All Blacks culture drives their success

The All Blacks are arguably the most successful International sports team. This year they won all 14 games against the top teams in the world.

The All Blacks culture is the foundation for their success. I teach organisational culture, so I know the theory well and I am always looking for strong examples. They are not easy to find. In yesterdays interview on National Radio, when Kathryn Ryan asked about the team culture, coach Steve Hansen responded:

Well I think culture is a word that is used a lot and I think it should be, because I think it is the key ingredient. If you have got your culture of your business, your sporting team, your school – whatever it is that you are involved in right, and its being lived every day;  And that’s the key thing living it every day from the top down to the bottom rather than to bottom to the top. So you can’t have a day off…If your values are x,y, and z, then you have to live those values every day. You don’t have a problem with having someone not fitting in because that’s just the norm. And when something becomes the norm its easy for a young guy to come in and sees what they do – “oh that’s what they do I’ll do that”.

Its when you have the guys at the top doing something different to what your culture is all about that you get people wandering off and losing focus it becomes a rotten culture, then you are doomed to fail. So it’s a matter of living it every day and making sure the people at the top are driving it.

Here is the full interview. Steve Hansen also talks about the teams vision.

Most kiwis are raised on rugby and have a deep love of the game. So we know rugby culture, its stories, its heroes, its powerful visible artefacts. In the performance of our current team, if we look a little deeper we can see the cultural drivers that makes the team what it is. Players such as Ma’a Nonu, who struggle to perform to potential in regional teams, flourish in the All Black environment. When you watch the players in action, you can see their focus and trust – they focus doing their own role and they trust those around them are doing the same. When it comes together it is something beautiful to behold. This video captures some of the highlights of the year. Watch for the final try of the year against the Irish and the fluidity of the relentless attack.

I am always looking for examples of great leaders. I have found one in Steve Hansen. He doesn’t come across as the most articulate of men, but what he says is worth listening to. He’s this year’s IRB Coach of the Year and has probably been the key person driving the cultural development of the team over the last six years. If we can translate his lessons about culture into action, we can have a great year at work, in our families and communities in 2014.

And a “shout out” to Kath Kozel, a former colleague and communication teacher. I was raised on rugby, by Kath migrated her from the U.S. Her and her husband Matt have become great rugby fans. Her ranking in virtual rugby peaked at number 10 in the nation this year. Sometimes we need “outsiders” to reflect the beauty of the culture. Thanks Kath.

Waiting for the communication revolution

Over the last few decades communication channels have multiplied and in some organisations, communications have improved, but for the vast majority, workplace communication is still a major impediment to both organisational effectiveness and individual well-being. What are the solutions? How will the breakthroughs come?Communication Revolution

The foundations have been laid. The Internet has been with us for almost 25 years. Edward Freeman articulated stakeholder theory back in 1984. The publication of In Search of Excellence in 1982 focused people on the significance of culture. We have come a long way in the architecture of communication, but how are these developments manifest in organizations? Have they fundamentally changed our communication for the better, or is the residue of our old hierarchies still blocking significant progress?

This is the theme of our 2013 Conference in Wellington on 2, 3 December – Waiting for the Communication Revolution.

How do we evaluate the quality of organizational communication given these innovations? Here is an attempt to identify what good communication looks like in a 21st  Century organization. This organization will be characterized by:

  1. clear purpose and values
  2. a focus on value creation for stakeholders
  3. its people building warm relationships with those they frequently work and engage with
  4. diversity is encouraged, diverse voices are heard
  5. communication is transparent
  6. technology and intent encourages sharing of information and knowledge
  7. there is a orientation to learning
  8. social media is a organisational asset.

What do you think of this list? What’s missing? What organisations do you know that manifest these qualities?

Change and engagement, part one

The way we are changing is changing. The predominant approach to change has been to mandate it. An elite, at the top of the organisation, perceive a need for change and direct others to implement it. They will anticipate some resistance and have some strategies ready to overcome it. Often this change will involve some type of restructuring.

