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VIDEO: How Cognitive Science Disrupts Culture

Posted on October 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Enjoy this interview with Ontos Principal with UC Berkeley Haas Business School on how modern cognitive science changes our approach to organizational culture.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Organizational change, Organizational culture, What We Do | Post A Comment

When is Leadership Development “Transformational”? (Part II)

Posted on October 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOS global

My last post on this topic described our approach to creating transformational learning environments (Transformational Leadership Development? What Makes it So?). I introduced the idea that when leaders want the organization to transform, they are actually seeking its people to transform. I discussed some key elements including the need to engage each individual to explore his or her unique motivations and identity, to support them in becoming more aligned to the organizational strategy, and to become change leaders themselves.

But the organizational environment equally matters. Just as fish can only swim in oxygenated water, individual change leaders also need an environment where they can breathe, grow and thrive. Few would debate this point, but leaders who emerge from transformational learning experiences will often run into a wall of people who completely miss the importance of workplaces as places of learning, in addition to places of business.

A client of ours recently shared one of his ideas with a colleague: “I told this leader that after meeting individually with my staff, I ask them if they felt I met their needs and that this discussion was worthwhile. This leader thought that this was really silly. This made me feel like this leader was uncomfortable talking about these topics.”

When we consider just how much our modern-day global environments asks of us – to do more with less, meet ever-higher expectations, adapt to new technologies, incubate relevant innovations and assimilate new generational and cultural perspectives into the workforce (phew) — it becomes obvious that none of this is possible without people who can learn, unlearn, and learn again — over and over. What people are essentially doing in these scenarios is a heroic stretch of their cognition, social skills and emotional capacity.

Organizations benefit enormously when their hallways and offices become places of curiosity and exploration, where they are encouraged and rewarded to continue to reinvent themselves and to respond to the evolving demands of their jobs. Leaders must believe at their core that people can and should be learning every day. Reflecting on their experiences, what they’ve learned and how they feel about what they’ve learned, is a practice that leaders can instill regularly, as it is commonly a missing part of the learning integration process.

Is your organization a place with a multitude of ways to learn, unlearn and learn again? Or is taking time to reflect on learning perceived as “silly”, like our client’s colleague said? What can organizations do to be better learning organizations?

Consider that in some organizations:

  • Employees keep a career profile that they maintain themselves, which contains record of their skills training.
  • Employees are the de facto teachers to each other by blogging their insights or writing white papers on company-sponsored internal websites.
  • Companies give badges and certificates are issued to acknowledge achievement are issued for skills that are not tested in exams but that firms nevertheless value.
  • Companies provide extensive support for mentoring and coaching exists to support the idea of learning from others.

And that:

  • AT&T, a telecoms and media firm with about 300,000 employees, gives “nanodegrees” – short courses designed for constant learning.
  • Google employees have one day a week for any personal project they want to pursue. They are accountable for presenting their work to their manager for potential continuation and integration into the organization.
  • In-person executive development programs have become “live concerts” or premium experiences that cannot be replicated online and build critical thinking skills, social skills, and emotional capacity so lacking in more traditional programs.

Forward thinking employers put learning as a skill in its own right:

  • Sanjay Rajagopalan, SVP & Head of Design and Research at Infosys, (until September 2017) emphasizes “learning velocity” – the process of going from a question to a new idea in a matter of days or weeks. (See notes ii)
  • Manpower, a human-resources provider, is currently running trials on an app that evaluates individuals on their “learnability”.
  • Google’s recruitment focuses on finding “learning animals.”
  • Microsoft has leveraged the work of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, to develop performance review criteria that include an appraisal of how employees have learned and applied knowledge from others.

Individuals can have powerful learning experiences in transformational leadership programs. But individual development must be accelerated by a climate that values learning. Indeed, there is no organizational transformation without, well, organizational learning.

(i) Study was done using jobs advertised from online sources
(ii) Design Thinking and the Enterprise. (2015, Volume 1). Infosys Insights, pp. 24

Posted in: Change / Change management, Global business strategy, Global teams, Leadership, Organizational change, Organizational culture | Post A Comment

Confidential 360-degree Assessments: How Does a Manager Support Without Information?

