A Natural Systems Approach to Reducing Workplace Anxiety

One of the fundamental principles I bring to my consulting practice is that people are better able to solve problems and think creatively when they are less anxious. In an article based on my dissertation research, I explain how this idea fits with neuroscience research–that cognitive impairment, which translates into poor problem solving and reduced creativity is related to high levels of anxiety. I also explain how a consulting approach based on Bowen theory–the approach used by the consultants I studied in my dissertation research meets the challenge of reducing workplace anxiety.

In the article, I provided examples from my own experience and from stories participants in my study had told about their work. These examples show how, by applying principles from Bowen theory, the consultant can be a catalyst for a shift in the work system. Anxiety goes down and the organization begins to function more effectively.

The article Applying Bowen Theory to Work Systems, was first published in Volume 46, Number 3 of OD Practitioner, the peer reviewed journal of the Organization Development Network. The theme of the issue is Reflections on the OD Network’s 50th Anniversary and Beyond. I was honored to have my article on Bowen theory–a theory that is less well knows than it should be among organization development professionals included in the section  called Rethinking Core OD Practices and Exploring New Roles for OD.


Holding People Accountable

What does it mean to hold people accountable in the workplace? Must a person be in a position of authority–a manager or a supervisor to hold another person accountable for his or her actions? It is certainly important for people in leadership roles to hold employees accountable for fulfilling their job duties. However, holding people accountable goes far beyond a manager’s responsibility to set expectations with employees about job performance.

Holding people accountable involves a willingness to confront unproductive behavior directly rather than complaining to others about what someone else has done. While it may seem that the culture of an organization is what prevents people from holding each other accountable, culture is formed from the collective action of individuals. If the leader holds individuals responsible for their actions, not by holding them up as examples in meetings, but by talking with them one-on-one about expectations, the culture is likely to shift rapidly. But any member of the organization can contribute to a change in the culture by being direct with colleagues in a firm but respectful way.

Suppose you belong to a work group that has decided to use consensus for decision making. A member of the group who is your peer “checks out” during meetings and does not participate in discussions about important topics. Outside of the meetings, she makes it clear to other colleagues that she does not support the group’s position. How could you hold your colleague accountable for her actions?

What if you started by having a one-on-one conversation with your colleague about your observations? Something like, “I was surprised to learn, after the group meeting that you did not agree with the decision we reached. Is there a way we could adjust our process in the group to make it more clear when we have reached a consensus?” With this approach, you address the individual’s counter-productive behavior and invite her to participate in a solution.


Project Management and Organizational Change

The Project Management Institute has published Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide. This guide, which a staff member at a client organization brought to my attention applies project, program, and portfolio management practices to change management in organizations.

The goal of the guide is to increase the effectiveness of change management in organizations. Of course, coming from the Project Management Institute, the Guide makes certain assumptions. Although the guide introduces well known organizational change models (Bridges, Kotter, etc.) the framework is embedded in project management (control). Organizational project management is central to successful organizational change in this model.

Organizational change projects can certainly benefit from a certain level of project management such as mapping out the project schedule including critical path, defining tasks and resources, and tracking progress. However, approaching organizational change as a project, program, or portfolio that can be controlled and managed through the application of project management techniques puts the cart before the horse.

As the guide points out, project management and change management domains are separate but overlapping in what they emphasize. It is valuable for practitioners in each field to be aware of the other domain and what it can offer. While the discipline of project management can add value to an organizational change project, the constant need for responsiveness in today’s world that the guide discusses is better addressed by being adaptive.

The jazz metaphor Frank Barrett described in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz is a more realistic approach to organizational change, which is inherently unpredictable, than a method that emphasizes control. The Practice Guide is worth a read, in part because change management professionals may encounter project managers who are attempting to use the Guide in their organizational change efforts. Familiarity with the framework presented in the Guide may help keep channels of communication open between the two domains to achieve a balance between control and tolerance for mess.


Why I am “pro” rather than “anti”

About the same time that I proposed to use an Appreciative Inquiry approach for strategic planning with a new client, Chris Bourg wrote a piece about anti-harassment policies at conferences for her blog, Feral Librarian. Chris advised other libraries to join Stanford in encouraging staff members to look at whether a conference has an anti-harassment policy or not when making a decision to attend. These two events got me thinking about why I prefer to stand for than against.

For one thing, I think positive psychology is onto something–that positive imagery can create positive action. Conversely, I believe it is possible that focusing on negative imagery or undesirable behavior may create negative action or at least unintended consequences.

In The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, Sue Annis Hammond cites studies that indicate that sexual harassment complaints have increased over time, following the introduction of sexual harassment prevention training. She does not suggest that the training has caused inappropriate behavior to increase, but that the focus on inappropriate behavior in the training may cause people to find the behaviors they have learned about.

By contrast, Hammond suggests exploring what it’s like to be treated with dignity and respect. Then people can learn to connect with empathy rather than policing others in the organization (or at the conference) with a checklist of no-nos.

