It’s one thing to say that the boxes don’t matter (as much). It’s another thing altogether to say that messiness is important. Hang on to your hats, though, because that’s where I’m going.
As we’ve discussed, models are how we make sense of the world. We use them because they are valuable and relevant abstractions. They aren’t real, and they don’t tell us everything about a problem, and that is by design. What models are doing is engaging in a process of reductive simplification; they are stripping complicated and difficult things out, so that you can focus on the simple and clear.
There is value in simplicity and clarity. First and foremost, it is fundamental to how we learn. We don’t start off learning English by engaging in a post-modernist deconstruction of the use of the past-imperfect tense in the Western canon since the publication of Finnegan’s Wake (and thankfully, many of us never, ever get there). Instead, we start with “the cat in the hat.” We might get to “the cat sat on the hat.” Followed by “the cat will sit on the hat.” We ignore the very real and reasonable objection that cats don’t in the normal course of their business wear hats, because that is materially beside the point of mastering simple, one-syllable words of three letters or less.
So it is with models that attempt to explain more complex situations, circumstances, ideas and concepts. They point your attention to things that matter from the perspective of the person that authors them. In doing so, they divert your attention away from the other aspects that may also be true, meaningful and relevant in a broader context, but aren’t germane to the specific point that someone is trying to make.
Let’s take a concept like organizational culture, for example. There are numerous models that have been published that attempt to make sense of a complex and difficult conceptual challenge. There are arguments that culture isn’t in fact any one thing, or that at least it isn’t a separate and distinct conceptual entity to which motive can be ascribed. Despite this arguably true assertion, numerous academics and consultants have tried to create an abstract tool to assess and explain organizational culture (and have made a lot of money doing it).
For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to talk about the Competing Values Framework by Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron (if only for the reason that it is one of the more simple models, and gets relatively frequently referenced when the subject of organizational culture comes up). As with so very many models, the Competing Values Framework is built around a two-by-two matrix (because there is no problem so complex that it can’t be explained by four boxes). One dimension of the model assesses whether the locus of control and influence in the organization is seen as internal or external; the other dimension evaluates whether there is an emphasis on flexibility or control.
Extrapolate from there, and you get your four boxes. The box that appears at the extremity of the axis gives you a description of normal behaviours that you can expect to find an organization. An internal, hierarchical culture will get you a rigid, hidebound organization hell-bent on tradition and precedent. An external, flexible culture looks like one that does whatever its clients want, no matter how varied or inconsistent. An internal, flexible culture values team above all else, and vilifies anyone who should betray the clan. And an external, hierarchical culture looks a whole lot like an organization of Type-A over-achievers. Those, at least, are the stereotypes portrayed by the extremes of each dimension within the model.
What isn’t represented in the model is the fact that not every organization that the matrix attempts to describe actually lives at the extreme. Some have stronger tendencies in a particular direction, while others have weaker tendencies. Some organizations might sit smack in the middle of a particular dimension, and there are going to be a few that sit stubbornly in the middle of the entire framework. Even more important, you could zoom in and out of the org chart of any given organization, and find different results. Just to apply a couple of broadly sweeping stereotypes, you might make the argument that many—if not most—sales organizations lean towards the external and flexible, while the tendency of the vast majority of engineering organizations (not to mention actuaries) veer in the direction of an internal control orientation.
We can push that further, though. I would make the argument that you will see different results if you were to evaluate an organization under stress than you would when times are awesome. I’d further contend that you would get different results from the same organization depending upon the nature and the source of the stress.
The consequence is that something that looks theoretically simple and clean on paper (and there are few things conceptually simpler and cleaner than your typical two-by-two matrix) start to get much more complex, more contextual and more contingent as soon as you start asking the simple question, “What happens when…” That question is usually a speedy short-cut back to my absolutely favourite answer of all time, “It depends.”
Models are how we make sense and categorize meaning. The creators of the Competing Values Framework no doubt built their model by looking at a bunch of organizations, likely from a broad variety of different dimensions at the outset, and trying to figure out what all the data told them. After a great deal of head-scratching and pondering, a sifting and sorting of organizational descriptions and dimensions inevitably led them to find groups and patterns that form the basis of the model that emerged. Even then, there were probably outliers. The model told a useful story that has a level of broad applicability and meaning, however, and so a new set of four boxes was unleashed on the world.