Posted on May 31, 2017 by: Lisa Koss

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOS global

The other day, we received this message from a client:  “Without breaching any confidentiality, can you provide a high level overview of the findings and actions based on my direct report’s 360-degree assessment debrief?”  

This is our response:  First, the curiosity and interest in a direct report’s developmental journey is exactly what we want from a manager.  Too many managers spend their time managing only the business outcomes, and mostly ignore the critical responsibility of what it means to be a people leader:  supporting one’s direct reports to grow and develop in their roles.

Second, a 360-degree assessment process is one that must be managed carefully to ensure that its use does not undermine the ultimate goals of such a tool.  The 360 process is meant to be an opportunity to receive helpful feedback and to reflect on the feedback, and to consider maintaining or changing one’s behaviors.  To do this, the person must feel a sense of safety and support, which is why confidentiality is so important.

At the same time, we also understand that managers cannot easily support without some amount of information about what was discovered by numerous stakeholders.

To achieve both, we suggest the following basics:

  1. Best practice dictates that the reports and debriefs are confidential. This policy helps ensure that 360 assessments are more likely to be used as a learning and development tool and less likely to be used by any rater in a way that manipulates perceptions or other time-wasting activities.
  2. Participants use the 360 results to write 2-4 goals (with metrics of success) and share those with their manager.  There is no need to show the report itself.  If the participant wants to keep 1 or more goals private, that is their prerogative.  A 360-degree assessment should not be treated like a performance appraisal.

This method works because (1) the manager gets some insight into the assessment results while keeping the responsibility for development and learning on the employee; (2) the discussion and process allows the manager to bring up any other aspect he is concerned about; and, critically, (3) the conversation itself provides an opportunity to build the relationship and trust with the direct report.

Finally, a note about the basis of a 360 assessment:  Organizations either buy a set of 360 questions, or, in the case of our clients with whom we have co-developed custom competencies, they will have a full set of success criteria by function.  In the latter case, we would suggest that the manager also review those competencies ahead of time.  As such, the manager can more easily bring up any item with the direct report that is of concern and did not come out in the direct report’s goals.  Using competencies makes the discussion be a more specific and is a objective look at what success looks like in the person’s role.  Feedback from the manager is less likely to be perceived as biased or based simply on a personal preference with regards to leadership style or work style.

Posted in: Integrated talent management, Leadership | Post A Comment

Real Leadership is Daring to Confront the Impossible

Posted on May 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Antoine Bebe




Antoine BebeAssociate, ONTOSglobal

With Brexit and Donald Trump’s election we have witnessed what numerous political and economic leaders labeled as impossible and catastrophic, nevertheless have become a new reality. Through analyzing these game-changing events we suggest four cognitive strategies for those in charge of leading a company in a fast-changing world.

Prepare for the impossible!

It is striking that neither European leaders, nor, as it seems, the British leaders who launched the initiative for the referendum, nor financial markets had got ready for a vote in favor of Brexit. In 2008 as well, few or no banking group had envisaged as possible the failure of Lehmann Brothers without the American Federal Reserve coming to its aid. The phenomenon occurred again during the campaign of Donald Trump. Numerous officials, journalists and commentators mocked him for a long time, as they considered his accession to the presidency of the United States as an impossible scenario.

In all these cases, decision-makers used a one-track thinking system for their analyses, their strategic directions and their decisions. Divergent opinions were considered as emanating from under-educated people, soft dreamers, or common revolutionaries. The absence of alternative plan, even succinct, confirmed that options exogenous to the dominant thinking were perceived as impossible, thus not even deserving the time and effort of risk analysis or multi-scenario prospective study.

Our intent here is not to take a political stand. Rather, we want to underline that beyond the unpredictability of major changes in history there is a major difference between considering an event as improbable or simply impossible. Indeed, if we consider a scenario as really impossible, by definition it is of no use to get ready for it. While if we consider a scenario as improbable, but not impossible, we allow it to enter our scope of reflection.

Any system of thought, with its cognitive, historic, cultural or political filters brings at the same time power and limits. Through its filters it makes it possible to distinguish the right and the wrong, the fair and the unfair, the possible and the impossible. But we, at times, forget that our perception, itself, is not neutral; it also is shaped through filters.

