Kessels and Smit (K&S) is a consulting firm that makes use of Collective Sensemaking to continually learn how to be more effective as a company, serve their clients better, help and support each other, and find and engage in interesting client projects.
K&S is based in the Netherlands with sister
organizations in four other countries, Belgium,
South Africa, India, and Germany. Some 90 consultants work with client
organizations on strategy, change, workplace learning, leadership, and development. The consultants work on client projects
in small ad hoc groups formed around topics of joint interest, for example,
knowledge productivity or sustainable
business. Each group or individual sets their own fee structure with their clients and pays a percentage of that fee into K&S for common needs such as joint office space, equipment, invoicing, and marketing. Consultants work across a variety of industries, government, corporations, healthcare, and non-profits. Some consultants work at the K&S office, some at client sites, some out of a home office, and most, use a combination of all three.
K&S was founded in 1996 by two education scientists,
Joseph Kessels and Cora Smit, who after earning their PhDs, worked for several
years for a small company that produced teaching materials for schools
and businesses. They found they did not like working for an organization that
directed how they should do their work, or
even what they should be interested in working on. They founded K&S on the simple principle that a hierarchical environment is not challenging for knowledge workers and the necessary related principle of self-responsibility. Given those principles, after 15 years there are still no managers at K&S, nor hierarchy or job descriptions.
K&S is managed by Collective Sensemaking. Every six weeks the 50 K&S consultants in the Netherlands come together for a “K&S day.” K&S Days are a day of conversation held in several configurations, as a whole, in small groups, and in one-to-one meetings. The day provides time for necessary coordination and joint decision-making but also for sharing client work, exchanging professional development ideas, and working on projects. The sister organizations in other countries hold similar K&S days.
In addition to the K&S days, once a year the full organization that includes the international branches, meets for “Working Days.” These are 3 days of conversation to explore how K&S is working as an organization, to have conversations about where each member is in relation to the whole, and to think through what role each might want to play in the future. It is an opportunity to build new relationships and to renew old ones. Out of this collective sensemaking new projects and new insights about current work emerge. The consultants apply their collective thinking to the challenges that K&S, as an organization, is facing, for example, how to bring on new consultants who do not yet have clients or how to deal with the financial downturn that has impacted all consulting firms.
During the year round tables meet around issues such as finance, “care for people” and adhoc issues. A Consultant volunteers to be responsible for each round table which meet on an as needed basis. Anyone that has an interest can join a round table meeting. Round tables are a way for consultants to help take care of the company.
K&S is a vision driven organization with the basic theme being, how to arrange work more intelligently and humanely. Their goal is to build companies that grow from people first – starting with K&S itself. They call themselves the “Learning Company” because it is learning that is at the center of all of their work. They say, “Without learning there is no growth, no improvement, no innovation.” K&S has a reputation in Europe for excellence that they maintain by staying at the leading edge of research and practice about learning. To maintain that leading edge they need to be deliberate about reflecting together to learn from innovations they create with client organizations and about setting aside time to learn with and from each other.
In my own work I have been exploring Collective Sensemaking both through the research literature and by learning from organizations that currently oscillate between virtual work and Collective Sensemaking. I have interacted with K&S for over ten years, working with their clients and offering the K&S consultants my own growing insights about knowledge management. Knowing from my interaction with them that they practiced Collective Sensemaking, I wanted to study K&S in a more formal way. To do so, I conducted twelve, hour-long interviews with consultants during a two-week visit to K&S headquarters in Utrecht, Netherlands. I also had the opportunity to interact informally with the consultants and to observe them in their interactions with each other. The objectives of the study were to learn about, 1) how they use Collective Sensemaking to address organizational issues, 2) the oscillation between client work and Collective Sensemaking, 3) the culture that supports Collective Sensemaking, and 4) the extent to which the principles of Collective Sensemaking that I had gleaned from the literature were present in their interactions. Those principles include:
- Connection before content (Block)
- Learn in small groups integrate in the large group (Weisbord)
- Setting aside time for joint reflection
- Circles connect
- We learn when we talk (Johnson & Johnson)
- Intentionally explore differences (Weisbord)
- Insure cognitive diversity (Page)
- Create a culture of psychological safety (Edmondson)
- Design shared experiences (Weick)
Structure and Purpose of K&S Days
The interviewees described a typical K&S Day as starting with everyone in a circle and doing a “go-around” where each person shares how they are doing at a personal level. Some interviewees referenced this time as “sharing and caring”. Examples of the topics are, celebrating a new book written by a member, the kids coming for a visit, an exciting new project, sadness over a death or illness, and up coming marriages.
