The OD Geek?

Posted: June 5, 2014 by Ian Gee in Human Resources, OD, Organization, Technology, Uncategorized


After reading an intriguing and slightly disturbing article, Silicon Valley an army of geeks and ‘coders’ shaping our future in the Observer a couple of weeks ago I was left wondering if there is such a thing as an OD Geek?  By Geek I mean someone who is inspired to work, often on their own, for long hours, with great intensity, working out solutions to organisation problems and making money along the way?

As I read the article a couple of things leapt out at me, firstly: “The phrase you hear everywhere is innovate or die.”  I don’t think I have ever heard this kind of imperative within the OD world.  Have you? The second bit that leapt out was:

“…And an army of…   coders…who are progressively recasting the human environment in their own image, forcing the rest of us to adapt to this radically reconfigured landscape in the only way possible: by becoming … more … like … them”

This got me wondering if there are any OD practitioners working in Silicon Valley, or other ‘Silicon’ places around the world, who are supporting and enabling this?    I know that many of the established High Tech organisations mentioned in the article have very good OD teams – during my time with Nokia I met many of these people both in California and elsewhere.  I just wonder if there are any OD people working more generally and probably, as freelance consultants, with the much smaller startups and or helping individual geeks and entrepreneurs with things like business ideation or thinking through how to develop the kind of organisation that will help carry their ideas to fruition?  Again if anyone has any experience of this, it would be great if you could share them with us.  I would be curious to know what it’s like working with them, how did you gain entry and what kinds of issues do you find yourself working on?

I know from my research with Dee Ortner exploring the relationship between Entrepreneurs and HR/OD, that gaining entry in the start up space for OD practitioners is very difficult.  I am assuming this is also true when working with Geeks.  We found that this was for many reasons, that can best be summarised as entrepreneurs not understanding the value add of OD or HR and their being unwilling to spend money on something they believe they can get from friends and family. My guess is this will hold true for geeks as well.  I believe that we OD practitioners have to take some responsibility for this.  I don’t think we have been very good at showing how we can make a difference in this space and developing pricing models that make it a good deal for both the entrepreneur as well as the practitioner.

It would be really good to hear your thoughts an ideas about both working with geeks and what your thoughts are on becoming and OD Geek!


Now for bit of news:

As well as continuing to run Edgelands Consultancy I have gone into business with two very good friends and former work colleagues from my time in Local Government, Carole Grimwood and Alan Warner.  We have formed a new business called Albany OD Do take a look at our website.  I will be cross posting my blogs to the website from now on.


We, the HR

Posted: May 20, 2014 by Matthew Hanwell in Human Resources, OD, People

Guest post by: Asif Zulfiqar


I attended the wedding of my sister-in-law a few months ago. Besides attending the festivities, I got to hang out with my wife’s extended family, a family of doctors and educators. This was memorable experience on two accounts. First, this was the first wedding I ever attended where no fights broke out. Second, and more importantly, this was the first time I found myself surrounded by this many medical professionals. I am able to hold decent conversations about variety of topics but that week most of the conversations around me were going way above my head. In the midst of all the technical discussions, I came across something that really struck me. Something that mapped well to my profession and something I’ve been doing without realizing it.

At one of the tea gatherings I asked the group if they ever had to play the “patient” and how they felt about doing it after playing the role of “doctor” for so long. They all had interesting stories to tell from variety of experiences. But the consensus was that doctors are the worst patients – not because they have low tolerance for pain or medical procedures but because they are close to these procedures. They can handle the needle but they can’t deal with someone stabbing them with it due to their incompetency or carelessness. I’m not sure what this condition is called when you closely scrutinize someone doing what you do for living but I realized I’m certainly suffering from it.

Many things make me cringe in my profession. We, the HR, are so proud to have come up with the notion of behavioral interviews because they are claimed to be better predictor of future performance by 60 or 70 percent (one organization even claimed up to 90%). Yet, there’s no research to back these claims up. In fact I came across a research demonstrating quite the contrary. We, the HR, love putting fancy value statements on our corporate office entrances but in reality reward popularity contest winner and the behaviors of corporate ass kissing. We, the HR, proudly pigeonhole our employees into 9 boxes because believe this is the best thing we created for managing performance of our great workforce. Yet, we fight tooth and nail to keep 13th percent out of box number 9 (regardless of their performance) because “the policy” says only 12% are allowed in this box.

