Teams, Leadership, Technology,

Unlocking Org Success with Paul Tolchinsky, a founding father of modern org design

Expert author: Paul Tolchinsky


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This episode of The Org Design Podcast was recorded live at the Festival of Org Design 2024, hosted by the Organization Design Forum.

Show Notes:

Eric Trist -

Change Xcelerators -

Paul Tolchinsky -




[00:00:00] Amy Springer: Good morning. Welcome to the Org Design Podcast. We are recording at the Festival of Org Design hosted by the Org Design Forum . We are sitting here with Paul Tolchinsky . Now I have spoken to a few people, there is a questionnaire about who is their org design mentor, and you have been mentioned many times. So we are so glad you've agreed to sit down with us.

[00:00:23] Paul Tolchinksy: Oh, that's awesome. Oh, thank you. It's a great compliment with people actually use my name. I think the good news is I've been doing it for a long time and along the way you meet people whose lives influence yours and you influence theirs in a way that changes the trajectory. I was fortunate to have three or four people in my life who changed my trajectory. It's nice if I changed somebody else's along the way.

[00:00:54] Damian Bramanis: Maybe that's a good point to start at. What is it that got you into org design from the beginning?

[00:00:59] Paul Tolchinksy: That's a good question. There's actually two short stories. First is, I was the HR personnel specialist for a new product startup division of a consumer products company. My job was basically to write the job descriptions when we were piloting a new product. Yep. So the new product might be, we made a stuffing for turkeys or remember the candy that blows up in your mouth? Pop rocks.

[00:01:26] Damian Bramanis: The popping. Yeah.

[00:01:27] Paul Tolchinksy: . So we piloted, and if they, If the product was a successful market test, then you scaled up the whole factory. If it wasn't, you said, thank you, and cleaned out that part of the factory and started all over again.

[00:01:38] Damian Bramanis: Either which way, organizational change.

[00:01:40] Paul Tolchinksy: And the consultant to that was a guy by the name of Eric Trist, who the founder of socio technical systems thinking. So it was an incubator for how do you imagine people and machinery, and how do you optimize both in a way that creates meaningful work and creates good products. So it was an incubator for learning about this interface between humans and machines and how to best create a workplace. Yeah. The second story is I worked in a factory that went on a 140 day strike.

[00:02:14] Damian Bramanis: Wow, okay.

[00:02:16] Paul Tolchinksy: People were blowing out each other's tires. They were. Breaking each other.

[00:02:19] Damian Bramanis: That's a month, that's a five months, is it?

[00:02:21] Paul Tolchinksy: Yeah, it's five months, exactly. People were fighting with each other, tore up whole families, and then one day the union and management settled, and everybody came back to work like nothing had happened, and I thought, that's just not possible. That's just not, that's just not possible. There's underneath five months worth of anger and animosity and everything else like that, there's gotta be There's something else going on here. Yeah, and so this whole notion of How do you create work? How do you get people to do things in a way that they feel valued and appreciated. A lot of the five months was about people not feeling valued and appreciated, and so I used to train supervisors and I would in but then they wouldn't do what I told them. Yeah, And so I would say come on, I know you know how to do this, why aren't you doing it? And the answer is because of some systemic issue or problem or bad incentives or bad rewards, and so it got me in this whole path of why do people do what they do at work? How do we consciously create the experience in a product process technology? So that's how I got into it.

[00:03:34] Damian Bramanis: Yeah.

[00:03:35] Paul Tolchinksy: And Eric was my mentor and his gift was as a social psychologist, he never had an answer. He would always talk to people and he would discover the answers in them and then he would go to management and say, here's what we need to do and they would be, you're brilliant.

[00:03:51] Damian Bramanis: We never knew that. We never talked to them.

[00:03:52] Paul Tolchinksy: And Eric, and if you asked Eric three days before he got there, what he thought he was going to say. He would not have a clue. No. Yeah, he would not. And so he was a model for the kind of consultant you want to be. Yep. And a model for the kind of work you want to do.

[00:04:07] Damian Bramanis: So there's some things that you've said there about meaningful work, about values, about talking to people, and there's some things you haven't said. You haven't said drawing lines and boxes. You haven't said crunching the numbers and data analysis. Tell me a little bit more about why that?

[00:04:21] Paul Tolchinksy: I think part of the answer to your question, Damian, is what's your hypothesis about what creates successful living systems? Yes, and what creates successful living systems is human interaction? Technologies are interesting. I used to take American managers to Japan and oftentimes my, the people that went with me, they had the same machinery and the same equipment, and the exact same technology that the Japanese factory did. But the Japanese factory outproduced the U. S. factory by double. Wow. By double. And you say why is it? And when you look at the machine in Japan, even though it has the same name and the same model number, it's been improved. It's been changed because people have the freedom to create their workplace and to do their work in a way that makes it the best possible situation. So the differentiator is people, not the machine or not the process flow. The regression equation is if you want success, the number one criteria for success is get the people in the mindset with the right attitudes and give them the tools, and freedom to do their work, then profitability and performance and everything else comes.