Therefore, if you are a leader or a manager, ask yourself the question of what you consider as impossible for yourself, for your team, for your company, or for the ecosystem in which you intervene. And imagine what could take place and what might be your reaction, if indeed the impossible came true.

Besides its virtue regarding risk analysis, this approach will open for you creative and innovative perspectives. The exploration of fields previously considered impossible will bring you the benefits of accessing new elements of understanding, or even new possible realities. It will allow you not only to identify intellectual mechanisms (scenarios) but also to come up with dynamic leverages (sensory representations of these scenarios), which will be useful for you in understanding current reality in a different way.

Accept contradictions, including those against your deepest convictions

The model of vertical leadership development presented by David Rooke and William Torbert in their article “Seven Transformations of Leadership” published in 2005 in Harvard Business Review includes different levels of development for the leader. Whereas the performer obtains results by focusing on an objective, without disputing the frame of it, the leader in complexity knows how to listen, understand and integrate contradictory points of view.

Giving real consideration to various points of view is a rewarding approach for teams and stakeholders. They feel listened to and they are more inclined to join the leader in their vision. It also offers the leader the opportunity to open up to other systems of thought, hence better sizing up the complexity of reality. Such an approach also allows them to better understand the social dynamics at work in the company or in a market, while giving them the possibility of detecting and exploring the micro-signals which will turn into the major trends of tomorrow. Whatever the real or supposed relevance of the leader’s point of view, confronting the reality as perceived by the stakeholders will allow for adjustment making for their vision and their project.

Obviously, quite a few institutional decision-makers didn’t have this listening skill that is present only when there is respect for opponents. Not only did they fail to detect and understand what were the feelings of the voters who were going to approve Brexit or Donald Trump, but also they stayed in a system of thought made with certainties, when undoubtedly it would have been beneficial to question these.

In fact, the paradox is classic. In companies with strong power distance, the decision-maker who is supposed to be the best informed person in order to make relevant decisions often has no access to a whole class of information, those considered as disturbing or those conflicting with the official line. Yet it is exactly these information or analyses that go against the dominant tide that are the most important, because some of them will be the beginnings of future mainstreams.

Therefore if you are leader or manager, spot those who have the ideas, the viewpoints and the analyses that are the most disturbing for you. And raise the following questions: why do my opponents think as they think? What do they feel? What are their experiences? Why is it important for them to think what they think? And also, why are their points of view so disturbing for me? What do these viewpoints question in my own system of thought? In so doing, you will reach a multitude of points of view and you will enrich yours.

Clarify each person’s responsibility

Frustration is frequent in the business world when a leader listens to their teams at the time of a difficult choice or of a transformation of the organization. Listening for real may get the decision-maker to reconsider and to refine their evaluation of the situation. The frustration occurs when the act of listening is faked, as all doors are in fact closed. It indeed happens that company directors listen to their opponents only out of appearance, knowing perfectly well that they will not take into account these points of view. Their attitude is then purely superficial, not authentic and sometimes even completely hypocritical.

Another cause of frustration that is also frequent occurs from opponents’ confusion when they take their leaders’ listening being indicative of a joint decision. When the leader’s decision is not in tune with their opponents’ viewpoint, their opponents may have the impression that they have not really been listened to.

To avoid these two pitfalls, it is necessary to adopt an authentic approach, that of real interest, of friendly curiosity for the divergent points of view, while respecting the authority of the decision-maker.

Aristotle said that « It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it ». So, it will be crucial to define clearly the frame of the initiative with all the stakeholders. In particular, it will be about fully agreeing on the decision process and the scope of responsibility attached to the decision.

To draw a parallel with the political arena, it seems that beyond appearances, both for Brexit as for the election of Donald Trump, there is no complete agreement from all of the actors of the system on the process of the decision. Since, after the vote in favor of Brexit some called for a new vote or for the non-compliance with the vote, and as for the election of the American President some do not grant him the legitimacy of the ballot box.

In the micro society constituted by a company, confusion or disagreement on the mechanisms of listening, reflection, investigation, sharing or decision-making also raise major problems in terms of teams’ motivation and implementation of the decisions taken by the leader individually or collectively.

Dare to dream the impossible!

