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Victor Newman on Sticky organizations making smart people stupid

We are different.Note: This is a somewhat-edited version of my live notes of the webinar.

The APQC KM Community Webinar today was an interesting discussion from Victor Newman about "sticky" organizations and what happens when smart people arrive from the outside.  (UPDATE: Slides and a recording (wmv) of the webinar are posted on the APQC site. They also list upcoming webinars.)

What is a sticky organization?  It is an organization (or sub-organization) where the culture is very strong, and that culture resists change to the culture.  In Victor's reading, this happens more in organizations which have a high relationship capitol.  (This is very different from a "sticky" website, where people want to come back over and over again.)  These are organizations where the idea of "craft work" is very important: what we do is different, unique, not like what you did over there.  "We are different, so that idea could never work here."  Another aspect of the sticky /defensive organization is that there is a disinclination to admit failure. 

Why are sticky organizations problematic for experts coming in from the outside?  In Victor's view, it has a lot to do with the relationship capital.  And this is a lot of his prescription for improving the situation.

Victor had a great quote at the outset, related to expertise: "Experts can only be experts if we (the organization) allow them to be experts."  This tied into the discussion of sticky organizations and then back into one of the typical solutions proposed: bring in experts to help us resolve an issue.  That won't work, if the expert is blocked on all fronts by the stickiness of the organization.  And if the expert comes from the outside, she may not have a lot of relationship capital needed to overcome the resistance and fit into the networks.  In other words, trust.

So, how does one handle the situation where they are coming into a very sticky organizations with their expertise or thought leadership?  Victor had some ideas, but to me these sound like they might be good rules no matter what. 

  • respect the relationship capital: find it, develop your connections into it
  • don't preach: no one likes to hear preaching, particularly if they don't like to admit their faults
  • use their language to define the problem and situation: don't use expert-domain language, as it will only alienate you from the network you are trying to get into
  • pretend to invent solutions on the spot, rather than giving them the history of the method: this is a key suggestion.  If the solution feels like it is developed WITH people, rather than handed to them, they feel much more engaged and interested in the outcome.
  • use local, contextual examples that will make sense to the organization
  • control your body language and be patient as they seek to understand what you are recommending

I come away from the webinar with a odd feeling in my stomach.  Victor seems to be arguing a slow, deliberate introduction into organizations - that there is a key need for the outside experts to develop the right level of relationship capital before they can begin using and exploiting their expertise.  But then this seems to run counter to what I have seen (and done) with traditional consulting.  Of course, I have seen those consulting engagements that work best are those where a good relationship exists with the organization already.  Interesting.

I struggled to get a feeling of a description of the opposite of a sticky organization, so I asked at the end of the webinar.  It may be the opposite to the above, but the sense I got was that "stuck" organizations are not learning from what they've done in the past.  They are not participating in single- or double-loop learning that represents some idea of maturity.  I'd bet that organizations exhibit different levels of "stickiness" depending on the area of expertise in question: they might be willing to learn from and correct mistakes in one area, but then in another area be completely blind.  My concern with the definition also has to do with the idea of strong relationship capital: isn't relationship capital a good thing?  How does the relationship capital conspire to create a sticky organization?  What might prevent that from happening?

[Photo: "We are different." by Jasmine blu]

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