Complexity in Organizations: Finding Patterns that Work

As our series on org culture continues, its time to raise the bar in our thinking.

Imagine an overlay of the many cultural dimensions of Edgar Schein onto the four primary cultural forces of Charles Handy. The plot thickens: these are conditions present in virtually all organizations. Large orgs have many, diverse subcultures, making cause and effect of broader organization behaviors elusive. The many variables drive an unpredictable dynamic. Traditional OD interventions often take on issues or interventions one by one, in an effort to simplify. But this simply leaves prevailing forces intact.

It’s a complex but common situation, and for most, it’s hard to imagine how to deal with it. As we said in our framing post, that’s why org and culture change efforts often struggle or fail.

The key focus: complexity, and how it impacts culture change in large organizations.

A modern, more holistic perspective for grappling with complexity in organizations comes from the Human Systems Dynamics Insititute (HSDI). Glenda Eoyang w/ Ed Olson, in “Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science” (2001) introduce some new thinking. Let’s take look at how their model creates focus on specific group interactions amid a sea of variables:

    What, Where and When (defining: the “containers”). Must focus on the problem scope or domain that bring a group of people together at a point in time. Many contexts are possible and potentially meaningful, but to achieve a result, one must be picked for focus, to produce a tangible result. More simply, if its a “box within a box” world, which box are we working on right now?
    Who (defining: the “differences”). Ideally, members of a group will be diverse in their thinking. This brings strong creative energy via opposing viewpoints. Each member can be a catalyst. Bringing members in contact helps them to see alternatives and challenge the status quo. This is essential, and often impossible in Handy’s ‘role/silo’ culture.
    How (defining: the “exchanges”). Ensuring an efficient means for interaction is key, including face to face conversation and electronic connections. How and why will people in this problem space connect? What is the currency of their interaction? Again, difficult in a ‘role/silo’ world.

I see these as the critical building blocks for framing (and ultimately, teaching) collaborative behaviors. And from this conceptual framework, some useful and practical insights have already emerged.

To advance these ideas, let’s tap the perspectives of additional HSDI thought leaders Royce Halladay, Christine Quade, and Mary Nations:

    Patterns are outcomes that result from adaptive group collaboration. It is important to reinforce (and thus, reproduce) the positive patterns, and stop the negative ones.
    Simple Rules are the basis for guiding behavior, which can be done by selecting valuable patterns and reinforcing them (eg. corporate “guiding principles”). These must be actions, starting with a verb.
    Generative Engagement (aka “productive outcomes”) may be the holy grail in this thought process for OD. It is the way to tap value from the theory, as teams model desired behaviors from the organization, and adopt simple rules.

Over time, the theories go, the organization adopts the best, most valuable behaviors, learning to follow useful patterns. There is more engagement. Good things happen. The organization learns, adapts, and becomes more effective.

If you’re an OD professional, this should be resonating a bit.

As a simple example, cross-functional problem-solving teams can accomplish much using this model. But an even more specific example is a special case: online social communities like #smchat and #ecosys. The diverse thinking of such a group tends to challenge established norms. There is no pre-existing structure to unwind. Innovation can commence as soon as the simple rules are established. The group creates its own situational context, and develops its own specialized, often highly productive method for exchange of ideas.

In complexity terms, we call this “self-organizing”. It is a powerful way for groups to spawn new, emergent results.

That’s a fancy name for innovation.

Seeking to Understand Optimal Conditions. Creating optimized, cross-functional discovery teams is a great way to demonstrate and model effective collaboration. They function best in Handy’s “task/network” model. They are designed to adapt, as members learn from interacting with others, tapping their collective base of experience. And they quickly grow adept at pursuing only patterns that produce desired results. Quite literally, they learn. Without such dynamics, the hardened status quo of the “role/silo” culture prevails, restricting exchange, and providing insufficient diversity of thinking to move beyond the status quo. Thus in traditional structured, top-down groups, innovation can easily be shut down. In groups that understand and build energy from complexity science and the HSDI framework, innovation can flourish.

The “Learning Organization” is a future state imagined by Peter Senge in Fifth Discipline (1990). His systems thinking concepts assumed more structure, but his vision of what is possible is congruent with what I’ve outlined here. We are working in the same direction.

