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Bruce Holland

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Strategies to increase flexibility

In my last Strategic Snippet, I said that many large, mature organisations need to become more flexible. This is easier said than done. As the Snippet said there are many forces working to hold silos of power in place.

The major forces include senior managers and the business system through which they operate. Time after time, Barry Oshry, Chief Theoretical Officer) of Power + Systems, Inc., has shown experimentally that silos are inevitable unless we change the system and assumptions by which most businesses work. Therefore, by far the most important strategies for breaking down silos involve changing the business system and working with senior managers over a period of time, long enough to change attitudes, and habits. Success depends on senior managers seeing differently, feeling differently and being more conscious.

This Strategic Snippet addresses second level strategies to increase flexibility and break down silos. These strategies are required after the business system and senior managers have been addressed.

1. Tag and disturb the organisation

The first step to move the organisation is to disturb it. You can never direct a living system. A machine can be directed and controlled, a living system can only be disturbed. It will only be disturbed by something if it recognises that thing, and the only way it will recognise the thing is if it is tagged, named, pointed out or measured. This is why, what we focus on is what we get. This is why managers must never stop pointing out what's important, again and again and again.

2. Look for what is already working

In my experience, one of the most important things the organisation needs to recognise and tag, is stuff that is already working well.

In nearly every organisation, even in the worst performers, there's lots of stuff that's working well and some stuff that's a problem. Many managers start by looking for what's wrong and go after it. As a result the organisation becomes hurt even more and builds an even bigger protective barrier around itself, making the organisation even less flexible.

A far better way is to find the positives. In the process people will see that they already have much of value and grow in confidence as a result.

It's not just my experience, the study of systems shows that it's impossible to engineer the outcome you want. What's required instead is trust that the solution exists somewhere in the system. The trick is to look for and boost 'positive deviations' (things that are already working unexpectedly well). You can do this by providing information, lots of communication, managing conversations and providing highly respected role models so that people start to notice the success and want to be part of it.

3. Turn Serfs into Farmers and Farmers into Hunters

In my last Strategic Snippet, quoting from "Survival is not Enough" by Seth Godlin, he suggested that most organisations have armies of Serfs (people who only do what they are told). By definition people who only do what they are told reduce flexibility. In my experience, Serfs are a smaller issue in New Zealand, however, I'm sure you'll agree that they are still a problem.

One of the main ways to increase flexibility is to turn a significant proportion of Serfs into Farmers (people who work within the bounds of a winning strategy), and Farmers into Hunters (people who work a winning strategy but expand it in ways that had not occurred to management).

Research shows that today about 90% of the market value of organisations come from four asset types, Knowledge Assets, Cultural Assets, Relationship Assets and Time Assets. Only the remaining 10% is tied up in Fixed Assets. These four asset types are directly related to people. Increase the value of your people and you increase the value of your organisation.

The following strategies will disturb the organisation and be powerful tags.

4. Identify those most likely to achieve

In my experience, a large number of people are almost invisible to senior managers. These people often come from the baby boom generation. They started off enthusiastically but over the years have become disillusioned. They probably tried to move up the tree but found few opportunities as organisations shed layers of hierarchy and there were too many people competing for too few leadership positions.

Now, if managers see them at all, they say, "They won't think for themselves.", "They are just waiting for retirement." And they are quite right, these people are burnt out and bored. They have stopped trying.

Organisations usually have well-developed processes for identifying talent for senior positions. This needs to be extended to find people who may never make it to the corner office but who could well become Farmers or Hunters.

In my experience, this includes the vast majority. Achievement and service are basic drives in people and it takes quite a bit to knock it out of them.

5. Fast feedback

Fast feedback about what's effective in the workplace can help move a workplace full of unquestioning Serfs to probing farmers. It must be fast. For example when I was Group Strategic Manager at the Bank of New Zealand we wanted to turn the Tellers into Sellers. The first step was to get them talking to customers. A box of 100 dollar coins was put in front of each teller with a sign that read, "If the teller does not smile, take a dollar." At the end of the week the Social Club got any money that was left in the boxes. You'd hardly believe what happened.

