On the Edge of the Enterprise

Posted: February 1, 2013 by Ian Gee in Change, Leadership, Organization

By Ian Gee: (Edgelands Consultancy)

Many organisations are spending large amounts of time and money in an attempt to renew and transform themselves. On the surface, there is nothing very new in businesses seeking to secure their future. However, what is new is the overall lack of success so many are having on this journey. A number of the big consultancies have carried out research that would appear to show that some 70% of all large-scale transformation projects fail.

Organisation Development has a long and positive history of supporting the process of transformation and helping organisations increase their efficiency, effectiveness and readiness for the future. OD has a wide range of tools and techniques at its disposal to help with this and has used these, to good effect, for the past 60 or so years. These tools can be broken down into the highly programmatic, like Six Sigma, Business Process Re-engineering, etc. and the more emergent approaches, like Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space etc. What to my mind is different today, is that these techniques and approaches don’t seem to have the positive impact they used to have. They are increasingly falling out of favour and being seen as lacking relevance in the transformation process. Practitioners have said to me that these approaches feel slightly tired and old fashioned and a lot of mangers and leaders have lost interest and faith in them.

My critical question is what can we as OD professionals do in order to ensure that all the effort and energy that goes into transformation and change is not wasted and the initiatives we are involved with are part of the 30% of that succeed?

A key part of any approach to whole organisation change is to truly understand your current reality and find out what the future might be like. At the moment, this is done through lots of number crunching, mapping and scenario planning. All this activity, more often than not, leads to a lovely rich set of slides that aim to help shape strategy and plans for the future. These slide sets provide an aspirational view of the future, but more often than not no practical map towards it.

So if the slides don’t really drive change where can we look to find a more realistic view of the future and from that develop realistic and implementable transformation plans? I believe that the best place to look is at the edgelands of the organisation. I take the term edgelands from a book of the same name, written by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farle, poets who have written wonderful book about geography, place and location. They describe edgelands as those unnoticed, forgotten and abandoned geographic spaces that are neither part of the city nor part of the countryside. Places where things happen outside of the norm. Places of a different kind of freedom.

All organisations have their own edgelands, but more often than not they don’t know it and don’t know where to find them. Edgelands are those parts of the organisation that are already working in a different way and have already developed different kinds of cultures and ways of working. My challenge to OD professionals is to find your edgelands, and learn from them. Here are my suggestions as to where to find them. Go look at your recent M&A activity and spend time with acquisitions, seek out successful cross-organisational project teams, look for teams working in new or emerging markets and find the groups that people talk about as being quirky or unusual. Spend time with them, watching how leadership and followership work, look at how they handle conflict and plan for the future. Try and understand how they see their development, how they consolidate and institutionalise things and how they let go of what is no longer needed. Look at how they handle performance issues and manage their relationships.

I would argue that it is time for OD professionals to find their organisations edgelands, brush off their participant observations skills and re hone their ability to ask good inquiring questions and then design interventions that help the wider organisations learn and benefit from what they have discovered on the edge of their organisations.

So what do you think? And what organisations edgelands have you experienced?

  1. Matthew Hanwell says:

    Many thanks for the post Ian, failure of organizational change management and what to do differently also see: http://blogs.forrester.com/claire_schooley/12-12-30-why_do_so_many_change_management_initiatives_fail

  2. This is very thought provoking Ian. In my experience formal change programmes fail because organisations attempt ‘top down’ sheep-dip processes that don’t allow for learning from individuals and teams who get things right. I also work with clients who want change but are afraid of having honest conversations and managing inevitable conflict. I think we have to encourage people to learn from each other…and not to see change initiatives as something that have a beginning and end.

    • Ian gee says:

      Amanda, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am coming to the conclusion that the nature of change itself is changing and until we work out what that means then most change and transformation efforts are doomed for failure. I did quite a bit of research on this a year or so ago and have been working on it for a while now. It’s hard though, as we seem to be programmed to keep repeating what we have done in the past even though we know it does not work!

