Organisational silence – why speaking up is hard to do

When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it”.

I read a blog last week written by Sara Ahmed. I shared it on twitter using the quote above which resonated with experiences I’ve had over the years.  That quote has been picked up and shared so many times and by such a broad group; I’m assuming that it connected, landed, shouted at, moved something in the heart of those who read it.

Sara’s blog is a wonderful piece of writing; a tough read about her experience of challenging sexual harassment. Essential reading for all HR practitioners I would think.   I drew many insights reading her blog, insights for all organisations.  One in particular has made me step back. And think. Really think.

Before I move to that; the stories I hear, keep hearing, my own experiences – what matters most to most of us at work; speaks a truth.  What takes the most energy when it goes wrong is our relationships – and particularly the relationship we have with our manager and/or those with hierarchical power.  From the workers at the front line through to the Board and what they offer to their CEO/Executive Teams relationships matter.

I’ve had a few weeks where I keep hearing something. The same thing.  I’m not searching for it, but I keep hearing it.  “She is heard as complaining. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard”. (Sara Ahmed).

That something is people talking about conversations they’ve had with their bosses. I’ve heard examples of discounting and disrespecting on a scale that never fails to be saddening.  A person who’s gone to their boss with an excessive workload  and saying they can’t do everything, and just being asked “how can we hit our targets”. No offer of help. Another being shut down from sharing data by a lie and when the lie is proven, it is brushed under the carpet.  No need to make a fuss. Another being shamed/embarrassed by a boss who has decided to raise an issue in public and the shock of “why did they do that” paralyses.  There’s plenty more.

Each one of these are senior managers who have significant responsibilities.  They ask for help and don’t get it. They are put down; know they are dealing with mendacity – what happens?

It silences them.  

Not completely.  And yet – once we’ve been shut down, we will be more careful. We may not make a conscious choice to filter what we say, but we will.  Our truth is silenced.  We don’t trust.

Back to Sara’s insights.

At work, sometimes, at some point,  action is taken to remove someone who is damaging others – often when the damage to the organisations’ reputation will become public.  Action is swift – perhaps after long periods of inaction or something has become too obvious to discount; it can no longer be brushed under the carpet.  And here’s my realisation; the silence of the compromise agreement sweetened with a confidentiality clause – it doesn’t remove the problem.    Everyone knows, but no-one knows. Shameful organisational secret. We can’t talk about it.  The damage containment, it contains the damaged. (Sara again).  If anyone has ever wondered what is really meant by systemic thinking; this is such a powerful example.

Questions this raises for me:

  • Could leaders take one specific action to consider the confidentiality clause, and think, think – whether the good intention ultimately creates the silence that means that speaking out is seen as creating the problem?  What could be a different way?
  • How can we infuse our leadership and management ideology with the thought that hierarchy does not equate to inequality. Seniority does not mean ownership or give permission to utilise people as a pawn in a game of matching wits, climbing the career pole for furthering self-interest.
  • How by our own behaviour can anyone working in the people space (that’s all of us right?)  lead on creating the conditions that enable the person naming a problem not to become the problem.

I don’t have answers.  Perhaps collectively however if we ask ourselves questions and keep asking, then others will be encouraged to ask questions and then raising problems will not be the problem.


I see that in the time between my first draft, and publishing, Sara is no longer on twitter.   I don’t know why; I hope she wasn’t driven away.   Speaking up is hard to do.













The future of work – is human

Blogging, conference, talking;  discussions seem to be clustering around a few themes at the moment. The future of HR, the purpose of L&D.  Our future when the algorithms take over (assuming you aren’t already reading this because an algorithm worked out you might be interested in it) and the promulgation of a range of favourite theories; agile, lean, 70/20/10.

I read a blog by Perry Timms yesterday on the future of work that got me thinking; good.  I like thinking.  I rather like to imagine Perry’s head sticking out of the clouds of our future having a good nose around; he’s wired to look for opportunities and possibilities and who knows; by sharing his thinking and allowing his imagination to envisage possibilities, some of those may well be brought into reality.  I always hope for a TARDIS myself.  Seriously.  It was a bit mind-boggling to go into the future; I’m rooted in the here and now – hoping there’s a future for us all.  Sometimes I doubt it, sometimes I’m scared.  Mostly I trust the process that what will be will be and do my best to be a good and kind person that leaves behind me a trail that will give another person another easy walk.

Something interesting is developing in relation to the future of work and humanity sponsored by the CIPD and facilitated by Jericho Chambers  – you can read about it hereMargaret Heffernan inspired me in March when she was talking to us about the early education system and what we build, and how we can create the conditions for people to think without fear.  I’m exploring the world of independent thinking in my own learning progression at the moment so it seemed sensible that I offered an input to the future of work and put independent thinking into the mix.

I suspect that the future of work is already here, and is happening around us, but of course we won’t know until we look back.  What was it Michele Zanini said? “Many organisations are already living in the past”.

