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Leading for Complexity by Deborah Ancona

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Leading for Complexity by Deborah Ancona

Documented by Katie Heikkinen

150609_03_AnconaDuring the June 2015 LILA Summit, Deborah Ancona focused her presentation on distributed leadership. Deborah and her team have researched a lot of really cool organizations, but the question is: how do we create an organizational structure that supports innovative teams? What is it that enables these kinds of teams and distributed leadership to function?

We live in an uncertain world. Innovation, agility, and speed matter a lot. We are moving into the “knowledge era,” characterized by flat, loose structures and decentralized leadership. Those organizations that have started out flat and loose also need to grow, and it’s a tough balance between too much and too little structure.

What is leadership? It has changed over time. Current era is about networks and learning. The goals are different now.

They started their research in a large, innovative organization, studying 2 units. One was more bureaucratic and one was more innovative. What was the difference? We had a question: how do you allow freedom and avoid chaos? Then we looked at an organization that was more at the extreme of innovation with a flat, loose structure.

Steve’s story: He is part of an organization where some engineers tinker around and one has kids with allergies. He invents a screen that lets air in and keeps pollen out. It’s an interconnected organization with “creative collisions” and someone felt it could be a business idea. Went to window manufacturers and they said just keep the windows closed; what would help are screens that are more transparent. So they created a more see-through screen instead. And sold it to window people. But then he realized the mark-up was huge, and if they sold them directly, it could earn a lot. Steve wanted to do market research. He enlisted the help of a business development friend and he was funded—with just-in-time resources. They found there was a lot of demand. And they made a business!

So how was that possible? How was there enough freedom for that to take place?

Deborah and her colleagues found 3 critical components: leadership, routines, and context. Leadership is about enacting the routine and enabling others to enact the routine. It takes a lot of skill. There are three types of leaders that characterize a distributed leadership organization:

  • Entrepreneurial agent leadership: enact the routine
  • Enabling leadership: enabling others to enact the routine
  • Meta-structuring leadership: set up the game board that allows routines.

Type 1: Entrepreneurial agent leadership

  • Do sensing and seizing
    • I differ from Kathy who focuses more on the business unit level; for me, the key is on the innovative entrepreneurial leaders, not the business unit. It’s all about supporting the entrepreneurs.
  • They show leadership self efficacy.
    • Confidence in being a leader; they self-describe as leaders. Let’s do this!
    • They have the confidence to sense and seize—take ideas all the way to product development.
  • They have intelligent agency
    • Have a strategic mindset
    • You can dig all the way down to the person who is working on the testing equipment and they’ll understand the business model
    • Operate with a sense of strategically where are we going; a mental model of what it takes to succeed
    • “We’re here for a triple word score”
      • eg: Has to make money, has to be technologically great, has to fit strategic needs of the organization
      • People in these organizations are aware of all these needs; rather than just focusing on e.g. R&D and ignoring the business case
    • Forging creative collisions
      • Mental models and sense-making. Part of how you break your mental model is by setting up creative collisions. Collide with someone who thinks differently or has experience with the technology.
      • So there is a mindset of creating and orchestrating these opportunities. Finding people who think differently.
      • Creative collisions cause schemata change, mindset shift. Multiple thought worlds can be integrated.
      • Teams form. People with like interests are free to come together and work.
    • Leader as attractor
      • How do you vet a new product? The fact that people in the organization have freedom to choose what they do, means people “vote with their feet”
      • A leader needs to attract people to their group; that process also changes my schemata. E.g. I’d join you, but this is a weakness I see. Ok, I can tackle that.
      • It’s a process of collective vetting and choice.

Type 2: Enabling leaders

  • It’s not easy to be an entrepreneurial leader. Have to lead, learn, attract, etc. So there are also leaders that enable the entrepreneurial leaders.
  • Coaching
    • Ask great questions
    • Set up support structures
  • Connecting
    • Help bridge local innovation with global optimizing
    • Bring people together across the organization that are working on similar things or could help one another out
  • Communicating
  • Many leaders feel like they don’t have time to do this, but in these distributed leadership organizations, enabling is a full-time job.

Type 3: Metastructuring leaders

  • System sensing
    • “My job is to say what is either wrong or is going to be a problem going forward. What are the pieces of the system that are not working right.”
    • If the system is really far gone, a top-down decision might be made to fix it.
  • Solution catalyzing
    • You have to get the people together, to figure out what the problems are (identified in system sensing) and then catalyze action. Move into action: have to be an attractor. Often have to change the gameboard.
  • Convergence orchestrating
    • Getting people to follow along with whatever the solution is.

System emergence

  • What emerges from the interactions between actors in a complex adaptive system is exciting.
    • Prediction market
      • When people have autonomy to vote with their feet, there is a market for prediction. Individual sensing and seizing leads to joining / not joining and that is basically a predictor of the trends in the environment.
      • Better leaders and ideas move ahead.
        • You don’t have to decide who to promote; people become leaders by attracting followers.
      • DNA interaction, variation, selection
        • Through interaction (creative collisions), the idea changes and shifts
        • Survival of the fittest
        • Schemata change – up the fitness curve: your mental models of things also change along with the DNA
      • Summary
        • 3 types of leaders
          • Entrepreneurs at the center
          • Enablers help them
          • Meta-structures set up the system they work in
        • Result of all of that are useful emergent systems



Harvard Graduate School of Education