Some organizations, or parts of organizations, are very good at working in environments that are highly unpredictable and where little is known. This is because they prioritize organizational learning. Such working methods gain in value as the world becomes ever faster, more unpredictable and volatile. The ability to change direction to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances without the need for planning, design, master plan, or management diktat is a competitive advantage. Such organizations are, to borrow from Heifetz and Lansky (1), “adaptive”.
Some organizations, or parts of organizations, continue to operate in relatively stable and predictable environments, in which most of what needs to be known is known, or at least can be known. In such conditions, organizational learning and adaptability, which come at a cost, have less value. Instead, technical efficiency is the main goal of the operations manager.
The difference between the two is the way information flows in the group. In an adaptive organization, information tends to flow more laterally, between peers and across organizational boundaries. An agile and dynamic information flow is an agile and dynamic organization. In a technical organization, information tends to flow from top to bottom so that it can be controlled. A flow of information controlled by appropriate levels of bureaucracy is a technical and efficient organization.
This flow of information occurs in real time between colleagues every day. These are the patterns of relationships and conversations happening around and through all of us, all of the time. Organizational Network Analysis allows us to visualize these patterns, showing us your organization as a network of people who are socially engaged in their work. This allows us to see if the flow of information in parts of your organization is hierarchical or cross-functional. Obtaining this information is essential to successfully support the evolution from functional ways of working and organizing to cross-functional organizing. Learning how an organization operates in this regard helps us understand where further support of this development is most likely to pay off. It also provides a baseline against which we can measure progress.
However, to credibly claim that we can influence the types of network structure that emerge, we must be able to explain why it emerged in the first place. The specific network structure that we are mapping emerged for a reason. We commonly see, for example, a relatively small core of hyperconnected people and a relatively small periphery of much less connected people. Understanding why the network has evolved in this way is essential if we are to credibly claim to be able to sustain the conditions under which a different network structure will evolve. On some level, the answer to this question is obvious: the network structure we see in any organization is the sum of all the decisions that individuals make about who they want to connect with. The structure of the network emerges from the interaction between people.
Why people make the decisions they make
Our research has shown that there are three important factors that determine whether people make the decision to connect laterally, across organizational boundaries, or vertically, with people of greater seniority. These three factors are:
- Motivational orientation
- Power differences
- Psychological complexity
One of the important factors is what self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 1985) calls causal orientation, but we call motivational orientation. Simply put, people are motivated to act either because they are told to do so (this is called a control orientation) or because they want to (a self-reliance orientation). Each of us has a different balance of preference for one or the other, but we’re all motivated by both at one point or another.
We can say that some people are more likely than others to interpret environmental signals as instructions with which to decide whether or not to comply and some are more likely to interpret these same signals as invitations to act of their own accord in their pursuit of a commonly understood goal. The same can be said of people who try to motivate others. Some people are more likely to give instructions and others are more likely to set goals and let those doing the job determine how best to achieve the goal.
This orientation towards different approaches to motivation is constantly changing, depending on the environment in which each of us find ourselves. For example, we are more likely to give instructions at work than at a social event. We must also keep in mind that the particular balance of orientation of each of us is developed in response to our environment, so in a very real sense we cannot think of the motivational orientation of an individual. separately from orientation in or environment.
This tendency to be motivated differently ‘oriented’ plays an important role in determining the decisions we make about who we choose to connect with. To understand how / why people decide to connect, we also need to consider power, which is a difficult and complex subject. We assume that by power we mean authoritarian power, and that this is a function of where someone resides in the hierarchy. This isn’t a full explanation of how power works in the real world, of course. But it allows us to understand for the first time how and why people choose to go online.
For someone with a high control orientation, power is desirable and even attractive, so we assume that they will be making decisions to connect with people with more power. The stronger the focus on control, the more likely they are to take whatever opportunities they may have to connect with someone with more power and not value connections with people of equal or less power. . Someone with a strong self-reliance orientation, on the other hand, doesn’t appreciate power so much, but values results. They are more likely to connect with their peers across organizational boundaries.
This is enough to allow us to model very small and simple networks. But it is not enough for us to model large networks and show the emergence of the network structure that we see in the real world. To achieve this, we need to think about the size of the part of the network that an individual considers relevant, which we call the “neighborhood”. This is where the psychological complexity comes in. Essentially, the higher the psychological complexity of an individual, the larger their neighborhood.
We now have a powerful theoretical framework to help us understand the emergence of a network structure and therefore the adaptability of an organization, but it is only useful if it leads to the development of new and better approaches to how we organize ourselves.
Implications for the way we work
In fact, the social network we’ve been talking about so far is made up of the patterns of conversations and relationships that exist between people in your organization. Individuals are important, of course, but they are important to their colleagues as well as to themselves. In a highly individualistic world, this vision represents an evolution towards a more systemic vision of how work works. He suggests that the role of the leader in a complex and adaptive environment is to foster the development of the network as a system and the individuals who make it up.
This means developing the complexity of the conversation models to match the complexity of the challenge encountered. We need to recognize several things:
- conversations have structure as well as content and pay attention to both simultaneously
- the complexity of a conversation is developmental
Think about a conversation you recently participated in where consensus was very important. More important, in fact, than anything else. Maybe because the conversation was on a new team, or at a difficult time for some other reason. The search for consensus was so important, in fact, that you chose not to be a dissenting voice so that consensus was maintained and everyone felt comfortable and included.
Can you see how such a conversation has structure – an implicit set of social rules that govern what can and cannot be said – as well as content? A consultative structure is very important and necessary, but it is not very complex and there are all kinds of things that a group of people cannot do unless they can develop a more complex structure.
Without being able to develop a structure of conversation in which consensus is stable enough to accept challenges, tensions cannot develop and be sustained and decisions cannot be made. A conversion that can accept challenges is more complex – there are simply more interrelated moving parts in the conversation. We now have a conversational structure that can create directionality, rather than just going with the flow.
To develop conversational structure, you must first learn to recognize the complexity of the conversation. Then assess whether it is complex enough to cover the topic of the conversation. If not, you can invite the conversation to get a little more complex by asking “development questions”. If the invitation is accepted and the people you’re chatting with start to engage, you’re on your way to a more complex conversation. However, they might not. Maybe the question was too complex and they weren’t able to. Don’t be offended, as this is a trial and error process. Wait for another opportunity and try again.
John Turley, Agile Transformation Specialist, Adaptavis