Where Senge left open the “how”, Eoyang and others at HSDI are applying complexity science to get there.

The rest is up to us. When we’ve connected the dots on the core elements of organization and culture change (as we’re doing here) we can move more swiftly to pilot implementations.

Next, I’ll post on implications of Culture Change in Government and will update Kotter’s “8 interventions” to account for 21st century forces of increased complexity.

Meantime, your insights are, as always, greatly appreciated.

The Trouble w/ Silos: Lessons from Charles Handy

CHARLOTTE, NC. March, 2010, by

We’re continuing to unpack the forces of culture in organizations.

So far, we’ve framed the many challenges, and looked to Edgar Schein to help us understand the interplay among org culture’s multiple, overlapping dimensions.

Now let’s tap the insights of Charles Handy (Understanding Organizations, 4th ed. 1993) who defined four cultural structures that are alive and well today.

I’ve summarized key implications here:

Lot’s to absorb, but Handy is telling an important story. First, let’s update the semantics from Handy’s 4 models, with some 21st century terms.

  • Power (command)
  • Role (control, silo, bureaucracy)
  • Task (network, matrix)
  • Person (individual contributor, talent pool)

To me, its clear: Handy’s structural forces are as deeply ingrained in modern organizations as ever. But what else can we learn from these structural tendencies?

The Trouble with Silos. Humans are a resilient sort, even (especially?) in an organizational context. Perhaps it’s because orgs evolve toward the stability of role-based (or really, standards-based) hierarchy, in a drive to perpetuate past success. We tend to repeat what we know how to do. That sets the stage for trouble, but there’s more to it. The other 3 models, while valuable, also face a limiting factor of organization size. They just don’t work well in large organizations. That has a sobering implication:

Handy’s Role-focused (silo) model is the only one that scales, making it the de facto “end state” culture as our social and commercial infrastructures expand. The result is calcification. We see this in academia, public education, and large-scale commercial enterprises in virtually every industry.

In short, with scale, our silos are hardening. We need to find a way to break this cycle.

Taking On Complexity. In coming posts, I’ll argue that 21st century complexity demands more dynamic organizational frameworks, embracing objectives like discovery and learning. It’s not the first time we’ve posed such ideas. But with the help of Schein, Handy and others, I hope to push toward new, actionable insights.

We’ll want to talk further about the synthesis of models. Most OD veterans (including Schein and Handy) would assert that blending of models is essential.

But too often the organizational practice is “one size fits all”.

Next Up. In my next post, we’ll look at adaptation and simple rules: how patterns emerge within orgs (aka human systems), and how we might use them to harness complexity. This will let us bring 21st century perspectives to Handy’s original analysis.

It’s a complex world. Our organizations and cultures need to be redesigned to contend with it.

Stay tuned.

The Many Dimensions of Organization Culture

As I shared in the framing for this series, organization culture can be amorphous: hard to pin down, and difficult to define. That’s a problem. Because culture is often called out as a fundamental barrier to innovation and change.

In this post, we’ll start to see why.

To build a framework for discussion, I delved into the work of Edgar Schein, a pioneer in Organizational Development (“OD”). With several decades of practical case studies under his belt, he brings the voice of experience. While he targets corporations, his conclusions appear valid for large organizations more generally, at least enough to get us thinking.

So let’s jump in.

In The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (1999), Schein outlines 3 levels that I’ll describe as the perceptive dimension for understanding culture. These are categories of what can be learned:

  1. the visible and observable – what you can see (space allocations; the trappings assigned to members; rituals and events; public packaging, including artifacts like marketing press releases and monolithic headquarters buildings, the glossy and glassy facades that project a desired image)
  2. spoken, espoused views – what you’ll be told (stated values)
  3. hidden, tacit, underlying assumptions -what’s invisible to inside and outside observers (this one is considered the deepest and most powerful, being so basic for so long that they’re taken for granted).

We tend to track what we can measure, so often our attempts to describe culture start and stop with the first two items above. But there’s much more to the story.

