The Beauty of the Beast: Breathing New Life Into Organizations

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THE WAYS WE GO about changing organizations usually don't work, asserts Geoff Bellman. Our underlying assumptions predetermine the results and preclude the broad success we so desperately seek. Change efforts often end up off-track because of small expectations. What is needed are grand expectations, so big that they cannot be realized in many lifetimes. It is only when people awaken to and work toward these immense purposes that they have the chance of finding fulfillment. Organizations are the perfect place to do this-these "beasts" which we create and curse, love and hate, that are so essential to our lives. In The Beauty of the Beast, Bellman shows how we can explore our huge potential and shift our daily organizational focus to one of long life and fulfillment-and in the process redesign our organizations for tomorrow. Bellman examines why we keep creating these creatures that fall so far short of our dreams for them. He reveals how to recognize the beast in ourselves, showing how organizational control and hierarchy multiply our natural and less constructive inclinations many times over. He points out that the problem is not the existence of organizations but in the ways we imagine them. Bellman asks us to consider what we want to pass on to future generations, helps us imagine the organizations we would be proud to create, and challenges us to take action from where we are today. He offers twenty renewal assertions to help us in redesigning organizations for tomorrow. These solid guides (with related questions for work groups) open the organization to new possibilities, helping us to embrace the organizational world as it really is while working hard to change it. In the process we will also change ourselves, as we ultimately feel less distant from-and more responsible for-creating those troubling structures we love to vent about. The Beauty of the Beast. will help people see their daily work in a new and larger perspective. It will help them embrace the real organizational world while they work at renewing it. And it will help people to recognize the choices available to them-and to exercise those choices for positive results.

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Chapter 1 Hating and Loving Organizations

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As with many relationships, ours with organizations varies from problematic to traumatic to romantic to ecstatic… but they are seldom static. Pursuing our individual purpose within a larger community can be troublesome, whether we are deciding about working on a team, or going to a family reunion, or choosing our telephone service provider. An array of thoughts, emotions, and questions comes to the fore, provoked by what we might gain or lose through making this commitment. Today’s huge organizations incite larger emotions as we become one among millions in their databases. We have more choices than ever before, but we must choose from among the options they offer. “Press the number one on your keypad if you want.… “ We have less direct influence on forming those options: one hundred television channels and nothing is on. We know the feelings that arise as we try to get what we want from a large organization. We are locked in a close tight dance in which we don’t name the tune, don’t get to look our partner in the eye, don’t get to lead—and it’s a rather hairy partner at that! At least it can feel that way.3

 

Chapter 2 Accepting Organizations for What They Are

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Organizations loom large in our lives. They lift and move us; they feed and drape us; they brand us with their swoops and stripes; they color all that we do. They pool the talents of tens of thousands of people so we can have the drink, music, flight, movie, education, check, or drumstick when we want it and how we want it. They hold out the comfort, clarity, and convenience; the peace, peril, and power; the security, seduction, and satisfaction we are looking for. They offer themselves, their products and services, as if there were nothing in the world more important than meeting our needs. And they serve themselves while serving us.

And we feed them. With every credit card, bus pass, tax payment, welfare check, and Internet transaction, we nourish their lives. Willingly or begrudgingly… we affirm their continued existence; we declare our dependence. And of course, we are them. We form their ranks as employees; we make their purpose our own for our best hours each day. And to rest up or escape from our employers, we consider the alternatives offered by other organizations, whether it’s a movie at the multiplex, franchise food, or a cruise of the Caribbean. Wherever we turn, there they are with their enlightenment, enticement, and encouragement. Our world offers us choices among organizations, and we’d rather not choose to do without them. The proclamations of individuality, independence, and self sufficiency are lost as we converge on the malls, embracing the latest trend in eyewear, footwear, and four-wheel-drive hardware. Those few people who opt out are notable because they are such an exception—and we act like they are just a little bit crazy.14

 

Chapter 3 Creating a Bureaucracy to Curse

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The structures we live with today resulted from thousands of people before us seeking personal and organizational meaning and productivity. Our organizations were created by people as well intentioned and smart as ourselves, then we stepped into their creations. Whether we work for the schools, the military, a company, or a social agency, we stepped into quite similar structures based on related assumptions. Do some research at the next party you attend: Tell your favorite story about the bureaucracy’s corrosive influence on important work. Will the people listening argue against the possibility of this happening? No. Will they wander off to seek more interesting conversation? No. They will stay because they know what you are talking about from their own experiences—and they want to tell you their favorite stories. Similar patterns of criticism occur in party after party, organization after organization, century after century. How might this centuries-old human pattern make sense? Why might we create organizations and then criticize our creations? We have repeated these patterns for generations; what can we learn from this?22

 

Chapter 4 Essential Questions for Organizations

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We spend our days immersed in the people, processes, and products of organizations. No avoiding this and no reason to, but there is more to organizations than results, end points, and outputs. There is their beginning, their conception, their genetic code, their essence. That’s what we will pursue here. Organizations may live within the limits of the “genetic coding” they were born with; they may have this built-in limitation, if we are assuming they share our own mortality. What if we were to look at them more expectantly? What if we were to assume the possibility of very long life? This chapter engages in the search for the organizational “fountain of youth.” If we know what long life is about, then we can attempt to create conditions under which it might flourish.

