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What is the future of organizations, organising and organisers?

James Traeger and Tony Nicholls talk about the future of organizations in this podcast. Or is it the future of organising or organisers?
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In today's episode, founding Mayvin Director James Traeger asks our Tony, aka Principal Consultant, Tony Nicholls, about his brand new book, Managing Change in Organizations. The conversation centres around the future of organizations in this podcast. Or is it the future of organising? Or is it the future of organisers?

They talk about leaders and managers, the difference between the two and the merits of each term, the importance of a good deskside manner. Yep, you heard me right, not bedside manner, deskside manner. And they talk around practical tips and examples for good management.

Get your copy of Managing Change in Organizations here.

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James Traeger 2:25
So we're here to talk about the future of organizations in this podcast. And in particular, talk a bit about how the work behind the book that you've written. The book focuses on management not leadership, which is slightly counter to the trend of this type of book where leadership seems to be the fashion. So tell me a bit about your background, and why management rather than leadership?

Tony Nicholls 3:02
Well, my background was primarily in operational management. That's where I sort of learned my trade as it were, in financial services. In a lot of sales oriented roles. So contact centres and product lead departments that had direct contact with customers. They had a very customer centric perspective, which meant managing processes well. And managing teams of customer services agents and sales agents, well, was the secret to success.

And I noticed quite quickly that those managers that were close to the grain of the work, the phrase that we're using, maybe they weren't. They were close to the grain of the work, they were close to the teams. They had a strong a good relationship with their teams. And were personable and cared for their teams. They were the ones who got the success.

Now, I don't class that as leadership. I class that as really good quality management. Because it's about managing processes and managing resources in order to achieve objectives. It's not strategic, it's not setting strategic intent. It's about delivering against objectives, sales targets, as it were so quite nuts and bolts type work. And I class that as management. And I think that the challenge we've got now is that leadership has become so dominant as a discourse.

I come across managers all the time. Middle managers in organisations, who quite openly say I'm not a leader. Because either they feel they don't want to take on the accountability that they perceive these leaders to have. Or they don't feel like they warrant it because of their level within the organisation. Especially with hierarchical organisations and because of the focus on leadership.

And I think we've done some quite good work over the decades on leadership. I think we've got some good leadership models and practices out there that people can pick up and look at. And lots and lots of books, of course. What I think has happened is that management as a practice has fallen behind.

We haven't paid enough attention to: how do we develop managers well? In the current context. In the organisations that we currently have, and the sales environments that we currently find ourselves in. And in the way that we want to deliver change in organisations. Because for me, managers are primarily there to manage change. Otherwise, why? Why do we need them, the system would run itself.

So in order to manage change well, we need to look at managers and their practice. That means looking at their ability to be in relationship with their team members, with their colleagues, with each other, and with their customers, rather than thinking of the organisation as a machine where they can pull levers and get predictable outcomes.

And we just know, that just isn't the case anymore. So managers moving away from being on autopilot, and moving towards being much more in the moment. Able to see what's going on and make some wise decisions about the next thing they do with their team members, with their colleagues, with each other. That's what I think, that's what the book primarily focuses on.

James Traeger 6:34
So they play a critical role is what you're saying in the kind of culture actually. Although we get culture is quite kind of an abstract and amorphous thing, actually managers are making culture by how they're making change.

Tony Nicholls 6:50
Absolutely, I think so. The phrase we use is: who you are, and how you show up matters. And that's critically important for managers. Moment by moment they're with their teams, with each other, with the customers. Who they are, how they show up, how they think, how they see the world.

How they choose to go about managing the resources at their disposal, is critically important to both culture and success of the organisation. And that, for me at the moment is too much thought of as a leadership thing. It's rarified, it's up there somewhere, and we need the leaders to do something about that. Well, I think it's about managers doing something about that.