Schein says culture is a property of a group, reflecting it’s shared beliefs and values. How big is such a group? It turns out all sample sizes are valid. I’ll tag these as the scale dimension to denote size. Schein makes mention of those shown in italics as cultures can flow across boundaries and thus be inherited. Think “Western work ethic” as a good example. But I’ve added some additional groups, to paint a fuller, 21st century picture:

  1. international community (federations of like-minded peoples)
  2. social community (common demographics and beliefs)
  3. national (bound by arbitrary political borders)
  4. local community (bound by common geography)
  5. digital community (bound loosely by connections and some stated common ground or affinity)
  6. corporate organization
  7. teams as stakeholder groups (internal to the organization, with the ability to posses their own sub-cultures)
  8. functional silos (a special case of teams within an organization that form sub-cultures that may resist other elements; while congruent, their cultures may be different, thus creating challenges)

Finally, Schein uses a breakdown that I’ll call the structural dimension of culture, which looks like this:

  1. contextual depth – providing core, foundational meaning of all beliefs and values in the perceptive dimensions.
  2. contextual breadth – exhaustive scope boundaries to this group, including all internal and external relationships
  3. stability – the result of the above factors, describing full social context and creating longevity over time.

According to Schein, then, culture provides an organization with a sense of boundaries, continuity, and predictability, a sense of place and belonging.

What to make of all this?

Culture is clearly complex, with many interacting variables. At any moment, all the dimensions seem to be in play. We know from studying and participating in organizations that the many stakeholders – because they’re human – possess a degree of unpredictable behavior. They are adaptive. Schein warns us not to over-simplify our assumptions or our conclusions. Now, it’s easier to see why.

Perhaps culture exists as a guide to people who are, by nature, apt to struggle with boundaries and conflicting motivations. Some might say it’s an “emergent” property of human systems, created to establish self-perception and normalizing behavior. In a group setting, we must learn what success looks like, learning how to behave to be a surviving member.

In the new world, however, with fast-paced changes and soft boundaries, the comforting mores of culture may be counterproductive.

At a minimum, we can see the basis for resistance to Web 2.0 technologies, which have at their core the ability to change context and group affiliation quickly. Culture is about stability and certainty. No wonder there’s resistance.

So what of the structure and shape of culture?

How will culture function in the hyper-connected 21st century?

[Next up: focus on categories and examples, per the work of Charles Handy. Stay tuned.]


Organization Culture: The Challenge of Alignment in the Complexity of Human Interaction


Foundations of Org Culture | Blue Mesa CO (c) 2020 Amberwood Media

CARY, NC. 2010 (with updates).  How would you define organizational culture?  I’m finding it’s an increasingly important question.

To interact and function in the 21st Century,  it’s become critical that leaders understand the internal dynamics of the teams they are leading. How will an organization play in the new world? How will it connect? Drive value? Compete?

An org chart might show us structure and intent, but to truly grasp how decisions are being made, we need to understand the organization’s culture – a task that’s easier said than done. Ask enough people and you might get a sense of it, but its dimensions and reach can remain elusive.

Conceptually, org culture might be framed like this:

A complex, loosely-defined amalgamation of beliefs and behaviors of a group of people that yields significant influence on what actually gets done.

Peter Drucker called the topic “amorphous” (literally, without shape) because it defies the crisp definition that most in management prefer. Personally, I think it will likely fall more in the domain of leadership, aligned with Grace Hopper’s pithy: “You manage things, but you lead people.”

Regardless of how you try to frame it or categorize it, two key questions emerge. Can culture be overtly changed? Many, especially academics, say ‘no’. But can culture be influenced? That’s a topic of some very interesting debate and the subject of this series.

I’ll concede now, I’m not an expert but I’m a practitioner and a survivor. I’ve written vision statements in attempts to shape culture, and I’ve been stymied by mandates from above that were rendered impossible by the forces of culture. At one time or another, we’ve all worn cultural handcuffs.

Series Framing. I’ve continued to post on the many aspects of culture using this outline, with key entries posted.

