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Three Lenses to Understanding Organizations

In The Three Lenses: A Guide to Understanding Organizations, John Carroll presents a framework for understanding organizations. This was an interesting read, especially as initiatives in technology often fail without the right partnerships across the organization.

Did your organization make a lot of formal rules, or did informal rules emerge from how people worked together? If there were formal rules, were they followed rigorously? In many organizations, people go around the rules in order to get the work done efficiently or simply for their own convenience. In organizations that strive for innovation, the underlying principle is “find a rule and break it.” But if we throw out all the rules, how can we work together at all? There must be processes and practices to help everyone sort out which rules can be broken, when, and by whom.

John Carroll

To avoid unanticipated resistance, failures of implementation, or undesirable side effects understanding the following three lenses outlined by John Carroll could help with the organizational goal or effort you are working on:

  • The Structural or Strategic Design Lens: The basic idea of strategic design is that organizations are machines. If you get people with the right knowledge and give them appropriate tasks to do and sufficient information to accomplish the organizational goals, then action will come from this planning and structure. Andrea Jones says organizations with leaders and managers who answer yes to questions such as “Do you document your processes, and are they accurate?”, or strongly articulate the desire to be able to say yes and demonstrate actual activity toward achieving these states likely value data and structure, and both can be used to influence change in the organization
  • The Political Lens: The basic idea of political lens is that organizations are contests for power and autonomy among internal stakeholders. There is competition for resources, but action comes through this power. Andrea Jones says “When many different groups or managers must be involved for things to happen, this speaks to a highly relationship-based organization. Also, if multiple levels of the organization must be on board for big project work to get done or new initiatives to be truly adopted, this indicates that people at all levels wield power and must be considered when attempting change.”
  • The Cultural Lens: The basic idea of cultural lens is that organizations are institutions with systems of values, routines, informal norms, and traditions. Action comes through habit. Andrea Jones says, “There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in terms of culture, there is only ‘fit'”.

James Clear’s recent 3-2-1 newsletter highlighted a similar analogy that seems appropriate to align initiatives with the right intersection of lens:

When rain falls, it flows downhill. If desired, you can collect the rain in a bucket and carry it uphill, but the natural tendency of water is to flow toward the lowest point. Most situations in life have a tendency—a direction in which things want to flow. You can choose to go against the flow (just as you can choose to carry water uphill), but your results tend to be better when you find a way to work with the gradient of the situation. Position yourself to benefit from the external forces at hand and you will get more from the same unit of effort. Energy is conserved and results are multiplied.

James Clear

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