James Traeger 7:33
There's that idea of the minor gesture isn't there. The where change really happens. And change happens not in terms of the Big Bangs because how many times have we heard organisations do a big reorganisation? And yet what people say is that not much has really changed. It feels like reorganising the deck chairs in a way. But actually, real change happens in the small encounters and the relationships that are on the ground. Managers have a lot of control of don't they.

Tony Nicholls 8:03
Absolutely. I talk a lot in the book about workarounds. So in processes that take a piece of information. Let's take a customer calls in, take a piece of information. Process that through several steps to get to an outcome. Which may be a decision or a new form filled in or a new product sent out. It doesn't matter how well automated the system is, if there's a human being involved at any point in that process, they will make it up as they go along.

They will create workarounds, because that's what human beings do. They get bored, innovate and make mistakes. So these workarounds are what create either innovation or inefficiency. So a manager's job, I think, is about paying attention to how human beings show up and how human beings can create workarounds. And to notice those workarounds and work with a system to either amplify them because they're good workarounds, or mitigate them because they're inefficiency.

James Traeger 9:02
And when you say work with the system, you're really talking about working with people, aren't you? Right?

Tony Nicholls 9:06
So yeah I think, we think about digital systems and think that is the system. But of course, it isn't just the system. If people are communicating with each other, that is the system too. And the way we communicate and whether we trust each other and whether we're aligned in terms of our purpose are all elements of the system that need paying attention to.

And that for me is a manager's job on the ground to notice that minute by minute, moment by moment. Are we on the same page? Do we know what we're doing here? Have we created workarounds that are creating inefficiencies or innovations and working with that all the time? For me it's agile working with a little a. It's not agile, formal agile with a capital A.

James Traeger 9:51
And interestingly, we know that people stay or leave not the organisation but their manager. Their relationship with their immediate line manager will be key to their sense of engagement. Whether it's, looked after and talked to and cared about. Which often I think is interesting that managers sometimes think that's kind of like, less important work. That's become a sideshow to the main work, but actually what you're saying is, that's the main work.

Tony Nicholls 10:22
That's the main work for me. To be to be in relationship with their team members and colleagues, rather than working on the relationship, which is sort of to, to work on relationship is to do it from a distance. The only reason I have this relationship is because I need to get an objective achieved, rather than the reason for this relationship is because we want to do some great work here, and we want to nurture something, that's really useful for us both.

So I talk about deskside manager. Sorry, deskside manner, in a similar way that we talk about bedside manner for doctors and nurses. The effectiveness of doctors and nurses is partly around their ability to prescribe medicines and create diagnoses. But a huge amount of it, as we know, is whether or not they actually truly care about the patient or are present for the patient.

James Traeger 11:18
And this is quite countercultural, isn't it? Because you read most future of organisations books in the last 20 years or so, they've been talking about increasing automation, increasing AR. Increasing relevance of management, in fact, increasing relevance of people. A deeper relevance of people, because actually, we're going to have organisations that are basically run by bots, yes. Or, by algorithms.

Whereas you've written a book, that's basically saying, actually managers really matter here. Of all the workarounds that we know that we need in reality, and it's all very well. I mean, interestingly, over the weekend, I was reading a newspaper article about quite a well known supermarket brand that has messed up its launch of a new stock control system. So they're having huge amounts of work arounds. Now, you might argue that that's just an anomaly, but actually, in most IT project applications that I've ever experienced, that's the norm, isn't it? That's the norm. And therefore, that actually, the usefulness of looking at the future of organisations? What is your book saying, therefore? Is it saying the opposite of?

Tony Nicholls 12:37
I think, yeah, it's really interesting. I think I do talk about the future organising, organisations, but very briefly. Because I spend a lot of the book basically saying organisations don't exist. We've thingified organisations, when actually all there is human beings in relationship with each other, doing stuff towards some kind of common purpose. It's just human beings and relationships

James Traeger 13:03
In small groups. In small familial groups almost.

Tony Nicholls 13:07
Yes, yeah. That's right. So the manager and their direct reports or the one team working next to another team. That's the microcosm of the work that's, that's going on. So I say it's not really about the future of organisations. And nor is it really about the future of organising. Because if we focus on the future of organising processes, then we tend to move towards organisation design and structure charts and process flows.

