How to kill a great organisation?:
Break things into bits, ignore connections and focus on “Medium Term Planning”!
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Organisations work like intricate ecosystems, which is why complex organisational challenges require new ways of thinking!
In this episode of our podcast series „How to kill a great organization,“ Elisabeth Leyser spoke with John Atkinson, designer, architect and catalyst for whole system change. He is involved in the UN Climate Change Action Summit and other international projects. John talks about his experiences and his learnings in his career and what’s needed for real transformation to take place: energy, dissonance and amplification.
John talks about his experiences and his learnings in his career and what has been most important:
„You must be open, about the things that haven’t worked so well; and capture and share some of the things that you found that have worked for you, because each situation is different, but there are some patterns that can be drawn.”
We are being driven by machines
Working in industrial and commercial change projects, he sees the challenges in our understanding of how things change and function at large scale, driven by elements of our history that don’t stand up so well today, like hierarchical processes and hierarchical pattern of interaction.
„We’re being driven by machines. It’s machines that move us from cottage industry into large scale production and all the benefits and advantages that brings. “
John Atkinson points out, that large scale human endeavors are ecosystems rather than hierarchical structures, driven by an understanding of how human interaction works:
„You cannot end global hunger by making a plan and delivering it. There are too many variables, too many people involved, and you have to think about things in a different way.“
Complex challenges require a different way of thinking
A special focus of his work is supporting a nature-based solutions workstream. A mechanistic, goal-based approach doesn’t work. We need to come in a better and different relationship with nature, not seeing ourselves as apart from it. This requires a different way of thinking:
„You have to find a different way of thinking about it and you have to release the energy and the creativity and the passion and the need that’s in people all over the world to do things in their way, in their place, in a way that makes that work and that requires a move in thought.“
He describes three characteristics of ecosystems – complexity, symbiosis and diversity. “If something is complex, you cannot get to a sequential linear plan that enables you to take it step by step and deliver an outcome.” And when we think of symbiosis, we are thinking of our organisations as ecosystems, and any ecosystem exists in symbiosis with its environment.
To be effective, it requires diversity:
„It requires different people in different places hearing different things. And it requires a diversity in the sense making that enables us to hear those points of view, to make sense of them, to understand why the difference matters.“
Expanding the capacity so that something really, really magical can happen
John Atkinson describes a process of constantly weaving together different interests, different power bases, different prejudices, finding what’s possible at first, and expanding the capacity, „so that something really, really magical can happen.“
He says that we need to pay attention to what the implications of working with a living system are. He points to three quite subtle things: energy, dissonance and amplification.
„If you really want to transform a situation at whatever scale, think about how do I create the conditions for emergence through boosting the energy that’s being brought to the process, through introducing and holding a level of dissonance, and through creating ways of amplifying what comes out of it such that it rapidly expands.“
One step at a time but with the direction in mind
John also advocates for looking at organisations from a different perspective. A process of reductionism, of breaking things into bits means that it stops us from seeing how the system works. Because by focusing on the parts separately, we are not paying attention to the relationships between them. The critical thing to make a shift in an organization is to look at how things connect.
The advice John is giving in terms of working with systems is:
Create an organization that is sustainable
„One step at a time, but with a direction in mind. And that’s profoundly challenging, if you think about it, because it says ignore the medium term. If you feel into the pace, the rhythm and the readiness, if you take it one step at a time with the direction in mind, you’re sensing into what’s possible right here, right now, in this moment. And you are amplifying that. This how is you release the creative potential in the whole of your organization, whether it’s two people or whether it’s 200,000 people. And what you’ve created is an organization that is sustainable, not in the short term, but for as long as it’s able to do just that thing.“
How to kill a great organization:
- Ignore complexity, connectivity and diversity
- Drive your company like a machine – this has made us successful over decennials
- Always prefer an old and proven approach
- Always listen to the same people who have an opinion close to yours
- If something is complex, get to a sequential linear plan
- Try to control everything and avoid dissonance
One step at a time but with the direction in mind
Most major challenges today are complex, interdependent, volatile and unclear in scope and impact.
The „traditional“ linear approaches are therefore no longer suitable for finding a solution. Now it is about accepting the radical and sometimes disruptive changes as reality and learning to deal with them and with growing uncertainty.