The other reason I prefer to emphasize the positive is because I think the list of what constitutes harassment is too narrow and as such does not necessarily promote dignity and respect for all. For example, one comment on Chris’ blog says, “I support this but nothing like this has happened to me in a long while. Not since my early ALA conferences. But that’s because I am in an age group where no one harasses me anymore.” This statement seems to make the assumption that harassment is only something that happens to young people–presumably women. However, I have witnessed behavior at conferences that might not be categorized as harassment, but is dismissive of older people.

While not engaging in this behavior herself, Chris was recently involved in a Twitter exchange about what ORWM means. Apparently one of Chris’ Twitter followers labeled something Chris had “snarked” about as an ORWM comment or action. Upon investigation, Chris determined that ORWM means Old Retired (or Rich) White Man. What does generating a label like that do to the open exchange of ideas? What about criticizing the substance of the action or the comment (ill informed, disrespectful) instead of labeling the actor?

Also, because libraries and librarianship are changing quickly, people may choose to attend conferences that are loosely organized or ad hoc. Start-up conferences of this type are unlikely to have a governance structure that is comprehensive enough to include policies that govern behavior at the conference. What about encouraging folks to raise awareness at all conferences they attend about what it looks like to treat everyone with dignity and respect? What about choosing conferences that have pro-civility policies instead of anti-harassment policies?


Fiddling While Rome Burns

The heated debates prompted by the recent announcement that University Librarian, Karin Wittenborg has changed the status for new librarians at the University of Virginia from faculty to staff strike me as fiddling while Rome burns. Those who advocate for faculty status for librarians working in academic settings cite the importance of librarians participating in shared governance.

While participation in shared governance may be an important avenue for librarians and faculty to meet and learn about each other’s work in large research universities, librarians and faculty in small college settings have other opportunities for relaxed conversations and serendipitous discovery of complementary skills. If the goal of faculty status is to have an impact on research and learning at a programmatic level, there is not a one-size-fits-all model for accomplishing that goal in every academic setting.

What is perhaps more important to consider is that faculty themselves no longer really have faculty status in terms of having access to shared governance to the degree they once did. The trend towards unbundling in higher education has meant an increasing percentage of faculty are adjunct. A recent article in Inside Higher Education, Making the Case for Adjuncts, references a 2009 study showing that only one-third of faculty are tenure track. Two-thirds are not eligible for tenure, and almost twenty percent are part-time. The faculty voice is bound to become weaker when fewer than half of the people responsible for teaching and learning have a seat at the table. This shift will most certainly have a greater impact on shared governance and the future of higher education than whether or not librarians have faculty status.

Another facet of the discussion about librarians and faculty status focuses on librarians’ participation in the teaching and learning mission of the university. I have worked in academic libraries for decades but have never participated directly in course development or delivery of course content in a physical or virtual classroom. My jobs have included developing new systems and services and managing production operations and systems (and I would include circulation in that category). Many librarians have these types of jobs, which are primarily either task oriented, or administrative in nature. That is not to say that the tasks or program administration do not require specialized knowledge or training, but that is a separate conversation. I posit that the percentage of time librarians as a class spend in direct service to the teaching and learning mission of their institutions makes a weak case for their participation as faculty in shared governance.

In my experience as a consultant to libraries, in libraries with faculty status for librarians, cumbersome promotion and tenure processes and procedures seem to interfere with performance leadership programs designed to align performance with library strategy. The case for faculty status for librarians begins to look like a case for librarians being able to act as independent operators, doing what they’ve always done, in opposition to administrators. What the current higher education environment needs from librarians is participants who can help shape the future of academic libraries in a dramatically shifting environment.

The us/them dichotomies that arise when people and institutions are under threat do not serve us well when creative solutions are needed. Faculty versus staff, unions versus management, MLS librarians versus “librarians” with other credentials. Let’s put down the violins and focus on finding new ways to join the conversation about the fires burning in higher education today. Should we try to put them out, work on a controlled burn, or let them flame on, knowing that some new growth requires heat for seeds to germinate?


Innovative Organizational Design in Academic Libraries

Academic library leaders seek new organizational models to support the agility and experimentation needed to respond to an environment characterized by disruptive technological change. While some libraries have created new departments or units within their organizations to focus on digital library development or scholarly publishing, these new endeavors remain situated in traditional 19th century hierarchical organizations.

What organizational structures and processes can provide capacity for innovation, including generation of ideas, launching prototypes and experiments, and evaluating those experiments to decide what new products or services should be implemented? Design thinking–methodologies for generating and implementing new products and services based on user needs–is one framework to explore.

Companies that devote themselves to incubating innovation such as IDEO are able to operate using a fluid organizational structure. IDEO, for example, is organized into “studios” with teams that form and disband as projects come and go.

While this type of organizational structure does not seem feasible for an academic library, which must still engage in running standards-based production operations and services (e.g. metadata creation, digitization, stack maintenance), some libraries are experimenting with bringing design thinking into their organizations in other ways.

