Thursday, July 11, 2013

Organisations and management: is it time to embrace the future now?

For some time now, like a number of other observers, I have had the view that the structure and function of organisations is deeply flawed. The same can be said for how we understand management. The main reason for having this rather controversial and, no doubt, confronting opinion is that the prevailing model does not take into consideration the psychological, anthropological and sociological evidence about under what conditions people function best.

The way in which we run our organisations, at least those larger than about 30 people, is an artefact of the industrial revolution. Anthropologists will tell you that when we were living in the swamp and peat bogs a tribe of about 50 people was about the maximum size and many were less. While not wishing to return to these ‘good old days’ a small tribe is easy to manage with a single leader. Any bastardry by a member of the group was hard to hide and there was less risk of things like factions and power groups. Leadership was a simple matter of the strongest, smartest, charismatic, or just all round powerful person being in charge until challenged. I guess a class system of some sort or other has been around for a long time. For the sake of this blog I’ll steer clear about whether this was the best model for everyone concerned. What is true is that it was the way it mostly worked. I’m also not advocating a return to this state of affairs in the 12st century.

Where things became a bit more complicated was when tribes became larger. For the sake of this blog let’s skip societies and just talk about organisations because they are indeed, at least in the eyes of sociologists, tribes or societies. They use the same lingo to describe them such as culture, norms, values and so on. The normal, natural system to which humans had become acclimatised for a very long time didn’t work so well. The route of least resistance to managing a large organisation was to adapt the model we already had and which probably resembled common practice in military circles at least in rudimentary form. The system was to appoint lieutenants and split the organisation into small groups. This is the typical hierarchical system that we know so well today.

What we have known since about the 1950s about how humans function best in workplaces is that this model may not be the best. More evidence since then is growing exponentially to support this view. I’d like to predict that organisations in the future will have a very flat structure. They will function around teams that will be fluid and flexible, and based on projects. People will engage in projects according to their expertise and one person will lead that project. After the task or project has been completed the team will break up and the cycle will repeat. Leadership will be based on expertise for that particular project or task, not on an assumption that one person has a special set of abilities. There may be more than one leader on a team providing different skills. In fact you see model working perfectly well in sporting and other social clubs across the globe. The key is to have small tribes (teams) and not allow them to get too large. Managers will not have an exalted status.

Yes, there will need to be coordination and a new way of thinking about pay structures. And yes, people will work well without formal bosses to crack a whip. Cracking whips does not work as a motivator, except in the short term. People are engaged and motivated when they have a reasonable level of autonomy, a clear purpose with to which they feel aligned, challenge, certainty, rewards, the required skills and a chance to improve their abilities, a safe physical and psychological environment, the capacity to be innovative and creative, a sense of belonging (tribe membership), and feel valued.

As for leadership. I think that everyone has the capacity to be a leader given the right context. I am a fair to middling leader when there is a need to be creative, to think outside the box. I like ideas. Sadly, my skills are lacking, as is my motivation, when it comes to a maintenance role. I’m lousy at it. Some people are great leaders when attention to detail is required, and others when we need a grand design.

I wonder whether or not it is time to make the future come to us rather than wait. Is it time given the world in which we now live where uncertainty, rapid change, communication speed and modalities, access to information and personal empowerment, are increasing exponentially to change our organisations to suit? There was an attempt to do this through systems thinking in the 80s and 90s with the propositions of organisational democracy and self-managing teams, but it ran out of puff.

Perhaps now is the hour.


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    1. Hi Shahinur,

      thanks for your feedback. You are very kind

  2. Yes, it is time! As a technology, management (including organisation) is due for a radical overhaul, ideally based on observations and insights like those in your article. Have yo read Steve Denning?

    He has complementary views on 21st century approaches to improving organisations, and thereby peoples lives.

  3. Denning is good-he stirs the pot. I need to get his book.