- Powerful Purpose – Knowing your own inner point of reference (individually and as an organization)
- Clear Intention – Making decisions with a values-based intent
- Alignment – An inspirational (and not too rigid) target image
- Working with people who can contribute a wide variety of perspectives and expertise
- Sustainable, trusting connections inside but also outside the organisation
- Strong presence to strengthen and use new opportunities that arise in moments to reach your goal
- Curiosity and the acceptance, that ongoing learning and further development becomes a basic requirement.
The full length interview:
Elisabeth Leyser: Hello. This is the podcast series called „How to Kill a Great Organization“. And today our guest is John Atkinson. In our MetaShift-Transformation-Podcast, we are currently dealing with what determines long term success of organizations and we ask experts and managers and enterpreneurs what they think is particularly important for sustainable corporate success and how they came to this insight. John is a designer, architect and catalyst for whole system change, is involved and plays a really important role in international projects like UN Climate Change Action Summit, COVID 19 with W.H.O. and Food System Summit. So it’s about global engagement processes with up to 100,000 people. I think this is a really impressive and very, very important topic for us is a human society in total. So welcome, John. It’s good to have you here. Would you briefly introduce yourself?
John Atkinson: Of course. Thank you, Elizabeth. Delighted to be here. Thanks for the introduction. Yes, I’ve been working on transformational shifts, systems level shifts for about 30 years with global corporate entities and global non corporate entities, non-governmental organizations, parts of the UN system. And in that time, I’ve had a lot of experiments, a lot of things to be learned, one of which is that this is really hard stuff to do. And so you must be open, I think about your about the things that haven’t worked so well and as well as try and capture and share some of the things that you found that have worked for you in the situations that you’re in, because each situation is different, but there are some patterns that can be drawn.
Elisabeth Leyser: Okay. So then when you are working with such international organizations, you mentioned there are certain patterns and there are certain challenges obviously coming again and again. So what are these challenges specifically?
John Atkinson: So I think/ I think one of the biggest challenges on working with particularly these big global processes, but most industrial and commercial processes as well, is that our understanding of how things change and function at large scale is driven by some elements of our history that perhaps don’t stand up so well today, as we might imagine. So when historically we tried to do things at scale, we were building pyramids or cathedrals or we were putting an army together to do these sorts of things. We worked on a very hierarchical process. It took a lot of power to do this. You couldn’t build these big these big structures unless you had a lot of money you needed to feed a lot of people. Same with an army It takes a lot of money to keep an army in the field, as we’re seeing today. And so the power processes drive this hierarchical pattern of interaction. It’s about control. And that takes on another step when particularly from the Western world. And then onwards we enter an area of, an era of industrialization. So as we start to go to scale outside these big special events, it becomes a more normal way of working. We’re being driven by machines. It’s machines that move us from cottage industry into large scale production and all the benefits and advantages that spring that brings.
John Atkinson: But what it does mean is that our models of how people work together were formed and driven by people whose primary work was to put things into machines, to service machines, to take things out of machines. And it wasn’t driven by an understanding of how human interaction works. The generative capacity that comes when people talk together, connect, think, relate. And so when we get into long term processes or large scale processes and also very small scale and very short term processes, these models that we’ve taken about how our businesses work, how our organisations work, just don’t stand up. You cannot end global hunger by making a plan and delivering it. There are too many variables, too many people involved, and you have to think about things in a different way. And the way that I’ve chosen to think about it, I think the way that this has taken me is to say, look, these large scale human endeavors are ecosystems. They’re ecosystems that function. We know a lot about how ecosystems work. And if we take those lessons, if we take if we take what we can determine from that understanding into these processes, we can perhaps get some really fundamental steps forward that we were limited from when we thought of ourselves as cogs in a machine.
Elisabeth Leyser: So what you describe is that we we need to shift our understanding from an industrialised understanding of how big scale processes work to an ecosystem understanding. And you describe that there was a lot of learnings behind this insight. Are there some some specific experiences you could share with us? So when did you understand that we are on the wrong track?