The University of Rochester Libraries have led the way in the application of design thinking to service development as well as systems design. While responsibility for this perspective seems to be situated in the Libraries’ usability lab, many people in all departments of a rather traditionally organized library have been involved in design projects.

The Virginia Tech Libraries, under Tyler Walters’ leadership have launched a set of initiatives to encourage innovation, including a library-based hub to build capacity for new systems and services. Although they have not applied the design thinking label to this endeavor, the concept seems to be aligned with design thinking principles.

Based on anecdotal evidence, design thinking may be catching on in academic libraries, albeit slowly. The dominant model for bringing design thinking into the library seems to be through an innovation incubator (working group, council, or hub) or a usability group. Is this a viable model? What are the advantages/disadvantages?

Is it important to introduce design thinking throughout the organization? Is there an innovative organizational design that would enable this? How would a hybrid model of “studios” with self-organizing team alongside a traditional departmental structure organized along functional lines work?

I would love to collect more data about various organizational models libraries have used to foster innovation, and how those models have worked, so post your stories here, or send me an email.



Structural Obstacles to Effective Digital Preservation Practice

Last week, I had the privilege of attending iPRES 2012 in Toronto. The conference was replete with case studies and research reports detailing the state of the digital preservation field. A number of presentations provided strong evidence for progress in web archiving and frameworks for understanding data curation, as well as development of tools and systems to support preservation workflows.

Two obstacles seem to stand in the way of going beyond incremental progress in digital preservation practice:

  1. Continuing to re-invent the wheel rather than building on the work of others–sometimes referred to as the “not invented here” syndrome.
  2. The incredibly local nature of funding. Where is the global economy for digital preservation in cultural heritage organizations?

In one of the sessions, I asked how we could move beyond the drive for perpetual involvement in sexy new development to a focus on adaptive re-use and improvement of existing tools for implementation. Paul Wheatley, SPRUCE Project Manager at the University of Leeds commented that his organization has run some workshops that focus on building workflow support from existing tools. CURATEcamp has also experimented with this model and would seem to be well positioned to continue to support and extend it.

In his closing plenary, Kevin Ashley of the Digital Curation Centre made a case for more collaboration between the UK and Canada. Can’t we do better than that? I realize there are structural and political issues with funding models that draw geographic boundaries around our work. This was well documented as long ago as 2006 by the American Council of Learned Societies in their report Our Cultural Commonwealth about cyberinfrastructure for the humanities and social sciences. Perhaps future iPRES conferences could include invitational sessions for funders, focused on leveraging their investments through international collaboration.

My interest in organizational studies may be what gives me this perspective. By focusing some attention on the way we structure our digital preservation work, we can leverage all of our contributions so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What do you think?


Logo Conveys Consulting Practice Purpose–To Enable Organizations to Realize Potential

I am thrilled with the new logo design the talented designer Justin Rands created for me. Derived from the photo of inflating hot air balloons on my web site banner, the logo conveys movement and growth.

My consulting practice adds value to organizations by bringing an outside perspective to help break out of patterns that stand in the way of change. The logo is the perfect complement to my tagline,  …Unleash the Potential.


Consulting Services that Meet Client Needs

Last week, at a conference, a colleague asked me, “What differentiates your services from those that other consultants offer?” It didn’t take me long to respond.

I pride myself on tailoring services to meet client needs rather than leading with a particular technical solution. Like the organization development consultants I studied in my dissertation research, I use Bowen theory as a framework for my work. Within that framework, in collaboration with my clients, I select other theories and tools to enable us to reach our common goals.

For example, Galbraith’s Star model provides a model for understanding how strategy informs structure and other organizational processes. Appreciative Inquiry provides a way to engage people throughout an organization in creating an aspirational vision for the organization. Technologies such as World Cafe create an environment for large group conversations.

While taking the time to identify theories and tools that fit the client’s situation can delay  a project launch, that time is well spent. Finding the best process fit from the start goes a long way towards creating circumstances favorable to a successful engagement.


Application of Bowen Theory to Organization Development Practice

At the end of May, I presented a summary of my dissertation findings to my dissertation committee and fellow Fielding Graduate University students. This event is called the Final Oral Review (FOR). My FOR was a webinar–but we had some technical difficulties, and the session was not recorded. I wanted to be able to share a summary of findings with the study participants and other folks who might be interested, so I created Application of Bowen Theory to Organization Development Practice, a movie of the FOR, created from the power point presentation with narration added.

The movie provides a summary of what I learned from twelve organization development consultants who use Bowen theory in their work–in just under 30 minutes. I was unable to capture the questions from participants in the “official” FOR webinar but would welcome questions or comments posted here.

Technical note: Although an improvement over the webinar, this recording is not flawless. There are a couple of places where the sound is distorted and words drop out of the narration. One slide–the one that shows demography of the participants–suffered in the Mac to movie conversion. Some of the labels ended up with random characters. For example, “retired” became re?red. Even with these imperfections, the basic ideas are accessible through this presentation.