August 2017 Features Special Section

Organizational Oceans

Written By: Barbara L. Cotes, Manager of Training and Development for CSX Intermodal Terminals, Inc.

Analogies, metaphors and fables as described by Edward Tufte are a type of thought mapping. The reasoning why these methods work so well, notes Tufte in his book “Beautiful Evidence,” is due to the fact that something has to be explained. A data visualization pioneer, Tuft is an author many instructional and graphic designers turn to for inspiration to explain complex concepts. Therefore, it stands to reason why, as organizational change agents, instructional designers often use analogies to transfer learning of the known to unknown.

Analogies, like fables, are popular because they help us make sense or help translate difficult concepts into something simple or more tangible. Training in essence is simply another way of telling a type of story.

Stories that relate to the ocean resonate well with me. One of my favorite leadership fables is “The Spider and the Starfish,” the 2006 leadership book by Ori Brafman.

In this fable, the starfish is used to symbolize the ability to adapt to change and evolve successfully where the spider is single minded and therefore subject to perish. The point being that change is inevitable and our professional and organization survival depends on how we approach change.

Like several popular leadership fables the book gives human characteristics to animals to explain change and adaptability. Cases in point the mice in “Who Moved My Cheese” by Spencer Johnson, the penguins in “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber, the meerkats in “How We Do Things Around Here” by John Kotter and a personal favorite “The Shark and the Goldfish” by Jon Gordon.
In keeping with this anthropomorphic methodology, my organizational viewpoints are very much aligned with these popular leadership writers.

If we think about the ocean as an organization and we relate our work environment to an ecosystem, we can make connections as to what makes an organization healthy fiscally as well as professionally.
Organizations, like the ocean’s ecosystems, vary but each is made up of individual contributors and teams.

There are symbiotic relationships like a clown fish and anemone, there are some parasitic relationships like the shark and the remora and of course, every organization needs an apex predator hunter killer, or two, so that the organization maintains focus and marketability. Schools of fish depend on each other for survival, however their tendency to blindly follow each other makes them easy prey for other animals also working in teams, such as billfish or tuna, can also be key.

Just as the tides renew the tide pools and change the landscape, every organization must continue to evolve and grow with the changing tides of technology and innovation or, like water in a shallow tide pool, business will evaporate.

Most books about change will identify an important step in weathering change is, as author John Kotter states, to create a vision. During times of extreme change, without a vision, some employees resort to acting like organisms in a tide pool. Some hunker down in an attempt to just weather the storm, some perish from refusing to adapt and some set out to seek new environments.

Bodies of water that need to keep their inhabitants to remain healthy need to give them a safe, even if sometimes challenging environment to grow. Organizations that truly want to keep employees need to do the same. Last year I distilled my notes from several conferences, podcasts and my own readings to the following points on what it takes to keep employees engaged in a changing environment, here are my takeaways.

Employees need to:
• Be informed of the company direction and intentions
• Understand their role and contribution to the company
• Be engaged with their leadership
• Be recognized and rewarded for their efforts
• Be encouraged to be mobile within and around the company laterally

The fauna in any oceanic ecosystem instinctively understands their purpose in the ocean and their role in that ecosystem and are rewarded with sustenance. Employees in a healthy ecosystem need that vision and purpose more clearly stated.

As noted, a company must have a clear vision statement, not just some stagnant saying posted on the company webpage but a short and long term well communicated strategy to approach short and long-term objectives. You also need markers and buoys along the way to aid navigation.

It is important that employees actively participate in the learning culture of the company and their industry. It is important to not just be the best at what your company does, but to be competitive within the industry and be competent in all that your role requires. Being good enough for what you do now is not sufficient to ensure your survival when the tides change.

When it comes to communication, the messages from all levels of leadership must be constant, clear and consistent but most importantly authentic and genuine.

Additionally, it is healthy to have a documented development plan for employees to understand and navigate their role in the company objectives while enhancing their internal career options.
Navigation in the form of mobility, especially for new generations in the workforce, is more important than ever. The ability to navigate and relocate in the ocean is essential if the environment becomes inhospitable or worse yet tedious.

With the modern workforce encouraging a lattice approach in place of a ladder approach to promotion opportunities, there is a better methodology to improve job satisfaction and professional growth. The ladder approach is too much like a food chain and is not a hospitable or nurturing environment.
Stagnation in water or in a role is not good for anyone. Notice how many marine inhabitants must remain moving to survive. And just as crustaceans need to change their shell to grow, rotations in the field, finance and sales develop top and well-rounded performers.

I believe that when leadership of a company communicates the vision and strategy clearly, people intrinsically know what they are supposed to do. Given space to create solutions within that vision, innovation blossoms. Without that space, innovations have nowhere to develop and the evolution of the species or business unit will not occur. While it might not make the business unit or organization extinct immediately, extinction is inevitable without evolution.

And finally, just as an organization must evolve so must we, as individual’s personal life balance is as important as professional development.

At a recent American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) conference, a significant emphasis was put on individual employee wellness as part of the discussion of a safer organization. In addition to personal physical wellness, mental wellness was also addressed.

In navigational terms, keep sight of the shore to remain grounded but don’t be afraid to chart new headings if the environment you find yourself in is not positive or conducive to your personal as well as professional growth. While work gives us sustenance and fulfillment, when we get to retirement it’s the relationships we’ve cultivated over the years that will carry us into those sunset years.

With that said you can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails. Stay true to your own course be good at what you do, be a standard bearer for your profession. Don’t fall behind professionally because if the organization needs to swim upstream and you or your team need to acquire new skills to be a part of the vision, you need to be able to do better than just tread water. You need to be your personal best no matter what water you find yourself in. When it comes to the water you find yourself in, do you best to surround yourself with people who make you better a better you. Complaining and complacency can become habitual if those around you are negative, seek positive influences.

The best advice I can give in maintaining balance is a bit of a twist on the metaphor of life being like a jar of full of rocks, pebbles, sand and water. There is always room to add more. The moral of that story however, is the same and as leadership writer Patrick M. Lencioni is quoted as saying “If everything is important, nothing is important.”

Make sure you focus on what is important and the rest will fall into place. The same goes with organizations if the focus is on what is important the rest falls into place, balanced and in harmony even amongst the storms, like the ocean itself.


BARBARA L. COTES is a retired Navy Veteran with 30 years of experience in developing and delivering learning and performance solutions. She holds a Master’s of Aeronautical Science from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University with specializations in Adult Education and Instructional Design. As a senior instructional designer, she formerly created distance-learning products for the armed forces. Currently she is the Manager of Training and Development for CSX Intermodal Terminals, Inc. headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. She and her team support the sourcing, pipelining and professional development of employees in 38 locations, spanning 23 states.

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