The Blog

All Posts in Category: blog

10 organisational behaviours stuck in the industrial era


This article first appeared in

In an earlier post, ‘Culture for the age of ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organisational behaviours that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example.

Our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the age of ideas was based on Mark Powell’s twenty years’ experience in management and strategy consultancy and on his ten-year experience of designing and running leadership and management development programmes at the University of Oxford. More precisely, the book was the result of Mark’s thousands of conversations with people at all levels of organisations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of 10 organisational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviours intended to advance the organisation’s interests that are often experienced by employees in a negative way. The behaviors are paradoxical because they tend to produce results that are the exact opposite of what the organisation sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a two-sentence description of these ten paradoxical behaviours and their unintended outcomes, but we think that this will be enough to offer a good insight into our thinking. We all tend to recognise these industrial-era organisational behaviours, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviours would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organisational behavior

  1. Control

Management seeks control, but control can be experienced as removing autonomy and preventing self-organisation and innovation. Managers gain ‘control’ but lose commitment and creative input.

  1. Measurement

Control requires measurements and indicators, but these can become obsessive, short-termist and even misleading. More importantly, when we try to ‘measure’ people with techniques similar to those that we use to measure processes, people feel labelled, diminished and manipulated.

  1. Efficiency

Mechanical and logistical processes must be as efficient as possible, but it’s different when people are involved. Some petty ‘efficiencies’ impact people very negatively, saving a few pounds at an immeasurable cost in lost energy.

  1. Innovation

Organisations know that they need to innovate, but much organisational behaviour is specifically designed to prevent it. Innovative thinking is ‘risky’, by definition, and the ‘control’ mindset hates risk.

  1. Communication

Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organisational modes of communication are not genuine dialogues: information ‘cascades’ down imaginary pyramids; meetings create an illusion of real debate. ‘Communication’ seems to be increasing in volume and declining in quality.

  1. Physical environment

Workspaces should be designed to encourage good communication, chance encounters and the flow of ideas. Industrial-era workspaces are designed to keep individuals in their allocated, functional space and enable supervision.

  1. Self-organisation

People are rarely allowed to organise their own work. When they are, the results can be remarkable, as shown in this Harvard Business Review paper on GE Aviation’s move to a ‘teaming’ work structure.

  1. Leadership

Leadership should be devolved, but is often hoarded. Everyone should be encouraged to lead whenever their natural leadership skills are most appropriate and valuable.

  1. Networking

New ideas tend to happen at boundaries, when people from different parts of the organisation reach out and interact, but few organisations manage to enable productive networking throughout the whole operation. The industrial-era organisation sees ‘networks’ as connections to be exploited; real networks are organic and mutually beneficial.

  1. Diversity of opinion

Organisations tend to become homogenous environments where contrarians are unwelcome. Diversity of gender and ethnicity is no guarantee of true diversity of opinion; like any ecosystem, organisations need a real diversity of ideas to evolve and survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Little by little, piece by piece

In our book, as in our earlier post, we argue that the process that was most likely to succeed in transforming organisational cultures was one of changing behaviours ‘little by little and piece by piece’ – identifying the outmoded behaviour patterns that are doing the most damage to the organisation’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organisational behavior are highly likely to spill over onto other behaviours – once we realise that we are not communicating effectively, to take one example, it may become obvious that we are not networking effectively either; or that our leadership is hierarchical rather than devolved, which is why we are preventing self-organisation…

All of these behaviours stem from a common mindset; once the flaw in one behaviour is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organisation quite rapidly.

We see that we are among friends here. Culture University’s Marcella Bremer writes in a post about her concept of ‘non-linearity: [changing] one small habit at a time to create a lasting, different outcome.’ Marcella proposes a programme of working in small teams to discover and take ownership of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of change, arguing that value systems get translated into ‘specific, daily behaviours and underlying assumptions’ and that we should focus on ‘the crucial behaviours and beliefs will make the difference to success’.

In another recent post, Culture University’s John Katzenbach also proposes that we should start with behaviours: ‘change behaviours, and mind-sets will follow’, says John, arguing that ‘culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying’ and that trying to change a culture by top-down messaging and training and development programmes is unlikely to work. John proposes a 10-stage process for mobilising our organisational cultures.

Energising organisational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviours’ described here might be a useful starting point for organisations setting out to explore which behaviours they might most need to change in order to create an enabling, empowering culture fit for the age of ideas.

We can make intellectual decisions about what we would like our organisational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviours, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialisation, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organisation’s energy level. Change those behaviours, and you energise the culture.

Organisations have feelings too

This article first appeared in

Organisations are communities of people, and when those communities become upset, the organisation is in serious trouble.

