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?

A metallic "please come in" sign hangs against a glass wall reflecting lights.

Getting On-Boarding Right for a Healthier Organisation

By Sam Robinson

While talking to a client in a government organisation recently, I realised how sloppy I am when talking about onboarding and induction programs. For the sake of clarity (I love clarity!) a few definitions:

  • Recruitment: the broad process of attracting and selecting people to join an organisation
  • Selection: choosing a single candidate for a role (part of a selection process)
  • On-boarding: the process of integrating an individual into an organisation, whether this is based on skill development, cultural norms and beliefs, or systems and process knowledge
  • Induction: the process of informing a new employee about an organisation’s policies, systems and procedures (part of an on-boarding process)

I’m not an HR professional, despite LinkedIn assuming I am, so please excuse the lack of convention. These are definitions I find helpful and I’m not suggesting this is “the general consensus” or an “industry standard”. (By the way – a topic for another time – what do you think when people throw in those phrases?)

I want to focus on on-boarding because it’s often relegated to the “we strongly intend to look into this in the next financial year” pile. Looking at an on-boarding process can provide a window into the health of an organisation. When I’m helping an organisation improve, I look at an on-boarding process as evidence for:

A colourful lightbulb image, surrounded by smaller images including lightbulbs, letters, people, speechbubbles, and charts.

Changes at LKS Quaero

After five years as our Managing Director, Susan Law will be departing from LKS Quaero at the end of July. She has always described herself as an escapee from the Council chamber and she will be returning there as CEO of Armidale Regional Council.

Under Susan’s leadership, we’ve emerged as a leading management consulting firm with a reputation for genuine, practical, and forthright advice. She has led a dedicated team of consultants who are committed to delivering high quality support and outputs for our clients.

Our longstanding Director, Leadership and Culture, Sam Robinson, is commencing the role of Managing Director. Sam has a diverse consulting background in settings throughout Australia, Antarctica, and Malaysia, across the resources and logistics sectors and local government in NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia. Sam has been crucial to LKS Quaero’s achievements and growth of the last several years and we congratulate him as he continues that work in his new position.

We wish Susan the very best in her new role. We’re excited to continue providing our clients with trusted advice on their organisational direction and strategy.

At LKS Quaero, we draw on decades of hard-won ingenuity to help solve seemingly intractable problems. If you’d like to know more, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

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.

Image of Sam Robinson

Council Transition Support Expert Interview: Sam Robinson, leadership and culture expert

LKS Quaero is offering a complete package of Council Transition Support for amalgamating NSW Councils. This is part of a series of interviews in which our transition expert team members pass on some key nuggets of advice.

Sam Robinson works in leadership development, change management, organisational structure, and culture. As a consultant, Sam has worked in very diverse settings, including Antarctica and Malaysia; across the NFP, resources, and logistics sectors; and in local government in NSW, SA and WA. Sam is LKS Quaero’s Director, Leadership and Culture, and a lead facilitator of LKS Quaero’s training programs. Here is his advice for leaders of amalgamating Councils in NSW.

What are the key leadership and culture challenges in upcoming amalgamations in NSW?

There’s lots to do. Part of the challenge is knowing where to start and maintaining momentum on the most important aspects of culture and leadership in the new entity despite a range of competing priorities.

It is always a good idea to start with an honest look at the current state of culture in the organisation – we have seen that, in past amalgamations, inadequate emphasis on developing a new coherent organisational culture can spell disaster. In many Councils affected by amalgamation in the past, we still to this day see different arms of the organisations perceiving themselves very much as stand-alone entities, with resultant impacts on levels of cooperation and productivity.

This is not simply a matter of articulating a new set of values and behaviours; it is an honest assessment of what beliefs are currently held across the organisation – positive and negative – and why those beliefs are held. This can be about anything, including what some might think of as “small” but is that actually critically important (for example, who gets parking spaces and who gets an office). Once you understand the current state in detail, you can then work on a plan of what to keep and what you don’t want in the new organisation, as well as new shared positive beliefs. By doing this, you can build up an exciting picture of the desired state of organisational culture. The leadership challenge then becomes pretty straightforward: developing leaders to see themselves as critically important actors in changing culture.

In greyscale, the bowed shoulders and head of a figure face away from the camera.

The Mental Well-Being Impact of Amalgamation

By Sam Robinson

During one of our recent Leadership Forums (Meeting the Challenge of Amalgamation in Sydney, February 2016) a presenter speaking about mental health asked the audience: ‘What springs to mind when I say mental health?’

The responses came thick and fast: depression, anxiety, illness, absenteeism.

‘That’s interesting,’ came the response from the presenter. ‘I said “mental health,” not “mental illness”.’

Should this be surprising? Many of us tend to think of mental health as something negative: the source of bad things, a dark unseen force, hidden and menacing. But, of course, like our physical health, mental health isn’t necessarily positive or negative. It is something that can be assessed, nurtured and improved. There are factors that we can predict will contribute to poor mental health. These factors may be psychological, biological, or environmental. Some might be subject to our control and some might not, including factors that are in the hands of other people.

These external factors are a continuing source of fascination for me and now must be on the agendas of all those people embarking on large organisational change. We spend vast amounts of time and energy actually at work, and of course we typically expend gigantic amounts of energy thinking about work when not actually ‘doing’ work. Work matters. So does our mental health. Where is the connection?

In New South Wales, local government affected by structural change is in an excruciating waiting period.

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 person, viewed from behind, faces a train, with the unnoticing people inside separated from her by a window.

The Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor Paradigm

By Sam Robinson

One way where this might come up at work…

  • A team is “left to its own devices” for many years, used as a dumping ground for staff who are being moved on, there is little or no recognition for their work – apart from when things go wrong (then they really hear about it).
  • A new manager is appointed and intends to “make things right”. She goes about articulating roles, holding people to account and managing performance.
  • Team member(s) feel aggrieved and share stories about what a bully the new manager is.

Victim-Rescuer-Persecutor Paradigm

Originally known as the Karpman Drama Triangle (Karpman, S (1968) Fairy tales and script drama analysis Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26)) this model is intended to show the destructive relationships that can emerge when people are in conflict. Karpman chose the phrase “drama” as he intended to focus on the perception that people can end up playing certain roles – often unknowingly. He does not and I do not deny that there are actually “real” victims. This model is about the impact of perceptions, and the influence of those perceptions on our behaviour.

In this model, there are 3 roles, the Victim, the Persecutor and the Rescuer. The roles are not static and can shift between different people and back and forth between roles. Typically, the situation commences when a particular person takes on a Victim role. All roles play a part in keeping this unhelpful dynamic in place.

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?