Organizational “systemscleroisis” is like arteriosclerosis–both involve a hardening of the arteries and systems, leading to debilitation or death. Medical science has done a good job warning us how to prevent strokes and heart attacks so that our life-blood keeps flowing. Our physician sees our human body as an integrated system. But management science too often continues to see the organizational body as a Mechano set of interchangeable, isolated parts. This can lead to a heavy focus on symptoms rather than the cause. It can result in remedies such as one-off workshops, an injection of happy-talk, and the panacea of yet another employee survey.
One way to diagnose whether systemsclerosis is constricting the healthy flow of adaptabilty and energy in your various organizational systems and arteries of communication, authority, responsibility, and accountability is to see the place as a living, holistic, interconnected organism. The Culture-Climate-Change Cycle model (below) is one way to think about the big picture and ask the sharp questions.
How good a job employees do (#5) in serving customers and clients depends on how satisfied, happy, and engaged they are in the everyday workplace climate (#4). This in turn is strongly determined by how well they know what’s expected of them, the amount of say they have, their skills to do the job, and what happens when they don’t do what’s expected (systems & processes #3). Often the reason for poor morale and employee engagement are poor systems of communications, conflict resolution, accountability, fairness in work allocation, and access to training/promotion found in #3. But systems and processes are expressions of something else–the organizational structure (#2).
The design of an org chart says a lot about leadership philosophy, trust in employees, the need for control, a conservative or risk-taking mindset, and how power is delegated. What gives life to that structure are the systems and processes. The low morale we spotted above can be attributed to poor, one-way, top-down communications. But that’s what the org chart demands–hierarchical, centralized control. And where would such a rigid mindset come from? The long-embedded culture (#1) of course. It’s how and why things have always been done the way they are and what people can get away with.
But here’s the thing: Organizational culture is today changing faster than structures and systems because new, younger, smarter, different employees expect different things in their workplace climate than the people who years ago designed the structures and systems. So we have this tension: Unfulfilled employee expectations leading to lower job satisfaction, morale, and engagement in the workplace climate because of rigid structures and systems protected by those worried about a loss of power, pride, and purpose. The deadly threat of systemsclerosis.
The question is, when does this dynamic tension result in change? Is it before the place gets sick and is on its deathbed, when there’s attention to early symptoms? Or after, when the change becomes a panicky triage?