There is mounting evidence that this type of change doesn’t work very well and may actually deplete rather than add value. For some organisations, the frequency of this type of change results in a series of self-inflicted, debilitating injuries.

A recent Bain & Company study of 57 major reorganizations found that fewer than one third produced any meaningful improvement in performance. Some actually destroyed value.

Mandated change, bold strokes and long marches

Twenty years ago, in her book The Challenge of Organizational Change, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and her co-authors identified two types of change, bold strokes and long marches. Bold strokes are big strategic moves, such as buying another company, generating a large capital investment, or developing a new product. Bold strokes are usually mandated by the actions of “one or a few people”.

(Tom Peters’ take on mergers)

Long marches are more operational initiatives such as merging departments, transforming quality or customer relationships. According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “they require the support of many people and cannot be mandated in practice”

Of course we will continue to need a degree of mandated change, and other stakeholders such as government will mandate external change. We just need to hope that the skill and ability to design and manage change will improve.

Too frequent use of restructuring will come to be seen as the  corporate equivalent of the old medical practice of blood-letting and a sure symptom of dysfunction.

According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, long march change will have more dependable long term results and is more likely to change culture and habits. She then elaborates on the enduring foundation of sustainable organisational change – decision making.

Every large and complex organisation has many thousands of people who have each day the opportunity, or are literally required, to take action on something. We think of these as “choice points.” For an organisation to succeed in any long-run sense, these millions of choices must be more or less appropriate and constructive day in and day out. But this is an immensely difficult problem, because it requires the ultimate in decentralisation – literally to the individual level – along with centralisation in the sense that those individual choices must be coordinated and coherent.[1]

This same theme is echoed two decades later by Marcia Blenko in the Harvard Business Review:

In reality, a company’s structure results in better performance only if it improves the organisation’s ability to make and execute decisions better and faster than its competitors.[2]

Her she is elaborating on the centrality of decision effectiveness in sustaining effective change.

The engagement connection

Marcia Blenko’s establishes a link between decision effectiveness and employee engagement. Rosabeth Moss Kanter emphasised the importance of “choice points” throughout the organisation. And while the focus is on big business, even small businesses manifest thousands of choice points if we consider all employees and stakeholders.

Embedding a stakeholder ethos (including employee engagement) throughout the organisation will build resilience and adaptive capacity. Over time, it is more likely that those highly engaged staff will be making decisions and choices aligned with the best interests of the company. And over time there will be less need for mandated change.

[1] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Barry Stein and Tod Jick. The Challenge of Organizational Change: How Companies Experience It and Leaders Guide It. New York: Free Press, 1992, page 492, 495

[2] The Decision-Driven Organisation, by Marcia Blenko, Michael Mankins and Paul Rogers In Harvard Business Review June 2010, page 57

Learning as a foundation for engagement, part 3: Tools

Earlier posts in this series introduced organisational learning and explored why the practice hasn’t had much traction in organisations. This post offers tools for learning processes.

1. Suggestion box blog

In this cartoon by Harvey Schwadron – an employee outside the boss’s office drops a suggestion into the suggestion box. Unfortunately, the suggestion box has no bottom and the suggestion falls into the resignation box directly underneath it. In organisations that don’t learn well, suggestions are ignored or, worse, those offering them are treated as troublemakers. Try a suggestion box blog – the blog administrator can receive suggestions and publish them, or enable the person making the suggestion to post directly. If there is an open culture, the blog can be open so others can comment. Responses or contributions from the company’s leader will add to its credibility.

2. After action review

Richard Pascale describes the after action review (AAR) in a HBR article Changing the Way We Change. The practice emerged in the US military and is used after military action or exercises to enable learning. Suspending rank is the key feature of the AAR as it encourages participants to review events in order to learn. The process is based around four questions that can be adapted to any organisation and is especially useful on completion of events or projects.

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why was there a difference?
  • What activities do we sustain and what activities do we improve?

