Radical reinvention of organisations: fantasy or reality?

John Thurlbeck
I lead an Organisational Development consultancy, based in North East England, specialising in transformational leadership development; transformational change; re-focusing purpose [vision, mission and values];building resilience; inspiring self belief; re-affirming and re-defining values; revitalising individuals; re-energising teams; refreshing organisations; and delivering real outcomes for people who matter!
John Thurlbeck
Radical reinvention of management practice needed?

Recent research by the CIPD and Dr Gary Hamel, published on 6 November 2013,  identified that organisations paralysed by the pace of modern change require radical reinvention of management practice! The research identified hierarchy; fear; bias in favour of status quo; centralisation; short-term thinking; rigidity and inflexibility as some of the prime enemies of adaptability.

Now … I don’t know about you, but this does not seem like news to me! Having worked for over 25 years in the public sector, not counting my last 10+ years on a consultancy basis, this research might well be describing some of those same organisations … never mind those struggling to cope with the pace of modern change. From my direct experience, they had a tendency to stick with ‘tried and tested’ approaches; had a heavily ‘command and control’ culture; managed through fairly rigid hierarchical systems; were generally output rather than outcome-focused; were oppressed by short-term thinking; and, had an adversity to risk bordering on the pathological!

So, would they be organisations in need of significant change? Definitely! Are they in need of radical reinvention? Maybe not!

Why do I say that? The key lies in the nine core design principles for truly adaptable organisations that the ‘Hackathon’ revealed.  Among these were experimentation and learning, autonomy and trust, purpose and meaning, diversity, creativity and collaboration. However, these are surely not new ideas or concepts? So what might be radical about them? Reflecting on this question brought to mind a great quotation:
“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we are not really living. Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.”  Gail Sheehy

The most fundamental and potentially radical reinvention challenge for organisations lies in that notion of surrendering security, however temporarily! For me this means trusting your people, especially your front-line staff and managers! Why … because they understand the core delivery of your business better than most in your organisation. They are also more likely to be aligned with your customers and their needs! Trusting them with the autonomy to function properly, without fear or favour, would be a significant step-change!

As an example of this, I am working currently with 15 local authority front-line managers in residential children’s care, facilitating a leadership development programme that I co-created with that group of people. The learning and the feedback from the programme so far has been amongst some of the best I have ever encountered. I’d like to share two particularly significant pieces of learning that have emerged over the first two modules. One, these staff fully understand the needs of their young people and, moreover, know how current systems and procedures can be better adapted to meet those needs more effectively.

Two, they fully accepted the need for their own individual development and have fiercely embraced that investment in them as leaders and managers. They knew that leading and managing more effectively will impact positively, on themselves, on their staff, and, most importantly, on the growth of young people. This, they believe, will make a massive difference … and early signs are that this is already beginning to take effect.

The other critical aspect of surrendering security concerns the need for organisations to move back from ‘mission ditch’! I believe that for too many organisations ‘mission drift’, and even ‘mission creep’, has become ‘mission ditch’! What I mean by that is the often total abdication of an organisation’s values and vision in pursuit of the survival of the organisation – often without even questioning whether the organisation even has a purpose any more.

Now here’s a radical thought … those organisations need to refocus on their vision and their values and embrace openness and transparency about their real purpose and meaning. Fudged behind layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy, it is so very easy to not ‘get’ what the organisation is about and even to begin to wonder why it exists?

Albeit at a relatively micro-level, I have been impressed with the foresight of the local authority funding the programme for residential care staff in my example above. At a time of great financial adversity, when both public and private sectors typically reduce investment, if not cease investment in training and development, this authority has done something that many might see as completely ‘counter-intuitive’.
However, recognising and investing in the convergence of staff and clients’ needs is not ‘counter-intuitive’, it is surely an organisation’s life blood? To do so in the current economic climate may seem bold, but that makes it even more remarkable given my personal history and experience.

So … is there a need for radical reinvention or not? I said ‘Maybe not!’ I’d conclude by committing to a very firm NO! What I believe is needed for organisations succumbing to the pace of change in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is for them to re-address their very foundations – vision and values! Most emphatically, they need to do this in collaboration with their staff, so that the real connection that is made is the re-building of trust, which is, after all, the glue that makes any organisational unit cohesive! From trust springs the dissolution of fear and the growth of hope, inspiration and innovation … and any organisation can build on that foundation!

I’d urge you to reflect on these thoughts and ask yourself these questions:

• Is radical reinvention really necessary or do we need to return to our foundations?
• When was the last time you discussed vision or values or both with your colleagues and peers?
• What was the outcome of that discussion and what action took place as a consequence?
• Why is it that people, more often than not, take those things for granted, despite organisations shedding and renewing staff all too regularly in this current climate?
• How good a job is your induction process doing in helping to embed core organisational vision and values in new staff?

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2 Comments

  • David Hain says:

    I love it John – universal truths are still relevant, probably more so, in a VUCA world. Maybe we should be getting back to the future in management terms, or maybe most organisations never really preached these values in the wonderful past that some people like to reminisce fondly about. What is new is that challenge to organisation values is more primed in an articulate, savvy and social generation. All the more reason then for transparency, authenticity and meaningful purpose – none of which, like ‘selfie’, were only invented recently!

    • Hi David ~ thank your for your feedback, which resonated so strongly with me! I’m very much of the view that people reminisce about days that didn’t really exist too! All the more reason, I think to stop, reflect and be honest … and then take some positive action. As you so beautifully put it, transparency, authenticity and meaningful purpose are not new inventions!

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