  1. Org Culture: Dimensions. (ref: Schein) 1/25/10
  2. Org Culture: 4 Structural Forces. (ref: Handy) 3/02/10
  3. Org Culture and Complexity: Useful Patterns. (ref: HSDI: Eoyang, Halladay, Nations) 3/20/10
  4. Culture Change in Government. (ref: Eggers/O’Leary and B.Noveck) 3/21/10
  5. Org Culture: Interventions. (ref: Kotter) 4/10/10
  6. It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government 9/10/10
  7. Collaborative Culture: Insights from Peter Senge 1/11/11
  8. in response to Tara Hunt post 11/17/12
  9. Why Culture Mattered at IBM and Kodak (on Medium) 9/2/16
  10. Org Culture: Deconstructing Silos 6/8/20

I’ve touched base with colleagues in OD, KM & IT on this over the last 8 years, and have approached many more recently, hopeful that several are still willing to join in the journey.  I encourage you to post your insights via comments, both here on this blog and on LinkedIn. Per my usual MO, this on-going research will be a collaboration.

Org Culture:  The Story with a Significant Arc

Getting at culture problems has been on my mind since 1989. At the time, a few short years out of college, I recall rifling through Rosabeth Kanter’s classic Change Masters, hoping to unpack my first run-in with hierarchy, silos and cultures of control.

I asked, “Isn’t there a better way?” Ah, the innocence of youth.

In the years since, I’ve tried to follow Kanter’s advice. Sometimes my interventions, at once brave and naive, have actually worked. But 20 years later, I’m still in chorus with my colleagues, still reciting that same old question.

The Trouble with Silos.

As we’ll see in coming posts, silo thinking and cultural archetypes that favor stability work against innovation. In fact, I’ll argue that innovation is being held hostage on an increasing number of fronts. Silos are designed for specialists, driving to standards and removing variance. It’s important for manufacturing and accounting.

But, here’s the kicker –

If the silo model gets applied too broadly – which I contend is rampant throughout the business world – collaborative behaviors are counter-culture.

It’s a challenge of immense proportions. Let’s find some answers.

Chris Jones | @sourcepov

Starting 2010 with a Bias for Action

It’s the New Year, and there’s no time like the present to embrace all the things we spent 2009 talking about. Trouble is, there was lots of talk in 2009. Talk full of buzz words. Some claim that we’ve begun talking in circles. Maybe so. But in the process, we’ve laid an important foundation.

Look at it like this:

Meaningful, sustainable change starts with an informed conversation. Together, it’s easier to frame the future, to find the best path forward.

In 2009, via blogs and chats, we began to frame that future.

In many ways, 2009 had to happen. It’s not entirely clear how, but we survived it. We realigned our cost structures, built our networks, and learned how to interact using social media.

Now, with scarcely time for a breath, the hard work begins anew. Let’s start 2010 with a clear mindset. Here are four key themes, resolutions to guide our collaboration efforts:

  1. Bias for action. The key step in breaking the talk cycle.
  2. Bias for engagement. Moving away from the Web 1.0 broadcast model of communicating, toward a more valuable 1:1 exchange that builds relationships.
  3. Bias for learning and discovery. I’ve posted on the need for a learning culture, not only increased higher priority for education, but renewed focus on critical thinking and semantic clarity. If we succeed, the prize is a knowledge renaissance.
  4. Bias for change. None of the above will matter if we continue to cling to the past. Our risk-averse cultures are often biased to resist change. To move forward, we need to embrace it.

What does action-oriented collaboration look like? Here are some case studies in virtual community that seek to use engagement and discovery to drive new solutions:

  1. Look for some immediate changes at #smchat. Building on insights from 2009, we’re brainstorming how we can drive even more value for members. Thought leadership and emergent insight have been the core of our value stream. How can we leverage that?
  2. We’re at an inflection point for exciting things w/ #ecosys, our pilot project on public engagement to drive social innovation.
  3. Take a look at what’s happening at govloop. Over 20,000 voices from across government are self-organizing. Ideas are everywhere.

Let me know if you know of others.

2010 will be a time of culture change and new paradigms. We don’t have much choice. So strap in and hold on. We’ve got some work to do.

In a virtual world, what do we mean by “Community”?

Back in the day, when tribes were really tribes, the most critical need within a community was survival. Separating from the group introduced risk. Staying close improved your chances. In some ways, little has changed. These conditions seem strangely familiar.

No wonder an emotional connection often exists among the people and places of our local communities.

Borrowing from the anthropology books, the community of practice (“CoP”) concept emerged. It was coined by Lave & Wenger in the early 1990’s to reflect the tendency for professional groups to form based on common interests, independent of local boundaries. With a gradual introduction of work group and email technology, geographic constraints diminished. Knowledge Management (KM) brought recognition that groups in remote places could collaborate.

