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Future of Organising

Join Sarah Fraser and Steve Hearsum in this podcast episode as they talk about their time teaching a module on organisational change. They discuss the challenges of planning for the future when it's uncertain and touch on power dynamics, the need for sharing power, and the role of human behavior in shaping organisations. They share some surprising moments, like the idea of a group nap, and emphasize the importance of being fully present today to create a better future.
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Sarah Fraser  0:00  

So we wanted to try and make sense and draw out some thinking from, from the module that we've just been facilitating for the Mayvin Masters in organisational change and people. So where do we start? There was a lot in there.

Steve Hearsum  0:16  

Well, there was, I think we start with the whole question of why this module even exists in the context of a 21st century master's programme about organisations. So why does it even exist?

Sarah Fraser  0:34  

Yeah and before, I'll sort of give my view on that, it was an interesting question to ask at the end of the module, we've had our factors head off on a community days of what would it have been like to have this master's without this module in it without it being part of it? Because it felt quite different quite or slightly, slightly radical in in a way, but it feels like it is a no brainer, having just gone through the module to have it in there. Because it's, the challenge is to really, I actually think to consider what what matters when you think about ways of organising organisations and how is that changing? How does that mean, our practice as, as OD practitioners is going to change and develop and needs to adapt, as organisations are doing so. And to really put ourselves in the middle of that and understand how that's shifting in the in the present? In fact, what are your thoughts, that's just my initial.

Steve Hearsum  1:40  

Well, where I've immediately gone is I've made a couple of logical leaps, connecting to some conversations we've had. So firstly, not having a module on the Masters in in something to do with the future is far less anxiety inducing. If I'm doing a master's programme, where I can think about my practice at an individual group and organisational level, but without any reference to the world in three or five or 10 years time, that I don't have to grapple with how I think and feel about what's going on around us. And the extent to which the environment in which I might be doing my work may be radically different. And actually, in some extreme circumstances, positively dystopian. I mean, you know, having a conversation about how to deepen one's practice and self as instrument in the midst of climate collapse that at certain point becomes, what's the word? Well, becomes absurd, potentially. There's also something here about the question to which the question the extent to which we are comfortable, as human beings even thinking about the future. So this is not just about us designing a master's programme, I mean, some of the research around the degree to which human beings are able to engage with risk in the future shows that we can only go about three years in advance, beyond a three year window, it becomes so anxiety inducing and so complex for us as we just simply cannot engage in it. So the decisions are made at a political and societal level, are actually quite narrow. And a really good example of this was somebody I know working at a very strategic level in the NHS as part of a I hesitate to use the term think tank, but they were trying to help the NHS to think more deeply about the future, was talking to a very senior leader in the centre of the NHS few years ago, who said to my, my friend, well, I can show you my plan for the next three years, and it's fairly well populated, I can show you my plan for five years, and there isn't that much on it. If I showed you the piece of paper for 10 years, there's pretty much nothing on it. And in the context of the pandemic we've just gone through to here that is a little bit surprising.

Sarah Fraser  3:59  

But this is the, this is the dynamic that yes, leaders and organisations are caught in and of our attempt to plan and strategize for a future that is unknowable that we cannot plan for, you know, we talk about being in a working in a BANI world brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and I never remember that I incomprehensible, thats it. 

Steve Hearsum  4:30  

See, we didn't understand it, that's why.

Sarah Fraser  4:32  

and that is the reality, so I mean, which comes back to the fact that you know, this, it felt quite exciting entering into this module and thinking great, this is, you know, this is quite exciting thinking about the future of organisations and how they're going to change and we can maybe grapple with some things around AI. But what it opens up was a whole range of challenges and issues on exactly that anxiety that you are speaking to. And that is what people in organisations at, you know, at every level, but you know, I'm particularly feeling the pressure at senior levels are grappling with, they're grappling with it every day, because it is impossible to have anything on that 10 year plan. Yet there is a need to create some certainty, some certainty and some containment for that community, that community of people, because otherwise it is it is extremely anxiety inducing for people. So it's a it's kind of a sort of a paradox, in a way. 

