities.


Improving Organizations


Encouraging the asking of questions is one of the most effective ways to improve thinking and initiate organizational improvement.  Reframing generates new questions, new things to explore.  Any behaviors that stifle efforts to ask questions and discover new ways to do things, disable learning.

Another way that management can lead the way to organizational improvement is by rewarding thinking and creativity wherever they are found.   Overcoming the tendency to respond to other people’s ideas with a knee-jerk negative response is a skill that has to be learned.  Being able to endure the confusion, ambiguity, and conflict that is inherent to efforts to grapple with complex problems is also a learned skill.


A Learning Environment Depends on Safety

Safety is a basic human need and it is a precondition for a healthy organization.   A healthy organization provides continual permission and incentive for everyone in the organization to think well and benefit from the thinking of others.  This does not mean that the organization takes affirmative action on all the thoughts expressed, but that people in the organization participate in meaningful discussions about the nature of problems and that their concerns are addressed.

Participating in productive and meaningful relationships with others, in which both giving and receiving information are valued, generates safety.  This type of relationship facilitates professional growth and job satisfaction, especially among knowledge workers.

Feeling safe also fosters the ability to discover and experiment—critical behaviors when dealing with ill-structured or wicked problems.  Feeling safe also makes it possible to experience learning from “mistakes without guilt and shame.  Feeling safe leads to knowing how to enjoy the possibilities of creative action, both individual and collective.

Much of what is needed to create an effective, adaptable team has to be understood and confirmed through guided experience (the assistance of a skilled facilitator).  It has to be learned kinesthetically or experientially, and preferably with the assistance of someone who can provide a nurturing environment until the team matures fully.  At that point, its internal resources will provide safety for team members.  It has to be learned experientially.

The perception of emotional safety is primarily nonverbal. It is mostly experienced through gestures, postures, tone of voice, and signals our actions are constantly sending.  One of the EMT members expressed a lack of safety from observing the current deputy director roll his eyes an EMT member was talking.  Although, the target was someone else, the action diminished this person’s sense of safety.  Discounting the speech of others, knee jerk negative responses to suggestions, immediate segues without a pause to indicate consideration, and the denial of items previously acknowledged are all behaviors experienced kinesthetically.  They produce a gut reaction.

Until a healthy group has formed, the onus for fostering safety in the group is on the leader(s) of the group.  Oftentimes in naturally evolving groups, the group naturally follows the person who provides safety.  In knowledge worker groups, leaders are often subject matter experts who exhibit calm, assertive leadership.  Administrators Kerri Nelson and Andy Ginsburg exhibit these traits to a certain extent.  Congruence, that is, nonverbal behavior that is consistent with verbal behavior is one of the greatest sources of safety in groups.  Additionally, having the ability to participate in decisions that affect important aspects of professional life is also perceived to promote safety for most workers.  The higher the level of personal control someone has in a difficult situation, the lower the risk they perceive in a given decision.

Safe does not imply freedom from challenge or accountability.  Safety implies support for the learning process itself.  It is associated with honoring errors and everyone pitching in to limit their adverse consequences without exposing the person who commits it to humiliation or abuse.

Fairness also promotes safety.  Safety in a group means knowing the consequences of actions, knowing when they will be applied, and knowing that those consequences will be applied universally.   An unsafe environment is often one in which people are susceptible to being blindsided, or their actions lead to unexpected (and often never explained) negative consequences.  Such occurrences diminish the sense of safety in co-workers because of their lack of understanding of what brought about the punishment.

Everyone will benefit from answering the question, what does safety mean to me?  In practical terms the question could be translated to:  What specific actions or changes would prove that it’s actually safe for me to think around here?


Managing Conflict is Critical to Successful Matrix Management


Inherent to the concept of a matrixed organization is conflict.  There is a real need for effective conflict management strategies at DEQ.  Managers and staff need to become comfortable with the notion of productive confrontation.  Two conditions are normally necessary for productive confrontation:  1) mutual positive motivation; and 2) power parity between combatants.  Mutual positive motivation is the desire of both parties to resolve, better utilize or control the conflict rather than have it continue.  If one party stands to gain from continuing the conflict, the use of confrontation tactics is likely to escalate the conflict.

In addition to similar motivation, effective confrontation requires that both parties have roughly equal power over each other and the situation in which they find themselves.  Typically, asymmetrical power relationships tend to encourage the underdog to take whatever actions are necessary to develop power parity.  This often means recruiting alternate sources of power.


STEP 4  Rewarding Risk Taking


A variety of opposing forces clashing around issues of regulation, monitoring, and resources are creating a great deal of turmoil in environmental agencies.  While taking risk is always challenging, it is even more difficult in the midst of uncertainty and tumult.

It is impossible to effectively address the complex, interconnected problems confronting agencies today without being willing to take meaningful, reasonable, moderate risks.  Wicked and complex ill-structured problems present decision makers with high levels of uncertainty, but decisions must be made.  Risk-taking is now a prerequisite for survival.  A successful and sustainable organization has socialized all levels of management to effectively engage in risk-taking.

A study in the 1960s by David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist, revealed that the type of motivation that virtually guarantees success in business is achievement motivation.  And one of the most significant components of achievement motivation turns out to be moderate risk-taking.  His results also indicated that a moderate risk is one in which you have a 60 percent to 90 percent chance of being successful.  Above 90 percent and there is little risk, and below 60 percent and it is probably not prudent to take the risk.

In situations where there is a clear in-group (people who have access to important information and are conspicuously favored by the leaders of the organization), there is a huge disparity in risk-taking capacity.  People in the in-group tend to be empowered to take risk, but few others are.  This is the case at DEQ.  In fact, one comment made to me was very telling, “here, people don’t get fired for not doing things; taking action is what is risky.”


Building a Culture that Supports Risk-Taking

Risk-taking for people on a team, or even in a large organization, requires that their team or their management protect them until they’ve had a chance to prove themselves.

They also must be ready and well positioned to succeed.  Putting people that lack the knowledge or experience into positions without the resources to enable them to succeed is a recipe for eroding trust and safety in an organization.  Leaders should ensure the capability of members of teams by either developing their individual skills or providing access to all the skills required to meet upcoming challenges.  Finally, they need managerial permission to take the anticipated risk.  Sometimes there will be failures with real consequences, but these should not be catastrophic for the individuals involved.

It is important to assess DEQ’s willingness to encourage risk-taking by answering the following questions:


  1. What’s the general attitude toward risk-taking among employees?
  2. What efforts have you seen the organization make to increase risk-taking?
  3. How many instances can you think of in which it was discouraged?
  4. What forces in the culture encourage risk-taking?
  5. What forces discourage it?
  6. What are the three best steps the organization might take to encourage more risk taking?


A large part of becoming effective at risk taking is the ability to anticipate situations so that you can be in the right place and the right time.  You have to know where you are going and have a large reservoir of knowledge to predict the next step.  Understanding probabilities requires having accurate current information and enough knowledge to see patterns.  The conditions are difficult to achieve in a culture with a big gap between managers and executives, and where information is concentrated at the top of the organization.


Risk-Taking Requires Tolerance for Ambiguity


Rigidity impedes risk-taking.  It makes people inclined to frame issues in dichotomous terms, thus reducing options to right or wrong, or good or bad.  Dealing with uncertainty requires an ability to consider that not everything can be assessed in dichotomous terms; uncertainty means that there is gray in many situations.  Achieving a certain amount of comfort with gray areas makes reasonable risk-taking possible.

Intuition is also important for dealing with uncertainty.  Intuition, however, requires flexibility and a willingness to explore situations while postponing judgments.  Creative people seem to specialize in putting off closure when they are trying to solve problems.


STEP 5 Help People Become Resources for Each Other


People tend not to see each other as resources when they are intolerant of ambiguity and the differences among them.  There seems to be a tradeoff associated with many skills.  The HBDI makes this tradeoff evident.  For example, the ability to be tolerant of ambiguity is potentially in opposition with the ability to quickly reach closure.  People with a strong preference for either of these goals can overlook the strengths (and emphasize the weaknesses) of others with opposing preferences or aptitudes.

Interestingly, people tend to know more about their coworkers’ limitations than their strengths.  Seeing other people’s strengths and potential often requires getting beyond the self-fulfilling prophecy of negative perceptions.

Knowledge of other people’s talents increases the potential contributions to an enterprise.  It increases the effectiveness of group by making it more possible to harness the tools and talents available to it.  The better you perceive the value of your co-workers, the more you can enhance your own effectiveness.

The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument is one of the most effective tools for creating an awareness of individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as, fostering teamwork.  It provides unique information including:


  1. How you perceive the thinking styles most accessed in your work environment.
  2. Values and preferred approaches to thinking and problem solving, as well as, ways you approach work.
  3. Preferences related to how you communicate and want others to communicate with you.
  4. The values, preferred approaches to problem solving, and approach to work you prefer under stress.


The HBDI preference codes are simple because they are composed of a set of numerical designations associated with each of four quadrants, but the instrument’s power comes from sub-categorical designations.  These designations discriminate between, for example, two people whose results indicate that they are primarily rational, but one is factual and quantitative, and the other is logical and analytical; or two people who have preferences for administrative functions but one is risk averse and detailed and the other is controlling and sequential.  In each of these cases, people who share a high numerical designation in a quadrant will have an affinity for each other, but they are likely to encounter difficulties working together because they will exhibit different strengths and interests.

The HBDI also provides important information about problem solving and thinking strategies.  Coupled with knowledge of the implications of learning styles in the workplace, it is very informative about the types of issues that may need to be addressed in team building and group performance.

The debriefing is the most powerful aspect of the HBDI assessment process.  It is conducted in two rounds—a private, individual debrief in which the results are explained based on the confidential packet individuals receive; and a group debrief in which composite scores are presented.  The individual debrief is an opportunity for people to discuss what they’ve learned and gain insights about themselves.  It often leads to discoveries about work style preferences and interests that either support their effectiveness or detract from it.  People often feel validated and they learn something about their responses to stress.

The group debrief provides distribution patterns related to sub-categorical (within quadrant) values, skills, and interests.  It also provides information about group thinking and decision making specific to the composition of the group, as well as, group dynamics under stress.  As in individuals, stress can drastically affect problem solving and communication style preferences.

The group results are very powerful for team building because they directly apply to team behaviors—thinking strategies, problem solving, and communication styles.  It is in this debrief, that issues of diversity (re: these parameters) can be discussed openly.  Many people find these interactions to be very valuable, and in a few cases, have requested follow-up sessions to address specific issues.  The group debriefs often raise issues of concern around work style or communication conflicts, or prompt discussions about how team members can organize work to compliment each other’s strengths or compensate for weaknesses.

