Embrace the seeming paradox!

Let’s face it: your problems are like spoiled brats, just too willing to misbehave. And they can easily afford to be ill-tempered, irrational, incoherent, inconsistent. However, you cannot. Not as an individual, not as a leader, not as an organisation. For you must uphold some level of coherence and consistency to maintain your credibility (and I would add: your self-esteem). How can you achieve that goal if your problems obviously don’t play fair?

As a very useful navigation tool, think about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. Not only does Cynefin help you make sense of the types of problems you have to deal with; it also gives you a better understanding of your comfort zones, i.e., the preferred approaches you employ when solving those problems. This framework falls into five different domains (simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder), each which its own characteristics (see a set of examples). And usually, you will try to manage your affairs in the North, i.e., you should stay in the complicated and the complex domains, due to the underlying vulnerabilities and risks in the other three domains.

In the most recent post, I zoomed in on the differences between East and West, i.e., the simple and the complicated domains on one side; the complex and the chaotic domains on the other. The types of problems in the East and in the West are distinctly different, and so are the approaches for problem-solving and decision-making. Things start to get really difficult when individuals, leaders, or organisations do not match their approach to the specific problem at hand. That’s when preferences dominate decision-making, and that’s when trouble will arise, as problems will be ignored, misunderstood, or tackled only partially. As a result, problems will remain unresolved and build up over time, getting ready to cause catastrophic failure. The only way to avoid such drama is simply: adjust your approach to the problem, even if that means you’ll need to leave your comfort zone.

Your challenge then is to respond to the characteristics of your problems, to take an Eastern approach for Eastern problems and a Western approach for Western problems. That’s easily said, but you certainly cannot redesign your entire organisation every time a new problem arises. Instead, you’ll have to build in adaptability that allows you to adjust as an when required. And rather than picking either the East or the West, I will argue for keeping one foot on either side and then shift your balance according to the need. That might seem paradoxical, but it is an effective way of circumventing preferences and avoiding the pitfalls associated with comfort zones. It’s embracing the seemingly paradox in order to successfully deal with Eastern and Western problems alike. Today, I’ll offer some ideas on how you could shape such an organisation, lead it today, and prepare it for the future.

How to build it?

Let’s start with organisational shape and take a look at static and dynamic elements. We often perceive organisations as structures and hierarchies. Building these structures takes time and resources, hence they are retrospective by design, focused on the past. In this static perspective, we consider structures as ‘what the organisation is‘, and that view predominates in the East. Processes on the other hand are flexible mechanisms that connect different organisational components (be that individual staff, small units, or entire divisions) to achieve the desired outcomes. Processes define ‘what the organisation does‘, and they are easily adjusted at comparatively little cost. That dynamism is the hallmark for the West.

Of course that description is simplified, and in reality, you will necessarily construct an organisation of both, structures and processes, to meet your needs. The difference between East and West is ‘only’ the starting point, or rather: the dominant consideration.

  • In the East, it’s structures first and processes second. You start thinking about structures and then build your processes across and around those. Taken to extremes, that approach easily results in Byzantine bureaucracy with highly intricate processes: immutable, carved in stone.
  • In the West, it’s the opposite: first processes, then structures. You start with the processes you need and then look for the structures that can support them. That works even when there are no formal structures yet (somebody else can establish those later) or when there are more structures than you need. You won’t feel compelled to respect existing hierarchies, instead you’ll take what works for you and ignore the rest.

As is often the case, extreme approaches do not deliver genuine solutions. You can neither justify a ‘purely Western’ organisation (where everybody is doing something, but nobody is achieving anything), nor can you sustain a ‘perfectly Eastern’ organisation (designed for perfect harmony between the constituent parts, but paralysed by its own rigidity). You’ll need to find the right mix of effective processes and sustainable structures. Not only for one specific task, situation, problem, but adaptable enough to accommodate potential future tasks, situations, problems. That will be a constant, an enduring battle. The first step down that road to adaptability is to accept that no organisation is perfect the way it is today, that adjustments will always be necessary. Next, you’ll have to carefully consider how static and how dynamic your organisation shall be, how much structure and how much process is required. The ultimate goal is to establish and maintain a hybrid organisation. And to achieve that, you’ll have to focus on leadership style and organisational culture.

