management, sensemaking

RevelACTION: Freedom in management

After twenty years studying, discussing, analyzing, and changing organizations I had a revelation. No, not a revelation, it was more a revelACTION how I call them when I coach top managers. A revelACTION is an ex-post sense making of some facets of a situation or a part of one’s life that opens up a completely different perspective, and infuses with a novel meaning all we have been struggling to accomplish. Yes, you could call it simply revelation, but to me it originates new actions, and a deeper comprehension of one’s travel on Earth. Then, it is a kind of action. And it is a kind of action of a particularly valuable kind, because it allows you as an individual to realize that you are not a sequence of actions commanded by the everyday routine, neither are you but a cognitive set of stimulus-reaction behaviors. You are a human being, with cognition, values, and beliefs that come to be suspended if not suppressed by the overly institutionalized character of everyday life on this planet. And then your magic revelACTION kicks in and everything gets into its place. You realize that either unconsciously or through an incomplete plan you were after something, relevant and unique to your journey.

My revelACTION is freedom. I never realized it, but I have been obsessed by a constant search for a way to liberate people I met in organizations. I have felt the pain of all the burden they brought along with them. It could be a class of learners who struggled to accept the irrationality of their organization, which was imposed on them through silly procedures. I saw it in the eyes of successful managers who were kept in chain by all the expectations that had arisen around them. Their eyes told the story of so many moments of life lost in the pursuit of a role tailored around them, but too narrow to be their life. and then what about the pain of some of my students, brilliant and ambitious who came back to talk with me of their experiences in their new workplaces. So much sorrow, all coming out of the lack of freedom in and around organizations.

But all these emotions surfaced when I asked myself what I would like to write in the first book that is just a search for a new message to change organizations, and I had my revelACTION. I am taking freedom as the foundation of a different way of interpreting organizations. I went through all the prophets of freedom, like Von Hayek, and many philosophers of the past, and I am trying to describe how we can make our institutions (and our world?) a place for freedom.

Because we cannot ask for freedom only in the global markets, we have to pursue it into any single act of our life. So, if you are reading this note, and think you might have an idea or an example to share, I welcome them. They’ll be part of my forthcoming book for Gower Ashgate.

The title? Freedom management, of course…

organization, sensemaking

New forms of organization

As a management expert and researcher, it is straightforward to think that you will encounter managers and HRM asking for help in redesigning their business. After all, you have devoted so many years to researching those issues and disseminated your ideas on journals and at conferences, with a focus on business organizations. That’s why yesterday I was caught by surprise when I met four political campaign makers in my office. They are part of a large political movement that supported the successful election of the new Mayor here in Milan, following almost 20 years of dominion by the center-right alliance lead by Mr Berlusconi.

They were three twenty-something, positive, and emotional young students joined by a more senior militant. The topic was to discuss how a social movement could keep afloat after the climax of a largely unexpected victory. We had a two hour exchange of ideas and I do not know whether this will turn out into a new action research project, but I was left with some thought I like to share, since they reach out to problems we face in business nowadays.

The first issue is goals. They had had no problems until the large group of supporters had fought side by side to convince electors to support their candidate. Everybody was using all of her resources and the shared goals had put any inconsistency in the background. Companies as well enjoy great empowerment when they are in the start-up phase or in the start-up mood (for example, launching a new product). But lately, they forget about the needs of people to share a mission and get back into the business-as-usual mood.

The second issue was the true agenda of leaders. In the campaign phase everybody would voice his commitment to the shared goal of the elections and his own goals would be in the shadow. Now, victory is gained, and people turn to the true reasons for their commitment to find out they differ a lot. Some were just there for the emotions, other for their ideals, but other were there to obtain the chance to access a new network of relations. Again, in business we tend to be unidimensional and project on everybody the same expected motivation. People do differ and they will differ in time. There is no way to define the prototypical organizational citizen. But why should we design  HR systems that are so uniform and fail to grasp heterogeneity?

The third issue was power and legitimacy to take decisions for the group. Undoubtedly, the campaign was managed by smaller committees that were created by local leaders, who took charge of building up the groups. They enjoyed a great deal of autonomy  and the campaign profited from the ability to reach out to voters through different lenses and perspectives. But this enjoyable autonomy, is now posing limits to the ability to decide as a group and enforce decisions over unsatisfied members, who are leading their own committees and being followed by other members. Again, in business we tend to overshadow the fact that leaders might act out of their desire for autonomy and rational decision making processes might not suffice to change their minds, and most notably habits and true behaviors.

There might be other confused thoughts stemming from this meeting. What is striking to me though is that there are two possible ways to deal with this. The first is to ignore it and go on pretending things will work out the way we think they should. That’s the way practiced by so many executives who prefer to believe they will be followed blindly than realize they are in charge of really leading the organizations. The second is what brought this uncommon party to my office. Realize you might have a problem that cannot be solved with a quick fix, and requires somebody from outside with the ability to see and interpret what has become common and invisible to us. That’s the role of a Corporate Sense maker, and I found it striking that a movement might realize its utility more rapidly than so many business organizations.