ResponsiveOrg: observations on transforming a business to be responsive

Earlier this week, the ResponsiveOrg unconference in London showed how much momentum the movement is gaining, with around 250 participants gathered to discuss the concept of responsive organisations in talks and workshops. The responsive manifesto and ResponsiveOrg events have become a banner for mobilising change agents and practitioners. But whilst we have come a long way in creating commonly shared principles about what responsiveness should stand for in the abstract, there is still often a lack of ability to translate these into practical understanding and concrete steps. In fact, the act of doing so unearths new discussions and challenges as we move the responsive organisation from the realm of theory into the realm of measurable business praxis. One place to start is to create clearer and more detailed definitions of what a responsive organisations means. However, further theorising on an already abstract concept offers little help to companies wanting to begin their transformation.

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PostShift’s workshop session at the ResponsiveOrg was designed to help people think through this challenge in practical terms. We used a game to simulate real life business transformations, just as we have experienced them develop in corporations. Split into two teams, participants took the role of a VP in a market-leading manufacturer of wind turbines and towers on the journey to become a responsive organisation. Each team had to create an actionable vision for becoming a responsive organisation, while feeling the pressure of being embedded in a bureaucratic, traditional organisation. We took this approach to illustrate the challenges that companies face when implementing new organisational concepts, and having to justify their activities to stakeholders with traditional mental models.

Our participants were fantastic, and threw themselves into the task with alacrity. Throughout the action-based workshop, the participants (a mix between seasoned practitioners and change agents) had lively conversations around the value of principles and concepts of responsiveness when applied to actual business situations, and the session illustrated how managing a transformation process requires translating the key principles into measurable capability-led objectives.

When we asked participants to reflect on the exercise, they raised a number of valuable observations:

  • “Responsive organisation” as a term can be ambiguous, though based on a number of principles such as open flow of information and encouraging experimentation. However, it is difficult for practitioners to prove concrete business value from these principles. While a transformation team might be successful in building a business case based on the ideology behind these principles, measuring progress towards them is not simple. Mis-aligned expectations about the speed or depth of change is also a barrier.
  • Another key point raised was that a responsive organisation would look and feel different depending on the industry. For instance a responsive manufacturing firm, would be very different to a responsive bank. However, we would probably find that in abstract the same principles underlie those organisations’ responsive success criteria. In short, the same principles will find different expression in different organisations, which is why we need to anchor the principles in clearly defined, simple to understand capability statements that are specific to each organisation. This has far reaching implications for how we manage and measure responsiveness in different business and organisational contexts, whether these measurements be quantitative (wherever data is available) and qualitative (wherever this adds value and understanding).
  • Finally, there were several observations about the language we use to describe and discuss responsive organisations. Often using terms not familiar to the organisation can create unnecessary barriers between transformation teams and those invested in the current way of operating. The more we focus on actual issues in the organisation’s day-to-day operations, as well as on key business objectives, the easier it is to demonstrate responsiveness as a relevant, value-adding endeavour that offers real alternatives to current organisational practice — and theory.

While our ResponsiveOrg session focused on the considerations that emerge when applying the responsive organisation concept to an established company, our wider discussions demonstrate that introducing any of the emerging organisational concepts, such as responsive org, holacracy or dual org, should not have the purpose of coexisting with current business objectives, but be an integrated and continuous approach to how the organisational development is managed.

Originally published at