Logo for Saybrook University


From Being Right to Doing the Right Thing: My First Lesson in Designing Organizations to Fulfill Our Intentions

By: Dennis Jaffe | 05 Nov | 4 comments


Image courtesy of TheDailyStar.net

In the presidential campaign, I have been struck by how much the dialogue is about what people are “for” and how little we talk about how to do what we want. As if being “for” the right things led to a clear path to success. Indeed, our president is faulted for proposing the right ideas and making promises, but not being able to put them into action.

This is what Jeffrey Pfeffer has called the “Knowing/Doing Gap,” or the difference between knowing what you want to do and being able to do it. We respect leaders who have the courage to act on what they know is right. One of the first  and deepest lessons in my life taught me about how difficult it is to bridge this gap. Like many college students in the 1960s, my friends and I were critical of social services. I was a vocal critic of the lack of meaningful services that respected and really served young people. We even pointed out that while children were defined as young than 16 and adult services began at 18, there was not even a place where mental health and social support services were available for teenagers.

To my surprise, my mentor, who was head of the community mental health center (where I was a junior caseworker in the emergency service), agreed with us and gave us funds to set up a storefront mental health service for young people—runaways, drug users, and other disaffected young people. In one day, I was transformed from the lowest rung of trainee to head of a program with a sterling mission but no model, history or design, and not much budget. I was suddenly a “leader” and, almost from day one, I was pressured with demands for performance and expectations that I had no idea how to meet. Yes, I agreed with what “should” be, but I had very little idea of how to make it so.

I was faced with a team who all agreed on values, but were unclear on what to do, but also very vocal in sharing ideas of how to do things. Instantly, I experienced the isolation and pressure that beset a leader. I also learned that people who were not the leader, while vocal in what they wanted and frustrated by their inability to make it happen, would blame the leader as the “cause” of their feelings. They told me I had the power, but I felt powerless, paralyzed and confused, and, moreover, I had few people to turn to. Ever since, I have found it difficult to dismiss a leader's intentions. Rather, my perspective is to try to understand the leader’s dilemma and how I can help them achieve what is needed. After my trial-by-fire experience, leader bashing is forever hard for me.

Our task was to design a new type of institution that would listen to young people and respond to their pain and frustration. Since I was feeling a lot of the same things, I should have been in a good place to be helpful to them. After a rough honeymoon, a group of us began to form a team and design our storefront clinic. We selected representatives of the people we would be serving and created what we would now call a “design team.” Our first discovery was that while we knew very well what we didn’t want—professional services led by distant psychiatrists who had power, but no idea of the reality of young people—we did not have a clear idea of what we actually wanted or how to do it. We began to look at the assumptions we were making about service and question them, and then stand them on end. For example, an assumption was that a medical professional was needed to help young people with technical matters. We turned that around and posited that young people who share a challenge were best positioned to help each other. We were anticipating the advent of peer counseling, modeled on organizations like AA and nascent drug abuse programs, which relied on “ex-addicts” as helpers. That was our initial model.

Now came the challenge to our integrity and our creativity. When we actually put this into action, we found that there was some truth to this idea of peer support, but also that peers were unreliable, inarticulate, not such good listeners, and prone to supporting self-defeating behavior. While we knew the traditional assumption was not viable from our experience of existing mental health services, we also experienced gaps in implementing the alternative model grounded in our deep beliefs. It was hard, but we began to design safeguards, training and challenge to the raw enthusiasm of our volunteers. Rather than psychiatrists, we sought out younger doctoral students in psychology who would train and even oversee the volunteer counselors. We also found a way to triage—simple ways to differentiate the callers and visitors who needed more intense help from those who needed simple support and access to social services.

We entered an organizational design process that involved trial and error, testing and questioning assumptions, trying new things, and willingness to admit that we were not getting the results that we wanted or expected. This was an organizational learning cycle, and was necessary because as an organization, we had a clear mission, but not a clear idea of how to go from knowing to doing.

Shift forward 40 years to today, we are in a world that represents new territory that is clearly not working. Yet the residues of traditional pathways, supported by rules, policies and legal strictures, keep us prisoners of the past. It is easy to know what we need to do. The challenge for leaders and institutions is not to be right, but to be able to loosen up what is being done to allow for experiment, new designs, and trial-and-error. Yet, instead, we make macro-shifts—government is good or bad—rather than looking at what we can do to make the public sector more responsive. Often the intention is undone by the reality of rules and practices that make the very outcomes that are intended nearly impossible to achieve.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

Keep up with our community: Facebook | Twitter | Saybrook's Organizational Systems Program


Comments and Discussions

I would qualify Johns comment

I would qualify Johns comment that "they are less about power and control and more about cooperation, diffuse authority and decision-making and meaningful work for everyone." The governing system principle here is requisite variety - the control function has to have at least as many options as the environment.

John's comment is certainly true in a volatile environment where the risk to stakeholders is minimal, such as with tech firms. But do you really want diffuse authority and decision-making in a nuclear plant or airline control tower? For those environments where the risk of failure and its results are catastrophic, perhaps we want more central command-and-control with well-defined decision protocols?

command and control

Yes, Jerry, thanks for adding your qualifiers in there. I think an important principle is that design should be related to the function of the organisation. I see too many organisations that are not, in effect, fit for purpose, in that their structure does not reflect their work and purpose. I do some work with my local emergency management agency and in the case of an earthquake or tsunami, I want to know that their structure is the one that will ensure efficient and effective response, which implies some clear command structures which other of my clients would find clunky and unresponsive to their task.

Every organization is really

Every organization is really at least two organizations: 1) the offical legal organization; 2) the one that does the work. The official organization is the necessary corporate form with a charter, licenses, permits, officers, board, etc. Even a gonzo tech startup has to have this. The organization that does the work is what Dennis seems to be talking about here in reminiscing about this store-front program of 40 years ago.

What I notice is the convergence between the two forms as a business matures. In the beginning, the corporate legal form and the get-it-done form can be far apart and necessarily so. Over time, they may converge to where there is little difference and you go talk to the VP of New Product Development to find out what is happening versus the six 20-somethings around a table at Starbucks pecking away at their Droids.

Guess which form is more fun to work in? The challenge is resurrect the get-it-done form within the legal form, never easy. The legal form gives funding and protection; the get-it-done form gives life, the libido that drives innovation.

a very good read

I like this post a lot. It speaks to the transitions we are in the midst of. Old ways of thinking and doing are proving less useful and not helping us to find new solutions for a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) 21st century. In this transition from the old to the new, which we sense is on its way, we are sometimes a little lost as to HOW to make it happen. Vaclav Havel said it beautifully:

“Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ”

I am with you when you say it's about the design of organisations so that they are less about power and control and more about cooperation, diffuse authority and decision-making and meaningful work for everyone.

I write more about this on my own blog http://quantumshifting.wordpress.com


Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn YouTube Google Plus