Organizational Health – Diagnose or Die

June 15, 2012  

In our last post we began to show the vital link between systemic agility and organizational health. Systemic Agility© is a process of continuous organizational reconfiguration, which can only occur in those organizations that are truly healthy. We defined the key attributes of Systemically Agility© and we showed the link between these attributes and the practices of the organization. In this post we explore a little further the essence of organizational health.

The concept of a healthy – or, conversely, unhealthy – organization is not new but unfortunately it is too often neglected or ignored, often by those who have not properly grasped what it is all about. Indeed diagnosing organizational health may be avoided by some as it is also perceived as being difficult to achieve. It needn’t be, although it definitely does demand careful thought.

When they are attempted, diagnostic efforts tend to focus on discreet aspects of organizational health – such as leadership, team work or motivation. Undoubtedly some of these are useful tools that can provide useful insights into the health of an organization. However, by focusing on specific issues, they may fail to detect other critical aspects of health that need urgent attention. To use a health analogy, the body may appear to look healthy but has a growing cancer which is yet to emerge. The risk is that, when the critical problem shows itself, it is often too late to take remedial action.

This inability to effectively assess all aspects of health has been made all too clear in the sheer number of death or near death failures that have occurred since the recent financial crisis. Some organizations discovered all too late that they were incapable of rapid change or unable to re-strategize; others discovered that they had vital information but did not listen to it (they were deaf to the knowledge they owned). Basically they were unhealthy but did not realize this until the body was subjected to new challenges and pressures and was, unfortunately, found wanting. The diagnostic came too late and the damage was beyond repair; ill health won the day while the “if only we knew!” cry has too often been heard.

Many times this did not need to happen. Diagnosing an organization’s health and then keeping it healthy should be a business imperative in modern rapidly changing organizations and, arguably, these skills should be built into progressive management education.  The sadness here is, of course, that much established management development is now not fully fit for purpose; if it was our organizations would not be in the trouble they are in!

Diagnosing Organizational Health needs to learn from developments in medical care and prevention and wellness campaigns. Medical professionals have alerted people to the need to watch out for a variety of poor heath indicators; similarly Personal Trainers and prevention experts have taught us what is essential in terms of keeping the fit body fit. Psychiatry and Psychology have progressively introduced more expert diagnosis in the symptoms of mental ill health, while counsellors and psychotherapists have developed ways of helping people to remain in mental good health.  The lessons for organisations are obvious – they need to diagnose, get fit and stay fit

Organizational Development needs now to advance its ability to diagnose health in organizations and design remedial actions to allow organizations to both improve health and stay fit once heath is achieved. Diagnostics have to be accurate and intervention has to be targeted at ill health whilst seeing the whole system of the organization in perspective. There is no point fixing one part of the body only to find that the knock on effect damages another. The treatment has to be holistic and ecological.

There is, thankfully, an emerging set of disciplines relating to organizational health diagnosis and health maintenance. From these we believe it is possible to define the essential attributes of organizational health. We believe it is essential to consider at least the following (and note the summary below is far from exhaustive).

How does this organization define its real purpose? There are so many woolly Vision and Mission statements on the walls of so many organizations which add little but confusion to the organization and the people within it.  An organization with a healthy purpose is confident in its ability to sustain success and it uses the whole of the organization to influence this. This therefore involves checking on a regular basis that the purpose is live in the mind and actions of the whole organization and that there is a robust process in place to keep the organization and its practices aligned towards its purpose.

How in tune is the organization with the whole system? It is essential that the organization truly understands the whole system that it is part of, and that all elements of the whole system are working and pulling in the same direction. This is also about making sure that people and systems are aligned properly, that there is no fear of silo mentality and that all stakeholders are actively engaged in the success of the organization.

How alert is the organization to the signals of change? So many organizations try to change too late when the “moment of truth” is , in fact, the truth that they are too late. This therefore entails discovering how the organization predicts and embraces change and how it is ready to make the right decisions at the right times. This also involves testing the organization’s ability to reallocate resources to match changing demands.

How does the organization listen? This is much more than just taking the occasional opinion study or customer care assessment. This is about an organization’s ability to listen, astutely interpret what it hears and take approariate action at the right speed.

How does the organization communicate? This is about the organization being “informed to perform” and involves  the organization being completely able to collect, use and disseminate information in a continuous and dynamic process. Informing the organization in timely and accurate ways so that it can keep focused on its key purpose and goals.

Does the organization build and use real engagement? The whole area of trust is all too often missed in staff surveys and customer assessment and as such a rich data streak is missed. Research shows that simply collecting data about transactions, for instance, will only report on activity, not deep held feelings of care, concern, belonging and trust. This is as true for staff and management as it is for customers and suppliers. The question is, does this organization build engagement holistically in the whole system or does it teeter around the edges?

How does the organization encourage creativity? This is far more than pushing out the occasional suggestion box, and there are so many heroic failure examples of these! It is about testing boundaries, using intuition wisely, having a whole organization process to welcome, encourage and stimulate innovation. It is also about checking that innovation is in healthy competition with doing the normal things well.

Of course this is a learning process and we do not fool ourselves that we yet have all the right answers; as ever we welcome your views and ideas to help strengthen this body of knowledge – our organizations deserve it! In the meantime our next post will introduce how The Systemic Agility Alliance is now tackling the critical issue of holistic and accurate diagnosis.

Ciarán Beary

Ciarán is a skilled facilitator and story-teller. Of our founders, he takes a keen interest in designing facilitative processes that work. His favorite quote is “Be all you can be”. Based in the UK, sometimes you can even find him there. More about Ciarán