  3. Lisa Trusty says:

    Interesting insights, Ian. My experience with Edgelands have been teams that have a very clear mission and strong sense of accountability. In large organizations, this is particularly challenging to cultivate, as there are many dependencies, systems, processes, etc. which can bring about chaos – or even worse, inertia. Edgelands have a mindset and way of working that allows them to overcome these obstacles. Your recommendation for leaders to learn more about what makes Edgelands different and how to replicate them is spot on.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Lisa, I like your reflection about large corporations and how systems and organisation processes can destroy edgelands by making them part of the norm. Their very strength rests in being outside of the system. You have made me mull over how can we help leaders learn about edgelands, learning how to cultivate them and grow and perhaps ultimately replicate the transformative aspects across the wider enterprise?

  4. Tim Soden says:

    Hello Ian
    Perhaps all that is happening is the workplace is continually evolving and we are simply always playing catch up.

    But why be seriouis about it after all we choose to be here?
    You may like this blog http://compassioninbusiness.wordpress.com/

  5. Carole Grimwood says:

    Ian – this is fascinating. My work which has predominantly been in the local government sector has been in large organisations which are characterised by a strong element of bureaucracy. One group on the ‘edgelands’ of such organisations are the mavericks and the rule breakers who are generally seen as a problem even when they are outperforming their colleagues. HR & OD expertise is normally called upon to help bring them into line rather than to see what can be learned from them. Yet ironically it is here that some of the most creative, forward thinking activity is taking place and in a sector which has to reinvent itself to survive such individuals and groups should not be ignored.

    For me one of the prerequisites for successful transformation is that well documented holy grail of engagement. Where organisations sometimes go wrong with this is in seeking alignment to a culture defined by values and behaviours which are set in stone rather than seeing this as something which needs to develop and shift (increasingly quickly). The mavericks with their values and behaviours should be key players in helping to shape the thinking that moves the organisation forward.

    • Ian Gee says:

      I agree Tim that workplaces evolve no matter what we do! I guess the work of OD to is to help peoples give this direction and help make meaning.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Carole, like you, I have seen OD and HR used to normalise and bring peoples into line. I do wonder how we can help HR folks find the voice that need represent what’s different, valuable and worth keeping, even if it is slightly uncomfortable, to the wider enterprise? I saw a quote the other day that said ‘HR is the place dreams come to die!’ That made me sad.

  6. Wilson Wong says:

    As Amanda points out, the presumption at the outset is that the organisation can direct the changes in behaviour and to org culture, when much lies within the gift of the employees. Whilst possible to direct change, the influences on org culture are far more slippery (social media; multiple identities/affiliations, etc.).
    I like the idea of colonies of resistance combined with good practice located somewhere in the org. The trouble is if the leadership seek alignment, these sub-cultures in the edgelands are then in danger of assimilation or subversion so the original is unrecognisable – like the Borg in Star Trek (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtEaR1JU-ps).
    I think OD also needs to be honest – who is it serving, what is the deal and is it in any position to honour that deal?
    A timely blog, Ian, for both OD practitioners, and orgs seeking a positive journey.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Wilson, I like your idea of colonies. I have heard people use a tribal metaphor many times. I think the idea of colonies is a much more interesting one to explore. People can choose to move between colonies and leave at will, whilst tribal feels much more fixed and immobile. Your challenge to OD deciding whom it is serving I think is very timely. I wonder if anyone is working on what 21st centaury OD is all about and what skills and capabilities, both technical and personal are needed? Is the CIPD doing anything?

      • Wilson Wong says:

        Hi Ian, interestingly OD is my portfolio at the CIPD but my focus is on the conceptualisation of fairness within organisations (http://www.cipd.co.uk/comment-insight/comment/unfairness.aspx) and to then see how having a framework on fairness affects practice.
        I attended an ESRC seminar on mediation this week and they spoke of using mediation as an intervention for changing org culture. I’m not convinced how much use that appraoch is for OD but technically possible albeit a roundabout way of moving things forward – but they would have a vested interst in furthering their practice!

  7. Allen Karlin says:

    great conversation. I’ve observed in 30+ years of consulting and corporate/not-for-profit experience that OD too often becomes part of the system and vested in the current structure and/or systems of rewards and recognition. If we are to be honest agents of transformation, we need to be able to speak truth as we understand it an help others challenge their basic assumptions about work, transformation and the future. So we could say we need to live in the Edgelands and city and the same time,meaning that we’re willing to leave, or be asked to leave, the very organization we are serving. To say the least, this could be an uncomfortable position for many, including myself. Oh yes, and then our ability to speak in terms to which leaders can relate to is another responsibility I believe we accept by being in our field.