What is so great about long-lived organizations? If more organizations included within their purpose their intent to live hundreds of years, they would behave quite differently. Too many of today’s corporations live for the next financial quarter’s results. Imagine the set of questions confronting an organization that wants to make it through the next financial period, versus those considered by a company that has been here 200 years and wants to be here at least 200 more. I’m imputing good to those organizations with the longer vision, the longer aspiration. It provides a strong counter to the short-term selfishness we so often experience.42

 

Chapter 5 Aspiring to Life

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My search for life in organizations comes from years of working with people engaged, willingly or not, in change. Those seeing the need for change—regardless of their assigned role—see themselves as leaders, revolutionaries, bureaucrats, missionaries, the disenfranchised, the threatened, the empowered, the weak, or the chosen. When I listen to this chorus of voices, I hear a refrain. See if you can hear it as they sing out their many questions. The song begins with, How do we create organizations that:

Visit any organization and you can hear the refrain. People are crying out their need to be different or better or more. They may be singing lamentations of pain from what they lack, or their songs may be celebrations of what they have. In any case, they have a sense of what is possible beyond what they now know; they yearn for that better place and they are drawn to creating it for themselves and for those who follow them. The refrain emerges from the singing of all the verses, all of the questions. Together they reveal the melody.

 

Chapter 6 Signs of Life in Your Organization

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As critical as I am of organizations, I see them as a daunting, yet inevitable opportunity: We are not going to create a productive, interdependent world without them. Many seem determined to block the accomplishments they proclaim they want; the human reach toward happiness and potential is constantly challenged by them; and the health of the planet and its occupants is profoundly affected by what they do. And “they,” after all, are made up of “us.”

There are encouraging signs of life in organizations and we will identify some of them here. We will not attribute perfection to any organization, but instead take encouragement from what we can observe between people in teams or in meetings. If life is not there, it’s not likely to be found elsewhere. I’ll describe each sign of life briefly and give examples of what we might see a group doing that shows this life at work. Keep these signs of life in perspective: They are small indicators that life is present, evidence that something vital is happening. Keep in mind a group you work with as you read through these signs. Make a few notes along the way.64

 

Chapter 7 The Reach for Renewal

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What could we do to bring our dreams to life in this organization? Or how could we make it more likely that our desired future will inform the present? Here are five answers to those questions, five renewal assertions elaborated on in this chapter:

The world is changed by passionate, committed people creating better lives for themselves, their families, and future generations. This is what political revolution, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the reformation, the union movement, and educational reform have in common. Their source of energy is the larger life aspired to, worth working for now. The heart of renewal in our work organizations is just as grand, though not as romanticized. We too are pursuing our lives in these organizations; we too are reaching for a future beyond what we have experienced; we too want the work world to be better for the people who follow us. Our organizations are not renewed by people inspired by their job descriptions. No, they reach into their “life ascriptions” to find the energy they need—the life description they ascribe to and aspire to, and their work is part of it. This is where renewal energies brew; this is how organizations are enlivened over and over again into future generations.76

 

Chapter 8 The Roots of Renewal

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A few comments heard in the midst of organization renewal: “We’d be better off to just burn this place down and start over!”… “I have no idea how an organization so screwed up made it so far!”… “These people are completely unprepared to make this place work!” Note the implications about the organization and its people. Many efforts at creating new life in organizations operate from the assumption that this place is dead—or ought to be. What it needs is not renewal, but resurrection… or miracles from godlike leaders—a role appealing to many of us.

Starting over is not an option. We are here to help an established organization move in new directions. Imagining another starting point provides temporary diversion, but little else. This is the organization; this is where we begin. And this chapter will help us respect what the organization brings to this moment: history. It is that rich soil in which the seeds of renewal will root. We will explore these five assertions:

These assertions are all about discovering and respecting the organization you serve. If you are in an old organization, you are working with people who have been here for years. They have learned a great deal about the life of this place; they are the life of this place. It may not be the life that you (or they) aspire to, but it is life nevertheless. This old life will nourish the seeds of the new life you will be trying to grow. Or this old life will provide the humus in which the new seeds are planted. In either case, the life of this old place is vital to whatever comes next.