The last two times I have administered the HBDI, group debriefs have focused attention on intragroup conflicts, some of which had created opposing alliances within the groups.  In many cases, individuals have “aha” moments when they find themselves candidly talking about interpersonal issues.  What is achieved in the discussions has a great deal to do with the ability of the consultant to foster and maintain a safe environment, and provide meaningful information about the effects of differing preferences and aptitudes.

To those concerned for the efficiency and survival of the organization, this attention to individual differences may seem threatening, an invitation to chaos.  However, a closer look at how complex living systems adapt and flourish should provide a clearer view of the kind structure that organizations need.

This new perception of order and disorder represents an inversion of traditional scientific views.  According to the classical view, for which physics was the principal source of concepts and metaphors, order is associated with equilibrium, as, for example, in crystals and other static structures, and disorder with non-equilibrium situations, such as turbulence.  In the new science of complexity, which takes its inspiration from the web of life, we learn that non-equilibrium is a source of order…Throughout the living world, chaos is transformed into order (see Wheatley article in appendix).


The Possibility of Conflict


As we open ourselves to deeper understandings and appreciation of each other, we may also be setting the stage for serious conflict when misunderstandings do occur.  For when we’ve invested our trust in another and it seems to be violated, the hurt may run deep.  In groups whose members suddenly start deepening their feeling for one another, trust and bonding may come too easily at first, without being fully earned, and without taking into account the genuine differences in values and perception that are bound to be present in any group.

The acceptance of conflict and resolution as a normal part of the group process helps develop flexibility in dealing with each other, and also with other kinds of ambiguities that normally arise in modern organizations.


The Resource Inventory


A Team Resource Inventory can help teams know each other’s talents.  The following might act as a guide to help EMT improve its learning and thinking capabilities.


  1. Administer the individual and team HBDI to EMT members.
  2. Conduct a team session where a dialogue takes place on the team profile.
  3. Have each person look at the similarities and differences between their individual results and the team picture.
  4. Have the whole team evaluate the learning and thinking Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of the team as they relate to the team’s learning and thinking capabilities.
  5. What information does the HBDI team picture provide about how to maximize the learning and thinking potential of the team?
  6. What insights arise from the picture that can help prevent trouble between the team members? To what extent have the team members assisted each other in developing their individual potential?
  7. Have team members negotiate contracts with each other about how they will support each other in their work.  In these contracts, they will specify their learning goals and the means for reaching them.  In each pair or group of three that engages in this process, it will be the responsibility of one member to review at regular intervals how the other is doing in reaching the goals.
  8. Have team members develop a list of individual traits, characteristics or talents that are under-represented in the team assessment because of an assumption they aren’t valuable to the enterprise. Talents should be things that they do well and enjoy.
  9. Have individual team members share and discuss each person’s list of talents and traits.
  10. Have them then explore how the team can use these in their daily efforts or their team learning process.


When you have completed these activities, members can then take a new look at their job descriptions, to determine how these might be changed or modified in light of new information.  In addition, each member of the organization might keep a list of the resources provided by the others.  The list makes it more likely that people make an effort to use resources.  It is a way to prompt usage.


STEP 6 Put Learning and Thinking Power to Work


      A knowledge worker organization well-suited to the demands of today’s challenges strives for learning for the improvement of the organization at all levels—not just in formal ways, but anywhere at any time, without specific instructions from managers or instructors.  Innovation and continuous improvement occur spontaneously, in ways that serve and improve the whole organization and its collective purposes.

The first five steps in the process presented here expose and reverse attitudes that reinforce barriers.  Performing a clear-eyed, fearless assessment of where the organization is and where it is going, supporting positive interactions among individuals, encouraging thinking, risk-taking, and mutual interdependence are worthy endeavors;  and each step is inherently valuable.  These steps taken together will greatly improve the organizational health of the organization.  But the deeper purpose of the first five steps is to remove barriers to learning and thinking.


Barriers and Pitfalls that Limit Learning and Thinking


Three barriers to learning are common:  logical, ethical, and feeling barriers.  Logical barriers arise when a crucial piece of information is missing from something we want to learn leaving us no logical way to understand it.  This is an inherent quality of wicked problems—the most significant environmental problems confronting DEQ.

The mix of politics and complex, interdisciplinary science makes it impossible to avoid logical barriers.  A logical barrier arises when we cannot see the relevance of new information.  It is hard to learn things when we don’t know why we are learning them.  This seems to be a factor in some of the most controversial actions made by the upper echelons of DEQ.

There is a wide range of tacit knowledge and behavior that people are assumed to have acquired in their careers, which may not ever have been learned.  Gaps in this body of knowledge should not be viewed as reflecting on an individual’s capacity to learn or perform any task, but as potential opportunities for growth and development

Ethical barriers are limits to learning imposed by a person’s ethical standards.  If people are expected to learn something it must be consistent with their ethical standards.  The environmental ethos of some employees may at times, be in conflict with the pragmatic recommendations of high-level managers.  Ethical barriers seem to underlie the professional difference of opinion disputes that have occurred at DEQ.

The third barrier evident at DEQ is the feeling barrier.  Employees seem to be having difficulty learning, in part because of the displeasure they have experienced leading to the need for learning.  There are many complaints about not seeing how decisions made are in support of stated policies, or that the rank and file does not understand the organization’s goals and objectives because they cannot discern them based on actions being taken.

The greatest barrier to learning is fear.  W. Edwards Deming, the famed guru of quality improvement, believes that the top priority in the quality business is driving out fear. The antidote to the feeling barrier is the cultural mindset that the previous steps have been aimed at, chiefly embracing principles that promote emotional safety.

The pitfalls associated with developing thinking skills are time, attitude, the effects of results, and frame or paradigm blindness.  Time is a problem because when people have little of it and are in high-stress situations, they tend to rely on tried-and-tested tools and techniques to get fast results.  Managers at DEQ readily admit their tendency to go form one crisis to another—the result of a deficit in strategic thinking—but also a tendency that forces people to habitually employ the same tools and problem solving.  It is important to anticipate situations so that there is time to use new tools and techniques with enough time to correct mistakes that may occur while learning something new.

DEQ exhibits two very problematic traits that stifle thinking..  One is “NIH” or “not invented here” and the other is “It always worked in the past.”  A native of Oregon and a seasoned veteran in organizational development in Oregon state government asserted that “NIH” is an integral part of Oregon culture.  In any case, the DEQ version limits thinking and innovation.  It is so ingrained into the culture that it quickly becomes apparent to outsiders that discussions of approaches to problem solving and decision making from outside of the organization are frowned upon, or regarded as some form of allegiance to another organization.  The effect discouraging ideas from outside of DEQ is the tendency to either be stuck doing what has always been done or reinventing the wheel.

There is also a tendency toward “it’s always worked here” thinking, even though there is often little evidence to support the conclusion that it has worked well.  In fact, it is unlikely that there has ever been a serious review of problem solving outcomes at DEQ because of the system’s self-admitted tendency to go from one crisis to another.  People engaged in this pattern of activity do not have time for reflection, let alone a rigorous examination of past practices.  Additionally, the lack of documented processes throughout the organization, its longterm lack of effective record keeping (one of the chief complaints of the Water Quality administrator and a major finding in the DAS audit of HR) make it impossible to reasonably conclude that any formal effort at assessment has every been undertaken.  The presumption that things have worked in the past debilitates effective thinking about current situations, and is dangerous.
The tendency toward crisis-oriented management makes it difficult to pursue effective learning.  It is important to use new tools and techniques on low impact problems as skills are being learned.  Going from crisis to crisis makes this impossible as resources are necessarily focused on making it through the current crisis.  Furthermore, the perfectionistic and perceived punitive aspects of management action militate against anyone trying to employ new thinking.  Rather than do so, the current mode of operation is to push decisions upward with the expectation that the director’s office will provide the “right” answer.  Learning new tools and techniques is facilitated by the knowledge that the stakes for making an error are not devastating, and that there is time for recovery.

Traditional training does not promote the type of learning necessary for survival for a variety of reasons.  First, it typically does not tie in with the strategic business needs of the company.  It is rarely flexible enough to account for crucial differences among learners and simply does not work for many learners.  Additionally, managers often resist training and then sabotage its implementation.  Resistance to training can be minimized when it is introduced through a process of internal marketing that sells the training to those who want it, or at least see its value.  This is what was accomplished in BSD with regard to training in communications, team building, and to lesser extent project management.  People often find it dispiriting as they try to apply classroom learning to the work environment.  All training should include practice in its application to enhance the prospects of success in the workplace.  If there isn’t any follow-up on what was learned in the classroom, who’s to know the difference.  Training programs need to be evaluated, and that means resources have to be allocated to do it.  Managers often do not get support for off-site training once they return to the job because the rationale for it wasn’t well established.  Such a rationale can be created when a brief sample of the training and its objectives is offered to all those who have a need to know about it, just as was done with regard to HBDI among MSD employees.

Over the past year, human resources specialists and OD consultants in MSD have identified training needs and worked to build interest in specific training.  Identified topics include:  professional differences of opinion; training about the recently negotiated contract (for managers and staff) with focus on safety and health; manager training for communicating with staff (difficult conversations, dealing with emotions in the workplace, receiving staff complaints, giving feedback and recognition); new manager development (supervisory training, introduction to management; general facilitation for managers and staff group and mediation; diversity—cultural competencies, attracting and recruiting staff for all managers; HR policies training for managers (performance reviews, discipline and discharge, FMLA/OLMA/ADA, mobbying and bullying policy, ethics, diversity, new employee orientation for management and staff); tribal relations; customer service (internal focus); project management for managers and staff; and decision making processes (participation, accountability) and resilience to change/management for managers.  These training needs have been prioritized tentatively and await prioritization discussions with managers and staff.  HR has also explored options for training delivery.  We have identified several potential vendors and DAS.

Last year, a couple of staff members and I interviewed Ernie McDonald, a veteran trainer in the area of group problem solving and facilitation, as well as, Jon Townsend a diversity and conflict resolution trainer.  Both have existing contracts with the Washington Department of Ecology and are highly regarded trainers.  I have over a decade of experience with each of them, and they have both expressed willingness to custom design training for DEQ.  Additionally, they are both local trainers and their rates are lower than most of their competitors.  Jon Townsend is a Native American trainer who has already started to design training that would integrate key concepts from diversity, conflict resolution, and communications.

