Said It Couldn't Be Done: OD Success With Knowledge Workers
much team development work has been done in the U.S. in the past
decade, very little of it has been successful with engineering organizations.
We discovered and had to cope with some striking paradoxes that
affect the probability of success when working with this population.
The first is the difference between process work and workers, on
the one hand, and knowledge work and workers on the other. By definition,
manufacturing and process workers have respect for the concept of
process. Because of the obvious interdependencies of the components
of a process, and the relative ease of cross-training and work-sharing,
process workers have been using teams for a number of years. To
them, the team concept is simply part of their regular work environment.
Therefore, most of the technology and literature about teams, team-development,
and building collaborative work environments refer to manufacturing
and/or process-driven work.
engineering and other knowledge work organizations, however, the
concept of team is frequently associated with a loss of creative
freedom and individuality. In an organization where the charter
is to imagine and invent, the very possibility of losing the freedom
to innovate is traumatic. Engineering work is not a matter of continuous
improvement, but rather of creation and innovation, leading to technological
and conceptual paradigm shifts; in addition, this type of work is
not conducive to cross-training or pay-for-knowledge reward systems
that are typical within team-based process organizations. Therefore,
the technology of teams does not translate will into engineering
organizations and is considered suspect by both the engineers and
length of feedback loops in knowledge worker organizations is much
longer than those in manufacturing organizations. On an engineering
project, it may take years before one knows if the customer or marketplace
thinks positively about the product. This is in contrast to "quality
control" or "internal inspection" in manufacturing organizations,
where feedback may be received in a matter of hours or days. Engineers
are trained to be independent workers. They are often frustrated
that the demands of today's technology and marketplace impose structural
constraints on their work environments. They prefer being measured
on individual uniqueness and heroics, not on collaboration and team
complexities and demands for speed of today's marketplace are among
the factors that OD professionals assume will drive people toward
increased collaboration and shared accountability. Paradoxically,
they have the exact opposite effect on many knowledge workers. Engineers
frequently engage in win-lose thinking, see communication as expressing
weakness, value isolation and individual achievement, avoid conflict,
and devalue social norms without understanding (or even identifying)
the consequences of that behavior. The more complex a project becomes,
the more an engineer wants to work in his or her own cubicle on
a portion of the project, limiting any dependence on others. The
very ways in which we would intuitively like to support them are
often what they want least. In fact, the team-based tools and interventions
OD professionals believe would be most helpful to them can make
us look like (and sometimes actually be) part of the problem.
concepts have been useful to us in designing and implementing team-based
interventions with knowledge-workers.
Morton Salt Box Theory.
On the familiar blue cylindrical box, there is a picture of
a little girl in a yellow dress, carrying an umbrella and a box
of salt. The box under her arm has the same picture on it, which
features the same picture, and so forth. In this infinite regression,
the picture stays the same, while its size changes predictably.
This model provides a metaphor for understanding patterns of organizational
behavior: if you verify a pattern at one level, you can depend on
seeing it at other levels. As a diagnostic tool, it reduces the
need to see a particular pattern everywhere before drawing conclusions
and moving forward. The opposite principle also holds true: once
you create and diffuse a new pattern, it will generally recreate
itself on levels other than the initial one.
Iceberg Model of Emergence. Only
a small part of any iceberg is visible above the ocean's surface.
If the water level drops, more of the iceberg's topography will
be revealed, improving the likelihood of successful navigation.
While sailors may know that they are near an iceberg (and therefore
which chart to use), they cannot know the exact navigational course
until they are closer and can collect and process more information.
Doing work that, in effect, reduces the "water level" makes it easier
to determine subsequent interventions.
Model of Change Adoption.