John Atkinson: Well, these things, this understanding develops over time. I think when we/ When I first started working in this way, probably in the mid mid nineties, the language of systems didn’t/ It was there, but it wasn’t common, it wasn’t commonplace. And if you spoke about these things, people thought you were a little bit strange, probably. But one of the more recent things that I did supporting the nature based solutions workstream for the UN as an approach to climate change sort of underlines, if you like, why this mechanistic, this target, this goal based approach doesn’t work. Because what is the goal for a nature based solution to climate change? For putting us in a better and different relationship with nature, not seeing ourselves as apart from it? Who decides that’s the right goal? Who decides what the steps are on the way? There is no person or organisation that can do that for the world. You have to find a different way of thinking about it and you have to release the energy and the creativity and the passion and the need that’s in people all over the world to do things in their way, in their place, in a way that makes that work and that requires a move in thought from saying; Well, what’s the plan? what’s the steps? What’s the milestones? How will we sign it off? To a way that’s much more explorative, much more adaptive. Because, If you want to set milestones; milestones mark a fixed distance along a known route. If you’re making a known route, there can be no milestones. So it took us into working at scale in an altogether different way.
Elisabeth Leyser: So you’re describing that. I was just listening to your last sentence. No more milestones. So this is something which I think many, many people can’t even imagine. And you are working with really, really complex systems. So how do you connect this complexity? How do you work with people coming from very different backgrounds and living in very different situations?
John Atkinson: Well, when we think of ecosystems, my thought is shaped by three characteristics of ecosystems that were described by [00:08:12] Ana Norse, [00:08:13] the Norwegian philosopher. And he said ecosystems are characterised by complexity, by symbiosis and by diversity. So complexity, what does it mean? It means more than: oh, this is a bit hard. It means that you are faced with irreducible uncertainty. If something is complex, you cannot get to a sequential linear plan that enables you to take it step by step by step and deliver an outcome. Because there are constantly interacting and overlapping networks of people with feedback loops that some of which are amplifying what’s going on, some of which are dampening what goes on. And so if you’re going to work with complexity, you have to be able to hold the ability to work with probability, with working with the likelihood of something happening rather than a specific plan and accepting that each time we take a step for all the things that we can foresee and for all the outcomes that we know might happen, there will be a whole series of unintended consequences which we’ll have to react to as well. And when we think of symbiosis, any if we’re thinking of our organisations as ecosystems, any ecosystem exists in symbiosis with its environment. So what’s happening in the external environment really matters. It shapes what we can do and what we can’t do. We couldn’t think about the work on nature based solutions without thinking about what’s happening in global finance, what’s happening in global food, what’s happening in global energy.
John Atkinson: You can’t extract the problem from the environment within which it happens. And so really successful approaches to working with this sort of complexity say we need to be really tuned in to what’s happening externally, and we need to have an internal process that enables us to hear that, make sense of that, and work out what’s going on. And for that to be effective, it requires diversity, requires a diversity of input. It requires different people in different places hearing different things. And it requires a diversity in the sense making that enables us to hear those points of view, to make sense of them, to understand why the difference matters. So that leads us to approaches that are really dialogic. We have to be able to, if we’re going to do this sort of work, create environments where people can honestly and openly talk together. And it takes time to build those. It takes time for people to establish the relationships that are sufficiently trusting that they can take the next step that moves that level of trust and meaning one step further. So it’s a process of constantly weaving together different interests, different power bases, different prejudices, finding what’s possible at first, and expanding and expanding and expanding the capacity to hold that such that something really, really magical can happen.
Elisabeth Leyser: Wow. This sounds really very inspiring and interesting. And I have the impression that this is not only relevant for big international issues, but also for many, many companies and many, many organizations that are permanently and I would say more and more faced seeing uncertainties and how you call it complexity and. Yes. And most of them are/ try to respond to it with quite old – Yeah – abilities and quite own old know how. So it’s not suitable, so it doesn’t fit together from my point of view. So what do you see if you transfer your experience to more economic surroundings and eventually to organisations working, smaller organisations working in Austria, in UK, in wherever in the world. But. But not internationally. So what do you think is the most important insight they should have to to go forward successfully?