There is still a need to prioritize training needs with the assistance of informed managers.  I suspect that many of the problems they confront are due to systemic, deeper problems associated with organizational health and identified earlier.  Issues generated by a lack of participation in problem solving and decision making, the perception of a double standard for managers and staff, the lack of clarity of assignments and lack of standards of quality when assignments are made, poor boundaries regarding responsibility and accountability, and poor communications are at the core of almost all managerial problems that lead to training needs.  Improving organizational health will alleviate many managerial problems and reduce middle management stress.


Step 7 Map Out the Vision


The Lowest Common Denominator


      The problem with poor communications, inappropriate boundary management, conflict avoidance, and a lack of emotional safety when it comes to problem solving or mapping a vision is that their interplay virtually guarantees that outcomes of group problem solving will represent the lowest common denominator solution.  People water down their requests, minimize their objections, and seek compromise, often with the result of producing a tepid agreement that no one fully endorses.  Since people are not fully committed to the agreement, it is abandoned when the next “fire” occurs, or when a modicum of resistance is encountered.


The Abilene Paradox


The executive retreat of the summer of 2007 provided an excellent example of the problem with false consensus at DEQ.  The EMT was asked to illustrate the driving forces that affect DEQ.  Just as in the famous story entitled, The Abilene Paradox, the EMT made a framing decision without much forethought, and although some members had reservations, persevered until reaching a point where it became evident that the strategy being used was not likely to achieve the intended result.  At that point, it became apparent that no one had fully endorsed the group’s actions.  Worse yet, people actually had been mildly resistant to the group’s actions, but did not want to “rock the boat” or appear as less than team players.  The story, The Abilene Paradox, illustrates this problem.  In the Abilene Paradox, a family leaves home and drives 53 miles on a 104 degree day in a car without air conditioning to get ice cream.  They purchase it but on the brutal trip back they discover that no one really wanted to go to Abilene in the first place.  Everyone had gone along to get along. .

Many organizations suffer from both the tendency to generate the lowest common denominator answer and the Abilene Paradox.  On the surface, the lowest common denominator and the Abilene Paradox appear to contradict each other.  In one case, people are doing what no one wants to do, and in the other, nothing gets done until everyone agrees.  Actually, they are both born of the same cause:  When people communicate only about formal transactions without reference to their feelings, there’s no way of knowing what the group really wants, or might be capable of achieving.




Consensus has got a bad name in management consulting circles, in part, because what clients call consensus is really settling for the lowest common denominator.  This is the only result available when problem solving occurs in an unsafe environment or when people are not challenged to really explore the true nature of the problems they are confronting, or in circumstances where parties fail to use their imaginations to generate a variety of potential alternatives.

Effective consensus must be the result of consensus building.  Consensus is agreement by all parties involved, but often with varying levels of commitment and enthusiasm by the various individual team members or subteams.  Most of the problems with consensus, as it is practiced at DEQ, emanate from the fact that employees do not invest the time and effort necessary to achieve consensus, or they fear expressing any thought that may be deemed unacceptable by the director’s office.  As a consequence, bogus consensus is achieved and coercive energy has to be applied to secure necessary resources and ensure critical actions are undertaken.  The result: something that is everyone’s task becomes nobody’s task.

Real consensus is often laborious and time-consuming as people discover each other’s real interests and motivations.  People in fear do not develop consensus; in fact, they develop pseudo-commitment, which is why they do not implement plans effectively.   Solving problems by achieving unanimity about questionable or undesirable goals is a recipe for managerial impotence—something DEQ’s managers and executives have been accused of. 

When people who have interests in potential solutions are left out of discussions, they can hardly be expected to wholeheartedly pursue plans that they neither understand nor endorse.  This may strike some managers as heretical because they expect allegiance to decisions based on chain of command, but such an expectation reflects a lack of understanding of the characteristics of knowledge workers with an environmental ethos.

While knowledge workers appreciate hierarchy, they tend to appreciate hierarchies built on experiential or expertise power, not positional power per se.  If they feel that they have meaningful information or expertise to contribute to the resolution of a problem, they will feel slighted and are not apt to be as proactive in implementing managerial decisions as cognizant managers might want.

Their lack of participation in problem solving creates exasperation for another reason.  Even if they are supportive of the goals and objectives of a plan, the types of problems they are confronting demand that they take small individual actions, often without the opportunity to obtain prior approval.  When they do not understand the context in which they are making these decisions, they are apt to make the wrong decisions with the best of intentions.

Consensus building is essential for achieving internal team unity.  The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.  First and foremost, each member of the team can realize a sense of equity and ownership.  Team member achieves equity when each feels permitted, and actually encouraged, to participate in discussions on an equal basis with other participants.  This equality transcends status, values, and even the prevailing thinking on issues.  Each team member is respected as a person and as an important member of the team.

Arguments are listened to attentively.  Both the reasoning and the emotional aspects of arguments are given attention.  This is not benevolence.  It is a recognition that commitment and ownership operate at an emotional level and, consequently must be addressed at that level.  Opinions are sought from even the most reluctant or disgruntled team members.  Ideas are fully discussed in terms of compatibility with team values, interests, goals, and realities.

The focus is on the good of the team (which hopefully represents the organization), but at a level where members of the team can be supportive albeit with different degrees of commitment.  At the lowest level of commitment, the parties agree not to do anything that blocks, impedes, or delays the implementation of an agreed upon solution.

When equity is realized, ownership naturally follows.  Each member has a strong sense of group identity and group membership to the degree that each shares collective ownership of the problem, the decision making, and the dispute resolution.


The Synergistic Power of a Shared Vision


Positive attitudes, safety for thinking, readiness to risk, a desire to learn and continuously improve, and the capacity to see others as resources sets the stage for synergistic actions.  When self-esteem is established in each person in the group, everyone will have learned to think in terms of a personal future that is related to the future of the organization.  Such a condition promotes the natural evolution of the group through the achievement of a shared vision.

In autocratic organizations, the vision is not shared throughout the organization and the thrill of success is restricted to an inner circle.  There is no natural evolution because the system is controlled through force.

The evolution of shared vision cannot be a mechanical process.  It must involve the subjective needs of each member of the group; without strong convictions synergy is not possible.  When emotional satisfaction is taken into account and negotiated, achieving a level of synergy that meets and exceeds people’s needs is possible.

Evolution is also not a linear or easily directed process.  It is a natural response to pressures and challenges that evolve out of individual action toward a collective goal.  In nature that goal is survival.  Patience and the recognition that it is not possible to direct evolution is important.  It can be influenced, but not managed in the formal sense of the term.  Setting the conditions for change and bringing together resources that enable effective action among capable, self-confident people possessing a commitment to a shared vision influences evolution in a positive manner.

A sustainable high performance organization composed of knowledge workers can exist only to the extent that creative minds come together in a common enterprise and give it their best—not by watering down or compromising their talents, insights, ideas, or skills, but by integrating them into a whole that exceeds the capabilities of any individual.

A truly shared vision engages the commitment and unique resources of disparate individuals.  Duplicating each other’s efforts is not effective teamwork, nor is becoming an undifferentiated mass in pursuit of nebulous, externally imposed goals.  Powerful teams are composed of members who have retained their individuality, while recognizing the need to work toward a common purpose.  When a group of people is committed to personal mastery and to the purposes of the organization itself, synergy occurs naturally.

As the vision of the whole comes into focus, it will be clearer how individuals or groups are interdependent and must work together for the good of the organization.  Members of groups must come to this realization on their own.  Efforts to coerce or use guilt to get them to act as a team can only produce short term results.  As each division and each individual understands the impacts of their behaviors on others (what the customer service intervention was to accomplish, as well as the process improvement initiative headed by John Reel), and brings the whole company’s values and mission more clearly into focus, s/he will coordinate their efforts so the best interests of all are served.


Group Mind Mapping


One of the most powerful graphic tools for achieving a shared vision is group mind mapping.  It derives its strength from its rootedness in visual thinking, and from the cooperative process that produces it.

This is a particularly useful tool for EMT because the majority of its members are highly visual.  Visual thinkers need to see the relationships among the ideas they are learning and thinking about.  They need clear pictures to be able to understand the subject under discussion, and thus assimilate it and use it as motivation for their work.  One of the major limitations of EMT meetings is that they are verbally oriented, but talk is a relatively weak tool for building a shared vision and developing a shared purpose.  Words can be interpreted in many different ways.  Additionally, even if we have unanimous agreement about the meaning of words (very unlikely), people’s memories of speech dissipate quickly, thus immeasurably reducing its capacity to motivate and energize people.

A Mind Map represents through visual symbolism, the relationships between ideas, projects, goals, and resources in much the same way that a map shows geographical relationships.  It is a graphical reflection of the connections people have made and the relationships that they understand. It is also a record of real thinking.


Step 8  Bring the Vision to Life


      Step 8 is a unique extension of Step 7’s mind mapping.  Mind mapping is a way of visualizing, displaying, and manipulating information that is more dynamic and flexible than traditional linear, logical/analytical thinking.  Step 8 clarifies activities, processes, and relationships discovered in mind mapping by adding motion to it.

Seeing a process is better than talking about it, but seeing and experiencing a process is the most powerful for learning.  The chance to walk through a process makes it clearer than any explanation ever can.

The Kinesthetic Modeling activity forces people to pin down definitions and underlying concepts that can create confusion when they are not fully understood and agreed to.  This is one reason why these models can save enormous amounts of time in a strategic planning process.

DEQ has many divisions with different functions and responsibilities.  As in many organizations, each division has established its own typical procedures and processes of communication.  And also typical, is the fact that few people fully understand what all the divisions do, or how the communication processes work.  Kinesthetic Modeling is a process by which employees can discover how everyone involved in a process act out their relationships.

Kinesthetic Modeling is a very powerful tool for stimulating process improvement.  It is potentially very useful as a means of exploring possible changes in the processes, structures and systems that make up an organization, many of which have been taken for granted as long as they are virtually invisible.  These modeling processes can either be a static representation of relationships or a dynamic ballet of ongoing interactions.

Acting out processes can be revelatory.  Participants who have actively walked through processes get an understanding of how processes actually work.  They also get an understanding of the attitudes of people associated with parts of the process.


Team Building Tools


Kinesthetic Modeling is a valuable tool for developing structure around which a team can be built.  It helps members escape ceaseless talking and move toward getting things done.  Ideas are explored by modeling them, enabling people to be more innovative, creative, flexible, and responsive.  It is a form of learning that helps people step into roles and relationships with deeper understanding of their consequences, implications and effects.

Kinesthetic Modeling exploits the fact the majority of group dynamics is nonverbal.  The process exposes nonverbal behaviors that reflect attitudes toward issues and interests.  Nonverbal communication is more revealing than speech, especially with regard to the emotional aspects of communication within a system.  The emotional dimensions of communication within a system are often subtle and below a person’s conscious awareness.  They are generally outside of the awareness of the sender, but not the receiver.  Receivers respond to nonverbal behavior.  When the attitudes, values, words, and judgments of a person are not congruent with their behavior, that person inspires distrust and a lack of confidence.

Over time organizations develop a wide range of signals and symbols that express a great deal of unspoken information.  These involve the space that people occupy, the way they approach each other when meeting, the way they position themselves to talk to one another, organizational rituals small and large, and a multitude of variables.  These behaviors signify a great deal about the nature of relationships and convey information and attitudes that people may not be thinking about, but need to be taken seriously.  They become apparent in Kinesthetic Modeling.


Step 9 Connect the Systems


Step Nine is devoted to systems thinking.  Steps 7 and 8 involve the exploration and enactment of a system and Step 9 connects the thought processes behind those activities so that the organization becomes fully aware of the relevance of systems thinking.

Many people tend to approach systems problems ineffectively because of a lack of appreciation of some of the most important qualities of systems.  A system is an entity that maintains its existence and functions as a whole through the interaction of its parts.  Systems thinking looks at the whole, and the relationships between components of a system. It requires studying the whole in order to understand the parts.  Systems thinking is the opposite of reductionism which is based on the presumption that something is simply the sum of its parts.  Reductionism provides the raw materials for linear approaches to dealing with systems problem.  It treats systems as though they were a collection of sequentially connected parts.  Unfortunately, systems are highly interconnected networks and therefore do not operate according to linear principles.  The most important cause and effect relationships in a system are not linear.  The effects of DDT on eagles were not linear, nor are the interactions of forces contributing to global warming.

Business process reengineering, a linear approach to organizational change was billed as a revolutionary was to increase productivity in the early 1990s.  It basically failed  to yield the promised results because of two inherent flaws.  First, the presumption that a company is a collection of parts like a transmission that can be adjusted piece by piece and then reassembled; and second, because of a fundamental assumption that the pieces and processes were more important than the people who preformed the processes.  The authors of BPR tried to salvage their work by writing a follow-up book about what they had overlooked:  human motivations, values, and behaviors but by then companies had experienced inexplicable declines in productivity—that is, until they examined the human aspects of the instituted changes.

Some problems are best solved through the use of linear, sequential processes.  Fixing a production chain, proofreading a paper, and writing a manual are well-served by linear processes; but not systems problems.  Linear approaches to dealing with highly interconnected systems often compound problems, or are counterproductive.  Jim Roys’ effort to employ a “scoping document” to define the scope of BSD projects was theoretically a good idea, but it only exacerbated systemic problems in the agency because it surfaced systems problems.  Defining the scope of a software development project raised issues about the use of the software in the regions, compatibility with other systems like DAS’s, concerns about who was going to cover operation and maintenance costs, scalability and user-friendliness.  These issues are important to defining the scope a BSD project and required difficult conversations before a meaningful scoping document could be produced.  The nonlinearity of the issue of scope definition, because of the interconnectedness of systems and processes at DEQ, made scope management difficult.  The scoping document was a linear fix for a non-linear problem.  Its true utility could only be realized after addressing systemic issues—something we were starting to do in early summer.

Linear processes are more controllable, which is one of the reasons people apply them inappropriately.   From an academic perspective, it seems that the best way to operate is to check everything carefully and arrange tasks in the “right”sequential order, because another other way seems sloppy, inconsistent and undisciplined by comparison.  But the reality is complex human problems cannot be solved linearly.  Most of the time we are forced to make decisions based on incomplete information, because situations are so complex that it is impossible to work with complete information.  Linear thinking can get people into trouble because moving step by step without taking into account the whole scope of the interactive properties of a situation typically leads to failures often associated with unintended consequences.

Interconnecting parts functioning as a whole in a system.  By definition, a system is intrinsically changed by taking away, adding, or modifying aspects of it.  The essential properties of a collection of parts (a heap) are unchanged regardless of whether pieces are added to it, removed, or it is halved.  Systems are also sensitive to the arrangement of parts; heaps of parts are not.  Organizations are systems as are cultures.   They are resistant to change, but well focused and well-timed changes can have significant impacts.

The major problems being experienced in DEQ appear to be the unintended consequences of highly task-oriented, directive behaviors.  For example, being highly prescriptive and critical disables thinking and learning processes, which ultimately leads to a deficit in problem solving and innovation.  Interestingly, many of the “remedies” recently proposed by EMT involve more task-focused behavior.  More prescription, more detailed workplans, and more structured recruitment strategies.  The problems that confront DEQ are less about a lack of clarity about task as much as a lack of clarity about meaning and the effects of eroded relationships.  The recent contract negotiations seemed to highlight these issues.  They were remarkable in that most of what the unions wanted most could not be put into a contract because they had to do with relationship issues.  The union talked incessantly about how employees are treated, concerns about how and when managers communicate with employees, respect for employees as symbolized by prompt and complete access to information, employee participation in problem solving and decision making, et cetera.  Their concerns illustrate an important point, systems are about relationships; machines are about parts and measurements.

The conclusions of a summer of 2007 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled “Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams” are relevant here.  Although the article reported on the performance of internationally diverse teams, the knowledge acquired is applicable to DEQ.  International diversity should represent much greater differences than what DEQ would encounter, but the authors noted that moderate levels of diversity are more difficult to manage than large levels of diversity.  It reported that task-orientation early in the life of a diverse unit was effective.  They cited examples of task behaviors being the detailing of expectations about realistic performance, focusing on resource identification, and setting up schedules for coordinating efforts as being effective early in the formation of an organization.  But continuing to focus on task-oriented behavior once the group has started to form proved detrimental to performance.  It advised managers to learn when to switch to relationship building.  They explained that “if the team is to effective in the longer term, then the leader has to switch styles from task to relationship orientation.  If the leader fails to make this switch, the team will slowly become less effective…”

Systems thinking requires thinking in terms of relationships, feedback loops, and networks.  It requires mapping relationships and appreciating the principle of leverage, as well as, the power of timing.  Systems are remarkably resilient, but well-timed interventions at key points of leverage can shift them radically.  The concept of a “tipping point” comes from a knowledge of systems.

Creating systems that are capable of learning and transformation requires several conditions be met.  1. Memory:  good systems keep track of themselves.  This was one of the first things I noticed was wrong with DEQ systems.  They suffered from undocumented processes and a lack of recordkeeping.  This is not surprising in a system that is constantly putting out fires, since there is little time to record what had to be done to address the fires.  And there is little time for reflection and learning as you go off to the next fire.  2. Purpose:  the purpose of each system must be defined.  Parts of DEQ have expressed deep differences of opinion about the purpose of the agency.  Some managers think it is to enforce regulations as interpreted by prevailing political forces, others believe that it is to be the regulatory might behind stewardship of the environment; and there are probably many views between these positions.  Members of divisions, being human, also have a tendency to maximize their divisional interests at the expense of the whole organization—something that was evident in the demands placed upon MSD by other divisions.  Each division demands  resources and interacts with MSD in ways that meet its needs, but that limit the resources available to other divisions. 3. Rules:  the rules that the system operates from must be articulated.  There is an ad hoc quality to many of DEQ’s functions.  Again, this is probably the legacy of crisis-oriented management.  Under emergency conditions, whatever has to be done to make it through, is done.  Rules are secondary to accomplishing the mission.  This was clearly evident in past personnel practices.  Rules have to be devised with the full scope of the system in mind.   This includes knowledge of the total web of relationships within the system.  It means having the capacity to predict the consequences of various changes—and that comes from candid discussion and keen, unbiased observation.  It also means knowing which points should be informed with feedback, when and where t provide it, and what and where checks and balances should be introduced. 4. Continuous improvement:  keep revising the rules of the system to continuously improve operations. 5. Feedback:  systems may need monitoring and regulating.  Each system should have sources of feedback that let members know whether the system is meeting its goals.  Right now, the primary sources of feedback at DEQ come from its labor union and outside legislators.  6. Human behavior is part of the system:  good systems encourage people to act in the most positive and effective ways.  Systems that fail to do so are squandering their greatest and most vital resource.


Step 10  Get the Show on the Road


      Step 10 involves the actualization of the values underlying the steps in the organizational improvement process and the internalization of learning.  It is the culmination of all the steps and is where the excitement of involvement and the commitment to success are manifested, if all the previous steps were done well.  People should understand and support the vision, be actively transforming their culture, and helping build systems that meet their needs.

The details of their roles are not as important as helping them understand and support the picture of where the organization is going, ensuring that all members have directly or indirectly contributed to the plan for change, creating an inclusive and flexible change process, and inspiring members of the organization to play a meaningful part in the process of organizational improvement.  If all of these conditions are met, the organization will exhibit vitality and innovation; and as a consequence, be sustainable.  If any of the conditions do not exist, the longterm prospects of the organization functioning at a high level of performance will be in jeopardy.



Part II:  Outline of Benefits of Strategic Thinking and Organizational


Benefits of Strategic Thinking


nFacilitates proactive behavior

n Makes it possible to set the DEQ agenda internally

n Enables boundary setting

n Clearer objectives

n Clearer understanding of resource limitations

nEnables strategic discussion with EQC

nCreates potential for organizational change

n Reveals organizational needs

n Facilitates strategic planning and positioning


Addresses Burning Issues


nStrategic thinking necessarily addresses:

n Manager burnout

n More effective use of EMT

n Strategic information management

n Low employee morale

n Labor-management issues

n Continuous crisis-management

The Current Situation


nReacting to ill-structured problems

n Problems brought to attention of agency by powerful stakeholders or legislators

n Understanding of pressing problems

n Primarily from director and legislative liaison

–  Understand frame—real issues
–  Constituencies’ interests and sensitivities

n Effect:  Short circuits strategic thinking since it depends on critical analysis of situations

n Effect:  stakeholders frame issues and shape problem solving

–  Problem solving assigned in DEQ to politically saavy or with knowledge of prevailing frame
–  Sometimes clash between scientific frame and political?
n When yes, professional difference of opinion
n Staffers: feeling of disrespect, lack of control

n Effect: Forces managers to work on problems because know the frame or political sensitivities

–  Leads to manager burnout
–  Leads to knowledge worker dissatisfaction

Strategic Thinking & Management


nTraditional Management

n 2 objectives

n Integrating goals of individual with goals of organization

n Creating conditions where goal attainment can be efficiently and effectively achieved

n Strategic thinking leads to effective strategic planning thus providing context for effective management


Strategic Thinking Sets the Stage for:


n Longterm (LT) planning


n Setting goals and determining how to achieve over 5 –20 years


n Organizing


n Acquiring resources—human, financial, and technical to accomplish LT goals

n Arranging tasks, delegating responsibility and allocating resources


n Inspiring and empowering others



n Identifying gap between plan and performance

n Measuring and evaluating output




Part III  The Root of Management Issues at DEQ


The state of organizational health at DEQ is the product of the interaction of three major conditions:  a lack of emotional safety, a lack of communication, and a lack of clear boundaries.  The lack of emotional safety in DEQ is directly related to the lack of synchrony between its predominant management style, the characteristics of its workforce, and the nature of the problems that confront it.