And IT systems like you've just mentioned, and, and that, for me still misses the point. That we still abstracted from the reality that most work gets done, because of people being with each other and doing things together. Particularly the customer of course. So I talk about actually the future of the organiser. And effectively what I'm saying is that the future of organisations is dependent upon the future of how we develop managers.

So management development is where I think we should focus our attention because out of that will emerge different kinds of organisations. I argue the case that let's take a Laloux's Teal organisation as a future model, you know, what do you mean by that?

Because jargon for OD, yeah. So Laloux created this future organisation design effectively where lots of people will be working in a very complicated multi matrix organisation where objectives will be set by the teams and the teams will self managed effectively.

And I think what he was trying to do is replicate what actually happens in organisations and how work actually gets done and, and create a process around that and an organisation design around that. I think that's an admirable, objective and purpose, but I don't see them popping up around the world everywhere.

Not because it's not popping up. My argument is because in a fundamentally capitalist world ownership structures just won't allow for that. Somebody is in control, somebody owns it, this means of production, whether it be communist country owning it, or, you know, PLC, somebody owns it. And therefore this pyramid of control just emerges.

And within that it's really difficult to do something different. So how do you do something different? My argument is that you go inside, and from the inside out, you develop a different mindset and capability within your management teams, who will then start to reorganise the way that they do the work.

Tony Nicholls 13:33
And become more autonomous and more and more in touch with their people. And

Tony Nicholls 15:37
Yes, yeah.

James Traeger 15:39
So what, what's the difference we're trying to make here, then? You know, what, if that's the future of organising? And I like that term, because increasingly in Mayvin, don't we, this this less about the future of organisations and more about the future of organising?

Tony Nicholls 15:56
And what I'm saying is, is moving it on to its this is the future of the organisers.

James Traeger 16:02
Yeah, the people doing the organising, who are very much on the ground in small teams and groups. I did a lot of work in retail, a few years back. And retail is detail and of course, it needs local leaders or managers who have eyes on the detail. What the shops looking like, and what stocks going out the door and that kind of stuff. So I can really see what you're saying? What difference do you think this will make or is making? And I wonder whether there's some examples.

Tony Nicholls 16:37
What comes to mind is I guess two things. One is, you know, my management experience of noticing how, when was in a team that I really well with and the relationships were strong, we talked often about what was going on. We were able to notice, those things that I talked about, in terms of the inefficiencies, the workarounds that were creating inefficiencies and the workarounds that were creating innovation.

When we noticed those we can amplify or mitigate, depending on which one, which one we're talking about that required us to not be on autopilot. So changes to sales processes that generated that, that improved KPIs to conversion rates, they were there were often very subtle things we could do to scripts, or the way we trained people in terms of how they would build rapport with customers.

Really subtle things that when you pay attention to them, and develop the scripting and the mindset of the salespeople, and the managers, you can make quite significant improvements in conversion ratios, and therefore sales. So for me, that's, that's, you know, a real example of how that should be being done now. We've all got examples of where we interact with customer contact centres and that isn't the case. You get a poor experience. And you just don't go back or you have to call them back because you didn't get the answer you were looking for.

James Traeger 18:16
And it's robotic, literally robotic, sometimes. Sometimes it's a real person's name and like a robot. Yes, yeah, you really tell the difference when that person has that local kind of sense of autonomy. Yeah. So that they're able to make it much more of a human experience. Yes. Huge differences.

Tony Nicholls 18:37
Yeah. A perfect example, for me recently was ringing a well known high street bank about my credit card. And five calls later, still not getting what was a relatively simple thing resolved until I get the sixth person. I could just instantly tell they were present for me, present to the situation, able to move beyond the script and ask the right kind of questions. There was a person who was a manager, I class them as a manager, they might have been a customer services agent. But I think they're managers. They are managing processes, and managing the customer relationship in relationship with me, rather than trying to manage my work on my relationship. And we resolved it.

