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Thoughts on the Informal Hidden Dimension of Organization New Entry  Search  

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Neurological roots of relationship
by Michael Ray on 
When problem-solving, particularly interpersonally, it is easy to miss the empathetic component. The best-intended effort to render a problem analytically often goes awry. Many husbands know this from hard-won experience. Science now has an explanation. It also show how the phenomenon inverts, making us susceptible to cons targeting sympathy. Read the account in the North Denver News of a pivotal study at Case Western University.

How could a CEO be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?

When the analytic network is engaged, our ability to appreciate the human cost of our action is repressed.

At rest, our brains cycle between the social and analytical networks. But when presented with a task, healthy adults engage the appropriate neural pathway, the researchers found.

The study shows for the first time that we have a built-in neural constraint on our ability to be both empathetic and analytic at the same time.

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We are wired for sympathy
by Michael Ray on 

Greed is good. War is inevitable. Whether in political theory or popular culture, human nature is often portrayed as selfish and power hungry. UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner challenges this notion of human nature and seeks to better understand why we evolved pro-social emotions like empathy. The basis for human social networks may be wired in our brains.  See at the following presentation available on You Tube

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Revisiting a successful culture change
by Michael Ray on 

I recently attended the retirement reception for Carla Stoffle, Dean of Libraries at the University of Arizona. Carla was first a client for shared leadership training of her department heads, and years later my boss. In that later role as her assistant I was responsible for creating in-house human resource systems to compensate staff and faculty librarians for their learning, to document their competencies, and train them in the skills needed for shared leadership. As speakers proclaimed the national stature and incredible progress in leveraging digital resources that the Libraries made under Carla's leadership, I felt the glow extend to the work that Shelley Phipps (my partner in OD work) and I accomplished over a period of 18 years. It was truly my dream job, and I hope I can make such a contribution to other organizations as time marches forward.

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Pivoting: from Netorganizing to Nurse Tree Arch and Back Again
by Michael on 

Wow! It's been nearly a year since I blogged on my Netorganizing site! A year ago I set out to create a hybrid greenhouse that would provide a controlled environment to counter extreme weather events: the Nurse Tree Arch.

In October and November I conducted two Kickstarter campaigns to fund the build out of the prototype arch. I joined a business development seminar that was based largely on Alexander Osterwalder's book Business Model Generation. In January I completed the conversion of the arch from shade structure to glazed structure. Since then I've germinated seeds, planted them and recently I've harvested the fruit of my efforts. The arch and an outside control bed is being monitored by sensors that collect bed and air temperatures and humidity or moisture content. I've joined gardeners and agencies interested in local food production.  I put my Netorganizing business on hold, but kept in touch with my colleagues from the Community of Practice that formed when I worked with NetForm software.

This past weekend some members of that community came together with Valdis Krebs, author of InFlow organization network analysis software. We met in Cleveland for InFlow training and re-energized the community of practice while we were at it. It's time for me to pick up Netorganizing consulting and move forward. One of the projects that is high on my list of objectives is to help connect the people and groups that are involved in moving the local food movement forward.

Connections are clearly forming, but gaps (structural holes) between groups are likely holding back the ability to coordinate around funding, policy impact and scaling up of the effort. I hope to contribute to conversations about scaling up by mapping and analyzing the development of this network form of organization.

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My new tool: InFlow
by Michael Ray on 

I'm back to blogging with a new network analysis tool to learn - InFlow!
In November 2011 I parted from NetForm after four years of incredible learning with Dr. Karen Stephenson's proprietary network analysis software. Dr. Karen is taking NetForm in a new business direction, and it was time for me to pursue my own vision as well. I've decided to work with Valdis Krebs, the founder and Chief Scientist at Orgnet.com. Valdis is a management consultant, researcher, trainer and author, and the developer of InFlow software for social and organizational network analysis (SNA/ONA). This past month I've been on a shakedown cruise using InFlow. My colleagues Maya Townsend of Partnering Resources in Boston and Deb Peck of Seity consulting in Phoenix provided me with their business resources, and Maya sub-contracted with me for some analysis support on a change management job (see both consultant's  links on the Links page). It's been a perfect arrangement for me to get my InFlow practice going. Thank you Deb and Maya!

Take a look at the May 31st Scientific American blog by Katherine Harmon titled: "Brains' Social Network Formula Dates Back Hundreds of Millions of Years." "There is ancient circuitry that appears to be involved in social behavior across all vertebrates," says Hans Hofmann, an associate professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the new study, published online May 31 in the journal Science. Hoffman and his graduate student researcher Lauren O'Connell examined two parts of vertebrate brains: the so-called "social behavior network," which also includes hormones for social and sexual behavior, and the "mesolimbic reward system," which is involved in dopamine signaling that activates when we engage in pleasurable behavior. Together these two areas make up the social decision-making network, which helps humans, rainbow trout and wild boars know when to flirt or fight or form a posse. They found impressive similarities in the brains of all 88 vertebrates they studied."

