The Dialectical Organisation

In a world of complex problems and hyper-competition, the modern organisation and its operational excellence do not suffice. What we need is an organisation that is equally adept at delivery and innovation: the dialectical organisation.

Our challenge is not just to ‘do innovation’ but to create a new kind of organisation with innovation built into its culture and operating systems. This fundamentally shifts our picture of the ideal organisation to what we call the ‘dialectical organisation’. The dialectical organisation will be designed around both delivery and innovation. That means the organisation will have a paradox at its core, because delivery and innovation are two contrasting ways of thinking. In our view, the question confronting the 21st century organisation is not ‘either/or’. We need both. And that means learning how to successfully combine a paradox at the heart of the organisation. A paradox is not a contradiction. It is not a bad thing. It is two things that appear at face value to compete, but deep down combine productively to produce new thinking. ‘Dialectic’ is a great word to describe this fruitful combination: it means a productive dialogue between contrasting perspectives. It is not a ‘debate’ (which tends to be adversarial), and it is not a ‘discussion’ (which can meander unproductively). It creates new realities.

We model the blue print for the dialectical organisation on the metaphor of a house. As leaders we are ‘building a house’; i.e. we are building a social structure within which people can produce and relate effectively — and happily.

In our metaphor of the house, there are four major structural elements we need to build. We need a roof, foundations, pillars and rooms of activity.

  1. The roof stands for vision and leadership because the dialectical organisation is a fragile concept and will need the covering of leadership; it simply cannot be delegated away from the leadership team of the enterprise.
  2. The new rooms for activity stand for new practices and processes, and a new DNA of design thinking in the organisation. These new practices are quite sophisticated and well developed in the design profession but are strange to most organisations. That leads to the third element — the pillars.
  3. The pillars are the structural elements that we need to attend to in order to protect the new ‘design virus’ in the organisation. Since the design virus is foreign, the organisation’s natural systems will reject it over time. Hence we must refine or reshape (not obliterate) these traditional systems in order to protect the new thinking we are trying to institutionalise in the organisation.
  4. The foundations stand for a new culture right across the organisation particularly evidence in how we communicate and think together. This new culture is the ‘underground’ foundation for new work practices that allows them to withstand the storms of doubt and challenge.

By Tony-Golsby Smith

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