I have a reliable car now but one of my old cars had a lot of problems and breakdowns. I’d generally have to go to a different mechanic for service every time. First thing the mechanic would tell me that how terrible of a job previous mechanic did on my car. My wife (who is dentist by education) thinks the dentist who performed RTC on her most likely slept through her tooth drilling class. Someone like me who doesn’t know anything about the art of dentistry or fixing cars wouldn’t have spotted any of that. But after going through some job interviews in my life I can certainly nominate a few interviewers for next episode of Jenny Jones’s “HR Boys and Girls Getting Interview Makeover” show.

So, what is your profession? Have you had to get the service you provide for living? What was your experience? Does this condition (I call it “We, the HR” syndrome, for lack of better term) exist across the board? And someone please tell me if this condition has a name. Curiosity is killing me!


Firstly thank you all so much for your great comments and reflection on my last blog post! Matthew and I would also like to thank you for your kind words about the book and suggestions regarding the title. After a lot of thought and discussion we have now agreed with the publisher the following title:

The Workplace Community

A guide to releasing human potential and engaging employees

What do you think?

Since my last post the publishers have come back to us and said they would like to publish the book in November this year, rather than January 2015, so its been all go to get it ready for their first edit in May. We will keep you posted as to how things develop and move forward. Now onto this months blog poast….

In the last week or so I have been mulling on the nature of sponsorship and what it means in todays organisations. This all started when a good friend of mine took on the challenge of walking 26 miles for a UK breast cancer charity and was seeking sponsorship. My friend’s family has encountered breast cancer more than once and so this is a cause close to her heart. Over the years she has raised a fair amount of money for charity by running or walking or some such other activity. Of course I will be sponsoring her. I am very happy to support her and applaud the energy and effort she is putting into this. Walks like this don’t just happen; they require a lot of training and preparation.

All of this got me mulling on the nature of sponsorship and the link between sponsorship and the actions they support. As I mulled, I started to wonder what if my friend had just asked me for money for breast cancer, without the need for her to train and then walk 26 miles? Would I have given it to her? My answer was yes, of course I would. She is a good friend and I would help her and support causes that matter to her, no matter what.

I am sure there are a number of academic studies that explore what we get out of doing things for charity, including sponsorship. I can guess that these include feeling close to a cause or issue that is important to us, a sense of doing good, being part of a group that is doing something about something or engaging in what Richard Titmus called a ‘Gift Relationship”

This then led me onto thinking about the role of sponsorship in OD.   Many years ago when I did my first OD training I remember my teachers and mentors talking about the need for proactive sponsorship in any change or OD initiative. Making sure you have sponsors aligned and fully on-board. They also explained how more OD initiatives fail because of a lack of effective sponsorship, with one of the worst examples of being ‘The case of the Disappearing Sponsor’. This always sounded like the title of an Agatha Christie novel to me! It happens where you have, most usually, a senior leader who is sponsoring your change. They are all enthusiastic and excited but what you don’t know is they suffer from some form of OD ADD. This means that at some point they get bored with your initiative and move on to the next juicy item on their agenda. In doing so, they take the wind out of the sales of the project and though things may stumble on for a while they usually grind to a halt.

I decided to have a look at the dictionary definition of sponsorship. All the definitions said that sponsorship is about money being paid for an event in return for advertising., for example, BP sponsoring the annual portrait competition at the National Gallery in London and Royal Dutch Shell sponsoring Ferrari worldwide.

This made me wonder if this is where we are going wrong in OD, not clearly linking the sponsorship of OD, change and transformation initiatives, tightly enough to executive reward? The executive reward could be directly linked to their tasks and targets and performance appraisal. Or it could be more psychological based? But whatever it is, it needs to be something that ties the reward element in as clearly, visibly and publically a way as the sponsors supporting large-scale events. The kind of events where individuals and corporations fight to have their names associated with them, because they know it is good for them and their company. Perhaps we need sponsors of OD projects who fight to be seen as an active sponsor in the same way?