HR and its future?  Will it only change if it has to?  I think so.  Perhaps HR and change is a metaphor for how change mostly happens, we change because it is forced upon us.   I see two different HRs and I wonder what that means for the future of work/future of HR.  I see the global corporates working like machines to keep shareholders satisfied, HR within creating engagement activities with good hearts in the organisations – working to find ways to make the machine human.   The shareholder algorithm perhaps? HR in those organisations is very different to HR in owner led organisations, charities, NGO and public sector.  The bigger organisations HR are siloed, separated, specialised in order to create order. Smaller organisations – the HR people do everything, loads of it, hands dirty.  Often one or two people making sure toilets work, and influencing leaders and unions and everything else in between. Some stuff is the same I guess; recruit, pay, discipline, induct, control unruly managers, influence the leaders to work within the letter and spirit of the law.  Maybe it’s more similar than different.

So much rhetoric about HR; the day-to-day seems to be for so many  – graft.  Restructure, change, rehire, intervene, contain, control – ever liberate I wonder?  I think HR can be the way to see the culture.  An empowered HR is unfettered, happy , experimental, devolved – unlikely then that the culture will be a miserable response to command and control – more likely to be a place where everyone’s connected to a shared purpose, and probably, on balance, people experience work as a good place to be.

Where does L&D fits in with all of this; is there an existential crisis?  Training seems to have become a bit of a dirty word, although I see a lot of training being delivered in the way that it always has. It’s a beautiful thing….to learn new stuff no?  I wonder what reflection L&D offers of the organisational culture.   Is L&D  on the outside of reality?   I read about 70/20/10, how to create learning and development with no budget, my twitter timeline is flooded with “agile”.  Which I read about (agile) and it all made perfect sense; beautifully packaged up as a product to sell. How does this connect to the never changing pain, which I hear again and again, caused by a manager who doesn’t actively, proactively from the heart care for and seek out opportunities for their direct reports?

How much time do HR people have to think independently; wow so much advice, so many “shoulds”.  How much time do L&D people devote to thinking for themselves? How much time are they given/do they take? What is their future?

More than ever people need to think. Think for themselves. Command and control – wow, it’s being held on to, reinforced unintentionally by so many interventions, corporate obedience, corporate fear – dominating.  What if we really think for and then speak for ourselves – then what?

So many questions.

I’m exploring independent thinking as part of The Future of Work is Human – creating spaces for people to think independently within a range of workstreams, facilitating open space at a Big Tent event in October, and – who knows what else.  What do you think?  Would you like to join  in?  Working together in thinking about the future.  There is no plan as such; there is a Big Tent in October; Neil Morrison has written about his work stream here and others will be doing the same.

Contact me, contact Jericho, contact Neil – if you’d like to get involved.

















We need to admit it.  We are afraid, then we need to talk about it, and then feel it….. we then need to change our own behaviour that frightens others; we cannot think when we are afraid”.  Nancy Kline

Here’s some fears that have walked along side me from time to time

Fear of getting it wrong

Fear of getting it right
Fear of being foolish
Fear of not fitting in
Fear of not being loved
Fear of being vulnerable
Fear of being judged
Fear of not being enough
Fear of failing
Fear of falling
Fear of crying
Fear of dying
Fear of the future
Fear of the past
When we are scared, when fear takes hold
We can’t move, we can’t be bold

Cold fear, stone like fear, sweaty like fear, night terror fear, silent fear, angry fear, fearful fear.  Ignored and buried fear.  Fear of fear.

This is what I know.

You will certainly cry at some point and most definitely will die.  You will fall, fail, be rejected, get it wrong, know too much, and not know enough.  You may offend someone, you probably will upset someone, someone will know more than you, and someone may dislike you.

We all harbour fears.  They can turn into debilitating anxieties that are visible stress, anxiety attacks, phobias.  They can exist within us as our secret doubts and worries.   Oh man, they can get in the way.  They can be the persistent grit in the eye, the muscle in the throat, the tiny secret voice stopping us from being our whole-hearted selves.

When we lecture, advise, tell others about change management; where we meet resistance – we we are dealing with fears, I’ve listed some above, (other fears are available). When we talk about culture, coaching, and the relationship aspects of work; often at the heart is resistance, reluctance, recalcitrance – some version of fear.

If our own fears are discounted, dismissed, ignored – I’m guessing we’re probably going to do the same with others’.  Because working compassionately with others requires us to have compassion with ourselves.

Fear is in all the work; I’m reflecting a lot.  Moved into OD in 1996 and before that, managed many people.  20 years, and so much fear in us.  So much of people not speaking up. We don’t create the conditions for them to do that, because we ignore fear.

I see so much irritation and frustration around change at work. What do we do when someone we love shares a fear?  Comfort, reassure, listen, encourage, and hold them in some way?  At work I see ignoring (denial), discounting, dismissing and distancing, more than I see their kind counterpoint.

If people are scared of change, the future, the unknown, then they can be comforted by information, reassured by training, listened to with respect, encouraged by offering belief in their capacity to grow and survive, and held by a system that acknowledges there is a “felt” experience that goes with the territory of the corporate world.

