ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

July 1998


Creating A Workplace Community

Finding Your Way Through Performance Measurement

A Quality Vacation On The Jersey Shore

The Honda Dirtbusters Cleaned Up In Nashville

Consolidation Processes Save Time, Money And Win Awards


As Goes The Follower, So Goes The Leader
by Peter Block

Off -Target Marketing - Can We Talk
by Bill Brewer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Creating A Workplace Community


NFC: I know your interest is in community right now and the conditions of community: inter-dependence; deep personal connection; shared sense of purpose and integrity or telling the truth. That doesn’t seem to characterize most workplaces. In fact, we talk about work “places,” not work communities.
Wheatley: There are domains that we don’t want to even think about in organizations right now because it does take us into commitments that are personal and long term. It takes us into a recognition of our need for each other at an emotional level that we don’t want to deal with. I feel that there’s a lot of simple misuse of the term, “community.” It’s thought of as, maybe it will add to our competitive advantage.
And actually what it does, if you get into an exploration of what’s a true community, is to expose all of the ways in which modern work organizations aren’t communities. It exposes all of the things we have pretended aren’t important, like the whole life of relationships and emotional connection to other human beings. It also exposes how little of work is truly meaningful. Why would we want to be engaged with our hearts, souls and minds in that? In the best case, if people want to contemplate whether they’re a community at work, they’re opening a huge space. And in the worst case, if they think it’s just a convenient little language choice–they are really in trouble.

NFC: As if this is what’s after TQM?
Wheatley: Exactly. What else can we misunderstand and abuse?

NFC: Is it possible to establish learning communities and organizations with some of the interdependence and the connections so that learning can occur? I think the deep, personal connection is a very difficult idea.
Wheatley: I don’t think it has to be a deep personal connection. I think it has to be a connection we’re willing to make with others because we realize we are connected around a purpose. So, I’m willing to work with you, even though I don’t really like you, because I realize you have as much interest or passion for the same issue as I do. We really don’t have to like each other. But I do have to feel that you are as committed to changing a school or as committed to getting garbage picked up regularly as I am. All the work with future search has found that people who are polar opposites still desire to work together because they find they share a little bit of common ground. The common ground is often a recognition that we both care about the same issue.

NFC: Ron Heifetz, from Harvard, says the role of leaders is to focus on solving adaptive challenges, but that most organizations are focused on solving technical challenges where there are right answers and clear decisions. For most high-level organizational problems, the leader cannot solve them without the help of the rest of the organization. Where people want an expert solution, how do we move closer to the community taking on problems that are going to involve pain and loss and change?
Wheatley: We have enough experience to know that people do that very well. I was just in a conversation with people in Australia. They were describing how people going into a planning process knew they weren’t going to have jobs as a result. These people spent a long time planning the future organization, from the beginning knowing that they weren’t going to be there. They came out of it better. It was energizing and empowering so that they went on to other work. These are stories I’ve heard in America. I’ve heard them in schools. I’ve heard them in corporations for years—we just don’t publicize them. And yet doing it with great systems awareness, relational awareness, motivation. It’s terrible that we don’t trust people with these things, or we have such a negative assumption about how people will behave. In fact, when people are involved, they’re magnificent. It’s the not involving them that creates the problem.

NFC: We know that organizations often do not learn from pilots or pockets of the organization which are very participative. These evolved practices seem so fragile and unacknowledged.
Wheatley: Yes, it’s the strength of the old paradigm, in the presence of the new. It’s the new paradigm that’s actually calling forth this level of power in the old, which is normal. I think Peter Senge says that when you’re presenting such a fundamentally new model you can’t expect the larger system to accept it. What was helpful from his perspective was this interconnectedness among experimenting organizations at the senior levels where they could call on one another’s experience.
For me, that’s not quite satisfying enough. I think it’s true historically. Over time, people’s mistreatment for being innovators within these old organizations means they go outside and start new ones. The failure to learn from the pioneers means the pioneers go set up shop someplace else.
One of the things that puzzles me as I think about future scenarios is a scenario in which one of these large corporations has imploded. Another is that they have moved back to quite reactionary forms of managing and that because of the grip they’ve held on economic policy they actually move us into a more fascist period. I realize that I don’t think that they’re going to transform. I think either the transformation will happen outside of them or the transformation won’t happen because of them.