Maybe its time for folks like us to explore and open up the debate about the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of OD sponsorship and develop ways of including this more explicitly as part of our consultancy conversations? This would need to be both at the start of any OD project as well as at critical times during the transformation or change process. Mind you, I am not advocating that as OD consultants we suddenly start dressing like the man in the picture at the top of this blog! Can you imagine it? Lots of personal logos and badges with the CEO, CFO, EVP of HR and this and that on our jump suits! But may be if that helps…..! Perhaps its our new uniform. I have often wondered if OD had a uniform what would it look like?!

So what do you think? Have you ever found yourself having an Agatha Christie moment hunting for the disappearing sponsor? What have you done to get them back or stop this happening in the first place? Be good to hear.

Lost Paragraphs

Posted: March 23, 2014 by Ian Gee in Learning, OD, Organization, People, Writing

Lost paragraphs

You may have noticed that Matthew and I have been a bit tardy in blogging this year.  It’s not that we have lost interest in the Illusion of Work, in all its forms, it’s just that we have been busy writing a book!   Last year we were asked by Palgrave Macmillan to write about our experience and practice of working with and supporting communities in the workplace. The book goes to the publishers at the end of May and will be published, fingers crossed, in January 2015.

Our working title for the book is Communites@Work.  The publishers aren’t that keen on the title, feeling the @ is a bit hackneyed. We like it, but are open to suggestions!  Let us know what you think and if you have any ideas!

This is the first time either of us has written a book and it’s a very interesting process on many levels.  One of the strange things I have found is how attached I can get to paragraphs!  When the heavy lifting of mapping out the chapters was complete and the editing started, I found a number of paragraphs that just did not work.  In some cases they did not fit where they were placed and could be moved to another part of the chapter or book.  In other cases, though not badly written, they were just out of place and did not fit anywhere.   As I was editing I found it harder and harder to just delete them.  I ended up starting a new document called “Lost Paragraphs” to store them!  I now have an eleven-page document that reads like something a crazed post modernist has written!  Something Gertrude Stein would be very happy with I am sure!

The lost paragraphs document has been more useful than I thought. It is not just been an archive or a repository but incredibly useful.  At times when I have felt stuck, something I am sure anyone who has written an extended piece will no doubt have experienced, I have read it through and found new inspiration!  The lost paragraphs have given me new ideas and a way forward, unsticking me in the process.

Here are a couple of examples of lost paragraph.  Though I suppose once they are published on the blog they will no longer be lost, but become found!:

What may look dysfunctional in a hierarchy may be perfectly normal and helpful in a workplace community.  For example, in a hierarchy people are normally discouraged from challenging authority, in an explicit and direct way.  Within a community, as leadership is a shared function, people find it easer to challenge and take on the mantel of leadership themselves. 

And another

Is what is happening in your workplace community what you expect to see and experience?  Do you have any slight niggles that things may not be totally as they should be? Use the community health diagnostic to raise community member’s awareness of this. It is always better to deal with issues as they arise, rather than wait for them to become major problems and stumbling blocks….

I am coming to the conclusion that there is something about the processes of creativity and writing where we need to be attached and committed to what we are doing while we are doing it and at the same time, be ready to let go and say goodbye to it!  In my case the lost paragraphs document is about letting go but not forgetting. As who knows when they might come in useful!

The idea of lost paragraphs started me thinking about other ‘lost’ things I have written over the years.  Such as proposals for work that were never taken up, OD interventions I designed but never implemented and even emails written but never sent!  If I still had them, I wonder what new thoughts and ideas they would stimulate and what I could learn? I guess this is all good for the soul in terms of developing a Buddhist type of non-attachment.

Matthew and I will share a bit more about our book and the writing process as things develop.  So watch this space!  In the meantime I will be really interested to hear if any of you have had a similar experience of not wanting to let go of what you have written or are doing, even if you know it doesn’t fit or doesn’t work? What do you do? What has your experience been?

