Victor Newman on Sticky organizations making smart people stupid

We are different.Note: This is a somewhat-edited version of my live notes of the webinar.

The APQC KM Community Webinar today was an interesting discussion from Victor Newman about "sticky" organizations and what happens when smart people arrive from the outside.  (UPDATE: Slides and a recording (wmv) of the webinar are posted on the APQC site. They also list upcoming webinars.)

What is a sticky organization?  It is an organization (or sub-organization) where the culture is very strong, and that culture resists change to the culture.  In Victor's reading, this happens more in organizations which have a high relationship capitol.  (This is very different from a "sticky" website, where people want to come back over and over again.)  These are organizations where the idea of "craft work" is very important: what we do is different, unique, not like what you did over there.  "We are different, so that idea could never work here."  Another aspect of the sticky /defensive organization is that there is a disinclination to admit failure. 

Why are sticky organizations problematic for experts coming in from the outside?  In Victor's view, it has a lot to do with the relationship capital.  And this is a lot of his prescription for improving the situation.

Victor had a great quote at the outset, related to expertise: "Experts can only be experts if we (the organization) allow them to be experts."  This tied into the discussion of sticky organizations and then back into one of the typical solutions proposed: bring in experts to help us resolve an issue.  That won't work, if the expert is blocked on all fronts by the stickiness of the organization.  And if the expert comes from the outside, she may not have a lot of relationship capital needed to overcome the resistance and fit into the networks.  In other words, trust.

So, how does one handle the situation where they are coming into a very sticky organizations with their expertise or thought leadership?  Victor had some ideas, but to me these sound like they might be good rules no matter what. 

  • respect the relationship capital: find it, develop your connections into it
  • don't preach: no one likes to hear preaching, particularly if they don't like to admit their faults
  • use their language to define the problem and situation: don't use expert-domain language, as it will only alienate you from the network you are trying to get into
  • pretend to invent solutions on the spot, rather than giving them the history of the method: this is a key suggestion.  If the solution feels like it is developed WITH people, rather than handed to them, they feel much more engaged and interested in the outcome.
  • use local, contextual examples that will make sense to the organization
  • control your body language and be patient as they seek to understand what you are recommending

I come away from the webinar with a odd feeling in my stomach.  Victor seems to be arguing a slow, deliberate introduction into organizations - that there is a key need for the outside experts to develop the right level of relationship capital before they can begin using and exploiting their expertise.  But then this seems to run counter to what I have seen (and done) with traditional consulting.  Of course, I have seen those consulting engagements that work best are those where a good relationship exists with the organization already.  Interesting.

I struggled to get a feeling of a description of the opposite of a sticky organization, so I asked at the end of the webinar.  It may be the opposite to the above, but the sense I got was that "stuck" organizations are not learning from what they've done in the past.  They are not participating in single- or double-loop learning that represents some idea of maturity.  I'd bet that organizations exhibit different levels of "stickiness" depending on the area of expertise in question: they might be willing to learn from and correct mistakes in one area, but then in another area be completely blind.  My concern with the definition also has to do with the idea of strong relationship capital: isn't relationship capital a good thing?  How does the relationship capital conspire to create a sticky organization?  What might prevent that from happening?

[Photo: "We are different." by Jasmine blu]

9 Comment(s)

Christina said:


I got to this post via a colleague via Twitter. I'm glad I clicked on the link. This is an interesting post and something that I think many of us are struggling with.

I agree with your assessment that Victor's ideas are "good rules no matter what," and I think your insight on how sticky organizations are likely more accepting of ideas and learning in one area than in another.

I think I can share a little perspective on the relationship capital. Relationships most definitely can create a sticky organization. They most definitely can also create a nonsticky organization. It's the nature of the relationships that determines the organization's personality.

In sticky cultures, relationships are dyadic. Picture the interactions as a wagon wheel. One person is in the middle singlehandedly managing one-on-one relationships with those around them. The person in the middle is focused on doing what they can to promote themself and thus try to keep control over their knowledge and relationship capital. This relationship model is replicated throughout the organization, or at least the majority or most influential part of it.