Saying it out loud changes your relationship with fear.   After a fatal accident of a loved one, I became fearful of driving.  I kept it a secret, only one person knew. I made so many good excuses for getting the bus.   One day it became public and I was ashamed, embarrassed.  I needed to drive, and it became obvious I had been concealing my fear.  The embarrassment unexpectedly turned into gratefulness as the person who heard my fear started to scoff –  and then realised what was true was that I was really frightened.  He gently got my car keys and suggested we go for a drive.  Man, we went for a long drive, on a motorway, we got petrol, and – we did the long journey twice.  There were other fears that walked alongside this one, and I learned that I could look at them, in the eye.

We’re so interventionist.  We’re SO interventionist.  We see someone with emotion surfacing, it embarrasses us because we identify with it, so we find a way to shut it down. Kindly  “don’t worry, no it’s fine, honestly”. We find a way to shut it down.  Rationally. Through not connecting with the individual experience, through emailing important data closing the opportunity for discussion, through delegating our messages through the filter of communications media.  If people get upset, angry, express normal emotional reaction to change and uncertainty our rational paradigm can’t cope with that. We ignore it, discount it, turn away from it, so we can’t see our own.

  • What if we stopped intervening and started giving attention to thoughts and feelings?
  • What if we created an environment where people were able to think independently for themselves and share those fears, and doubts?
  • What if we let people’s brilliant minds do the change work for themselves?
  • What if we faced our own fears, so that when another is facing theirs we meet them with compassion, grace and let them see us too?

I played with some words with which to replace fear and I came to acceptance.  It always comes to acceptance.

Acceptance of getting it wrong

Acceptance of getting it right
Acceptance of being foolish
Acceptance of not fitting in
Acceptance of not being loved
Acceptance of being vulnerable
Acceptance of being judged
Never not being enough
Acceptance of failing
Acceptance of falling
Acceptance of crying
Acceptance of dying
Acceptance of not knowing  of the future
Acceptance of the past

Works for most of them huh?

Nancy Kline describes us as living in a world of exchange thinking – where we do so much thinking for others.  Through creating the environment for independent thinking, we have the potential to quite simply create an environment in work where change becomes all about possibilities.  If we understand that by thinking for others we are stopping them for thinking for themselves…… and if they think for themselves – how liberating could that be?

I’ve been learning about independent thinking for the last couple of years, making subtle and significant shifts in my own coaching and facilitation approaches, and am now integrating the Thinking Environment into my OD and coaching work.  It’s part of my offering now and I’m seeing small and big transformations of course including my own, so please talk to me if you’re interested in knowing more.

The Thinking Environment is copyright Nancy Kline





Companies that don’t change will be replaced

“Companies that don’t change will be replaced” A quote from Michele Zanini from Management Exchange in November’s CMI conference.

I live blogged from the conference; exhausting, I don’t know how Kingfishers and Figs do it.

This stuff really landed for me so in case you didn’t see it on the CMI site; here it is on mine.

Michele Zanini’s Toxic assumptions about change:

No 1 The pace of change
Michele talked about the pace of change; and offered the thought that organisations are already living in the past. Leaders only know change needs to happen when it’s a problem; they’re too late!
Eg Nokia – the 2011 burning platform – it was too late to change. It was simply too late; those who knew – didn’t have the authority to shape a change agenda, so by the time the need got up to the CEO, it was simply too late to change.

No 2 It has to be cascaded
It sounds like a wonderful theory.   “Who are you kidding?” says Michele. When change is rolled out as a cascade – it’s often resisted, often derailed.  Data from McKinsey shows that 70% of transformation efforts fail. No 1 cause of failure – 39% is employee resistance. 33% is management behaviours being incongruent with change. Lack of resources/other is the remaining percentage.

No 3 assumption Change is engineered
This might be true for specific discrete tasks, but deep large scale change – it’s hard to predetermine the right answer (relies on the mind of the engineer).

Extreme example” JC Penney
2011 brought in Head of Apple retail – he architected a radical plan – pricing, like an Apple Store, a cultural “cleanse” – overhaul everything JC Penney stood for.. The most radical example – created a huge acrylic box, where employees were encouraged to put new symbols and pick up new symbols to signify new culture. No consultation. People hated it.

He ignored them. 2012 company shrunk sales by $4bn left in 2014, company’s market price went down by half, 20,000 people lost their jobs.

We need a new paradigm for thinking about change, need to overturn these beliefs.

Management lab think about it by building a change platform, make three shifts
• From top down to activist out
• Change needs to be shifted from sold to invited – let other people figure out how to help you solve it
• From managed to organic, rely on self-organizing communities and experimentation *working with permanent slush” things moving too fast for the freeze stage.

Example; CEMEX
Progress in making change; construction is a localised industry in many locations. Locations didn’t talk to each other. They tried sending “emissaries” HQ staff then disseminated key information; didn’t work.
In 2010 they tried something different; they created peer communities of passion and interest. Tried informal and informal networks. Focussed on biggest priorities. Organic communities that anyone could start. They have been doing this for five years – now hundreds of these communities exist across CEMEX.
(View – some of the stories are here with more detail.)
They share documents, share insights, use video conferencing, offline conferences to support the communities.
Business impact
1. How do we think about construction in the 21st Century – 10 big priorities (eg sustainability, energy efficient buildings) defined the strategic agenda? Nominated people who would lead these priorities.
2. Ready mix products – 50 different countries community – first global brand – unprecedented. 33% of total revenue.
3. Alternative fuels – saving £130m
Quote from CIO “collaboration is how we get this done today. Our open connected approach as resulted in more speed and agility. Just as important, everybody feels something of something bigger, something important” Gilberto Garcia.
When individuals are given change to solve problems together change is natural.

