Do Your Processes Inhibit Agility and Adaptation?

Businesses, especially large ones, rely heavily on plans, processes and routines. These can quickly become unproductive models of rigid organizational management though, fixated on metrics that are not tightly coupled with innovation. External events often force departure from the routine. When this happens, the processes that are in place can quickly diminish in value. Planning loses its reliability when the environment is unpredictable or even volatile.

During these times, it is helpful for executives and their teams to have skills in how to make strategic adjustments based on the scenarios that arise. An important aspect of modern effective leadership is enabling the organization to respond to environmental factors, to learn from mistakes and to balance freedom to take actions with the constraints that are in place. Employees must be empowered to learn, adjust, and be willing to take bold action that can lead to change.

A good analogy for how to approach this is by thinking about how jazz differs from reading music. Jazz flourishes through improvisation. That does not mean, however, that it is unstructured. Jazz musicians listen and coordinate with one another, and listening is key. They are good at anticipating where someone else is heading, and are capable of accompanying improvisation. Information flows smoothly and without restraint. Members are diverse, but are also highly connected. Jazz players view instability, disorder, novelty and self-organization as stimulants rather than hazards to be avoided.

A good example of improvisation is Mike Burton, deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction. The agency’s role is to design buildings, not to respond to emergencies. Yet on Sept 11, 2001, Burton walked onsite, quickly gathered equipment and crews, and contacted companies to enlist aid while ignoring the regulatory bidding process. He set up a headquarters at a nearby kindergarten classroom. Meetings were held twice per day without agendas. His approach invited free discussion, encouraged novel approaches, supported individual efforts and the exchange of information in the midst of a catastrophic problem. The result of his leadership was a job completed nine months ahead of schedule and $700 million under budget.

Some organizations with successful histories have experienced recent episodes of failing to learn and adapt. Strengths and proficiencies become entrenched rigidities that form barriers to adaptation. Saying “yes” to innovation does not mean eliminating routine and structure, it just means that organizations do not rely on them when situations demand new types of thinking.

The flexible organization is positioned to take thoughtful risks, encourage breaking of routine, encourage people to think creatively and support each other, and to minimize structure in order to maximize empowerment and autonomy.

To study this concept in more depth, read Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett.


To talk with a strategist about your company’s need to be more responsive to the external environment, please contact us.

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