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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Kevin Callahan on Positive Organisational Design and Complex Systems

Kevin Callahan on Positive Organisational Design and Complex Systems


In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Kevin Callahan about positive organisational design and organisations as complex systems.


Key Takeaways

  • Positive organisation development starts with areas where you are strong and builds on those, rather than focusing on weaknesses and negative areas 
  • Involving people to open up “what could be” which starts a change effort that makes it possible to achieve
  • Start by trusting that people want to do amazing work
  • Organisations are complex systems and need to be treated as such
  • In complex systems the balance of pressures is necessary, and in many organisations one or other area becomes predominant (eg revenue or cost saving pressure) and this causes the system to become brittle  

Show Notes

  • 00:20 Introductions
  • 00:40 Helping people solve complex problems together 
  • 00:49 This could include common agile approaches such as Scrum, Kanban and Lean or it could be more wide ranging in terms of organisational development
  • 01:02 Helping people work with the dynamics of complex systems rather than being knocked around by them
  • 01:17 Introducing positive organisation development
  • 01:42 True sustained change doesn’t happen by “fixing” what is weak or broken
  • 02:02 Positive change says start with areas where you are strong and build on those 
  • 02:11 Find what is working and amplify those areas and elevate them
  • 02:25 This is a refreshing way to look at change that brings people along in inclusive ways
  • 02:43 The old approaches to change management don’t work in the modern complex environment 
  • 03:10 Actively inviting people to engage and come on the change journey rather than telling them what to do 
  • 03:17 Discover what we already know together and build on that 
  • 03:24 This approach is energising and refreshing, and people lean in to it
  • 03:54 Contrasting this approach with traditional directive change management 
  • 04:42 In most change initiatives the people involved do not know why the change is being done to them
  • 05:27 Starting with a set of powerful open questions 
  • 05:35 Examples of the powerful questions 
  • 06:22 The true culture of a place is in the stories people tell each other in confidence 
  • 06:35 The questions need to open up “what could be” which starts a change effort that makes the “what could be” possible to achieve
  • 06:48 This is not easy and it takes lots of hard work from all involved 
  • 07:24 Examples of the “I really wish…” answers that lead to understanding of what needs to change 
  • 07:54 Creating possibility and an invitation to contribute to the change 
  • 08:14 There are growing numbers of organisations who have taken this approach and achieved astounding results
  • 08:26 Start by trusting that people want to do amazing work
  • 08:48 Exploring how valuable ideas emerge from seemingly non-sensible requests (” I only want to work two hours a day”) 
  • 09:32 Exploring how might we respect the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisation
  • 09:43 Ways to approach making sense from what we hear
  • 10:37 Moving from understanding what needs to change to how to implement the changes needed 
  • 10:43 The importance of understanding the outcome we are trying to achieve 
  • 10:49 An example of identifying an outcome from the feedback elicited 
  • 11:38 Start by articulating an ideal, aspirational future state
  • 11:52 The difference between invitational statements and obligatory statements 
  • 12:28 Quote “Every organisation is perfectly designed to get the results it is achieving” (Arthur W. Jones)
  • 12:32 This means that if the results we are getting are not what we want then we need to be open to changing the organisation design to achieve the desired results 
  • 12:56 The need to take a hard, honest look at where we are at, then making informed assessments about where there are gaps
  • 13:13 Identify the small, iterative experiments that can we can start running immediately to move towards closing the gaps 
  • 13:25 Make these experiments options, not commitments 
  • 13:35 The need to be able to measure the results of the experiments and get feedback from them
  • 14:02 Figure out how to collaboratively prove things together over time at a sustainable pace
  • 14:32 This doesn’t have to start at the top – anyone can bring this approach into their own sphere of influence
  • 14:38 How this applies at the individual contributor level based on Kevin’s own experience  
  • 16:22 The vast majority of people are good natured and want good things so helping them achieve good things becomes a virtuous cycle
  • 16:48 The importance of getting started rather than waiting for everything to be ready to change 
  • 16:58 Everyone has a role to play in changing the systems, some have bigger levers 
  • 17:22 Some of the simplest things make the most profound difference, and they can be really hard to apply 
  • 17:47 As complexity increases there tend to be more paths that could be successful 
  • 18:05 Fractal geometry as an example of complexity with many options 
  • 20:03 “Getting to and” – how many things can we hold that have different perspectives and recognise that there is value and truth in all of them
  • 20:32 An example of how safety in complex systems is fundamentally different to safety in ordered systems 
  • 21:08 In complex systems the balance of pressures is necessary, and in many organisations one or other area becomes predominant (eg revenue or cost saving pressure) and this causes the system to become brittle  
  • 21:17 Deming quote: “If you’re managing your business by visible figures you are already in a failure state” 
  • 21:25 Boeing as an example of an organisation where the production pressure to keep up with a competitor resulted in bad outcomes 
  • 24:28 Embracing the and – we are rich, multi-dimensional human beings who all have many different aspects to our lives


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