How to hack:
• Culture
• Business model
• Management Model
• Operating Model
American group – Multiple retail brands
Two realisations from EO – first – to compete they needed to build up their innovation capabilities; make it a core part of DNA, second – not going to do it top down. Try something different, try to involve people, gives them the skills and the tools to embed the change.

Dos and don’t

First don’t and do
If you have a problem, don’t appoint a task force of the usual suspects- instead invite everyone to hack the issue.
Create innovation capability; – we ended up building a corporate innovation mooc, 3000 people were invited to take part. Build up the skills, give employees tools to think like business innovators, regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy. We generated hundreds of ideas that would eventually drive the strategy. We said “As a way to fundamentally changing the culture this is the opportunity you have to change the direction of the company. I really mean it. It’s not an interesting exercise – a pillar of our change.”
Reception was amazing 103 comments on opening blog; people truly appreciative.

Second do and don’t
Don’t package a high level sanitized account of the problem
Do encourage everyone to join an honest discussion of root causes and barriers.

E.g. people highlighted key barriers to innovation “we’re so focussed on the product we are forgetting about innovation about the way we serve clients, go to market”. What are we doing right that we are doing wrong? Create a conducive environment for creativity and innovation.
Ask – do we have the organisational structure for success?
A first in the company, people felt liberated. A lot of energy.

Third dos and don’t
Avoid the temptation to rush to an answer, relying on benchmarking and expert judgement. Let the community create its own path.
We used four lenses:
• Innovators – identify industry orthodoxies you can challenge
• Trends and discontinuities – emerging trends that are unappreciated
• Skills and assets that could be combined in creative ways
• Unmet customer needs.
We generated hundreds of ideas, how to choose?
Focus on one idea that is industry specific (give them some filters – e.g. potential in market place)
Then their task to build a business model around that idea. e.g. rethink the shoebox – what customers, what products, how do we make money. Where do the ideas converge? The level of participation surprised us; 2000 people generated 10000 ideas. Almost 100000 likes, 10000 comments. All voluntary – no time off to do the Mooc and the hack. Discretionary energy that this unlocked was amazing. We thought if we have 200 people, we would be in great shape.

Fourth do and don’t
Don’t create a grand plan in great detail, Do create a persistent hacking community. Develop a portfolio of experiments based on the best ideas, emerging process. We took 950 ideas clustered into 12 big themes, eg” rethink the customer experience, customizing the product.
Created self-managing teams, pitch their idea, create short lists, extended team, ability to experiment if selected.
Michele told us that he was presenting this live! It’s a work in progress – not declaring victory.

More dos and don’ts
• Don’t target a narrow set of practices or skills, do focus systemically on individuals and institution
• Change the way your management model works so it can be pro innovation.
• Now; Moving towards hacking management
• Internal crowdfunding platform, open source strategy process
• Change structure, self-organising, self-managing communities
• Establish real accountability for pro-innovation behaviours, eg legitimising dissent

Final piece of advice
Don’t focus on formal change, do embrace new principles and behaviours.
Previously business experienced a fad about TQM – it didn’t have much to do with culture – created quality circles; the problem was that most leaders only paid lip service to underlying values of TQM. Disconnect between what you’re saying and what you’re doing – leads to failure.
Leadership behaviours – means devoting attention to environment that means that leadership is less of a change agent, more of a change enabler.
One example of embracing new behaviours – opportunities to “ask me anything”. Reinforcing intent to change.
Interesting question – what could Nokia have actually done? For the future – companies that don’t change will be replaced by other companies. Eg the internal allocation of capital inside companies, is as big as bonds/capital market – if that’s not allocated properly because of inertia – a waste of resources.

What you can’t see..

Thanks to Sukh Pabial whose blog “the diversity and tolerance conundrum” prompted me to finish this blog which has taken a bit of time and thought to write.

Diversity and Inclusion; this is on the agenda of most organisations – right?

  • What’s our policy?
  • How many people of colour do we have in senior positions?
  • How many women do we have in managerial roles?
  • How do we make our public places accessible?
  • How do we train managers to understand and be engaged in working within the law?
  • What are we doing to understand the impact of Diversity and inclusion to creating an adaptable business?
  • How can we make sure we respect and value the needs of people of differing faiths?

“While many organisations can claim they put diversity and inclusion at the core of their people strategy by covering issues such as interviews and assessment methods … many key activities that would help to create non-discriminatory and inclusive workplaces are less common”. Diversity – Fringe or Fundamental?  CIPD 2012

There are some fantastic people in the field of Diversity and Inclusion providing training us to understand our unconscious bias’ and how we may be prejudiced in relation to internalised beliefs, out of our awareness.

Something is missing

It feels like we have progressed, are progressing and yet –  it feels like something is missing.

