Scanning the Whole Organization - IEDP
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Scanning the Whole Organization

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Wednesday 13 June 2012


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BRAIN GAIN: ...there is very little in management theory and practice that makes human energy management a conscious choice or skill... 

Last month’s Brain Gain column raised the question of how it is that the brain manages its complex, highly differentiated, networked parallel systems so efficiently whilst organizations and government often struggle across departmentally differentiated boundaries.

Part of the organizational struggle arises from the fact that individuals get highly identified with the bit of the system they know rather than the whole system. It’s where they belong. In consequence anything outside the department is seen as threatening and creates defensive behaviour or a kind of passive resistance to difference. Our brains evolved within tribal systems and that is still their default mode of action.

Underpinning this is the further fact that different departments typically attract different kinds of individuals. Sales types tend not to be accountants: marketing and external affairs people do not usually have a background in quality control or complex project management. People’s personalities define their choice of jobs just as their jobs also shape their personalities.

But when the parts of the system have friction between them time and energy gets wasted and performance goals get lost. Engineers know that all contacting surfaces need lubricants if the available energy is to be deployed for maximum performance. In the managing of human energy that concept is hardly understood at all.

Of course people intuitively know when things are working well or badly. They can feel it. Our tribal brain is highly tuned to the perception of interpersonal effect. But there is very little in management theory and practice that makes human energy management a conscious choice or skill. Yet those self-directing energy systems called ‘people’ who bring their central integrator systems (called brains) to work every day are the only source of organizational effectiveness. The quality of relationship within which they work via the limbic (emotional) system of the brain is the key lubricant to that effectiveness. New understandings about how the brain works are beginning to bring this to the foreground of management consciousness.

Nearly twenty years ago a couple of postgraduates at Harvard School of Education, students of Chris Argyris,the grandfather of the organizational change industry, set out to remedy the fact that there is no clear definition of what an organization is. Over the last fifteen years in which I have followed their work and engaged in its development with them Phillip Cousins and Diane Downs have gradually refined, tested and built an organizational model based upon stratified systems theory that makes visual the interconnectedness of any organization or any part of it.

Their model is called Sofi®, which stands for Spheres of Influence. Eleven Spheres define the necessary and sufficient elements – vital organs - that are crucial to a healthy and effective organization. Interestingly Culture and the Development of people, products and processes sit at the heart of the model - like cell renewal and the regular beating of the heart within a healthy body.

Sofi® is the only experimentally-derived organizational model that can be scaled up from the individual (performance appraisal) to any part or the whole of an organization and still retain the same structure. This is because it starts from experimental work to define the vital organs of an organization in which, of course, individuals are the effective components.

Over the last two centuries the science behind medicine has made possible a common understanding of what is happening within the whole system of the body. Through Sofi© this is now becoming possible organizationally. It permits comparisons to be made between and within organizations based upon linkages between the elements of the whole model that define how human energy is (or is not) flowing around the organization. Developmental testing of Sofi® in a complex US health system, the City of Miami Beach, a Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington and in a UK high street bank as well as in China, Germany and India have shown its cross-cultural robustness.

So from a leader’s point of view it is beginning to be possible to map and track in almost real-time, world-wide, what is happening within the brain-based complexity of a networked organization. As with fMRI scans of the brain, what had previously looked like soft stuff that X-rays could not focus on and so had not been possible to image whilst working is being brought into visual consciousness.

If leaders are to lead they need this kind of information to see what is happening across all elements of the whole system for which they carry responsibility. That is the difference between eighteenth century medicine that had no understanding of the madness of King George and twenty-first century neuroscience that, with regard to madness, has some grip on how the neurochemistry of the brain becomes disturbed and what can be done about it. Management science is getting there too, now that there is a scientific system for imaging the networks of any organization within a definition of its vital organs. That gives some hope of knowing where to apply the lubricant of limbic leadership for lowering the friction across departmental boundaries.

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