A service organisation, I was working with, that wanted to increase customer service. They put an electronic wall display in the middle of the office that started counting off the number of elapsed seconds before the telephone was answered. This simple feedback tool produced amazing results.

6. Expand leadership development

In many organisations, leadership development opportunities are restricted to senior managers and new hand-picked recruits. Middle managers and below are largely neglected. I find it ironic that CEOs complain about the lack of leaders coming through their succession pipeline, when the have large numbers of people who given a chance could become Farmers or even Hunters.

I hear arguments like, "My people are seasoned" or "They are no hopers" or "They should know, they're been here for years." When you ask the people themselves, you find corporate restructuring and flattening organisations have eroded the old career paths, and they can't accumulate the needed set of leadership skills on the job.

Can you imagine a Cardiac Surgeon saying, "I had a class on heart surgery once back in medical school."?

For more on Leadership Development...

7. Peer-to-peer development

Peer-to-peer development was listed by the Harvard Business Review (Feb. 2006) as one of the "20 breakthrough ideas for the year".

In the Peer-to-peer groups that I have set up, people throughout the organisation are invited to come together in groups of about eight people with a commitment to helping each other grow. Uusually they meet every other week for 2 or 3 hours.

Peer-to-peer groups are a great way to build networks, collaboration and increase flexibility, especially if they are made up of people from different parts of the organisation.

Peer-to-peer development groups have another advantage beyond increasing flexibility, they help to solve many of the issues that hold an organisation back when it is going through a change process.

Each meeting, one or two participants are asked to bring a problem to the meeting. The other members give close attention to the problem-holder but will not solve the problem even if the answer is obvious. Rather, they ask open questions and dig deep to enable the problem-holder to get a deeper understanding of his/her problem.

By far the most obvious difference in peer-to-peer learning, is its insistence on questioning and gaining consensus about what the problem is. This forces the group to spend time on understanding the problem and its context and conditions.

Most individuals and groups rush to search for the answers. This is natural because most people are uncomfortable with spending too much time in ambiguity. The original problem is rarely the one that is most crucial. Groups that accept the initial problem often end up solving the surface problem. The peer-to-peer group's first and primary task is to understand the problem. As some wag said: "It's better to first put your finger on the problem before sticking your nose in it."

For more on Peer-to-peer learning...

8. Participation in project teams

Getting a significant proportion of people participating in project teams is a wonderful way to increase flexibility and collaboration, especially if they are made up of people from different parts of the organisation.

Also, whenever an organisation undertakes a significant change process, there are dozens of areas to be looked into and project teams are an ideal way of mobilising the knowledge and experience of people who actually know the system.

For more on Project Teams...

9. Provide fresh asignments or even career changes

Serfs often feel frustrated and uncared for. For reasons that seem to be outside their control, they have been sidelined and now everyone sees them as rusting. Serfs often dream of-and in some cases end up pursuing-something fundamentally new outside the organisation. Yet jumping the corporate ship is risky, so an employer that can offer an attractive internal career change has a chance to retain valuable talent.

A fresh assignment, often in a different geographical location or part of the organisation, lets them take advantage of a their existing skills, experience, and contacts while letting them develop new ones. The best assignments are often lateral moves that mix roughly equal parts of old and new responsibilities

Sometimes an organisation can provide employees with a career change. They may develop a new speciality, assume an altogether different job, or sometimes return from a management track to a specialist role.

I hope you can see how this improves flexibility. Firstly, influential people who were previously actively against the organisation becomes reenergised; secondly, they are able to use their extensive knowledge and relationship assets for the organisation; but even more important is the symbolism to other people, that the organisation cares for its people and they will not be left to rust.

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.

Key words: strategy, strategies, business strategy, business strategies, strategy management, strategic management, strategy development, implementation.

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