James Traeger 19:19
And they've probably got a manager with a good to kind of want you to call it a desk by desk,

Tony Nicholls 19:27
Got a good desk side manager and allowed them freedom. Yeah, they created that capability.

James Traeger 19:33
So that's the difference is making a difference there.

Tony Nicholls 19:37
Now, the other example that I've come across more lately, in my consulting career is this whole thing around leadership and management. So often, I see leaders look at challenges, real challenges in their business. Big strategic challenges that are causing them millions of pounds worth of of angst. I think the knee jerk reaction is they step into a bigger leadership space.

And they start to think that that's the right thing to do. So you start to talk more, start to communicate more. And actually what they start to do, is start to micromanage more. But they don't notice that they think it's leadership. But actually, what's coming in is micromanagement. And so the phrase I came up with is that is that is when leaders step back, and actually reflect on their management practices, that accountability trickles through the organisation.

So move away from thinking about more leadership. And think about, well, what am I doing in my management role that's actually hindering or helping in this particular situation. And when that lens switches I so often see managers go right, I can see now how I'm beginning to micromanage, I can see how we are beginning to demand things of the management team, when actually if we just step back and let them get on with it, they'll solve this for us. So for me, this is about leaders stepping back and reflecting on management practice.

James Traeger 20:59
And modelling a different type of management practice themselves. Yeah. So I just wonder if there are any other stories in terms of what we're doing Mayvin at the moment, come to mind where that capacity, you're talking about that capacity and care in the middle of the system, aren't you?

Tony Nicholls 21:17
Yeah, yeah. I think that's where the real heart of the book came from was when I started to facilitate the organisation development and design programmes that we are running. And whilst they're about organisation development and design, which is which are specific fields of practice, I quite quickly recognise the people who were coming through the door on these programmes were managers.

They were your average, middle managers in large organisations, faced with all of the challenges of managing or managing down managing sideways. And effectively what we were doing was utilising concepts and models and practices from organisation development in particular, which I saw, develop their management capability.

And what I saw was people come onto the programme as robots. You know, show me a lever to pull and I'll pull it, give me a model and tell me the answer. And I'll go away and implement it. They weren't really thinking for themselves. And we, through the programme helped them start to develop a reflective practice. Start to develop a, an idea that they can have a good deskside manner and who they are, and how they show up really matters.

And there are some additional models and tools that they can take into. Put into their toolkit, which helped them think about complexity and relationships and how work actually gets done and change actually happens. And once they started to absorb those.

See a transformation in their worldview. They started to see the complexity in organisations, they started to see how important relationships were. And they started to see beyond the presenting problems to what was really going on. Both in terms of the processes they were managing, but also the relationships that they were part of. And they started to intervene differently as managers.

They started to ask more questions or ask fewer questions depending on where they started from. And they will perhaps, start to challenge more and offer more and more and more of an inquiring mindset, rather than trying to always look for the for the answer straightaway.

James Traeger 23:24
And it's interesting as the examples that really stand out for me, I remember there was a senior comms professional. Communications professional in the government department where we ran this capability programme. And they started the programme, I would say in in more of that kind of silver bullet kind of mindset.

What's the answer for you know, so I can go and make it happen. And they increasingly became sort of initially irritated and then kind of impacted by this idea that it was about them and how they showed up. They got hold of that idea and they really started to run with it. And immediately their work changed,their world changed.

They got a promotion quite quickly. They recognised that their comms, expertise was a tool, it wasn't an end in itself. That was actually about how they worked in a more relational way, with people all around them both up, sideways and down. Which meant that they were much more kind of, I suppose, focused in on that kind of ability to make a difference. And they sort of gave up on the idea of some kind of dramatic system change or a silver bullet and became much more sort of human in terms of how they acted

Tony Nicholls 24:57
It's a good way of putting it

James Traeger 25:00
I mean, I think you're talking about some examples like that in the book.

