Tools and Theories are exactly what it sounds like: The Tools and Theories I use to inform my work. Sometimes I’ll highlight my own methodologies and sometimes I’ll talk about a specific book, workshop, or new theory I’m trying on. If you have a resource you think I’d like, send it to me!
When I first started my work on my Master’s degree I was part of a cohort that was comprised of both Counseling and Organizational Development students. We learned a lot of information together as a whole group and most of the theory felt like it leaned very heavily on the Counseling and less on the Organizational Development. I found it all pretty interesting especially since my work within organizations would require working with…people…so the more I knew about how they worked, the better I thought I would be. So I bided my time, learning about cultural competency, group dynamics, conflict, and other stuff that was obviously useful no matter who I was.
And then one day God came down from the heavens and said, “Here, Verhanika. Here is the theory of Organizational Development you have been waiting for. It will change your life. Treasure it and pass it around like syphilis, but not exactly.”
Let me explain.
So, let’s say you’re at work and you’re having a rough time. You’re constantly fighting with your boss in a silent battle of wills, your co-worker, Melanie, is always trying to one-up you, and you are tired just walking up to the front door.
You explain to your best work friend how you’re feeling and she says something like, “Maybe you need to stop taking things so personally,” or “Maybe you need some therapy,” or “Stop caring so much about what you do. It’s just work.” Just work indeed.
So you go back about your work life trying to “not take things personally” or “stop caring so much” and you even do a little research into a therapist. Maybe your frequent childhood playground squabbles are full of material for why you like to fight with your boss.
Even worse, in closed-door meetings your boss is talking about you. “He just can’t get along with Melanie. I think the two of them need to go to HR and talk it out.” His co-conspirator agrees, “Yeah, he and Melanie really need to leave it at the door when they show up and just do their jobs instead of creating drama.”
Sound familiar? If it does then it’s because this is an exact case study of a workplace I coached recently (names and pronouns changed to protect the unstructured).
But I managed to get them to change in a way where no one took it personally, the company was able to hang on to some very valuable employees, and they now have a framework within which they can address problems that come up, and deal with them at their source rather than solving the symptoms.
What is this miracle pill? The OD theory that changed my life? The theory that I will now infect you with that no amount of antibiotics can cure? (And you won’t want them to.)
The Waterline Model. (For the official copy go here.)
The Waterline Model can be summed up like this: 95% of organizational problems are structural.
So you and Melanie fighting has little if nothing to do with you and everything to do with the structure within which you are working.
When it comes to problems in organizations (and in life) we often try to ascribe them to a single person or pair of people–intra- or interpersonal problems. We assume that there is something wrong with a person or a relationship and that is what causes problems–she has a shady past, he’s going through a divorce, they are like oil and water. We like to think that someone causes problems for a whole organization. But if we stopped making it personal and actual made it professional we would learn the big scary secret, which is that there is something with the organization’s structure that needs to change.
That’s what the Waterline Model says we should do; instead of jumping to the inter- and intrapersonal levels (the last on the right below the waterline) look at structure (the first on the left) before we do anything else.
Work against our nature to ascribe blame to an individual or pair of individuals and instead examine the structure that they work within, as that is where we are more likely to find problems that manifest as interpersonal conflict or as an individual struggling in the workplace.
So what counts as structure?
Structure is made up of a few things: Goals, Roles, Process, and Resources. Let’s look at these a little closer.
Goals refers to the mission and vision of the organization. Is the organization working in line with it’s declared mission and vision? If it’s not then there could be a considerable amount of confusion among individuals. “I thought we were all rowing right and it seems we are now rowing left.”
This could be as simple as re-stating what the mission/vision is and doing some quick assessment to see how it is lined up with it. Or it could mean looking at the org as a whole and coming up with a new mission or vision.
This is more specifically about role clarity. Who is doing what? How do you know who is doing what? Tied up in the is accountability. How do you know when someone has done their job? What happens if they don’t? How do you determine if someone is reliable? To solve role clarity there may need to be a re-drawing of the org lines. Jeff may hate this part of his job that Kristen just loves. Let her fucking do it. Or figure out a way to incentivize it for Jeff and de-incentivize it for Kristen. It may also be as simple as reading through job descriptions again. Doing a quick assessment of the job description of those within one degree of separation of you on your org chart could be immensely helpful to see who is supposed to do what.
This one is a little trickier. Process means having a clear step-by-step procedure for how to complete tasks. “But Verhanika, we are so unique in our workplace that every time we create something we don’t know how it’s going to end up.” Then you are dumb. For serious. You have a procedure whether you know it or not and if you are doing it a different way every time then you are hemorrhaging money and deserve the financial dire straits you will end up in. No one is that special.
There are tons of tools for determining your process, but for now it could be as simple as getting everyone in a room who works on a single unit (product or service). Everyone writes down how they think the sausage is made and then you compare. I guarantee everyone’s will be different unless it is written down somewhere people look at every day. And even then it is likely an incomplete rendering.
This one is the worst. Seriously. There are some times when you have too many resources and it involves shifting or removing those resources (sometimes resulting in laying people off) or where you don’t have enough and no way to generate more. This is where serious choices about expectations have to be discussed or finding more resources is the top priority. Resources can refer to people, ideas, raw materials, time, money, bandwidth, anything that is required for producing a product and could be limited.
So, the next time you’re ready to complain about how work sucks because of fighting co-workers or someone who seems to have problems they should work out on their own, run down this list and see if there is a structural issue that needs to be addressed. Feel free to send me your case studies if you can’t seem to find a structural issue, I pretty much guarantee I’ll be able to.