Lessons from Harvard 1: Organizational Dynamics Set the Stage for Change

This is the first of four posts based on my experience at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership program that I took in November 2017, led by Dr. Leith Sharp, integrated with some of our GPM Global content where appropriate. The intent of these posts is to show some interesting research and recommendations by Harvard around sustainability leadership that will be useful for sustainable projects.

The intent of the program is to educate leaders to “learn powerful new strategies for enacting high-impact sustainability leadership that positions sustainability as a driver of organizational engagement, authenticity, agility, innovation, and change-capability.” I strongly recommend others to consider this excellent program. It is a complementary offering to GPM’s sustainable project management training and practices.

Exhibit 1: The Harvard Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership Program

This post deals with understanding the organizational ecosystems and the impacts of change on people and cultures. This is a common topic, but I liked the perspectives presented. The second post provides background on how to identify two organizational “operating systems” that do not traditionally work well together. The third post provides background on the strategy and research on new idea life cycles and the resulting model to analyze these project initiatives. The final post will deal with the strategy, tools and techniques of how to empower the two “operating systems” identified in the second post to successfully implement important organizational change and deliver the expected project outcomes and benefits.

The program provided invaluable lessons, tools and techniques including an exceptional model for dealing with the different political landscapes and “operating systems” within organizations and providing strategies for how to use this insight to better implement change. Particularly multi-stakeholder and transformational change.



This post’s graphics and content were adapted from the Harvard University Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership November 2017 program presentations by Dr. Leith Sharp.



Many are recognizing that business as usual is often more complicated than just doing the same predictable routine processes every day. In reality everyone is very, very busy and change is falling on the shoulders of the few:

Exhibit 2: Dealing with the Constraints of Business as Usual (Rebecca Henderson, Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management. Harvard Business School)

With the challenges that business as usual is dealing with, new objectives and changes are being thrown into the mix. However, if we add on to that the demands for change that are being demanded by governments, investors, consumers and societies in general…

“The essential demand placed upon humankind by myriad global environmental, social and economic imperatives is the demand to change almost everything we do, quickly, stably and constantly. This epic amount of stable change can only be achieved by the ongoing application, scaling and adaptation of enormous numbers of new ideas. Ideas of all scales, ideas that involve all disciplines, ideas that emerge within and across all types of organizations” (Sharp, N.D.).

One of the many challenges is that we have inherited an organizational change model that was designed for a different era. The 21st century demands continuous innovation and change, not just continuous improvement. This graphic shows time on the horizontal access and rate of change on the vertical.

Exhibit 3: The Difference between Continuous Innovation and Change & Continuous Improvement (Sharp, 2017-1, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)


To help set the stage, the following is a humorous, but honestly realistic, interpretation of change agents / cultures within many organizations:

Exhibit 4: Competing Agents for Change (The Hiking Artist Project by Frits Ahlefeldt, https://hikingartist.com/2013/01/08/change-versus-stability-illustration/)

Often those that caused the last set of modifications in the area being changed are the most dead set against any upheaval.



So those that are involved in change initiatives must understand that the organization and its people and “tribes” already have a history, cultures, multiple often conflicting priorities and they must reduce risk and build capital and trust across the organizational ecosystem (and sometimes beyond)…

Exhibit 5: We Must Reduces Risk Across the Organizational Ecosystem (Sharp, 2017-4, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)


Importance of Mitigating Social Risk

The following quote from Dr. Leith Sharp further reinforces the need for risk mitigation, and highlights the need to deal with the social challenges (Sharp, 2017-5, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0):

The most important work the change agent does is remove risk and uncertainty in order to unleash the latent capacity of others to make change happen.

It seems evident that the most common type of risk/uncertainty preventing engagement are social in nature.


Our Non-conscious and Socially Focused Behaviour

Though we would like to think otherwise, most of our behavior is driven by learned and hard-wired non-conscious forces, and a significantly smaller amount by our actual conscious behaviour (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). This follows Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” observations around “System 1 Thinking ” that is fast, instinctive and emotional, and “System 2 Thinking” that is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

The following quotes come from David Rock’s article “Managing with the Brain in Mind,” and I recommend it as a great read.

