Fast Change: The co-organization of Business

Guest post By Russell Raath:

There are many descriptors for the world we
live in. Volatile, complex, global, flat, uncertain, unpredictable, and on. But
I would suggest that it is Fast Change that defines our world more
than any other word or phrase, and our greatest challenge has become living
with it and learning to cope within it.

It doesn’t matter whether you come at this
from the perspective of your personal life, or through the lens of whatever you
do for a living. Parents have to deal with the fact that children spend more
time on Instagram than they do in the treehouse, and that they’re probably more
likely to get a child’s attention with a text message than a phone call (and
you might as well forget email). Our children are doing homework on tablets or
Chromebooks with Google Docs, and they don’t carry textbooks around anymore. Try
helping them with their homework when you can’t even find the assignments or see
the textbook. It’s a different world. It changed. And it changed fast.

But the good news is that, for the most part,
we’re able to figure it out. As individuals, we take our cues from the early
adopters and we learn what to do – and what not to do.

If only businesses were able to adapt that
easily. It is an interesting paradox that when faced, individually, with fast change,
we are usually able to figure it out. When we cross a street and see or hear a
car coming toward us at high speed, we are able to move faster to clear the
crossing. Society has advanced because we, individually and collectively,
figured out how to get out of the crossing and not get taken out by the car –
if you’ll pardon the metaphor.

Businesses (and in some cases entire
industries) – not so much.

Yes, certainly, there are more than a handful
of organizations that manage not only to change, but to set the pace for
everyone else. They do more than cope. They thrive. They aren’t
complacent.
They invent new industries: Did you know revenues in the App industry are expected
to exceed $25 billion this year? That’s an industry that didn’t even exist a
few years ago. Or they take something that others took only so far (ugh
yogurt), and push it farther and turn it into something fantastic (Greek yogurt!).
Or they are serial product innovators making us “need” things we didn’t know we
needed – anyone need another Swiffer with a disposable (and revenue-generating)
attachment? How many blades do you really need on that razor?  You get the point.

Tragically, however, the majority of
companies don’t handle change well. As organizations, they don’t see the
opportunities and challenges that are coming at them (in their industries or
via trends at large) and, if they do, they often aren’t able to do anything
about it fast enough. And there’s a pretty logical reason for that.

Let me explain: Remember how, as individuals,
we are able to react to the changing environment fairly quickly? So why is it
that when we are lumped together in something called an organization, we can’t
react fast enough (remember Blackberry, Blockbuster, Circuit City, Borders, or even
Twinkies or JCPenney)?

It’s because an organization – as a
collection of smart individuals – is bogged down by processes, procedures,
cultural norms, hierarchy, history and “the way we’ve always done things,” and by
the idea that in an organization, we need to be “nice” to get things done. That
last point translates into people not being honest about what they think could/should
change if the organization is to be successful. Alas, being nice and being
honest are often seen as being mutually exclusive. That’s a topic for another
day.

And by the way, all of this happens in public
companies, private companies, new and maturing start-up organizations, not-for
profit companies – no organization is immune.

The solution is to mitigate the adverse impact
that the formal organization structure has over the many smart people who want
to do well (and who want to avoid being hit by the car while they are in the
crossing, to continue my metaphor). How do you do this? Well, you deliberately
set up an environment within your organization (a co-organization) where people
can do what they know is the right and smart thing to do – and where they don’t
have to be concerned about all those things bogging them down. They need to
know that the hierarchy doesn’t come into it, that they can question the past,
and that sacred cows can be put to pasture. Because when you encourage people
within an organization to do these things, they (and you) are able to focus on
figuring out what you should do to get results, and not spend time mired in the
stuff that bogs you down. Smart passionate people can
work fast to get the right things
done
. And great leaders understand that their
role is to enable this.

Dr. John Kotter explains some of it in a
video
here – but there are a few
things worth reinforcing.

·   First, you need to create a new
environment, and you need to populate it with a group that’s motivated by a
shared sense of urgency around a
big vision.
This environment can’t be created the way other change structures can (i.e. you
don’t set this up as a task force or workstream).

·    Who gets involved matters – a LOT. You
don’t tap the usual suspects to form this group. You structure this network of
innovation deliberately to Leave. The. Hierarchy. Out. Of. The. Room.

·    Style, style, style. In real estate is
it about location. With leadership it is about style. How you create this
co-organization is important. You lead and talk differently. You don’t present
or “report out.” You discuss and involve (again, a topic for another day).

I predict that the organizations that get
this right will be the ones that successfully scale Fast Change. Those
that can’t will be stuck in the crossing, watching the oncoming traffic and not
quite sure whether to run forward, backward, or stay in the crossing and hope
the car will somehow miss them. It’s highly unlikely they’ll remain untouched
there; sadly, it is the position a lot of organizations will decide to settle
for.

Russell Raath is a
senior engagement leader with
Kotter International, a change leadership firm that helps businesses
accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations.
 He
can be reached at russell@kotterinternational.com.