“That re-org really transformed things around here!”

Ha! That’s a statement I have never heard.

I’ve been re-reading Geoffrey Bellman’s The Consultant’s Calling, and it’s hitting home in a million ways. One of the things he talks about is the unknowability and unpredictability of organizations. They are a recent phenomenon in human history, and we haven’t figured out how to use them. They are awkward and unwieldly, unsuited to the humans who try to work in them. They attempt to bring together “a complex combination of resources to meet a wide array of often conflicting needs,” and swing through “cycles of centralization and decentralization” in ways that don’t make sense.

After almost 20 years of consulting to all kinds of organizations and teams, nothing has ever sounded truer. I can recall many conversations with clients where both of us are pretending to understand more than we do, to bring order to something that’s inherently chaotic, to problem-solve something that is unsolvable. We collectively fantasize that moving some parts around will make everything better, that we will hear, “That re-org really transformed things around here!”

So what should we do?!

Geoff urges us to “accept organizational ‘non-sense’:”

“One of the best ways to stress yourself out or get sick is to expect an organization to be rational…or you can accept the nonsense. To accept does not mean that you agree; it means that you see what is going on and are willing to accommodate that reality. Accept that this executive’s pet project will be pursued—even if it does not make sense. Accept that these two guys do not like each other and will not work together no matter how much sense it might make for them to do so. Accept this team’s fear of bringing forth new ideas, or that person’s overzealous pursuit of personal goals. Each of these common behaviors goes beyond the rational and is asking you for acceptance…The organizational upside of all this irrationality is that people can bring more informed energy and focus to their work than reason could ever demand. The bring the motivation we are so often seeking.”

Our acceptance of the nonsense makes room for people to surprise us, for things to emerge that cannot be engineered or planned. If we spend all our energy trying to control what can’t be controlled, that’s a surefire way to kill off the holy grail of organizational life—intrinsic motivation!

This doesn’t mean we never upend organizational structure, provide training and coaching, or undergo planned change processes. It just means that we do what seems most helpful in the moment for its own sake, centering the humanity of the situation, and even centering LOVE.

I’ve coached many clients who in discernment about their vocation. A pattern I’ve seen over and over again is that their need to understand their current organization results in bitterness and frustration. They move onto another one, enjoy a honeymoon period, and then become disoriented again. Maybe some of them need to be self-employed, but some of them could decide to enjoy the ride, focusing on creating a microclimate of kindness, inclusion, collaboration, and meaning in their sphere of influence. It turns out that’s all we can really do, anyway.