After the opening circle the group turns to a topic related to how the company is doing as whole. These topics range from financial issues to up-coming conferences. A day or two before each meeting an email goes out to everyone to ask what topics need to be discussed. At the meeting there are usually three or four topics and each person chooses which small group to meet with. Each group then reports back to the full group on what they discussed, which sometimes then generates a larger group discussion.
During the day there is often a discussion of a new learning theory, professional development opportunities, or interesting research that a consultant has come across or been engaged in. There is also time set aside for consultants to work with each other on their projects, or to just meet one-to-one, e.g. “I need a half hour to talk with you.” The day ends with a closing circle.
Consultant’s View of the Purpose of K&S Days
I asked each interviewee what they saw as the purpose of the K&S Days. Although several themes emerged, the most consistent response was that the purpose was to connect. Esther explains, “Most important is just to stay connected with each other, and know what the other is doing. We are an organization. We want to stay connected with each other, and to the whole.”
Another theme was the focus on how the whole is functioning, e.g. what needs to change and what is working well, coordination, joint decision making. Marloes said, “The purpose for me is keeping the internal relationships healthy and sane - constantly checking are we thinking about the same things. How are we dealing and doing with each other. For others it might be more about content.”
A third theme was learning what others are doing in their work. Paul explains, “The purpose is to connect and learn from each other and develop a common purpose – to feel a part of something of value that is part of ourselves.”
As the quotes illustrate, the consultants valued being connected to each other and they recognized that relationships need attention if they are to stay healthy. The meetings provide time to rejuvenate and repair the relationships between members and between each member and the whole. K&S days serve to affirm for members that they are part of an organization whose principles they value - a part of something that is larger than self.
For consultants to learn during the K&S Days, a culture has to exist that Edmondson labels “psychologically safe”, that is, “team members have a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish members for speaking up.” When members feel psychologically safe they are able to engage in behaviors that are necessary for any group to learn and change. Edmondson identifies those behaviors as, seeking feedback from each other, customers, and other parts of the organization; sharing information; asking for help; talking about errors or problems; challenging the interpretation of others, experimenting to gain insight; and reflecting together.
In the interview data I saw many examples that indicated that the consultants felt psychologically safe. Andres, a relatively new member of K&S, exemplified psychological safety as he explained a time when he bought up a difficult subject at a K&S Day.
“I don’t live in the Netherlands but I wanted to work with K&S so I thought the way to do it would be to build a new branch of K&S in my own country, as others had done. The other consultants supported this idea. So for about a year I struggled to establish a new branch of K&S. Some of my Dutch colleagues invited me into their projects and I invited some of them into my projects. During that time I got interested in building a wilderness project. The wilderness project really began to shape up and I became very passionate about it. I found I was spending more and more time on the wilderness project and less and less time on building a K&S branch.