All organisations face problems from time to time; what matters is whether there is a collective will to solve those problems, or whether the culture of the organisation has broken down in some way: when one group of people feels that another group is trying to impose its vision without any real consensus or agreement, for example, or – especially – feels that one group is not acting in the best interests of the organisation’s core purpose.

Outpourings of anger

A badly-handled downsizing in 2014 by struggling UK supermarket chain, Morrisons, caused a great deal of bad feeling amongst staff, witnessed by outpourings of anger online, some of which are quoted in this article. The company’s stated aim was to remove a tier of store management in order to ‘modernise the way stores are managed with the aim of reducing in-store management tiers, simplifying responsibility and improving customer service.’

It didn’t work, at least not in terms of turning the company around nor apparently, as many staff had feared, in terms of improving customer service. In January 2015, the supermarket replaced its CEO, Dalton Philips, after a five-year stint at the head of the mid-market grocery chain. There were many reasons cited for his replacement; the usual litany of failed initiatives and the headline problem of falling profitability. But the driving force for change seemed to be the realisation that Morrisons had become a broken organisation: that it was not capable of returning to health under its old management.

The organisation as machine

In My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the age of ideas, we argue that many organisations still unwittingly abide by the principles of the early twentieth-century school of Scientific Management, which sees people as components of the organisational machine whose individual performance, like that of any other component, should be analysed and adjusted for maximum efficiency.

In this ‘organisation as machine’ model, people can be ‘let go’ without adverse consequences. The people are merely parts of the machine and machines, after all, have no feelings. In fact, when organisations ‘downsize’, firing large numbers of people without handling the process with great sensitivity, the real emotional damage to the organisation may be severe and even irreparable. Organisations really do have feelings too.

In an interview with Culture University faculty member Marcella Bremer, Kim Cameron, Professor of Management and Organisations at the University of Michigan, reported that companies that downsize tend to perform worse after the downsizing process.  ‘One of the major outcomes of a decade of research,’ Professor Cameron told Bremer, ‘was that almost all of the organisations that downsize deteriorate in performance. Instead of getting better, they get worse. This happens for several reasons; conflict goes up, morale and innovation go down, loss of trust etc.’

It is perfectly possible to downsize successfully, argues Cameron, and about 10-15 percent of companies manage to do so – the ones who act with compassion, gratitude and integrity, practicing what Cameron calls ‘virtuousness.’

“Ripping the heart out of the company”

Morrisons’ own 2014 downsizing seemed to be carried out without much ‘virtuousness’ at all.

Under the headline ‘Morrisons to cut 2,600 jobs in management restructuring’, the UK’s retail trade magazine, The Grocer, reported the supermarket’s plans to cut out a tier of middle management. A number of people, many of them employees of Morrisons, posted comments beneath the article.

One employee (‘Joe’) who was about to made redundant talked about his passion for his job and suggested that the restructuring was ‘ripping the heart out of the company’.

 “I’m a department manager for Morrisons and I’m extremely passionate about what I do. I must say at this point how disappointed I am at Dalton for ripping the heart out of this company. Us department managers and supervisors keep this company running on a day to day basis this just confirms the fact the directors have absolutely no clue as to what’s happening at store level.”

Another (‘Alan’) suggested that staff have been misled about the likelihood of redundancies.

“The message to stores at the beginning of this was that there will be no redundancies. Staff have been lied to throughout. If the focus really is on improving customer service, why have hours been cut back month on month for the past year. To [sic] many customers have already been alienated and this blatant disregard for the very overworked middle management team will do little to swing back any favour.”

‘Jojo’, a Morrisons’ shopper, argued that management were deliberately trying to avoid emotional reactions to the redundancies:

“Morrisons work in under-handed ways. Just recently all the general managers had to move stores. This would be in preparation for the proposed redundancies so that they could give people their notice with no emotional attachment.”

‘Ade anti Morrison’ talked about the ‘rude’ and ‘arrogant’ attitude of management,

“It’s no wonder they’re going down the pan, arrogant and small minded head office management who rule by fear . . . One area manager I worked for was the most rudest [sic], arrogant, small minded bigoted aggressive person I’ve ever had the misfortune to work for …”

Testing the organisation’s emotional state

This small sample of outpouring of employees’ felt experiences suggests a dreadful disjoint between the intentions of senior management and the perception of management actions on the shop floor. This unhappiness, this ‘upset’ is a far better indicator of the health of the organisation than any number of metrics.

Failed strategies can be changed, mistakes can be rectified; but failed relationships between the core groups within an organisation spell disaster. If you want to know what’s really going on in an organisation, test its emotional state. Organisations really do have feelings too.