MOOC me up Scotty

Posted: March 1, 2014 by Matthew Hanwell in Human Resources, Learning, Organization, People


Evolution of distance learning (source:

Guest post by: Asif Zulfiqar

Growing up, I faced tremendous family and social pressure to do well in school. Doing well really meant passing exams with higher grades rather than actually acquiring any knowledge. Apart from failing intermediate English class terribly, I lived up to the expectations for the most part. As a kid, I never understood our society’s obsession with earning good grades in standardized tests. Earning good grades, by the way, meant endless hours of memorization – the ritual I was terrible at. I still can’t relate to this obsession but at least I am able to appreciate where it comes from – the evolution of learning, or the lack there of.

My understanding of human learning is heavily influenced by Ken Robinson, who believes human life flourishes on three principles – diversity, curiosity and creativity. Unfortunately today’s education and learning systems, for the most part, do quite the contrary. One-size-fits-all learning curricula support conformity, not diversity, limiting what can be achieved; use of structured assessment to measure success rather than learning diagnostics curbs curiosity and supports compliance; and the culture of success and fear of failure is simply killing creativity.

One doesn’t need to go back millions of years or explore Adam and Eve’s lives to study human evolution. There’s no doubt we have changed and we have changed tremendously. The way we gather information, relate to each other and process knowledge has evolved significantly even in few short decades. I am convinced the way we learn has evolved too. The question is though, have the systems that support our learning kept up with our evolution? I seriously doubt that.

The industrial revolution did something remarkable for human race. It brought structure, systems and standardization to pretty much every facet of life. It made perfect sense for the education system to compliment this by offering one-size-fits-all curricula to educate masses. State of the art education system came with a state of the art, standardized assessment. Eventually industrial revolution became thing of the past and we declared ourselves knowledge economy. Even the knowledge economy label have started to fade away now but we continue to hang on to the education and learning system we adopted during industrial revolution.

Anant Agarwal, a Computer Science Professor at MIT and President of edX, believes the real innovation in education was printing press, enabling mass production of textbooks and learning material. This allowed us to create the one-to-many learning structure to educate masses. In 1920’s NYU and other universities offered education through radio, which was then taken over by TV a couple of decades later (as a child I remember TV timeslots dedicated to Allama Iqbal Open University training courses). By 1980’s we had the ability to link training/class rooms to remote locations via close-circuit video to support distance learning. Of course the arrival of internet led to the concept of E-learning. One might think of all this as fantastic chain of innovative revolutions in learning. However, the fact is, all these activities supported broadcast style education with structured, one-size-fits-all content in a non-personalized way which contributed little to the diversity, curiosity and creativity of human beings.

Profound ideas are always simple. Salman Khan of Khan Academy took profoundly simple idea to revolutionize the way humans learn. His style supports personalized learning, continual concept development and testing as diagnostics tool which compliments fundamentals of human learning, curiosity, diversity and creativity, like never before. Likes of Dave Cormier and other educators took this idea further and made 2013 the year of MOOCs. Although the underlying purpose of MOOCs is to capture broader audience and some later educators have used this term quite loosely, but in principle MOOCs can truly encourage learners through open and transparent learning, engage them in knowledge creation & assessment and build communities of knowledge.

What does it mean for the corporate world, one might ask, where learning has historically been prescribed for primarily adult learners? I’d say a lot. Learning is natural when you’re young but adult learners must see purpose and reason to educate themselves. Over $170 billion training industry does not have as much to show primarily because of this disconnect. We have seen global engagement through massive engagement jams, open source software development, and other crowdsourcing activities. Coming together to learn from each other shouldn’t be an uphill battle. Organizations can leverage existing expertise, diversity of workforce and plethora of content to craft MOOC style learning management systems. The only limitation is their mindset. The exact nuts and bolts of this type of learning system will most likely be different for different organizations. But for this change to take place the organizations would need to demonstrate characteristics of true learning organization – transform in the wake of changing environment.

