Organization transformation as a catch 22 situation

Organizational Transformation: OD's Latest Catch 22

Several weeks ago, the two of us were having dinner with a prospective client. He'd asked us to join him because he’d heard we both were active in organizational transformation, and he was wondering whether "he and his firm should do it."  The essence of his concern was the following:

        "OK, you both know I'm interested in OT. My people are trying to convince me we need it. But, despite talking to them for more than a couple of hours, I still don't know what it is they think we need. Or why it is they think we need it. I'm really confused because they seemingly are suggesting we do some things, for instance team building and an off-site strategy-like session, that I had thought were standard OD

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Finding OT's voice in a turbulent world


The corporations creating today’s global economy are, as they go global, simultaneously producing both prodigious wealth and disastrous problems. Or so it seems.

The possibility that modern corporations are creating such paradoxical consequences is creating a worldwide debate over the proper role of corporations in today’s society. The on-going worldwide demonstrations against the WTO are just one aspect of this debate and it's significance. The riots in Seattle, Washington in 1999, for example, were an early sign that the world is becoming polarized over the prospects

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"contemplation" as OT's missing phase

Contemplation: Organizational Transformation's Missing Phase

In the late 1930's, Kurt Lewin told us that the first step in any organization's change process was one that he called "unfreezing." By this, he meant that any system interested in changing itself had to release its hold on its old ways of working before it could actually get into the business of creating a new future for itself. Lewin did us a huge favor by conceptualizing this step; with it, he showed us that there are things an organization has to do before it can try to change. There is work, he was telling us, that we have to do in our organizations just to get ready to change them.

This is an important insight. One that, had we valued it when he first offered it, would have saved us lots of pain and frustration. And made

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Coordinating an organizational transformation effort

Coordinating Organizational Transformation Efforts

Most organizations today are awash in organizational transformation (OT) efforts. As far back as 1998, a Ford Foundation Report discovered that it was not uncommon to find a single organization simultaneously pursuing seven or more significant change efforts. This, they suggested, was especially true when the organization was a large, multi-national system. Or, when it was a complex, multi-faceted company, for instance, a modern medical center. When, this report suggested, a corporation was simultaneously pursuing multiple change efforts, the organization in question would likely be close to drowning in transformational efforts, each of which was aimed at reworking their structures, redesigning their systems and processes, and developing their employees’ skills. 

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An OT effort's Coordination Center

The Organizational Transformation Coordination Center

An organization that is simultaneously pursuing several strategic change efforts needs an Organizational Transformation Coordination Center (OTCC). An Organizational Transformation Coordination Center does not actually "manage" anything; it’s not in charge of and does not control any of the organization’s change projects. Indeed, "management" per se is not the Center’s responsibility. Rather, the OTCC is in an “observer” role; the OTCC is a place that provides the organization's change leaders with up-to-date information about the problems their transformatioinal projects are encountering. And it keeps them informed about the way the organization’s socio-political processes are shaping and impacting each transformation project’s progress. 

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OT's communication challenges

Framing OT Communication Efforts

Effective communications can make or break an organizational transformation effort. If done properly, communications about a transformation program can set the tone; it can create an atmosphere of curiosity, high expectation, and trust. When done poorly, or when not done at all, an organizational transformation communication effort can heighten concerns, spark suspicion, dampen people’s expectations, and create doubt. For these reasons, it is important for senior leaders to put just as much time, energy and money into the organization’s transformation-related communication progams as they invest in the actual transformation projects their implementing.

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OT's holding environments

Organizational Transformation 'Holding Environments'

A holding environment is a place in an organization that is created for the express purpose of helping key leaders tackles the tough, divisive issues that transformational change efforts create. A holding environment is a place that’s designed to “contain” the anxieties, worries, and passions that transformational efforts generate. It’s a place where facilitators can help key actors direct their energies away from their own anxieties and redirect them towards cooperatively surfacing and working their interpersonal and cross-functional conflicts. At base, a holding environment is a place where key actors can work together with one another without causing their transformational change programs to fly apart. When you’re trying to transform an organization, you need a holding environment that is strong enough to contain and adjust the emotional heat that transformationl change efforts generate. 

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OT's change back dynamics

Organizational Transformation's "Change-Back" Dynamics

For the most part, the senior executives we’ve worked with have been fiercely committed to the transformation efforts they’ve initiated. They had serious reasons for launching the transformation efforts they were backing; usually they knew deep in their bones that the way their companies were currently organized and the way they were presently functioning had to be substantially transformed. In this context, we’ve often heard our clients speak about the change programs they were sponsoring in words like these, “This transformation is the key to our future,” “We have to transform, or we’ll die,” and/or,  “If we really want to compete in this new market, we have to make these transformational changes.” In each case, the executives making these assertions were serious about their pronouncements, fully committed to their change efforts and eager to make them successful. 

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Building OT efforts feedback loops

Designing and Building Organizational Transformation Feedback Loops

Feedback is a regular part of our daily lives. It’s a common, every day event. Feedback, and the feedback loops that carry it, are everywhere, all around us as we move through the day.

For instance, feedback and feedback loops are as simple as your response to touching a hot skillet. They are as common as the thermostat on your wall at home or the speedometer in your car. They are as familiar and easy to use as the thermometer you reach for when you want to see whether you’re running a temperature. Each of these is an example of feedback and a feedback loop. Both are tools we use to help us live our lives. 

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OT Forecasting responsibilities

Organizational Transformation Forecasting

After 30 years of experience, professional consultants know quite a bit about what organizations will go through as they try to transform themselves. For instance, we know that deep transformations take several years to complete. We know that certain types of changes are more difficult to affect than others. And we know that certain glitches -- if you will, mistakes of omission and/or commission -- will inevitably plague an OT change effort. We know that, no matter how well we plan, each OT effort an organization launches will, at one time or another, stumble over the assumptions it’s leaders have made about how to get from here to there.

More often than not, we don't make these “predictions.” 

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Discussion of Rilke's view of OT

Transformational Poetry: Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke is a poet. He was born in Prague during the winter of 1875 and died 51 years later in Switzerland, on December 29th, 1926.

Rilke's father was a man of failed ambitions, in the end a minor railroad official who had not managed to obtain a commission in the Austrian army after many years of service. His mother Sophie likewise was a woman of disappointed longings, grieving well after Rilke's birth over the premature death of her daughter. In Rilke's early years, Phia (as his mother was called) acted as if she were seeking to recover her lost baby through Rilke. Two of his names — René and Maria — evidence her attempt to lend him a female identity, as do his early years, when, against his father's ineffectual opposition, Phia dressed Rilke as a girl.

To Rilke's lifelong despair, this parental combination provided him a deeply conflicted childhood, one of which he had only the darkest memories, one of which he could 

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