Steve Hearsum  5:42  

But there's also a parallel process, which is if you consider that need to manage or reduce anxiety, in self as a leader, and in the organisation that connects to one of the other questions we've got in front of us here, which is, so are well equipped? And how appropriate is it for institutions, such as business schools, and providers of executive and management education, to actually engage in these questions given the fact that they are to a large extent, selling certainty? You know, the pitch for many executive education programmes, is actually if you look at the marketing material, the collateral is predicated on selling the certainty if you do this programme, you will come out as a better more, in fact, impactful leader with more certain outcomes.

Sarah Fraser  6:33  

So just think about where it was in our programme. So this was module four of the master's programme, it was the final module to the second year, and everyone on with the fifth module that going on to the dissertation. So it's sort of the final sort of taught module for the for the Masters. So the group had done quite a lot of work, they've done a lot of work on group dynamics, looking at that themselves as and their practice in quite a great deal of depth, looking at different ways of intervening interventions and stuff as as an OD practitioner, so they've really done a lot of skills, social skills development, and then we launched them into this module, we're in a very different way of say, you know, with that sense of, what do you want to do with this? We cannot we cannot teach you what's coming in the future. We don't know, either. I remember, we were sat with a group that first morning saying, well, in a sense, this, it's over to you, and how do you want to deal with this? And confronting them? With a, yeah, a very different approach, in order to provide a bit of challenge. So I'm coming about a sort of explaining that in terms of them coming around to you like, what was the purpose of it from your sense of like, literally the methodology that we took it, or the approach that we took in as well. 

Steve Hearsum  8:05  

I think there's a really important point here about what are the underlying assumptions that we, that we came with you and I, and therefore, by extension, Mayvin, around the very name of the module. So you know, that I start from a position of that the idea of an organisation is an abstraction anyway, and therefore, talking about the future of organisations is, is inherently and quite literally absurd. Because, you know, it doesn't have a future, you know, it evolves and it it manifests through the organising of the people that are within it. Therefore, we can, yeah, so so we can have a conversation about the future of organising, that's actually kind of where I locate myself in this, this inquiry, bringing it back to your kind of question around, you know, as we as we drop this into the lap of the group, my own reflections on that both I suppose on the day, but also since, is I'm not surprised, it was challenging, because really, to do that, is to effectively say, in some sense, nothing is fixed, and everything's up for grabs. Is it any wonder that there was anxiety in the room? And it links to, then also, what are our assumptions about organising in 2024? You know, just to give you an example, you know, when I think of clients that I work with at the moment who are wrestling for example, with culture, the idea that they have any control over that is actually again, debatable, you know, they are really sometimes at best they're doing is is kind of nudging and hoping and having positive intent and at worst they're flailing haven't got clue what to do, as this thing just evolves, and the anxiety is really rife. So inviting people to think about organising means they have to start to think quite deeply about their assumptions about leadership. They have to think deeply about their assumptions about management. And leading and managing, they have to think far more deeply about how they show up and the impact they have, which links to our work around practice based leadership. But the other bit that I think, I think certainly got uncomfortable for them was, they then have to start thinking about power.

Sarah Fraser  10:19  

Exactly and how they, it's not just about how they, how we individually use our power, or how power manifests itself in organisations, but it's like the relationship to power, because it is going to, there will be power, dynamics, whatever we hope to create. So I think about lots of cultural change programmes, and I've done with clients and, you know, client working with at the moment, which is really, you know, working hard and purposefully, around empowerment and trying to shift some of the more hierarchical dynamics that they've got. And, you know, leadership at different levels, really, really trying to work on that. But it is there's societal, you know, socially embedded relationships to power, which, you know, organisations that are trying to sort of be at the forefront of change, you know, are going to sort of going to be railing against us, like, we can't help but be in relationship with the context as well as, how are we going up the culture of our own these organisations that we're in,

Steve Hearsum  11:36  

and to get just a little bit political for a moment, you know. Just for the moment. This goes back to something that Martin Parker says in his book about shutdown all the business schools, that management education, and actually, I would argue the whole field of HR, and also the whole field of organisation development is predicated, and actually all leadership, thinking, broadly speaking, that it's turned out, is predicated on the assumption there's one way of organising market managerialism, when, in fact, there are hundreds, if not, maybe 1000s, of different ways of organising, but they're not taught. And we don't work with clients pretty much in any other way, mostly, other than sustaining those ways of organising, and the ways in which power work, which is why organisations like bird dog are suddenly so shocking to us, because they don't fit that law.

