Jean Russell — Perspectives On Organizational Change

Mike Parker
Feb 6, 2018 · 11 min read

“Knowing that you are a small part of something much greater and vaster soothes something in our being “

The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.

On this occasion I was lucky enough to steal some time from Jean Russell’s busy schedule.

Jean is on a quest to catalyze group productivity — cultivating flows for a more thrivable world, she co-creates strategy and culture that delivers on purpose. She is currently the ICO Project Lead at Holo, a distributed cloud hosting gateway helping to build the decentralized internet of the future.

Jean authored: Cultivating Flows: How Ideas Become Thriving Organizations and Thrivability: Breaking Through to a World That Works with Triarchy Press. Jean received an honorable mention on the Enrich List as one of the top 200 people enriching our path to a sustainable future. She is also listed as one of 100 women globally co-creating a P2P Society.

She has been facilitating strategy retreats, conferences, and workshops in North America, Europe, and Australia since 2007.

Mike:
Do you think that major change is going to be inevitable in most organizations around the world both commercial and non-commercial?

Jean:
Absolutely. Change is inevitable. To what degree and in what direction is perhaps the more interesting question.

Mike:
Right. To what degree and in what direction do you think most organizations would need to change, or will have to change, in order to adapt?

Jean:
There’s this beautiful and probably not very well known work by Ton Van Asseldonk about productivity. He goes through the development of the production process: from the craft basis, where one person does end-to-end productivity, through to the factory system, and how that increased productivity. How having one person screw on the leg over and over is better than one person put all the parts together, in terms of productivity.

Then he goes into network production. He shows how network production is even more productive at the right kinds of scale. So, if you want all those tables to have a custom design on top of them, because we all like uniqueness, that kind of work can be done by a network better than it can be done by a factory. I think that this shift to a higher level of productivity through a change towards network production is a core piece of what’s emerging.

An example of that would be something like Lyft. A whole network is producing something. It’s not a factory production approach. It’s not a rental car agency that has to own and operate and control all of those pieces. It’s people who are popping up and then being coordinated.

It reduces some of the bottlenecks that happen in the system and the holding of reserves, because the system just keeps self-adjusting. So, I think network production is part of the change for the future — coordinating rather than managing.

Mike:
I think one of the things which I was really interested in trying to understand with the series of interviews that I’ve been doing is what people’s views are on how legacy organizations might be able to adapt. Whether you think, they can, or do you think that actually it’s going take the emergence of new organizations with different principles to actually be able to work properly in a new environment?

Jean:
Beautiful question, and I’m not convinced of the answer, but I’m inspired by Nilofer Merchant’s work on The New How and the Social Era. She talks about it in terms of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs who are large and weighty like big gorillas, will they survive? And dinosaurs totally survived. They became birds.

There’s some major transformations required to become a flock of birds rather than a single dinosaur, but it happened.

We don’t need 10,000 person organizations where everyone is an employee of an organization. That also might imply some changes to our governmental structures, because the insecurity for the individual in the gig economy, while good for an organization and its bottom line, doesn’t provide the safety nets that we’ve also received from businesses in the past.

Mike:
Right. It does seem as if government is involved in trying to divest itself of a lot of responsibility for safety nets and stuff like that at the same time as the corporate world is actually saying, “Well, we’re going to do things in this new way now, which means that we’re not going to do that stuff anymore at all.”

Jean:
Yeah. There’s an opening for some third thing to emerge, such as big cooperatives that are helping with health insurance and creating some of those social nets. But it’s a piece of the equation. Corporations will be enabled to do the shift toward network production to the degree that some of that care of the humans in the system is also able to happen, in my opinion.

Mike:
And I guess that there’s also a possibility there that various corporations will actually sponsor some of the activity themselves simply because they will see the evident benefit of it.

Jean:
A woman that I was working with in France is interested in using organizational risk management to address social and environmental concerns. If an organization in Africa, for example, is concerned about employees not showing up to work because they have malaria, why would they not then invest in insecticide treated nets?

If an organization is worried about the insurance costs of having offices in New Orleans because of the possibility of flooding, could they then work on wetland management upstream to reduce the flooding? I would love to see a marketplace by which corporations could be mitigating their risks and the way to do that would be to pay non-profits to do the work of, for example, insecticide treated nets or wetland management.