How to lead it today?

My advice on leadership style is simple: be patient as well as impatient. That seems irreconcilable at first, but it makes perfect sense, as long as you don’t mistake patience for idleness. To achieve your goal, you must have patience to engage in deep and rigorous analysis, to look for the details and understand the nuances, to pursue your goal to the end, with a clear focus on the future. And at the same time, you must be impatient as well: pushing the boundaries, never being satisfied, staying hungry, thinking in capital letters, looking for the big picture, and staying focused on NOW!. The question of course is: How?

As an example, think of a pack of wolves: The proverbial wolf closest to the sleigh is impatient. It’s breathing down your neck and keeps you running, but it won’t mount the final attack. Its key task is just to keep you busy in order to stop you from thinking, while the rest of the pack is patiently waiting for you further down your path as you come running their way. Obviously, your problems strongly resemble such a pack, even though they are technically disconnected and they cannot act as an organised team. Still, as a collective effect, they will keep pushing you, will continuously stop you from thinking. They’ll cater for your impatience and deny you the benefits of patient, careful consideration, analysis, preparation.

As a leader, you’ll have to embody both roles: the impatient role of getting things done as well as the patient role of in-depth analysis and strategic planning. You cannot let yourself and your organisation be driven by urgency alone, therefore you must resist the temptation of simply giving in to the pressures of NOW!. On the contrary, it is incumbent upon you to break the supreme rule of urgency and replace it with a balanced approach that takes into account importance and urgency.

You could for example take the Eisenhower matrix as a simple tool and a strong reminder, as it essentially looks at the importance and the urgency of any given problem. The resulting advice is plain and simple: do what is important and urgent; plan what is important, but not urgent; delegate what is not important, but urgent; and eliminate what is neither important nor urgent. Once again, that is easily said, but difficult to achieve in everyday life, exactly because your problems will make it as hard as possible for you to be patient. All the more you must maintain a strong focus on the future, on the impact of the important problems, on the patient side of things. For if you don’t, then nobody will.

And that leads us more or less directly to the question of sustainability. Once you have established an adaptable, hybrid organisation with a sound balance between impatience and patience, how can you ensure that neither of the extreme positions could gain the upper hand in the future? No strategy can ever achieve that; it’s a question of the culture you instil in your organisation.

How to prepare it for the future?

Shaping the organisation’s culture is a leader’s most challenging duty. Culture is deeply rooted, below the surface, and out of sight; it is not subject to direct command, it does not respond to immediate orders. Still, culture changes over time, blending recent events with older traditions, gradually absorbing contemporary thoughts and weaving them into the fabric of a longer-term narrative. Due to this far-reaching and enduring impact on the organisation’s future, it is also a leader’s most rewarding privilege to shape organisational culture. Your means are only indirect, and they require patience.

You’ll seek to make culture visible, to set sign posts, to encourage and reinforce preferred behaviours. But first and foremost, it’s leadership by example. The leader embodies and inspires the organisation’s core values. And here’s the rub: as a leader, you cannot “not influence” your organisation’s culture. You will inevitably leave an imprint, either through action or inaction, either on intent or accidentally, by either choice or chance. As much as you are now picking the fruits of your predecessors’ past labour, you are sewing the seeds today for your successors’ harvest tomorrow. It’s your choice what they’ll eat, so don’t leave them just stones.

My concrete proposal for an enduring organisational culture once again comes across as a paradox: be efficient and resilient. Now, I’ve pointed out before that efficiency and resilience are natural enemies: if you are going to extremes, one will kill the other. But if you carefully consider what each them is useful for, you’ll see how both are indispensible for long-term sustainability. It is a worthwhile struggle to maintain a sound balance between these two opposite poles in order to ensure your organisation’s adaptability.