Creating organisational cultures for the age of ideas

This article first appeared in

Creating modern organisational cultures

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

Many modern organisations are locked into a mindset – an organisational culture – that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organisation in the twenty-first century. But times have changed.

My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, sets out three core, culture-related ideas.

  1. Many organisations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  2. There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviours which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organisations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  3. Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviours – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organisation, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organisation’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset

The great corporations of the early twentieth century quickly adopted Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which argued that a new class of executives – managers and planners – were needed to reveal the ‘scientific’ approach to any particular task, which would yield the one best way of performing that task. Taylor was unabashedly prepared to argue that most workers were, in his words, ‘too stupid’ to discern the ‘science’ of their activities. Even workers with considerable skills carrying out complex tasks were, in Taylor’s view, not the right people to deal with ‘the science’ of their work, since even if they had the capacity properly to plan the best approach to their work, this would distract them from the work itself.

What was needed was another other sort of being: the manager/planner. Out of this patronising worldview came the persistent modern model in which every worker must have a manager, and that managers are superior to workers. Whatever Taylor may have said about ‘friendly’, ‘harmonious’, and ‘intimate’ cooperation between managers and workers, the mould was cast: workers worked; managers and planners (needed in surprisingly large numbers) managed and planned.

When ‘the  one best way’ is imposed on people in this way by a rigid, status-laden hierarchy, it creates the kind of dehumanising, de-energising, stressful and unhappy working environments that are still far too common today. It is rare to come across any organization where aspects of these behaviours are not still clearly in place, with the all too visible result that people feel put upon rather than inspired, and what should be a genuine community working together to achieve the same end is turned into an unnatural environment where one class of employee is constantly assessing, appraising and judging the other class. This is particularly damaging in the knowledge economy: when people are employed for their ideas and for their unique human skills (such as emotional intelligence), we shouldn’t be surprised if treating them like machines whose outputs are monitored and rated leads to disenchanted employees.

Ten ‘Steam Engine’ behaviors

Of the ten Steam Engine behaviours that we identify in the book, the two most pernicious are those to do with control and measurement. Every manager wants to feel that they are ‘in control’, and measuring everything that moves helps to create an illusion of control. But it is an illusion: a moment’s reflection reveals that we can measure and control processes, but not people. Dealing with people – human beings – requires a human approach. It’s trickier, but it’s perfectly doable. The old ‘command and control’ model really is past its sell-by date.

If a new approach to control and measurement will take some adjusting to, the other dimensions that we discuss, such as innovation, communication, devolved leadership, networking, diversity and other aspects of organisational behaviour find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

The behaviours that are most in need of change will differ (of course) from organisation to organisation; it is the precise mix of these various behaviors that creates each organisation’s individual culture.

Some leaders may be concerned that their corporate culture is not good at enabling fluent, honest communication or at encouraging colleagues to develop vibrant networks of internal and external contacts. Others may worry that there is insufficient genuine diversity in their organization or that their organizational culture fails to encourage innovation. As Edgar Schein argues in a popular post on, to identify which behaviors are having the worst effects it is a good idea to start with a business problem, and work back to the behaviours that are driving this.

Only you can judge what is most relevant to your own situation. Our argument is that all of these kinds of outmoded, Steam Engine behaviors interact with each other and that you will find (we believe) that when you address any one of these issues and begin to change the organisation’s behaviour in that one dimension, then the resultant new way of being quickly leads on to new perceptions and different ways of behaving in the other, related dimensions.

Setting out to ‘change the corporate culture’ with one almighty heave is difficult, daunting, and usually doomed to failure. Changing the organisation’s behaviour little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organisation from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.


art TRAIN3 600x300

Upgrading organisations for the 21st century

Marcella BremerA guest blog by Marcella Bremer, culture and change consultant and co-founder of Leadership & Change Magazine.  This blog first appeared in Leadership & Change on April 30th 2015.

In this article, Marcella gives a first-hand account of her experience of working with a regional division damaged by an over-rigorous central downsizing operation, about her belief in self-organisation and  about the need to re-energise the organisation by reestablishing connections  ‘at eye-level’, instead of via the usual corporate hierarchies.


Upgrading organisations for the 21st century

“Leaving the 20th century behind, I think we are ready and hungry to feel aliveness and connectedness – at work and at home,” said the German consultant Ulf Brandes during my interview with him.

Together with four others, Ulf created the documentary film Augenhöhe (German for eye-level) to show that it is possible to work at “eye-level” in organizations, instead of at different levels in an organizational pyramid: looking down on direct reports, looking up to your boss and, maybe, looking suspiciously at the co-workers next to you…

Ulf shared that in Germany, many people have pretty rigid ideas of what work has to be like.

