Wholist design

Shifting from linear to holistic design

Organizational cultures vary, just as human personalities vary. Many are embracing methods and tools that bring all voices to the table. Participatory, inclusive decision-making practices and use of collaborative tools and technologies, along with social media platforms to level the playing field are becoming more common, facilitating our capacity to be more experimental, productive, playful, and engaged.

Impetus for Change

Still, in most organizations, the starting point for change is to focus on what is broken and then call for change or a training program only when leaders or managers perceive employees are not performing. “It’s a training problem,” they complain. How many of us have been brought in to fix many “training problems” after a major change implementation failed to include informing (let alone including) the employees of new strategies, organizational restructure, new technologies, systems, processes, policies, or procedures. The expectation is that employees will slot into whatever the new design is and keep the organization running smoothly without support or strategies for transitioning to the new.

Learned helplessness

Psychologically, one of the ways of coping with the feelings of anxiety and frustration is to defend against them by regressing to learned helplessness, and with that come dependent behaviors and downtrodden, discouraged emotions and keeping one's mouth shut.

Organization Chart – boxes or circles?

Years ago, I led a team of twelve training consultants for a leading global professional service firm in Melbourne, Australia. My boss called me in one day, a little frustrated that I wasn’t managing my team as tightly as he wanted me to. He handed me the marker pen, pointed to the huge whiteboard that hung on the wall in his huge corner office, and asked me to draw my organizational chart and reporting structure. Somewhat surprised at his request, yet without hesitation, I drew a circle and placed myself between the center and the edge of the circle and consciously placed my various team members within the circle, as I perceived them to be in relation to each other and to me. I placed my boss at the circle’s edge.

I had believed him to be a temperate man. (He was an ex-minister.) As I drew my organizational chart, I felt him bristling to my side. He went red in the face and spoke to me with a tense jaw in a very restrained tone, “No wonder you’re having trouble managing!” He took the marker pen from my hand and aggressively drew a traditional organizational tree structure on the whiteboard. He was at the top of the tree (in a box) with a vertical line to me (in a box) beneath him and then beneath me, vertical lines to all the twelve consultants (they were not in boxes). I attempted to explain the thinking or philosophy behind my chart, but I wasn’t heard. That experience helped me realize my natural talents and strengths, after five years of service, could be better utilized elsewhere. I came to the conclusion that I had the potential to flourish in a different environment.

Dependency as a defense

The command-and-control organizational structure is not an optimal one to facilitate human flourishing. Much has been written about the dampening effect of the linear command-and-control structure on willingness to assume responsibility, exercise creativity, and show innovation. As human systems, we thrive when our whole sense of self is acknowledged and can contribute.  Over time, command-and-control structure creates cultures of dependency. When the boss makes all the decisions and takes all the credit, employees’ will to assert any form of leadership is diminished. In such contexts, employees do the best they can with resources available, willing to assume full responsibility for their actions, accountable to their boss, but recognition often stops there. Their sense of pride in work well done is passed over without receiving fuller acknowledgment or having the opportunity to contribute more and perhaps earn wider visibility.

Holistic Design

Over time, this type of unsupportive climate wears thin; motivation and morale begin to spiral downward. A discouraged, disempowered workforce, whose ideas are not listened to and whose full potential is not realized, does not perform optimally. The spirit of ownership, vitality, and possibility-thinking diminishes.

Thinking from a holistic versus linear perspective (right vs left brain)  is a big factor.  Linear is easier, less messy, more controllable, predictable and known. Holistic is risky, unknowable, energizing and requires trust.  Wondering if any part if my story brings something to the surface you might like to share.

1 reply
  1. Martin Johnson
    Martin Johnson says:

    Hi Robyn, I really enjoyed the anecdote about the top-down vs. circle way of thinking about the team. With Big Picture we see the same- by giving people this open canvas (in your case a circle but any reasonable pattern) they will make connections within it under their own steam. Must read more of your stuff, please point me!

    Little Chief Big Picture

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