At one of the K&S Working Days I brought up the subject of my building a branch in my country. I explained to the group how much I valued being a part of K&S and working with my Dutch colleagues on projects, yet I was finding I didn’t have much passion for building an organization in my country, even though that was the task I had chosen to take on. I wanted to stay connected to the larger K&S organization but I was finding my role as an independent consultant, especially working on the wilderness project, more satisfying than the work of organizing a branch. I saw that one way I could function was as a member of the Netherlands group, but who worked in another country, and who contributed my fair share to the whole. But that did not feel right to me either, because I found that living in another country I did not benefit from any of the services my contribution supported, for example, the use of the office, computers, and administrative help, which were primarily in the Netherlands.
Others listened to me with interest, asking a few questions and responding empathetically. One colleague, who was trying to be helpful, suggested that maybe K&S needed to make a new rule about how much independents, working with K&S in another country, should contribute to the core. There was silence for a few moments when another colleague said, ‘Well, maybe what we need is to have more conversation about it so that we can think about different configurations that would allow people we value to join us in a new way, one that would benefit us all.’ I felt very positive about her response and that we would be able to invent a new arrangement. And we have now had several conversations about what that might look like.
It took courage for Andres to raise this issue with the group. But the K&S consultants have learned that raising difficult issues is necessary if they are going to function without managers – raising difficult issues is a part of self-responsibility. As I listened to Andres’ tell his story, I could not help but contrast the group’s response to what I would expect to hear in a hierarchical organization. There, I imagined, Andres would most likely have only talked to his manager about his situation. The manager would have heard his concern and then probably conferred with his manager to make a decision. Other colleagues, who valued Andres, would have only been told that he was leaving the company or moving to another position. They would not have had a voice or an opportunity to find a way to accommodate both Andres’ interests and their own.
Over the years, K&S has developed a trust in collective sensemaking. They have found that if they think together they can create something quite new that no one person could have generated on their own. So during K&S Days consultants voice their concerns, with confidence that others will help them figure out a viable solution for all.
A Changeable Structure
K&S considers itself a laboratory for learning how people can work together in ways that support individual growth and development while, producing productive outcomes for their clients. The K&S organizational structure is not viewed as fixed, rather there is a recognition that it should and will continually change. Consultants hold the view that here is not one right structure, in part because they see themselves as an on-going experiment in organizing. Paul notes, “We combine oscillation with virtual work but we keep experimenting with how to connect and how to meet.” He continues, “If you find a structure that has been working, then it is not owned by the people because new people have joined and they did not create it.”
An interviewee described a recent change in structure that was prompted by a change Saskia, one of the more influential consultants at K&S, wanted to make for her own development. The interviewee explains, “Saskia wanted to experience a managerial role in an organization and she also wanted to make space for some of the younger consultants to exert more influence. At one of the Working Days, she and Paul talked with several of the younger consultants about what role they wanted to take on in the company. Five people stepped up to say they wanted to take a larger role. So Saskia took a step back to be employed for 3 days a week with an education company. So she does not attend the K&S days now. The five, we affectionately call them the ‘hijackers’, took up the invitation and now one of the things they are doing is to design the K&S days in a new way.”
In the interview with Pieterjan, one of the hijackers, described the same experience from his perspective, “In the last working session a small group of us walked with Saskia on the beach. We talked about what are next steps for you? How do you want to serve the company? The beach, the sea, it was relaxed. It was a very important moment for me to think through what I wanted for myself and for the company.”
What seemed most important to the consultants I interviewed were the K&S principles the organization was founded on, which in their view, could support a number of different structures. Esther says, “Every 6-7 years we need a new structure or formation. The economy is changing and we need to change as well.” Joeri echoes that, “We need to reinvent ourselves and we are going to do that together.”
