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Bruce Holland

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Some companies are run like Stalin ran the USSR. They are command structures, highly centralised, rigid and tall. They are made up of equally rigid and tall silos called Divisions (how I hate that word - why don't we call them Integrations?). When the environment changes rigid, tall structures are fundamentally unstable... apt to fall over. And, like Russia, when it happens they fall fast.

Other companies are set up like Jefferson set up the USA. The image is completely different from a tower, it is more like a bean bag. It fits itself exactly to the shape of the environment no matter how much it changes. The bits inside are free to move wherever they want and as a result the structure as a whole becomes far more stable and fits minutely into its environment.

In a recent Snippet I said that organisations need to be focussed, fast and flexible. Several people have asked what I mean by flexible. Flexibility leads to stability, manoeuvrability and creativity.


It's one of the great ironies that risk-averse managers are most attracted to a mechanical model of the organisation (I don't know history, but I'll bet Stalin was a control freak). They aim to control and limit risk, whereas what they set up is a system that (like a tower) is fundamentally unstable and risky. There are far less risky ways to set up your organisation. Living systems are much more stable because they are constantly learning, flexible, flat, fast and highly collaborative. They are open, adaptive networks responding actively to changes in their environment.

Most managers don't realise it, but there is a whole body of scientific research around the science of living systems (especially complexity, emergence and entropy). To ignore this research, which has developed largely within the last 10 years, is like driving in the fast lane with your eyes closed.

When it comes to flexibility many gurus have written about it; some have even built computer models to simulate it but few can claim to have lived it and pushed the boundaries to the limit. In Virtual Group we have been living like this for over 8 years. It is becoming our main competitive advantage as others use our experience to catch up.


I vividly remember a wonderful demonstration Professor Colin Campbell-Hunt gave to a gathering of Virtual Group consultants some time ago. He ripped a piece of paper out of his pad and screwed it up into a tight ball. When he opened the ball the paper contained many creases and folds. Pointing at the paper he said: "This is what the market environment used to be like, lots of hollows and places where organisations could hide." Then he smoothed the paper until it was almost flat again and said: "This is what it's like now. All the regulations and tariffs and artificial barriers have gone. There's no where to hide any more." Today organisations have to be able to side-step, do the unexpected, operate quickly to gain fleeting opportunities before they disappear. Manoeuvrability is critical and it's a function of flexibility.


Most of us are trained to value certainty. We like to pretend that we know the answers and don't like to admit when we feel hesitant and uncertain. We'd prefer to listen to others just long enough to see whether or not they agree with our point of view. Feeling good if they do and dismissing them if they don't. We say we value creativity but don't really want people to disagree with us or rock the boat. However to day what we need is far less certainty and far more curiosity. Nearly every organisation I work with is moving from a position of power in a certain market environment towards a less powerful position in an uncertain market environment. And, because of this, nearly all of them are finding they need more creativity.

The main way to get more creativity is to look through a different frame. If we see people through the frame of a mechanical model they are passive, unemotional, fragmented, incapable of self motivation and disinterested in having meaning in their work. If however we stop seeing them as machines, stop trying to reengineer them and fit them into boxes (jobs) we may start to see them as a living system. In this frame we see people who, like all life, are filled with energy, dynamic possibilities, innovation and ideas. They demand meaning and will move heaven and earth to get it. They are supporters of change, change is not a problem unless we take away the control people have over it.

When it comes to flexibility Virtual Group has a real edge because for over 8 years we have been living in a model far more extreme than I would advise for my clients. We have done this quite deliberately to test the boundaries. Some things have worked wonderfully well, others have failed. In the process we have learned more than probably anyone else in New Zealand about emergent structures and living systems. It is becoming our main competitive advantage as others use our experience to catch up.

If you know anyone who wants their organisation to become more focussed, fast and flexible please give me a call on Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Holland
Stay tuned because I plan to develop this theme for one more week!



Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZs most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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