Everett Rogers (1978; 1995) predicts that the likelihood of
a change effort being sustained is based on the percentage of the
target population that has embraced the change over time. When 5%
has adopted a change, he calls it "embedded"--it will not go away
even though it may never be completed. When 20% of a group has changed,
Rogers postulates that completion is now "inevitable"--the effort
cannot be stopped. This model leads us to conclude that there are
advantages to introducing an intervention systematically to carefully
selected sub-groups, building acceptance as quickly as possible
to 5% and then 20% of the client organization.
the above three models in the context of our own experience leads
to the following Formula for Success:
Client + Theoretical Model + Clear Vision and Operating Principles
+ Working Plan + Foundation Work + Ability to Recognize and Leverage
Real-Time Opportunities =
Large-Scale Organization Change
formula has kept us stabilized and focused as we proceed with this
work in rapidly-changing environments that demand flexibility. We
go back to the formula frequently when determining next steps and
direction. It has aided our ability to modify our work plans or
particular tasks without sacrificing the integrity of any project
or intervention or of the model itself.
success in working with knowledge worker organizations has been
documented by Dr. Lawrence Browning, Professor of Communications
at the University of Texas - Austin in a study entitled, "An Analysis
of the Program to Develop a Team-Based Organization in IND." This
study, based on grounded theory, analyzed the effects of a large
systems change effort in a division of a Silicon Valley semiconductor
corporation. This culturally diverse organization was comprised
primarily of engineers engaged in product design, development and
marketing. We helped transform the client's steep hierarchical organization
into a team-based one which is characterized by integrity, open
communication, initiative-seeking, expansive-thinking, and risk-taking.
analyzing our intervention, Professor Browning found a shift away
from a security-oriented decision-making model toward one that emphasized
collaboration. He describes a consistent theme in his interviews:
that people became willing to help each other and to give up individual
positions for the larger team goal and that focus on purpose and
mission has increased. Interviewees consistently reported that meetings
became more efficient, focused, and productive.
study acknowledges that "the methods for implementing teamwork practices
are like commodities. Besides being widely available, they are generally
agreed-upon work-production techniques--i.e., there is consensus
on what one can expect from them. What's special in this instance
is that these same practices are being applied to knowledge-workers
in a setting that has had little experience with, and a fair amount
of resistance to, teamwork philosophies. This is not a story of
some exotic concepts arranged in an unheard-of way; it is a story
of implementation, of taking a fairly well-known set of practices
and making them the work methods of people who had no experience
with, or larger cultural support for, them."
documented success in doing this work in engineering organizations
is in part based on what we now call the "Peace Corps Model of OD."
The Peace Corps was innovative in many ways. Peace Corps workers
live with the indigenous population. They are required to learn
the language of that population, and they use only those tools that
the population can learn to use. They respect the accomplishments
of the natives. They are not chartered with changing the religious
truths of the population.
so it is with OD work in engineering organizations. While keeping
in mind the fundamental differences between process work and knowledge
work, we have had to become experts in the language and culture
of intuitive, analytical personality types. To the extent possible,
we work with intact, cross-functional, and cross-organizational
teams, acknowledging the difficulty of engineering work. We modify
our processes when necessary without sacrificing our core values.
Remembering that engineers pride themselves on their ability to
find "bugs" and flaws, it is essential that we "walk our talk" at
all times. We provide continuous support, coaching, and reinforcement
to our client organizations and are always respectful of tight deadlines
and the stress of "scheduling invention."
contrast the Peace Corps model with that of Missionaries and Crusaders,
who scorn local beliefs, abrasively replace local customs, and feel
superior to the natives. The subtle but important distinction is
easily noticed by engineers. Albeit skeptically, they are typically
willing to work with and respect the ideas of Peace Corps professionals--but
they are ever-vigilant against Missionaries and Crusaders.
OD practitioners devote much time and energy to building team-based
collaborative work environments with our clients, most of us, paradoxically,
While many of us are well-versed in the literature of teams, we
have little experience actually participating on a team. In order
for our model to work, the HR/OD/Training professionals must create
a "virtual team" themselves. This requires that we engage in much
the same process through which we take our clients. We must create
a vision and sense of purpose for the intervention, engaging in
a consensus process with others who have different perspectives
from our own. We must work collaboratively without regard to status
or turf. It is the ultimate in professional congruence. Difficult
as it may be, the rewards for doing so are great--increased productivity,
creativity, and personal growth and satisfaction. The very ones
we promise our clients when helping them become high-performing
E.M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: The
L. (1995). An analysis of the program to develop a team-based
organization in IND. Unpublished manuscript, Partnerwerks, Inc.,
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