    • Xavier Delhaise says:

      My experience gives me a very pessimistic view of how much space OD is given in the corporate environment. A corporate will have organised itself to lower its cost of trade for the market(s) it is targeting, and part of that organisation will rely on an interlock of controls. Tensions between Finance and HR, or Sales and Operations are part and parcels of how these controls are exercised. Over time, the organisation develops an immune system that helps maintaining the status quo by neutralising elements of change deemed too threatening for this equilibrium.
      Here come the white spaces in which small teams redefine their operating model and invent a new way of dealing with controls. Sooner or later, the larger organisation will either kill the new set-ups through red tape and requirements for conformance to existing controls, or it will turn away from these white spaces as they seem too distant from the core of the business.
      In that model, the role given by OD is a corporate mandate, and it comes with a centripetal pull.

      To illustrate my point, how often has OD been engaged in a transformation that was not coming from the top, but rather from the edgelands? And how often has OD not been called after a corporate decision to patch up a new organisation?

      A way to move away from this centralised model would be to analyse how decisions are effectively taken in the organisation. My view is that too many decisions are escalated too high in large organisation. Too many exec members are too thirsty for details and involvement at a level below their pay range. Where OD should stand firm is on the governance definition and on the remits for decision making. That would give licence for edgelands to develop, and perhaps challenge the larger construct of the organisation.

      • Ian Gee says:

        Xavier, you made me think about something I have been working on for a long while, that the very nature of change is changing and the old top down models are no longer enough. With rampant social media, both inside and outside of the organisation, edgelands now have ways of making themselves know and heard. Today it is unlikely that they will go quietly into the night as they are normalised.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Allen, for me your comments are pointing in a similar direction to Wilsons. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is a key ability for any OD professional. To me it’s a table stake. I cannot say, hand on heart, I have always done, this but feel proud of where I have been able to create the space for such conversations to happen.

  8. Ruth Steinholtz says:

    A thoughtful posting and insightful comments. My experience also leads me to think that the edgelands often consist of individuals who are confident and secure enough to create a healthy “microclimate” in the midst of an often dysfunctional surrounding. However, these people, rather than cherished by the organisation are often expelled as they don’t go along with the predominant view and are therefore a threat. There is so much wisdom in the individuals that make up a company culture and I like to use values as a way to create a conversation and discover a path to organisational transformation. this is only possible if the most senior management knows how to listen; and listening is sadly a skill in short supply in many organisations. However, I am not pessimistic despite these views – and I believe that OD has an important role in facilitating these conversations, if it can learn to listen more itself.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Ruth, I think you are spot on about the nature of people who create, survive and thrive in the edgelands. For me, its not just about practical skills, it’s also about who they are, personal values and beliefs and as you say, levels of self belief and confidence.

  9. I like the edgelands thinking but challenge is to get the edgelands leader(s) doing things differently pulled into mainstream corporate to actually make a difference. Too often skunkworks teams end up sidelined, redtaped or become frustrated and quit the company (to start their own ones – is there statistics on this?) as the mainstream corporate machinery protects its own interests. Ironically, perhaps the better organizational development model for a large corporation would be to cut it into pieces where the edgelands teams are spinned off and operate autonomously, with no danger of powerpoint heros getting in their way. I would hence rename the term OD as Organizational Disruption since the aim is not to develop the corporate (which is likely a doomed effort anyway) but ensure the survival and performance of the great teams, and that way ensuring they generate more shareholder value. Perhaps my philosophy would be in line with parenting – you need to give room to both independency and responsibility to grow in tandem, but also give level of protection to ensure one day both of these have developed enough to allow survival on their own.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Peter, you made me think about how many times I have been involved in debates about should the company be integrated, a federation or more like a holding company. It seems to me most companies dance around this debate and switch between them as new leaders take charge! It can all become a whimsical….

  10. Adam Travis says:

    Inspiringly written, with valuable reply posts. Thank you.

  11. Ian Gee says:

    Many thanks for all your thought provoking posts. They have certainly stimulated my thinking!

    I think a key skill for anyone working with edgelands is to be alert to their potential shadow side and to understand how an edgeland can turn itself into a self referenced system, cult or something worse. OD folks need the skills to recognise when this his happening, not get trapped in the edgelands.

