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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?

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Anarchy in the workplace

Anarchy in the workplace

Anarchy in the Workplace

By  Jonathan Gifford

There seems, thank goodness, to be a genuine and growing interest in the idea that our workplaces should be more ‘democratic’.

I don’t know about you, however, but I still see precious little sign of any real change towards the democratisation of the places where we spend the majority of our waking hours.

And, just to be contrary, I am going to argue that ‘democracy’ is actually not what organisations need. I think that what organisations need is a healthy dose of anarchy.

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