Exhibit 5: The Human Brain is a Social Organ (Rock, 2009)


Based on these references, it is an interesting perspective that not only is most of our behavior non-conscious, but the following indicates that we are first and foremost wired to be a social species focused more on thinking about other people. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.


Developing Trust and Group Intelligence

Exhibit 7: Relationship Dynamics (Professor Karen Stephenson & Sharp, 2017-5, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Leadership must develop the building blocks of trust within the organization, to allow consistent experiences that are psychologically safe and that nurture social/relationship health. As David Rock identified, “the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.” Therefore, there are particular qualities that we should focus on to enable employees and executives alike to minimize the threat response and enable the reward response.

Though the research has demonstrated this, for the most part we intuitively understand that this makes sense. We also understand what further research has shown that working against our social “algorithm” stifles our human creativity (Rock, 2009):

“… people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work — for example, when they are reprimanded, given an assignment that seems unworthy, or told to take a pay cut —

experience it as a neural impulse, as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.”


We need to work on developing these types of environments where psychological safety is high as is motivation and accountability.

Exhibit 8: Leading the Learning Organization – Sustainable Leadership (Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership & Management, Harvard Business School, Sustainability Leadership)

Organizational managers and leaders, indeed the organization’s culture, needs to understand that psychological safety is key for the organization to survive and thrive.

Exhibit 9: Sustainability Leadership and the Power of Teaming – Sustainable Leadership (Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership & Management, Harvard Business School, Sustainability Leadership)

Exposure to surrounding peer behaviors is the largest single factor in driving idea flow. For group intelligence, the pattern of interaction is more important that all other factors taken together – individual intelligence, personality & skill (Pentland, 2015).

The desire to change is thought to be largely motivated by the intrinsic desire to communicate with and have the acceptance of others. Feldman states that “The facilitating effect of social interaction has been confirmed by recent research on moral judgment and conservation” (Feldman, 1994). This indicates that group intelligence may indeed be an under-tapped resource

“When it comes to intelligence, the whole can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts. A new study co-authored by MIT researchers documents the existence of collective intelligence among groups of people who cooperate well, showing that such intelligence extends beyond the cognitive abilities of the groups’ individual members…” (Dizikes, 2010).

“They discovered that groups featuring the right kind of internal dynamics perform well on a wide range of assignments, a finding with potential applications for businesses & other organizations.” (Dizikes, 2010).

Three key factors that enhance group intelligence:

  1. Groups whose members had higher levels of “social sensitivity” (ability to perceive emotions)
  2. Groups where one person dominated were less collectively intelligent than in groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed
  3. Teams containing more women demonstrated greater greater collective intelligence.


The following highlights important considerations around the social risks and how they are experienced or interpreted semi-consciously. We have to be aware of these perceptions and drivers.

As quoted by Dr. Sharp,

Often, social risks and uncertainties are experienced semi-consciously or unconsciously.

They are often connected to old stories and involve feelings and even physical sensations (Sharp, 2017-5, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0).

Exhibit 10: Conscious & Sub-Conscious (Sharp, 2017-5, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

As quoted by Dr. Sharp,

The process of resolving social risk must typically be experiential.

That is, the change agent must support people to experience their way into new ways of thinking/feeling, rather than hoping that they will think their way into new ways of acting (Sharp, 2017-5, licensed for sharing and adapting under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.


One of the many advantages we have though, is that we have many purpose driven leaders as our organizations and change agents have gained mastery in leading from the middle. However, they are largely unconsciously competent.

These perspectives, particularly around understanding, working with and experiencing the organizational biases and risks will become more important in later blog posts.



The next blog post will provide some more research from Harvard around organizational “operating systems” and the need to get them to work.

The next post will deal with the questions:

  • Who in the zoo affects the successful implementation of new ideas?
  • How can we work with these groups and individuals to mitigate the risk and establish the social trust to obtain the authority and buy-in to design and deliver the change?