NFC: The transformation will happen outside of the large organization?
Wheatley: Yes. Now the growth in our economy is in small businesses and alternative health and alternative this and alternative that. Alternative is another word for saying that people are leaving the existing institutions and setting up their own. The rise in home schooling is an alternative to public education. I’m asked the same question at every event I attend, “do you think this is a question of revising, changing these organizations, or are we talking about revolution from without?” Someone said, given 50-100,000 years of human history, do large organizations ever change to save themselves? So far, the answer is pretty much no. And then you look at South Africa which is a bold experiment with the alternative, the peaceful revolution of power and what will happen there is still uncertain.

NFC: I think it’s interesting that you don’t talk about applications, how-how-tos and deliverables. Could you talk about why you have that position?
Wheatley: Well, I’ve been taking heart from a number of leaders and other commentators like Francis Hesselbein and Jim Autry who have been saying it’s not what you do, it’s how you are. That is a very important reframing of what the real work is. People do need to hear stories of other people’s success and problems with trying to move forward in a very different way and change the nature of the organization. They do need to know this is possible and then they actually relax a little bit and can hear the “you have to make this up as you go along, and figure it out yourself with one another.”
There’s a general shift in a lot of people to realize that they can’t get the steps anymore from anybody on anything. But there clearly are ways of being together that make this experimentation and making it up as you go along work better. It does relate back to some of the things you find in communities, which are: 1) The realization that you do care about things and 2) How different it is if you actually believe that other person is going to stick with you in this. In a true community, you can’t leave the community or leaving is a really big event. In corporations, that sense of “I can really count on you” is not available at all.
In the midst of the current restructuring turmoil, people do try and be there for each other, but it just increases their pain these days. It doesn’t necessarily increase their effectiveness.
Yet the level of effectiveness, creativity and participation is heightened when people know they’re there for each other and that others are going to stay too. All these notions of employability and cycling workers through, keeping them for two years or so, is one of the most dangerous pieces of advice that’s been out there.

NFC: That’s interesting if you think about the whole genre now of repacking your bags and we’re all self-employed.
Wheatley: See, I don’t think anybody wants that. Certainly you could talk among the consulting community. Consultants are always searching for community and for people to work with because they realize they’re not good when they work alone. They have no way of knowing how effective they’ve been. So again, we always need each other.
Myron Kellner-Rogers and I wrote an article on community recently and it started out with: human beings have a great need for each other. And then you look at work and you ask, “Where’s that need honored?”

NFC: That’s actually very practical, applicable advice. I think about myself and AQP and in most ways I act like “I’m here for you and we’re in this together,” but then on the other side of me I’m talking about accountability. I am very conflicted about how to have a community here and yet reconcile that with what I believe are business decisions that have to be made. Questions like “Are you the right person for the job?” have to be asked.
Wheatley: And those are the conversations we need to be in because we’re all struggling with questions like: How do you account for a whole person and still run an office? What would be nice is if we could be in conversation about what we’re learning, talking about how something works and doesn’t work. Rather than say, “Well, it doesn’t work, therefore we have to resort to the business approach.”
We just heard a wonderful story about an Australian leader of an oil refinery or mineral plant in New Zealand where there was a fatal industrial accident. It was mainly a Maori plant, all of the workers were Maori Indians and the plant manager, who was white, went to the Maori tribal elders and said, “What shall we do?” And they said, “You should close the plant for two days and we will purify it of these spirits that have caused this death.” And he did that. His corporate leaders said, “What are you crazy, closing a plant for two days?” And yet, what he developed was huge loving support from all those workers thereafter. The Maori Indians said, “It’s the first time anyone has ever honored our tradition.” The plant manager just recently left and they were all heartbroken. It just transformed their relationships and made all sorts of things possible. We have those stories in our own customer experiences you know. You do one thing for a customer and it transforms their relationship with you.

April '98 News for a Change | Email Editor

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