I must confess. I am a Nerd. A special type of Nerd. I am a Nerd in Organizations. I am captivated by the way organizations work, by the ways humans arrange themselves to collaborate with one another.
Like every Nerd, I think that my thing, “Organizing”, is the most important thing in the world. Let me explain why.
Like so many boys I liked adventures. While playing, listening, reading, or just imagining there were so many adventures to be found, everywhere. The biggest ones to me were the stories of conquest and mortal peril: The Legions of Caesar, Pirates, Prussia, the Byzantine Empire, Genghis Khans Hordes, Japanese Senguko Jidai or the two world wars – all stories. Or the epic business stories of the East India Companies, Apple, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, etc.
That fascination stayed with me until now. It just metamorphosed from a boyish adoration of heroes to a quest to understand the inner workings of the organizations. After all, most great people could not achieve anything without great organization and management.
That’s why I want to share with you what I call the “10 Habits of Organization”. It took me 48 years, a couple of hundred books and a lot of reflection to identify them.
A word about naming: Please not that I alternatively rfer to the “10 Habits” as “10 Wonders”, too.
I. The Habit of True North
Some think the power of a unifying vision lies in being a great motivator. I disagree. The motivational aspect of share vision is not what is really important in an organizational context. For organizations, the coordinating aspect of a vision has far greater usefulness.
Motivation is a fickle thing, as humans are fickle. Most of us can’t be Mother Theresa all the time. But if we fall on hard times and got to make difficult choices, a vision will help. Moreover, the vision will help us to predict how others in the organization will act.
There is the illusion that a monolithic vision of a company will suffice: The one sentence like Facebooks “connect the world” or Googles “organizing worlds information”. But it is much more important to break down the vision so that every unit has a purpose so that an organization becomes a purpose-driven organization:
The Habit of True North: A hierarchy of purpose helps to replace a hierarchy of coercion.
Yet most organizations neglect visions and thereby relegate themselves to “just another place to earn money.” A pity, as it prevents people from bringing out the best version of themselves.
Working on a vision is hard, and it needs to start at the top. It takes a disciplined visionary at the helm of the organization – a combination seldom found.
II. The Habit of Caring
The deeper we dig in us, the more we know that everything that matters is what we do for others. This is no sentimental sentence of a Gutmensch (do-gooder), this is an empirical fact according to worlds longest running study performed at Harvard University.
The Habit of Caring: Give people something to care of, and they will care.
Give everyone a clear line of sight to the customer – no matter if external or internal customers. Give each individual the chance to make someone else happy.
III. The Habit of Teams
Psychology and Neuronal science have shown again and again how fallible the individual human mind is. Every one of us is so blinded by his senses, prejudges, moods, attitudes and the very mechanics of his brain. There is no way around that, no matter how hard we try.
But if we engage in open, mindful exchange with others and allow us and others to reflect, the team can produce results that far and reliably outstrip the results that anyone alone can do.
We are, especially in the western world, so enamored with the narratives of the lonesome hero, that we tend to trust individuals more to do great things than we trust teams -despite all empirical evidence.
The Habit of Teams: Truely united teams are the nucleus of high performance
The conventional management hierarchy fails to produce high performing teams. It does so systematically, as autocratic structures foster fear and dependence – which are poisonous to a teams performance.
But wait: More Teams means more meetings, right? Most of us hate meetings: A waste of time. But we might fail to realize that all that tedious meetings are just a symptom of the failure to lay the foundations of successful teamwork. Some of those foundations are trust, deep relationships, shared missions and a structured meeting format which allows everyone to participate and open up – not just the talkative ones.
Indeed, good teams will have fewer meetings, as they do not require them: They achieve their coordination by more personal, shorter and more meaningful exchange.
IV. The Habit of People
Since the eradication of slavery, the right of every adult to make her or his own decisions is right, front and center of our global culture. We trust individuals to make the right decisions every time, no matter if the individual takes up sky-diving or purchases a house for hundred thousand dollars, or opt for a facial tattoo. Go ahead, you are the master of your own fate!
But since the abolishment of the medieval menial service of farm hands, achieved in the industrial revolution, there remain basically two areas where humans are not trusted to make the right decisions. In the education system, and in companies people are subordinated to other persons. In exchange for regular pay, employees forego their right to make their own decisions.
This is, of course, an advance from slavery and menial labor, but still, people are not welcomed as adults in a company. With the signature of their work contracts, people enter organizations as kids, not as adults. Bosses can order people around like they are kids. And as kids employees try to please their parents, even if it means bending the truth.
Having a good “parent” in business is fantastic, but much rarer than in families. After all, the connecting tie is not one of blood but one based on an economic relationship between superior and subordinate. Cold hearted exploitation is often the result.
The Habit of People: Treat people like adults, and they will start to make adult decisions.
It’s not easy, but even in hierarchical organizations there are techniques to do that, see, e.g. 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations.
V. The Habit of Freedom
Rules and Policies stifle innovation. They restrict the freedom to act so much, that organizations may fall into sclerosis by entangling everyone in the organization in a byzantine web of bureaucracy.
It is as simple as that: Most company rules punish everyone for the misbehavior of the few. The more rules there are, the more loopholes there are, the more apparatchiks will prosper, and the less entrepreneurial an organization will be- but an Enterprise without Entrepreneurs in it should be a contradiction in terms.
The Habit of Freedom: If you want your company to fly, don’t lock everyone up in secure boxes.
Do not make a mistake to equate a company with a minimal number of rules to an Anarchy: As long as there is discipline, grown trust and shared values, the organization will be functional and innovative. Not just functional, as most hierarchies are.