Mike:
Very interesting.

Jean:
It would put the energy into a different space in the organization, and be steering towards a longer view, which is not the way corporations have been going lately. They’ve been going towards shorter and shorter time views, which is almost a way of ensuring their demise.

Mike:
Yeah, it’s curious, it seems like a bit of a death spiral, that focus.

Jean:
Are you familiar with the Three Horizons’ work? I think it’s Bill Sharpe, he’s also a Triarchy Press author.

He talks about having three horizons, so you’re concerned about the near term things, the mid term, and then the long term, and holding all three together. We used to do very long term and then realized we can’t control the system that far out, so we got a little short term focused. His work, and others, are opening us back up to considering things in the short, medium, and long term.

Mike:
So this is an interesting one to me, what part do you think that leaders in legacy organizations are changing their own perspective? What role does changing their own perspective or being able to reconsider their own beliefs play into this kind of change being successful?

Jean:
I think of this in terms of world-view. There’s the world-view of, “I have to get me mine because others are out to get me.” Then there’s, “Maybe they’re not out to get me, but if I don’t step up for myself, I won’t get it.” Then there are those with, “taking care of me is taking care of you, and taking care of you is taking care of me. There’s enough for all.”

I think moving closer to that awareness of “if I take care of others, it ends up coming back and taking care of me,” which again goes back to that risk management story of taking care of the wetland management reduces the risk of flooding, which takes care of me.

You see smaller organizations, like Main Street level organizations, investing in the community’s baseball team, and they gain a little bit of advertising off of that, but it’s also about investing in the community and being seen as investing in the community. I think of where can we be investing dollars that way instead of what’s the glossiest marketing campaign we can come up with. The glossiest marketing campaign you can come up with is one that’s full of purpose and generosity and contribution. I think people universally find that pretty sexy.

Mike:
Interesting. The next question I have is around a couple of terms which I see used an awful lot in the context of organizational change or attempts to try to change the culture of organizations. So, I’m going to ask you what the terms values and higher-purpose mean to you. I wonder if you see them as being core to the development of successful and fulfilling organizations if they’re done properly.

Jean:
That “done properly” is the key question, isn’t it? It feels like maybe the mid-90s was when this values-driven stuff came up, and I’m sure there were lots of good intentions when that happened, but it also seems like it’s become this gloss that is laid over something. I think Nilofer would call it an air sandwich, where we came up with the story up high and the actual practice is down here, and there’s nobody checking the integrity between those two things.

But the yearning for it is about that question, “What is the meaning of our lives?” We’re meaning-making creatures. We want to be connected to values and we want to be living out those values in ways that make our lives meaningful. But there’s a dark side to that force which means we can alienate people. We can both say we think family values matter, but you might mean something completely different than I do when you say those words. I feel like we’re at a point where these things are being used to create division, turning it into “us and them.”

Mike:
That’s really interesting, because when I spoke with Carolyn Taylor about Walking The Talk, she was saying the same thing about the difference between values in practice and espoused values. There’s what we say we value and then there’s what we actually do. She was saying, and I think it was a really good point, that we can end up being a little bit lacking in compassion about how peoples’ desire to actually live by a particular set of values can get squished by circumstances. If there’s a conflict for time and there’s a conflict for money or conflict for resources, that’s when you actually see what the hierarchy of values is. It’s not always the same thing. But I found her comment about needing to be compassionate about that quite interesting.

Jean:
Yeah. I find that most people in organizations are doing the very best that they can. Just starting with that premise, even if it’s not universally true, is useful. If these people are doing the best that they can, and they are our sensors — the sense organs of the organization, what does that say? What can we learn by listening to that? Not trying to oversimplify or over-generalize, but rather to ask what are our lived practices are. What are our stories that demonstrate who we are, who we want to be and that let us live into the practice? And celebrate those who are living in the practice so that we can positively amplify those things.

Also, I think there’s some polarity management that needs to be in there. Some of these values may be in contradiction to each other, and that’s okay as long as we’re aware of how are we dancing between two poles. We want to be a money-making organization that really cares about our customers. How are we moving between those things? Where are the stories that show that dance?