I had my own thinking challenged a couple of years ago.  I was at a conference where various people from arts and culture organisations had come together to look at making performance spaces accessible for people with disabilities.  So, I’m thinking of people in wheelchairs, perhaps people with visual impairments.  What remains with me from that conference was the speaker from a theatre company in Sheffield who had recently taken on an old industrial building for conversion as an arts space. They work with learning disabled performers, and wanted a lift that someone who was unable to retain multiple instructions would be able to operate.  Out of 25 lift manufacturers, only two were able to make something that worked for these performers.

My own family experience of disability, and past work with SEND children led to my (incorrect) assumption was that I would “know”  about this subject, and yet – the perspective of someone learning disabled hadn’t occurred to me.  I think it struck me as a powerful example of the ways in which people can be excluded, and how hard, how difficult it is to embrace diversity when we think so much from our own frame of reference.

I read a blog late last year by Tony Jackson which was so beautifully written and which really made me think – it’s about how we exclude ourselves from what might cause us pain, embarrassment, difficulty.  Even abuse.

Let me explain from a very personal perspective;  I don’t have children.  Although I am so fortunate to have special ones who I love, and you know who you are.

My childlessness has met with varied reactions throughout my adult life, and I have been excluded, have excluded myself from, various activities because of the judgements that I know people make about me.

I didn’t enjoy being told that “life wasn’t worth living for any woman who wasn’t a mother”. Knowing that I didn’t have children, but not knowing anything else about me.  At a party.  I’m not sure she meant to be unkind, but I have now had that said to me more than once, so I know it’s a view that exists.  So  there are various places, conversations, groupings that I have excluded myself from .  Unspoken judgements made about me speaking loud and clear.

I facilitated an event recently where all the participants and the client were male.  I was referred to as “the glamorous assistant” at one point  – despite having an equal role with my male co-worker.  The spoken assumption that my male colleague was also the superior.   In another situation, where all the speakers were male –  I was told that they just couldn’t attract women to speak.  My response was – “”””try more, try differently”.

The speaker space – so easily claimed by men (not by all men) makes me think. If I inhabit a place that is traditionally male, what will I have to leave behind of myself to fit in?  Women don’t have as much testosterone so – they use up more adrenalin when there is some type of pressure to perform.  That depletes resources. So maybe I don’t do it.  I prefer to step back, and direct my energies elsewhere. These things may not be a “problem” for me as I have adapted, accepted, got used to them.  They may not be conscious choices – choices operating outside of my own awareness.  I exclude myself. No-one deliberately excludes me.

At the core of D&I work has to be the valuing of difference.. If in our hearts we value difference and want to understand more about it, we don’t need quotas, laws, training because our mindset, our thinking is rooted in knowing there are individual realities.

As someone (and forgive me, I can’t remember, but it was a tweet) who has MS recently said  “inaccessibility is what disables me”.

Physical adaptations are a vital part of inclusion; quotas whilst conflicting for so many of us do have a role to play I believe, and policies can enforce behaviour change – absolutely.   But there is so much about all of us in addition to race, gender, physicality which is invisible.  If we restrict our thinking and acting on Diversity and Inclusion to the workplace and legal compliance, what is obvious – we’re missing something about what it is to be human.

We are all unique, each of us.  I would like to see more conversation, more exploration along with the education.  Only when we create shared meaning are we able to really embrace and rejoice in our diversity and make our spaces – both physical and metaphysical – accessible.

Carl Rogers said –  (exploring whether we need a reality)- “the only reality I can know is the world as I perceive and experience it at this moment”.  He goes on to say, perhaps the human tendency could be “I prize and treasure you because you are different to me”.

I want to know what OD is…….

When I had my first OD job in 1997, I had never heard of Organisational Development.  I was given the opportunity to write my ideal job and – had a new boss at the same time. The ideal job was given the thumbs up by the Exec.  I started to get nervous. And the boss said of my new job “that’s organisational development”. I said “what’s organisational development?”.  She said “it’s about growing the capability of the whole organisation”.  Gulp.  I was about to find out more.

Another beautiful convergence; around the same time,  I met a previous boss for lunch and during our conversation she slid a piece of paper across the table towards me with a sort of secret smile. It was an application for a Msc in organisational Consulting, one she had studied herself and I had seen her transformation. “It’s time”. She said. “Who me?” I said.  “Yes, you” she said.

And so my life with OD began.

The MSc was experiential; glorious, messy and life affirming.  The first educational experience where all the thinking was done by me.  Academic reading was left to me to undertake at my own pace.   We were the T-Group, the lab, the subject of our enquiry, the sense makers.  We were often left to our own devices.  One time, I was working with a group where in our trio, two others, cleverer than me (who said that?) were locking horns on a magnificent scale. I shrugged away my opportunity to learn, my pissed offness, and I went off for a fag break.  I sighed.    I bumped into the tutor doing the same thing. I told him what I was experiencing. He said “whatever you would normally do, – do the opposite”.  So I watched and said nothing.  I swallowed the urge to facilitate, to intervene, to hurry up and I watched and trusted the process. Through that,  they were able to witness themselves.  I began the life long journey of learning what belongs to me, and what belongs to others and what belongs to the system.

