Managing Organisation Tensions.
Shaping Organisation Success:
Unlocking the Real Influencers of Organisational Transformation
When I started out as an internal consultant, I held the belief that to get people to change their behaviours, start with the people. How wrong was I! In reality it is the structures that are in place, and the surrounding systems, that drive and influence behaviours. That is, structure drives behaviours.
It wasn’t totally my fault. I was working with leaders who were asking me to ‘fix their teams’ or move people through their change curve (Kubler Ross, 1969) as quickly as possible so that they could sign off on a transformation or change program.
“The system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.” — W. Edwards Deming
So, let’s delve a little deeper into what we mean by the saying that “structures drive behaviours” and the impact this has on our work as leaders, transformation managers and OD consultants.
Simply put, behaviours are the ways that we interact with each other. In an organisational context, they are shaped by a complex system of elements, including organisation design, KPIs, policies, procedures, decision-making rights, and agreed-upon norms.
Equally, we do not like ambiguity or situations that create uncertainty and unpredictability. If any of these are missing, we make assumptions about how to approach our work and will behave and act accordingly – usually from a place of good intentions.
Structures That Influence Behaviour
What do we mean when we talk about structures? Structures in an organisation can be tangible or intangible, but they equally influence the behaviours of its members. Here are some of the pivotal structures:
The organisation operating model, hierarchy, roles, connecting mechanisms and design of teams. For instance, a team that’s too large in its composition can make its functioning ineffective. If the matrix structure is too complex, it can be confusing for people to successfully navigate.
- KPIs and Targets:
They dictate what is measured and rewarded, thus guiding employee focus and effort. Measuring and rewarding call answer rate rather than customer resolutions will result in very different behaviours.
- Policies and Procedures:
These provide the rulebook employees refer to, consciously or subconsciously, in their day-to-day operations. Research by Hackman and Wageman (2004) found that behaviours of airline cockpit crew between different airlines was quite small. This is partly due to the clear processes and checklists that are in place.
On the flip side, too many rules and operating procedures are usually a symptom of other organisation ills, such as lack of trust or resistance to learning from failure. Unnecessary procedures can inhibit innovation, creativity and the much-aspired organisation agility.
- Decision-making Rights:
Knowing who has the power or responsibility to make specific decisions can determine how employees approach tasks and challenges. For instance, the paradox of requiring an investment proposal to go through 14 signatures, while simultaneously pushing for faster decision-making
I worked with one organisation where it was not clear who in the room was authorised to make decisions or take ideas forward. They were in a constant loop of needing to escalate for permission to act. Ideally, we want structures that allow decisions to be made as close to the customers or front line as possible.
- Organisational Norms:
These unwritten rules or conventions influence the culture of the organisation. If the established norm dictates only fully developed ideas are presented, then fostering an agile culture, which thrives on iteration and learning from mistakes, becomes an uphill battle.
Connect with people who are on the front line
Changing behaviours within an organisation is not merely a task of managing individuals, teams or departments; it’s a complex understanding of the influence that structures and systems have on individuals, and vice versa. Remember, it is us, people, who create and maintain these structures.
The only real way that we can see what is really happening is to engage with this impacted and hold meaningful dialogue. A management cascade in my experience has never successfully transformed an organisation. By paying attention to the underlying structures, we may unlock the potential to shape an organisation that’s more responsive, innovative, and in tune with its mission and values.
Kübler-Ross E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Hackman, J. R., & Wageman, R. (2004). When and How Team Leaders Matter. Research in Organizational Behavior, 26(04), 37–74.