This is no xxxxxxx ‘answer’ to organisational challenges, just lots of wrestling


August 9th, 2017

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Recently I hosted a day at Roffey Park with Pim, Joost and Freek aka the Corporate Rebels. This is the second time they have visited us, and it was good to hear how their thinking is evolving as they continue on their quest to better understand what it takes to create organisations (or change them) such that they are engaging and offer meaningful experiences of work whilst still able to deliver the required performance.

I have been mulling for a while on what my main takeaways are from the day, and I keep coming back to the same things:

  1. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”

We have the French critic, writer and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr to thank for the phrase “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. In organisational and leadership terms, that’s where we are. Yes emerging technologies, globalisation, population shifts, generational differences and populism present challenges for organisations today, but then none of those are new phenomena. If my Omma, who lived through 1930s Germany, WW2 and the post-war re-construction and industrial boom in Germany were alive, she could point to all on that list as having been at play in her lifetime.

For they all represent conditions that may be dialled up or down that have to be worked with at a human level, the difference being that our context will sharpen some more than others. Today, AI, automation and the growth of outsourced web services/technologies sharpens the need for innovation, adaptation and change leadership to match, but these are not fundamentally new challenges, although the technology that Omma faced in her lifetime was sadly more indicative of innovation born of the desire to build better weapons.

  1. There is no ‘Answer’ or ‘Silver Bullet’

One of the things I admire about the Corporate Rebels is how they openly say they set off on their research hoping, maybe even expecting, to find ‘The Answer’, something that could be commoditised and sold once they returned. A key conclusion they came to is that there isn’t one. As much as they repeat this, it is still interesting to hear people asking them for it, if not directly then by implication the wish is there (and I have worked with them three times at events now so that is a pattern).

This reflects my own experience, of clients either wanting an answer to an intractable problem or questing for the new and novel ‘thing’ that will solve everything. If there was one, we’d all know about it and airport bookstores would empty their shelves and fill them with said tome. But there isn’t. Again, sorry if that is not the answer you wanted.

  1. Good news: there are some useful trends to follow

Pim et al have distilled down much of what they have learned into eight trends. These are, in effect, polarities: apparent opposites that need to co-exist and neither of which are good/bad. Breathing in and out, centralisation vs de-centralisation, local vs global – they are examples of polarities, or interdependent pairs as some call them.

The trends that the Corporate Rebels point to are as follows:

When I look at these trends nothing there screams out as radically new. What may be new is the way many organisations are playing with placing emphasis on different points on the spectrums than has typically been the case e.g. radical transparency is being played with more than ever, anecdotal data would have me believe.


  1. Have I said this is not new?…

For this post, I did a search for “organisational trends 1970”. What came up was references in a Slideshare to Litwin & Stringer (1968) who identified the following as Dimensions of Organisational Climate:

  1. Structure
  2. Responsibility
  3. Reward
  4. Risk
  5. Warmth
  6. Support
  7. Standards
  8. Identity

I leave you to make your own connections to the trends above, and if that is not enough, in the same Slideshare was a reference to Campbell et al’s 1970 review of various authors’ work on the key factors influencing organisational climate:

  1. Individual autonomy
  2. The degree of structure imposed upon the position
  3. Reward orientation
  4. Warmth and support

I could extend the literature review and draw on, say, motivation theory to illustrate other areas that are hardly new to us in terms of what might need to be attended to if we are to have productive, high performing organisations that attend to the potential of their people, but that would be to labour the point.

In summary, the key poke that the Corporate Rebels might offer us, is one that encourages us to stop looking ‘elsewhere’ or ‘out there’ for answers, rather accept that wrestles and wrestling with such tensions are all too human, personal and interpersonal challenges.  Is that easy? Not always, but I am game.

Are you?