VI. The Habit of Seeing
Take a step back and look at an organization. What do you see?
- An Organization Chart showing a lot of boxes
- People working in predefined jobs, doing their duty
- Offices where people labor on their assigned tasks
This is all good and well for the industrial age, where work can be neatly parceled out to employees by all-knowing superiors. Efficiency dictated that the amount of information available to an employee is determined by what the employee needs to fulfill a job. To give more information was simply uneconomical.
The Habit of Seeing: Everything there is to know beats all you need to know.
Nowadays, in complex, ever-changing environments it’s more and more unclear what an employee needs to know to do a job. Even more important, research has shown time and again that good teamwork can only happen in an environment of mutual trust. Transparency, the pervasive availability of information to anyone, is creating trust, it is enabling decentralization of control and is enabling learning.
VII. The Habit of Learning
Learning is the only sustainable competitive advantage there is. By now, this piece of wisdom might feel rather stale. So many companies have tried to become a “learning” organization – and so many failed.
Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, and organizational researcher argues that much of these failures can be attributed to our lack of understanding of learning:
- Learning happens not before or after the action, but primarily during the action
- If we put feedback loops into every day to day activities, in an environment built on trust and openness, people will learn
- Managers have to master pedagogy (techniques how to teach) and have a curriculum (whats useful to learn) in mind
The Habit of Learning: Saturate an organization with opportunities to learn and it will learn
People will not learn because they should. Some will want to learn. Other simply can’t avoid learning if nested in an organization where learning opportunity is abundant and embedded in every activity that they do.
VIII. The Habit of Gardening
During the last 100 or years, most managers have been thinking about themselves as problem solvers, with a heavy streak of day to day, “street-wise” (pragmatic), troubleshooting.
In a fast-moving, knowledge-driven economy, this self-view is fundamentally outdated. Now, decisions need to be made at the location of highest competence. They need to be made fast, on the spot. Therefore, a manager becomes both the designer of an organization and its caretaker and is less involved in the day to day actions.
In the words of Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO (which arguably is worlds most innovative organization): A Manager needs to become a Gardner.
The Habit of Gardening: Tend to an organization: Seed, water and protect it- and it will blossom.
Well, that’s a huge shift. From an all-knowing, often micro-managing decision maker to a Gardner that steps aside and lets ideas, people and finally business performance blossom. Many Managers won’t be able to do this shift, despite all evidence that the age of the servant leader has begun.
But do not mistake this for a green utopia. A Gardner arranges his garden for a purpose, and he cuts back rigorously if need be.
IX. The Habit of Exploration
In today’s knowledge-driven economy, there is so much knowledge inside co-workers and so much data to be analyzed. Basically, making ever new hypothesis, trying out things, reflecting, revising the hypothesis and experimenting, again and again, becomes a core individual working technique rather than a high profile exercise of research teams.
Today, we are all explorers who try new things and are rewarded by our efforts. Just look at the way you are working on your smartphone. Chances are that the more you invest in getting to know its capabilities, the more personal utility you derive from the device. The quickest way to learn is to watch others and imitate their way of doing, for example, calling a taxi via uber or solving a tricky excel problem by finding a youtube tutorial.
Like it or not, we are all already explorers in today’s vast worlds of knowledge.
The Habit of Exploration: In a knowledge economy, everyone is an explorer.
The more everyone is stepping out of his daily work, explores, and brings home new nuggets of knowledge that are put to work in the local context, the better business performance will be.
X. The Habit of Practice
The new, modern organization is a journey, not a destination. The speed of the journey will be determined by the quality of the practice. Willy-nilly adoption of this or that practice won’t achieve anything. What is called for is:
- Deliberate practice
- Encouragement to experiment & tolerance for failure
- Iterative ways of working in small increments, in forever self-correcting feedback loops
The Habit of Practice: Organization is a journey that will go nowhere without value driven discipline.
Moreover, an Engineer-like (or should I rather say “Gardner-like”?) self-restraint in doing one thing after another without losing sight of the big picture. There is no point in expecting everyone to perform at stellar champions league level all of a sudden. It takes practice, blood, sweat, and tears to built great organizations.
But the discipline does not lie in slavishly following a method. The discipline must be in following the agile mindset and the values described in the 10 Habits.
How to start
Seldom an organization will be able to follow all Habits of Organization. I suggest starting with aquiring at least one habit, as the benefits are immediate. Just pick one, any of the ten will do.
Experience shows that work on the other habits will follow in due course: Go forward and allow – for example – more transparency and trust will likely increase, enabling more delegation and more autonomy.
I will elaborate how to start liberating in a later post. For now, have a look at 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations.
A Wonder to Awe the World
There are few things that are more worth aspring to then to liberate people. Still, the way we organize work today is build on – often mindless- subordination. This is one of the last left-over of the feudal and industrial age.
I think it’s time to move past that, by using the tail-wind of the digital age: The Economic results of Liberated Organizations are simply superior.
It all comes down to this: It makes a huge difference weather you just show up at work or you really engage in it.
This is what I think. What do you think?
Special thanks to Sketch Note Artist Yasmin Cordes of Sketchworks. I met Yvonne last year at Re:Publica in Berlin and she ventured her help in visualizing the concept. A pleasure to work with you, Yvonne!
The Liberated Organizations Canvas – A workshop tool to sketch directions for aspiring builders of wonderful Organizations
- 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations
- Corporate Rebels
- Kegan, Robert et al., “An Everyone Culture“, 2016
- Graphics by Yvonne Cordes, Sketchworks