Finally, we find patterns existing at a much subtler, more pervasive and more profound level with regard to norms (implicit rules) of the organization. What is rewarded repeatedly in the organization and what is punished or ignored? About what can members of the organization speak and about what can’t they speak? With regard to your client, what is he “allowed” to do in the organization and what can’t he do without taking a big risk (with regard to his reputation, power or status)? We often find that the norms of an organization are “self-sealed” – indicating that they are enforced but can’t be discussed. The sealing is usually even more pervasive. We can’t even mention that we can’t talk about these norms. As coaches we can be of great benefit to our client when we seek to uncover the norms and encourage our client to talk about that which can’t be discussed with anyone else. This sometime means that we serve as “naïve” questioners: “Why do you do that?” Or “Why don’t you do that?” I have a colleague from Argentina who has lived in the United States for many years; however, as a coach he sometimes will deepen his accent and ask unforgiveable question: “I don’t fully understand this culture, but if you will pardon me, I would like to ask you a simple question . . .” At this point, he invites his client to explore some fundamental norm of her organization in great depth.
What about variations in these patterns. We find variations at each of the levels I have just mentioned. It is through variations in the patterns of organizations that we find creativity. Ralph Stacey writes extensively about this creative dynamic in organizations, noting that organizations grow and adapt precisely because they are not orderly. As I noted at the start of this essay, systems survive (and thrive) in a specific niche precisely because they are not fully adaptive and therefore cannot dominate their niche. We see what happens when one organization builds a monopoly in a specific sector of our society and when one leader dominates the decision-making processes of an organization. Some sloppiness and competition is needed to not only keep us honest but also to allow for creativity and change.
What do the variations look like in organizations? When listening to a sonata-form symphony we are often unaware of the subtle variations that are occurring—unless we are trained in musical composition and have a musical score in front of us. Similarly, we are often unaware of variations in organizational patterns unless we have a “trained ear” or have organizational documents to review while observing the operations of the organization. The trained ear (and eye) often requires that we do one (or more) of three things as organizational coaches and consultants.
First, we look for the obvious and seemingly-trivial clues regarding variations. These are the surprises that occur in the organization: an embarrassing statement made by someone in a meeting (that may be revealing a truth about the organization), a miscommunication that occurs between two leaders (that may indicate two or more contradictory truths in the organization), a set of contradictory decisions or actions taken by two different subsystems (e.g. a commitment made by the marketing department that can’t be fulfilled by the production department).
Second, we look for emotionally-charged events. Disrupted patterns will inevitably generate emotional responses: anxiety, disappointment, embarrassment, anger, hope. We can begin our investigation of variations by looking for emotional reactions that exceed those or differ from those occurring on a regular basis in the organization (the regular emotional reactions being part of the organization’s pattern). Once we identify the unique emotional reactions, then we seek out the events that generated these reactions. A variation of the pattern often underlies and has generated the emotional reaction.Download Article 1K Club