When Harvard Business Review asked David Garvin and Amy Edmondson, Professors of Harvard Business School, to name organizations that truly meet the test of being learning organizations, they came up with one – General Electric. From my recent interaction with GE I am convinced this organization have the ability to work the idea throughout the organization on one hand and the courage to act on it on the other. GE has the processes, they have the climate and most importantly leadership behaviors to revolutionize corporate learning the way Khan Academy and MOOCs did to education in general. I am sure there are other organizations in this club and there must be plenty more close to joining. Luckily organizations are under no social pressure to earn “good grades” or memorize any content but their success will largely be driven by the extent to which they incorporate fundamental needs of human development, diversity, curiosity and creativity, in their learning systems. This will not only ensure bigger bang for their learning buck but will also make my friend Ken Robinson very happy!


The Leadership Wolf

Posted: February 4, 2014 by Matthew Hanwell in Human Resources, Leadership, People


Guest blog by Tine Huus

The Wolf of Wall Street Aside, Do Leaders Know What They Want with Their Leadership?

The first film I saw in the New Year was Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street though I had been warned it might clash with my feminist values. The film actually got me thinking about leadership – here we saw a leader who created an engaging and fun (though biased) work environment based on a completely unsustainable business model. From the outset, the Wolf knew what he wanted with his leadership, and then things got out of balance.

We have probably all at some point discussed with colleagues and friends if they have ever been managed by a leader who made you feel you are enough, can do your best work, while constantly raising the bar and with fun as an ingredient? Many of us are leaders ourselves. How is the rating when we turn the mirror to ourselves as leaders?

This made me reflect on the following questions. Do leaders know what they want with their leadership? Do employees know what they want from their leaders? Is the whole concept of leadership polluted by trillions of theories and varied application? Is the whole thing anyway changing rapidly with Gen-Y joining the workforce, work happening in matric structures, more online and virtually?

According to the current Edelman Trust Barometer, there is a leadership crisis and the largest ever gap between trust importance and trust performance in business and government since the study began in 2001. One of their 2014 recommendations is for the CEO to become the Chief Engagement Officer, taking responsibility for establishment of the context in which change will occur. We increasingly trust technical experts and “a person like yourself” more than top leadership. In general, employee engagement surveys show a substantial gap in perceptions between senior management and experts or workers on engaging leadership and culture of trust. Top of the house perceptions can be three times as favourable and simply out-of-touch with their own organisations and employees.

I think employees do know what they want from leaders, however, if they don’t get it, few are brave enough to challenge and ask for it. In other words, we follow half-hearted leadership and our engagement and performance become half-hearted. In Plato’s words, we waste our work life away as “an unexplored life is not worth living”. Leaders not considering what values they want to create waste our time.

How come when we – leaders and employees – can choose between “good” culture (focus on stakeholders, regular, transparent, two-way communications, agility, and sustainability) and “bad” culture (focus on profit, infrequent, branded, top-down communications, complacency, and short-term), we don’t wholeheartedly go for good? What’s stopping us? The Wolf of Wall Street was a truly engaging leader though building his business on an entirely bad culture.

Many of us will not be able to name even one leader who truly engaged us. I have personally had about 15 managers in my career and sat in several leadership teams. I can name two individuals, both male and of another nationality. Perhaps adding culture into the relationship means you mutually become more curious, explorative, and reflective, have deeper conversations, and come to fully trust each other through the process.

Leadership starts with what is the most important – dreams and values. I also came across the concept of “protreptic coaching” recently. Protreptic means turning a person towards what is most important and has dominated leadership academies until the 18th century since its inception in ancient Greece. Through dialogues on ideals, model organisations, values, norms, dreams, and visions, you find for yourself what is most important as a human being and reflect on who you really are and who you aspire to be. Today, we could return to these human dialogues in feedback and performance management processes to start re-articulating what leadership is about, what value it brings, and what dilemmas are involved. It would be natural to do business whole-heartedly and in a holistic way.

If this was part of the package, Gen-Y employees might want to take the leadership path like their parents. It would prepare employees to take leadership roles as well as people to step in and out of leadership roles. As in (online) communities, the one with the vision takes the lead. Even the Wolf of Wall Street might have found a sustainable business model and promoted an inclusive culture, had he continued his leadership journey with reflections and conversations on what is most important and got the balance in place.

I am curious to hear your reflections? As a leader, do you know what you want with your leadership?

