A lot has been written about the “organization, processes and values” of a workplace and their importance for any successful institution. We hear a great deal about how crucial “good governance” is for companies, both large and small, for instance.
So, why do we need yet another piece on this topic?
Well, in my discussions with start-ups and growth companies, as well as with other experts in the field, I have more and more come to the conclusion that we are doing something wrong. We are really making a mistake.
In short, “workplace organization” is still being neglected or misunderstood.
In some ways, this is hardly surprising.
Take a young company. It seems obvious that the founders want to focus their energy on developing their product or service. After all, that is where their interests and expertise lie. And the very word, “organization”, is a mood-killer. That much is obvious.
Nevertheless, “organization” does matter and I will use the term as shorthand to refer to the processes, values and even culture of a workplace.
The general view today is that workplace organization is important.
When “done right”, it can prevent business failures, but can also help create value and contribute to the successes of any business.
I would go further and say that any organization or institution can benefit from thinking more about how it is organized.
Even smaller “units” — teams or relationships, for example — can benefit from devoting time and energy to thinking about how they organize themselves.
The problem lies in how we approach this key challenge. Too often, we try to find a “one-size-fits-all” solution, a “checklist” for success that can be applied without much thought about the time or situation.
This is where things go wrong.
We have to be much smarter about this. For a start, workplace organizations, processes and values are dynamic and cannot be captured in “boilerplate” solutions.
There are several reasons why standardized guidelines, policies or templates, will not work, but an important one is the environment in which we all now operate.
We all live in a digital age in which everything is constantly being disrupted and innovation is both expected and required.
Instead of static solutions, we need to design and implement dynamic processes that help review, learn and adapt workplace organization.
What worked yesterday may not work today (and we don’t even talk about tomorrow).
Most people agree that “one-size-does-not-fit-all” and that workplace organization needs to be more dynamic. But, in practice this is much easier said than done.
All businesses find it difficult to implement change and the idea of dynamism means accepting a philosophy of radical openness and change.
Change is particularly difficult when companies grow bigger or have already been around for a certain period of time and have developed settled ways of doing things.
All organizations seem to have a natural tendency towards conservatism.
But, why do companies today seem to find it so difficult to make the necessary changes to their organization, processes and values?
Generally, there are three answers (depending on the stage of the company, and the industry and market they operate in).
First, larger businesses often have to follow “rules” about how to organize, govern and manage themselves. Although deviation from the “rules” is usually possible, large and established companies tend to be more comfortable conforming with the established practices.
Second, business advisors and experts are often reluctant to think “out of the box”. They also tend to recommend boilerplate arrangements and compliance with one-size-fits-all “best practice”, rather than offering their clients customized solutions. This is why experts and the consultancy industry often struggle with companies that don’t fit with any of the “standard” business models.
Third, even if businesses (particularly younger high-tech businesses) do deviate and are able to maintain the startup feel (by ensuring that the founders can continue to be in control over the business activities), long-term success is not guaranteed.
The recent issues with Uber show that the “start-up culture” may have worked really well in the early stages of its development. But, the same culture appeared to be having a devastating effect on the business in its growth stage.
In order to better prepare businesses and teams for the future, they have to adopt processes that help them adapt to new circumstances faster.
Here are 5 strategies that are crucial in overcoming the various obstacles and meeting this challenge:
First, we need to let go of the idea that there is a blueprint of “best practice” for organizing a successful business.
We have to realize that organizations, teams and relationships are dynamic in nature and need to be constantly adapted, depending on the needs and circumstances of the environment.
For instance, the organization of business needs to be adapted to the specific needs of the next phase of its development.
Or, during a crisis — i.e., in difficult times — it makes sense to reviewing and adapting the organization, processes, and values in order to make the business healthy again.
Also, business needs to adapt to the specific challenges that it faces. This could involve expanding to new regions/countries or dealing with new business opportunities of the digital age (such as artificial intelligence, robotics and “initial coin offerings”).
In each case, the question of organization is as important as the substantive question of how to meet the business challenge. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that the organizational and business questions are inextricably linked.
In order to continuously assess the organization, it is very important to provide a shared narrative or story about the organization and its purpose, culture and values.
For instance, this kind of narrative is not only necessary for management and the founders, but for all stakeholders in a business.
A “personalized” organizational story of this kind can be much more helpful — at least compared to “just” complying with “best practice” — in evaluating the internal organization of a business.
If everyone shares an understanding about the goal of that organization then everyone is much better placed to make (and agree on) judgments about how that organization is structured and managed.
Too often, organizational narratives become formalistic, box-ticking exercises that are worse than useless, in the sense they can provide a distraction from a genuine discussion about whether workplace organization is contributing to the goals of the business.
To get quick and meaningful feedback it is important that any discussion about workplace organization is open and inclusive.
That is to say, it involves all relevant stakeholders participating in an honest appraisal of how things are currently being done and how they might be improved.
This means creating an environment in which everyone feels valued. At least, everyone feels that their opinion will be heard.
Such an open and inclusive dialogue can provide impetus and input for change.
It can help a company learn what needs to be done and, in this way, better adapt to the fast-changing demands of the environment.
This appears to be particularly important to older, established companies that often struggle to adjust to new realities.
All firms — both large and small — receive constant advice from multiple sources. These advisors are also important, at least if a distinction is made between the good advice and advice that can safely be ignored.
At best, advisors can act as a mirror for a business. They have the potential to play a crucial role in reflecting and testing ideas about the organization, culture and values of a business.
Advisors come in all shapes and sizes.
They could be an informal group of trusted “friends” or a more formalized group, such as a board of directors.
Either way, such advisors have the potential to offer a valuable “outside” view on workplace organization and the various issues that need to be addressed.
The importance of such advisors can be made clear with a story about Apple. In 1997, following Steve Jobs’ return, Apple was in grave danger and its future was very uncertain. And yet, in his keynote address during the Macworld Expo in Boston on 6 August 1997, Jobs explicitly avoided the announcement of new products, but instead devoted his address to revealing the appointment of four new, hand-picked, board members (advisors).
Jobs was convinced that changing the composition of the board of directors was a crucial and necessary first step to bring back focus, vision and relevance to the company.
Only in this way could it “begin” its journey to introduce disruptive innovations and creative products to its potential customers.
Twenty years later, Apple is one of the biggest and most influential companies in the world, with multiple innovative and life-changing product lines.
Part of that success was down to a recognition of the importance of the “five strategies”, in general, and the crucial role of advisors, in particular.
Workplace organization is crucial in building a successful business.
In fact, any institution, team or working relationship can benefit from thinking about how they are organized.
And yet, there is a tendency to either neglect this issue (by paying “lip service” to these ideas, but not really doing anything) or to see the different elements of workplace organization — processes, cultures and values — as more or less static concepts.
Both of these responses are wrong, in that they are creating problems for the future.
Sooner or later, neglecting organization or not appreciating its dynamic character will come back to haunt a business (unit, team or relationship).
In this respect, it is much better to ensure that narrative building, open dialogue, dynamic learning and self-reflection become part of a company’s DNA.
I don’t expect the issue of “organization” to suddenly become exciting. But, I do believe that by paying more attention to the “why”, “how” and “what” of the organizations, we can add genuine value in a digital age characterized by constant innovation and disruption.
And that is important and — dare I say it — exciting.
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