Sarah Fraser  12:28  

And it takes it takes it takes time to shift. So you know, you read, you read about organisations that are moving towards more, one sort of associatecracy, or teal organisations or, you know, that sort of model. And it's not like you can just put that in place straightaway. Because this is about the whole net network or system of relationships, and that whole system's relationship to power, not about, you know, the senior leaders relinquishing power. That's because, as you say, that creates anxiety. So we felt it that first morning, when we were offering to relinquish our power as faculty for the programme to offer them space and the power to shape their experiments and their inquiry over the course of our time together. And that caused a huge amount of actually disorganisation, I would say, and, and to an extent a bit of conflicts, because suddenly there was it was like, there was an element of chaos. I mean, it was healthy chaos.

Steve Hearsum  13:40  

What we've done is we'd actually suggested and we're naming the fact that we were removing some of the containment, we were saying, Yeah,

Sarah Fraser  13:48  

you see this with organisations, you know, in our work at the moment, you know, when you work with an organisation, on an org design project, and you start and the organisation the system as a whole starts to understand the extent of the change and the potential for change and the discussions going on. But that lack of containment, if it is extensive, creates a huge amount of anxiety. And you know exactly what we saw that morning.

Steve Hearsum  14:15  

It just reminds me that one of our colleagues, who's very experienced in both org development and design, who actually working with on a projects at the moment, was saying to me recently that she is really consciously thinking about pulling back from doing all design work, because what she observes is the vast majority of clients have no awareness of the fact that the moment they enter into an org design project, they are pulling away and collapsing all the containers, and they don't pay nowhere near enough attention to the anxiety that is then free. And there's this, this surprise about what's happening. I was just thinking about just to loop back briefly to this thing about power. One of the things that really struck me when I interviewed Joost minnaar fom the corporate rebels a couple of years ago for the book was he said that some organisations have tried to replicate buurtzorg. One which really struck me was the organisation and replicated it but because the leadership of that organisation didn't really want to let go of their power, it therefore didn't work. The whole thing about buurtzorg, it's about devolve power, and creating genuine autonomy, and permission for people to self organise. So that's fascinating to me. 

Sarah Fraser  15:30  

It needs support development in order to create that. And I felt like we went through some of that process on the master's programme, you know, supporting, developing doing some, you know, quite, quite deep workout. I mean, there's a lot of deep work that went on, at the individual levels and at the group level, but really challenging people to consider their relationship to palette power and their expectations. You know, during that moment, when we one person said, you know, it was in jest, but it was like, I was really hoping, can you just tell us tell us start some stuff, like, I just want to know some stuff. And I think we both chuckled at that moment was like, well, we could but that's not going to answer the question this module of, you know, imagining future ways of organising, imagining the future, which, you know, is an unknowable. From our perspective.

Steve Hearsum  16:27  

I think also, what's coming clear to me, sir, is I think there's a bit of an elephant in the room here. And it's an elephant that's there all the time in all our work. And the problem is, is that most organisations would really rather not deal with it, until the elephant is basically knocking the place down. And it's really simple that elephant is human behaviour. And in particular, the extent to which we are, we have the capacity to behave in an adult to adult way. So, if you think about, for example, so I think frederic laloux reinventing organisations, I think he's actually said, if I remember correctly, that it's very difficult to create the conditions for a teal organisation, unless you have enough people who are able to be adult in their behaviour and have sufficient emotional intelligence. Well, if that's the case, then there's a kind of irony here, which is in all the striving for some concept, or construct or model for the future of organising, you know, bring us the new and sexy of the future. Primary task remains in all of this, our capacity and capability for working with social processes.

