Leading Change in Open Organizations

In the book Collective Genius, the authors [1] write

If you want to produce something truly new and useful, you cannot know — by definition — exactly where to go. That’s why leading innovation is not — cannot be — about being a visionary. The last thing you want is a team that defers to you to set a course … . If your goal is innovation, then your role must instead be to create an environment — a setting a context, an organization — where people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovation themselves: to collaborate, learn through trial and error, and make integrated decisions.
So here is the problem situation: How can we become more responsive and innovative in organizations where strategy and leadership are broadly distributed across multiple teams, and more deeply integrated into all aspects of organizational life?

This article suggests that collaborative leadership practices can benefit from simple models that can be used as tools or templates to build a common language around some of the deeper, hidden process-patterns underlying change in self-organizing systems. These models all tell us that change in self-organizing systems itself is dynamic, and oscillates between different phases and scope.

As figure one illustrates, some of these phases escalate complexity and increase risk, while others release complexity and decrease risk. Some of the phases are derived from complex adaptive processes (CAP) and others from complex responsive processes (CRP). Adaptive processes function in contexts that are known and have regular feedback loops, such as adapting to drought conditions or interest rates. Responsive processes function where there is no context that gives a direction or meaning to decisions, options or actions. Responsive processes are spontaneous and open-ended, and their outcomes emergent. Being able to identify and inquire into these different processes enables teams to adopt intentional practices that can help integrate strategic conversations around different phases of change.

Figure One

What makes an ecosystem healthy and resilient, is the same formula that makes an organization healthy and resilient — capturing process flows through all phases of change. In an ecosystem, this means optimizing energy flows in and out of different ecological niches. In an organization, this means optimizing resource allocations in and out of different locations. In an organization, strategic decisions steer resources such as investment and budgets, equipment and facilities, training and compensation, in some directions more than others. Collaborative strategic conversations motivate teams to put more of their intentions and energy in some directions more than others. If a team or organization can successfully allocate resources to all phases of change, it can maximize innovation and novelty, and remain highly resilient to capture or disruption. But this is not merely about “scrambling.” It is about cultivating a high capacity for designing, refining, and redefining what you are doing all at the same time.

Consider for example, this description (from Collective Genius) of how Pixar creates computer generated film:

… each Pixar film contains tens of thousands of ideas. They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200–250 person group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.

It is one kind of challenge to invite everyone to participate in creating something. It is quite another thing to achieve a coherent outcome through an integrated decision-making process. This, according to the authors, is the “ultimate challenge of all organizational innovation:

to create a coherent work of singular collective genius from the diverse slices of genius brought to the work by all the individuals involved.

Pixar manages to combine and integrate innovation and disruption cycles throughout the development of a film. Again, from Collective Genius:

The CG process at Pixar was based on the use and value of integration because the process followed a simple principle: no part of a movie is finally done until the entire movie is all done.

Sustaining this level of innovation requires teams to master the art of change and embrace its diverse phases and directions. Pixar follows an implicit framework that lays out the core activities of the film production process. It functions not as a master plan, but as a road map so people can point to locations that they occupy when they perform certain activities. An individual might wear many hats, sometimes working in “forward” and sometimes working in “reverse” but these directions are laid out in the framework.

Every framework will be unique to different companies and different kinds of focus. The OPO offers a template for teams who want to become more innovative and fluid with simultaneous continuous innovation.

Figure Two

In figure two we can see that this template for collaborative innovation has two primary drivers that create a kind of dynamo — constraining practices and enabling practices. Both must work together in order for collaborative innovation to occur. Because these two are usually seen as competing directions, in conventional organizations they are usually separated in different departments, divisions, or even across different company holdings. An open participatory organization can leverage the innovative power of integrating both aspects of the larger process pattern by engaging strategic thinking at all phases of change.

An Agile Mind

Collaborative strategic thinking, therefore, requires emotional, cognitive and conversational agility. Borrowing from Wilma Koutstaal’s encyclopedic research on The Agile Mind helps us understand how we can practice shifting strategic conversations back and forth from constrained to enabling, by oscillating between abstract, generalized modes of thinking and concrete, specified modes. In abstract, generalized modes we “zoom out” to the bigger picture. This bigger picture can be shaped in terms of constraints, boundaries, and parameters, in order for us to refine or revise our work. User stories in software development are these types of adaptive measures. We can also employ big picture thinking to craft virtual spaces of possibility, in order to reflect and inquire about what we are doing, why we are doing it, what impulses, desires, and aspirations are we responding to. This often entails making conscious what is already operating subconsciously, or in the collective unconscious.

Too often strategic conversations stay in the starry heavens of abstraction, and fail to connect with concrete and specific modes of making and finding. We tend to make a hard conceptual cut between creativity as abstract ideas and innovation as concrete applications — but this reduces the integrative coherence of collaborative strategy. As the authors [2] write in their new book Innovating Minds this hard cut doesn’t reflect their research results which demonstrates that

In our efforts to discover and create we repeatedly alternate between making (guided by what we intend) and finding (responding to what emerges as a consequence of our intentions).

Moving toward the concrete and specified part of the strategic spectrum, therefore, should not be thought of “different than strategy” — rather it should be understood as integral to strategic choice, where we zoom in and highlight the particular details. It is easy to see how the process of making the abstract and generalized concrete and specific can place constraints on our work by defining and designing many specific details. It is harder to see how making something concrete and particular can be an enabling process. Unfortunately, very few people have the talent to employ this mode of learning in an enabling way — that is a mode of inquiry, that seeks to redefine the problem space through experiment and discovery. According to recent research, we unlearn the ability to poke and prod our way to novel discoveries by the time we are nine years old. With three years of schooling under our belts, we have already been conditioned to over think and under play. Creative innovation is oftentimes a process of regaining this capacity to unleash and enable ingenuity through attention on the concrete and particular, in a spirit of intense curiosity and deep focus. In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin calls this a practice of “making smaller circles,” the power of which develops a profound mastery of what otherwise might be overlooked as a rather basic skill set. He writes:

Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential

These four modes of thinking-action compose the “learning landscape” of the open participatory organization. It shows us how teams whose primary function is strategic in nature themselves should have a broad range of cross-functional and inter-disciplinary talent, and an open collaborative attitude that is integrative across the learning domains. Figure three illustrates how these learning domains reflect the change process-patterns of organizational life as it develops and adapts, responds and emerges through iterative processes at various temporal phases and scales.

Figure Three

Creative innovation doesn’t just take place in our heads. Nor does it often happen only in front-line teams tasked with adapting to incoming demands and external pressures. Creative innovation is optimized in participatory environments where motivation and emotion, perception and action, thinking and tinkering are in continual interplay with a rich and lively environment that nurtures our natural curiosity and enthusiasm to participate with others.

This article offers open organizations some simple heuristics to help teams practice thinking strategically in collaborative ways. Because open organizations distribute decision making, they are smarter on the ground where context and conditions are local, practical and meaning-filled. Yet collaborative innovation requires more than practices that adapt to circumstances and conditions — it requires responsive, reflexive, and imaginative practices as well. We are already experimenting with distributing the adaptive intelligence of an organization to front line teams. But rarely do we see those teams participating fully in the conversations, decision-making or actions around strategy and change, where intuition and imagination fuel inquiry and discovery. Our hope is that simple heuristics and templates like these can help us take that second leap.

[1] Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, Kent Lineback

[2] WIlma Koutstaal, Jonathan T. Binks