John Atkinson: If I/ If there was one thing, Elizabeth, it would be to say: You’re working with people. People are living things. So think of it in terms of life. What’s the life that we’re dealing with here rather than how does this machine work? And this works at all levels of scale. It doesn’t matter that it’s a global process on food systems where we had 140 countries involved, hundreds of thousands of people engaged in dialogue globally, or whether it’s a small organisation in a town much smaller than Vienna, say. It makes no odds. The same principles work, but I think it’s about paying attention to what the implications of working with a living system are. So often, here’s an example. Often people will talk about transformation. Most businesses, most business plans will talk about a need for transformation. And in my experience over the last sort of 30, 35 years of working on this. Transformations are phenomenally rare. Transformations don’t happen very much. What does happen is people do the same thing better. But that’s not a transformation. That’s an improvement for me, where things are really going to transform and it doesn’t matter the scale of your business. You’re looking at a ecosystem property called Emergence, where a new way of understanding and operating becomes evident out of a shift in the relationships between people in order that it shapes those relationships in the future to operate in a different way. So on a big scale, on the really big scale, the Renaissance is is an emergence. The world thought differently after that took place. And you can’t. Drive an emergence to happen.
John Atkinson: You cannot determine what that emergence might bring, but you can, at any level of organization, create the conditions whereby emergence is most likely to do that. I found you have to pay attention to three quite subtle things. The first is energy. The second is dissonance, and the third is amplification. If you don’t have enough energy to do something, people will find it easier to just keep doing what they’re already doing. And as leaders in any size organisation, we know that our activity can raise the level of energy or it can diminish it. If we come into. If we just imagine coming into a meeting, you know, the things that are going to are going to take energy out of it. Fixed tight agenda doesn’t allow anybody to express a point of view leader just putting their own, their own, his or her own comments directly through when summarizing, back, ignoring anything that doesn’t take account of other perspectives. These are all things that just draw energy out of a system. Whereas people feel energized when they feel they have something meaningful that they can contribute and create to, and that their creative contributions are heard and used. So you can play with the level of energy in a room. You can do it on a global scale depending on how how you as a leader open up the space for people to operate. But if we’ve all got energy for the same thing, we’re not creating something new. We’re doing what we already know how to do. So you need to introduce dissonance into this disturbance difference.
John Atkinson: We need to have an environment where we can hold points of view that challenge us, that are contradictory. If you don’t have that dissonance in that sort of grit in the oyster, that thing that makes the special thing happen, then we’re just all excited about what we already know. We have to go through this process of feeling really quite uncertain. A feeling challenged, a feeling not comfortable of arguing or debating, of a fighting, if you like, until we get to a point where something new emerges. And then we need this third thing, this capacity to rapidly amplify what’s going on. And that’s about a positive feedback process where things connect, they spark. They spark something in somebody else that connects that sparks. And we can build feedback and feedback loops and networks and mechanisms that enable messages to spread really quickly through organization by paying attention to the relationships between people who connects to whom, what do they share? What are the what are the sort of unwritten rules that govern this? Paying attention to that can really change our capacity to amplify what’s taking place. So something like that’s a that’s an example for me of something that’s a little bit intangible at first when you think about it. But if you really want to transform a situation at whatever scale, think about how do I create the conditions for emergence through boosting the energy that’s being brought to the process, through introducing and holding a level of dissonance, and through creating ways of amplifying what comes out of it such that it rapidly expands.
Elisabeth Leyser: So you are saying that it’s more or less about intangible qualities, so it’s about how you look and perceive people. You say they are living things and how you look at systems and what is happening between people, especially having an eye on what kind of energy are we fostering in our meetings and our coming together? Are we able to deal with dissonance, with differences. Are we even able eventually to foster differences, to use them as a creative spark? And how do we support, as soon as there is something new, how do we support this new aspect to be alive and to grow. So these are, from my point of view, completely new. challenges leaders are facing at the moment. They are not prepared. Most of them are not prepared. So what would be the levers you could mention. You could explain to people who are interested in developing: where should they look at in their own behavior in how they see and approach the world.
