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I was given an orchid as a present, it sat in my kitchen on the windowsill. My daughter had a habit of naming everything: ‘Olly the Orchid’.

At first, I was excited. I read up about how to keep it healthy. But I also did that thing we all do, you know, look for the ‘obvious’ signs for health; I regularly took the pulse and Olly was living a great life.

Sadly, he deteriorated. I was doing so well, but the excitement wore off; the weather warmed, and I didn’t adapt my feeding process. My other half kept telling me that I should change the routine, but I’d been successful up until now, so I pulled that funny acknowledgement smile and carried on regardless.

Poor Olly, he withered away ten times quicker than his early days of growth. Why didn’t he just tell me how he was feeling?

Sound familiar?

It’s quite possible to kill an organisation if you neglect it and make assumptions, forgetting to regularly check the pulse, or worse, restrict the amount of ways to take the pulse.

I undertook a post-mortem and wish to draw on a couple of factors akin to an organisation’s health:

>Success syndrome
>Cognitive dissonance

Success syndrome
As an organisation grows, it learns from its successes and a core business is formed. People come and go. Legends are formed. Myths are carried from person to person. And “a way” starts to cement itself. Let’s call it organisation memory.

It becomes increasingly difficult for an organisation to innovate as it ages due to such memory. Suffering success syndrome means getting locked into conventional thinking and practice. As an organisation grows, this deepens, silos form, group think matures and creativity slows.

An adaptable organisation, however, has an infrastructure that continues to experiment around its core successes. Imagine having two sub-organisations running concurrently. This second one is not reliant on a team in R&D to create the next innovation.

Michael Arena describes it as having ‘brokers’ who aid discovery, and ‘connectors’ who develop ideas into meaningful solutions. Critically, they test these solutions with people and they become the ‘energisers’ that diffuse it across the organisations. It pulls on the vast network, using real-time data and analytics to help make better decisions. It’s disrupting itself. [Arena, Adaptive Space, 2018]

It’s this that keeps the organisation grounded in their unique context; resisting the temptation to jump on the next bandwagon which risks commercial decisions that could kill the organisation.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure Arena describes is not all that common. In most cases senior leaders want to make a lot of the decisions. They seek counsel from who they know best; their everyday conversations. And just think, how common is that notion as you work down the hierarchy? It provides controlled growth and group think; often true innovation is happening outside of this social circle.

Re-designing your organisation to disrupt this success syndrome is crucial for survival.

There’s much written in social science about network analysis or network mapping. What this helps to identify is your key organisational influencers. And you know from experience, that’s rarely to do with positional power. Instead, we gravitate to the ‘brokers’ when seeking help, advice, gossip or a second opinion. The adaptable organisation leverages this network to innovate.

These organisations maintain a relentless focus on learning from mistakes, as well as failures. Such mistakes are often born from experimentation.

Blend this concept with cognitive dissonance…
Over time, things need to evolve; there is a need to innovate. As the weather changed, I ought to have adapted Olly’s routine, but I was being told to do it; that felt a little uncomfortable, so I relied on my own beliefs. I just about managed that acknowledgement smile.

So as the weather changes in your organisation and people come and go, there’s rich value in taking the pulse on how to adapt.


>What were they unable to influence?
>What one idea did they wish they had implemented?
>Fast forward six months and they hear a story about positive change, what would the story contain?

And in the inbound:
>What knowledge and skills has this person got that they can teach us?
>What will they spot in their first few weeks that we need to listen to and act on?
>How do we create an environment where they can freely challenge and innovate?

Now I don’t know an organisation on the planet that isn’t faced with a need to evolve. Equally, many are trying to articulate a compelling reason, aligned to a change methodology, why such an evolution is necessary, to push people along.

One of the most effective methods I use is Design Thinking. Not to tell people about the solution, but to co-create it with them.

I use a combination of honest conversations, empathy, data and Nelson Mandela. My focus is working with people who are both directly and indirectly affected by the problem, to develop a concept design, then continually test and iterate; drawing as much learning from what doesn’t work, as what does. It’s what Lori describes as taking a braver approach by experimenting and use the data to course-correct.

Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Developing ideas with the individuals doing the work is crucial to success; anything else becomes a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance. You’ve got to keep skilled people in the conversation, as opposed to outside it.

What would it take for you to shift to socially constructed change?

How can you develop a culture where people can work in new ways around real problems; where significant innovation involves people doing things differently, not just thinking it.

It is in this space where cognitive dissonance is significantly reduced, as people co-create the future success. It’s where you can run the two organisations in parallel; I’m suggesting a co-existence, as opposed to radical reorganisation.

Adapt, then stick in the space of permanent adaptability.
This type of innovation and entrepreneurial mindset existed in every business in its original inception. In the early days people are excited, they align behind a compelling idea and work hard to ensure its success. It’s a connected network, as Arena describes. As the operation scales, it’s necessary to give tasks to people, but to ensure consistency, formal processes are created. Compare a start-up to an established organisation, you’ll see a stark difference. The processes are justified as necessary to maintain success (syndrome).

Controlled growth replaces experiments and courage; you can feel things slowing. But it plays into our instinctive craving for predictability, control and certainty.

Trouble is it can kill the organisation in a heartbeat.

From an exhilarating feeling of emergence and an environment full of questions, to one filled with answers. In an incumbent, telling is not only accepted, but it feels so good when we think we have solved someone else’s problem. What is more satisfying than giving advice?

But your poking at the cognitive dissonance fire.

Employees want power; every employee wants to have a voice. Power, in this context, is the ability to influence circumstance; to have a voice and opinions, matter. Without voice, employees feel alienated and “powerless”. Power is primarily about inclusion and engagement and gets to the source of much of the disenfranchisement experienced in organisations. Having input and being involved energises people. When employees can influence the situation, their circumstance, they feel energised. When employees experience ownership over their own day-to-day, they feel valued and empowered. [Tolchinksy, Accelerating Change, 2015]

Revival of the emotional dead zone.
What if each of us were more sufficiently honest with those that defend the success syndrome?

What if that honesty was welcomed for the sake of innovation, not resignation? That it became ok to not agree with each other.

What if the measure of engagement changed to things more tangible like number of suggestions fully implemented, as opposed to ‘my opinion matters’. And % of your work you’ve actively crafted yourself, as opposed to ‘opportunities to be my best’.

When people are responsible and accountable, they become more innovative and motivated.

I’ll leave you with Arena’s five principles of Adaptive Space:

1.Organisations can discover by engaging the edges
2.Develop by finding a friend
3.Diffuse by following the energy
4.Disrupt by embracing the conflict
5.Need to actively set boundaries to close the network and facilitate adaptive space

It is these principles and a deep reflection on my two factors above that will help to manage a tension between stability and adaptability.

Chris Furnell, Organisation Design Consultant

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