I learned what counterintuitive meant, we exploredo chaos and complexity thinking, Klein, self as instrument, covert processes, Gestalt “you go your way, I go mine”.  I believe that the thinking behind the design of this programme was both before it’s time, of it’s time, and drew on the wisdoms and knowledge of the most ancient of times.   I learned about going native – getting drawn into the culture, the system, I learned to see myself as both a participant, and an observer,  inviting others to a shared enquiry to make sense of the madness that is the halls of organsiational life that contains, holds, and at times, cripples our humanity.

In answer to my own question “what is organisational development” I learned it is very much like personal development – where a person can bring what is outside their awareness into their awareness, understand the stimulus driving responses and thinking, and be aware of and connect to their own potency.  Developing organisations is about working within the system with the people within it to discover the connections, to open walkways between the silos, to equip people to do the long walk, and to see the possibilities.

The OD practitioner shares the enquiry and invites meaning making.  It’s simple- yet – as someone said to me last week – simple doesn’t make it easy.

It’s being outside and within, it’s life long learning. It’s about hope that there can be a more humanistic way to be in organisations and that being humanistic doesn’t get in the way of profitability but in fact when you create the conditions for humans to flourish……. good stuff will happen.

OD is somehow on the outside; the edges. We often work in the uncomfortable places.  Doing OD has required courage leadership and humility,  to create space to discuss the undiscussable, to bring to the surface what clings to beneath.  My work has shown me the equality of us all within our diversity.

I’m curious that it can be difficult to describe; I suppose – simple doesn’t make it easy.  I described it last week as like describing love. We all know what it is right?  It’s a universal life energy that connects us all together, and that we crave and need. Put it into a sentence – you might say something the same, you might say something different.  Search for it and you’ll find different meanings that don’t express what love is to me. That doesn’t mean I am right and others are wrong; it just – is.

If you’re an OD practitioner and you find it hard sometimes to describe, I think that’s OK. You may be in a system that is evidence based, so their internal knowing and wisdom is discounted, avoided, ignored  Stay with it.  There’s room for evidence and there’s space too for not knowing and discovering.  OD is a discovery process so of course we’re into the unknown.  OD is an enquiry so keep thinking, keep asking, keep noticing, keep sharing, keep enquiring, keep with it.  Ask the asker what meaning they make of it; that’s OD.

I‘ve written this blog with thanks to Paul Taylor from the NHS Do OD team, and to the CIPD who curated an inspiring set of OD stories last week at their CIPDOD15 conference.   Both have inspired me at a time when it seems that OD has the potential to be diluted through absorption into other functions.   I’m feeling that there is light shining from the NHS with their deep enquiry into OD and systems  – hugely challenging work and it’s a beacon.

Hopes for the Future of HR

Helen Tracey @HR Potential writes a thoughtful and forward looking blog about human resource management.  Her blog here challenges HR professionals to demand truth from colleagues, to encourage openness.

Tonight the CIPD are running an event about the future of work.  I’m guessing this is going to be a hopeful and optimistic event from which some innovative thinking is going to emerge.  I’m not able to make the event because of a rather lovely family reason.

I do have some thoughts about the future of HR – and I’m assuming that the conversation at this event will be about the role of HR in the future of work. Sometimes I hold back thoughts that I think may be perceived as being negative; I guess that  belongs to me.  But sometimes…….. I read a lot of very positive blogs and writing about HR and I think – I think, there is much that needs to change.

I’m using Helen’s blog as a prod to poke my own courage.

It’s a tough job HR.  It can be lonely, people can feel isolated, the work is hard, much of it invisible and I think what lies beneath many of the difficulties of the HR role is something about truth and the system in which HR operates.

The best of us will at times be in situations where we will implement something we don’t agree with; find ourselves being forced to do something counter to our own belief system, being pragmatic – it’s just the way it is.  Is that business savvy?  Am I naive?

I see it all around – people don’t say what they think, feel, believe. Sometimes that person has been me.   We’ll readily offer agreement, but less readily offer an alternative perspective.

  • Is it because we don’t want to be unpopular? Is it because we may be a minority and we have learned to keep it to ourselves? (women, ethnicity, sexuality)
  • Is it because even when our opinion is invited, it is often not valued – minds get made up, consultation looks to validate as opposed to being open to influence.
  • Is it because our thoughts about work are deeply rooted in old systems?

It can be hard to point out “what’s gone bad” when there are heavy investments in making things look good. Retain the status quo. Don’t admit to not knowing, fear. Hard not to give in to greed – convince yourself you deserve it, you have worked hard.

Around half of my working life has been working in organisations that have had some type of failure and I have been working with new leadership to re-energise and revitalise a culture. In every situation before the crash or the steady decline to below mediocrity  – a leadership individual/collusion has ignored, discounted, squashed, covered up front line/back office alarms.

Persig says it so much better than I ..

“Just as a biological immune system will destroy a life saving skin graft with the same vigor with which it fights pneumonia, so will a cultural immune system fight off a beneficial new kind of understanding with the same vigor it uses to destroy crime.”