Sarah Fraser  17:29  

And this, this is why I loved where we got to in the module. That's so many of the discussions, you know, we did touch there was kind of explorations into like, do we need to become experts and understand how AI is going to affect how we work do we need to think about like all these hybrid working models, do, we need to make sure we understand how teal organisations would be constructed. And it came down to actually, with the the anxiety looking into the future creates literally that relationship to m looking into the future for human beings, and the unknowable with the shift in power dynamics and our relationship to power that that will be required to, you know, act into these devolve these ways of organising with increasingly devolve power. What we have to work on here is critical, you know, hit our humanity with each other, like our relationships, how we deal with the social dynamics, as you're saying, in organisations, and how we can deal with that in a Yeah, you know, adults adult way that is steps out of, yeah, I mean, it steps out of our normal our assumed relationships to power and patriarchy, I suppose you could even go there. I mean, really, we need together but it was, it came down to some real relational qualities. It wasn't the big and sexy that was the most important,

Steve Hearsum  19:10  

let's just not let's not leave that thread dangling, because you talked about patriarchy there. And I think it's worth because because otherwise, we leave ourselves open to accusation that we're, you know, just coming from a kind of liberal soft position, which would be an easy way to dismiss something. But I'm reminded the fact that two days ago, I think it was two days ago, there was a release of a report from a government committee, which was talking about the the still entrenched sexism and misogyny in the city. And observing how, since the last report five years ago, that it hadn't gone away. It had just moved more into the shadows. And and so when we look at the way the power works, and who has has power, I think it's a fair critique to say that much of the power still rests with bluntly people who have my types of characteristics white middle aged men, often straight living in certain parts of the UK. 

Sarah Fraser  20:15  

And, yes, we can't be, it feels like that, that, you know, lots of people talk about this moment, but it feels like that problem should be solved by now. And, you know, much much has been done hearing them the other day on the radio about the percentage of a female chief executive, okay, that's, you know, they've they've hit, hit the target on that earlier than expected, but that doesn't change the assumptions, behaviour, and mind culture, which still exists, and still shapes the way that we function. Think about where and actually just add one more thing. And you think about the way our ways of organising AI, where the boundaries between work and life come up against each other yet the case of that's changed a lot over the last five years, and will continue to change, but it is it is still, I would say shapes dominated by male dominated

Steve Hearsum  21:16  

values. But there's also something there's some really interesting research around dominance dynamics in groups and meetings. And how unconsciously attracted we are to people who exhibit dominant behaviour in groups. And that means that those who have got a more aggressive with a small a or extroverted with a small a behaviour will often have their voices heard more. And there's there's research around. I mean, the other thought that occurred to me, and I think this is the tension between attempting to No, this isn't a sense, it will kind of try and disaggregate or pull these things apart. On the one hand, we talk about the future of organising, and then what I'm reminded of is a conversation with a client only this week, where we were talking, in fact was yesterday, we're were talking with the group of, of leaders about how they wanted to evolve the culture in the organisation. And in a sense, we're talking about the future of their organising, because they want to change the way they organise, they want to change the current behaviours in the organisation. And there was this moment where somebody said something about, you know, we need to have some conversations around how we do our meetings, I'm paraphrasing here, and I made the observation. I said, if you did nothing else, but have more candid conversations, about your meetings, how long they are, who is invited to them, whether they're needed, what decisions each of those meetings need to make, you know, stuff like that really, kind of practical pissy stuff, you would probably be in a place where you're working through many of the tensions that you've identified in the way you work together, and the way you organise. But what really struck me was the discomfort I felt in the room at that moment. So when I took that came from, because because this goes for me goes to the heart of the whole thing about the future of organising, let's, let's take Mayvin Let's use it as a as a case in case in point, if I as a as an associate, and also as a member faculty was supposed to sit down in a room with all full time and associate members of the Mayvin. hive mind. And I was to say something like, Well, can we have a conversation about how we actually decide how we come together and how we meet? And who is invited and why they're invited? What assumptions on the one hand, knowing Mayvin people, it'd be welcomed. get frightened? Well, yeah, but I'd also bet a fairly large sum of money that the anxiety in the room would go up. Yes,

Sarah Fraser  24:10  

because it challenges or assumptions because it's

Steve Hearsum  24:14  

because you're currently organising your organising in one way. And as somebody is inviting a conversation and suggesting that, well, maybe there are different ways of organising.