Confidence and Trust in Each Other
Members trust other members of K&S to do what is right for the whole. They recognize that not everyone can be involved in every discussion or plan. For example, the group of members who wanted to take on the task of designing the K&S days for the next year first talked with other members on a one-to-one basis about the ideas they had. The reaction of others was supportive of their taking this role on. Barbara notes, “You give your trust that they will organize it well. I have the confidence that they will work it out and design it together.” Marloes provides another example that trust, “When I was first here and a new person joined K&S, who I did not feel connected to, I struggled to understand if that was okay. But now, when a new person joins I know I can trust the competence of my colleagues - that they have chosen the person for good reasons. I can trust that decision.” The K&S days often take the format of a focus issue raised at the beginning of the meeting and then small groups hold discussions about related sub-questions. Erik gives this example of trusting the other small groups, “People have freedom to choose to work on the questions that are most attractive to them. We trust that others are capable of working on the other issues. With 50 people we are too large to have this kind of discussion with everyone. Confidence in others grows out of the connection.”
Tension Between Independence and Responsibility
Interviewees mentioned a tension, inherent in the way they work, between the need to focus on their own clients and interests and feeling responsible for the whole – the tension of autonomy vs. responsibility.
Several interviewees noted that there were tasks that benefit everyone which required attention, for example, making sure new people were integrated into the organization, writing a blog for the website, coaching interns, planning conferences. Arne noted, “We give each other space to do what we are interested in. But the other side of the coin is that sometimes we really need people do things for the company. There are consultants at K&S who volunteer to take on these tasks for the whole. He goes on to explain, “We have a value that urges no hierarchy; everyone is equal. On the other hand someone has to take the initiative to be responsible [for these tasks]. The philosophical question is, can we be a community of everyone based on choice of own interest?” Paul explains, “It is about ownership and separation – the issue is autonomy and community. We try to maximize both rather than balance them at the same time. It is a tension. But a tension field is also a kind of energy.”
Johnson and Johnson, researchers who have been studying cooperation vs competition for 40 years, use the term “positive interdependence” to explain the tension K&S members describe. They acknowledge the tension that exists in positive interdependence and explain that sustaining it over time cannot be left to chance. They specify five elements that must be present to support positive interdependence in groups:
- Clearly perceived positive interdependence, that is, recognition they will not succeed unless their colleagues do
- Considerable promotive (face-to-face) interaction, defined as individuals encouraging and facilitating each other's efforts to achieve, complete tasks, and produce in order to reach the group's goals.
- Clearly perceived individual accountability and personal responsibility to achieve the group’s goals
- Frequent use of the relevant interpersonal and small-group skills
- Frequent and regular group processing of current functioning to improve the group’s future effectiveness
These five elements are visible in the interaction between K&S consultants and in the processes they have established, such as K&S days, Working Days, Apple Trees, and round tables. With out the regular occurrence of Collective Sensemaking the benefit of positive interdependence would not be achieved.
Members of K&S talk about the idea of “mutual attractiveness,” meaning that they value working with people whom they like. Arne explains, “I only want to cooperate with people whom I find interesting and who like to work with me too. The starting point for healthy working relationships is ‘mutual attractiveness’. We work together because we can add something to the job and to each other, not because hierarchy forces us to. However, this also means making a constant effort to be an attractive colleague. And I don’t believe any regulation or structure can incorporate or replace this effort.”
The way new consultants join K&S illustrates one of the ways the organization applies “mutual attractiveness”. An invitation to join K&S comes from an existing member who sees something unique or valuable in someone they have met. The existing member invites several other consultants to have a conversation with the potential colleague, perhaps several conversations over time. When others are positive that this is a person they would enjoy working with, a contract is signed.
The contract is between the new person and 2 or 3 consultants who form an “Apple tree”. As one interviewee explained, “An apple tree is a tool to express mutual commitment and to guarantee that adequate people within the network will give effort to and take care of a colleague. One is connected to ‘everyone’ through the people in one’s apple tree. This way, the care for colleagues has a face and the ‘bystanders syndrome’ (which means: everyone sees that someone is about to get in trouble, but no-one acts upon it) is prevented.” The term “Apple tree” comes from the early history of K&S when meetings were held under an apple tree in the garden of Joseph Kessels, one of the founders. All K&S consultants belong to an Apple tree, not just new people. Apple trees form and reform over time as consultants’ interests change and grow.