3. Stupid hour

Learning doesn’t come easy when we take ourselves too seriously, or we are driven by the need to look good. Dorothy Marcic, in her ground-breaking book Managing with the Wisdom of Love, advocates a ”stupid hour” where staff get together, perhaps at the end of the week and ask “what are we doing that is really stupid?”

4. Lean thinking

Lean thinking, modelled on Toyota’s processes, provides scaffolding for learning by creating multifunctional teams to surface opportunities for improvements (OFIs). Here is more detail from a post by Alex Twigg.

5. Incentives

Some years ago Portland Cement near Whangarei changed their remuneration system from an over-time based system to a total remuneration system. Overtime hours were annualised and employees were expected to work up to 51 hours for their annualised salary, but could go home if they finished the work. This changed employee behaviour – under the overtime system, they would welcome breakdowns, as they would have to work longer, and therefore make more money. But under the annualised system, they were incentivised to work more smartly. As an example, loader tyres used to be frequently damaged by limestone rock. Employees wanting to get home quicker, welded wings onto the loader buckets to clear rocks away from the tyres. The employees got to go home earlier and the company saved money. Annualisation effectively opened up avenues for learning.

6. Appreciation

Appreciation is arguably the noblest form of communication. Too often, workplace communication focuses on fault-finding – concentrating on what is wrong, rather than what is right. When people are frequently criticised, over time they cease any meaningful communication with those who are criticising. This creates the antithesis of learning. In an environment of appreciation, people feel safe to make suggestions. Here is a link to an earlier post that elaborates on appreciation.

the communication spectrum

7. Undercover boss

The TV show Undercover Boss features businesses in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. Across diverse businesses in these three settings, a consistent experience emerges – when the “boss” gets to know the people on the front line, they typically learn to appreciate what the workers do and return to their C.E. role much better for the experience. The C.E.s often enact employee suggestions, or include the employee in a project team. Here is Directv’s C.E. Mike White, talking about his undercover boss experience.

8. Learning from customers with social media

When I wrote this post about social media in February, this year, Stabucks Facebook page had almost 20 million likes. Now, 11 months later it has more than 26 million. Not all will provide useful insights for Starbucks, but any complaints can be quickly identified. Twitter serves the same purpose.

9. Values for learning

As with any other sustainable development in businesses and communities, better learning processes are underpinned by enabling values. Values that align well with learning include openness, honesty, integrity and appreciation. They are also the antidotes for defensiveness. You can probably think of others.

Do you consider your organisation is skilled at organisational learning?

Learning as a foundation for engagement – part two

From part one of this series, it is evident that the concept of organisational learning has been around for decades. But it doesn’t appear to have made much impact. For me there are two primary reasons:

  1. embedded defensiveness
  2. over-complicated prescriptions

1. Embedded defensiveness

Shooting the messenger is a practice that in earlier days manifest itself in physical violence and persists today, usually in more subtle punishments. In Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen threatens violence to the messenger that informs her of Antony’s wedding.

The space shuttle Challenger exploding

It is notable, however, that death and injury can still be caused by poor engagement and defensiveness. The explosion that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 can be attributed to organisational defensiveness and a lack of engagement. The Roger’s Commission found that the issue with the o-rings, that caused the disaster, had been know since 1977. The 1986 launch proceeded, despite the unheeded warnings of those who believed the o-rings might fail due to the unseasonably cold weather.

More recently, and closer to home in New Zealand, the Pike River mining disaster appears to be reveal another example of poor learning through organisational defensiveness. On 19 November 2010, a massive explosion killed 29 miners in the Pike River mine. A year later, testimonies from the resulting Royal Commission of Inquiry are revealing how industry insiders were concerned about conditions in the mine in the weeks before the explosion. A Japanese mining expert, Masaoki Nishioka, told the Royal Commission that he advised the mine’s management of his concern’s about the safety of the mine before leaving the mine on October 20. Bernie Monk, whose son died in the mine has found some consolation in that miners are not not so scared to stand up and raise concerns.

