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for a Change
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 doesnt seem to characterize most workplaces. In fact,
we talk about work places, not work communities.
Wheatley: There are domains that we dont 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 dont want to deal with.
I feel that theres a lot of simple misuse of the term, community.
Its thought of as, maybe it will add to our competitive advantage.
And actually what it does, if you get into an exploration of whats
a true community, is to expose all of the ways in which modern work organizations
arent communities. It exposes all of the things we have pretended
arent 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
theyre a community at work, theyre opening a huge space. And
in the worst case, if they think its just a convenient little language
choicethey are really in trouble.
NFC: As if this is whats
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 dont think it has to be a deep personal connection.
I think it has to be a connection were willing to make with others
because we realize we are connected around a purpose. So, Im willing
to work with you, even though I dont really like you, because I realize
you have as much interest or passion for the same issue as I do. We really
dont 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
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 werent
going to have jobs as a result. These people spent a long time planning
the future organization, from the beginning knowing that they werent
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 Ive heard in
America. Ive heard them in schools. Ive heard them in corporations
for yearswe just dont publicize them. And yet doing it with
great systems awareness, relational awareness, motivation. Its terrible
that we dont trust people with these things, or we have such a negative
assumption about how people will behave. In fact, when people are involved,
theyre magnificent. Its the not involving them that creates
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, its the strength of the old paradigm, in the
presence of the new. Its the new paradigm thats actually calling
forth this level of power in the old, which is normal. I think Peter Senge
says that when youre presenting such a fundamentally new model you
cant 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 anothers experience.
For me, thats not quite satisfying enough. I think its true
historically. Over time, peoples 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
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 theyve held on economic policy they actually
move us into a more fascist period. I realize that I dont think that
theyre going to transform. I think either the transformation will
happen outside of them or the transformation wont happen because of
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. Im 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 its interesting
that you dont talk about applications, how-how-tos and deliverables.
Could you talk about why you have that position?
Wheatley: Well, Ive been taking heart from a number of leaders
and other commentators like Francis Hesselbein and Jim Autry who have been
saying its not what you do, its how you are. That is a very
important reframing of what the real work is. People do need to hear stories
of other peoples 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.
Theres a general shift in a lot of people to realize that they cant
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 cant 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 doesnt
necessarily increase their effectiveness.
Yet the level of effectiveness, creativity and participation is heightened
when people know theyre 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 thats been out there.
NFC: Thats interesting
if you think about the whole genre now of repacking your bags and were
Wheatley: See, I dont 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 theyre
not good when they work alone. They have no way of knowing how effective
theyve 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, Wheres that need honored?
NFC: Thats actually very
practical, applicable advice. I think about myself and AQP and in most ways
I act like Im here for you and were in this together,
but then on the other side of me Im 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
were 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 were learning, talking about how something
works and doesnt work. Rather than say, Well, it doesnt
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, Its 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.