OD meets Supermarket Sweep!

Posted: January 18, 2014 by Ian Gee in OD

supermarket sweep

Dee Ortner, my friend and fellow researcher into HR in the entrepreneurial space was recently at a gathering of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (VC’s) in Boston.  Dee has an amazingly inquiring mind and a wonderful way of engaging with people.  She told me that when asking a VC about his thoughts on HR he eventually looked at her and said, rather disdainfully “you sound like a social scientist!”  The implication being that this was not a good thing!  A bit along the lines of “Oh so you are related to the Boston Strangler then?”*  Dee is a natural scientist – it’s most likely my bad influence that has led her to be seen as a social scientist!  The VC was a Harvard MBA and was using that well placed and most likely very expensive lens to view the world through.  He obviously had no idea that economics, one of the disciplines he no doubt uses to make sense of his world and make decisions by, is well and truly considered a social science.

This led me to mull a bit about different ways of thinking and the impact this has on how we experience the world and the choices we make.  For any seasoned OD practitioner this is a very well trodden path of inquiry.  As practitioners it is important we are aware that the lenses we choose to see the world through have a direct impact on how we work with clients and in turn how clients experience working with us.

Most of us working in the OD space will have challenged both our clients and ourselves to explore our lenses.  If I had a pound for every time I have either heard or said the Alfred Korzybski phrase “The Map is not the Territory” I would be writing this from some sunny island in the Caribbean and not wintery Devon!  As helpful as the metaphors of lenses and maps are I don’t think they are enough to really help us shift our thinking. What I would propose is that we develop the idea and metaphor of algorithmic thinking as a way of exploring and explaining the choices we make.

Algorithms are all around us, from driving search engines to shaping our purchasing patterns. If you use a supermarket loyalty card every time you buy something the company tracks your purchases.  This produces masses of data for them to analyse.  I once had a really interesting chat with someone who was responsible for developing and looking after the algorithm the supermarkets use.  Some of the correlations she told me about were amazing if not a little weird!  Here is a made up example – though not too far from the truth.  If you regularly buy a certain brand of toilet paper, balsamic vinegar and brussel sprouts then the algorithm shows the supermarket there is a high likelihood that you will also be interested in buying a certain kind of floor polish.  The supermarket is then very likely to send you a money off voucher for floor polish in the hope you will buy it and keep on buying it.  The toilet roll + balsamic + sprouts = floor polish is not a correlation I could make no matter which lenses I looked through!

When I think about the truly brilliant OD practitioners I have worked with and learned from, they have had a form of algorithmic thinking.  They have been able to take all kinds of unusual data both from conventional sources (surveys, focus groups, interviews etc.) and add it to more intuitive data – the feel of a place, the tone of a culture, the pace of a conversation and come up with quite amazing thoughts and ideas.  Ideas and thoughts that have helped their clients to successfully bring about the kind of changes that the organisation needed.  In the past this would be called using your intuition.  I would argue that the use of the term intuition is one of the reasons OD and by extension HR is often not taken seriously. It is seen as soft and unrepeatable.  Maybe it is time we brand intuitive thinking as algorithmic thinking and in doing so command more respect from people like the VC that Dee met?  One of my old OD teachers and mentors used to say to me that ‘Intuition is what happens when imagination runs out”.  She really helped me both understand the power of my intuition and at the same time to challenge and test it, as opposed to see it as a universal truth.

The supermarket soon knows if its algorithm is working as it will see a rise in the sale of floor polish to the people it has targeted.  The challenge we face in the OD space is to know if our algorithm is properly calibrated and helps us achieve the kind of results our clients are looking for.  So even though our interventions and feedback may on the surface look unusual they resonate with our clients and bring the desired outcomes. By converting the notion of intuition into the idea of a living algorithm we have the opportunity to refine and develop our personal process and make the kinds of adjustments and changes needed to increase our success.

If this idea makes any sense to you it would be great to hear your thoughts.  I would be particularly interested in hearing about the strange and unusual correlations you have discovered in the OD space and how you think we all might all go about improving and developing our personal algorithmic thinking.

* By the way Dee assures me she is no relation of the Boston Strangler…..