Mike:
Do you think it’s actually about being conscious of where tensions are? Maybe values become more of a living thing so they can be aspirational? Or maybe we look at what the aspirational values are and then we look at what actually happens in practice and say, “Okay, maybe we actually need to modify some of these value statements so that they are actually achievable and attainable without losing the aspirational bit.”

Jean:
Yeah. There’s something in there that I want to speak to. There’s juice in the unattainable, in terms of vision, that calls us to our higher purpose. I think of the little quip about how if you ask one guy what he’s doing and he says, “I’m building a building with this block,” and you ask the next guy and he’s like, “I’m building a cathedral that will stand for centuries.”

Knowing that you are a small part of something much greater and vaster soothes something in our being and creates that sense of awe and wonder. I want to dance in that space between the aspirational we’re all trying to live up towards and also allow us to be messy humans, learning in practice and dancing together through these tensions.

Mike:
Really interesting. So you’re pretty busy as co-founder of Thrivable Futures and the ICO project lead with Holo.

Jean:
That’s right.

Mike:
And you are a writer, twice published.

Jean:
Yes. Thrivability: Breaking through to a World that Works, and Cultivating Flows: How Ideas Become Thriving Organizations.

Mike:
I’m sure all of this stuff must be cross-fertilizing into what you’re doing at the moment with Holo as well, which looks like a really exciting project. And you’re a Mom, so life has got to be super busy, and pretty challenging I would think.

Jean:
I would add that I’m in my second marriage, so I’m a mother to three children, one of which I didn’t birth. I live in two different cities.

Mike:
Right, so there’s plenty of complexity there. To give us a brief summary, what is an average day? Is there such a thing?

Jean:
There’s two or three different kinds of days. For now I’m in Sausalito which means I’m on our boat. The days here usually involve watching the sunrise or having breakfast on deck and enjoying the tranquility of being on the water before jumping on a series of phone calls for work, some writing for work, and today one of my colleagues will be coming to visit. So, we’ll probably have a conversation while kayaking together as opposed to a walk and talk — pretty magical.

An average day when I’m in Illinois is I probably don’t leave the house. I sit on my Eames lounge typing on my computer just working straight through, usually on documents plus a few phone calls. Lately, I’ve been doing work in Portugal with a bunch of our team and that involved going into the office and being in meetings face to face with people. So, it’s hard to describe an average day when your days change based on your location.

Mike:
Okay, if there’s one piece of advice you’d give to organizations wanting to move towards being a new and more complete kind of organization, something maybe like but not limited to or bound by the idea of Teal, what would the one nugget be that you would suggest?

Jean:
Participatory processes that leadership partakes in.

It doesn’t mean everyone in the organization in one room at one time doing stuff, but rather participatory processes. World Café, for example, and that leadership demonstrates their investment by showing up and participating and listening to the person who’s three levels down from them.

Mike:
Brilliant. What’s the question I’ve missed, what other questions should I have been asking here in this series, do you think?

Jean:
What are the emerging issues in their new forms? What could we learn from the edges?

Mike:
Okay, would you like to comment on that?

Jean:
Yes. The new comes with its compromises. It’s messy and difficult because it’s not well-practiced and doesn’t have a series of clear and defined, “here’s the best thing to do” in all cases. It is about living into the question. You end up uncomfortable and not getting some answers because you’re living in the questions and not everybody is as engaged with that new form as everybody else.

Being in a space of listening and coaxing and dancing with everybody at the level of interest and awareness that they have is messy and hard.

I think in the end it will be better for our bottom line to have moved in this direction, and it will be better for all of us humans. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy, and so we need to be compassionate with ourselves in the process of learning what that looks like for whatever organization we are in.

Mike:
That’s a great answer, thank you very much.

Liminal Thought Leaders

A collection of articles and observations from the leaders pushing the thresholds of organizational design.

Mike Parker

Written by

MBA innovation and strategy post-graduate studies in Systems Thinking and Governance. Qualified Solutions Focused therapist www.liminalcoaching.co.uk

Liminal Thought Leaders

A collection of articles and observations from the leaders pushing the thresholds of organizational design.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade