A person, viewed from behind, looks into a fire

Sharing Context and Purpose at Work

By Sam Robinson

We’re revisiting our blog archives and republishing pieces that remain as timely as ever. This post was originally published in September 2015.

Karl Weick’s 1993 paper The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster is an analysis of a notorious incident in 1949 in Montana, USA. The disaster centred on a team of firefighters attempting to contain an out-of-control forest fire in a gulch located along the upper Missouri River. Tragically, the fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters.

Reading through the story, I can’t help but be affected by the torment that would have been faced by those people in fighting the fire. While it’s possible to read through the events dispassionately in the safety of a cosy office, a historic anecdote from the dim past, for some reason tragic events like these can stick firmly to our consciousness. This particular tragic event is one of those for me.

Not all of us will directly experience a crisis like this, but all of us will experience a crisis of some kind from time to time. Crisis stories are part of the shared language we use to make sense of the world.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk to people working in an organisation and affected by a crisis, within days of it happening. A serious road accident involving a number of vehicles, lives being threatened and impacts on a major arterial road – the organisation was called to coordinate the immediate response. Talking to the people involved, their overriding sense was that the teams involved, from very different parts of the organisation, worked together “like clockwork”. But there was also a frustrating and lingering question: “why isn’t it always like this?”

What is it about a crisis that focuses our attention so fully for a short period of time?

Lightbulbs hanging from ceiling

I’ll level with you: “Levels of Work” tips and traps

By Sam Robinson

A useful model that supports people to work well together in an organisation is the concept of “Levels of Work”. Familiar to many, it’s also one of the toughest things to grasp for people new to organisational theory (for an explanation, see the Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations book).

Essentially, Levels of Work proposes that work differs in complexity in organisations and the predominance of a certain level of complexity determines the Level of Work. (When work tasks are grouped together, this is called a “role”.) By complexity, I’m talking about the range and degree of ambiguity in variables having an impact on decision-making.

If you’ve ever worked at different levels in a large organisation, there are plenty of examples you’ll be familiar with. The first entry-level job you had when you came into an organisation is likely to have had fewer variables and a shorter impact horizon for your decisions than your later, more senior roles. For example, someone working in a team on a construction site laying the foundations for a new building is performing different work to someone leading a construction crew and being concerned with things like materials being ordered on time, the well-being and productivity of individuals, and the whole project moving forward as it should.

Levels of Work, once understood for the first time, is a real light bulb moment. Helping to shine a light on the actual value that an individual role should add to an organisation often entails reflection that opens a whole new world of understanding about work. For me, it helped me to understand my frustration with managers I’ve had in the past who dipped down and tried to work at “my” level.

But be careful.

An example of a process map, using a swimlane structure

How Process Mapping Can Add Value to Your Organisation

By Chally Kacelnik

If you want to understand how your organisation works or the impact of change in a concrete, clear, detailed way, process mapping is an essential tool.

First things first: what is process mapping?

Well, a process is a series of connected activities conducted in order to achieve a particular aim, like procurement or making a customer enquiry. A process map illustrates that process from start to finish (see the header image for an example). It clearly sets out a common understanding of what happens, when it happens, why it happens, and who is involved.

A current state process map illustrates processes as they are. People in different parts of an organisation tend to have differing ideas of how a process works, either based on a theoretical idea of how it should work or based on their perspective from one slice of the process. Capturing the true current state in one place allows you to see how the process works in practice, not in theory.

The vast majority of the time, there’s something that can be improved – usually lots of somethings. Perhaps the process:

  • Has excessive hand offs, repetitions, or bottlenecks
  • Doesn’t fit the organisational operating model or principles
  • Doesn’t take advantage of technological capabilities
  • Is convoluted
  • Places a lot of stress on one or two employees
  • Doesn’t take account of external customer or community perspectives

A future state process map brings together organisational principles, technological capabilities, known data (particularly volumetric data), and learnings from what does and doesn’t work in the current state in order to produce the best possible future state process.

A collection of old fashioned globes in neutral colours

Whizzing to Oz: Global Collaboration on Local Government Reform

LKS Quaero UK Director Aidan Rave recently visited Australia and met with our Australian team. Here are his reflections on the differences and similarities between the UK and Australian local government contexts – and on the value of a global team when it comes to public service reform.

A seven day round trip from the UK to Australia can have a strange effect on the mind. The combination of jet lag, shifting from summer to winter and around 48 hours stuck in a metal tube has an effect on the most seasoned traveller. Making the trip in late June of this year, in the midst of the political upheaval and chaotic post-Brexit vote atmosphere, added a further dimension to the sense of surrealism.

Of course, attending the annual LKS Quaero hui (a Maori term meaning gathering or assembly) was exciting – an opportunity to meet in person colleagues who had previously existed on the end of a phone or as a slightly fuzzy image on Skype. Okay, the opportunity to sample some of McLaren Vale’s finest was probably a factor, too, but a professional should always be prepared to suffer for the cause!

In many ways, the conversation and debate at the hui confirmed a long-held belief that while the structure and culture of local government in the UK and Australia might differ, there are many challenges and opportunities in common and there is much each can learn from the other’s approach. The political spice on the Australian side was enhanced by the fact that day one of the hui coincided with the general election and all the intrigue, upsets, and twists that inevitably ensue (and there were several). Similarly, giving an update from the UK was inevitably going to be dominated by the fall-out from Brexit, the subsequent resignation of the Prime Minister, and impending implosion of the opposition Labour Party. In truth, it all felt just a little bit embarrassing!