Tony Nicholls 25:04
Yeah. Well, what's coming to mind. I don't think I've used this. But one one that's coming to mind now is early on in some programmes having people like prison governors, on the programmes. You know, very, very operational hard roles in incredibly demanding environments. And yet able to start to see how developing a, some might say softer approach. Or a softening of approach was allowed them to get more things done. Because they started to develop the kinds of relationships they needed to develop, that allowed more things to be enacted as it were, in those systems. Where resistance is very easy to be created in hierarchical structures.

James Traeger 25:56
And it's that it's a operationalising of that famous quote about being the change you want to see in the world, isn't it? Yeah. That idea, which I think originally comes from Mahatma Ghandi is that that idea that actually managers have a lot of influence. In terms of how they are, rather than thinking just in terms of the tools that they have.

I often think that the tools that we use in, in organisational change or in leadership development, whatever, are just a way of creating a common language. We know kind of what we're talking about, when we're talking situational leadership, or whatever it might be. Or Myers Briggs or anything, anything like that. It's just a common language.

But actually, the real change happens in the influencing and in the work between in the work arounds and in the life world is sometimes called rather than the system. Yeah, I think that's quite an unnerving idea for a lot of leader. Because I think for a lot of leaders, their worldview, is that there is some kind of universal grand kind of answer.

Which if they can apply, it will sort of wipe away all the kind of little wrinkles and make everything run smoothly. And of course, actually, that's just not a human experience just doesn't work that way, the more they think like that, the more frustrated they get, and of course, I am frustrated that shows up in my relationships with others. So therefore, my deskside manner plummets,

Tony Nicholls 27:32
yes, I become more micromanagement.

James Traeger 27:35
So therefore, you know that what we're saying is that, if leaders would concentrate on that, that set of relationships as the main thing and not a sub. Then a massive difference would start to show up if that culture of this organisation that they are part of.

Tony Nicholls 27:55
And so I noticed your language, though, James, as well. So you started talking about leaders? Yeah. And I constantly have to bring conversation back to let's talk about managers because that that is the that's the narrative that is the Barisan narrative. We always talk we always slip into let's talk about leaders. And the narrative

James Traeger 28:16
Which is fashionable, as well

Tony Nicholls 28:17
It is fashionable. Yeah. And the narrative would say, we need to focus on the people side of things, we need to talk about relationships. The narrative was that well, that's about leadership, isn't it? And I'm going no, it's about management. It's about.

At the end of the book, I'd say, look, this whole thing around leadership and management is a red herring. You know, it's semantics. You know, let's just talk about leader managers. If we could change the language, I will call as all leader managers, we are all leader managers, because we would, there's just too much hierarchy and pay grade stuff going on with management.

But essentially, I keep having to drag you back to let's talk about management. And management at the coalface of you know, doing the real work in the organizations. Because that's where it really works. That's where the rubber hits the ground in terms of effectiveness and delivery.

James Traeger 29:09
So I think we're probably coming to the end. What kind of final, you know, would you what final messages would you like people to have ringing in their ears?

Tony Nicholls 29:19
Well, if we're talking about the future of organisations, organising and organisers, then I really. What I really want to put out there is that there's a different way to develop management capability. Which I think is what Mayvin has been doing for the last 10 years plus.

And other organisations, you know, but not many of them. That is about developing a manager's ability to see themselves as the primary instrument of change. To have a worldview that recognises the fact that the organisation is nothing more than a group of people working together towards a common cause.

And within that, you've got all the messiness of human relationships and culture and human dynamics and group dynamics. That's the capability I think we should be developing in managers, their ability to see themselves as the instruments of change. To see complexity and see culture and be able to work and intervene with those things in a constructive way.

James Traeger 30:16
Management is the primary instrument of change.

Tony Nicholls 30:19

James Traeger 30:21
Beautifully put. Thank you very much.

Claire Newell 30:25
Thank you so much for listening to us today. And we hope to see you next time take care bye bye

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