 

Chapter 9 The Response to Renewal

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Enough of the roots in the past; enough of the reach to the future—it’s time to discuss the present. How do we respond in this moment—that fraction of time that every other moment is known through? How do we breathe life into this moment? What do we do now? This chapter offers five answers to these questions, assertions to guide your responses to the renewal opportunities that come up again and again. Use these guides to stimulate your own beliefs about the stance you take toward work as it confronts you every day. Here are the headlines:

These five assertions are more immediate than those we reviewed earlier; these live in the moment. You can remind yourself of them while you are listening to others or making a point of your own. You can use these points to assess how you are commu nicating in a meeting right now. These are empowering assertions—for you and for the people you are working with. The assertions help you seek clarity and progress.96

There is no one answer; there are no answers; there are many answers; there is no right answer—all are permutations of the same difficult truth. This is a hard assertion to argue for (partly because it is itself an answer), with all of us schooled in getting the right answer and getting it first. But experience doesn’t seem to bear out what we learn in school. Years of organizational change projects show that 60 to 80 percent of organizational change efforts fail to achieve what they set out for. Most of those efforts thought they had “the” answer. Yet we continue to create organizations that do not work well. Despite all of the talent and resources we pour into them, we haven’t found the compelling, right way. Our more enlightened self may say, “Of course not!” and our less enlightened self says, “Damn!”

 

Chapter 10 The Realities of Renewal

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Have you noticed how your work organization is beginning to resemble a major airport? It is always under construction, always reconfiguring itself, always creating special passageways for the regular work and customers to pass through. Gradually, we are becoming adjusted to the fact that our airports will never be finished. And our freeways. And our school system. And our health care systems. And our organizations. “The good old days” when organizations were more predictable and stable are remembered by an older and shrinking population. Current expectations center on adaptation. Skills needed from now on include adapting to our surroundings, scanning ourselves and adjusting to what we find, reconsidering who we are in a new context, and shifting our boundaries. To live is to adapt while maintaining core purpose, to remain the same while becoming different. That’s what organisms are about; that’s what organizations are about; that’s what we individuals are about.

This chapter examines the less tangible realities that determine whether we see tangible results. Earlier chapters dealt with the reach for aspirations, the roots in the past, and responding in the present; this chapter alerts us to the underpinning realities of renewal work; all five assertions deal with dynamics created by any change, whether renewing or regressing:106

 

Chapter 11 Renewing a Large Organization

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This chapter answers the question: How can renewal happen in a large organization? Somehow all of our wonderful ideas and aspirations must come together in action. Whether spontaneous, orchestrated, or systematized, organizations somehow converge on ways of moving and growing. Most intentional renewal efforts have a nucleus of people who concentrate and disperse the energy related to change; I’ll call that group “the renewal team.” This team continuously helps the larger organization understand itself in relation to the world within and around it—what it is and what it might become. The chapter focuses on the work of this vital team: roles, examples, and lessons.

Higher organisms have a heart, brain, and central nervous system that pump life to, gather information from, and guide the larger body. This is also true for these huge organisms we call organizations; they have their own forms of heart, brain, and central nervous system. In more autocratic organisms, management performs these vital functions and assigns the other bodily functions to the rest of us. In more democratic organisms, the vital functions are more widely dispersed; various parts think, feel, and act for themselves—hopefully in concert with the larger body.126

 

Chapter 12 Bringing Work Groups to Life

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There is excitement in working hard to fulfill a plan; working closely with others to execute a strategy can be rewarding too. But for sheer energy generated, these accomplishments seldom compare to stepping off the edge of your present organizational map into uncharted territory. Doing so with a group of committed people is a life-altering experience. The places that are most exciting to go are those we have yet to visit. The questions that are most intriguing are those that we have yet to answer or ask. We anticipate what we will learn through this unique experience. The need for excitement, intrigue, and learning is distributed widely; it is in the hearts and minds of all the people we work with. The challenge is not so much in creating that excitement, as in releasing it.

The first half of each comment offers an assessment, and the second half opens to the unknown. The vitality of each comment comes from the combination of known and unknown; it’s this dynamic between reality and possibility that creates interest and energy. Successful and alive groups have an intuitive sense of the importance of the roots/reach, presence/ascendance dynamic. A group can work even better with the dynamic when they acknowledge and build on it.

 

Chapter 13 Practicing Renewal Daily

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Organizational destinies are shaped in their quest for life— as are our own. Those organizational aspirations, assertions, and questions we read in earlier chapters apply to us as well. If we did a “search and replace” of this book, substituting the word “individual” for “organization,” individual life purpose and choice would be spotlighted. We are defining ourselves in each moment, and we are surrounded by opportunities to define ourselves, whether we are aware of them or not. Work usually takes so much time that we do not stop to reflect on the opportunity to try something new, or to think about our experience differently. Our challenge is to find ways of engaging ourselves with life that are at least as compelling as work. This chapter offers a few practices that can aid that shift of perspective— practices that heighten the opportunity for personal awareness, choice, and action. Engage in this practice daily for two weeks; see what difference this reflection makes.144

The twenty renewal assertions from Part Three will be our primary vehicle for getting this done. Each of the twenty assertions was an exhortation or declaration of what is needed to renew an organization. We will use those assertions to both remind you of what this book has been about and to help you reflect on your own life. Each assertion will be linked to personal questions adapted from the organizational questions asked in Part Three.

 

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