Adaptive Organization Design: a manifesto

In the last seven years I’ve focused a big part of my work on the emerging scope of Adaptive Org Design. I’ve been reading, debating, sharing with experienced fellow practitioners and entrepreneurs from all around the world and, most importantly, I’ve been working in and with real organizations fostering the evolution towards real-life organizational adaptability. Even though I’ve had to give higher priority to other kind of activities, I’ve been feeling the desire to share my findings for a while now, and lately I’ve also been increasingly asked for it. So here I am, let’s start.

This article is a first step, there’s more to come as there’s so much to clarify, propose, tell. The topic is going on hype, which is both good and bad for its future. There are already some fads out there about it, some clever marketing operations, and one question keeps coming back to my ears everywhere I work: how? All nice, fancy, interesting, as a concept, ok. But how on Earth do you actually design an adaptive organization in order for it to thrive? Well, you don’t. And of course, at the same time, you do. But let’s start small, as I love to do. Let’s put this article out there and see if there is interest in this conversation. If so, if it’s valuable, I’ll be happy to share all I’ve learnt so far and learn more in the process.

Where should I start? Well, I’ve decided to start with a manifesto. The reasons are quite simple. First of all, inspiration. Back in the year 2000 my work was focused on the evolution of markets (and marketing) and I came across the Cluetrain Manifesto, which happened to inspire a lot of my following work and understanding. Then again, a few years later, the Agile Manifesto had the same effect. So my hope now is that maybe this one could inspire somebody else’s work in return. Hey, if so, reach out! Second reason, for me it’s much more fun than writing a paper or a research, and I love having fun when I work. Last, but not least, a manifesto is written when there is the need to make a point, when out of chaotic mumbling energy something strong emerges and wants to be heard. I believe this is what I’m finding out: the time for Adaptive Org Design has come, so let’s make a point.

Adaptive Organization Design Manifesto

This era of sharp evolution for human society requires and allows for organizations that are able to cope with increasing amounts of unrelenting change, colearning with their context and evolving accordingly and continuously. Achieving this aim demands putting the real system and the formal system back in the right order of priorities, not starting with tayloristic or mechanistic constraints, not trying to fit the territory into a map, instead unleashing the full potential of human systems.

Here lies one of the most compelling revolutions we’re undergoing globally: we’re devising organizations that allow people to arrange the way they work together according to the evolving context, relationships and learning in real time, and having the formal system dynamically adhere to the real one as an enabling support. The organizational design work that can make this happen has been emerging for decades and is now mature enough to be described.

The What

Dynamics>> Structures

Principles >> Rules

Roles >> Titles

The How

Cocreation >> Dictation

Description >> Prescription

Simultaneity >> Linearity

The two triplets

The two triplets expressed in the AOD Manifesto are willingly succinct, and their lines should each be read with a “much more” in between the two words. Thus, for example, Adaptive Org Design is about dynamics much more than structures, about principles much more than rules, and so on.

These triplets are of course no scientific law, they are heuristics based on experience, studies, conversations, challenges. More importantly, these triplets are a pattern. They are a form of order emerging from the chaotic work of experiments, practices, attempts, results of many people around the world. And as such, they need to be conceived as a whole, not as single elements. Let me quote Gregory Bateson here, when he suggests that “it is impossible, in principle, to explain any pattern by invoking a single quantity”. Furthermore, I’ve found these triplets to be a system of leverage points for effectively focusing our energy when we approach the complex ecology of Adaptive Org Design practice in real life. They will of course never give us a “recipe” to follow, yet they are a vital compass in our journey towards mastery.

Finally, and of crucial importance, these triplets are sets of polarities. In each of their lines there are two seemingly opposing elements whose dynamic balance needs to be mastered, as they complement each other. In any given moment of the life of any human system, you will always need both the elements of each line, knowing that the elements on the left enhance adaptability while those on the right enhance stability.

The What

The first triplet is about the outcomes of the design activities: the what. It is beyond the purpose of this post to enter the details of each triplet but, in short, what we are saying is that the design activities should lead to describing dynamics much more than structures, principles much more than rules and roles much more than titles. The concept (and artifact) of dynamic is very important here, and can be described as a narrative where actors put roles and principles into action. Narratives arise from the power of stories, involving the human system from the deepest level, well inside the heads and hearts of people, and join it with the outer level of processes and tools.

The How

The second triplet, on the other hand, is about the way in which we operate: how the design happens. What it says is thus that the design for adaptiveness should be characterized by cocreation much more than dictation, description much more than prescription, simultaneity much more than linearity. This triplet leads us towards one important truth of AOD: the organization needs to be enabled to continuously evolve itself, thus its people are the ones that need to be trusted and enabled to do it. Moreover, the classic org design levels of activity (strategic, operational, day-to-day) cannot be linearly approached here, not in terms of time nor in terms of organizational levels involved: iterative simultaneity is required.

Adaptive what?

One last word needs to be spoken about the term adaptive in “adaptive organization design”. Adaptability here is almost always meant for the organization: to design an adaptive organization. That is true, of course. And yet it is far from enough. “Adaptive” needs to be referred also to the other noun: design. It is very important.

I’ve met so many people looking for clear instructions on how to “craft” an adaptive organization, a sort of manual that can be followed. Truth is, the beauty of human systems is inseparable from the impossibility of doing so. Not only each human system is different from the others, but it is also different from itself in each phase of its life. Identity, context and trajectory are key concepts to be embraced and carefully considered each and every time, if we really want to master AOD. Design needs to be truly adaptive as well. We need to be adaptive as well.

Let me stress this even more, using the words of Donella Meadows:

“Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing.”

What’s next?

And here you have it, the AOD Manifesto! As I said at the beginning of this article, I’m looking forward to having valuable conversations about it. Would you “sign” it? In the beginning of this century, when the Cluetrain Manifesto and the Manifesto for Agile Software Development were published, Internet was very very different. Today I’d propose that the best form of “signing” it is sharing it. So, if you’ve found it useful, please share it with your network. If there’s interest for knowing more about what AOD is and how to do it, I’m here happy to have those conversations. Aloha.

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Stelio is a curious and active contributor to the global community evolving the concept and practice of work in this decade. If you’d like to know more about him, start here.

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