“We struggle with issues like dominance and obedience. Bosses need to be bossy and employees have duties. We have hidden beliefs like: If I don’t suffer – I don’t work hard enough.”

That quote evokes images of 19th-century workplaces and a tough protestant work ethic – and it rings true for many organizations I have worked with as a consultant in all parts of the world, not just Germany.

Stuck in the system

I remember a team of regional executives, part of a multinational publicly owned corporation. They were 15 bright people, working really hard, trying to motivate their reluctant employees, pushing to achieve their targets and follow the procedures that headquarters kept piling up. They claimed to support each other – even though everyone kept looking over their shoulder to see if no one outperformed the others because, hey, they had barely survived a downsizing – so who could be next…? They were exhausted. They felt stuck in a tight box. And when push came to shove, they felt alone.

They used to be a team. But that was before the downsizing to cut costs in order to raise efficiency. That was before the workload got this high – in order to make the corporation’s growth targets and satisfy shareholders. That was before HQ increased quality control and dropped a phone book of procedures plus they centralized functions in a neat matrix structure. The team’s HR person now reports to central HR – and gets his orders directly from them. The same goes for the regional head of marketing, the finance guy, the R&D director, and so on. Headquarters was all over them. HQ probably didn’t do it on purpose – but they divided and conquered the region’s executive team.

Theory versus Practice

The team’s autonomy was gnawed. Their camaraderie was long gone. “I’m going to be frank,” one director said to me. He was a gigantic man with a quick mind and charisma. He had been participating dutifully during the session – but he was getting energized now.
“If I spend half an hour helping the regional director next to me, I have less time to make my own targets. I simply can’t get more work done. I am held accountable for my own accomplishments. That goes for all of us.

“Bottom line is, we don’t help each other anymore. Even though, it’s a great concept. We love collaboration, in theory. But in practice, we’re working our *** off and we try to save our own positions and units.”

They all nodded. They were demoralized, divided, exhausted. I challenged them to find some space within their “boxes” – to find their inner locus of control – to see what they still could decide and do in spite of this situation – and support each other to change for the better. But every time they lifted their spirits and discussed some ideas – one of them would talk the team out of it. I could see their energy evaporating as if their balloon was losing its air.

They stayed stuck. I couldn’t lift them – I couldn’t entice them to look for an exit to their prison. The corporate context weighed them down. I still see that gigantic man before me who must have been a real energizer, way back when he still had hope, professional autonomy and collegial support. These executives were no longer at eye-level.

Too big to fail?

Here’s the downside of scale and efficiency. I always contend for self-organizing teams in small to medium-sized businesses. (Not just because that’s my preference, but our OCAI culture research also shows that people in larger organizations are far less satisfied – which is no surprise).

But we can’t completely live without large corporations either. I don’t know how to produce electricity, telecommunications, gas and oil, water, air travel, government, or specific machinery and more, with organizations of 10-150 people. But maybe larger organizations could self-organize in smaller teams? Meanwhile, we have to lift the yoke of shareholder value and limitless growth, strict hierarchies, and the suffering mindset. Many consultants, coaches, leaders and other professionals are working on it as we speak.

Wasting human resources?

I wouldn’t want to see another great man staring at me, hollow-eyed, giving in to discouragement. Our publicly or privately owned large corporations, our governments, our banks may be “too big to fail” in a financial sense, but they are already failing on a human scale. They are wasting valuable ideas, energy, time and hope. People are used like resources, boxed in and controlled. No wonder that various surveys measure an alarming lack of employee engagement…

Large organizations have stabilized themselves with rational, logical management (long time after their passionate, entrepreneurial start) but they need to energize themselves again with leadership, professional freedom, passion, connections, face-to-face communication, trust and mutual support – to regain agility and change-responsiveness. Can we help them get unstuck and unfreeze their potential?

Faith versus Fear

I believe that people and organizations can thrive – and I’m not alone. Many consultants I meet share this vision and try to persuade their clients. External consultants and coaches are curious, open to new ideas and techniques. They want to change the world and workplace and try out Open Space Technology, dialog circles, provocative coaching, bodywork, business Tarot and they devour research books showing that organizations can self-organize and people can be happy at work.

But many managers, executives and leaders of organizations seem hesitant to apply anything that loosens their idea of control. Ulf Brandes said to me: “Every organization already has most of the resources they need to evolve – they “just” need to find them, and tap their potential.”

