Preparing for no normal

There is no normal anymore. The first quarter of the year is not even over and we have regime changes on an unprecedented level. Currencies fluctuate and peak oil looms with ever higher fluctuations. Meanwhile, startup companies in emerging sectors grow to billion dollar enterprises in under two years.

How is your organization dealing with this? If it’s a large one, you are probably doing business as usual, with a few innovation projects under the hood. The general business strategy is that things will stay the same or that there wil be some growth. We know that recruiting is a big issue for many companies, but not much has changed with HR policies for the past few decades. It’s still mostly salaried work with compensation based on hours worked within some general competency model. But that’s not how creativity is nurtured, and we need a lot more creativity in dealing with the unique and wickedly complex problems we see more and more. A current question doing its rounds on the Net today is “Would your company hire Steve Jobs?”. The implicit message being that innovators don’t get hired.

We can prepare to deal with increasing complexity by promoting agility and autonomy, but there’s only one way to do that: give up control. It’s that simple.

Today we have organizations that are well-connected both hierarchically and between individual workers. In most cases, anyone can be contacted in the organization. However, the central authority retains control, as shown in the first figure.

The model we need for an agile organization with autonomous workers doesn’t look like a pyramid. In fact, it’s the opposite. When there is no normal (and no best practices to follow) then the central authority’s role is to support with a gentle hand. Inverting the organizational pyramid clearly shows the new non-directive role of the central authority. That doesn’t mean there is no leadership, just less control and greater autonomy for workers.

Thomas Paine’s advice to “Lead, follow or get out of the way”, should be taken by most managers. Adam Kahane wrote in Solving Tough Problems:

If we want to help resolve complex situations, we have to get out of the way of situations that are resolving themselves.

2 Responses to “Preparing for no normal”

  1. Ann P McMahon

    Thanks for this post, Harold. As an engineer who migrated into PreK-20 education, I traded culturally collaborative work on complex mechanical systems for less culturally collaborative work on even more complex human systems. To nurture the creativity required to address wicked social and organizational problems, I agree that we must be agile and autonomous and give up control. I would add that we must be systems-aware (you mention critical and systems thinking in your link to agility and autonomy, but it bears repeating here). As an engineer, I worked both autonomously and collaboratively with others in my group within a co-created understanding of the object we were designing AND the system (stable or emergent) in which that object needed to function. What a culture shock it was for me when I encountered education work cultures where decisions were made and carried out with little awareness of unintended and/or delayed consequences and no feedback loops to decision makers! A solution is much more likely to gain traction if solvers engage in whole-to-part-to-whole thinking along the way, and re-solve as consequences emerge. Those who have been used to working at the bottom of a pyramidal structure might not have been required or encouraged to consider their choices and work systemically, especially if the organization and hierarchy weren’t well connected. Systems thinking might have been perceived as a function of those at the top of the pyramid. In an inverted pyramidal work structure, we all must be systems thinkers aware of both the pyramid itself and the objects/processes/functions/services the pyramid exists to provide.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thank you for your excellent and clarifying comments, Ann. I think you hit the nail on the head with:

      What a culture shock it was for me when I encountered education work cultures where decisions were made and carried out with little awareness of unintended and/or delayed consequences and no feedback loops to decision makers!

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