K&S consultants are deliberate about building time and structures to facilitate relationships. In addition to the hiring practice, time is set-aside at both K&S days and Working Days to strengthen relationships. Arne describes Working Days, “Because relationships are so important to the way we work, the first evening is quite crucial. It is time to have a beer and meet with others. You can focus on the tension in relations that you’ve not had time to deal with, maybe because something happened in the last month. Without it being explicit we are strengthening and sometimes repairing relationships.”
Creating Shared Experiences
Weick advocates the need for shared experience, if shared meaning is to be created. Interviewees mentioned a number of shared experiences. One that was frequently mentioned was the “talk show.” In the Netherlands there is a popular television talk show and the “hijackers” designed the first K&S day of the year based on that show. They designed it as a way to raise some difficult issues that K&S was facing. One in particular was that several valued consultants had recently left K&S, leaving a question in the minds of many members about what their leaving meant for the company.
Joeri describes the event, “We had a talk show that was a totally different way to have a meeting because normally we are in circle for 10-35 minutes and then split into small groups to talk about the issues that have been raised. But for the talk show we had an hour and a half. There were several themes, they were topics we needed to address as a company and also the things that are not normally said. For example, one topic was ‘should I stay or go’. Each theme had 1 or 2 hosts who were quite sharp and let you say what was really on your mind. For each topic there were different colleagues invited to sit at the table with the hosts to give their opinion. It was very fast paced with ‘guests’ coming and going and sometimes being cut off by the host to turn to another guest. It was high speed almost like a machine gun. Guests said that, 'some things might need to change;' 'that we needed to do some things differently;' 'that we needed to reinvent ourselves.' And there was new energy that we are going to do that together. In between guests my task was to sing and Pieterjan played the guitar. At the end someone summarized the conversations in a very insightful poem. The talk show was really an important moment that enabled us to deal with this difficult topic in a sort of fun way.
This shared experiences was referenced in the conversations between K&S consultants as they work together on issues. Remember when we…” evokes both a shared understanding and a shared emotion within the group. As Pieterjan noted, “The future is richer if you have a history together.” The consultants at K&S seemed aware that creating shared experiences are critical for creating shared meaning.
1) How K&S uses Collective Sensemaking to Address Organizational Issues.
Given the absence of managers in K&S, governance occurs through Collective Sensemaking during K&S and Working Days. It is primarily complex or difficult issues that are addressed by the collective. Simpler issues, such as a way to conduct a new practice or inviting a colleague into a project, are dealt with between K&S Days through meetings of project teams, round tables or one-to-one meetings.
Because of the trust consultants have developed in their colleagues to make decisions that benefit the company, consultants do not feel a need to be involved in every issue. However, this efficiency only seems possible because the consultants carefully and continuously attend to the relationships that are central to that trust and perhaps because they frequently design shared experiences that produce shared meaning.
2) The Oscillation Between Client Work and Collective Sensemaking
The oscillation between client work and Collective Sensemaking is on a regular and scheduled basis rather than being on an “as needed basis.” The regularity assures consultants that when an issue arises they know there is an upcoming K&S day where that issue can be aired. These regular forums appear to serve two major goals, to address the company’s complex issues and to maintain consultants’ relationships.
Relationships decay over time (Burt) so the interval between K&S days is critical. As the interviews reveal, consultants have a clear understanding that they need to take care of the relationships they have with other consultants. After 8-9 weeks some consultants begin to feel out of touch with the whole and with each other. However, that concern is offset by the cost of taking a day for collective sensemaking, which is not trivial for the consultants. It means the loss of a day of consulting fees and for Working Days, the loss of three days plus their travel expenses. For most, the interval of eight weeks seemed about right.