In both the cases of the Challenger and Pike River Mine, a common element is the decision makers not wanting to hear news that would impede the progress of their plans.

These are the extreme and public cases of defensiveness. But it manifests itself in many organisations and is the main impediment to better learning. When manifested as the “I know best” attitude, defensiveness suppresses beneficial ideas from the organisation’s rank and file that might reduce costs or spawn innovations. The MacLeod Report, Engaging for Success articulates the link between innovation and engagement:

Gallup indicate that higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation. Fifty-nine per cent of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas against only three per cent of disengaged employees. (page 12)

the downside of defensiveness and the upside of learning and engagement

Over-complicated prescriptions for learning

Many books have been written about organisational learning, typically offering complex tools and methods to achieve learning. Professional development efforts to implement these ideas are first invested in senior staff, and often the initiatives fail to gain traction further down the hierarchy. Perhaps the tyranny of defensiveness sabotages efforts?  Harvard’s Amy Edmondson comments on this phenomena in this excellent video:

First, many of the early discussions of the learning organization were abstract and without concrete prescriptions for action. Second, the concept is really aimed at the CEO, or other C-level executives, rather than local leaders who are leading focussed work … in the organisation itself – where the real critical work of the organization is done…

It appears that Japanese companies learned to democratise learning decades ago, while Western companies are still struggling to embed learning processes. The diagram below reveals the extent that learning is embedded in Japanese automobile assembly plants. Note that the suggestions generated by Japanese workers far exceed those from Americans and Europeans. (click on the image for a larger version)

Practical tools for engendering learning will be explored in the next post in this series. I would love to hear examples of how defensiveness or over-complication has impeded learning in organisations you are familiar with.

Learning as a foundation for engagement (part one)

Four organisational capabilities support internal and external stakeholder engagement – leadership, organisational learning, communication and adaptive capacity (or change). This post examines the strong links between organisational learning and engagement.

The discipline of organisational learning has been around for a long time, but does not appear to have gained much traction. I suspect, as engagement practices become more mainstream, organisational learning will receive renewed interest.

The emergence of organisational learning

Bob Garratt, in his book The Learning Organisation provides a “personal history of the development of the learning organisation concept“. He traces its beginnings back to thinkers such as Reg Revans, Fritz Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) and Jacob Bronowski (author of the BBC Series The Ascent of Man) at the end of the Second World War. Bob Garratt positions organisational learning as part of the softer side of management theory, paralleling the more hard-edged analytical management theory. 

(image of Bob Garratt from

The concept of organisational learning is hard to pin down, but should never be over-complicated. I regard it as the ability of an organisation to create a culture to enable it to learn from its stakeholders.

Key ideas

Learning about organisational learning theory in the absence of practical application can make it unnecessarily complex. So here, we will look at a few more key ideas about the learning organisation. These will make more sense as you apply them to your experience. The ideas here are adapted from Bob Garratt’s The Learning Organisation. Note that he first wrote this in 1987. I am impressed that the ideas he expressed align nicely with Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s research described in Supercorps (more about this later).

1. Organisations are complex adaptive human systems – not mindless machines. 

“It is first essential to break the predominant managerial and directorial mindset that human organisations are rational emotionless data-logic driven machines which stay resolutely on carefully planned and pre-determined tracks regardless of the changing environment…” (page 12)

While the physical sciences accepted Einstein’s relativism as representing a more complete picture of our universe, the management mindset seems to stick with a more clockwork Newtonian view of the world. Perhaps it is because rational systems are easier to manage than human dynamics. Bob Garratt refers to biology’s complex adaptive systems as a guide for working with people and organisations. Peter Senge reinforces this, stating that we need to “stop thinking like mechanics and start acting like gardeners”.

2. Organisations driven more by processes than structures. 

The hierarchical structures developed to facilitate production in the industrial age often hinder information age companies. Departmental structures often become silos that hinder necessary organisational processes, especially flows of communication and knowledge.