It's not about org charts, not about hierarchies. It's not about layers and levels and spans of control. It's about giving people the opportunity to have a voice. Yeah, that's what org design is about. How do we free people up to be able to have a voice.

[00:05:47] Damian Bramanis: Yeah. And so it's not about saying there are 8.0 people here, it's saying, what's the environment that of those people, we can, each of those people can count for the most. What's the environment that gives them the best outcome?

[00:05:59] Paul Tolchinksy: And how can people best, how can you bring out the best in people? Create the conditions and the circumstances where you can bring out the best in people, and so it's giving them the tools. Maybe it's giving them the technologies, maybe it's just simply like in Japan. It's just giving them the freedom to improve.

[00:06:17] Damian Bramanis: So that it sounds like that was the mindset that you very much came into Org design Thinking of how to nurture the best environment for people.

[00:06:25] Paul Tolchinksy: Not quite. Okay, because, I mean I was in the military and as a 20 year old new soldier. Yep. I was the platoon leader for my platoon, and this is in the Vietnam era. I came home one night from having a couple beers with friends, and I found all of my clothing and my bed in the street. Wow. With a note that said, basically, I can't repeat it, and my first reaction of course was shock. My second was anger, how could they do that? I'm going to call them all out and I'm, I got more stripes on my sleeve than they do. I can, I'm the boss. I could pull rank. Exactly. And one of the people that was with me said, sleep on it. Don't do anything rash. Let's put everything away and tomorrow, you'll figure it out. The next day, in the morning formation, I thanked everybody who had participated in moving my bed out into the street because it was an important message for me to get. Yeah. And if that was the only way to get the message, I'm sorry that you had to do it that way, there were no repercussions. There was no ramifications, and what I said is I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. You want to put my bed out again? Feel free. You want to come talk to me? Come talk to me. That event created in me this question about, why do people do what they do? Why do people do what they do at work? That didn't seem rational or logical. Why can't you just come talk to me? And literally as a 20 year old, I was struck with this, why do people do what they do? They act irrationally in a rational world, they behave in ways you don't think make sense, and then when you look systemically, you begin to understand better what's causing the behavior. They weren't mad at me, they were mad at the bosses above us who were making them do things. I was just the closest thing they could take it out on. So that's a little bit longer winded answer, Damian, than you were looking for.

[00:08:21] Amy Springer: So I would like to dig into that one a little bit more, If you could click your fingers and give every leader in every organization a skill, what would that skill be?

[00:08:33] Paul Tolchinksy: The word adaptation comes to mind, because, the most important skill for any organization or any leader is the ability to adapt. What we heard yesterday from Bob Johansson is we need foresight, we need insight, but once we get the foresight and the hindsight and insight, then we need to act. We need to be adaptive, and in today's world things are changing so much faster, that I think the core skill is how do we create adaptive living systems, that are able to respond to stimuli, much more quickly. I think that survival in the future is about acting and adapting.

I think that's the most important skill. that people in organizations are going to need. But you need what drives adaptation is your ability to sense what's going on in the environment and to make some sense out of it.

[00:09:33] Damian Bramanis: Carrying on that topic, rather than thinking about leaders, thinking about org design professionals in particular. You've worked with lots, and spent time with a lot of people in the org design industry. What skill, or what approach do you think people could most benefit from?

[00:09:50] Paul Tolchinksy: Oh I think the session we just did. It's about what differentiates org design as a profession from so many others, is the ability to think systemically, to be able to stand in the space of complexity, and to be able to be able to see the complexity without trying to simplify it, or make it easier in some way. The enterprise architects and some of the IT Agile people, they come close but even their systems model is somewhat limited to the technology and the software and things like that. So the first differentiator is systems thinking. The second differentiator though, is the ability to stand in the space of complexity and see all the granularity. . It's not as simple as there's the machine, there's the people, there's the process, there's an interaction between those things. That's invisible. There's a set of conversations between people that we may not see. There's a lot more under the microscope and really good org designers actually not only they not only see the pieces. But they see how the pieces intertwine and interact.

[00:11:03] Damian Bramanis: Is that something that you think is learned? That people learn over time through experience?