All of these conditions seem to be systematic effects from efforts to give the agency direction and realign its staff.  At the end of the 1990s, the problems that the agency confronted were perplexing.  The consensus around environmental problems was falling apart as these problems became more complex and less conspicuous, thereby raising issues about the balance between environmental activism and individual and collective prerogatives.  About the time, political forces allied with industry mobilized, partially in response to a poor economy, and started to assert their demands for regulatory restraint and a customer service orientation in state agencies through legislative action.  Other special interest groups also pressured government to act, according to their interests.  Environmental groups continued to use public opinion and the courts, while their adversaries continued to gain political strength.  The effects of external forces pressing DEQ for acquiescence to their agendas and the appearance of an unfocused agenda as divisions operated according to the dictates of their professional training, seems to have been the appearance of a lack of coherence from a “lack of leadership.”

The current director was able to use her knowledge of the legislative process, personal connections, and political skills to establish a regulatory agenda and priorities that was politically feasible.  This approach, however, was a top–down approach to management in which the director and legislative leaders framed issues and the range of acceptable responses, and the director directed executives to direct the next tier of managers to find solutions within those boundaries.  Information about the frame was often not readily available, even to executives, and subordinate managers often found themselves in a “wrong rock” exercise.  More problematic than experiencing burnout from constantly revising “solutions” in which their staffs may not have felt ownership (partially because they were not privy to critical information that might have been persuasive), was the fear of punishment for not pursing the right management goals or proposals.  As administrators and senior managers were removed from salient positions without meaningful communication about the causes for such actions, the emotional safety of the organization plummeted.  Only those people with political connections were in a place to be able to understand the context that was shaping decisions, and most technical specialists and middle managers were insulated from those types of contacts.

While the top-down, autocratic style of management made sense in the early years of the millennium, as environmental professionals acclimated to the political and regulatory environment in which they were operating, it became more corrosive with time.  Initially it gave the organization a sense of direction, and allowed the staff to acquire an understanding of the nature of the problems they were confronting as well as the interests and positions of key stakeholders.  But as staff improved its understanding of the issues and concerns, it expected to regain its position as the framers of problems and the generators of solutions.  These functions are customary among knowledge workers.  When this did not occur, and efforts to assert professional expertise were rebuffed, job satisfaction began to decline.  Eventually, a perceived lack of respect became an issue that fueled arguments about the “glidepath,” participation in problem solving and decision making ultimately evolved into disputes about professional differences of opinion and a host of union issues with the same recurring theme—a belief that management is not concerned about the plight of nonmanagement employees and that this is reflected in a lack of participation in things that matter (physical work environment, work climate, and professional decision making) to the staff.

Effective communication is critical to the health of an organization confronted with complex, ill-structured problems.  Communication is the means by which people learn about problems and it is critical when working on problems that are by definition defined by stakeholders.  It is also the way that people learn, both in terms of problem solving and in terms of professional growth.  In problem solving, it takes the form of participation to help frame issues, to gather information and hear concerns, to evaluate standards, and to monitor the effects of actions taken.

Communication with regard to professional growth takes the form of communication about the nature of problems and feedback about the individual’s specific actions from managers and colleagues.  DEQ seems to provide feedback in one of two ways—both of which diminish safety and reduce the prospects for reflection.  The first is knee-jerk, blistering feedback without serious consideration of a proposal; and the second, is indirect feedback, often negative, that precedes an ambush of some sort.  The ambush could be a sudden removal from a project or job, or a dressing down that leaves a person in the proverbial doghouse.  Both of these forms of feedback diminish emotional safety and job satisfaction. 

A lack of effective communications necessarily leads to conflict.  This is particularly important in dealing with the uncertainty inherent in dealing with wicked or ill-structured problems.  Matrixed organizations can manifest a tremendous amount of lateral and vertical conflict because of the intertwining of vertical and lateral relationships.  Of the possible coping strategies for dealing with conflict, DEQ seems to practice conflict avoidance the most commonly.  People complain, but not directly.

Managers at DEQ tend to employ administrative change strategies.   These strategies rearrange authority relationships or redefine responsibilities toward the goal of eliminating or controlling destructive conflict.  Managers present conflicts to the executives, in part, because of their lack of information and safety.  This provides the “winner” with the opportunity to suppress the conflict.  In this situation, managers commonly point to “communication” problems or unfortunate misunderstandings that should not be allowed to disrupt friendly relations.  The problem here is that smoothing over the real conflict will not work.  Task performance will suffer or the conflict will increase or both.

Inherent to both the administrative or conflict avoidance change strategies is a view of conflict as unhealthy and all efforts are directed at suppression, elimination or containment.  This view of conflict seems to permeate the highest levels of management at DEQ.

Boundary management is a huge issue at DEQ.  It is a matrixed organization, an arrangement first developed in the aerospace industry when projects required both diverse state-of-the-art expertise and focused efforts on each project.  In a matrix, people have tow or more formal location on an organizational chart.  This organizational model is intended to provide maximum flexibility as it can expand or shrink with need.  When operating effectively, it also provides multiple career paths, rewarding both specialized and integrative skills.  The tradeoff for this flexibility, in even the best of matrixed organizations, is what is sometimes referred to as “human limitation.”  It requires enhanced communication and conflict management skills.  Both of these activities are time consuming, since an effective matrixed organization requires two budget lines, contracts with two bosses, dual reward systems, etc.  These mechanisms are very expensive to maintain as they impose high transaction costs.  There has to be a great deal of communication to coordinate the actions of people in a matrix.  Autocratic leadership, in the form of highly prescriptive instructions and constrained information flows, counteract the major advantages offered by a matrixed organization—flexibility and innovation.

Traditionally, in matrixed organizations, people must discover or invent new procedures and norms.  This is difficult and seems justified when the stakes are high.  The advantages of a matrixed organization are local innovation and discover within the context of the overall goals of the organization.  The structure is sabotaged by a lack of safety—a condition that stifles learning and innovation, and is inhibited by a lack of candid and real-time communication.

Interestingly, one of the most problematic aspects of DEQ management is its focus on the group as opposed to the individual.  This focus is normally associated with militaristic or industrial organizations, or organizations under siege.  Under these conditions, it is natural to place the mission over the individual.  This perspective is atypical in most modern knowledge work organizations such as DEQ.  Knowledge work organizations tend to place emphasis on individuals out of respect for their specialized knowledge and skills.  Many of the complaints articulated by the union, have at their core, resentment for the lack of appreciation of the individual at DEQ.

Organizational development at DEQ focuses on groups and tasks.  Consequently, fixes tend to be technostructural changes, survey feedback, team-building sessions, and intergroup activities.  There is, however, growing pressure for attention to group processes.  A lack of resources to accomplish critical tasks, the need for succession or transition planning, and recognized deficits in current processes and procedures are highlighting the need for process improvement.  These efforts will, however, reduce managerial discretion and potentially put more power in the hands of specialists once again.

DEQ management may have to consciously confront an important fact about science-based professional work.  It cannot be managed like product-based work.  It is critical for managers to learn to exercise situational leadership.  This form of leadership considers the individual’s readiness to accomplish a task in terms of ability and willingness to determine the type of task and relationship behaviors s/he needs to employ with that employee.

Science-based professionals learn a rigorous scientific discipline as the “content” of their training.  The “process”—not explicit—inculcates a value for autonomous decision making, personal achievement, and the importance of improving their own performance, rather than that of nay institution.

As a consequence, most technical specialists identify much less with a specific institution and more with the culture of their profession.  Their cultures constitute a set of values, skills, and knowledge quite independent of any work setting.  The rewards of major significance to them—respect, reputation–may come more from this larger arena than from their institutional affiliation.  At DEQ, congruence with the environmental ethos seemingly measured by environmental results is a primary reward.

DEQ manifests two types of major boundary problems.  It displays either enmeshed or walled boundaries.  Enmeshment is the term used to describe the violation of ego boundaries.  When managers interfere with specialists’ efforts to do problem solving in their areas of expertise and within the scope of their work, what is often happening is a form of enmeshment.  The perception that management is overrunning the boundaries of the specialist diminishes the specialist’s notion of personal safety and self-worth.  Such actions are perceived to deny professionals the rights and privileges supposedly granted to them by their credentials.  When autonomy is low and accountability is high in a punitive work environment, job satisfaction and morale decline precipitously.  Self-esteem also declines as people feel that the intervention of management (in this case) undermines their competence and denies them the opportunity to achieve mastery.

Enmeshment often takes the form of the subordination of personal needs to those of the group.  There are times, especially during emergencies, when this is a reasonable strategy.  It, however, is not a sustainable strategy, especially among knowledge workers.  DEQ employees have given up pay increases, control of technical issues that they felt were within their scope of duties, and, in some cases, their professional identities to continue to work for DEQ, but many have found the price too great to pay.  The cumulative effects of all these perceived assaults on their welfare were too much to endure for many of the best performers.  These have moved on to lucrative work in consulting firms or other governmental agencies.  Many have cited politically palatable reasons for their departure—low pay or managerial impotence, but in-depth interviews with some of them have revealed the constellation of issues cited above and the subsequent decline in job satisfaction.

Another aspect of poor boundary management tied to enmeshment at DEQ has to do with diffused responsibility.  The lines of demarcation within the matrixed organization that is DEQ are not clear.  When parts of the matrix are not in harmony, problems are pushed up to the executive level.  Few members of the executive team feel free to assert their individual opinions for fear of not being in agreement with the director, so they try hard to avoid conflict.  Ultimately, this leaves the director in the position of telling the executives the answer, which annoys her.  But she seems oblivious of her influence on the way they engage conflict. 

Managers use the lack of clarity regarding boundaries to avoid responsibility and accountability.  It is the excuse for meddling in others’ domains, and is often used as a means to diffuse accountability.

The other extreme of boundary problems is walled boundaries.  In parts of DEQ, the boundaries are so thick that they diminish critical social interaction (one of the primary ways that a system learns how to deal with complexity) and the distribution of information.  These boundaries can be seen in hierarchy of the system, but also in some dealings among members of teams.  There are executives who have admonished staff members for talking about issues with others before telling them about them, or have imposed barrier to communication among workers and with stakeholders.




Universal Damaging Effects of Fear


The single root cause for all confusion and lack of commitment  found in most companies is fear.  And where there’s fear of repercussions, there almost certainly has to be crippling fear of accountability.  Fear also exacerbates conflict and produces high levels of stress and anxiety.

Fear carries a very high price tag.  Quality guru, W. Edwards Deming, used to say, “The first principle is to drive out fear.”  When people are dominated by fear, they don’t think well, their decisions are poor, and they certainly don’t have a valid picture of where the company is headed—or should be headed.


Don’t Leave Out the Human Factor


Knowledge worker organizations are not machines.  Organizations might have been able to ignore the human factor in a factory environment, but they can’t in a knowledge worker environment.  When people were “hired hands,” what they thought was not important.  Managers could see the product of their work and they could easily evaluate and manage the output.  In knowledge work agencies, managers do not necessarily know more than the worker—in fact, they rarely do.  The problems that their staffs are confronting are typically qualitatively different that the ones they worked on because of technological advances, rising levels of sophistication and power among interest groups, and the overall complexity of environmental problems.

Traditional project management presumes knowledge pre-existing knowledge of the product, which is not the case in complex knowledge work.  There are no established or generally agreed upon standards, half the time establishing standards is the main issue.  Second, costs are hard to characterize.  Third, the timeframe for resolving the problem is difficult to set, if it is possible to do so at all.  Consequently, the two primary means of structuring work using project management —defining schedules and budget, are not available to the project manager.  The main activity of the project manager, controlling, is also very difficult to do.  Controlling is essentially closing gaps identified through  gap analysis.  But how do you do a gap analysis when there is no agreement about the planned performance and it is extraordinarily difficult to determine current performance?

The people who do the work are the most important people in the Knowledge Work system.  They get the work done.  In the old system, it was the manager.  The challenge is to recognize that work gets done better, in a more timely fashion, and more efficiently, if you care about the people who do it.


When Fear is Justified


When an organization is grappling with high uncertainty and people are fearless, there is a need to impose discipline and orient and coordinate efforts.  This can be accomplished by increasing the level of accountability in the system.  But that accountability needs to include clear communication and the setting of known standards.  Meeting this criterion is difficult when the drive for change is coming from outside of the organization and is political in origin.  The evaluation criteria, from the perspective of the front line, seem to change capriciously.

Accountability without clarity of requirements coupled with poor feedback is perceived as unfair by employees.  But perhaps more important, they are a recipe for producing fear and eroding trust.  The immediate effect of this is the “turtle syndrome” (people don’t stick their necks out), which is associated with a lack of innovative thinking and communication.  Eventually, a lack of trust starts to permeate the workforce and morale plummets.


Some People Just Hate to Change

People operating in fear don’t change.  They may know what they have to do, but they are too terrified to move.  Sometimes they are afraid to change because they are not sure that they will be able to adjust to the new order, or they fear that they will have to work harder.  Whatever the case, they are motivated to resist real progress, while seeming all the while to promote it.  They sometimes do not realize that to enforcing current modes of behavior can only result in reinforcing the current state of affairs.  This seems to be the case at DEQ.

Habits bred from fear are very hard to break, even when they want to break them.  These habits have ensured survival and people are loathe to abandon strategies that maintain their existence.  Just as people who have been starved must be fed a carefully supervised diet in order to recover, so people who feel that they have always been manipulated will take a long time to trust a management that’s decided to change 180 degrees.


The Insidious Effect of Denial


Management insists things are fine (except of course, that the workers aren’t any good and you can’t hire effective labor anymore). The answer is, you’ve got to care about your job before you can be persuaded to make positive changes.  Until then, your mind will be focused almost entirely on the time card you’re punching.

While managers are deprecating their employee’s efforts, workers privately complain and sometimes even express their discontent to outsiders or union activists.  Until the executives read the handwriting on the wall and decide it’s time to develop a clear picture of how employees feel and how current management is affecting them, there’s almost no hope of diverting the organization’s collision course with disaster.

Management typically keeps moving along.  Thinking that measuring and enforcing will improve productivity without regard for the workers.  They deliver self-congratulatory pep talks, do employee surveys without following through on the results, and generate empty corporate vision and mission statements.  These half measures only worsen the situation, underscoring as they do the disparity between what should be and what is.


What Shall We Do About management


If you’re in charge, assume what you are currently doing may have been what was needed to set the ship on the right course in an emergency situation, but that it is not sustainable.   The crew cannot continue to indefinitely take orders without an understanding of the ship’s bearing, continuously put out fires, and working selflessly in the face of dwindling job satisfaction from a perceived loss of autonomy and mastery..

The people in charge must now take measure of the state of the crew.  They may have to realize that the exodus of highly skilled and desirable employees, the decline in the performance of some at one-time “high fliers,” and the general malaise in the organization may be the price for running the people at full throttle indefinitely.  It is important to realize that current management strategies may be stifling or intimidating the people working for you.  This realization can be difficult because a great many workers choose to take offense at things managers do without ever airing their grievances.  Instead they either “vote with their feet,” or carry a chip on their shoulder that may last for months and years.  This chip can motivate them to make mountains out of mole hills or become highly agitated over problems that they perceive to be legitimate such as “sick building syndrome,” questionable new security practices initiated unilaterally by management, or the consequences of fires, et cetera.

The water quality program seems to have come to this realization, but not without a great deal of turmoil and threatened union action.  At some point managers have to move from task-oriented behaviors to relationship-oriented behaviors to prevent a decline in performance.  This is one of the main findings in an article in the summer 2007 edition of the MIT Sloan Management journal.

In cases like this, people are afraid to tell executives and managers what they have done to offend them.  This may mean that it may be necessary to hire a consultant to discover what is really going on.  It is important to pick someone who will help the executive group learn what is necessary to communicate skills to tell each other how they feel about what is happening.  To initiate real communication, you’re going to have to get rid of hidden agendas—and even the perception that there might be hidden agendas.






Taking Responsibility


Improvement itself is never the real difficulty.  Once individuals recognize and agree on their position, it is never difficult to improve.  The unfortunate part is that very few of us own up.

Habits of blame and self-justification only increase the paranoia within organizations.  Together they become a negative force that can undermine the whole working environment.


Organizational Accountability


True accountability takes commitment.  It is the result of a long series of experiences in which you learn to accept reality and come to understand clearly what role you play in its creation.

Accountability of this sort is often not possible without some record keeping, because you don’t really notice what you’re doing otherwise. A clever physician was able to change a person’s dietary habits without ever giving them direct instructions.  All he asked the person to do was to keep a record of what he ate for a week.  The patient carried a notebook and wrote down what he ate.  He recorded every snack; every cookie, handful of potato chips, and pieces of candy he had during the week.  At the end of the week he had formed a completely different picture of his eating habits than the one he’d had before.  He started to think about what he could do to change his eating habits.  The experience of record keeping was, in this case, enough to get across what the physician had been trying to tell him.

Keeping track of what really goes on will reveal that good intentions are simply not good enough.  In order to get the job done properly, you have to notice every aspect of the process.  This is the reason why organizational development starts with good process and systems analysis.  The Management Services Division (MSD) recently hired a business analyst to ensure that a serious assessment of the work processes in Human Resources and Business Systems Development would occur.  Additionally, the customer service approach to working with Business Systems Development (BSD) could not only make the expectations of customers more realistic, but also create impetus for the customer to improve their own level of satisfaction by doing things that facilitate effective service delivery.  The ensuing agreements should also provide impetus for changes in the configuration of service delivery within BSD.

People need to start to ask questions like, “what am I doing to limit the success of the organization?”  But most people would prefer to pretend that the whole thing is the fault of some individual in control, the whole group, or the system itself.


Orchestras and Soccer Teams


An orchestra or sports team must depend on the performance of the entire group, not just isolated individuals to succeed.  Individuals, in order to succeed, must share and preserve the mindset, knowledge, skills, and attitudes (culture) of the organization even as other individuals come and go.  As individuals become functioning participants in a group, they internalize the culture and give it life.

Right now, at DEQ, there appear to be two distinct cultures.  At the top, there is an understanding of the policies, goals, and objectives of the organization that the rest of the organization is not fully aware of, as attested to by the comments of the union that represents the employees.  It sees policies but has stated that it does not see the connection between espoused values and the actions being taken.

The second culture is that of rank and file.  It is primarily composed of technical people that try to uphold interests in environmental stewardship and regulatory processes.  Among them are also employees a substantial group of silent employees who get along by going along.

This situation seems to be the natural result of the legislature-focused model of management that has existed at DEQ for the past seven years.  The top of the organization understands the political context that a policy is operating in, and thus how to frame a decision and what actions are preferred.  The rank and file technicians operating without the benefit of these insights make sense of the situation according to a limited body of knowledge and their environmental ethos.  Using these factors to assess situations and make decisions about actions tends to put them at odds with the prevailing power structure and leads to confusion, generate feelings of impotence, and ultimately leads to professional differences of opinion in some cases.


We Might Be Looking in the Wrong Place


If change is to occur in DEQ, individuals must change.  A winning team starts with the behavior of the CEO.  Roger Milliken, the CEO of Roger Milliken & Co.  Inc. at the company’s annual quality meeting, raised his right hand, asked his 30 managers to raise theirs, and said, “Repeat after me:  I will listen.  I will not shoot the messenger.  I recognize that management is the problem.”



Appendix:  The Words of Others


Good Managers are All Different and All Alike


So a good manager need not make things happen, and probably shouldn’t.  What a good manager should do is what a good mother does:  Be there, listen, advise, coach, teach, and believe very deeply that your people are capable of excellence…. Believe in the high quality of your people, and believe in the brilliance of the result they can achieve.  Let them know you believe it.  Then they will give it to you.


The commitment of top management to change everything for the better is necessary in order that a new kind of management can set the standard for change in everyone else.  Only if top management sets the example of change will everyone else be inspired to follow.  In addition, the change from the top must be real and believable, or the entire organization will dismiss it as hollow and superficial.