Many companies live under the dictatorship of short-term results or are focused (almost) exclusively on their quarterly figures. The problem is not using financial indicators of performance, but that these indicators sometimes prevail over the economic, industrial or social vision. Thus there is often confusion between vision and ambition. Increasing a market share or profitability rate constitute ambitions but not visions. What motivates teams, just like for voters, is the vision developed and carried out by their leaders.

At times of major change, the vision is embedded in a reality that has not arrived yet. Paradoxically, the most promising visions will also sometimes be precisely the ones that appear as impossible. But it is the case that they are impossible only according to old thinking systems, at “constant scope”. The two sided mirror offered to us by the events of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump shows on one side the belief that some scenarios are impossible, while at the same moment the other side presents the belief that everything is possible. The contradiction is only apparent. Besides the fact that these two beliefs are carried by different actors, those who do not go past the impossible base their point of view on an analytical and static perception, whereas those who believe in the impossible join a dynamic which transforms the very elements of the equation.

If you are leaders or managers, maybe it is time to overcome the stage of convictions to transform them into useful and rewarding visions for your company and the ecosystem it belongs to. You will still need to promote your project while integrating diverse sensibilities. This expression of leadership requires certainly some courage: to express, to give a direction, and to embark teams (or voters) on a project for which it is not possible to measure with certainty all the possible futures. In doing so, maybe will you succeed in creating a dynamic that will allow you to transform the dream and the impossible into a concrete, strategic and beneficial reality.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Diversity, Global business strategy, Leadership, Organizational change, Organizational culture, Partners | Post A Comment

A Coaching Client Wants to Develop Her “Leadership Story”: What to Say?

Posted on February 11, 2017 by: Lisa Koss

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOSglobal

My coaching client is a woman who was not raised in the US but has been working in the country for a total of about 15 years. Lately, she has being asked to present herself as a “minority” who has made it in her firm.  She’s recently been featured in a business magazine, has spoken on minority leadership panels, and is being regularly consulted for tips on how to succeed. It’s an interesting situation in that she harbors doubts about her identify and success.  In fact, a year ago in our first coaching session she shared with me her trauma of moving to the US and her sense of alienation.  Now since her recent promotion, she is struggling with how to represent herself.  In fact, she feels ambivalence about being a minority “poster child”, and is uncertain about what she did exactly that made her stand out among her peers.  She is puzzled why there hadn’t been others before her to be the famous success story.  She asks herself if she has really made it?  Has she smashed some kind of “ceiling”?  She feels that there is always a another cultural ceiling to smash.  So what should she say to people?  She mused that she could tell people her story, how people in her family didn’t want her to work outside the home.  She could tell people she simply has worked very hard to get where she is.  She thought that was true.  But was that all, she wondered?  In sum, she was at a loss about what to say.

I reminded her that she had just outlined the speaking points to her next presentation.  Her story is already written from what she just relayed.  Her comments about her ambivalence, her uncertainty, her puzzlement, and her sense of needing to smash more ceilings….This is her authentic story.  Her real experience.  That is, in fact, what people want to know.

Posted in: Coaching, Diversity, Leadership | Post A Comment

Disrupting Culture: Why we get culture wrong, and what cognitive anthropology teaches us

Posted on February 08, 2017 by: David White

David G White PhD



David G White Jr., PhDCo-founder and Principal, ONTOSglobal

(This is an edited excerpt from Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations, to be published by Routledge in 2017).

A recent report by CEB reports that 76% of its surveyed firms plan some form of culture change in 2017. What is astounding about this is not that so many organizations want to change their cultures. What is astounding is that they believe they can.

As a cognitive anthropologist who researches organizational culture, this belief runs counter to most of what we know about culture based on the science of the last 35 years, namely, that culture can be easily manipulated. It’s as if much of the business world is stuck in the pioneering anthropology of the 1920s and 30s of so-called primitive societies that posited cultures as neat, monolithic wholes with clearly drawn boundaries and easily discernible values. Anthropology has advanced considerably since then, but much of the business world remains idled in paradigm nostalgia. As a practitioner, I am reminded daily of this gap between modern theory and practice.

Cognitive science is upending old ideas; cognitive anthropology is well ahead of the business world on culture. This piece examines how, and why modern science offers a better alternative. Consider this a short primer, and an invitation.

