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Bruce Holland

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Building a more flexible organisation

Systems thinking is based on the idea that complexity is so great there is no way we can know, with any certainty, what's going to happen. In these conditions, getting much closer to the edge of order seems to me to be the safest bet.

The trick is to build an organisation that's so flexible and responsive that we don't care what happens. As long as there's a lot of noise and disorganisation and change, we'll win.

The trouble is, most large mature organisations hate change. There are several reasons for this:

In part this is because they have been successful. Success and competence are enemies of change. Competent people resist change because a new winning strategy threatens to make them less competent. They seek out and cherish dependable systems. They abhor confusion and chaos and shifts in external environments.

Most large mature organisations have a culture that supports the critic, not the new idea. Committees and critics are two major barriers to change because insiders are prone to scoff at the new, dooming most creative ideas before they get a fair hearing. Most organisations make it easier to say no to a project than to approve it. If you live in fear of criticism, you're most likely to avoid taking risks that would invite criticism. One study reported in "Survival is Not Enough" by Seth Godin, showed that 16 per cent of employees have withheld a suggestion for improving efficiency at work because they fear it will cost a co-worker's job.

Most large mature organisations have an over-reliance on command and control tactics. Under these conditions, people freeze in the face of change for reasons such as deadline pressure, fatigue, fear, and bosses who desire closure, not uncertainty. Interestingly, the study of complex systems shows that more control leads to less order and less control leads to more order.

Most mature organisations have too many surfs and farmers. Godin's evolutionary treatise identifies four types of people in most organisations: Serfs, Farmers, Hunters, and Wizards.

Serfs do what they're told. Note: Serf is not a pejorative term. It is merely a description of the worker's role in the company.

Farmers work within the bounds of a winning strategy.

Hunters work a winning strategy but expand it in ways that had not occurred to management.

Wizards introduce significant mutations into systems, creating opportunities for entirely new winning strategies.

To move closer to the edge, organisations must try to transform lots of serfs into farmers and obtain more hunters and wizards. We need to transform serfs because serfs are used to the status quo, too many are a major impediment to change and slow down your business.

Wizards are unreasonable, they argue, they think differently, they may not be easy to work with and manage. Most wizards that somehow find themselves in large mature organisations don't stay very long. But, if you are serious about moving closer to the edge of order, never let an inventive wizard go. You will not move closer to the edge of order without at least a few.

I'm not proposing that chaos should rule at your organisation. In the end, the boss still has to determine which fields are worth pursuing, which projects should be cancelled, which processes can no longer be profitably improved, but you need less direct control and more trust in your system to find its "sweet spot" close to the edge of order.

In my next Strategic Snippet I will give you some specific pointers about how to move closer to the edge.

Bruce Holland

Liberating the human spirit at work

I really believe there is a better way of making work happen - It's mostly about breaking down silos and creating more depth, connection and meaning.

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