The old style of management, with its pyramid of power ascending to a single, all-powerful CEO, is yielding to the new dynamics of shared power, teamwork, flattened organizations, and peer review.


If you’re running a sweatshop or an old style production line, it may not be good manners, but it is good business to push people around and make them conform.  However, as high tech industries develop, such attitudes get in the way and greatly diminish the effectiveness of business.




The Power of Chaos
Excerpts from a conversation with
Meg Wheatley

by Joe Flower


About one lifetime ago, astronomer and physicist J.B.S. Haldane remarked, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.”

In recent years, science has begun to turn itself inside out in fascinating investigations of that basic strangeness of the universe. Since its very beginnings, one of the basic assumptions of science has been a deterministic, clockwork-like model of the universe. Nature was obviously more complex than the straight lines and simple forces of Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics — but eventually (it was assumed), if we got enough information together, and got down to the right level of detail, we would find that everything was predictable.

In the first half of this century, quantum mechanics (which held, among other things, that whether light is made of particles or waves depends on what question you ask), Kurt Gödel’s principle of incompleteness (which demonstrated that every mathematical system contains theorems that are true — but unprovable without enlarging the system), and Werner Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty (which held that you can discover the speed of an atomic particle, or its location — but not both at once), began to chip away at this deterministic assumption.

Systems thinking, which arose out of studies of communication in World War II, greatly increased our ability to think about how complex, active, interactive systems work, but it remained weakest in dealing with “mess,” turbulence, and traumatic change.

How do things fall apart?
And then what happens?

How do things fall apart? And then what happens?

Some of the people working on communications theory focused not on the message, but on the garbage in between — the static. Others began thinking about dripping faucets, clouds, coastlines, and the formation of bubbles in water that was about to boil. Just as systems theory, born in communications theory, proved helpful in dealing with all sorts of things, from organizations and family interactions to economic problems and the design of lawnmowers, perhaps a study of turbulance and chaos would be relevant to such messy things as landslides, rush-hour traffic, epileptic seizures, and organizations going through traumatic change.

The resulting “chaos theory” has hit its stride only in the past decade — and only now is it beginning to leak into other applications, as theorists begin to apply its insights to discontinuous, transforming change in a great many fields. At the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, historian Robert Artigiani has even applied it to analyses of the the U.S. Constitution, the rise and fall of Greek civilization, and the success of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar.

Meg Wheatley, Ed.D., has begun to try chaos theory in a field that has intimate experience with the realities of chaos: the management of organizations. With a doctorate from Harvard and a masters from New York University, Wheatley began her consulting career as a founding member of Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s firm, Goodmeasure, Inc. Wheatley is now an associate professor of management at Brigham Young University, and a principal in KRW, Inc. Industry Week named her book, Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe “Best Management Book of 1992.” She is founder and president of the Berkana Institute, which sponsors an ongoing series of dialogues about the “new science,” and how it applies to re-thinking the life of organizations.

Our conversation with her took a shape much like the organizational changes that so fascinate her: nonlinear, surprising, and self-organizing.


There is a simpler way to lead organizations.

In order to find that simpler way we need to look for very different lenses by which to see into the organization. Until now, our predominant lens has been the lens that sees organizations as machines, and human beings as machines or parts of machines — which is all good 17th century Newtonian imagery.

When you switch to thinking about organizations as complex living systems, you get to see a lot of processes that could work in your behalf, as a leader. We can take our management metaphor, not from machines, but from the ways living systems organize and reorganize and manage themselves.

At one level we are already switching our focus to a deeper understanding of organizations as living systems. If you look at the language by which we are now trying to describe organizations, a lot of it describes living systems. We talk about “learning organizations.” We are looking for resiliency, for dynamic qualities. We are looking more at relationships and how relationships work in organizations.


Once we make that switch then we have to start looking at the processes by which living systems grow and thrive. And one of those is a periodic plunge into the darker forces of chaos. Chaos seems to be a critical part of the process by which living systems constantly re-create themselves in their environment.

We have been afraid. As managers and leaders, and as consultants, we have been terrified of chaos. Whenever a group is confused, whenever people are really uncomfortable not knowing what to do, most of us take that as a signal that we have failed them somehow. The model we have is that organizations should work smoothly, that we as leaders should feel in control all the time. Chaos, of course, is a loss of control. So the minute chaos erupts, we back off from it. We rush in to save the group from confusion.

We tend to think that is our job. But that’s only true if you think of your organization as a machine, because machines cannot tolerate great variance. Machines are established to run in certain environments. They have no flexibility or resiliency to deal with extraordinary levels of change. If you think of an organization as a living system then hopefully you can structure it so that it has the capacity for great flexibility and resiliency, and the ability to adapt, to change, and to grow.


We can’t get out of the messes we are in without developing a much longer time parameter, without having a new kind of patience for the development of order. Strange attractors reveal the order that is inherent in certain kinds of chaotic systems. You can’t see that order until you are able to watch the system evolve over a good period of time. When you look moment to moment at a system in chaos, all you see is chaos, total unpredictability. When you are able to watch the system develop over time, you can see the order that emerges out of the chaos.

T.J. Cartwright, a planning expert, has given a definition of chaos that I love: “order without predictability.” This is a very enticing paradox for us.

Yet in today’s organizations we are seeking more and more control as things get more and more crazy. You can ask any top leader or administrator that you know and they will tell you that they are barely hanging on. It is a sign of health for a leader now to admit that he or she does not know what works. In admitting that the old approaches don’t work, they are opening themselves up to the possiblity of radically different ways of thinking about their organizations.

No cookie cutters:

I got in trouble with my academic colleagues recently when I was quoted as saying, “The idea that expertise can be transmitted needs to be abandoned.” They said “Then why have graduate programs?” I was trying to say that the belief that any particular model or any particular body of knowledge transfers whole from one system to another is erroneous. Knowledge, models, and expertise are co-created by thinking people working in and with their environment. Since that environment is different for every organization, it doesn’t work to take something that has been developed in one place and just transfer it wholesale to another place.

We have tried that. We have tried it with program after program, and we have generated a well-earned cynicism among our work force as they watch these programs come and go without creating the desired change. We have to do something different. We have to engage the whole system of the organization in figuring out what makes sense for that particular system.

The answers, the expertise, need to be created by the system that needs the expertise. Certainly, some people have expert knowledge, but the way to use that knowledge, these days, is to give people particular frameworks and ideas to play with — realizing that as they play with them they are creating new knowledge. They are not taking something that’s tried and true and just applying it in cookie-cutter fashion. If they are making it work, they are creating new knowledge.


I use the word “chaos” to describe those times in an organization when people are confused, don’t know what to do, and feel overwhelmed by information that they can’t make sense of. If we recognize chaos as a potentially generative force in our organization, then the first task, when chaos erupts, is not to shut it down, not to reach for early closure, not to immediately move back to our past comfort level. At those moments, what people do not need is for someone else to come in and make sense of it all for them. Nor do they need the other normal strategy, which is to back away from all of this information and just work a piece of it. What they need instead are processes by which they can stay with the discomfort of that information long enough that they get knocked off their certainty, long enough for them to reach the clarity that they no longer know what works, that their model, their frame for organizing this problem or this organization doesn’t work any more.

That’s what I call chaos, when people move into such deep confusion that they let go of their present conceptions of how to solve a problem. When they move into that place of not knowing, and stay there for a while, what happens is that the process of “self organization” kicks in.

Living systems, when confronted with change, have the capacity to fall apart so that they can reorganize themselves to be better adapted to their current environment. We always knew that things fell apart, we didn’t know that organisms have the capacity to reorganize, to self-organize. We didn’t know this until the Noble-Prize-winning work of Ilya Prigogine in the late 1970’s.

You can’t self-organize,
you can’t transform,
you can’t get to bold new answers
unless you are willing
to move into that place
of confusion and not-knowing
which I call chaos.

But you can’t self-organize, you can’t transform, you can’t get to bold new answers unless you are willing to move into that place of confusion and not-knowing which I call chaos.

In my work I find that you can create intentional chaos by overloading people with important and relevant information that they can’t make sense of.

We help people generate information that finally overwhelms them. The information has to be relevant, and it has to be important. It has to deal with big questions.

People get scared and frustrated, and they want to problem-solve their way out of the chaos. But we don’t let them. We keep them generating even more information. Finally they let go. Once they let go, they have the capacity to come up with bold solutions that integrate all of the information. At the other side of chaos you get a new kind of order, an order that is adaptive, that is transforming, that is all the things we want in an organization to be.

That is an intentional use of chaos. The chaos that seems rampant in our organizations today needs to be resolved in the same way. When people are feeling confused and overwhelmed, instead of shutting down information, we need to create more processes for looking at the information, and even generating even more information.

Information, in organizations, is usually handled with an attitude of control and parsimony. But when we do that, we are taking information, which is the vital organizing force of the universe, and using it in a way that creates more loss of control.

We need organizations in which information is open and abundant, in which information that is relevant to the life of the organization is just there for people to use as they require. You get order through creating information and making it available. That is an enormously paradoxical concept for managers who have been trained to see information as power, as something that has to be carefully controlled and conserved and fed to people in little doses.

The science of self organizing systems says that if you want order you need a free flow of information, because information is what living systems use to transform themselves.

“Who are we?”

In order to make sense of this information, an organization needs a strong core identity that is clear to everyone involved. It needs filters that help people recognize information that is critical for the organization. We have not attended seriously enough, yet, to issues of the identity and purpose of organizations. We talk about values, visions, and missions. I am starting to talk about the core identity.

“Why does this organization exist? What is its purpose? What is it trying to achieve? Why do we bother working together?” These questions need to be answered. The answers need to come out of the whole organization.

We need to have processes in which the whole organization is engaged in weaving its story.

An organization needs to know who it is in order to make sense of a chaotic environment. Otherwise you are just buffeted in all different directions. We need to do much more work in organizations in making a really vibrant core, the core values.

One of the lessons we can learn from the new science is that once you have formed a strong core identity you can then trust people to organize their own behavior around that identity, instead of organizing by policies and procedures. The behavior will look very different from person to person. And that will be okay, because (and this is one of the great lessons of chaos) you then stand back and look, not at those individual behaviors but at the pattern. Then you will be able to see the true pattern of the organization.


This can be very scary for managers. It asks them to act like adults, and to believe that they have adults working for them. Not everyone will be able to do this. Some American managers will be able to behave like adults and change their life posture. Some of them won’t.

Those who don’t, who are already leading lives of increasing stress, will simply not be able to survive, either professionally or in their personal lives.