Sarah Fraser  24:27  

Yeah. So I like the fact that you sort of brought it back to me because it's we are, so we're experimenting with different ways of organising, bringing it sort of back to something quite pragmatic, but we are we're experimenting with different ways of organising at the moment. So our operations team is moving towards because I wouldn't make that assumption that was suddenly a self they're suddenly a self organising team and sort of, like the Berto example hadn't sort of just planted themselves into a completely new world, but moving towards a model of self organising. And in many respects is it's proving hugely beneficial and people are everyone in the team is, is really enjoying that sense of devolved power. And it's as we get into it, it's like peeling back layers kind of noticing. Okay, so we feel like we're able to have our meetings in a different way and have a sense that we can answer a lot of our own questions don't have to go go and get permission from senior people in the in the business for a greater range of issues. But then we had, we had, like peeling back the layers and realising that, okay, there's, there's another level to get to here. So I, we had a conversation about decision making, and sort of thinking about so in your way of opening up a conversation of like, what if, if we did think about the way that we made decisions, then how might we do that differently? Or what's the, what's the purpose of the way that we do it at the moment? Where does that work? And where does it not? And how, if we were to push this push the model of self organisation, you know, to the next step to the next level? How might we shift the dial again? And interestingly, there was quite a lot of resistance, like, it all works? Well, it would, you know, works really well. At the moment, I think things would just go like don't change anything. But in a sense, it was an intervention in itself. It did, I think the conversation did what it needed to do, of just questioning, questioning our assumptions, questioning our assumptions about how, how we do make decisions, and how we do organise in the hierarchy in that team with the rest of the business.

Steve Hearsum  26:54  

What this brings brings to mind is about seven or eight years ago, there was a the odd conference, which was at Sunningdale, one of the two there. We invited a couple of guys in who were I think, English, or American, and they were worked in a company or they were like a new media or digital agency or something that was partly based in Poland and partly based in the US. And they've moved to more self organising principles. But here's the interesting thing. So they changed things so that the people who previously been managers no longer had the title of manager. They were negotiating around role tasks and boundaries based on the work. Yeah. And people was still behaving as if they were to be managers, were still managers, even though they were no longer managers. Yeah.

Sarah Fraser  27:47  

Yes. And I think for any organisation looking to, to move towards more self organising models, or just changeless, they just put the blanket label of like, it reimagined ways of organising the pole, the elastic band back to no dynamics in relationships, status and power. So think that right back to my own dissertation for my master's in organisational change was the focus on status, and the elastic band back to your, your concept of norms and status and how you place yourself in relationship with others, which is like, it's a way of making sense very quickly, like shorthand, how do I make sense of where I fit in here and how I relate to this person, that takes time to shift and time to change. So if we're trying to change that in organisations, it has to be gradual, but a whole hearted, you know, whole system efforts to shift things, as I think we've talked about earlier, it's not just about senior leaders letting go of power, it has to be a reimagining of the distribution of power. And

Steve Hearsum  28:55  

what popped into my head is that it raises, there's two things popped into my head, actually, one is the assumption that everybody wants to self organise, in the sense of, I want, I want more autonomy. Well, there's different needs within that. So there's something about how you work with different folks and think about one person I remember in an organisation I worked in, who was entirely happy, and all they wanted to do was do a job that involve transcribe transcription. Yeah. They didn't want they were not interested in promotion. They were not interested in any other work in terms of who they were and their life. It met their needs. If you'd ask them. Do you want to progress? Do you want to do more interesting work in inverted commas? It's not not on their agenda at all. That's the first thing. The other thing that I think it's worth just just kind of tipping my hat to. There's a kind of a bit of an idealised notion around self organising I know it's nirvana. But yes, if you read the book that David hare co authored the guy behind Psychopath Test, it's a book called Snakes and shoots. He makes the observation that organisations that begin to remove lots of the means of control. So, okay, great. You want to kind of make things looser, but you start to reduce, for example, the visibility of HR processes. Well, actually, the less boundaries with a few of the boundaries, the more space there is, for people who are either mildly or highly narcissistic or sociopathic, psychopathic to thrive, they thrive in those environments when there's no boundaries. So again, we're back to social processes to human behaviour.

