OrgCogDiss

OrgCogDiss

Organisational cognitive dissonance. That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? And a bit of a weird concept to get one’s head around, too.

It seems like many folks skip over the whole idea, which I feel is a shame, as OrgCogDiss lies at the heart of why Agile adoptions – and other transformative change initiatives – fail so often, and can cause such angst.

Before we talk about OrgCogDiss, let’s look at the related idea of the Organisational Psyche. You’ve heard the story of the research with monkeys and a banana? This illustrates how a group can evolve to the point where some of its beliefs are in some way independent of the beliefs of the individuals in the group. There is much written on the collective psyche, but the general idea relevant here is that a group can somehow posses a “psyche” – much like that of an individual, but independent from the individuals constituting that group, and by extension, organisation.

Aside: As an organisational psychotherapist, I work primarily with this so-called organisational psyche.

Context

OrgCogDiss becomes relevant in times of change. Let’s lay out the kinds of organisational changes where this is so:

These are the kinds of organisation-wide changes which imply a change of perspective, a change of world-view, a change of belief on the part of folks in the organisation. In Rightshifting, we call this a transition from one mindset to another. This kind of change happens less frequently than e.g. incremental change where prevailing belief systems are not called into question.

For example: Many organisations believe in the value and efficacy of a command hierarchy; in the role of professional managers as the planners of the work, as advised by F W Taylor in the early twentieth century:

“Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.”

Some people, however, may come to believe something different. That self-organisation of e.g. teams offers a more effective way of getting things done. As this idea spreads through an organisation, some folks will shift their beliefs and adopt the idea, others will still retain the ‘old’ idea that a split between managers and workers is necessary, or simply “common sense”.

At this time, when the organisation is “in transition”, the two belief systems will contend within the organisation. Individuals may fall into one camp or the other on this issue, but the organisation as a whole has two dissonant ideas in play – inside its ‘”collective psyche” – at the same time.

Each camp will, over time, come to see the other as in some way “alien” and unnatural (hence the headline image to this post). This contention is what sets up a state of cognitive dissonance. Not in the individuals necessarily, but in the organisation as a whole. Et voilà: OrgCogDiss.

There’s much research to show the effects of cognitive dissonance on individuals. Less so for the effects of OrgCogDiss.

Memeplexes

The issue of transition is compounded by the observation that when an organisation is in transition, it’s rarely just one idea, concept or belief that’s in flux. Rather, it’s much more likely that a whole passel of interlocking ideas are in flux together. Some folks call such interlocking and mutually reinforcing sets of ideas “memeplexes“.

This means that in a transition, the challenge is to replace one memeplex with another, wholesale. And complete the transition before OrgCogDiss forces an unhappy, but inevitable, resolution. Approaching doom can sometimes be deferred or delayed though e.g. a skunkworks approach or French Letters, but rarely avoided.

Resolution

OrgCogDiss is sufficiently disruptive, disturbing and stressful that it will resolve itself. Typically with a half-life of around nine months. That’s to say, over some sample population of organisations suffering from OrgCogDiss, some 50% of them will have resolved the situation within nine months, 50% of the remainder in another nine months, and so on.

How does OrgCogDiss resolve itself? Usually in one, or some combination, of these six ways:

  • The new memeplex fails to achieve critical mass within the organisation. A tipping point is notreached, and the organisation reverts to its original, pre-transistion memeplex:
    • Some folks who have, individually or in small groups, embraced the new memeplex are unable to give it up and return to the old beliefs, and now see the rest of the organisation as irredeemably alien and stupid. These folks therefore soon choose to exit the organisation.
    • Some folks who have embraced the new memeplex are unable to give it up and return to the old beliefs. The rest of the organisation sees them as irredeemably alien and disruptive, and therefore soon forces them to exit the organisation.
    • Some folks who have embraced the new memeplex are unhappy to give it up, but feign doing so to remain with the organisation. This feigned abandonment is a continual source of regret and demotivation for them, and of ongoing stress within the organisation (OrgCogDiss converts into individuals’ cognitive dissonance).
  • The new memeplex succeeds in achieving critical mass within the organisation. A tipping point is reached, and the organisation adopts the new memeplex across the board:
    • Some folks reject the new memeplex, unable or unwilling to give up their old beliefs, and now see the rest of the organisation as irredeemably alien and crazy. These folks therefore soon choose to exit the organisation.
    • Some folks rejected the new memeplex, unable or unwilling to give up their old beliefs. The rest of the organisation now sees them as irredeemably alien and outmoded, and soon forces them to exit the organisation.
    • Some folks reject the new memeplex, unhappy to give up their old beliefs. Even so, these folks choose to remain with the organisation, feigning adoption. Their feigned abandonment of the old ideas is a continual source of regret and demotivation for them, and of ongoing stress within the organisation (OrgCogDiss converts into individuals’ cognitive dissonance).

Implications

One implication of OrgCogDiss is that when embarking on a transition (whether intentional and planned, or accidental and ad-hoc), it can be helpful to approach it in such a way as to minimise OrgCogDiss. A broad-and-shallow approach – whether incremental or big-bang – should be more helpful in this respect than a narrow-and-deep approach. Adam Kahane writes about this in his book “Solving Tough Problems“. He relates his experiences in helping build a post-apartheid South Africa, noting how a flock of flamingos rises from a lake, slowly, but together, in harmony.

Another implication is that we might choose to use the power of OrgCogDiss – for it is indeed very powerful – to our advantage in accelerating the inevitable resolution, making it succeed (or fail) as quickly as possible. No business wants to be in a state of transition for any length of time, even though the prize for a successful attempt is huge.

– Bob

Further Reading

Managing Transitions ~ William Bridges

5 comments
  1. Bob,

    This is just a great post…thanks for writing it. Captures what I have been getting at over here.
    I just posted a question up on twitter wondering if there is data showing a direct correlation between organizational pain level at the start of, say, an agile adoption and the degree of eventual adoption. My theory being the less pain the org. is feeling, the less they are likely to change. Any thoughts on that?
    -Dave

    • Hi Dave,

      Apologies for missing your comment – and thus for the belatedness of this reply.

      Low OrgCogDiss could mean a number of things:

      The org was ready to make the transition.
      The org has not actually changed much (so far).
      The org is on “tranquillisers” of some sort.
      The org has a good therapist (we could wish!).
      Other.

      So, risky to theorise absent other indicators/symptoms?

      – Bob

  2. Cognitive Dissonance is indeed the cause of much grief / lost opportunity at work. Yet dissonance in music can be used to great effect e.g. the end notes of the beginning motif of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones.

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