The Great Divide

When your local sports talk radio host says the reason why the local pro team has failed miserably this year is because of its “culture”, you can safely conclude the term is the most overused and least understood in society. CEOs, managers and practitioners impugn cultural explanations for most of human behavior in organizations, believing culture can be willfully designed for positive outcomes. Meanwhile, despite decades of work, the academic research community  — anthropologists, sociologists, cultural psychologists and others a bit removed from the culture industry — still wrestle with even the most basic questions, such as what is culture, can it be measured, is it a dependent or independent variable, is it causal in organizational performance, and if so, how. Is this just academic hand wringing while the rest of the world gets on with the “real” business of culture shaping?

What is doubly curious about the current culture fad is that there is little academic research showing culture can be causally shaped beyond espoused values in any organization larger than about 150 people.[1]The few serious studies on planned culture change suggest ambiguous results, anecdotal evidence, or “skillful parodying” by middle managers struggling to adopt imposed value systems.[2] Simplistic relationships such as ‘good performance is the result of strong culture’ have not been systematically observed.[3] The data from M&A integration, another area where one would expect advances in culture practice to be seen, is equally ambiguous. In short, organizations have been trying their hand at planned culture change since the early 1980s with little to show for it. Think about it this way: If successful approaches were evident and widespread, culture change practice would not exhibit the wide variation and Wild West quality it does. Successful change efforts would be well documented in the academic community, which they are not.

But none of this dampens enthusiasm. In practice, any espoused norm, habit, preference or value can be measured as “culture” on the basis of its apparent effect. The more broadly framed and generalized (“appreciate others”, “work-life balance”, “don’t make assumptions”, “be accountable”), the better. The lack of agreement on what culture is aids and abets this tendency. Organizations still adopt top-down or one dimensional merger integration methods only to wonder why they don’t achieve post-merger bliss. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup survey finds 70% of U.S. workers do not feel engaged at work, with the problem most pronounced in larger companies — in other words, those more likely to undertake culture change.[4] These data suggest the field is overdue for disruption.

Are managers wrong to be obsessed with culture? I suggest there is a relatively straightforward explanation: Managers are correct in viewing culture as a powerful normative force, but, like dark matter, popular approaches can’t account for it. Practice hasn’t caught up to intuition.

Looking for Culture in All the Wrong Places

Ironically, culture’s popularity as an explanatory and normative tool may be due to the fact it is pervasive. But in seeking to shape it, managers and practitioners tend to focus on cultural syndromes rather than what generates culture to begin with. This inevitably leads to failed or unsustainable interventions because interventions are not targeted at cultural root causes. Traditional approaches tend to suffer from 6 common but flawed assumptions that, for the most part, are drawn from outmoded theory:

  1. We think of culture is a “thing” like money or physical assets, and therefore assume it can be manipulated like any other asset. This is evident in the many ways we talk about culture: just get your culture right and success will follow; drive the culture; shape the culture, The assumption of “thingness” is so taken for granted we miss the metaphor embedded within these statements of culture as a physical object. But is it? Where, exactly, is that culture?
  2. As things, we assume cultures have boundaries. We assume them to be monoliths: one organization, one culture. But do systems of values and beliefs change once off corporate property? And how to measure and reconcile the influence of regional, national, ethnic, or professional effects?
  3. As things, culture can be easily reduced and oversimplified to singular variables like personality or Such simplification and reduction ironically diminishes culture’s explanatory and normative power. In making it simple, we dumb down its value (and then wonder why our culture change “solution” isn’t sustained).
  4. When reduced, culture is assumed to be causal in changing behavior. For example, we believe if the rest of the organization shared top management’s values, success would be inevitable. But the literature in values is fraught with difficulties. Among them: large organizations are made up of multiple value systems based on regional, ethnic, professional and/or task orientations; values are idealizations, beliefs in how I think I should be; and people don’t always behave according to what they believe.
  5. Because culture is considered to be causal, we assume leaders are its prime movers. This belief is rooted in essential American schemas of leadership benevolence, self-actualization, and individual agency. Leadership, of course, plays an important role in culture change. But in complex organizations, is it directly causal? In a cognitive approach, leadership effects are more muted. Which means leaders have to be more sophisticated about culture. And the emphasis on individuals ignores the more important impact leadership groups play in culture change.
  6. We assume culture is borne by language, and therefore by shifting or switching our language we can change culture. Language is one manifestation of culture, yes. But modern cognitive linguistics shows us that semantic structure is not the same as conceptual structure, meaning words are a subset of concepts. We have many more thoughts, ideas and feelings than we can encode in language.[5] To reduce culture change to changing words on a poster, or simply adopting new language, is to mistake the tip for the iceberg.

