Is Your Organization Too Organized?
Rigid structures and plans might be hurting more than helping your business
Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.
In 1985, a designer decided she was sick and tired of monotonous production and repetitive design. She had had it with clocking in for someone else and went out on her own to found an agency. Theo Williams wanted to create a different kind of work environment, one dedicated to creating “real art.” Though the agency has grown and evolved in the decades since, this pursuit of genuine creativity remains at the core of what we do and our personality is defined by curiosity, a playful spirit, and a boundless sense of wonder.
But what is also true is that when we set out to invent astonishing things for our clients, we are driven by strategic business goals. And as an agency we have our own long-term goals. The thing is, making money when you’re making art is a tricky endeavour. It means being able to balance certainty and structure with freedom and ambiguity. It means knowing when to sacrifice reliability for adaptability and ultimately sometimes being able to embrace the unknown.
Most companies today still operate using a model invented over a hundred years ago. Often referred to as Command & Control, these hierarchical systems go something like executives over directors over managers. But working conditions have changed drastically over the last few decades. A highly connected world of instantly accessible and shareable information introduces innovations faster than they can be implemented. “The tension between organizations optimized for predictability and the unpredictable world they inhabit has reached a breaking point.” (Responsive.org)
Inflexible structures in this environment no longer make sense, and what is the organization chart if not an example of a rigid long term plan? Responding to these new demands, organizations are aiming to distribute authority and bestow greater autonomy on employees. By creating more unpredictability and inefficiency in the short term, they increase employees’ capacity to respond to change over time.
New World, New Way
One of the most widely publicized alternatives is Holacracy, adopted at companies like Medium and Zappos, the office of the Chief Information Officer of the state of Washington, and more than 300 other organizations. Developed by former software entrepreneur Brian Robertson, he writes in his book, “When you impose a ‘should’—as in ‘I should be X in five years’ time’—you create an attachment to that outcome; the attachment limits your ability to sense when reality is not going in that direction, or when other possible opportunities arise that might conflict with what you first set out to achieve.”
Although the model has had its share of issues with implementation, there are some interesting elements worth taking a closer look at.
Self-management under Holacracy is far from a wild free-for-all and in fact relies on an intricate set of rules and processes that force an organization to define roles and accountabilities far more rigorously than the old Command & Control system.
In a broad sense Holacracy uses structuring processes rather than a fixed structure to maintain order and clarity. Instead of individuals, units, departments, or divisions, the essential building blocks of Holacracy are circles. Within these circles individual roles are collectively defined and assigned to accomplish the work. Circles are created and dissolved as the needs of the organization change.
Individual employees have portfolios of several very specific roles, an arsenal of skills they can pick and choose from to address shifting organizational and individual needs. A key aspect of Holacracy is making these employee roles explicit and visible. Not only does this aid in structuring circles, but when an employee’s value is more clearly recognized, they have more confidence to initiate changes and make decisions.
So how are decisions made? They are guided by a constitution, a living document outlining the rules by which circles are created, changed, and removed. Teams design and govern themselves following these laws.
Lastly, within Holacracy leadership is contextual and is assigned to roles—not individuals. Employees hold multiples roles on different teams and leadership responsibilities continuously shift as the work itself changes and as teams create and define new roles.
Finding a Space Between
If it all starts to sound a little confusing, that’s because it is. As one of the first fully articulated alternatives to the old Command & Control structure, companies have wrestled with implementing Holacracy. Medium decided to abandon the model and Zappos saw major employee turnover.
It’s definitely not the answer for all organizations, but it does represent a shift in thinking towards self-organization described in the Harvard Business Review. “If traditional organizations strive to be machines governed by Newtonian physics, precisely predicting and controlling the paths of individual particles, then self-managing structures are akin to biological organisms, with their rapid proliferation and evolution.”
For those of us working in creative environments, finding a space between freedom and structure becomes all the more integral. Imaginative ideas aren’t often associated with rigid corporate cultures. Ultimately it’s a continual conversation aimed at striking a balance between the inevitable aspects of any business that need to be reliable—and therefore predictable—and those areas where what we really need is adaptability, creativity, and perhaps a little uncertainty.
Got you hooked? Here’s more:
No Need To Go All In on Holacracy
Unlocking the benefits of self-management
Why Hierarchy Stifles Creativity
Hierarchies are sometimes great just not for finding great ideas
Everyone and everything is connected