By Peter Norlin. Because the focus of our attention—the design of processes (“structures”) that determine human behavior—is a complicated, tricky task, it’s important that we not rush that task. So as we approach the conscious, intentional design of workplace culture, I plan to pause occasionally to offer a guideline that should direct our planning. Based on my experience, our first guideline is linked to the initial phase in the culture design process, the phase I referred to in my previous post as meta-design. What we’re constructing here is the project infrastructure that must be identified prior to beginning the actual culture design phase, since this framework will subsequently determine the specific culture of innovation that we are able to create.
This first guideline involves time—and our use of time is an especially critical factor whenever we introduce change into peoples’ experience. Since we’ll explore the psychological complexities of human systems change more thoroughly in a later post, I’ll simply point out that the dynamics of change are infused with a number of strong (and typically covert) emotions. Because the emotional (and financial) stakes are so high during any human systems change, and because so many things can go awry, it’s important to approach the meta-design phase of culture change with scrupulous care. Since we’ve learned that any successful human systems change rides on meticulous design, and that all effective process design depends on a thoughtful meta-design phase, I also know that the quality of our meta-design work depends on our willingness to slow ourselves down.
The value of slowing down the action to avoid risk and mistakes echoes through a number of familiar, tart nuggets of folk wisdom, including “measure twice, cut once;” “a stitch in time saves nine;” and “pay now, or pay later.” And the French, in fact, apply this concept specifically to the culinary world through their use of mise en place (i.e., “putting in place”). Since the glories of French cuisine require cooks to juggle intricate lists of ingredients that meet together in an array of different pots and pans, at varying times, and at varying temperatures, the key to a delicious dinner is designing its preparation.
This is the purpose of mise en place, and successful chefs learn to prepare and assemble all the necessary ingredients in advance, combine and ready them as they will be used, and place them in spots where they can be deployed conveniently and efficiently. The point is that whatever time is required to prepare the kitchen—or a hospital operating room—is worth it because it enables us to move toward a defined goal with greater precision, confidence . . . and success. And such reflective preparation facilitates the effective design of human process in every type of workplace.
Fortunately, we’ve also found if we follow this guideline to slow down now, we’re able to speed up later. Why? Because when we do our best to be mindful in our creation of a context that will eventually enable us to design the specific, innovative workplace culture we seek, we can be much more confident that when we finally begin to design that culture, we will have all the resources we need, when we need them.
And so, as we continue to build our design infrastructure, what more do we still need to know? Besides identifying our sponsors, there are at least three more questions that we must answer during the meta-design phase. We’ll review this next set of “conditions for success” in our next post.