I have some hopes for the future of HR, that it could be the change that we are looking for:

  • I hope that the future of HR includes a world where because you are a woman your perspective is more highly valued, sought out because you are a minority and not marginalised because of that.
  • I hope that the future of HR will be a move towards systemic thinking and working; an offloading of some of the transactional responsibilities that reinforce the cultural system.
  • I hope that the future of HR will include a rethinking of what is actually needed within organizations. What if the HR function had never existed – take it away – what needs would emerge from what is left?
  • I hope that the future of HR will be a move away from language and systems that reinforce distance – Human Capital, Analytics, EVP, and a step closer to designing workplaces that are focussed on our humanity.
  • I hope that the future of HR is that HR will be something different. I think that trying to change what we have – it isn’t enough.
  • I hope that the future of HR involves the re empowerment and value of management, and the moving away of the idealisation of leadership.  Good strong ethical management – it’s a beautiful thing, and the root, the core, the strength.

The OD Mindset

Organisational Development – Putting Theory into Practice – originally written and published on the Do OD website in 2012. Updated May 2015.
I came to OD, by “doing OD”. It’s work that I love, and believe in. I’m optimistic that amongst the sometimes murky, treacly waters of organisational life, clarity and movement can emerge. When people ask me what I do and I say Organisation Development – I can be met by blank looks!

I wonder if people struggle with understanding and defining OD because it is so often hijacked by more traditional change management methodology and consultancies with their own “right solution”. The dominance of financial modelling too in organisations creates resistance to the natural flow that is OD – perhaps OD’s simplicity is also too sophisticated. Because OD isn’t about answers, or predicting and controlling.

I’ve often heard OD described as “a planned programme to improve an organisation’s effectiveness” (oh for the love of a Gantt chart). We experience the pursuit of competencies to measure and control people’s behaviour, sheep dipping workshops, the promulgation of values.

Organisational Development work can and does utilise these tools and techniques, but doing these things does not mean you are doing organisational development.

So here’s my take on “doing OD”.


The OD Mindset

  • When you’re doing OD – your mindset is shaped by humanistic values and beliefs and the recognition that organisations are complex social systems.
  • When you’re doing OD, you’re working with and connecting the system – asking what is happening, what can we try, how will we know what is happening, how will we know when something has been impacted? You’re probably doing Action Research – whether or not you call it that.
  • When you’re doing OD, you’re drawing on a set of skills, theoretical knowledge and resources to facilitate problem solving, trust building – whatever your intervention, you are grounded.
  • When you’re doing OD, you’re part of what is happening in the system too; you’re an agent of change, an influencer, and a role model. You are connected with the real work.
  • Engaging people in a conversation that cuts across usual organisational boundaries is a core part of doing OD. This often meets resistance. The hurry up, the quick fixers, the taylorists, the accountants, they want concrete, tangible results now. They want a plan!
  • Doing OD includes demonstrating respect for these differing perspectives of varying stakeholders and an ability to hold strong, inviting people to place trust in the process – creating space for the conversations that need to happen. The behaviour mirrors the prevailing culture.
  • Everything is data. The OD mindset is rooted in understanding the connections between behaviour and results and effectiveness. People doing OD bring together multiple perspectives and deepen others’ understanding of the system within which they operate.


OD – how do you do it?

You learn with everyone else.
You are prepared to say the unsayable.
You collect data and share the analysis with the “system”.
You discover together what is revealed, and create time and space for people to make meaning.
You help people hear each other.
You role model transparency, candour, respect, curiosity and courage.
You stay with the difficult stuff.
You don’t jump into solutions; it’s about sense making, seeing at a systemic level what is happening.
You don’t collude with the system so there are times you may feel you are working counter-intuitively or experience discomfort.
You create the conditions for vulnerability and openness to emerge, and the conditions for the only consequences to be progress.
Conversation as a core process

I’m invited to facilitate a strategic planning meeting. To prepare, I start talking with the participants – I find that they don’t recognise and connect to a shared purpose, although in one respect it seems quite clear.

Perhaps this is the work – helping them develop clarity? When I start to enquire a little more, dig a little deeper, what is revealed is that there is a lack of trust amongst the team. It takes time for someone to name it. Perhaps we spend time trust building? When more of the organisational context becomes clear, the potential for more large scale disruption indicates that people are waiting to see what next. This is inhibiting their ability to enter into the planning process in any meaningful way.

The talking and exploring is the intervention. Creating space for people to identify root causes and start working beneath the surface clears the way for whatever the discussion they need to have to happen. It may be counter-interintuitive; as a facilitator it’s easy to get sucked into their task and to know that at the end of a day they have a “plan”. You potentially collude in their problem, avoiding going beneath the surface.
Over recent years, here has been a shift towards recognising how vital it is to pay attention to creating cultures that encourage integrity and facilitate adaptability. More OD functions are being established in organisations in a changing often unstable environment; for HR and L&D professionals, transitioning into OD is challenging and enriching. I am finding more of my time is spent mentoring, coaching and consulting with internal and external change agents, guiding them as they develop their thinking towards the OD mindset.

I am currently designing a new programme to develop internal OD capability – would you like to work with me and some amazing OD practitioners to build your organisations ability to grow the OD Mindset?  We’d love to come and chat to you – you can find met @OD_optimist or via the website

Ooo gimme a nice sandwich

This is my blog post for the feedback carnival, “feedback would happen all the time if…” conceived and curated by Helen Amery.  

