Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Valuable Lessons from the Organizational Behavior Teacher's Society

Each year the Organizational Behavior Teacher's Society hosts a conference for it's members, some of the most influencial OB thinkers and educators in the world. Most who attend the Organizational Behavior Teacher's Conference (OBTC) hold a Ph.D. and are excellent teachers, many of whom are called upon to offer leadership programs attended by MBA candidates from around the globe.

I joined the Society in 2002 and attended the OBTC that year to co-present the Samurai Game® for conference attendees. This past June was my third conference and Game presentation there. Unlike other academic conferences where suits and business outfits are the order of the day - at OBTC a pair of Dockers or a skirt might be considered almost formal. It's not a place for dark auditoriums filled with high brow academitians waiting to slice and dice other presentors delivering research papers. Rather, this is a four-day cornicopia of exercises and lively discussions. Presenters share their best so that the rest of us can take it back home and put it to use in our consulting practices, or in trainings and classrooms. It's truly a win-win atmosphere ... education is at its finest. It's a fun (and often funny), rejuvenating and insightful four days.

Each morning opens with an "overall session" that most participants usually attend. This year one of these sessions was conducted by Dr. Karl Weick. Who is he? One of the most respected OB'ers in the world. Of him Diane Coutu (The Harvard Business Review) said in April 2003:

What can we do to better recognize and manage the unpredictable? Few people are better qualified to answer that question than Karl E. Weick, the Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan Business School at Ann Arbor, and professor psychology at the university. Over the span of his career, Weick has become world renowned for his insights into why people in organizations act the way they do. His book The Social Psychology of Organizing, first published in 1969, turned organizational psychology on it head by praising the advantages of chaos, demonstrating the pitfalls of planning, and celebrating the rewards of "sensemaking." These insights were expanded in a later book, Sensemaking in Organizations (1995). Most recently, Weick -along with University of Michigan colleague Kathleen M. Sutcliffe - has turned his attention to Managing the Unexpected (2001). [Managing the Unexpected]

On the morning of June 20th I along with 200 other OBTCer's attended Karl Weick's overall session: "Drop Your Tools." What he had to say hit me between the eyes and in the heart. Weik proposed that people often take counterproductive action when faced with the chaos of radical change. He suggested that the tools (skills, methods, beliefs,ways of communicating, etc.) we spend so much time and money on to learn, use and own, can begin to "own us". If we do not remain vigilant these tools can become deterrents to our success. Thus in the very moments when needs are high for correct action we might find ourselves hampered by our habitual adherence to and/or an identification with a tool; and for the sake of the illusion of security we often don't deal with reality. By holding on to something we've paid dearly for and have now become identified with, Weick suggested, we can hinder (at best) or destroy (at worst) what's really important in our lives. The boundary that separates the "who that we are" from the "what that we use" becomes blurred. This is dangerous.

Listening to Weick open his talk about how hanging-on can be counterproductive was not a new idea to anyone attending his session. But as he employed an analogy and laid out the research he had done to illustrate this concept he got to me and to everyone else. What he talked about was down to earth, easy to see and understand, and it was profound.

Using well documented case studies Weick talked of highly skilled men and women who fight forest fires. He spoke specifically about those who lose their lives because of their refusal to Drop Tools when surrounded by immediate life-threatening danger. Even though these individuals and teams he spoke of knew exactly what they were supposed to do when ordered to "Drop Your Tools", a very high percentage of them took the opposite course of action and consequently lost their lives. Think about it ... well trained fire fighters running as fast as they can to save themselves, hearing the lifesaving scream from their team leaders to "Drop Your Tools" ... and even passing on the order ... yet blindly continuing to hang on to chain saws, shovels, axes, heavy ropes, blades and even gas cans. Holding tightly to weight that they have been repeatedly told will cost them precious seconds and could cause their death, these people attempt to outrun hell storms of caused by unexpected wind shifts, down drafts or explosions. Weick further showed evidence that is not unheard of to find that many team leaders who issue the "Drop Your Tools" order then slow themselves down and pick up the same tools that others have jettisoned. Some of these leaders died because they lost the split second advantage they needed to effectively survive a radically changing situation. Leaders who survive often relate how surprised they are to find themselves out of harm's way and look down at their hands to find a tool that wasn't theirs. On reflection some remember having picked it up thinking "it's too valuable to leave behind." Some have admitted that they even slowed down and looked around "to find a safe place to put the tool so that it (not I) could survive the fire."

As an outsider to fighting forest fires this can sound insane. But when I think about my own life and my own changes I'm no longer an "outsider." What happens to these fire fighters happens to many people in different scenarios. It illustrates that the value of a tool, technique, belief or way of being can and sometimes does bizarrely surpass the value of an individual's life.

Weick's comments first struck a professional chord in me. I found myself pondering: "What do I rely on to perform or advance my work? Am I willing to drop some of these things in order to progress, OR have I become so identified with my tools that they own me?" As he continued to speak, thoughts of my profession faded and I began to consider the person I am and the precious relationships that I have and want. Here I took a deeper look. As I write today I am still looking.

What have I relied on (in some cases sadly) as a means of survival when it comes to relationships? What tools (opinions or certainties) have I been carrying that address my responses to other people or about relationship, men, women, children, parents, lovers. What have I been carrying through my life that I thought was needed for success but now weighs me down? Have I become blind? Did I pick up tools to serve an important need back then which now no longer exists? I'm just hanging on out of habit? Do these tools really serve me, particularly in meaningful ways, with someone new? Where have I stopped being "the me that I am" only to become a blind operator of an embodied practice that was once learned, but now mostly protects me from worn out fears and past mistakes?

In a spirit of respectful service and growth, perhaps we could all consider similar questions.

Dr. Karl Weick's comments delivered at the 2006 OBTC are not yet available online. Rather than wait until they are, I decided to find out when he has used the "Drop Your Tools" analogy elsewhere. Here for your reading and thought is "Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies", published in the Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), June 1996. His article challenged the ASQ examine the tools it was using that needed to be dropped.

Take time to hit the link to "Drop Your Tools". Read the article ... translate it into what matters for you ... give it some attention and think about it. Something valuable is being illuminated here.

Best wishes,

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