Calling these assumptions into question may seem heretical, but they underlie the many “quick fix” and one-dimensional culture change programs that dominate in business today. We owe it to our constituents to get smarter in light of research advances over the last three decades.

The Cultural Mind

As the eminent cognitive anthropologist Ed Hutchins puts it (I paraphrase), the way we interact with our physical and social environments provide the basis for whatever truly internal conceptual skills we have. What Hutchins means is that regular patterns of interaction with regularities in our physical and social environment form the basis for how, and what we think. This idea is at the heart of the new science of culture.

These perceptions are mainly preconscious. When shared by others they become collective assumptions from which we think, feel, act, speak, and organize. Culture in this way is first and foremost a cognitive phenomenon, the product of interaction between our neurobiology (our so-called “plastic” mind), and the social and physical world. It is made up shared implicit assumptions, or cultural schemas, that form a cultural “DNA” underwriting everything from beliefs, values, norms, symbols, language (jargon), how we collectively make sense of our environments, and even brands and office layouts.

You Are What You Do

This means that your environment — the actual work your organization does and the problems it confronts, including and especially how it formulates problems to begin with — indelibly shape collective thinking and practice, and by extension, culture. Which has many implications for culture change.[6]

First, because culture is ecologically contingent, change is delimited. This explains why manufacturing companies have trouble adopting software mindsets when they try to implement IoT technologies. What manufacturer is comfortable shipping a product with known bugs or doing updates in 6 -week sprints? It explains why social service NGOs struggle to act as disciplined businesses, or why investment banks, with deep arbitrage orientations, are challenged to turn themselves into customer-first organizations. Culture change is possible, but it is constrained by the nature of the underlying assumptions that originate in the structure and nature of the firm’s primary tasks, and/or the professional training of its dominant groups.

Second, interventions in core assumptions and their manifestations will tend to be vigorously defended. Why? Because they lie at the heart of what you collectively do and how you think. Which explains why culture change is so hard. A few examples: the manufacturer who operates on a core set of schemas having to do with lean and reflexively applies lean thinking to all its practices, including the way it enacts succession planning or executive selection. Or the former conglomerate with deep portfolio optimization and quarterly earnings schemas whose espoused innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives result in adaptations of risk aversion and risk-intolerance, the very behaviors it wants to change. Or the consumer products company with well developed market intelligence and ‘keep ‘em guessing’ schemas that inadvertently engenders secrecy and misinformation between departments. Or the operating systems software firm with dominant platform schemas which lead to product teams fighting with each other to be the platform upon which others base their code. These are but a few examples of how cultural root logics inevitably constrain change.

The good news? Interventions in cultural schemas have the potential to be much more impactful and sustainable because they are, by definition, interventions at the source. To change culture requires changing the collective cognitive orientations on which culture is based. This is done by surfacing implicit assumptions and then intervening across the many practices (physical, social, communicative) they fuel. By changing practice, and sustaining the change, you begin to rewire collective neural circuitry. I recognize this is more involved than publishing a new set of corporate values. But when you surface dominant schemas and map out the architecture of how they structure formal and informal organizational practices, and orient leaders to these phenomena, you may be surprised: every set of leaders for whom we do this intuitively gets the architecture. After all, physiologically it is their own. And this tends to generate momentum for change. The new science shows us how and why, making possible a whole new generation of interventions that up until now have been out of reach.

[1] One reason concerns social network effects. See Dunbar (2003).

[2] For example, see Alvesson & Sveningsson, (2008); Balogun & Johnson, (2005); Ogbonna & Wilkinson, (1993); Siehl, (1985).

[3] See Scott, Mannion, Marshall, & Davies, (2003)

[4] Employee engagement is not culture. But this statistic underscores the overall lack of efficacy in culture change because improvements in employee engagement are often stated goals of culture change initiatives.

