Coherence in complexity

Many of our older business models are not working any more. Anecdote reports that John Kotter, leadership guru, is accepting that methods like his 8-step process for leading change may not be effective in the face of complexity.

The majority of the [HBR Paywall] article is focussed on a ‘new’ concept Kotter calls ‘Strategic Accelerators’. In effect, he is talking about using Communities of Practice/collaborative networks to tap into the power and agility of the informal capabilities of an organisation. The network of strategic accelerators complements the formal systems; it does not replace them. Collaborative networks are not a new concept, but Kotter’s application of them to the arena of strategy is very insightful.

I have been discussing the potential of communities of practice in fostering innovation for some time here. In my last post I wrote that in an increasingly complex workplace, many of the old models are no longer useful, referring more specifically to workplace learning. The same is happening to our models for management and “change management”, as if we could manage change in the first placed. Complexity, driven by global networked communications, is the main factor.

High value work today is in addressing complexity, whether it be in the market, society, or the environment. This requires learning, sharing, innovating and engaging. Organizations that promote awareness, transparency and openness through appropriate ways to coordinate, collaborate and cooperate have a better chance of understanding complexity. Joachim Stroh describes this in his fractal image below.

The coherent organization is our way of creating a framework to look at organizational performance. It is based on the fact that governance, work, and learning models are moving from centralized control to network-centric foundations. For instance, coalition governments are increasing in frequency, businesses are organizing in value networks, and collaborative & connected learning is becoming widespread. A coherent organization framework ensures that collaboration (working for a common objective) and cooperation (sharing freely) flow both ways. Systems, such as enterprise social network tools, can assist “net work” practices like the narration of work and personal knowledge management.

So while change cannot be managed, per se, organizations can be structured in ways to be more resilient to change. Kotter suggests a second operating system:

The existing structures and processes that together form an organization’s operating system need an additional element to address the challenges produced by mounting complexity and rapid change. The solution is a second operating system, devoted to the design and implementation of strategy, that uses an agile, networklike structure and a very different set of processes. The new operating system continually assesses the business, the industry, and the organization, and reacts with greater agility, speed, and creativity than the existing one. It complements rather than overburdens the traditional hierarchy, thus freeing the latter to do what it’s optimized to do. It actually makes enterprises easier to run and accelerates strategic change. This is not an “either or” idea. It’s “both and.” I’m proposing two systems that operate in concert.

I would strongly suggest instead that organizations need to get the first operating system correct so that they do not need a second one. A coherent organization is structured to take advantage of the complexity and noisiness of social networks, allowing information to flow as freely as possible, and affording workers the space to make sense of it and share their experiences and knowledge. The underlying concept of a coherent organization is that organizations and their people are members of many different types of networks, for example, communities of practice, the company social network, and close-knit collaborative work teams. A coherent organization requires a single unifying framework, not two operating systems.

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