The research of Maznevski & Chudoba work agrees with that frequency. They explain that the necessary interval between face-to-face meetings is dependent on three factors:
1) the interdependence in the tasks the group engages in,
2) the complexity of their organizational issues,
3) the level of complexity resulting from geography, culture, or organizational hierarchy.
For K&S consultants in the Netherlands office, the complexity of organizational issues is high because of the governance role that the collective takes on. However, issues of geography, culture, and levels of hierarchy are relatively insignificant. Task interdependence is also minimal since tasks are primarily within, not across, project teams.
K&S Days are not the only opportunity to maintain relationships. Some consultants frequently drop by the office to work there, hold client meetings, or project team meetings, all of which provide the opportunity to engage with other consultants. The first floor of the office is an open café with tables and easy access to seating areas in a garden beyond the French doors. The space itself encourages informal interaction among the consultants.
Finally, consultants take it upon themselves to stay in touch by email and phone. As Paul notes, We know a lot about each other’s lives. I phone a colleague because I want to know how he is doing, not just to get a problem solved or a question answered.
3) Culture that Supports Collective Sensemaking,
In a national sense, The Netherlands is known for its egalitarian culture and the Dutch people pride themselves in cultural diversity and tolerance of difference, all of which supports the culture of openness and lack of hierarchy at K&S.
Organizationally the culture is built around a number of central ideas that have been discussed through out this article and are listed here:
- knowledge workers don’t function well in hierarchical environments
- self responsibility
- mutual attractiveness
- pursuing work that is of interest to one’s self
- taking care of the whole
- taking care of each other
- learning as the center of their work
- K&S as an on-going experiment in how to arrange work more intelligently and humanely
These ideas seem well inculcated in the consultants, or more likely consultants who join K&S do so because they are attracted to this set of ideas.
4) Principles From the Literature That Are Found in K&S Interactions
There is no literature on Collective Sensemaking per se. There is, however, useful literature on sensemaking (Weick), group learning (Edmonson, Johnson & Johnson) and on group processes (Block, Weisbord, Page)
Because many of the K&S consultants have degrees in education science they are aware of the literature and research that underlie the principles of Collective Sensemaking, so it is not surprising that their actions are congruent with these principles.
The interview data provided support for the following principles of Collective Sensemaking:
- K&S and Working Days, as well as the format
of those meetings, illustrate several of the principles,
- Starting the day with “sharing and caring” is in accordance with the collective sensemaking principle of “connection before content – the need to establish or re-establish connections before focusing on company business.
- Setting aside time for joint reflection is in evidence by the practice of coming together a full day every six weeks for K&S days and three days each year for Working Days
- The principle of “we learn when we talk” can be seen in the use of discussion groups that are small enough that everyone has adequate air time to voice their thinking
- "Learn in small groups, integrate in the large group” was evident in the discussion format
- "Circles connect" was visible in the opening and closing of the day’s activities.
- Design shared experiences was illustrated by memorable events like the Talk Show
- Psychological Safety was evident both by the way the group handled Andres’ concern as well as the design of the Talk Show that intentionally raised difficult issues; as was intentionally explore differences (Gilmore)(
Several additional elements that facilitate Collective Sensemaking at K&S emerged from the interviews
- Members have input into the agenda – a few days before the meeting consultants are solicited for items that need to be on the agenda.
- Encouraging and taking care of each other - what Johnson and Johnson called promotive interaction. From the interviews it is clear that it is not only the meeting designers, but all of the consultants that are aware of and active in taking care of each other. The Apple Trees are a visible manifestation of this element but it was equally evident the comments about needing to stay connected.
- The need for a clear agreed upon structure to function within and the recognition that any structure is temporary, open to continuous change and experimentation
(Note: This is the first of several articiles I will publish about how organizations use Collective Sensemaking and the Oscillation Principle. If you have managed to read to the end of this very long blog post, I assume you must be interested in the topic. And my hope is that you might know of other organizations (your own or others) who employ many of these same principles. If so, please let me know about them. I am interested in studying