Organizations love that concept, but not its application. Tapping potential may require letting go of old certainties and comfortable positions. It means re-evaluating beliefs and being open to dissent, other views and it means change, maybe chaos, and entering the unknown – while they are busy enough as it is – with hardly any space, time and energy to reinvent themselves. They are too tired to ignite the spark – too busy to connect at eye-level. It’s faster, and easier, to give an order down the chain of command. It’s easier to aim for measurable outcomes than to facilitate emerging processes and learn “on the go”. How can you explain such lack of control, just “seeing what happens”, to shareholders?

The biggest constraint to change is being overwhelmed with work and information – rooted in the fear to lose money, market share, position, status – the fear to lose control. I understand. But we need to upgrade our organizations to the 21st century. For the sake of people, organizations, and societies, in order to survive and to thrive. We need everyone to contribute their information and energy to overcome the challenges we are facing. We need to engage all employees, all people, in whatever role.

Support those who try “eye-level”

eyes-300x225-300x145So, given these human fears, our limited time and energy, our high production targets: let’s support and applaud all managers, executives, leaders and supervisors who dare to let go of some control and climb down the pyramid. Who encourage their employees to start moving and mingling – to exchange information and energy in an equal flow and be open to what emerges.

Sure, sometimes we get impatient (whether we are external or internal consultants, leaders, coaches or employees). Then it’s good to remember that all things are easier said than done. The heroes are the ones who apply the new faith: those who are willing to work at eye-level.


Marcella Bremer is the co-founder of Leadership & Change Magazine and, an author and culture & change consultant.

Readers can join Leadership & Change magazine’s free member’s area and receive a free copy of Leadership & Change magazine  here

My steam engine is broken

Human Resources: The human energy department?


You may remember (though you are probably too young) that Human Resource departments used to be called ‘Personnel’ departments, and their job was pretty much restricted to finding, training and retaining (and sometimes letting go) personnel – or ‘people’ as we tend to call them these days.  When the term Human Resources was first used in the corporate context, sometime around the 1950s in the United States, it was part of a deliberate rebranding exercise, intended to flag up the strategic importance of the role and the centrality of the ‘human resource’. People were no longer seen as ‘personnel’ – the individuals who happened to carry out a particular duty for the corporation at a particular moment – they were a core and precious resource, to be nurtured and cared for.

But it is a shame that the well-meaning re-branders chose that particular term. The problem with the word ‘resource’ is – well, it’s obvious what the problem is. It makes it sound as if people are a resource, just like copper is a resource – or cotton, or water or any other essential raw material – whereas people are the essential resource: organisations can hope to survive the absence or the scarcity of any other resource provided that they have the people in place with the wit and energy to carry out the necessary transformation to cope with the new conditions.

The key competence is adaptability

In a changing world, the key competence is adaptability. The most perfect processes will become outmoded or irrelevant; only people are capable of making the necessary transition from what works now to what will work in the new environment. And to do this, people need to be engaged, committed, empowered and enabled. They need to be alert to changes in the outside world and certain that their hunches and feelings about that outside world will be listened to and taken seriously. And the organisation needs to structure itself in such a way that it taps into the ideas and energies of all these people, rather than relying on the wisdom (or otherwise) of the few.

The authors of this article have recently published a book called My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas. In the book we argue (as you have probably guessed from the title) that the mindset of many organisations is still stuck somewhere around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US in the early 20th century – the era in which many of today’s global giants were either born or began to emerge as mighty industrial concerns: corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and many others. You can’t necessarily blame people for thinking: if it worked for those guys, why would it not work for us? But the fact is that the industrial mindset really isn’t working in the knowledge economy. The obsession with control, measurement and so-called efficiency continues to create a stressed and unhappy working environment in which creativity is stifled and engagement is destroyed. Our steam engines really are broken, and it is time to stop patching them up and to transform them.

The energy gap

As a part of the Steam Engine project, we devised a short questionnaire exploring what people want from their workplace in key areas such as freedom of action, measurement and assessment of their work, quality of communication, innovation, leadership, and other key aspects of organisational attitudes and behaviours – a total of 10 core ‘dimensions’. The questionnaire also asks for respondents’ perceptions of the reality of their experiences at work across the same 10 dimensions. Please try the survey yourself at How Steam are You? Respondents receive an online analysis of how ‘Steam Engine’ their own organisation is – in a slightly light-hearted way, but with a very serious intent.

Things get even more interesting when we dig down into the data.

Comparison of responses to the two sets of questions – what people want and what they experience at work – is fascinating. In some industries the gaps are small and do not apply to every dimension: there are areas where there is a discrepancy between what people would like and what their work environment actually provides, but there also key areas of agreement, where organisations’ behaviours are in keeping with their employees aspirations. In other cases, there is a woeful gap between what people want from work and what they actually experience, across every dimension.