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The Challenge of Change
by Michael Ray on 

In John Kotter and Dan Cohen's 2002 book "The Heart of Change" there are incisive stories about the challenge of change. One of the first features two stories illustrating an unsuccessful attempt at change and a successful attempt. They frame the barriers to change this way:

"Four sets of behaviors commonly stop the launch of needed change. The first is complacency, driven by false pride or arrogance.  A second is immobilization, self-protection, a sort of hiding in the closet, driven by fear or panic. Another is you-can't-make-me-move deviance, driven by anger. The last is a very pessimistic attitude that leads to constant hesitation."

 The failure story in their first chapter illustrates the dilemma of an executive committee who decide to change a package system. Only after implementation begins do the problems with adoption of the system emerge. The authors explain - "basically, each division had many people who wanted to continue to run their business the way they had always run it." A relatively closed circle of executives meets a similarly closed set of silos to whom they tossed the change initiative without first creating any common sense of urgency for the change. There was never any thought given to the actual social dimensions of mobilization: the lack of sympathy for the urgency, and the lack of enrollment in the vision.

The success story is illustrative of the power of bridging and the mobilization that is possible when employees share a collective (network) experience. An angry customer tells an sales executive of the company providing the product that he is bugged by having to make alterations to a built-to-order item. The angry customer describes his experience trying to get employees of the firm to listen to him. It occurs to the sales exec that "probably only a few people had ever heard from this directly, and even so they may have never seen him as frustrated as he was (with the exec). The sales exec brokered an agreement with the customer. He sent a team with video equipment to the customer's office and taped 30 minutes of frank conversation (without any put-downs). The edited 15 minute video was then taken to the plant and shown to over 400 craftsmen followed by discussions about what to do. Real mobilization of change occurred as a result. The books authors conclude that what was needed was "seeing" the customer, "Feeling" the customers frustration and the memorable associations that brought - defensiveness that then turned into a call for action - the "changing" that was needed.

Part of the power of an organizational and social network perspective on stories like these is the ability to reframe observations to a level above the individual-the level of relationships. This reframe from individual accountability to group accountability brings to the fore a conversation about our responsibility as individuals to contribute our intelligence to the group, even if it means not going along for the ride. Let's take complacency and the idea that this is driven by false pride or arrogance. I agree. But I wouldn't stop there. I would ask: Is false pride or arrogance reinforced by  relationships where giving constructive feedback is not practiced? Is this reflected in socially closed networks, where bonding around a leader is given more value than taking the risk of bridging to ideas from outside the organization? Bridging takes more effort, has greater risk than bonding, but also a higher likelihood of resulting in productive innovation. Which is the case for your organization?

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Making Sense of the "Social" Side of Change
by Michael Ray on 

When businesses make social media an important addition to their marketing and approach to operations, some writers and pundits are describing this as “the social business.”  In the MIT-Sloan Management Review Improvisations blog by David Kiron, reader Jacob Morgan asks “What makes a Social Business Social?”


David and those who comment on his response to Jacob focus on how social media tools enhance modes of collaboration, and enable new modes of collaboration.  Jacob suggests that business executives are not fans of the word “social.” He writes, “Social, doesn’t imply any type of business value. In fact when one thinks of being “social it typically refers to meeting new people, going out, talking, and being part of a group…Collaboration on the other hand does imply business value.”


My take on the sharing thus far is that it contains gaps in our understanding of the nature and measure of “social.” Perhaps I can make a contribution regarding the gap. I measure organizational (social) networks as part of my consulting practice. In doing this analysis, it is helpful to understand the motivational divide that Sociologist Nan Lin describes as being between “Expressive” networks and “Instrumental” networks. Instrumental motivations tend to produce networks  that are characterized by sparse and weak ties, open groups, and a high external pressure to perform. Expressive (sympathetic) motivations tend to produce networks with dense and strong ties, closed groups, and internal pressure to conform. Think high-level project team vs. religious study group.


Executives see through an instrumental lens, but are also subject to development of expressive cultural identities that sometimes results in closure to ideas from “outside.” They may be motivated by strong reinforcing social ties wrapped up in authoritative roles that suggest their own perfection while demanding loyalty from followers. There is a good reason why they parse the meaning of “social” as Jacob suggests. Yet, if the Social Business is to succeed in what respondent Christine described as “one that actively seeks the engagement and ideas of individuals within and outside the enterprise-and acts on this…creates value and identity from it”  then the mental model of leaders must be open to the value of the diverse organizational roles and identities that this infers. Creating such engagement requires a blend of Instrumental and Expressive motivations, and align with both instrumental and expressive networks of people.


Christine does not separate the Instrumental (value) and the Expressive and Sympathetic (Identity).  Nor do high performance teams. Such teams combine a coherent identity inside, with a divergent reach for new resources outside. This includes recognition of the facilitative impact of social media tools. More importantly, the use of tools reflects the commitment to connect across both weak and strong ties. Where the social connector roles and the operational identities come together, a strong form of committed performance results.
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Why Seeking Advice is a Good Idea
by Michael Ray on 

In the October 2011 issue of Strategy+Business, the magazine reviews "The Detrimental Effects of Power on Confidence, Advice Taking, and Accuracy" by Kelly E. See, et al. The bottom line: Powerful people are less likely to take advice from others, in large part because they have high confidence in their own judgement and don't feel the need to incorporate outside views. By not factoring in other's advice, however, people in power risk making flawed decisions.

