March 27, 2015

Maintain diversity and redundancy (Building resilience: Principle 1)

"Systems with many different components (e.g. species, actors, or sources of knowledge) are generally more resilient than systems with few components.  Redundancy provides 'insurance' within a system by allowing some components to compensate for the loss or failure of others.  Redundancy is even more valuable if the components providing the redundancy also react differently to change and disturbance (response diversity). In a well-connected community, where functions overlap and redundancy is present, creativity and adaptability can flourish" ~ Stockholm Resilience Centre

It is apt that this is the first principle in the list of seven as I think it has tremendous application in the typical modern organisation. While I certainly can’t generalize, many of the organisations that I work with are not doing very well when it comes to fostering requisite levels of diversity and redundancy in their organisations.  Unfortunately, as market and industry disruptions become more frequent, the need to build this requisite diversity needed for effective adaptation is becoming increasingly important.  We can simply no longer afford to continue with our current practices and thinking. Here we can learn from the experience of farmers in drier parts of South Africa & Namibia who needed to shift from cattle ranching to wildlife eco-tourism in response to a growing market preference for cultural ecosystem services.  Those farmers who had maintained the natural biodiversity on their farms are finding this adaptation much easier (and cheaper) than those who destroyed the biodiversity during their cattle farming years.  Similarly, pre-emptively conserving (or building) the diversity in our organisations will make it much easier for us to respond effectively when (not if) disruption come or new opportunity beckons.  Trying to do so after the fact is often too little too late and very expensive. These are some of the patterns I’ve seen in interactions with large corporates recently that undermine diversity in modern organisations: The concept of diversity has become compliance driven and politicised: In South Africa (and possibly elsewhere) the word "diversity" has become “loaded”.  Our past, typified by blatant racial discrimination, has led to many controversial initiatives aimed at making workplaces more equitable. Although necessary, implementation has not always been well thought-through and it has unfortunately largely led to diversity or transformation becoming synonymous with reaching government set targets. It's, therefore, become compliance-driven and it has mostly led to a decrease in our appreciation for diversity and an increase in tensions in the workplace between different races, genders etc. In response, a plethora of mostly training based interventions was implemented to build greater understanding and tolerance between the various groups.  Most of these have failed dismally, and unfortunately, as most of them were labeled "diversity processes" it has further tainted the word in many South African contexts. When one considers the need for diversity from a resilience perspective, it completely shifts the way we think about it.  Then it has very little to do with politics or meeting government-set targets, but everything to do with building resilience and adaptive capacity. An over-focus on efficiency: Conventional economic thinking promotes maximum efficiency.  As a result, most of our organisations have been restructured and "Six Sigma'd" to death.  For the last decade or more, the focus has been on optimising efficiency, which mostly involves stripping away any redundancy in the organisation.  This often leads to a loss of effectiveness and creates many unintended consequences. For one, it creates morale and organisational health issues: For example, as part of my culture work I have interviewed many bank branch personnel who are close to burn-out as they are unable to take leave or even fall sick as the bank has gotten rid of all the "floats" (generalist staff members who were able to temporarily step into virtually any role in the branch if needed).  I wonder if these banks ever counted the real cost of the relatively small cost-saving brought about by this redundancy removal exercise? When we strip away redundancy we effectively reduce our margin for error to ridiculous limits. Over-specialisation We have become overly focused on specialization to the extent that in many companies there are very few generalists around who've worked in different areas of the organisation over time (and those that are left are usually nearing retirement).  The trend nowadays is to get a specialist education; find a job where you can work your way up in a related role or department; and hopefully, become an expert in that field over time. Generalists are typically not the ones who get promoted in our organisations because they are seen as "jacks of all trades, masters of none", yet when the context shifts unexpectedly, these are typically the people who are best able to adapt.  Several years ago we were contracted to help a bank transfer deeply experiential knowledge from experienced lenders to "greenhorns" or newly appointed lenders.  What struck me was the depth of wisdom in the cohort of experienced lenders, almost all of them generalists to some extent, having gained their wisdom while spending years working in several different parts of the bank, often playing very different roles from one year to the rest. In order to increase resilience, modern organisations need to look into practices that were popular in the past such as job rotation where people gain experience in multiple areas of the business, or at the very least encouraging their people to have an active interest and learn about areas outside their own area of expertise.  Business Schools might also consider adding other disciplines into their MBA's and other business degrees e.g. anthropology or even biology. Sub-cultures have become anathema I’ve recently engaged with several OD practitioners regarding a complexity informed perspective on culture (see this post). In virtually all of them, the moment the topic of sub-cultures came up, there was an “allergic reaction” (what was encouraging is that line managers and executives had the opposite reaction – they are much more pragmatic about this than the HR/OD people I interacted with).   Many companies strive for an “ideal single culture”; they seem to adopt a zero-tolerance perspective when it comes to allowing for diversity when it comes to an organizational culture. The reality is that there will always be sub-cultures, whether you choose to allow them or not. Trying to force a single culture with aligned behaviours onto your organisation will simply lead to the sub-cultures going “underground”. Instead of fighting against a naturally occurring phenomenon, we need to find ways to accommodate the rich diversity of these sub-cultures while ensuring alignment to the purpose narrative of the organisation. Recruitment practices and biases toward similarity It seems to be a very human thing to prefer to be surrounded by like-minded people who are "like us".  Some neuroscientists believe this to be hard-wired in the brain i.e. we perceive difference as threatening and therefore avoid it.  Unfortunately, this often leads to Exco's, teams and whole organisations of very similar thinking people.  I've seen many an Exco where groupthink reigns and should a maverick or someone just different enough to cause discomfort make it onto Exco accidentally, that individual is swiftly neutralised or gotten rid of.  In my role as StrengthsFinder coach, I've seen many teams (and even small companies) where the people have very similar talent profiles.  For example, I recently worked with a team where the prevalence of executing themes like Achiever or Responsibility was overwhelming.  This was not a friendly place for people who weren't as driven to execute and leaned more towards the thinking or relational strengths.  As this pattern sets in, I believe we subconsciously bias our recruitment processes to favor people who are "like us".  While cultural fit is important, skewing our hiring and promotion practices to screen out difference is dangerous, even if not done intentionally. These are just some of the patterns I’ve encountered in the organisations I’ve interacted with recently. I’m sure there are many more. I’d love for you to share your thoughts and stories by commenting on this post.

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