Today, social media dramatically improves on that capability, serving to amplify, accelerate, and even multi-thread interactions. But there’s a need to strike a balance between capability and usability. For a virtual community to survive, some key ingredients are required:

  1. A common, stated purpose (affinity).
  2. An aligned culture that values participation, cognitive diversity and discovery.
  3. Strong, cohesive relationships, built via engagement, trust and mutual respect.
  4. Support from authoritative external leaders (if applicable), and (at least) rudimentary governance.
  5. Awareness of diverse contexts (recognizing differences across functional silos, or along social vs. commercial, or local vs. global dimensions). This implies an ability to manage your mental filters.
  6. Semantic clarity.
  7. Strong connection (or access), providing intuitive ways for members to interact.

Virtual communities cut across traditional geographic, social and political boundaries; membership in many groups is possible. This allows cultures to mix. With increased interdependence comes new complexity. So it’s a mistake to believe virtual communities work just like the local ones. In the physical world, we had nonverbal cues; getting our bearings involved our ‘line of sight’. Now, we must rely on our ‘line of thinking’. And that can change quickly.

If a traditional community gives us a social context and a sense of place, a virtual community gives us optional contexts, diverse ways to view a problem and its solutions.

It’s more capability, with a price .. it takes more rigor to drive it.

Social media is just a platform, the next set of tools. The hard work of change remains. Is our culture more aligned with a race to the future? Or is our desire for stability prompting us (even subconsciously) to cling to the past?

I’m an optimist, but many take the latter perspective. For the ultimate answer, I’m holding on to the complexity view: the optimal solution is likely someplace in the middle.

Insights from 10/15 NC Inmagic Session

Recently, I had the chance to speak with a group of NC-based Inmagic customers. The crowd was packed with experienced KM practitioners, many with library science backgrounds. While framing a “knowledge renaissance” might have sounded ambitious in other venues, with this audience, it was time to swing for the fences.


I’d laid out the core themes in a prior post, but as with any productive collaboration, new ideas can emerge when people come together with different perspectives, applying alternative contexts to old problems, or approaching issues in unexpected ways. This Inmagic session was no exception.

Here are some of the takeaways:

  1. People produce knowledge, not process or technology; as ‘knowledge workers’, they do this by applying context to raw information; metadata (via tagging) continues to be a primary means
  2. Due to the flood of electronic content, the workload of knowledge workers is ever increasing
  3. Finding and keeping track of authoritative SME’s (subject matter experts) has become increasingly difficult
  4. Meaningful relationships are essential elements of collaboration and community
  5. Engagement (rather than passive participation) is required
  6. Understanding complexity is a key building block in the evolution of learning organizations
  7. Social media is unlocking many doors to knowledge worker collaboration, but proliferation of niche SM tools remains a challenge; vendors are making headway as they work toward the needed integration, a key factor in Enterprise 2.0 enablement
  8. Learning and innovation share common threads (discovery, visualization, vetting of alternative solutions), prompting the question: are ‘learning’ and ‘innovation’ really the same thing? or perhaps driven from the same cognitive skill base?
  9. There is a new imperative to foster “cultures of learning”.

If you’ve followed my last few posts in this thread, you may note the evolution on the ‘cultures of learning’ concept. I now see it as a required baseline. Culture has always been an important factor. But for me, the ‘learning’ imperative emerged during the preparation of the deck and the discussions that followed.

So our session proved the point: we can always learn .. if we dare to listen, and to keep an open mind.


Here’s a look at the slides.

Thanks again to my hosts at Inmagic and the KM practitioners they assembled. Together, we shed some new light on the path to Enterprise 2.0, the future of KM, and the steps to achieve a Knowledge Renaissance.

On Cultures of Learning

Since August, I’ve been on a journey. My posts have ranged from social innovation and ecosystem reform to Enterprise 2.0, the pitfalls of traditional Knowledge Management (KM), and the first inklings of a knowledge renaissance.

Do you see common elements? What if we made an effort to foster cultures of learning throughout our social and commercial ecosystems?  If we assumed there were shared threads, what kind of tapestry could we weave?


