Taking the pulse of an organisation

By Martin Vogel

If there’s one signature intervention that characterises how we work at Vogel Wakefield, it is the diagnostic enquiry into what’s going on in an organisation. This draws on skills developed over the course of our careers in journalism, strategy and coaching – and, in my case, my epistemological formation as a sociologist. Put simply, it entails getting lots of people to talk to us about their working lives. And trying to understand what it is they need to talk about together that they’re not discussing. Many of our engagements begin this way – particularly when a team or organisation is stuck in some way, which is usually when they turn to consultants.

Journalism and coaching have in common an emphasis on engaging people in purposeful conversation. This is core to how we work. Conversation matters in organisations. More than through structures, memos and policies, perhaps even more than through budgets, it is through conversations that organisations constitute themselves. By hearing what people are and are not talking about, we get the measure of an organisation. And by inviting people into conversations which are different from their normal routines of chat at work, we enable them to talk their organisation into existence in new ways. This opens potential pathways for learning and doing things differently.

When we do a diagnostic, we don’t conduct focus groups but interview individual members of a team and stakeholders beyond. We’re trying to build a multi-dimensional picture of how they see themselves and how they’re perceived by others. We want people to feel safe to speak honestly to us. But the purpose is to feed back to the team what we hear. So we can’t promise confidentiality. Instead we describe the interviews as unattributable and make clear that we’re looking for the broad themes that emerge from the data. Where something arises that is likely to be attributable, we discuss with the interviewee how to handle it.

Among the things we’re looking out for are the dynamics and relationships within the unit we’re working with. That could be a team, a department or a whole organisation. We want to locate that unit within its wider context – within the organisation and beyond. We want to understand how the people we’re interviewing perceive their strategy and purpose – and to what extent this aligns with or contradicts the aspirations of the senior leadership of the organisation.

We’re attuned to questions of power and where it is located – often this may not be where the formal organisational chart of authority might have you believe. We’re also interested in the kinds of things that everybody knows but doesn’t really talk about. The process is a way of surfacing the organisation’s tacit knowledge to itself.

How we work is to conduct the interviews and to write our notes contemporaneously. Once done, we synthesise our impressions and work out what we need to present back. As much as possible, we try to ensure that all those to whom we speak are in receipt of the feedback. Usually, this is presented in the form of us reporting back in person to the group and facilitating a conversation on what the data means. This provides a platform for the group undertaking to work on their development. This may also involve us but doesn’t need to.

The diagnostic, then, is intended to provide information to the client organisation. But what we notice is that there is an intrinsic value that people derive from being interviewed. It’s not often that busy people get the opportunity to pause and step out of their working routine in order to reflect upon it. There’s something about sharing your experience of work with a disinterested outsider that is rewarding. The benefit could be, for example, that the interviewee connects with what they appreciate about their work, or that they articulate something that has been troubling them that they haven’t had space to discuss. Simply being heard and understood helps people to feel valued. So the fact that it is their organisation that is enabling this to happen can help renew people’s engagement and commitment to their workplace.

If, as Socrates maintained, the unexamined life is not worth living, this applies to organisations as much as to individuals. The diagnostic is a route to organisational self-knowledge. This may be a foundation for further interventions. But it is also an end in itself.

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