[5]  For example, see Evans & Green, (2006); Evans, (2004, 2006); Langacker, (1987)

[6] Cultural schemas are also called cultural models.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Organizational culture | Post A Comment

“What Makes Your Leadership Development Programs ‘Transformational’?” asks a Client

Posted on December 19, 2016 by: Lisa Koss

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOSglobal

We were asked this question just today.  “What makes your leadership development programs “transformational”?  We explained that when a client is looking for their organization to transform, they are really asking their PEOPLE to transform.  This is true because there is no such thing as organizational transformation without PERSONAL transformation. Organizational transformation — dramatic growth, spin-off, business model change, restructuring, turnaround, culture change, etc. — require a different kind of learning from leaders.  It is not simply a matter of acquiring more knowledge or even skills, but through shifts in basic assumptions, frames of reference, and ways of learning so that the problems and solutions look entirely different.

How do we do that?  There is a lot to that question, but here is a brief response.  First, when we commit to work with organizations to support their transformation, we work to harness the individuals’ personal and professional ambitions – challenging them to identify something that they’ve always wanted for themselves but thus far have NOT been able to achieve — and incorporating that ambition into the learning environment.  When leaders learn to align their own motivations and interests with the organizations interests, and this is combined with the proper support from a coach and their peers supporting them and holding them accountable, barriers to change tend to fall.

Second, we challenge thinking patterns and assumptions that essentially serve to get us the same results we have always gotten.  Doing things in a familiar way makes sense to us because those patterns (with corresponding behaviors) have gotten us to our current level of success.  But we all know a shift will be required to get us to a new level of leadership.  It’s meaningful experiences and exchange with a diverse group of people that enlighten us, so we create learning environments to refresh the way we learn.  Putting our client groups into multi-faceted, fresh learning environments with unique content allows for each person to take away new insights on addressing nagging dilemmas in ways that stimulate and inspire further learning.

In a similar fashion, groups also work to identify their collective ambition, assumptions and frames of reference — which quite naturally revolve around their collective efficiency, effectiveness or company success — and then we align that ambition to the larger organization’s strategy and metrics.  Based on cutting edge research in cognitive science, we lead groups through a process of re-designing their core work processes to incorporate what they are wanting to integrate into their culture.  We do this because it is the actual practices of work that groups engage in every day that shapes the culture.  When you change the way you work, you — and the culture — will change accordingly.  By contrast, we don’t believe that by proclaiming repeatedly that the culture will be a certain way will make it so.  To put a poster on the wall and say that we believe in ‘respect’, ‘accountability’ and ‘results’ (sound familiar?) is not an effective culture change strategy.  If it were, we’d have seen far better results from cultural change programs during the last 40 years.  Culture is not what the leader proclaims it will be.

Does it work?  Change efforts can falter for 2 main reasons.   First, individual change requires trust in each other and in the larger system.  Individuals need to trust that when they take a risk or change the way they operate, the rest of the group and their managers will allow for something different to emerge.  We work to create this environment of psychological safety and well as the group’s capacity to experiment with new ways of working.  It’s a process.  It doesn’t take much imagination to also see, then, that the extent to which the organization values ‘development’ will drive that openness.  And it’s absolutely achievable because we’ve seen it happen.

Second, you need the top leaders at the right time to engage in the work of organizational culture.  That means working at the level of basic assumptions and organizational practices.  When a newly empowered and transformed group is aligned on an important topic, and top leaders can see it too, they must be committed to working with those same individuals — often without the luxury and experience of going through a transformational process themselves — to find solutions.  Without work at the core work processes level, empowered groups will run up against the cultural forces at play and limit the transformation.

Here you have the “bones” of what we mean when we say that our programs are transformational.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Leadership, Organizational change, Organizational culture | Post A Comment

Global Leaders, What Does Your Diverse Team Need? (Part I)

Posted on June 21, 2016 by: Lisa Koss

Flipping television stations between news programs to get a better understanding of a complex current news story, I noticed the significant differences between each station with respect to the diversity of commentators. The breadth of perspectives points to research that often goes ignored:  when a task is cognitively complex or requires multiple perspectives to solve, diversity breeds better results.