Feedback – doesn’t the thought of it it make you shudder? “Meg you did this (insert insincerity of your choice) really well, but when you did this (insert awkward critique) it impacted the time we spent on that, but you are doing valuable work.  Carry on now.” Everyone looks relieved. It’s over. I wonder when we started using feedback as a workplace methodology.  One of those metaphors perhaps to keep command and control alive?  Is it an attempt to mechanise, to simplify, to depersonalise what is  most complex and challenging and beautiful and terrifying for us all – the relational aspects of being human?

One organisation I worked in had a “feedback culture”.  People were given feedback at every opportunity; it seemed to me like an opportunity to freely criticise others without any personal responsibility.  I think it reinforced the cultural norms of avoidance, not broke it down; people felt drained at the amount of feedback.  It looked like an intrusion to me.

When work is designed in such a way that the work itself provides feedback – so I know whether I’ve done good work or not, because I will see the impact of my efforts, then feedback happens all the time. When regular space is made to be together in work as community, feedback within that system will automatically happen, because the more time people spend together, the more that trust builds, so that reflection/reflexivity becomes inherent in feeding the system.  If we’re real with one another, and we have shared aims, know the common ground, we’ll be discussing  how we are as well as what we do.  It’s natural, it happens all the time if the conditions are created for community. Peer feedback – it has the most impact as opposed to the vertical type. – a healthy, trusting, clear sighted community – it’ll mostly happen naturally between us all. Sometimes, I just want to tell you that you did that thing so well, it inspired me to try a bit harder in something I was aiming for.  Is that feedback? Or is it just me sharing how you have impacted me positively. Sometimes, I need to be guided to understand the negative impact of something I said and did on others.  is that feedback or someone sharing how I have impacted someone or something negatively? If we’re regularly in dialogue with each other, then feedback is a natural systemic occurrence. If I’ve got to give you a sandwich, it ain’t feedback.  It’s foodback.

Warning – may contain nuts

I have a close family member who has a food allergy.  It is life threatening.   This means that every meal prepared somewhere else, by someone else, involves a high degree of trust and can create a high degree of anxiety. “May contain nuts” is a joke to some,  and a warning sign to someone with an allergy and an epipen.

So why am I writing about this on my blog?  Because I think about how someone with an allergy is treated a lot, and because I think about the world of work a lot.  Perhaps learning from the one can be transferred into the other.

I never cease to be surprised as the reactions of others;  a teacher whose own child has an allergy told me a story about another child and another teacher, a teacher – who tuts every time the epipen comes out and an ambulance is called.  “What a lot of fuss”.

Advice no 1  Don’t tut when another’s need – for data, for extra care, for extra time, whatever – causes you inconvenience.

It is challenging when others decide to take responsibility “I checked the packet, you can eat it”  It is so much easier in every way when the packet is provided for the choice to be made by the person who is doing the eating and risking.  Every incident is preceded by a reassurance that the food can be eaten. A recent holiday experience where “je ne pensais pas” – peanut oil in the homemade mayonnaise.

Advice no 2 Don’t do the deciding for others about what’s best for them.  Even if you think you are being helpful.

Restaurants – we know the good ones, where they cook it themselves.  A well known pub “we take pride in our home cooking” refused to serve us.  The “chef” was so nervous he came into the restaurant and said he didn’t want a death in the restaurant (!).  He wasn’t confident to cook a steak and a jacket potato, because – actually their home cooking was not prepared by them.

We went to a celebrity chef restaurant where the young waitress came out after our meal, poked the person with the nut allergy and said “so, you’re still alive then?”. And mock wiped their brow.

Advice no 3 Don’t joke about another’s vulnerability if they aren’t joking about it. And even if they are, read the situation.

Recently, we went out.  The waitress was efficient, ie everything was on time, but there was a lack of confidence transmitted to us.  A subtle inference in the tone of voice,  an implied shrug.   Because of this we spoke to the chef – he said “I will cook it, there are no nuts in the kitchen tonight; you can be confident”.

I made a joke at the end of that meal regarding a “low fat espresso”.    My joke.  She came back and explained to us that espresso was “very dark coffee” and ” we could have milk on the side”.  She then leaned in, smiled and revealed it was her first night and she was learning.

When our waitress confided it was her first night; I was able to see behind behaviour that made us roll our eyes a little.  She was terrified; her first customer was someone who could die if given the wrong food. She didn’t know what ingredients were in each dish.  She thought we were genuinely asking for a low fat espresso.    Our experience (the food was utterly delicious) could have been improved 100% by the restaurant manager standing with the new waitress when she came to our table and introducing her, letting us know it was her first night and that she was learning.  It would have set the scene; she could have been honest when she didn’t know, needed to ask or check and we could have been more relaxed.

Advice no 4  Don’t chuck new colleagues in the deep end.  No-one wins.

Where we feel safe to eat is where people don’t joke about the allergy, where people do not expect to make choices on behalf of another about what is safe, where information is offered up about ingredients and where respect is offered to the situation, and – that is all.

Advice no 5 Do please take time to understand and respect another’s unique needs, honour vulnerability. Give the space for others to  make their own choices – they know, we don’t need to decide for them.