Reducing Tensions in the Layers of Organizations

by Paul Hobcraft

Reducing Tensions in the Layers of Organizations The really hard part of managing in larger organizations is in managing the layers and competing forces. Often we forget to reinforce acceptable behaviours, we leave role structures lose and incomplete and we set deliverables in often ‘woolly’ ways. This just promotes uncertainly and it is not an adaptive organization in leaving this so open. These unnatural built-in tensions create this shearing effect. They grind against each other, like tectonic plates that force further disruption and upheaval.

These different layers actually require several levels of reconfiguration designed into the organization. One really critical one to address and to ‘kill off,’ is the pressure of time. Time horizons to achieve different tasks often cannot be ‘legislated’ or ‘dictated’ but sadly they are forced on reluctant innovators responsible for delivery of new concepts. We need to re-establish the difference between goals– within a certain period covered (one year), objectives– attained later but are progressed within the period and finally ideals– those unattainable but clearly possible concepts, that progress at slower rates and go well beyond normal goals. Innovation works within this environment, actually it will thrive.

Not just the incremental, but the radical, disruptive and breakthrough innovation craved for by the top management, can finally have a ‘decent’ time horizon to be managed through. Planning needs to account for all three horizons and publically discussed, irrespective of the industry you are in, it does not matter if you are building planes or developing food products.

We really should stop pretending that innovation is not so hard and actually state it is often incompatible to much of what we perform on a daily basis. The task of managing intangibles (unknowns) alongside tangibles (known’s) needs greater appreciation of their complexities, and the difficulties of balancing the two for achieving  a ‘decent’ result. Leadership, I believe, would need to understand innovation far more in this demanding environment of enquiry. No wonder it is often ducked and just vaguely talked about as much of innovation understanding is still poorly understood in its impacts and effect.

The opportunity of the network economy

Again, the realization of the growing web of networks that we are constantly engaging with, is become a growing part of the new more adaptive innovating enterprise. We need to encourage more empowerment to engage with outside parties, to explore, to investigate, to bring in and then diffuse and disperse in new ways. For this we need to design around more absorptive capacity I’ve often written about.

Reducing activities and replacing these with outcome orientation

Innovation is no different from what we expect from efficiency or effectiveness; we want to see the outcomes.   We have struggled on many parts of establishing the really good metrics for judging innovation. They seem to get lost within organizations. Part of the innovation activities has been assigned to some other cost centre, or the capacity was already established and we often don’t break these down and assign these clearly enough to the different activities, we should, but into outcome orientation ones. Were the activities contributing to efficiency or innovation? We judge these through effectiveness of the outcome.

We need to balance existing performance engines for repeatable everyday tasks with innovation delivery engines for new activities to make our organizations function more effectively. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble have offered some thoughts on this at the implementation stage, although they are still needs more examination.  As Scott Anthony points out in his article “Negotiating Innovation and Control’ on the different ways to balance tension there is one, in my opinion, that needs deeper investigation and development and that is the ‘ambidextrous’ one. This makes distinctions but links the parts of the whole organization by developing competing frames, not competing forces. Roger Martin suggests in one of his books “The Opposable Mind” that we need to develop “integrative thinking” as part of this need to change.

Reducing Tensions in the Layers of Organizations Ecosystems often reflect the shearing effect.

In any environment the ‘rates of exchange’ of the different components or constituents operate at different speeds. Interactions occur more at your own level of contribution, the different layers sometimes you are simply oblivious too or ignore. The ‘in-spite of’ syndrome kicks in. Sometimes though, something catastrophic does occurs and you have to pay attention ( a merger, layoffs, threat of closure) but the real reality is, different layers within organizations tend to be often simply oblivious, even impervious, to necessary change and just ‘does its job’.

Maybe then, this is why so many organizations seem dysfunctional but do continue to survive, to limp along, until something really does disrupt their world as the existing ecosystem just seems to allow different interactions and speeds. Can we not alter this though in more thoughtful ways. than the ‘carrot and the stick’ approach or ‘fear and retribution’ methodologies often employed to achieve results?

The worrying thing is any dynamics within the system are dominated by the slow components, and the rapid components simply have to follow along. “Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick”. The only way to ensure a speeding up is to be coherent on the purpose, clarify the bounds and governing principles that need to be enacted.

Consciously working on our dysfunctional points would help innovation

Simply by consciously working on all the dysfunction points within an organization will certainly reduce the tensions, reduce the shearing and allow the organization in all its layers to ‘react’ and be allowed to come back into a balance, where innovation sits equally alongside efficiency, especially if both focus on outcome orientation and that certainly is not the current business as usual we see today.

Freeing up valuable time to innovate.

Perhaps working on these dysfunction spots it might free up some real, much needed space for innovation to take a deeper hold. It does seem with all the suggested emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness, if you accept this argument, it might be a good idea to have innovation alongside, as it does thrives more when there is creative tensions around!

This article is part two (of two blogs) on built-in tensions within organizations.

image credit: gallery.hd.org

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

2 comments

  1. Your comments are spot-on, Paul. “Wooly” expectations lead to tensions which leads to pressure which leads to stress which triggers chemicals that eat holes in the creative part of the brain.

    Innovation soars when businesses address the source of tension.

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