We call these gaps ‘the energy gap’, because they are a reflection of wasted human energy. If people come to work looking for the chance to use their own initiative, to make a contribution to the best way of achieving the task at hand, to be able to communicate openly with the organisation, to be innovative and to feel that they are part of a diverse but focussed community – and if all of these and other things are denied them, then the result is a wicked squandering of these people’s energies and potential engagement and commitment.

The true task of Human Resources departments is to free up this energy, keeping a watchful eye out for unhelpful, industrial-style managerial attitudes and behaviours and working to create the kind of environment that allows people to do what they most want: to make a contribution; to suggest creative solutions; to give of their best.

Is it too late for another rebranding exercise? ‘Human Energy Departments’, anyone?

art TRAIN3 600x300

It’s not about leadership skills, it’s about organisational behaviours

This article first appeared as a feature in Training Journal January 2015

If things didn’t change, we wouldn’t need leadership: we could simply manage the existing, well-known process, doing the same thing over and over again in a nice, comfortable way.

But things do change, and organisations must themselves adapt constantly to reflect this challenging fact of life. As the pace of change accelerates, we need leadership of a very high calibre to keep organisations relevant and successful.

Leadership development programmes train leaders to meet this challenge. However, such programmes tend to exist in a kind of vacuum: leaders are ‘developed’ in business schools and then sent back in their new, improved state to an organisation that has not itself, by definition, moved on.

This is a lot like taking the most promising soldiers out of the trenches of the First Word War to become a new generation of leaders, training them in modern tactics and the use of new weapons, then sending them back to the trenches. Everyone in the trenches has the same old weapons and is using the same old tactics, yet the new leaders are expected to lead the troops to a remarkable and unlikely victory.

The need for organisational transformation

What is needed, clearly in this analogy, is an overall transformation of the strategic situation: a process of organisational transformation of which the new leader is a key part – but only a part.

Continuing with our WWI analogy, the new leaders who have been plucked out of the trenches should be sent, not back to the trenches, but to work with the chiefs of staff, and through them the army as a whole, on the use of the new tactics and weapons in order to transform the strategic situation.

Leaders can and must lead the process of transformation but it is unreasonable to see the development of leadership as wholly separate from the process of organisational transformation; it merely invites failure. The ultimate goal, after all, is not highly developed leaders but transformed organisations.

There are, we suggest, three main obstacles to achieving this in most modern organisations.

Skills or behaviours?

Firstly, there is ongoing confusion between the development of leadership ‘skills’ and ‘behaviours’. Developing a change in behaviour is much more challenging than developing new skills. It is relatively easy to decide what skills to build on and improve, how to train for those skills and how to assess to what extent skills have improved. It is far harder to define behavioural change requirements. There is also disagreement as to what behaviours we want to change and how to go about changing them.

Too little, too late

The second obstacle to successful leadership development is that it is offered too late in people’s careers, at a time when ideas, attitudes and behaviours are well-established and harder to change. And, certainly in the case of internal promotions to leadership positions, when the individuals already have a substantial degree of alignment to the prevailing approaches and attitudes of their organisations. By this stage, they may find it difficult even to envisage how and why they or the organisation should change.

How much better would it be to offer leadership training to a wide range of employees, early in their career?

Modern organisations need leadership at every level; people at all levels of seniority want and expect to be able to lead at various times and on a variety of projects while happily following at other times and in other situations. This applies all the way up to the top leadership team, where self-confident colleagues should be willing and able to pass leadership around between them. Organisations have a huge, and arguably an increasingly desperate, need for leadership in depth –absolutely not the same as management in depth, which is all too common and is a large part of the issue.

Behaving in ways which prevent what you need

Thirdly, and finally, there is the issue of the behaviour change space: what are the behaviours that we should seek to change as part of the learning process which will bring about organisational transformation? In My Steam Engine is Broken, we identify ten such core behaviours, set out as ten core paradoxes of modern organisational behaviour, because they prevent the very outcomes that most organisations know that they need. In particular, they prevent self-direction, self-motivation, commitment and creativity: the very things that an organisation needs most from its members in a knowledge economy.

These paradoxical behaviours, have been inherited from the industrial era. They are so deeply ingrained that we unconsciously repeat them; we have come to believe that this is how we are supposed to behave.

The paradoxes are to do with issues of control, measurement and ‘efficiency’; with the belief that the job of management (the word ‘leader’ tends to drop out of the vocabulary that describes industrial era organisations) is to measure and control the behaviour of ‘workers’; with the failure to encourage individual responsibility or self-organisation; with the stifling of creativity and innovation; with the absence of true diversity and with, indeed, leadership behaviours.

