As the world changes at speed and continues to get more complex, we’ve seen the rise of concepts like agile (initially in a technology context and now more broadly) and multi-disciplinary teams. We’re all working to become more responsive and more connected, keep up with and capitalise on digital advancements, and thrive in this dynamic and collaborative world.
These themes have been explored further in two different formats we’ve come across which this post shares with you: a TED talk by Martin Danoesastro and a book by Rod Collins. Both reference the example of a flock of birds to illustrate how a collective can be fast and flexible because each member makes autonomous decisions based on a set of simple rules. They argue that this leads to far more adaptability than a centrally coordinated approach would allow.
In the insurance world, we’ve seen these challenges commonly faced when established organisations set up digital garages to encourage innovation across their wider organisation. Given the radically different cultures (and definitions of success) between the innovator and the established, integrating them (or even learning from each other) can be fraught with difficulty. Martin alludes to this with: "we felt like strangers in a strange land, surrounded by beanbags and hoodies and lots of smart, creative employees".
The world is getting faster and more complex, so we need a new way of working, a way that creates alignment around purpose, that takes out bureaucracy and that truly empowers people to make decisions faster.”
The TED talk is entitled “What are you willing to give up to change the way we work?” and is roughly 13 minutes long. It is given by Martin Danoesastro, who is a senior partner and managing director at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), based in their Amsterdam office.
Martin helps large, traditional organisations learn from digital innovators, change their ways of working at scale, and replace their departmental silos with small, empowered, lasting, multi-disciplinary teams. His experience is concentrated in the banking, insurance and financial services industries, and includes the effects of digital on organisations and ways of working. His areas of expertise include agile transformation and digital transformation.
The themes of speed, innovation and collaboration also arise in a book about new forms of management I recently read: "Wiki Management - a revolutionary new model for a rapidly changing and collaborative world"* by Rod Collins, Director of Innovation at Optimity Advisors in the US. While the book’s title can be confused with managing a digital wiki from a technical perspective, the author explains that wiki means quick or fast in Hawaiian. The book does use the example of digital wikis too i.e. pages that anyone can edit like Wikipedia – wikis themselves are strong examples of the power of networks, and the shift from command-and-control management to a world of mass collaboration.
With the advent of the Digital Revolution over the last decade, the way the world works has been radically transformed by the unprecedented combination of three developments: accelerating change, escalating complexity, and ubiquitous connectivity.”
Read on for discussion around some of the core ideas in the talk and book.
Early in the book, Rod describes traditional leadership, remarking that in traditional organisations, “authority, flowing down from the top of the organisation, ensures orderly transfer of strategic objectives formulated by senior executives into tactical activities performed by the workers. Compliance with supervisory directives is a basic expectation and is continually reinforced through the performance appraisal process”.
He also explains that this approach remains incredibly common: “Most businesses today continue to employ a management discipline that was initially formulated in the late nineteenth century and solidified in the early twentieth century by the first management guru, Frederick Winslow Taylor… Known as Scientific Management, this model was designed to boost the efficiency and productivity of workers by applying scientific methods, such as time and motion studies, to discover the best ways for workers to perform various tasks of production under the close supervision of a hierarchy of managers. Taylor’s philosophy quickly became the gospel of management and provided the foundation for much of what many of us, more than a century later, still consider to be the givens of professional management: top-down hierarchies, the sharp divide between managers and workers, centralised decision-making, and functional organisation.”
A Changing World
However, both Rod and Martin argue that the world has changed. Rod states that “we are rapidly exiting the Industrial Age and entering the new and very different Digital Age. The defining characteristic of this new age is that its breakthrough technologies have indeed made networks far more powerful than hierarchies.”
For Martin, change is “not only about embracing the new; it’s about giving up on some of the old as well”, and Rod highlights the importance of adaptability: “...In times of accelerating change, it isn’t the most controlled or the most efficient organisations that survive, but those that are most adaptable and resilient.”
To Rod, the changing world means that values (and vocabulary) need to shift:
Principles of complex adaptive systems
While both the talk and the book refer to an example of an adaptive system in nature, a flock of birds, there are other natural examples too, like a colony of ants. Rod explains further that complex adaptive systems share three common organising principles:
(i) intelligence resides in the whole system (collectively) underscoring the importance of harnessing diverse perspectives,
(ii) simple rules guide complex collective behaviour so that responsibility for control and coordination rests with each self-organised individual, and
(iii) order emerges from the interaction of independent individuals in an evolutionary way.
Leading such a system
In an adaptive system, where independent individuals coordinate their activity using simple rules, the roles of leaders are very different to the command-and-control approach that led to success previously. Leaders must now change their leadership behaviour to bring clarity to the overall company purpose, strategy and priorities – strict alignment on these is required to empower the teams to be more autonomous. And, while leaders have to ensure that everyone is aligned around the overall purpose – the why – and the overall priorities – the what, they also have to let go and trust their teams to make the right decisions on how to get there.
Martin expands: “If we want [our] teams to be fast, flexible, creative, like a mini-start-up, they have to be empowered and autonomous. But this means we cannot have leaders commanding their people what to do, when to do, how to do. No micromanagers. But it also means that each employee needs to become a leader, regardless of their formal title. It's about all of us stepping up to take initiative.” He reiterates this in his concluding words: “Leaders will be all of those in the organisation who embrace the change. We all have to lead the change.”
Rod explores the role of managers further in the book: “...Collective intelligence needs to be processed and aggregated. Someone needs to guide the creation of our common ground and the shaping of our shared understanding… [Managers] exert a different kind of influence… Rather than acting as controllers who take charge and make the decisions, they assume the roles of facilitators of the discovery processes from which the best decisions emerge… They see themselves as responsible for managing the architecture for mass collaboration by creating collective learning processes, building quick consensus, [and] cultivating shared understanding...”.
One personal example of how an executive experienced the shift in style is shared by Martin, who describes how the leader “used to be a master of milestone-tracking. Now, today, to know how things are going, instead of looking at status reports, he needs to walk down to the team floors to attend one of their sessions. And instead of telling people what to do, he looks for ways to help them... radical change for someone who used to be a master of milestone-tracking. But, in the old world, this executive said, ‘I only had the illusion of control. In reality, many projects would run over time and over budget, anyway. Now I have much more transparency, and I can course-correct much earlier if needed.’”
Power comes not from being in charge but from being connected”
Putting it into practice
Other aspects of this collaborative approach that harnesses collective intelligence are explored in Martin’s talk, including working together across silos in multi-disciplinary teams. He also highlights the importance of co-location, which can be problematic when divisions are spread across a country, or around the world. In his words: “no handovers, no PowerPoints, no red tape, just getting stuff done”… The corporate equivalent of birds flying in perfect synchrony.
Another role performed by managers and leaders is to help encourage consistency across teams, by sharing best practices, and ensuring that the simple rules are understood.
In Martin’s exploration of the practicalities of changing our approaches to management, he emphasises the trade-offs, explaining that we need to give up some of the old, and challenging us to consider what we’re willing to give up in order to be quicker and more responsive.
Have you adopted these techniques at your workplace or in your team? What challenges have you faced, and has the shift been a net positive for you? Are you faster, more flexible and more creative as a result?
* PROTAGION is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk. The links with * participate in this programme.