How does stuff really get done in organisations?


Can you define the culture of your organisation?  What about the sub-cultures of different teams and departments?  And how do they affect getting things done – can you think of the blockers and the high performers?  Why the differences?

I ran a session for directors of sporting organisations at a top business school recently on just this topic – the formal title was ‘Organisational politics and change’. The reactions and discussions were fascinating, so I thought I would share some of this here.

I am going to start by explaining an exercise we did.  The group was divided into three teams and each table had a few gaming chips and plastic cups.  The game had some basic rules and the aim was for individuals to win the most chips.  What was astounding was that within just 30 seconds, each table had created its own sub-culture!
poker chips
One table was really nurturing and supportive, another sooo competitive and the other pretty blasé – ‘we’ll take part but honestly, we’re just playing for some plastic chips and cups’.  When we took one person from each table and moved them to another team, the person from the competitive team got the blasé team competitive – again within seconds. They were compliant and just went along.
I explained this to a client and they immediately started relating these cultures to their business – and thought of a story where one person had changed teams and within days the culture had changed.
So what did these sporting directors find so interesting?

1. Don’t ignore or try to stop sub-cultures

The game was such a strong learning point for everyone.  You can’t stop sub-cultures forming – it is human nature.

Accept and understand them, learn to work with and around them.  But don’t ignore or try and stop them. Giving substance to sub-cultures helps you anticipate what is going to happen in each team or area.  And if you are alert, you can also watch out for one person moving and ‘infecting’ others.  One person moving can feel turbulent to both parties.

2. Understand and apply the change curve

We talked about the Kubler-Ross change curve, below. Originally developed to explain the stages of bereavement and the support needed at each stage, it also applies to how people feel when an organisation is going through change – denial, anger, acceptance and eventually enthusiasm.

Thinking about where your organisation and individual teams are on this change curve helps you to work out how to work with and get the best from everyone.

3. Office politics don’t have to be bad

This point is at the heart of getting things done in an organisation.  Suppose you have a team member who you want to be promoted.  You work in a large organisation; this decision is not yours alone.  You need to find internal sponsors to support the individual and your case.

Who do you go to, how and why?  You go to those who you know are respected, who decision-makers listen to and who have influence.  These aren’t things that get documented, so how do you find all this out?

That is by networking, watching, listening and forming your own pictures.  There is nothing wrong in this. It is fundamentally how stuff gets done.  You find out who are the influencers, get to know them and essentially, lobby them.

I was coaching one senior manager who had a plan to be promoted.  He had thought about his ‘stakeholder management’ and was very confident because he had the support of a board director.  But what he hadn’t thought about was how influential this director was. The reality was this director was not well regarded.  Yes, he was senior but he was seen as old-fashioned and rather bombastic. Actually, his support could be damaging to my manager’s case.  Internal politics have a lot of subtleties and nuances.

4. Are silos bad?

I had an interesting discussion with a client once.  He wanted thoughts on how he could stop people working in silos. If you have strong teams that enjoy working with each other, you can flip how you think about it.  Strong teams will be innovating and getting things done.  Don’t break that up, but look at how you can use it.  Use the expertise and skills to spread new thinking across the business. Get them to go out and share their thinking and expertise.

5. Assume positive intent

This discussion possibly had the most impact with our sporting directors.  There is a great article on assuming positive intent by Jae Ellard on the Huffington Post.

The directors really liked this.  While someone may seem really annoying or difficult, if you assume they have ‘positive intent’ then you have to get in their head and start looking at things from their perspective.  That transforms the way you think about them and you can start talking from their angle, not yours.

6. What matters most?

The thing about cultures is you can find yourself following the day that others set for you.  Think of the competitive director joining a team and getting everyone competitive.  In a similar way you can find your day run by meetings and emails – and find you have actually achieved nothing.
It’s really important to be in control of your own day – that clarity of what you are there to achieve, how you will measure your success on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual basis.  And then take control of those emails and meetings.  I know, easier said than done!

7. Use your emotional intelligence

What was such a relief for our sporting directors, was that they had been learning the theory and this session was helping them to ground it in reality and learn how to put it all into practice.  The key to success in office politics is to use your emotional intelligence.   Listen, watch, learn, look at things from other people’s perspectives.  And then use your influencing skills.

It’s easy to scoff at office politics but they are there whatever you do.  Your role is to understand them and work with them – that’s the way things really get done!