I don’t think we have a choice. And I don’t believe that we will find a simpler way to lead complex organizations just by doing the old approaches faster and better.

There is a simpler way to manage, and it feels very strange, even foreign to us. But time and stress are on the side of change. We simply can’t keep doing it the way we have been doing it.


As managers and as consultants, we have always been interested in that big question: how do you motivate people. But the real answer is simple — you don’t. Instead, you trust that they are self organizing systems who come with their own desire to thrive. They will make adjustments and do what is necessary for them to flourish. In an organization, you don’t have to “incentify” anybody. You have to create the conditions under which they can thrive.

Among the things that human beings naturally seek are the ability to contribute and to make a difference, and to be ability to be involved in satisfying social relationships. Those criteria show up at the top of every study I have ever looked at on why people work. If you design your organization around these criteria, it will have to be one in which people are not boxed into roles, in which they feel that they can continue to grow, learn, and develop, and in which a variety of relationships are available to them.

When you box people in, when you see only a few of their attributes, you kill them. Then, in order to make them work, you start adding on all of these incentive programs and other external motivators. The pay and incentive system could be much simpler. People do not need these intricate structures. The reason they need them now is that we don’t allow them to work in an environment which satisfies them. We need to be more creative than that.

Once we’ve created organizations which really support people’s contributions, then I don’t think people are looking for complex rewards. I think they are looking for straightforward pay that feels fair. They are looking for pay that reflects their contribution (or their team’s contribution) to the whole.

Just as this is scary for managers to use the energy of chaos, and to survive without so much structure, it’s also scary for the people being managed, until they experience it. It’s a little less scary the second time. By the third, fourth, or fifth time that you have been through a process which includes chaos and letting go, you realize that this works and that it has enormous potential.

I recently completed work with an organization that decided to engage all 900 of its employees in creating a vision. The process was messy and ambiguous. It was a process that did not allow anyone to nail down a vision for anybody else. We finally got to a place where a lot of people in the organization understood that even vision is a process. That they don’t need to have something clearly written down. That, having gone through the process of working together, and illuminating what they wanted the vision to be, the vision is in their guts, in their hearts. They don’t need it up on a wall.

To get to that point of clarity — that vision itself is a process — they went through a series of very large conferences which included moments of deep, intentional chaos, and on-going periods in which we simply would not let people become concrete. They didn’t like it at all. But they liked what they got. They liked where it ended up. Now they have a little faith in this very different process.

Play and laughter

People have to be more playful. Once we accept the fact that we can’t just import solutions that will work for our own organization, that we have to make it up, then we have to ask, “What are the circumstances that help people be thoughtful and creative, that help them come up with answers that work?”

What helps people be creative is experimentation — seeing what works by doing it. We need to create an atmosphere in which experimentation is welcome, and that means an atmosphere in which we don’t take everything so incredibly seriously. We need to be much more forgiving, we need to be much more compassionate, we need to be in deeper relationships with one another.

Play is a quality that leads to good experimentation. Sometimes that means not having the answer right away. We need to realize that it’s okay to say “That’s interesting, I don’t know the answer, let’s just think about it. Let’s play with it for awhile.”

One plays by not killing people for making mistakes, and by going back to some vague memory that work should be fun, that when work is fun, it can still be very hard, but it has a whole different quality to it.

We need more laughter in management. Lewis Thomas explains that he could tell something important was going on in an experimental laboratory by the laughter. He says, “Whenever you can hear laughter, and somebody saying, `But that’s preposterous‘ — you can tell things are going well and that something probably worth looking at has begun to happen in the lab.”

Contrast that to the sort of quintessential management maxim, which is, “Don’t surprise me. I want to know ahead of time, I can’t be caught looking like I didn’t know what was going on everywhere in the organization.” That’s an incredibly restrictive maxim. It insures that you will stay exactly where you are.

All this process

People ask how we can possibly do all this process at the very time that we are trying to be more nimble. But how can we possibly be more nimble if we are not willing to engage all the time — thinking together, figuring things out, coming up with solutions that work for a while, that are temporarily adaptive?

We tend to think of process as a “touchy feely” thing. In fact, quantum physics says that process is the basic building block of the whole universe. The universe is energy fields coming into relationship with one another, forming something temporarily.


Information only has value when it is in relationship to the current need. And the current need is forever changing.

This notion of life as a fluid, as a changing process, needs to get imbedded in our organizational thinking. We have failed in things like quality in this country by failing to see that what makes the quality process work is the attention to process itself, to the fact of people being in new relationships in which they are generating new and useful information. Instead we have thought of quality management as a technique or a tool. That is why so many of these processes have failed — we see them as a technique to get to a particular outcome, rather than a way of building a quality of relationships that generates critical information continually.

Of course, this greatly affects the way you do your planning. You can’t do simple cause and effect linear projections anymore. But you can set a very clear direction in which you intend to go. You can set a clear intention about the kinds of markets in which you believe your core skills work best.

You probably will not get there exactly, but the process of trying to create probabilities about what the organization and its environment can achieve together is very important. We need to create, as part of the planning function, much better information-sensing devices, generating information that then gets fed to all parts of the organization, so that the organization can continuously adapt and change as that information requires. That’s different from saying, “This our five-year plan.”

You can still say, “In five years, this is who we want to be, who we want to be serving, what markets we’ll be in, what will characterize us and what will make us different.”

Focusing on a strategy is critical. But the question is: Who gets to do it? If the 12 top managers come up with a brilliant strategy, the rest of the organization is going to say, “So what? We already know this.”

All of us who have worked with this know from our experience that we get a lot of “So whats” if people are not involved. Even things like the strategy of the organization should come from the organization. You can’t “self-organize” from the outside. You can’t have 12 people decide how a whole group of a thousand or 20 thousand should self-organize.

Creating meaning

We need to find processes by which we can engage the whole system in developing its future, creating meaning, creating purpose, creating clarity about what it is that we are capable of accomplishing as an entity.

The guys who sweep the halls will have something to say about it, and so will the customers and the suppliers — all of the stakeholders. There is a great deal of talent and expertise available both within our organizations and in those outside stakeholders, that we just need to start using.

I don’t work with any processes now that start with the assumption that a few people can design something that will be of benefit for the rest of the organization. Only the organization itself can design the processes and outcomes of which it is capable. So the real challenge is creating these processes that engage greater and greater numbers of the organization. That is a real challenge, it is a fundamental rethinking of leadership, but I think it is the right challenge to be involved with.

People are open to the challenge because of their own loss of confidence in what they have done in the past. And, at some deeper level, they know that this stuff makes sense because we are all of us self-organizing systems. People recognize it from their own experience of life.

We already have a lot of examples of the principles that come from this new science at work in successful organizations. We just haven’t had the language to talk about, and the lens to look at, what was making sense.

They have seemed to be the exceptions, the sort of odd things that shouldn’t work. But now, instead of being the exceptions or the oddballs, we can see that they are the forerunners of a whole new way of working.


Strange attractor: Think of a planet’s orbit. The dynamics of the solar system — the interaction of the planet’s mass and speed with the mass of the sun — cause the planet to act as though it is “attracted” to a particular line in space, which we call its orbit. In this simple, mechanical, deterministic system, it’s not hard to plot where the planet will be tomorrow or 15 years from now. On the other hand, think of the movement of clouds, the growth of trees, the swirling motion of a liquid. These systems seem “chaotic,” without any predictability. But in fact, theorists of chaotic systems have discovered that they also have “attractors” akin to a planet’s orbit; that is, their movements have an internal structure. When various measurements of their movements are plotted onto two- or three-dimensional “phase space” graphs, they do not fall into random glops, nor into simple orbits, but into strange and beautiful shapes reminiscent of taffy in a pulling machine, filigrees of coral, or the rings of Saturn. These shapes of probability showing the complex, self-organizing structures of chaotic systems, have been dubbed “strange attractors.”

Chaos: We think we know chaos. It’s a “mess,” a pile of rubble, a condition without form or meaning. But as Nobelist Ilya Prigogine showed in his book, Order Out of Chaos, there are, in fact, two kinds of chaos. One is low-energy randomness, like a shuffled deck of cards. Without the addition of more energy (like some poker players), such a system is not going to organize itself. But high-energy, turbulent chaos is quite something else — its disorder contains the seeds of order.

As Wheatley puts it, chaos is “the final state in a system’s move away from order. Not all systems move into chaos, but if a system is dislodged from its stable state, it moves first into a period of oscillation, swinging back and forth between different states. If it moves from this oscillation, the next state is full chaos, a period of total unpredictability. But in the realm of chaos, where everything should fall apart, the strange attractor comes into play” — and a new kind of order emerges from the chaos.


For further reading on the “new science:”

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Briggs, John, and F. David Peat. Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide To Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. The easiest layman’s guide.

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. New York: Bantam Books, 1976. Also, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking, 1987.

Jantsch, Erich. The Self-Organizing Universe. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1980.

Peters, Tom. Thriving on Chaos. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.


Bleiker, Hans and Annemarie Bleiker.  1986.  The Citizen Participation Handbook.  Laramie, WY:  Institute for Participatory Management and Planning.


Capra, Fritjof.  1996.  The Web of Life.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell publishing Group, Inc.


Daniel Dana. 1989.  Managing Differences.  Wolcott, CT:  MTI Publications.


Gatton, et al.  2007.  Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams.  Summer 2007.  MIT Sloan Management Review.


Herrmann, Ned.  1995.  The Creative Brain.  Lake Lure, NC:  The Ned Herrmann Group.


Lincoln, William F., Robert J, O’Donnell, Leroy Tornquist, and L. Randolph Lowry.  1986.  The Course in Collaborative Negotiation Participant’s Workbook.  Salem, OR:  National Center Associates and Willamette University College of Law.


Maccoby, Michael.  1988.  Why Work.  New York:  Simon and Schuster.


O’Connor Joseph and Ian McDermott.  1997.  The Art of Systems Thinking.  San Francisco, CA:  Thorsons.


Ohmae, Kenichi.  1982.  The Mind of a Strategist.  Penguin Books:  McGraw-Hill.


Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.  2005.  Crucial Confrontations.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.


Rosen, Robert H.  1991.  The Healthy Company.  New York: The Putnam Publishing Group.


The Essentials of Situational Leadership.  1980.  Escondido, CA:  Leadership Study Productions.


Wheeler, Jim.  1995.  The Power of Innovative Thinking.  Shawnee Mission, KS: National Press Publications.


Weisbord, Marvin.  1987.  Organizational Diagnosis.  Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.



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