3. Learn from your learning and understand our learning processes

Often we are so busy that we fail to integrate reflection and learning into the process. Managers that do this often implement knee-jerk actions in their desperation to fix things. Another trap that organisations fall into is making universal changes, that, of necessity, require a huge investment in their success. Bob Garratt advocates taking small steps and learning from those actions. This is the basis of “action learning” – we will look at that in more depth later. As with other organisational learning writer’s, Bob Garratt acknowledges the importance of double loop learning articulated by Chris Argyris. This website provides a clear explanation of the concept.

4. Creating a learning culture 

In a culture that encourages learning, people feel safe about sharing information, confident there will not be unfair retaliation. And it goes further than that – people know that their ideas are valued, and they, when they make suggestions, they are truly heard, not just being patronised. The culture has specific practices to foster learning and to guard against undue defensiveness.

5. External adaptation

Edgar Schein identifies that how organisations adapt to the external environment, shapes the culture. Organisations that learn effectively are highly adaptive and rather than develop a siege mentality, are actively engaged with stakeholders. Thus, threats can quickly be reframed as opportunities.

6. Embracing lifelong learning 

Learning has to be encultured at all levels of the organisation, from new hires right through to the board. Bob Garratt (also the author of The Fish Rots From the Head) emphasises the need for board members to engage in learning, rather than seeing themselves as a “completed work”. A “humble posture of learning” is required at all levels.

The link between organisational learning and stakeholder engagement

By now, the link between organisational learning and stakeholder engagement will be very clear to you. Contrast an organisation who has a defensive leader, who even struggles to trust his closest advisers, to an organisation that strives to have clear lines of communication from its “central nervous system” out to an ever-expanding network of stakeholders. A metaphor might be the difference between a fence post in the ground (treated with chemicals to resist decomposing organisms, and, on the other hand, the root system of a vigorously growing tree, whose rootlets are weaving its way ever-more deeply and broadly into the soil (see the post Fence post or tree – a metaphor for engagement).

The concepts of organisational learning, first articulated over half a century ago, diverge beautifully with many other aspirations for effective organisations that honour their stakeholders. Organisational learning therefore, shouldn’t be regarded as a narrow discipline, but rather, should be regarded as a set of principles that integrate into expressions of good practice.

To conclude this topic, here is a video of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, talking about her book Supercorp. While it does not specifically talk about organisational learning, how do you think it relates to some of the concepts discussed here?

Peter Bruce

Engagement and change: part 2 – lean thinking

This post by guest blogger Alex Twigg is the second part of a two-part post.

Much of the change in workplaces over the last few decades has been predicated on notions of economic efficiency and have been known variously as “downsizing”, “rightsizing”, “outsourcing” and more recently as “mergers and acquisitions” – and as the Kotter and McKinsey studies mentioned in part one shows – not much of it successful. In the February / March edition of the Harvard Business Review, an article on mergers and acquisitions quotes the following – “Companies spend more than $2 trillion on acquisitions every year, yet the M&A failure rate is between 70% and 90%.”

By contrast, an alternative model of change – one that is intrinsically engaging of employees, that is about “learning to do things with others” is a workplace transformation process known as Lean Thinking – a western lens on the Toyota Production System.

The ‘lean” or “less” of Lean Thinking is often misunderstood. It is not about cost cutting (the old traditional focus of change) and it is certainly not about retrenching – i.e. less staff. Rather Lean Thinking is based on two values: continuous improvement and respect for people. The system of “lean thinking” is the mutual reinforcing of these twin values through a structured process of principles and actions – that in its essence is fundamentally engaging of employees.

Reducing waste

Lean Thinking is not premised on the assumptions of “economies of scale” and its twin “resource optimisation” – the assumptions that shape traditional approaches to organisational change. Rather it focuses on a notion called “flow” and the removal of waste. It is primarily focussed on process efficiency rather than economic efficiency.