While the “big politics” were certainly never far from the group’s collective thoughts, the focus of discussions remained on issues core to the business on both sides of the equator; namely public service reform, restructuring, amalgamation, culture, and leadership.

The impact of the GFC had a more immediate effect on the UK economy and subsequent public spending plans than was the case in Australia. Consequently, shifts towards structural and political reform of councils in the UK, driven in large part by a seismic reduction of around 35% in real terms spending power over the last five years, has meant that the rate of change in the UK has been determined.

Interestingly, as NSW councils embark on their journey of reform, there is some useful UK insight (not to mention a number of mistakes made and hard lessons learned), within the global LKS Quaero knowledge pool that should prove valuable.  In a similar vein, there is a considerable amount of Australian work on systems thinking and leadership, which will be critically important to UK councils as they attempt the next stage of implementation.

A silhouetted group gather around an outcrop, the sun low in a yellow sky.

From Narrow to Innovative Leadership and Diverse Organisations

By Chally Kacelnik

At LKS Quaero’s Meeting the Challenge of Amalgamation forum in Sydney in February this year, speaker Jeff Tate shared insights from his extensive experience as a local government expert and former CEO of two South Australian Councils. Listening to Jeff, I was interested in how he tackled gender imbalance in leadership roles when he was a CEO.

I caught up with Jeff after his talk and asked how he found a solution for something so pervasive and that affects people’s whole career paths.

The answer was really simple: you choose candidates based on their skills and capabilities, not a narrow range of previous job titles. You pick the person who’s best for the job, who is not always the person who has had the most normative career path.

This means that you get the right people in the right roles, with a range of life experience and ideas, and you get a more robust, more interesting organisation. In fact, you can apply this sort of thinking to many things in organisational life. If you critically examine your assumptions rather than retreating to the safety of what’s always been done before, you end up with the best possible organisation. This can’t be done by only looking at what’s already been done, but by considering all the possibilities.

So why do we make assumptions about people’s value that limit both people and organisations?

A group of people stand on top of a rock formation against a blue sky with small white clouds.

(Un)surprising Findings from Google’s Quest to Build the Perfect Team

By Sam Robinson

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” breathlessly told us about ‘new research’ that revealed surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter… and then told us what we knew already about the most highly effective teams.

That’s not a bad thing at all – in fact, it was deeply satisfying to read about yet more evidence that the strength of shared beliefs within teams is the key to that team working well together. This has actually been known for many years and documented extensively in Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations, but perhaps not in the same terms.

The article refers to ‘psychological safety,’ a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

We tell our clients that culture isn’t simply “what we do around here,” nor is it a complicated abstracted academic concept encouraging analysis only and not action.

When I discuss culture with clients, it’s about “culture” as a group of people who share beliefs about behaviour that (members of the culture believe) demonstrate positive and negative values.

A sporting team in English colours huddles together.

How do you create the right culture to succeed?

By David Gourlay

Systems               Symbols               Behaviour           Leadership

Four simple words, but all of them simply have to be “nailed on” to achieve that winning culture!

Sport is always a trusty analogy when it comes to writing about business culture, so let’s consider the fate of two of Rugby’s powerhouses at the Rugby World Cup. As the fallout from England’s World Cup started, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster made no secret of his attempt to emulate New Zealand and his focus on building the right “culture,” on the premise that if you get things right off the pitch the rest will take care of itself… apparently not!

Most of us have worked in businesses that claim to have a great culture, but somehow something isn’t quite right, whether it’s a frustrating process, an outdated finance system, some annoying bureaucracy, or just a general feeling of disquiet around the office. Or maybe the processes and systems have just had a multi-million pound makeover but the frustration is arising from poor leadership or some dominant behaviours within the organisation that are both unproductive and disruptive.

Either way, you have a problem! How often is there a major investment in creating improved and more efficient systems and processes, without an improved culture magically appearing? And how often can you have great leadership and behaviours that are undermined by poor systems and processes?

A person, viewed from behind, looks into a fire

Sharing Context and Purpose at Work

By Sam Robinson

Karl Weick’s 1993 paper The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster is an analysis of a notorious incident in 1949 in Montana, USA. The disaster centred on a team of firefighters attempting to contain an out-of-control forest fire in a gulch located along the upper Missouri River. Tragically, the fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters.

Reading through the story, I can’t help but be affected by the torment that would have been faced by those people in fighting the fire. While it’s possible to read through the events dispassionately in the safety of a cosy office, a historic anecdote from the dim past, for some reason tragic events like these can stick firmly to our consciousness. This particular tragic event is one of those for me.

Not all of us will directly experience a crisis like this, but all of us will experience a crisis of some kind from time to time. Crisis stories are part of the shared language we use to make sense of the world.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk to people working in an organisation and affected by a crisis, within days of it happening. A serious road accident involving a number of vehicles, lives being threatened and impacts on a major arterial road – the organisation was called to coordinate the immediate response. Talking to the people involved, their overriding sense was that the teams involved, from very different parts of the organisation, worked together “like clockwork”. But there was also a frustrating and lingering question: “why isn’t it always like this?”

What is it about a crisis that focuses our attention so fully for a short period of time?