The aggregation of marginal gains

If we begin to transform these old modes of thought and behaviour, then the organisation itself can begin a process of transformation. It is practically impossible to transform something as unwieldy as an organisation through one leadership initiative. Yet starting to rethink our behaviours, and introducing these behaviours throughout the organisation by means of an ongoing learning process – little by little and piece by piece – will begin to transform the organisation into a place that offers challenge and fulfilment to its members, and which thrives and adapts as a direct result.

art TRAIN3 600x300

Is your organisation stuck in the Industrial Era?

Is your organisation stuck in the industrial era? Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis. The results that you will be given online on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Managers think; workers do

Back in the heady days of the Second Industrial Revolution, when the United States was busy applying the technologies developed in the first Industrial Revolution to create a burgeoning consumer economy, the principles of Frederick Wilmslow Taylor’s Scientific Management were seen as a blast of bracing fresh air; a glimpse of modernity.

In the bad old days, said Taylor, workers would muddle along, using their gumption and initiative, rules of thumb and accumulated wisdom. But this would not do. This was inefficient. A new breed of managers would be recruited to systematise what had previously been a woefully haphazard state of affairs.

As Taylor wrote in The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911:

The managers assume … the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work. In addition to developing a science in this way, the management take on … other types of duties which involve new and heavy burdens for themselves.

These new ‘rules, laws and formulae’ would, under Taylorism, not merely be ‘immensely helpful’ to the workers, they would come to rule the workers’ lives.

The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.

The workers, relieved of the ‘burden’ of all of the thinking that had previously been required of them, were now able to get on with the business of being as efficient as possible.

Monsters in our organisations’ collective unconscious

It is easy (and enjoyable) to parody Taylor, mainly because he is beyond parody. He genuinely believed in a rigid distinction between workers and management and that it was the job of managers – not workers – to think, analyse and plan.

It should be said that Taylor believed that workers should be rewarded for the greater productivity that resulted from the efficiencies of the new system and that his approach of breaking any activity down into its component parts – the basis for later ‘time and motion studies’ – is a useful way of analysing and streamlining any repetitive process.

The problem with Taylorism – and it is a very big problem – is that it crept into the psyche of the modern organisation back in the early twentieth century and has stayed there ever since, like an unresolved childhood trauma, creating inappropriate and damaging behaviours.

Most organisations unwittingly still behave as if manager’s think and plan and workers just ‘do’. While these organisations pay lip service to ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ this is, in fact, unwelcome or merely impractical: things are to be done in ‘the one best way’ because to do anything else risks ‘inefficiency’ (and because old-fashioned managers don’t want workers wasting their and everyone else’s time by running around having bright ideas).

In our new book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, Dr Mark Powell and I attempt to haul some of the monsters from the modern organisation’s collective unconscious out into the light of day. We argue that the modern organisation is like a steam engine that modern leaders keep trying to fix, when what is needed is a complete replacement. We explore deep-seated, knee-jerk management obsessions with control, measurement and efficiency, and the typical modern organisation’s woeful approach to such vital issues as communication, leadership and innovation.

We are all knowledge workers now

We are, in fact, all ‘knowledge workers’ now. If a task is literally mindless and repetitive, then it will and should be automated. What human beings bring to any task is, or should be, their ingenuity; their innate sociability; their willingness to rally to a cause, bouncing ideas off each other in a search for the best solution to the common problem.

But few organisations have cultures that genuinely encourage these uniquely human talents.The pull of old, steam engine, industrial-era habits is too strong. We categorise and control; appraise and retrain; dictate and confine; manage and demotivate.

Is your own organisation stuck in the industrial era?

Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis.

The results that you will be given on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Work needs to be fit for this century, not for the last.


Please  join the debate with #howsteamareyou and follow us on Twitter @MySteamEngine

art TRAIN3 600x300

Leading with trust and inspiration – and without a plan!

Piers IbbotsonA guest blog by  Piers Ibbotson, founder of Directing Creativity and contributor to My Steam Engine Is Broken.

Leading with trust and inspiration – and without a plan!

People appointed to leadership positions are in a framework of people already incumbent. This is a big problem. When a new leader is appointed there is often a flurry of activity. People will get moved, fired, replaced, their job description changed – sometimes a whole new team will be selected, but the emotional fall-out from these actions is enormous – it can undermine the effectiveness of the new group for months, even years.

My advice? – don’t bother.