Anderson, Marc. (2009). The role of group personality composition in the emergence of task and relationship conflict within groups. Journal of Management & Organization. 15. 82-96. 10.5172/jmo.837.15.1.82. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269638378_The_role_of_group_personality_composition_in_the_emergence_of_task_and_relationship_conflict_within_groups

Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54(7), 462-479.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.54.7.462 & https://acmelab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/1999_the_unbearable_automaticity_of_being.pdf

Buchanan, D., & Badham, R. (1999). Politics and Organizational Change: The Lived Experience. Human Relations, 52(5), 609–629. http://doi.org/10.1023/A:1016930112943. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001872679905200503

Dizikes, Peter. “Putting Heads Together – New Study: Groups Demonstrate Distinctive ‘Collective Intelligence’ When Facing Difficult Tasks.” MIT News, 1 Oct. 2010, news.mit.edu/2010/collective-intel-1001.

Eisenhardt, K. M., Kahwajy, J. L., & Bourgeois, L. J. (1997). How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight. Harvard Business Review, 75, 77–86. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://hbr.org/1997/07/how-management-teams-can-have-a-good-fight

Feldman, David Henry. Beyond Universals in Cognitive Development. Ablex, 1994.

Haidt, Jonathan and Iyer, Ravi. (2016). “How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics.” The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-get-beyond-our-tribal-politics-1478271810

Haidt, Jonathan. (2013). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://www.amazon.com/Righteous-Mind-Divided-Politics-Religion/dp/0307455777

Hibbing, John R.; Smith, Kevin B.; Alford, John R.. (2013). Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://www.amazon.com/Predisposed-Liberals-Conservatives-Political-Differences/dp/0415535875

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Kim, W. C. and Mauborgne, R. (2003). Fair Process: Managing in the Knowledge Economy. Harvard Business Review, 81(1). Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://hbr.org/2003/01/fair-process-managing-in-the-knowledge-economy

Lencioni, Patrick M.. (2006). Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors (J-B Lencioni Series). Wiley. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://www.amazon.com/Silos-Politics-Turf-Wars-Competitors/dp/0787976385

Martin, N. A. (2012). Project Politics: A Systematic Approach to Managing Complex Relationships. Ashgate Publishing Limited. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://www.amazon.ca/Project-Politics-Systematic-Approach-Relationships-ebook/dp/B0091QC2G4

McCalman, J., Paton, R., & Siebert, S. (2016). Organizational Politics and Change. In Change Management: A guide to effective implementation (pp. 256–281). Los Angeles: SAGE. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/change-management/book241248

Pentland, Alex. Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science. Scribe Publications, 2015.

Pinto, Jeffrey K.. (1996). “Power & Politics in Project Management.” Project Management Institute. ISBN-13: 978-1-880410-43-1. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at http://my.safaribooksonline.com/1880410435

Rock, David. “Managing with the Brain in Mind.” Strategy Business, 27 Aug. 2009, www.strategy-business.com/article/09306?gko=9efb2.

Sharp, Leith. (N.D.). “Idea Flow Mapping.” Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership, eesl.sph.harvard.edu/idea-flow-mapping.

Sharp, Leith & Hsueh, Joe. (2017-1). “Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership 2017 Program – Module 1: The Secret Life of Ideas.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – Department of Environmental Health

Sharp, Leith. (2017-2). “Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership 2017 Program – Module 2: Idea Flow.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – Department of Environmental Health

Sharp, Leith. (2017-3). “Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership 2017 Program – Module 3: From Friction to Flow.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – Department of Environmental Health

Sharp, Leith. (2017-4). “Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership 2017 Program – Module 4: Ideas and Context.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – Department of Environmental Health

Sharp, Leith. (2017-5). “Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership 2017 Program – Module 5: Working With Our Social Algorithm to Unless Flow.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health – Department of Environmental Health

Tjosvold, D. (2008), The conflict-positive organization: it depends upon us. J. Organiz. Behav., 29: 19–28. doi:10.1002/job.473. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/job.473/abstract


Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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