    A final questions from me, I mentioned a few of the skills I think people need to work with edgelands, does anyone have other ideas?

    Again many thanks and lets keep the discssuon going!

  12. Interesting view on the edgelands. Looking at Start Up companies and their strengths against corporate setups it is clear that in a Start Up the ability to work in an ‘edgeland mode’ is vital for survival. Being able to rapidly change and morph into and out of edgeland ways of working stimulates growth and develops/exposes leadership qualities as any survival experience does.

  13. Brad Boyson says:

    Interesting discussion. As mentioned, the concept of edgelands seems to share a lot of similarities with the concept of skunkworks, If I’m not mistaken, IBM did something very similar when it set out to develop the ‘then’ radical development of a portable computer – AKA laptop. The textbook case study of success.

    I think the degree of corporate involvement ultimately depends upon the specific individuals and the org’s culture; the more entrenched the established culture, the more the edge needs its autonomy to be successful; product/service are somewhat secondary considerations. That said, having an genuine entrepreneurial leader at the edge arguably the single most important factor, an incubation context/environment is not well suited for most.

    • Ian Gee says:

      Hi Brad, you have made me think there are probably at least two types of edgelands, intentional ones like skunk works and then those that emerge unnoticed and live ‘under the wire’

  14. Jim and I read with lots of interest and delight your blog using the ‘edgeland’ metaphor suggesting to OD practitioners that it’s a useful and transformative lens to look at an organization. It prompted a lengthy discussion between us about the topic and about our own experience as consultants.

    We found the ‘edgeland’s’ idea an engaging and provocative one. For example, it reminded us of the project we co-designed for a global organization in the energy sector. The original basis with which we started this project was on values and meaning-making and ended up being a change program with a little bit of a collaborative edge that traded (beyond our intention) its edge for an institutional comfort (and a ‘peaceful transition’ to a new organization)

    Our take is that the invitation to look at the ‘edgelands’ in an organization is building on the best of the human spirit and its ability to generate life. It also requires a type of consciousness and perspective that looks at the ecosystem of an organization as constantly changing and evolving. And hence, as you suggest occurring when an organization enters a “new organizational space” (e.g. merger & acquisition). A great medium and driver for accessing and playing effectively in the ‘edgelands’ , we believe, is technology via social collaboration as it creates the space for aware grass root and leaders to spot what’s possible and midwife it. At a societal level, for example, we were reminded of the ‘edgeland’ spotted by the American people who saw and understood that there was a 99% paying for the successful and privileged lives of the 1%. The impact of this ‘movement’ was not linear either but more systemic as it created—without any predesign or predetermination– openings for discussion and action on other critical dimensions of our lives. Without a doubt, social networks played a significant role in acknowledging such a social ‘edgeland,’ and sharing and constantly expanding the story.

    Your idea also took us to a discussion about governance. How do we tend to the ‘edgelands’ in our organization? Do the tried and true governance practices do the job? We tend to believe that they won’t—perhaps, the ‘edgeland’ metaphor is inviting us to embrace something like agreements for action based on certain agreed upon principles and assigned roles ‘edgeland-specific’ as well. More to think and discuss about this one!

    The role of an OD consultant/practitioner needs to be reconceived as well. Working on the ‘edgelands’ requires a type of learning perspective that transcends adaptation to engage what is new and edgy and potentially transformative. Hence, it requires the presence of an observer that observes the emerging environment with a multifocal ‘inner device’ to embrace or even create changes in a different way. The role and profile of the ‘edgeland OD practitioner’ deserves a chat with you and potentially with other interested parties to flesh it out more. We see it as a formation process—how do you develop practitioners that deal with ongoing change, uncertainty, and can still play among several different potential paths and help uncover the most effective?

    We value what you wrote as it provided the stimulus for stretching our own thinking. We also appreciate your role as a provocateur/jester. Not to go too Tarot on you!

    Maria de los Angeles Cinta & Jim Armstrong

  15. Joe Gibbons says:

    Ian – Love the blog and the ensuing discussion. My experinece with Edgelands has been with those elements of a business that are willing to disrupt themsleves and not be comfortable with the status quo. The most successful are those that embrace change leadership as a key management tool and readily partner with their OD teams to drive it successfully. I am pleased to say I have had that experience with the Medicla Devices segment at Covidien.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s