Use “bricolage”- make your project from the materials you have to hand. Who is there? What can they do? What will get them going in a new direction? Any group can be rallied to action with the right handling – of course it means that to some extent you have to operate without a plan and with a high level of trust. People in leadership positions are responsible for delivery and that responsibility hangs heavy – they have to show they have a plan. So they pick a new team, they set targets and they drive people to achieve them. They reward them with bonuses when they succeed, and fire them when they don’t.

Managing by target-setting avoids the messy and unpredictable business of leading people; it allows managers to hide behind numbers and an idea that they are running a well-oiled machine with inputs and outputs. It delivers alright – but what is the cost? In the end it produces a savage, competitive work place, ruthless, driven and deeply unhappy: A place without loyalty and often without morals. Don’t do it.

If you trust and inspire people, they will perform

Getting a group pointing in the right direction and working hard; needs constant, hands on, face-to-face, work. That’s it. You won’t have time for anything else, so tell the higher ups to leave you alone while you get on with it. People will go in the direction you want them to go, if they can see the point of the destination and are noticed for the work they do – noticed – that’s enough. Financial rewards are nice but no substitute for the real thing. And being noticed means that the leader has to be there, close up, to see. Not to manage, not to interfere, but close enough to see what they are doing and give acknowledgement – and maybe some advice. People find it hard to believe that if you trust and inspire people they will perform, but there is abundant research to demonstrate that, beyond a minimum level of reward, extrinsic motivations like bonuses have little or no effect on behaviour.

People are motivated by their perception of the behaviours of those near to them, not those far away. They take their cues from their neighbours, but if they don’t know their neighbours, and if their neighbours are competing with each other to hit their targets by whatever means, regardless of the consequences, that is what they will do. If the boss is right next to them, literally, they will be influenced by them, but when the boss is not, which can be most of the time, you will have an organisation in which the fallout from competitive behaviour can destroy as much value as it adds.

Being present with your people

Take a real risk. Tell people the truth and inspire them to come up with the answers – then trust them to deliver. The solutions they find will not be yours, they may not be what you want, or what you thought would work, but they will be solutions. Your job is to watch, closely and supportively, what they are doing; encourage, help, and occasionally deflect, forgive, or forbid, actions that are clearly doomed or dangerous. Remind them of where they are heading. You cannot dictate their actions; that is being a dictator, not a leader.

Over time you will move them to a place where they are delivering something that works, that they own and they have made in collaboration with each other. Some roles may indeed need to change, some people may want to leave, but that should not be where the process starts. Over time, your followers will evolve a mutual trust and understanding that makes them resilient, creative and ambitious. Being a leader is about how you are, from moment-to-moment in relationship with others. It’s about being present with your people and trusting them as you make your way together.

The legacy of a leader lies in the qualities of the community they leave behind when their work is done. The person who leads them there really isn’t that important.

 Is your workplace stuck in the Industrial Era?  Find out now with our quick 20-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis.

More about Piers Ibbotson

Piers Ibbotson is one of the contributors to My Steam Engine is Broken.  After a successful career as an actor with the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he became assistant director, Piers now runs bespoke theatre-based training and development programmes for business through his company Directing Creativity, applying techniques and practices used in theatrical ensemble work.

You can read more about Piers’approach in chapter 4 of My Steam Engine is Broken, ‘The Innovation Committee’, and chapter 5, ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me’.

A version of this blog first appeared on LinkedIn in June 2014.


Status stress: the perfect way to destroy creativity at work

Status stress: the perfect way to destroy creativity at work

Are you ever stressed at work?

That was a trick question. We are all stressed at work, in ways so fundamental that we do not even recognise them.

Work is a deeply unnatural social environment. People are actually very good at coming together to help each other to achieve a common purpose. When this is a voluntary process, the natural stresses and strains that are involved in getting on with a lot of other people are dealt with by a few million years’ worth of evolution of the subtle social behaviours that enabled our ancestors to do exactly that: to form effective, and quite large, social groups.

But when it is an artificial process – when, for example, people at work are introduced to a large group of strangers and told that these strangers are now their ‘colleagues’ and that one particular person is now their ‘boss’, then funny stuff happens in our brains.

Read More

Command and Control – have we really moved on?

Command and Control – have we really moved on?

‘Command and Control’ is a phrase that we only use nowadays in connection with modern management in a tone of amused irony. We all know about command and control as the management system of choice from the earliest days of the major modern corporations—and we have definitely ‘moved on’.

Or have we?

Command and control systems used by the armed forces were deliberately adopted by the emerging corporations of the early twentieth century, as a means of ensuring that the most appropriate command decisions were taken by the general staff (senior management) and that these were effectively transmitted to the ranks (workers) via their officers (middle management).

Read More