Maximising efficiency is the very appropriate objective for well-defined and frequently recurring tasks. Based on a clear and unambiguous description, you know exactly what is part of that task and what is not. Hence you can easily identify and then eliminate any activity that does not directly support the execution of that task. And frequent repetition is a strong incentive for you to make sure that absolutely no resources are wasted every time the task is executed, because even a tiny bit of waste multiplies over time to considerable aggregate losses in energy, material, time, and money.

Therefore, under such conditions of clarity and recurrence, maximum efficiency is a good thing. But mind your assumptions, and beware of their implications. You have created a dedicated organisation, with highly refined structures, processes, skills, and facilities, to execute that one task. This organisation binds your resources, it represents a massive investment that you have made. And you justified that investment based on your predictions on the future, based on your assumption that the record of the past is easily projected into the future. You assumed certainty.

That certainty will sooner or later turn out an illusion. But no matter what, once you have made that massive investment, you will defend it. Even if the conditions for long-term viability are not met anymore. Even if you have constructed the perfectly lean, mean machine to execute a task that is no longer required. Of course you will try to adapt your organisation in order to salvage your investment. Only to meet a fierce enemy: the rigidity of a highly efficient organisation, its inertia and resistance to change. You have created the perfect one-trick pony, only to find that it lost its purpose in life. You’ll feel like training a sumo champion for free-climbing: it’s the perfect misfit.

Maximising resilience, on the other hand, wouldn’t readily come to anybody’s mind. That is okay from an operational perspective, because an organisation designed for maximum resilience could not even be effective. However, it is a strategic error to design an organisation without any consideration for its resilience, as such an organisation remains extremely vulnerable to unforeseen challenges; any small deviation from the expected course of events can easily cause major crisis.

Resilience describes the ability to bounce back after critical impact. This bouncebackability allows an organisation to maintain an essential functionality after being hit by crisis. However, that doesn’t mean that the organisational shape would escape unscathed, nor does it guarantee that business models would survive. Resilience implies the ability to reconfigure the remaining component parts, and to redirect the resources available within the organisation. It’s the ability to salvage what you have and carry on. This is the hallmark of intact ecosystems, you’ll find in human psychology, and it’s remarkably strong in cities (think for example of Coventry, Hamburg, or Hiroshima).

In organisations, resilience lives in the shadows; it is something like a hidden virtue. It’s certainly not part of any Key Performance Indicators, hence we usually do not feel a need for it until crisis strikes us ill-prepared. It seems that we understand the need for resilience only at gunpoint. That insight, however, comes too late, because you cannot build this capacity at short notice.

Organisational resilience requires contacts, interactions, and connections that exceed the immediate necessities of today’s core tasks: across teams, across divisions, across hierarchy layers even. That’s the hidden value of kitchenettes, coffee tables, smoking corners, or jogging groups. These connections don’t have to be strong; they could even be dormant, as long as they can be readily activated in times of crisis. Apart from their vital contribution to the organisation’s social cohesion, such interactions create what I’d call a ‘decentralised knowing of people‘: knowing who does what, and more importantly, who has which skills or interests, even those not actively employed in today’s core activities. Such resilience needs to be nurtured and developed over time. It should be understood as a small, but critical investment that shall not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

Balancing efficiency and resilience will always be an art. But it doesn’t require magic. All that it takes is endurance and persistence. Just keep in mind what you need efficiency and resilience for, each of them individually, and both of them together, now and in the future. And take both of them into proper account in your every-day decision-making and leadership.

Now …

We usually view organisations as structures, we lean towards impatience, and we favour efficiency. In order to effectively solve the range of problems we face, we need go beyond our comfort zones to embrace the elasticity of processes, the traditional virtue of patience, and the hidden value of resilience. That means moving from either-or questions and black-or-white decisions to both-and considerations and an appreciation for colours and shades. Overcoming our biases and leaving behind our comfort zones is definitely worth the effort.

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