I'm reminded of another article published by Chris Argyris titled "Teaching Smart People How to Learn." Argyris is concerned about the skilled competence of professionals and how this sense of confidence in their problem-solving ability leads to failure. About this he says:

"Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the ‘‘blame’’ on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most."

This perverse behavior is caused by what Argyris calls "defensive routines." These routines relate to the age-old dilemma of autonomy versus control. Agryis contends that there is a universal human tendency to design one's actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. to remain in unilateral control;

2. to maximize "winning" and minimize "losing";

3. to suppress negative feelings; and

4. to be as "rational" as possible - by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.

The purpose of all these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. When there is a difference between what we say and what we actually do, we save face by acting to cover up the inconsistency, and make the inconsistency undiscussable. In this way we maintain the appearance of confidence, and save face. The practice of trust in relationships involves "forgiveness" in such matters, as long as there is actual learning, and a reduction in self-serving attempts to hide the obvious.

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Newsletter Available and Other Changes
by Michael Ray on 

The first edition of the NetOrganizing News was published October 20, 2011. It includes a brief article - "The Roots of Organizational Structure" which I am appending to this blog post and a listing of brief seminars on the Social Side of Change. I am in the midst of business changes that I expect will make my services more easily seen and purchased. Keep tuned!

The Roots of Organizational Structure

Roots are the first structure put down by a new plant. Likewise, it is the relationships we cultivate from which a new change or organization will grow. Assume you are an entrepreneur creating a business or service, which you intend to grow into a thriving organization employing many people.   The scale of this offering means you must work ON the business, not only IN it. You must find and employ managers who can help you. You will need to delegate decision making power and give up some control. Would this gain in expertise and diverse perspectives also signal a loss of control and represent a risk to your vision?


This risk of losing control is a classic problem for any entrepreneur. It is not uncommon for a leader in a start-up to lose some sleep over questions like these:

  • Who would you trust to respect your investments in this set of ideas, relationships, tools?
  • How do you ensure that employees protect, rather than steal, the source of organizational uniqueness?
  • How you respond to this potential for theft, and it's cousin "the freerider" who contributes nothing but shares in the profits or benefits produced by the group?

A deeper way to ask this question is: what is your orientation toward trust? Our deep patterns of trust show up in the structures we put in place:

  • If you have a low tolerance for trust, then you could mitigate the risk by creating a vertical hierarchy that positions you at the top, with only one or two trusted managers given access to key information, and constrained by non-compete agreements. You could keep your intentions secret, much like you would in a zero-sum game like chess. You would employ unilateral decision-making, position yourself to be in control and win, and save face by sending mixed messages when your intention is revealed.   
  • If you are not only tolerant of trust, but are in the kind of business or service where tight, hierarchical controls will kill the goose laying the golden egg, then you might opt for a flat hierarchy. You nurture a set of cultural norms in which you make it clear you will reciprocate trustworthiness. In such a culture of reciprocity, peers police free-loaders informally.  You encourage open testing of assumptions, and show a willingness to risk loss of face in the pursuit of solutions.  You bet that in such a culture the resulting creativity keeps you one step ahead of copycats.

Your orientation to trust will also show up through the way you behave in relationships:  assuming employees are costs to be avoided or assuming that people you hire are assets, with something of value to give.   

  • If you are mistrustful, then lead by decreasing variation in your core group-show a preference for convergent thinking and react with disdain toward divergent thinking. Reduce your exposure to others, make negative assumptions about other's behavior  when they challenge your thinking and make most of your decisions unilaterally.  
  • If you want to cultivate trust, lead by increasing variation in your core group.  Practice decision-making involving fact-finding, inquiry and gather divergent thinking before you converge on a decision. Stay open to questions about that decision, while you monitor the feedback that comes with it's implementation.

Which of these choices requires greater upfront effort, but promises less fire-fighting and rework later? That is your NetOrganizing Provocative Question for today!

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The Social Capital of Decision Making
by Michael Ray on 

Unilateral decisions are a behavior that packs a negative punch when it reflects a lack of understanding the interests of those impacted. The most positive use of the “I decide” unilateral approach comes out of what author Jim Collins describes as "increasing your questions to statements ratio." The leaders he interviewed ask questions that encourage debate, and they surround themselves with people who trust that if they take the heretical viewpoint or play the devil's advocate, that their loyalty won't be questioned. Social capital studies reflect the wisdom of keeping council with diverse perspectives.  The highest performing teams are those whose members hold diverse ties to outside views and resources - they don't all know the same people or refer to the same experts. Learning to assess your networks of connections can provide early intelligence about the likelihood of success.

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