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The QWERTY Complex: Un-jamming our organizations to thrive through change

June 1, 2011 - 6 Comments

Today, we are featuring a guest post from Sara Roberts, President and CEO of Roberts Golden Consulting, Inc. She is known for her expertise in large-scale transformation, particularly in driving culture change for enterprise innovation and collaboration, and has provided strategic guidance to dozens of the world’s top global companies over the past 15 years.

Navigating in today’s workplace can be disorienting.  It seems that the minute we reorganize, restructure, merge, shift… we need to do it yet again to keep up with new demands.  We lament, when are things ever going to be normal again? Things are changing so fast.  We can’t possibly keep up!

In our organizations, we often point to ‘agility’ as critical to our success – yet the ironic part is that our organizations are still trying to command and control our way into being more nimble.

What exactly is going on?  For starters, witness the last twenty years.  There’s been an explosion of vastly more information, globalization resulting in larger and farther-flung teams and, not to mention, greater competition coming from unexpected and untraditional sources.  Think: NetFlix and how Blockbuster didn’t see it coming. There has been a serious tectonic shift and our companies are at the epicenter.

In our organizations, we often point to ‘agility’ as critical to our success – yet the ironic part is that our organizations are still trying to command and control our way into being more nimble.  Often times we don’t fully realize that these old hierarchical structures, we’re holding steadfastly to, are unable to process information quickly enough to make the necessary day-to-day business decisions.  We think we can simply optimize to do it better, faster and cheaper but in reality, we need a transformation in our workplaces.

As I was writing this last paragraph, it made me think of a cognitive behavioral theory I recently read about, called “path dependence.”  This term refers to the notion that “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.”  For instance, typewriters used to jam if people typed too fast, so the manufacturers designed a keyboard that would slow typists. We no longer have typewriters, but we are stuck with the letter arrangements of the qwerty keyboard.

Let’s ask ourselves: do we really want to be stuck with qwerty organizations?

I believe the time has come for organizations to truly rethink the way they organize and get work done. I’ve seen first-hand evidence of it consulting with numerous Fortune 250 and Global 1000 clients. We can’t “manage” change anymore – we’ve got to proactively drive it and live it.  There’s a need to shift the role of leadership, decentralize decisions and equip every single one of our organization’s people to be the everyday change leaders that are required for success in this new era.

This June at Enterprise 2.0, I’ll be assisting in the facilitation of a workshop on Organization Next and also, presenting a keynote titled “The Ex-CXO: why your employees will be running your enterprise in 5 years and why you should let them” both which speak to this topic.

In the workshop, we’ll be discussing concrete ways organizations can start to put these new capabilities in place and adopt new ways of working that are more employee-driven, collaborative and less reliant on top-down management direction.

One of the questions we’ll discuss is just exactly how can companies become agile? We’ll explore how the hierarchy needs to give way to self-organization and we move to more bottom-up and side to side. This means that instead of control and decisions coming from the top, individual teams must be empowered to execute. However, this does not mean chaos and disorganization. And, it does not mean a complete lack of planning. It’s about setting goals globally but enabling the execution locally. Each team within the company will need to have the tools, the motivation, and the mandate to execute at its best.

Why will this be critical?  I think Rupert Murdoch said it best, “The world is changing very fast.  Big will not beat small anymore.  It will be the fast beating the slow.”

With my two esteemed co-facilitators, Mike Gotta and Daniel Rasmus, as well as a panel of five experts from Fortune 100 companies and the U.S. government, I think it will be a fantastic event and undoubtedly will leave everyone in the room thinking about what’s in store for our companies and how to lead the charge.

For more on this topic, follow me on Twitter at @RobertsGolden.

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  1. This is exactly why Cisco leaders have invested in building a new corporate center focused specifically on building change leadership throughout the organization, our Change Leadership Center of Excellence.

    It’s both true that the hierarchy of yesterday can move information too slowly, and also that organizational anarchy (AKA the “cowboy culture”) can result in opposing or orthogonal efforts, creating drag to the system, i.e. slowness.

    To get to real speed and agility, we need a clear sense of where we are going, and the strategy we commit to that will get us there, real alignment of leadership (all levels) on these, and then the will and skill as leaders to both trust and empower our people to make decisions and take actions that will speed us to our destination.

    It’s well understood that in the information era, people and their knowledge are the assets of a business that best link to competitive advantage.

    Leaders must discipline themselves to create the conditions for others to succeed, rigorously fulfilling three roles: 1) set a clear direction (and maintain focus) 2) engage and inspire people to pursue that direction, and 3) build an organization that eliminates policy, process and systemic/ structural barriers that inhibit speed-to-lasting-results.

    It is impossible to “command and control” these three critical activities. People willingly and passionately work toward what they believe matters, and will give less than their all for what they are “told” to do.

    So, leaders – set a clear end state vision. Find out what excites people about that end state, remembering that different people are motivated by different things. And build an organization that can identify barriers and has the skills and will to influence the rest of the organization to remove them. Focus on being a good conductor, and the (skilled) orchestra will perform exquisitely.

  2. @Chris Well said.

    But I think it’s more about exposing the social context of information, rather than really about streams. Streams are a means for making activity and conversations more visible and accessible, but it’s the new focus on the people and their connections with each other and with information that is the real change. No longer just a focus on content or technical systems. (A blog post expanding on “people-centric” vs. “social business”:

    The technology has come a long way, but still has a lot of maturing to do. If “Enterprise 2.0” started in about 2005, then we have at least four more years before it will have matured and become mainstream.

  3. I agree that ‘social business’ can be tough for people to get their heads around. For many, it conjures up a Monty Python-esque world where management is bottom up, every real communication is now a tweet, and anyone not blogging can’t be heard. In reality, this move is toward a world where information that has always been there can now be consolidated into ‘streams’ where things can be easily found, followed and added upon. It is an agility issue for those who can’t make this change. The technology is there and we’re about to go through the Great Adjustment Period before the new norms are established.

  4. Like the post, love the word: “Qwerty organizations”!

  5. Excellent post! It will be interesting to see the ideas that come out of Enterprise 2.0 and hear what other participating thought leaders have to say.

  6. This post from Sara Roberts make a good case for building more flexible and adaptive organizations without using buzzwords like “social business.”

    Gordon Ross recently wrote an article discussing organic versus mechanistic models for business:

    At the core the shift Sara talks about is this need for a new business metaphor, one rooted in the adaptive structures of organic things.