In contrast, nonsticky cultures have networked relationships built upon the concept of a triad wherein its members are connected to the other two members of the triad. The attitude of those who revolve in triads is outward focused. They see the world as great and work within their triad to contribute to work greater than themselves. This model is also replicated but unlike in sticky organizations, each person in this model is directly linked to other people in the network through their connections. In other words, everyone benefits from everyone else's interconnectedness. Visually, it's more like a spiderweb.

The wagon wheel and the spiderweb are stages of organizational culture. The ideas in your bulleted list are actually the strategies for helping a culture move from dyadic to triadic relationships.

I have so much more to say about this. If you'd like to talk about it further, feel free to email me. These ideas are not mine though. They're concepts from the book, Tribal Leadership. You may have heard it. Zappos recently published a free audio version on their website. If you're truly interested in these dynamics, check out the book and the authors' website at

Though I totally sound like I'm a salesperson, I assure you I'm not. I work in internal communications so organizational culture is as much as a fascination as a burden. I'm also a Tribal Leadership champion.

Best of luck to you, great post, and maybe we'll cross paths again.

Christina- Thanks for this informative reply. This helps round out my understanding of Victor's thoughts, and it gives me yet another source of interesting materials to listen to and read.

The Tribal Leadership on Zappos link is

Victor Newman said:

Dear Jack and Christina,

I just wanted to clarify my point about "sticky" and Relationship Capital (RC). Basically, a culture is the outcome of stabilising a technology (turning an invention into an innovation). The crises involved in forming a culture, create intense RC. The "stickiness" is the resistance to change that innovators experience because innovation involves killing that old technology as it cruises down the S-curve, and the accelerated devaluation of the mutually-held RC in order to introduce a new, replacement technology which will involve new RC creation with strangers. "Trust" is not RC. Trust exists in a relationship where I know that you understand my position on a topic and will represent my interests fairly, if I am out of the room.

Thanks, Victor. Nice hearing from you again.

I think the term Relationship Capital is confusing me, so this explanation helps. I was thinking that this was related to the idea of "social capital" or emotional quotient, which I think of as being heavily related to trust. In this description, it is a specific instantiation of the relationships between people. When the underlying business or technology changes, then the value of those relationships change too. And the "sticky" idea is around how strong those relationships are - specifically how strong they are around the change. Is that any closer?

Victor Newman said:

Jack, You got it.

Scheherazade said:

Hi Jack,

All the acronyms are over my head, but this post reminded me of something I've always thought was cool. The Institute for Global Ethics ( does consulting with schools and businesses, and a piece of their curriculum included convening the people in the organization and having them identify (and argue about and resolve) their 5 "core moral values" -- then part of the consulting gig was to identify methods and strategies to promote/reward/act consistently with those values.

The part I remember is the Institute's teacher said "We know what they'll identify -- everyone always comes up with the same 5 values, perhaps with slightly different names." But they found that if they walked in and told people that these were the essential 5 core values of their organization, nobody would buy in to the rest of the curriculum.

Funny that a step (identifying the values of the organization) that might turn out to be unnecessary if the expert's expertise is real can be so fundamental to adoption and acceptance.

Excellent connections. What I think of in reading this is the Socratic Method and that people much prefer solutions that they develop themselves, rather than those that are handed to them on a silver platter. Even if they would be the same.

James Grey said:

Good discussion. I'm interested in the concept of relatioships in the context of best practice transfer. We have events where experts are gathered at various plants to delve into the current condition and recommend improvements. Uptake of these is variable and, I think, this has a lot to do with the acceptance of experts critiquing what people at the plant may hold dear.

Any thoughts on techniques or tactics we could use to reduce this effect in a fairly short period of time (one week or so)?

Based on the discussion on the webinar and since then - and based on my own experience - I have two initial thoughts. 1) The experts need to have some level of trust with the plant operators. Without that, the operators are unlikely to talk at any deep level about what is happening in the plants. 2) Letting people (the operators) talk is always a good idea.

I suspect this idea may already be too late for what you are envisioningg. But it can't hurt to suggest: I wonder if the idea of "expert" could be turned on its head here: Have the outside experts bring in examples of problems at other plants; describe them in terms that the operators will understand; and ask the operators how they would solve these problems. Maybe with some good facilitation the "best practices" that already exist could be improved upon. Only toward the end of the discussion would it be worthwhile talking about the local situation.

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