Introduction: about the 80s and our meetings

The previous article on resilience (anticipating, preparing, responding and adjusting when small changes or major disruptions occur with the aim of survival and improvement) and agility (the built-incapacity of a system to allow this adaptability to be optimal and efficiently run) pointed to our shortcomings when it comes to critical thinking and adequate changes to our working methods. In this article we look at some of the causes of our way of thinking and acting that is focused towards adaptation or change and we present three strategies for working in an agile and resilient way.

We adapt, rather than become more agile

A striking example that we work not so much better but rather differently than 10 years ago, is found in the research by Michael Mankins and Eric Garton on meetings within a large company. Their research shows that 15% of our time goes to meetings, a figure that has been increasing since 2008 and results in 300,000 meeting hours within a large company. This is different than before, but not better. Another study by Perlow, Hadley and Eun, discusses how "better" all these meetings make us. Of the population surveyed, 65% stated that meetings prevented them from doing their job, 71% found the meetings not productive and 64% said that the meetings actually limited critical thinking. If we measure these figures against the ambition to workin a more agile way then a critical comment is appropriate. In addition to meetings, our feedback and evaluation processes do not turn out to be improved.Feedback has the opposite effect in 38% of cases, which unfortunately leads to poorer results. 

Furthermore, we see an increase in work-related stress that naturally leads to individual dysfunction and above all starts to have an impact on the entire organisation. The article "The paradox of Workplace productivity" summarizes it nicely. On the one hand, unlike in the past, there are steps forward in terms of efficiency and maneuverability, but on the other hand, and here is the paradox, that improvement does not necessarily translate into more agile organisations.

It is therefore high time that we strive as organisations for agility, starting with the entire organisation. For this we have to answer three questions. First, what limits us today in achieving agile results?

  1. If we have a good view of these limitations, the second question is: how can we approach these and other challenges and opportunities critically and thus arrive at the right decisions?
  2. And finally we must answer the question of: how to anchor these decisions in a sustainable manner within the organisation, so that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts?
  3. As long as we continue to work in an ad hoc way, especially at the level of the individual or the team, there is regrettably no room for more agility or resilience. Hence, many initiatives within organisations lead to adaptation, rather than profound change.

Getting started with organizations

O.C. Tanner carried out a study of corporate culture and engagement among 9,622 employees of medium-sized and large companies in a recently published white paper. A remarkable conclusion was that the most commonly used term to describe the corporate culture was the word "stress."Under "good" corporate culture, six terms were cited: purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, leadership, well-being. In the substantiation of positive focus, these last two elements were already extensively discussed on a personal level. To achieve a positive focus, a basic condition for maneuverability, it is essential that people can learn (personal growth), learn to deal with themselves and their environment (environmental mastery) and get to work autonomously (autonomy).   

However, when it comes to how employees deal with stress, research shows that not so many personal differences (including temperament or perception)lead to stress-related complaints. To a large extent, it is the context in which people work that determines whether more, or less, stress occurs. It is also the context that determines whether or not people can give the best of themselves. For this we need to work with the organisational culture or with the assumptions from which an organisation starts when it comes to employees.

  1. A first assumption is about how the organisation looks at human nature (eg is man naturally responsible or not).
  2. The second concerns the prevailing assumptions about human relationships (eg, hierarchy may be opposed or not).
  3. The third assumptions are about time (eg time is scarce and costs money, so only the most urgent matters can be dealt with or not) and space (eg an individual workspace is a privilege or not).
  4. A fourth, and certainly current, assumption concerns how an organisation sees itself in the world.

It goes without saying that agile organisations, those that anticipate changes in the outside world quickly and effectively, use different assumptions than organisations that score less well in terms of resilience and agility.

Hence, in striving for more resilience and agility, the focus should not only be on the health of the employee in the broadest sense of the word, meaning curative as well as preventative. We also need to get started with the organisational culture and the underlying assumptions. Unfortunately, and this is a call that has been echoed for twenty years, it is the culture that is not taken into account enough when changing organisations.

The importance of organisational culture is clearly illustrated in the implementation of Lean management within production environments where terms such as "lean manufacturing", "lean thinking" and the"Toyota Way" are now part of the jargon. When Japanese companies applied the Tanaka formula around adding value to people, products and processes, they achieved good results. It wasn't long before the practices they used were copied by organisations in other countries, including Taiwan. However the excellent results were limited. Research showed that a large part of the success, for example at Toyota, could be explained by the deep-rooted Japanese culture of Kaizen or continuous improvement. This culture also lives as an individual philosophy whereby people strive for continuous personal development. In contrast to this culture, where the long-term perspective is central, Taiwanese culture was more influenced by the Chinese. In the latter ,characteristics such as self-focus, reputation, speed instead of solidity and"short-term profit" are central. Now, the Lean production system consists not only of the visible skills or methods (the task) but also of the way people and organisations look at each other (people). This explains why duplicating task-oriented processes and practices does not result in the same effects, a cultural translation is required.

That is why organisations that want to get started with change, such as striving for more agility or resilience, must first get started with the current and desired culture. The focus should be on challenging the prevailing assumptions so that the capacity of the infrastructure to cope with changes systematically increases. In a subsequent article we will continue to work with this and will start from the four important assumptions that characterize a culture in the form of questions about people (1), relationships (2), the environment (3) and finally the world (4) in which an organisation exists.