According to research done by E. Mannix and M. Neal entitled “What Differences Make a Difference” published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the extent to which differences can by productively utilized depends on the amount of information exchange that actually happens.  Interestingly, people more naturally share information they already have in common. Instead, people must hear from others about information they don’t have access to. More granularly, groups get better results when they have the (1) ability and (2) willingness to engage in (3) constructive task-focused conflict to integrate their divergent perspectives.  (Note:  no need to read “conflict” as equivalent to “argument”.)

I meet leaders who want to integrate diverse perspectives in order to foster a high-performing team.  The problem is that once the diverse team is assembled, they lead as if the group is homogeneous or have similar backgrounds.  But diversity without effective integration has been shown in research to produce below average results. In sum, leaders of diverse teams don’t produce average results but instead low or high results, depending on how the leader leads that team.  Homogeneous teams tend to yield mid-range results.

Now add to the mix a simple, but powerful, leadership insight I’ve learned as a leadership consultant:  Leaders must realize their role privilege.  This may sound obvious, but it’s the leader’s ability to set the agenda and manage the direction and duration of discussions that is unique to the leader’s role.  If leaders know the elements of integration of diverse teams they can be strategic about accelerating teams to be high-performing. How?

The authors of the research point out that leaders can set expectations that promote information exchange, as well.  Individuals behave more cooperatively when their business units emphasize group over individual values.  Because teams tend to focus on commonly held information, instead of exchanging uniquely held knowledge, leaders can help people overcome the risks in sharing their unique experiences, expertise, and points of view in the following ways:

  • strengthen social ties
  • improve group process skills
  • emphasize the group’s superordinate identity (i.e. “being the best at sharing information”, “being the exceptional customer advocates for the company”)
  • make time to talk about what the group members have in common and what each person uniquely brings to the team

Having a diverse team is not the same as leveraging a diverse team.  A skilled leader knows how to use the diversity for a competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Leaders can develop a robust skill set and orientation that can help them create a team that outperforms homogeneous teams.

Posted in: Communicating across cultures, Global teams, Leadership | Post A Comment

Breathing and Intelligent Awareness

Posted on February 23, 2016 by: Lisa Koss

“Breath is the vehicle of consciousness and so, by its slow measured observation and distribution, we learn to tug our attention away from external desires toward a judicious, intelligent awareness.”

B.K.S. Iyengar


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Coaching and Individual Change

Posted on February 10, 2016 by: Lisa Koss

thWe have the good fortune and privilege to be partnering with Harvard professor, Bob Kegan, who will be presenting a workshop to our client next month based on his newest book, co-authored by Lisa Lahey, called Immunity to Change (2009).  The book describes why we set goals and then don’t reach them, like the person who swears to lose 20 pounds on Monday and then eats burgers and fries on Tuesday.  Or like the New Year’s resolution by the person who is 100% committed to her goal, but then can’t execute it.  Whether the goal is to lose weight or to become a better delegator, why isn’t a road map and a can-do attitude enough?

Kegan describes some challenges as “adaptive”.  An adaptive challenge is one that might actually implicate a change in one’s own self-identity.  For example, imagine that my challenge to delegate tasks comes down to an assumption I hold that conflicts with the whole idea of delegation.  For example, perhaps I believe that when I delegate I’m actually shirking my own responsibilities.  This makes me feel badly about myself each time I delegate something, so I resist the very notion of delegation, even though I also see the need to do so.  If I shift my perspective somehow to see that when I delegate I am able to impact others in an entirely different (and more impactful) way (such as by clarifying direction or removing roadblocks for others), this allows me to be less conflicted.  In this case, redefining the “right” work to be done is the difference between fighting against a change and embracing it.

Shifting perspective is rarely easy, which is why people often look to trusted others for help.  This  is one way a skilled coach can bring value.  One job of a coach – either a professional coach (see description of this service near bottom of page) or someone skilled at coaching – is to help the person discover conflicting assumptions that generate internal conflicts and thereby prevent the desired change.  Identifying assumptions which may be at war with one another requires the coach to help the client enumerate those different assumptions and, when warranted, prick holes in them.  The insightful perspective of another is highly useful in that the assumptions we hold most dearly are the ones most difficult to let go.  Those assumptions usually constitute a part of our identity, and while they may have been important at an earlier time in our life, they may be now irrelevant and we just haven’t realized it.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Leadership | Post A Comment

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