Sarah Fraser  30:42  

Yeah, I definitely a difference. Yeah, that power dynamics will come into play. Yeah. This module has, I think, I think it's been fascinating. It's, I think it's been challenging for us as much as it has for the cohort that we've worked with, and really asked us to question, you know, as we as we thought, as we intended our role as faculty, and how we engage in a, in the academic structures, but with a, with a theme with a question that's, that challenges those various structures. But what it's done for me and for Mayvin, as a whole, as we, as we always hope with his masters is it's created sort of an itch to scratch a little further. So within Mayvin, by we're looking to work with developing a research hub to continue to, to imagine the future of work of organisations, ways of organising, and to explore that in, in, in relationship with our, with our clients and our community. So there will be more to come on that and more for us to play with, I hope.

Steve Hearsum  31:54  

Nothing key to that is having sufficiently permeable boundaries.

Sarah Fraser  31:58  

Exactly. Yeah. So the very way we do it has got to replicate something of what we're trying to imagine or challenge in ways of organising. So yeah, maybe that's at the moment. And we'll there'll be more to come. But I was wondering, you know, what, what was the most sort of unexpected moment or, or something for you that came out of being faculty on this module,

Steve Hearsum  32:27  

it has to be the wondrous moment of being invited to have a collective nap. And the reason why that was wonderful, was very personal reason a bit more. Well, we were invited by by one of our participants, Amy, who, through her own inquiry, one of the things that she wanted to have to introduce was this idea of collective nap. But it was also from very political but stance in terms of thinking about how power works in organisations and in, in society. So there was two things that were interesting one, actually, I turned out, I really needed a nap. And I had a great when out for about 20 minutes have a 30 minute cheat sheet she held for us. But the thing that really got me thinking was the way in which she started to invite us to think about, well, how radical would It would it be to actually in an organisation open up a conversation to say, Do you think there might be a bit of a need for a collective rest here? How much permissions is there for a team that has been working all out? To have a literal or metaphorical collective nap? Yeah. So notions of what does it actually mean to rest? What does it mean to recharge? What does it mean to actually pause to reflect and embodied level on on what you're doing and how you're doing it such that when you go again, actually, you're doing it in both a healthy sustainable, actually, it's still going in the right direction, wherever that is. So it raises loads of questions about patient permission about our about the narrative, or the stories we hold about what work in inverted commas actually is and is not and what valid work isn't, is not so. Yeah, tonnes of stuff. I'm now a great fan of collected maps.

Sarah Fraser  34:10  

Yeah, I mean, it was a great, it was a lovely moment with a group and everyone really, yes, participated. Fully. Fantastic. It was mine. I mean, that that was certainly a moment. I suppose that one of the lovely insights that I that just really stuck with me, for a lot of people that it was from several people's inquiry was this conceptual conceptualization of the future like imagining the future, that actually in the impossibility of doing that, actually what we need to what we ended up focusing on on what we realised we're doing is being in the in absolutely in the present, but more fully in the present, making sense of our stories from the past in order to really reimagine possible possible futures, that it actually brings us into the present more fully, and creates connection and understanding a relationship of where we are now.

Steve Hearsum  35:16  

Which just merely go to how can you imagine a future or begin to create the possibility for it and unless you are aware of how entangled you are with your, your past? Yeah. And it loops back to this other point that to engage in conversations about the future of organising, is inherently philosophical.

Sarah Fraser  35:36  

It is. And I think we found that throughout the module into there out of the wonderful pieces of writing that that the cohort have created. There's a lot there. Lovely. Well, I think that's she stopped the recording. Thank you.

Steve Hearsum  35:51  

That was good.

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