John Atkinson: So when I. When I look at an organization, whether it’s commercial organization or a public organization, people try to give it to you broken down into bits. They try to say, well, we have this function that does this thing and this function that does that thing or this person. This is their role and that’s her role. The organization chart, if you like. People try and describe what they do in that way. And for me, this process of reductionism, of breaking things into bits means that it stops you from seeing how the system works. Because by focusing on the part separately, you’re, you’re not paying attention to the relationships between them. So the really critical thing for me in trying to to make a shift in an organization is to look at how do things connect? How does this connect to that? What are the relationships here that matter? Where are they? Who has them? What’s the quality of them? What are they all about? What sort of information is getting shared in that? Because what you’re trying to do for me, if you’re trying to create sustainability in this sort of environment, then sustainability for me is a function of an enduring capacity for adaptation.
John Atkinson: And this enduring capacity for adaptation comes from the number, the quality, the tone, if you like, of our relationships. How do we know what’s happening externally? Because of the relationships we have with the external world, how are we able to make sense of what’s going on because of the relationships we have internally with each other? How are we able to translate that into activity? Because we relate to each other in ways that we can decide what now is meaningful. What is the thing that is most important for us to do right now? And that takes us to a process of what I would call adaptogen. How do we, instead of working on a strategic plan for three or five years, work on a process of constant adaptation where we’re in tune with our environment, responding to it, and people throughout the organization are doing the right things because they know what’s needed to be done right here, right now, in order for to fulfill the purpose of what we’re doing.
Elisabeth Leyser: So this is for sure a very specific view on how to lead and to manage an organization. So what advice would you give to our listeners if they really want to reach this adaptogen to be able to sustainably develop their organization or company?
John Atkinson: The advice I would give most of all in terms of working with systems is one step at a time, but with a direction in mind. And that’s profoundly challenging, if you think about it, because it says ignore the medium term. All this effort we put into three, five year strategies, medium term, financial planning, all of this sort of stuff. It’s helpful to a point, but the thing that’s really going to shift you is to be clear as to the direction you’re having. And then look right here, right now, what is the one step that we now need to take/ can take together that moves us in that direction? And then what’s the next and then what’s the next? And that’s about feeling into the pace, the rhythm, the readiness of your organization to do something. How fast can we go? There’s no point in me setting a set of targets for 3 to 5 years. If my organization can’t move at that, that space, that speed, there’s no point in me setting a direction that I think I want to go in. If the rhythm of the organization is such that it’s at a point where it needs to consolidate or it needs to expand, and I’m trying to go in the other way. There’s no point in trying to push things if the organization isn’t ready. So feel into this pace, this rhythm, this readiness. Because what happens when we start setting strategy for 3 to 5 years, we set it with good intent. We try to make guesses as to what the world is going to be like five years forward.
John Atkinson: Well, if you made that guess in 2018, you were wrong. Everybody was wrong. Nobody would have put COVID on the level that it has. People would probably not have put a war in Ukraine. So when you do it in that way, even if you get all of that right, you take a plan back to your organization and the organization, how does it hear it? You do your presentation, you say, this is where we’re going. The organization, people meet in corridors. They go to the coffee machine. They say, what do they what do they just say there? What do we think it means? How how is this going to help us? And the only way you can make sense of that is through what you already know, your existing experience. So you take the strategy, the plan, and you turn it back into what we already know how to do. If you feel into the pace, the rhythm and the readiness, if you take it one step at a time with the direction in mind, you’re sensing into what’s possible right here, right now, in this moment. And you are amplifying that. And what you do is you release the creative potential in the whole of your organization, whether it’s two people or whether it’s 200,000 people. If you can if you can align that energy, that intent, that passion, then what comes out of it is something really meaningful. And what you’ve created is an organization that is sustainable, not in the short term, but for as long as it’s able to do just that thing.
Elisabeth Leyser: Thank you, John. I think this was very impressive. For me the most important aspects of your last contribution was one step at a time. Plus that they’re having the direction in mind and following this, ignoring the medium term, I think this will give a lot to think and discuss to our listeners. Thank you, John, for this really interesting conversation. I enjoyed it a lot. And thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoyed the episode, we would be very happy if you subscribe us via your favorite podcast app. Of course we are even happier if you give us a five star rating or recommendation to one person or a person from your network. This is important for us to be able to continue to attract exciting guests and to be able to explore new topics related to deep transformation for you and for everybody who is interested in these important topics. All the best. Looking forward to hear you soon.