Thursday, December 19, 2013

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

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