Agile organizations don’t need to hold out for a hero
‘Where have all the good men gone And where are all the Gods? Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds? Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?’
From ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, Bonnie Tyler
There is very likely going to be a limitless amount of learning about the design of agile, adaptive organizations, and how best to lead them, in the coming months and years, especially in government, and in healthcare.
In this post I will share reflections on how designing and leading an agile organization requires an open mind, the ability to learn, and an understanding of how complex adaptive systems behave.
Many definitions and descriptions of both organization design and development that I come across appear oversimplified and inadequate. These tend to emphasize planned, sequential, leader-led, techno-structural forms of corporate surgery.
We can treat an entire organization like a person with a disease or dysfunction, who needs a heroic doctor (i.e. CEOs and consulting firms) to be cured or saved. Such ways of thinking also seem consistent with a dominant, and increasingly questionable discourse about leadership. While there are clearly times when the corporate equivalent of open-heart surgery is essential, surely prevention is better than cure, and major surgery should be reserved for emergencies? Current circumstances are leading many organizations to undergo major surgery.
Agile organizations have been purported by some theorists to be like living systems or complex adaptive systems (‘CAS’). These theories suggest that organizations can adapt to changing conditions collectively, organically, and spontaneously, in ways that are highly distributed, and multi-layered.
In this context, leadership is more about setting the tone, defining the rules of engagement, managing complexity, and focusing peoples’ efforts, than about constantly restructuring.
Thousands or millions of people in a dynamic ecosystem, working towards common goals with clear ground rules, shared values, and purpose, beats cleverly engineered organizations-as-machines. The latter tends to be the preserve of micro-managing executives, and their coterie of trusted advisors.
What might be learned from the pandemic in relation to differing paradigms and perspectives on how organizations can be designed, developed, and led?
It is still way too early to draw any firm conclusions. But a pattern does seem to be emerging.
The pandemic has required hundreds of thousands of people to learn quickly from experience. That is not possible if people lack data and cannot make decisions.
A few countries and their public health systems have demonstrated a systemic ability to use data proactively rather than reactively, and to respond to the situation rapidly, particularly in Asia. Health care systems operate for the benefit of citizens and to support thriving, sustainable economies. In Asia, some economies are recovering already.
Agile organizations are likely to behave a little like self-organizing and self-healing biological systems. This represents a paradigm shift in both how we think about organization, and how we think about leadership.
Leaders who are hubristic, who rely heavily on their own personal instincts, or the advice of an inner circle, can be deeply destructive and antithetical to systemic, and organizational agility. That is becoming clear as we watch how different countries are coping with a pandemic.
In this sense, organization design and leadership complement and reinforce each other.
Organization design and development in a digital era could be defined as a continuous process of systemic and creative human adjustment to an operating environment, through collective experimentation and real-time learning. This is built on:
(1) Co-construction of a whole system by frontline employees, managers and leaders;
(2) The treatment of change as a process which is both planned, and also emergent;
(3) Transformation of work such that it is economically equitable, ecologically sustainable, and inclusive.
There appears to be a marked contrast between how some Asian countries and some Western countries have designed their health care systems to enable agility, and therefore how they have tackled the pandemic. A clash-of-the-civilizations style polemic is not constructive. However, we might just challenge certain Western assumptions, and stereotypical views of Asian leadership and ways of working.
Some Asian countries have recently demonstrated their agility in various ways: the rapid decisions and actions taken at the right time at the right levels; the fluid and timely way that citizens and health care systems responded; the consistent and clear communication of simple rules; the ability to use data at scale and operationalize learnings quickly. The list of examples is long.
Leaders in the West can learn from Asia, rather than uncritically dismiss Asia with the argument that ‘they are different’. Many of my fellow Brits are understandably proud to live in a beacon of freedom, democracy, innovation, and excellence. But the risk of an overly insular perspective is the proliferation of ‘white knight’ leaders who represent the past, while attempting to steer over-engineered and over-centralized behemoths towards glory.
Asia (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore) can provide examples of agile leadership, public services that are set up to learn fast, and an educated citizenry that embraces science. In the UK, I hear Asian countries and Asian leaders regularly being stereotyped as autocratic, undemocratic, and untrustworthy by people who have barely, if ever, even set foot in Asia, and still refer to it as ‘the Far East’. This frame of mind limits the ability to learn from other cultures. Perhaps a deep mistrust of others is what stops us from letting them help us?
If we accept the popular Western caricature that all Asian leaders, governments, and cultures are repressive and inhumane, we could be missing out on learning how these countries only recently regarded as ‘third world’ are where they are today.
The current data suggests that some Asian institutions and economies are agile, and ready for the future. And the rest of the world can and should learn from them. That does not require naivety.
It just requires more inquiring, open minds.
What are you learning about the design and development of agile organizations?
See also -
Galbraith, J.R. (2014). Designing Organizations: Strategy, structure, and process at the business unit and enterprise levels. 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
KPMG and United Nations Overseas Development Institute (2019). Change Readiness Index. Available at www.kpmg.com/changereadiness.
Lawler E.E., Worley C.G. & Porras, J. (2006). Built to Change: How to achieve sustained organizational effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Morgan, G. (1980). Paradigms, metaphors, and puzzle solving in organization theory. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25(4), pp. 605–622.
Nadler, D.A. & Tushman, M.L. (1997). Competing by Design: The power of organization architecture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose