Communicate in Straight Lines: Abstract Concepts don’t work in Organizations

“If anyone else mentions ‘organisation culture’ I’m gonna scream!”

Edvard Munch’s The Scream recently sold for US$120 million. Spending that much money on a painting, you’d feel guilty every time you left the house! If the anonymous buyer in Sotheby’s wants to hear real screaming, s/he could just pop along to my place when we are ‘discussing’ homework with the kids.

Abstract Art: Staying with the art theme, I followed Mike Murphy’s RTE programme to find Ireland’s most loved painting. The art lovers fell into two distinct camps – those who love paintings that depict real things versus those who are drawn to more abstract work. In relation to the latter, I was reminded of the prank in New York where someone got a Chimpanzee to mess with paint and staged an exhibition of ‘new age work’ for a group of critics – some of whom were completely fooled and predicted an emerging talent. They must have gone bananas when the real artist was revealed. I know, I know. It’s a zoo out there!

Abstract Concepts: In my experience, the business world is populated by ‘real painting’ types, people who work well with concrete shapes and forms, welcoming solutions rather than abstract concepts or philosophy. A recent example reinforced this. We ran a 1-day workshop with a senior team, working in the food industry. Good group, hard working, no nonsense. Everything was going fine until we bumped up against one issue which was proving difficult to resolve – securing acceptance of change in a manufacturing plant. Trying to be helpful, one of the managers suggested that the ‘culture’ in that plant was hindering progress, leading a senior executive to quip: “I’d love to meet this guy culture; he seems to be blocking everything”.

Organization Culture: I’ve long held the belief that the job of organization consultants is ‘fog clearance’, helping to reduce complexity and making things clearer (and, more manageable). At first glance the issue of organization culture seems complex and perhaps there is a need to demystify this. So, how would ‘fog shifting’ apply to this topic? What exactly is organization culture and how do you change it?

Today we are… There are many approaches to this question, but the following (simple) idea is usually helpful. Think of your organization along two time dimensions. The first column is titled ‘Today We Are…’ Underneath this heading, I get clients to list all of the ‘key’ issues in the organization e.g.

The way we deal with customers (desktop published mission statement versus real actions?).
How we measure productivity (what scorecards are in place?).
Is teamwork a reality? (or more politics in the organization than the Kremlin?).
How are rewards calculated and distributed?
The way we use time (e.g. do you use speed as a competitive weapon?).

And so on. The listings have to be ‘real’ i.e. reflecting the ‘on-the-ground’ reality.

Tomorrow we will be... Then I ask them to complete the exercise again, this time thinking about what the future organization would look like (using the same template as the first exercise). Once this step is completed, they end up with a ‘Today’ picture of the organization (essentially, the existing culture) and a ‘Tomorrow’ picture (the desired culture). Executive teams then decide which elements they want to nurture and maintain, things they want to modify and elements they want to completely jettison. In practice, it’s a bit more complex than that – but you get the point.

Moving Forward: The next time someone in your organization says that the ‘culture’ is blocking progress, don’t do an instant impression of the figure in The Scream. Instead, resolve to do something about it. Turn that angst into a productive forward force. Challenge the executive team and the wider organization to turn an abstract idea (organization culture), into a powerful force for diagnosing and improving performance.

Who’s in Charge? At that same food industry workshop, one of the key players summarized by saying: “There is no failing in falling down; the only failure is staying down”. Perhaps he was giving us the good and the bad news at the same time. Central Message: You are in charge of the organization! Now, get out there and improve it.

Paul Mooney

PS Lesson in Mathematics: 
This one comes courtesy of 2 math teachers and has what they describe as “an indisputable logic”. What makes 100%? Ever wonder about people who say they are giving more than 100%? We have all been to those meetings where someone wants you to give over 100%. How about achieving 103%? Here’s a little mathematical formula that might help you answer these questions: If: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z are represented as: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26. Then: H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K 
= 8+1+18+4+23+15+18+11 = 98% 
and K-N-O-W-L-E-D-G-E 
= 11+14+15+23+12+5+4+7+5 = 96%. But A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E 
= 1+20+20+9+20+21+4+5 = 100%. And B-U-L-L-S-H-I-T 
= 2+21+12+12+19+8+9+20 = 103%. Look how far ass kissing will take you. A-S-S-K-I-S-S-I-N-G = 1+19+19+11+9+19+19+9+14+7 = 118%. So, one can conclude with mathematical certainty, that while hard work and knowledge will get you close, and attitude will get you there, it’s the bullshit and ass kissing that will put you over the top. Now you know why some people are where they are!

Now, who said teachers don’t work hard and are cynical? It must have taken ages to come up with that one! Let’s hope they did it on their own time!

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact me and we’ll add them to the mailing list.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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