Three Things Great Leaders Inside Contemporary Organizations Do

Great leaders are less interested in telling every cell in their organization what to do than they are in creating an environment that allows those cells to thrive.

Great leaders are less interested in telling every cell in their organization what to do than they are in creating an environment that allows those cells to thrive. (Photo: Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr)

At The Ready we spend a lot of time and attention helping organizations wrestle with the challenges of doing business in the 21st century. Organizational structures that have been serving companies well for 100 years (e.g. Taylorism and designing for efficiency over everything else) are showing their age. It used to be fairly accurate to think of organizations as complicated machines that required enlightened management and leadership to maneuver successfully. In a VUCA world this simplified view is no longer useful and actually actively inhibits organizations from becoming successful.

Instead, we should think about organizations today as incredibly complex adaptive systems situated in other complex adaptive systems (e.g. local, state, national, and international political and economic units). Complex adaptive systems are characterized by their inability to be precisely controlled by one specific agent or actor. They can certainly be influenced but they are far different from the complex machine with the all-knowing pilot pulling all the right levers. They are networks of cells (teams, individuals, and teams of teams) all interacting, sharing information, and influencing each other.

While new ways of structuring organizations is a frequent topic of conversation — the DAO, Holacracy, self-management, etc. — there seems to be much less discussion about how our perspective on leadership might need to change in light of these new structures. There has certainly been much hand wringing about the future of leadership in “managerless” or “flat” organizations but I figured I’d go a step beyond fretful worrying and propose three ways leaders can still play an important role as their organizations become more complex and less predictable.

The key thing to keep in mind as we think about leadership in increasingly self-managing companies is that the requirements of people in leadership roles will change from what they are currently used to. Teams in a network don’t need someone directing their every action. In fact, not only do they not need that kind of orchestration, they are directly harmed by that level of micromanagement. Teams have to be free to react to the information in their environment as they strive toward their various purposes. However, that’s not to say those teams can’t be influenced, nurtured, and stewarded as they navigate the ecosystem of the organization.

1. Great Leaders Share Context

One of the biggest misunderstandings about this new wave of self-organizing/self-managing/Holacracy-based organizational structures is that all organizations are becoming “flat.”

What the most forward thinking organizations understand is that hierarchy in itself is not a bad thing — it’s only hierarchies of relatively static and ambiguous roles that cause problems.

Only a small fraction of companies are anywhere close to a structure where this debate is even relevant. Chances are your organization still has some kind of hierarchical structure and if you’re a “leader” in an organization, even a very forward thinking one, you have greater visibility than someone who is in a “lower” position. While we generally advocate pushing authority and decision making power to the “lower” roles (because they are often closest to the customer and have the most up to date information about what actually matters to them) there are still certain types of information to which only “leaders” have access yet teams could make use of.

Because of their higher position in the hierarchy they have visibility on decisions or data that need to be shared with the teams who are focusing on the work at hand. Great leaders are all about making sure their teams have all the information they need to do their work and then giving them the space and authority to do the work as they see fit.

Practice Sharing Context With Your Teams:

1. Start a public blog about the industry shifts/major trends you’re seeing and share it with your teams

2. Share your perspective with teams directly (without the expectation that they must take a specific action based on that information)

3. Share more data than may feel initially comfortable with your teams (it’s almost always safe to try)

4. Create a mechanism for sharing minutes/notes/lessons from high level meetings

Great Leaders Enhance Information Flow

We like to talk about organizations being more like networks rather than complicated, but ultimately knowable, machines. The network of an organization is comprised of the individuals, teams, and the relationships between them. The individuals and teams often get most of the attention because they are fairly concrete and easy to see.

The more difficult, yet arguably more important, part of a network are the connections between all the teams and individuals. The power of a network exists only in the quantity and quality of those relationships.

With high quality connections information can flow quickly and easily through the network. For example, if one team learns something that may help similar teams in the organization then that information should find those people and teams extremely quickly in a healthy network.

Unfortunately, most organizations have built structure, processes, and culture over time that make the flow of information difficult or non-existent. At The Ready, we’ve taken to calling this “organizational debt”. It becomes difficult for people in different teams to talk to each other or there’s literally no mechanism for one person in the organization to communicate with all the other people in the organization at the same time. Instead of teams viewing themselves as working toward the same overall organizational purpose they see themselves as competitors and jealously hoard useful information. Or the work culture is such that taking a moment to step back, reflect, and learn is perceived as being lazy and indulgent. In each of these cases information that should be flowing through the network is being cut off.

A good leader figures out where this is happening and gets the information flowing again. They are looking for the blockages and bottlenecks. They are looking for lessons that aren’t being learned in one area of the organization when another area of the organization has obviously worked through a similar problem. They are clearing out the pipes between teams and individuals so information starts flowing again and the advantages of being a network can be realized.

Ways to Get the Information Flowing Again:

1. Create multi-functional/horizontal/diverse teams as much as possible

2. Encourage teams to use transparent working methods (transparent document editing, file sharing, and communication whenever possible)

3. Develop mechanisms for teams to deliberately share information with each other (weekly sharing meeting, monthly show-and-tell, etc.)

4. Look for barriers to information flow and use your clout/resources as a leader to remove them

Great Leaders Protect the Health of Their Teams

I’ve been using the organization-as-network metaphor a lot in this article so let’s shift gears for a moment. Another useful metaphor is to try thinking about organizations as an organism that evolves and grows over time. Organisms/organizations are comprised of cells/teams who cooperate in the pursuit of a larger overall goal reproduction/organizational purpose. If you are a leader thinking of your teams as biological entities then it’s not too far of a stretch to say that your teams need nutrients, they need to expel harmful waste, and they need to be protected from toxins in the environment in order to thrive.

In other words, great leaders help teams get the resources they need, help teams remove harmful internal toxins, and they prepare the environment so that their teams are more likely to thrive.

The leader trusts her teams to self-regulate and as such knows that what the teams are looking for from her are not directions or instructions. Instead, they want help securing the resources they need to be successful (money, time, space, etc.), they want help getting waste out of the team (shirking teammates, harmful norms/processes, etc.), and they want to be protected from forces in the outside environment that might jeopardize their success (well-meaning (or not) upper management, “seagulls,” bureaucracy, etc.). Good leaders are on the prowl for all of these things and know when to step in to provide that service to the team.

Practice Keeping Your Teams Healthy:

1. Talk to people and teams to find out what is frustrating them in getting their work done — eliminate the frustrations you have control or influence over

2. Be on the lookout from forces/requests from above that will distract your team from their mission and run interference for them

3. Advocate for your teams whenever it will help clear the path for getting their work done

4. Actively seek additional resources (time, space, money, snacks, whatever) for your teams

5. Try interacting with your teams in more of a coaching role rather than as a manager or commander

Conclusion

Just as organizations must adapt to better fit the demands of the 21st century so must the nature of leadership evolve and change. There will always be a role for people within organizations for people who can look beyond their immediate individual or team work to think more broadly and holistically. Whereas that role was often focused on telling people and teams what they need to do it will now be more of a role aimed at synthesizing and promoting positive behaviors within the organization.

Great leaders know their organizations are great not because of them, but because of the overall health and capability of the people and teams who comprise them.

Sam Spurlin works for The Ready where he helps complex organizations move faster, make better decisions, and master the art of dynamic teaming. Contact The Ready to find out more. While you’re at it, sign up to get our newsletter This Week @ The Ready delivered to your inbox every week. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samspurlin.

Three Things Great Leaders Inside Contemporary Organizations Do