The traditional approaches to change and Lean Thinking depend on very different primary sources of data to inform change. In the former the data derives from an abstraction of the productive process – namely the organisation’s statements of account. The primary question in this approach is “how do we make the economic equation of this organisation work?” This is the question that has shaped all the “”downsizing” “rightsizing and “mergers and acquisitions” activity of the past. In “lean” the primary source of data for change is from the organisation’s productive processes themselves – through the identification and removal of waste to answer the primary question of “how do we make value flow?”

Lean Thinking identifies 7 forms of waste, namely motion, waiting, transportation, storage, defect waste, over producing and excessive processing. Space precludes a discussion of each of them me so for present purposes a description of the first will have to suffice as a sense of the thinking behind waste generally.

Motion waste consists of all unnecessary movement and searching. Searching is the biggest form of motion waste – searching for information, looking for the correct person, tool or document. It is estimated that between 20 – 50% of time in a physical workplace is spent looking for people, tools, specifications, patient information … and in an office environment, some 15% of our time is spent looking for information that is within an arm’s length! In addition to searching, motion waste includes all unnecessary bending, lifting, reaching and walking. 

To systematically remove waste from an organisation’s processes requires the active involvement of the employees who are uniquely positioned to see the waste. Managers cannot see deep enough into the processes to really identify the waste that the employees see and experience daily.

This creates a dilemma for organisations – managers have the authority to effect change but not the complete awareness required on which to base this change; and employees by contrast have the awareness but not the authority.

The employee engagement strategy to Lean Thinking is to structure a process that seeks to resolve this dilemma. It requires 2 guarantees to give it meaning – one procedural, namely participation by all in identifying waste – the other substantive – no redundancies as a result of lean initiatives. The former is essential to identify and remove waste. And the latter is required otherwise employees won’t participate. Clearly no-one will participate in identifying waste if their jobs are put on the line as a result – and flow cannot be improved if employees do not participate in identifying waste.

The central component of a change process premised on employee engagement is a closed loop feedback system for responding to and implementing employee generated suggestions for improvement based on identifying and reducing waste. This is nothing like the good old suggestion box though on the surface it may appear similar.

This system is built on a structured process of organisational learning that teaches the organisation the following:

  • value stream mapping skills that allows everyone to see the organisation’s current end to end process to providing its services or manufacturing its goods, as well as imagine an improved future state. This creates a framework for employees to think about and identify the effects of waste that they experience everyday at work.
  • root cause analysis skills that allows everyone to identify the causes behind the effects of waste that they experience everyday at work as frustrations, irritations, inefficiencies etc.
  • developing the systems and processes – the architecture if you will – of this transparent, closed loop system that allows people to see that the individual opportunities for improvement they have raised have been captured, and how and who is able to participate in addressing them.

Removing waste reduces lead time enabling more resources to be
dedicated to adding value

When this process is introduced in workplaces it results in literally hundreds of employee identified “Opportunities for Improvement” or OFIs.

If one is looking for a measure of employee engagement, how good is this one? Surely this is a direct expression of an employee’s commitment to an organisation? And very importantly it is a measure that arises directly from every employees work – i.e. their involvement in the organisation’s processes rather than arising indirectly – i.e. from something external to their everyday work – like completing a survey that creates a new bureaucratic structure that adds little or nothing to either the flow of goods and services through an organisation or the flow of problem solving in the organisation.

Lean thinking is an example of the sort of workplace improvement strategy that the Department of Labour is supporting through its High Performance Working Initiative.  You can find out more about this at

Guest blogger: Alex Twigg

Alex Twigg presented at the recent HRINZ National Conference in 2011. He has extensive experience in employment relations (ER) in a variety of roles including mediation, arbitration, advocacy, facilitator and process consultant. Over the last four years he shifted from operational to strategic ER – focusing on the link between people, process and organisational performance.

Alexander is currently employed by the Department of Labour’s Partnership Resource Centre.  He works with unionised workplaces helping the parties improve their workplace relationships and then help them put those relationships to work using frameworks such as ‘Lean Thinking’ to help both parties achieve their mutual and separate interests.