A Knowledge Renaissance


At the core of such a model would be teams of people, working to understand and improve the many problems and challenges in front of them. Let’s call that process collaboration. Social media is making this a virtual experience, removing traditional geographic and political barriers. Now anyone can collaborate with virtually anyone, at little or no cost. All it takes is a commitment of time, and a sense of purpose. What would they be working towards? The stuff of paradigm shifts, really: emergent insight, knowledge, or simply a better “way of doing things”. So we’ll call the outcome by its rightful name: innovation.

Now let’s look at examples in two distinct areas:

Social context. In areas like public education and healthcare, a focus on stakeholder outcomes is gaining increasing priority. Many have grown frustrated by a current state that is broken and dysfunctional. Even now, social innovators are forming ranks to attack issues in our ecosystems.

Commercial context. Still other teams begin to work in cross-functional ways to drive new organizational models. Focus on individual contribution increases. Silos are seen as the problem. Under banners like “Enterprise 2.0” and “Social Business Design” corporate innovators are building new models for networked interaction and collaboration.

Today, social and corporate cultures rule the status quo, and are routinely identified as the most critical barrier to change. The alternative? We need to build cultures that embrace learning as a fundamental requirement, bringing open minds and critical thinking to the table.

Behind the scenes, learning and innovation are woven tightly together.

Here’s the bottom line: if it sounds ambitious, it is. But the foundational work is underway and social media has unlocked many new doors. Its work that needs our energy and our focus. Are you on board? I’d love to get your thoughts.

Why KM Struggles: Fighting a Culture of Control

CARY, NC USA.   The practice of KM (or “Knowledge Management“) has had it’s struggles, enduring many years of growing pains.  The grand prize – product and process innovation – is alluring, so KM teams have worked diligently to leverage intuitive, web-based tools and frameworks that can drive expanded use of corporate knowledge stores.   Behind the scenes, vendors have been busy too, because KM (and it’s close cousin, “Enterprise Search“) have been the best hope for social media tool developers to get a foot-hold in the lucrative commercial space. 

But lasting engagement and results are often elusive.  Why is this so?

In many important ways, KM is culturally at odds with the prevailing management mindset in corporate America. 

For the last 100 years or so, the fundamental paradigm in business has been been built around control, with administration by authoritative, hierarchical management.  Goals and policies come down from the top, and the mission is routinely around maximizing hard economic profit, often to the detriment of other goals.  In spite of efforts to maintain a portfolio of goals, the drive for quarterly earnings can often trump all else.  In fact, reducing cost of production and cost of defects has been the hallmark of industrial management, and it all comes down to standardization.  In this world, innovation is often relegated to R&D (it’s own “speciality”), if it’s funded at all.  It’s a mindset that externalizes improvement, if not discouraging change outright.

In today’s economy, the long-term effect of these trends is more apparent than ever.

KM embraces innovation, and sees change as important.  It seeks to open doors and encourage collaboration across organizational boundaries.  It is designed to weave innovation into the fabric of every team and every process.  With KM teams and practices in play, problem solving leans away from the structured organization of functional specialists, in favor of empowering individual contributors, who form fluid, cross-functional teams that are often better suited to solve complex problems.  The locus of energy shifts to knowledge workers, who can best positioned to see, understand, articulate, and guide their teams to achieve better, more innovative solutions.

In a business culture predicated on control, it’s small wonder that KM has been facing lots of closed doors.

KM is at it’s best when knowledge workers receive the tools and training they need to generate insight and act on it.   Gearing-up for KM is lots of work, but it’s the foundation for success of a knowledge enabled company in a marketplace that is beginning to reward players that are savvy about how to leverage knowledge and colloboration to innovate. 

To unlock KM’s potential within an enterprise, then, it seems the only productive path is to knock on the doors of culture change within the organization.  Is executive management open for change?  Better still, are they demanding it?  Do they see the value of cross-functional teams?  Are they willing to help break down the political barriers that are natural artifacts of hierarchical management structures?

Or is the status quo going to have to suffice? 

If you start hearing about limited money for KM, you have your answer, at least for the short-term.

Knowledge Management can work.  In fact, to compete in our new knowledge economy, it’s critical.  But we need to start with culture issues, and fix those first.  The journey is long, but there are no shortcuts.

You have to begin at the beginning.