Nurturing the organisation

Aug 16 2005 by John Blackwell Print This Article

This is the Alan Titchmarsh syndrome - getting an organisation's ecology right is just like planning a garden. Alan Titchmarsh doesn't advise planting rhododendron in the sun, sunflowers in the shade, or roses in the swampy bit of the garden in the expectation that they will "just get on with it".

He recommends selecting specific plants that thrive under the conditions the garden affords.

By exploiting the garden's natural variations, he creates a diverse, healthy, sustainable plant community, one that over time gets better and better.

Good gardeners constantly experiment. They place plants in a number of locations, in varying combinations. They observe the result, and if it doesn't work, they replant, reorganise, and replace. They graft to create new varieties. The old resides with the new, and it is the overall pattern - the landscape, not the individual plant - that creates the total effect.

A good office, like a good garden, requires tending. On its own, it will go to seed, become overgrown, and finally perish. Ultimately, an intricate web of interdependent relationships; events; and financial, technical, and human factors interpreted in light of individual, professional, corporate, and societal values and attitudes shapes the offices we invent.

Aligned and in harmony, the organisation, like the garden, flourishes

Aligned and in harmony, the organisation, like the garden, flourishes. A workplace strategy at odds with other organisational values, policies, and practices wastes time, money, and energy. What works isn't always what common sense might suggest.

Benchmark the whole system. Invariably, what works depends on the organisational context. That's why, as managers develop new workplace strategies, they must beware of a popular business tool: auditable benchmarking.

Following the lead of others can yield disastrous results. It is not that we shouldn't try to learn from others' experience. Rather, it is that we need to understand the particular ecological system within which a given strategy succeeds.

In the case of workplace, this means understanding not just the workstation design but the organisational culture, management and employment policies and practices, and the nature of the work and employees (i.e. the workstyles as opposed to just the job functions).

Embrace paradox. As John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene argued more than fifteen years ago, and others have done more recently, a more fruitful approach than trying to ignore or suppress complexity lies in both (and rather than either or) thinking and solutions.

It is what is frequently called 'complementary opposites'. The Chinese call it yin and yang.

We don't have to choose between what appear to be diametrically opposed points on a spectrum: decentralisation or centralisation - standardisation or choice - individual or team. Harness both to improve performance.

Take the layout of offices. Selecting a single modular furniture system standardises purchasing across the company and benefits from discounts associated with larger contracts.

Yet units within the firm - and even teams and groups within a ?unit - can arrange the furniture to suit their own workstyles and work processes.

The key is first to select a furniture system that employees themselves can reconfigure with genuine ease. Second, and equally important, managers must encourage individuals and groups to manipulate their work environment because it is one of the most direct and visible means a company has at its disposal to demonstrate that it trusts employees and will give them the tools they need to work productively.

We frame decisions in terms of 'either-or' choices in part because the alternative seems to make the world more complex. In today's nanny-state world where people feel over-taxed and under-resourced, any proposition that appears to make the daily world appear more complex isn't going to win many hearts and minds.

A mind-shift is needed, one where accepting that simplicity sometimes comes with and benefits from variety and choice, not at its expense. Embracing paradox can take less energy and generate more motivation than pretending it doesn't exist or trying to suppress it.

Healthy ecosystems require and thrive on diversity. Think of the workplace as you would a financial portfolio: never risk everything on a single endeavour. Good advice for your financial investments; so too for your workplace strategy.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.

Older Comments

Your article raises many points, but the goal should be to cause employees to unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation and commitment. The reason is that in this state employees are four times more productive and innovative than if poorly motivated.

How to do so is far simpler than we think. The key is to allow employees to develop a sense of ownership of the workplace. This is done by asking them what they need to do a better job and then giving it to them. This is not a one shot effort, but one conducted every day, one on one and in groups.

I admit that there is more to this subject. I developed and proved my methods in 34 years managing people effecting four successful turnarounds including a nuclear-powered cruiser and a 1300 person unionized group in New York City.

Best regards, Ben Simonton Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed'

Ben Simonton