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Niels Pflaeging will help you think differently about change (and other things)

“Change is like adding milk to coffee,” writes Niels Pflaeging.

It’s the perfect rebuttal to the change-as-journey metaphor we’ve been saddled with for so long. Metaphors matter and using different metaphors have a profound effect on our view of the world.

Pflaeging’s introduction of a different metaphor captures everything right about making change happen and discards the baggage of the long, arduous, this-may-fail journeys we’ve been toiling on since entering the workforce. What he isn’t saying is that more change doesn’t happen over a longer period of time, it’s that we don’t have to wait for a journey to be completed before we recognize that change has occurred.

He writes, “The journey metaphor tricks us into ignoring the possibility that the desired change might be accomplished quickly, with little effort, right now, with existing resources and with minimal disruption. The metaphor itself makes change hard.”

What happens when we view change as a journey is that we spend a whole lot of time planning for what that change is going to be rather than just going out and making that change happen.

This is a disrupting idea. I’ve had conversations with people who flat out reject the notion that change can happen [right now]. That’s how conditioned we’ve become to the idea that change is always difficult.

What he offers as an alternative is that change is a flip from now to new. And that the amount of change we’re looking for when embarking on a journey can really just be a series of flips from now to new.

This journey hullabaloo is a byproduct of the command and control approach to management. And no person in the last few years has helped me realize how pervasive command and control principles are in organizations—even during this enlightened period—than Pflaeging.

He’s written a book—which, if I haven’t gifted it to you yet, you should buy—that you will return to, as I have, many times in your career. “Organize for Complexity, How to get life back into work to build the high-performance organization,” is a book about complexity and work and if it were acceptable to copy and paste an entire text right here, I would because it’s that illuminating.

People have shared with me after their first read that they enjoyed it but didn’t understand everything he expresses. Yes. Read it again in a month. And then again in a month. (It can be read in 90 minutes, so no worries there.)

It’s not that the content is too academic or unintelligible, it’s that the concepts fly so directly in the face of everything we think we know and understand about organizations, it just doesn’t feel “right.”

“Right,” of course, is a construct of our own collective making and this book does its best to remodel our beliefs about how things actually work at work.

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Basically, since the early 1900s, we’ve been separating the thinking from the doing on the belief that the top of the organization is best at making decisions and the bottom of the organization is best at doing the work.

That approach was useful during the industrial revolution. It’s constraining now. Instead, as a result of our increasing awareness of complexity, we should view our organizations from the center out.

The book goes on to describe the concept of a better way to organize our organizations, why complexity matters at work, why our beliefs about human behavior are imperative to understand if we want our organizations to succeed, why thinking in systems will help you see work differently, and a few other informative topics. It ends with an interview tiled “Management is quackery” in case the point hadn’t been made. So there you go.

Another quote I like of his: “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time.” Let that sink in as you reflect on all the culture change initiatives you’ve been a part of.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that he believes much of what happens in organizations is based on flawed assumptions. Here he writes, “Most books, articles and concepts on leadership are ridiculous. Mainly, that’s because they fail to consider history, available science, and the systemic nature of work and organizations.”

He believes that the organizational structure we all use to illuminate power in the organization is actually missing two other representations. The pyramid we know is the formal structure which is only good for following the rules. The second structure is more of a network and is the realm of influence, it’s called the informal structure, and is composed of relationships between people. Then there’s the value creation structure which is where the work actually happens. The theory is called Org Physics. More here. Go read it as it’s illuminating.

He believes that companies don’t need leaders or bosses. That organizations approach learning with flawed assumptions. And lots more worth exploring here.

Pflaeging tweets at @NielsPflaeging. He writes and posts all over the internet including LinkedIn, SlideShare (an interesting format that allows you to think with his ideas), and YouTube.

He and his business partner (Silke Hermann) opened a learning-oriented start-up and published a book titled “OpenSpace Beta, a handbook for organizational transformation in just 90 days” which provides a technique for making the ideas in “Organize for Complexity” real. It uses Daniel Mezick’s OpenSpace Agility framework and an idea called leadership by invitation.

You’ll see the Beta Codex mentioned throughout Pflaeging’s work. It’s a set of principles for thinking and acting in organizations and is the foundation of his work (and, I’ve found, better understood after studying some of his other work first).

Here is a keynote that is well worth the next 60 minutes of your day (and a useful pastime until Amazon delivers the book you just ordered). Though it’s at an agile community event, you don’t need to know anything about Agile to find value in the talk.

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More Reading

The Now of Work

A follow-on guide to the “Healthcare is changing. How we work hasn’t. And it’s holding us back.” introductory series. Here are ten ideas for getting started with the now of work.

The benefits of thinking about your thinking

Metacognition is the process we use to plan, monitor, and assess our learning, thinking, and doing. It’s wildly important because it’s how we build an awareness of our understanding and performance, which is required for working in complexity.

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