December 16, 2016

Lessons from observing an organization

by Helena Jeret-Mäe
Helen Jeret-Mäe

Joining a new organization is, among other things, an opportunity to learn about its dynamics and evolution which can be a fascinating series of lessons. I’ve learned a few things since becoming Head of Testing (in other words, competence head responsible for development and training activities around testing skills), and trying to understand the company, the struggles, and find opportunities to nurture change. I’ve found that it’s useful to focus on the process of learning about what is needed, and introducing new ideas without focusing too much on the end result. When the company, the situation, and the role is new, there’s probably more information available than you can process, more nuances you will miss than straight facts you get right, so focusing on one step at a time may carry you further. In this article, I share my experiences of getting to know an organization and studying its potential for change that you may find useful when thinking about nurturing change at your company.

Take time to take it in

After taking a managerial position, it can be tempting to “make your mark” by changing practices and processes immediately. There may well be people who expect something to happen right away. Even if potential plans have been discussed and you’ve been introduced to some analysis of the situation, you should still consider an observation period before making changes. If there are immediate problems you can help with, then surely you can lend a hand. In my experience, it’s not the inventing of solutions that is a problem. Usually, it’s quite easy to brainstorm solutions based on previous experience or after brief consulting with some people. The understanding of the “what and why” of a problem poses much more difficult. Typically, it’s not just a problem in singular but a mess – a cluster of different problems with interesting dynamic between them. Hence, coming up with solutions is tricky. I can’t offer a specific time for how long to observe rather than reform. It could be a few weeks or even a few months. However, I can recommend talking to a number of different people from different positions in the organization, and with varying experiences. Take notes, reflect in between conversations to notice how your understanding of the organization evolves, and what kind of cues you come across. In hindsight you may realize you observed some very significant behaviours already during the first couple of weeks. But it takes time to develop insights for hindsight in the first place.

What to look for

Even though you may be new to the organization, identifying tangible elements that a company consists of is a fairly simple task. There are specialists, managers, all kinds of staff; there are offices, documents, rooms, and teams. However, identifying how the elements are connected is more complex challenge. Hence I’ve found it useful to observe customs and the general unwritten rules of “how things are done”. Tracing the decisions behind decisions may give an insight into what kind of calculations go into decision making at the organization. Understanding where and how money flows and who makes decisions about it helps to reveal gaps between what is stated as important and what is actually important (those things typically get funded). Looking at the flow of information, where it flows freely from and to, and where the current gets muddled or cut off informs you of obstacles you may not have noticed in the first place. In my experience, I’ve tried to refrain from interpreting each and every interesting occasion but I’ve tried to see if patterns emerge. Not everything may make sense at first but that’s OK. Like Gerald M. Weinberg has said, “Things are the way they are because they got that way.” There may not be one particular reason or a set of concrete reasons that would coherently explain why the organization is like it is. Many people have contributed to “making” it become the way it is, so scouting for a single root cause may well become a lost cause. Paying attention to how different parts of the organization interact can give you cues about when and where to introduce new ideas, or what threatens successful change initiatives.

Listening to stories

People are creatures of stories. Every day we tell a story to ourselves about who we are, where we came from, and what we will become. Every day many stories are told within an organization about different events. Through stories we make sense of the world, link events together to find coherence, add cause and effect to make everything come together. Since stories are so powerful in helping people make sense of the world, listening to the stories told in an organization is a gateway to understanding it. I don’t mean gossip or talk that has an agenda even though the strong existence of gossip may also be an interesting characteristic. I mean stories that people tell about their relationship with their colleagues and their relationship with the organization. You may find stories of defeat and stories of victory. You may find stories of trial and error. In case of all these stories, common patterns may emerge (reasons as to why some initiatives failed or succeeded) that tell you about how change initiatives have failed or succeeded in the past. What is success attributed to and how is it described? What is cited as cause of failure and how is failure perceived? How well have new initiatives been established and why certain ones have survived while others have not? Being an appreciative and empathetic listener who knows how to ask a few good questions can also help you start establishing working relationships in the organization. But listening to stories, yet again, gives you a glimpse into what kind of change patterns may be useful to employ.

Establishing your mission

Answering the question “why” is a tricky exercise but doing so will help you ground yourself. Establishing and verbalizing a mission for your role in the organization also acts as an integrity check for you. When things get crazy, you need to be able to check in with your true north. Is your relentless schedule of meetings aligned with the mission? Is your overflowing to-do-list focused on the mission? You can fool yourself into thinking that being part of every initiative you get pinged about is critical to your role and existence in the company. If that’s the case, you might want to ask yourself how you even know this is true. Establishing one’s mission also helps to manage time and energy. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being in a managerial position, it’s that the demand on your time rises as you go up the ladder. You may find yourself spread thin, which makes you ineffective lest you find focus. Your mission then becomes your sanity check. However, establishing a mission doesn’t bind you to it for all eternity. While you’re talking to people, listening and observing, you may discover that the mission should be tweaked or completely overhauled. Maybe how you thought you could add value is not understood well, or you discover completely different ways for doing so. Hence, in the light of new observations, you can tweak and adjust your mission as needed. Don’t keep your mission to yourself – share it, spread it, talk about it. I believe it sends a strong message when you can clearly state why you are part of the organization and how you (want to) add value. This enables you to find like-minded people or get into constructive arguments from which you can learn. Also, when you change your mission which, in turn would change your focus and prioritization of projects, let people know about it. It can be easy to forget or make time for small updates but I’ve learned that keeping people in the loop can support achieving your further goals. It opens up opportunities for more feedback for your new plans, and for people to get involved. By publicly discussing your mission, you want to attract people who are likely to be early adopters and potential evangelists who like to tap into new ideas and spread them around. In addition, you also may need a sponsor among other managers (or in higher management) which is why you want to spend some time finding people who can help you either by advocating for you or mentoring you. Other such change patterns are described and discussed in “Fearless Change” by Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to learn about introducing new ideas into organizations.

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In this article I’ve discussed my overall approach to observing and learning about an organization where I’m new. The key for me has been to focus on the process of understanding and learning, observing and carefully interpreting what I find. By observing certain interactions and dynamics in the organization in your own way, you can learn a great deal about how change could be nurtured there. Surely, you will also learn a great deal about yourself in the process.

Thank you for your insightful edits and comments: Paul Seaman and Patrick Prill.