A more human, connected and systems-thinking organization has to arise


james jennings

“Every company’s wish is to have engaged employees. However, when 70% of employees are not engaged we have a problem: work is currently a terrible experience for the majority. The waste of human potential and economic gain is enormous.

I worked 9 years in a socially responsible Best Places to Work company during a period when revenues grew organically from $100 million to over $800 million. I worked on appreciative inquiry projects facilitated by David Cooperrider himself, attended the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), used open book management, mindfulness, Getting Things Done and a dozen other practices. These were great programs put in place by intelligent and well-meaning people. Through them, I’ve seen the need and hope to make things better. However, for all that effort, even in a great company, a majority of employees were unengaged. There seems to be a ceiling to engagement.

Gallup surveys show engagement holding steady around 30% in the US and lower in much of the rest of the world. Despite greater awareness of engagement, availability of good programs, and analysis that shows better financial returns, engagement has not had breakout improvements. There has to be something that has not been addressed by the thousands of books, seminars, software, and other interventions.

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A turning point in my thinking was after an intense week at CCL. I had a small number of well vetted and personally meaningful practices that would make me a better leader. Despite my good intentions and honest effort, all the new practices were erased within 3 months. My question was why? It was not just CCL – Situational Leadership, after action reviews, and most all others came and went even when the CEO tirelessly championed them. Instead of looking at the change initiatives themselves, my focus sharpened on what did not change. For example, the Monday after returning from CCL, email was still email. The ERP was still the ERP. Planning was planning. Performance management was performance management. My boss was still my boss. I had started to change, but my world had not. I was swimming against the current of status quo while trying to put new skills into practice.

Individual and organizational change are elastic. Stretching one element at a time almost guarantees that it will return to its earlier condition. Single element changes – even good ones like lean, agile, or scrum – make progress for a while but eventually they are ground down by the interlocking pieces of the infrastructure and culture that collectively make up an organization’s operating system. Good, promising changes are doomed to be flavor of the month in the inhospitable environment of robust but flawed organizational operating systems.

There are three fundamental flaws in organizational operating systems.

1 – Core processes and information systems are detached from humanity. They do not recognize people as more than the functions they perform and do not value and nurture people for their uniquely human qualities. Ironically, our processes and systems put too much emphasis on individual competence and performance but do not address their own influence.

2 – Key business systems are detached from each other. Strategy is in PowerPoint. Work is real time in ERP, CRM and other systems. Talent management is an HR system once a year or at best once a quarter. The fragmentation of function, rhythm and purpose creates tension, friction and conflict. It impairs collaboration, creative problem solving, innovation and value creation. It undermines change programs.

3 – Systems ignore connections between people and the implicit social contract between manager and employee. According to Gallup, 70% of engagement depends on the immediate supervisor. That fundamental relationship is not recognized in our business systems.

What if we were to design our business systems with the intent of encouraging our humanity? What if we took what we know from behavioral science and built it into the infrastructure of our organizations? What if we envisioned an organizational operating system as a whole that successfully wove together goals and strategy with talent management and work systems with the intent to putting people and their humanity on par with the output of profit?


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In 2008, to manage my team better because I’m not a naturally gifted leader, I built a scheduling app based on competencies and the social contract between the individuals on my team and me. In this system, important projects had – asks – for competencies and my team – offered – different levels of skill. It was not simply about scheduling based on competencies. The balance between ask and offer created an obligation for me as a manager. It told me to get out of the way of experts when were in their domain. While people were learning, it prompted me to ask questions so that they would develop their own judgment. When someone said, “I’ve never done this before, but I’m eager to try,” it reminded me to do what in any other context would be micromanaging – e.g., follow these steps. When someone was overwhelmed it reminded me to step in, get engaged and be both directive and encouraging.

That little app helped me recognize patterns in the asks and offers of competencies so that I could do right by my team. I coached my people when they needed me and got out of their way when they did not. That built trust, improved communication and accelerated learning. That app was the seed that grew into a vision to use technology to encourage our humanity and to repair the flaws of detachment that plague many for profit and not-for-profit organizations around the world.

I’m starting development of the 4th version of the At One leadership operating system. It is ambitious. Thinking systematically about organizational capability has led to a scope that includes core business processes like ERP, financials, CRM, sales pipeline management as well as talent management, planning and budgeting. It supports relationships between people, especially between manager and employee and lowers the transaction costs of good people management so that they can happen more often. The promise is to shatter the 30% barrier of employee engagement.

I am excited and hopeful that in ebbf I have found people who share a belief and vision that our purpose as human beings is to be more conscious and connected, that our purpose can be manifested in our businesses and that business can be made systematically more prosperous, fair and sustainable.

Many of these organisational ideas are exciting, but they can be hard to imagine and even when well conceived, the change can be risky. James is developing an immersive workshop for people to experience the transition from current organisational models to more collaborative, open and engaging ones and to see the effects of employees, customers and business results. If you would like to learn more, please send an email to james.jennings@atone.co  “

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