The Cassie Partnershipliberating human capital

cascading: is there a more effective alternative?

The cascade metaphor suggests that knowledge and practice can simply be passed on from level to level, without losing anything or changing in the process- and that the process is necessarily from the top down, from a single point of origin to everyone being filled up.

To help with this process, companies usually produce "cascade materials" - slides, videos, T-shirts - which each level of management can use to help maintain the integrity and power of the "message".

To look at it another way, this is a simple " message transmission" model. Everyone will be exposed to the same message and will then act accordingly.

It positions everyone in the organisation as passive , as obedient to instructions, and as efficient in passing on information.

The reverse is also true: anything "not on message" is wrong and forbidden. Therefore the cascade also sends a message of restriction and coercion .

If people do not understand and value what they are being told to know - but at the same time being effectively forbidden to do things any other way - they are prevented from acting at all.

It would be wrong to suggest this approach can never work, but it requires certain conditions: mainly a very authoritarian organisation where people are happy to obey orders and are not prepared to be critical of them.

In our experience of large organisations, these "conditions" don't typically apply.

And as business moves from a relatively predictive "push" environment to a highly unpredictable "pull" environment, this authoritarian model is even less effective.

The cascade is therefore in our experience an inefficient and increasingly counter-productive model for transferring practices because of number of often interdependent factors.

For example, managers who are not totally committed to the practices they are asked to "cascade" will effectively sabotage them, more or less consciously, and through various means, even when they are showing quite a high degree of compliance by:

  • simply not passing the message on (either through deliberate refusal, or by not allocating time and resource needed to do it)
  • passing the message on in such a way that a contradictory message is received (again, this may be explicit: or the clues may be more subtle and behavioural, but no less powerful)
  • sending subtle behavioural signals that can easily contradict even the slickest conference presentation .

At the same time, the initiatives and the passions of many other people in the organisation are ignored. What therefore, is the real message being "cascaded"?

In effect, this is a "culture war" and cascade is a winning strategy for those who do not want real change to succeed.

Following the "military" analogy, hearts drop, minds numb and cynicism waves the victory flag when:-

  • there is a taskforce (or maybe an "academy") that works on a presentation
  • there is a presentation, or series of presentations - which have already reduced the conversations among the taskforce to a set of concepts
  • there is then expected to be action and responsiveness
  • it has become a procedure with a beginning, a middle and an end
  • cause and effect are separated and distinct - active and passive roles defined
  • the only light at the end of the tunnel is that "the next initiative", like the cavalry, must be coming soon and so everyone can forget the current nightmare.

So, what might be the alternative? How can leadership communicate with and motivate their staff more effectively?

Perhaps they need to:-

  • encourage their people to continually influence the growth and development of the business through ideas
  • be more appreciative of what people are doing already
  • spend less time in communicating content and more in coaching managers in how to align, inspire and take personal responsibility
  • replace charts, meetings and bullet points with stories
  • redefine "cascade" as knowledge flowing up and sidewise
  • allow development content to change as it flows through the company (think about the circulation of the blood rather than pouring something out?)
  • stimulate and participate in a dialogue
  • be prepared to listen and act
  • ask questions as well as offer answers
  • reduce the barriers to free flows of learning
  • break down the hierarchies and silos
  • avoid exclusive teams and taskforces
  • allow anyone to become a "leader" and celebrate their contribution
  • link the growth of the individual with the growth of the organisation

New metaphors for change

Examples of old metaphors:

  • the cascade
  • Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets
  • the schoolteacher
  • the army officer
  • the flow chart
  • special events
  • the away-day

New metaphors for change:

  • circulation of the blood and the nervous system
  • growth of an organism (role of DNA = not simple instructions)
  • systems (simple rules to create complex emergent patterns)
  • storytelling
  • gossip
  • markets
  • epidemics
  • continuous process
  • webs of affiliation