[00:11:08] Paul Tolchinksy: I don't think I came to it. Nobody taught me. I don't think I learned it in high school. No. I do think it's something that you develop over time. I was a trainer and I knew that if I trained people, I knew they knew what to do. Yeah. I used to say if I put a gun to your head, and your life depends on it, could you do it? And if the answer is yes, it's not a training problem. It's a systemic issue. That there's something else that's causing you not to do what you know intrinsically is the thing to do. You begin to learn systems thinking when you start processing that.

[00:11:44] Damian Bramanis: I'd love to go a step more practical. Okay. Many of our listeners are not professional org designers but are leaders who are trying to improve their organization. Put yourself in the head of someone who is seeing problems in their organization today, they're a leader a part of their organization, and they want to make some good decisions. They see the need to make some improvements to change. What are some concrete steps that they should be doing to understand that what change should be happening and then making that as effective as possible?

[00:12:17] Paul Tolchinksy: It's in today's world, there's a couple of things that come to mind. The first is almost always leaders deal with this question of resistance. I know we need to change. I see the change that's needed, but maybe my people don't and they're pushing back, or you're going to get pushback as a leader.

The first question is how do you imagine resistance and embrace it and engage with it? It's not a skill that most leaders learn in their graduate programs, ? How do you actually lean into resistance in a way that helps inform you as a leader about what do you really need to do?

How do you talk to the biggest resistors? How do you find out what the anxieties and the concerns are? How do you legitimize them? Not to say that they're wrong, but to say that your view and I respect it, and so it's the first thing because there's always some element of resistance in every change. Most leaders are ill equipped . They think it's something to be overcome. I have to convince you I have to sell you fight harder. And the more you try to do that, the less it works. So I think that's the, that's the first thing.

I think the second is I work in microcosms as a leader. From a systems point of view, how do you get a more holistic view of what's really going on in your own organization? And I'm proposing to this potential client that I'm working with now. He needs a broader view of his organization. He's got the strategic view of the business and the marketplace, but he doesn't necessarily hear the drumbeats of what's happening three, four or five levels down. So the question is, how do you convene a microcosm of people who could help inform you about what's really going on so that when you choose a course of action, it has a higher degree of potential to be successful. Most leaders simply go to their direct reports. But the direct reports only know what they know. They don't know what's going on three, four levels down any more than you as the leader do, and so I believe in the power of bringing together representative cross sections of people, whether you put them in a focus group or whatever the activity is to see the world they see, because that's what's driving their behavior, and if you can see the world, they say, then you can better understand why they, think the way they think and do what they do. Those would be the two most important things.

[00:14:48] Damian Bramanis: I really like how both of those are a difference in mindset of how people might actually think about changing their organization and it's very much the mindset of, it's okay to be a novice and it's okay to acknowledge difficulties and to be a tourist and look and try and understand what's there. Rather than the mindset of, the steaming through. I've just got to make this change happen. And I know exactly what it is that needs to happen. I think it's quite a quite an opposite mindset to what people might've expected.

[00:15:15] Paul Tolchinksy: Leaders are really smart people, it's like giving them AI, give them tools that help make them, I want to use the word better. I that's not quite the word, yes. . Leaders work too hard because we've trained them if they have to have the answer, that's how you get to be a leader is you have the better answer than somebody else,

[00:15:38] Damian Bramanis: or at least look like you do

[00:15:39] Paul Tolchinksy: it in today's world. That's ridiculous, ? What you need to do is be able to ask good questions you need to be able to listen to see the world that the people in your organization who you hired because they're smart and then trust their wisdom and integrated into your thinking and you get a much, you get a much more robust, better answer, and by the way, everybody buys into it because everybody sees their opinion in it somehow. We, we've taught leaders inappropriately. We didn't teach them how to tap the wisdom of their system. We taught them how to be white knights in shining armor and bring in the answers.

[00:16:19] Amy Springer: Amazing. Thank you, Paul. I think leaving our listeners with that message, you don't need to know everything is a great way to wrap up. So thank you so much for spending time with us.

[00:16:30] Damian Bramanis: Yeah, absolutely. It's been a pleasure. Is there anything if people are interested in learning more about you or some of the concepts you've talked about, is there somewhere that they should be going?

[00:16:37] Paul Tolchinksy: I'm semi retired and trying to retire, but I just started a new company. If people wanted to explore it more, , they LinkedIn, but there's a group that I've created with some old friends called the Change Xcelerators. Okay. And it's mostly people that are grey haired like me who believe in the things that I just espoused.

[00:16:59] Damian Bramanis: Fantastic.

[00:16:59] Amy Springer: That sounds amazing. I think as we lead into an increasingly rapidly changing uncertain future, keeping the wisdom that you guys have from the past is really great for us. Thank you for that.

[00:17:09] Paul Tolchinksy: You're welcome.

[00:17:10] Damian Bramanis: Thank you.

[00:17:11] Paul Tolchinksy: You're welcome.

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