That clarity is particularly useful when we try to explain things to others (and this is very often where the problem starts). Presentations don’t lend themselves to broad messiness. Audiences pride clarity and comprehensibility. So much so, that an incredibly useful structure for presentation development is, “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, and finally tell them what you’ve told them.”
Last week I made the argument that what matters is less the model than it is the content behind the model. I stand by that as a fairly true statement. I think we can comfortably go beyond that, however. What genuinely matters is the messiness that leads to model generation in the first place. It is all the very many, multi-faceted ways that “it depends” that truly gets us to an understanding of what really matters. A model is how we might make meaning. At best, though, it’s a temporary abstraction, relevant in a particular circumstance to make sense of a situation from one perspective. What the model tells you is not the whole story, and should never be relied upon as the whole story.
We overlook that truth, however, more often than many of us would care to admit. We like simplicity. We like reducing complex problems into simple ones. We are comforted by the thought process of, “This situation feels a whole lot like that one, so I’ll just do what I did last time.” One of our fascinating cognitive biases as human beings is that of substitution: when faced with a complex and difficult problem, we change that out for a much simpler and easier problem, and solve that instead. When faced with a potential risk on a project, for example, rather than doing a comprehensive analysis of the problem to sort out a solution they may simple opt for, “Do I like and trust the manager responsible for this?” Even where that manager is looking for guidance, the answer that they get back might very well be, “I’ll go with what you decide; I trust you to do the right thing.”
I was reminded of this tendency to simplify—particularly in the dimension of organizational culture—just the other day. An article took clear aim at the notion that culture is a thing that can be analyzed, let alone used to explain the behaviour of people in the organization. Laura McNamara made the point that the culture of an organization is most often thought of as “…a holding place for a) stuff managers haven’t yet worked to understand and b) are likely to associate with the attitudes, beliefs, values, etc. of their workforce.” The point she was making is that the very notion of culture is simplistic and reductive, and there is a lot more complexity driving what happens—and doesn’t happen—in organizations. That complexity needs a great deal more exploration and examination than can be addressed by the overarching concept of culture.
I’m not going to get into a debate over whether we should actually use the term “culture“ to describe organizational functioning. It’s certainly one I use regularly, and it’s one that most people will ascribe to a collective understanding of “the way things get done around here.” Nonetheless, the manner in which things do get accomplished—and the understanding of how things actually work—will vary considerably by organization, as well as within any organization and by each individual person. What we understand and ascribe to the idea of culture is whatever in the aggregate represents a dominant trend at any given moment in time. Change out context, situation and circumstances, and those factors are going to change.
The fact that culture—and cultural understanding—is so variable isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It is one that has been central to my role as a consultant, and how I approach working with clients. A core principle of my work for years has been that my clients aren’t organizations, they are people. That is in part a recognition that it is a person that selects and hires me, and they have specific outcomes and results that they are expecting to get—and it’s my job to help ensure that is what happens. It is also an acknowledgement that you don’t change organizations, you don’t create organizational culture and you don’t improve organizational function. What you are trying to do—and the only thing that you can do—is to try to help influence and shift the behaviours of actual people in ways that are meaningful, productive, cooperative and useful.
Being able to make changes that matter requires not just recognition of the messiness of organizational life, but a willingness to explore and make sense of it in ways that are meaningful in a given context. Whether building strategic plans or project management practices—both of which are theoretically focused on the organization—my approach has always centred on understanding what people need, what they can accept and what they can be successful using. I can honestly say that I have never implemented the same solution twice. There has never been an instance where I have dusted off work delivered to one organization and tried to force-fit it into another.
Embracing the messiness takes hard work, a great deal of effort and a significant amount of patience. It means having access to a range of different perspectives and models to explain behaviours that you are observing and experiencing, knowing none of them will be perfect but many of them might be at least somewhat useful. Triangulating across what you see, what you know and what you suspect, you can work to build an understanding of what is actually happening. From there, it is possible to develop approaches that might be useful and relevant.
There is a mantra in Silicon Valley (the source of which is typically attributed to Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook) that says that to be successful, you have to move fast and break things. If you want to be successful in understanding, influencing and nudging organizational culture—individually first, and then in the collective—that advice is exactly wrong. Success is the result of moving slowly and learning things. Commit to the complexity and you may finally start to get somewhere.