During the first LILA community wide conversation of this year’s cycle, LILA members identified connection between their organizational challenges, the initiatives they are leading and those of other LILA members. Additionally, ideas began to emerge regarding how the theme of Emergence in Organizations might inform the way forward on these challenges. LILA members also discussed their challenges by borrowing lenses from previous years’ themes of managing complexity and adaptive cultures, while also driving into this year’s theme of emergence.
LILA members talked about the uncertainty of emergence, and the associated risks given the challenging environment in which they work. They operate in increasingly complex environments, such as in the public education sector where local and state school boards must also collaborate with federal bodies and school communities on how to spend their budgets. In the army, this complexity is viewed with a systems thinking approach, where the focus is not on fixing the parts but on understanding and improving the interactions. In addition to complex environments, the constant change, both internally and externally, can work against the strong history and traditions of an organization. Hyster-Yale struggles with adapting its conservative culture to the new wave of millennial employees. Bechtel is transitioning from a Baby Boomer CEO to a Millennial CEO.
Emergence itself creates constant change, such as with NASA where the commercial space players have a much more important presence and market share than ever before. There are so many elements in an emergent approach that are unknown and unpredictable that a concerted effort to innovate and react may still result in a failure. Steelcase was leading the way in designing furniture for home-like office spaces, presuming that 20% of the market would be interested. Having highlighted the need, more than 60% of the market adopted this emergent trend but Steelcase was unable to respond quickly enough. They inadvertently created a new market to be taken over by a competitor.
What, then, can organizations do in order to embrace emergence while ideally minimizing the risk? Many LILA members raised the idea of creating and supporting more self-directing teams. These teams would be more agile to change and emergence. They would be less focused on brokering information and representing their positions, and more focused on making things happen. These self-directing teams, as well as the entire organizations, could be guided more by principles and values in order to allow for alignment in a general direction, in the face of unpredictable changes and opportunities. The organization’s adaptive culture could then also align with the principles, while still shifting with changes. The US Army uses the concept of “mission command”, in which the leader’s intent, vision, and boundaries are communicated to the executing team, and then the leader trusts the team to act on its own to achieve the mission. Agreeing on the principles can make unpredictability more comfortable.
Still, principles alone cannot erase unpredictability, nor do they guarantee that individuals and teams act in alignment with them. At STADA, principles and values can promote alignment and engagement across culture and sub-cultures, but GEMS has observed that principles are subject to various interpretations, and potential misalignment, across cultures. Steelcase employees are challenged with translating the principles into choices and quick reactions in the company’s daily operations.
The right structure could possibly promote an organization’s ability to better embrace and benefit from emergence. While restructuring can feel bold, it also comes with paralysis, turmoil, and friction, additional challenges that can be worthwhile for the right structure, one that is driven by organizational alignment. Partners in the restructuring may need to be convinced that the benefits outweigh the new challenges. If it is to benefit from what emerges out of these new relationships, Army University needs to show the 36 schools that it is bringing together under one umbrella that it is not simply adding another layer of bureaucracy.
Leaders must also take on a new role and a new mindset in order to promote emergence while minimizing risk. As happens in “mission command”, the leader must build trust for others’ principle-driven decisions and be ready to accept the consequences. The leader may need to encourage accountability by asking about the principle-driven logic behind a team’s actions and decisions, instead of focusing on a less-clear dichotomy of right and wrong, success and failure.
Creating the safety, or a “safe space”, to try and fail seemed to be a common challenge for members as well. To embrace emergence, an organization and its teams need to be adaptive, potentially, “wildly adaptive”. As such, they may likely fail, and will need to learn from these failures. Given the rapid pace of change and the high level of uncertainty, the safe space to fail and learn may come from relationships and trust, which are more stable across change. Fostering the emotional intelligence of leaders can also create the relationships and safe spaces that support the agile decision-making processes of self-organizing teams, allowing them to actively work toward finding successful approaches.
Despite the rapid pace of change and the emphasis on action, attention must still be paid to collaborative processes and buy-in. In the siloed structure of Deloitte, it continues to be important to foster cross-team collaboration and conversations around challenges before moving ahead with a new course of action. This concertation process can slow down the action, but Deloitte sees it as time gained through increased effectiveness, as the right people have become engaged in tackling the challenge. Similarly, taking the time to name and understand the paradox and the tensions around emergence, such as choice||predictability and control||emergence, may help teams and entire organizations be more prepared to assess and act in ways that foster emergence.
Much of this call focused on team-level action, which may play a key role in discussing how to embrace emergence. An individual alone facing an organization, or lost in a larger group, may not be comfortable enough to engage in safe to fail experiments in an emergent way. Action and decision-making at a team level might be the sweet spot for emergence.
As we gather on October 24-25 the LILA community will be joined by Benyamin Lichtenstein from University of Massachusetts and Donald McLean from the University of Glasgow to further our exploration of the theme of Emergence in Organizations and specifically what we must unlearn in order to embrace emergence.
If you have further ideas, share them with other LILA members by commenting on this post.
To read the consolidated document of all member challenges and initiatives, click the following link: