For agility to be fruitful, organizational conditions need adjusting as companies develop. This is the premise of SELECT, an international HR services and outsourcing concern, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium.
According to the dictionary, “agility” means “the ability to move quickly and easily”. For each of us trying to become agile is great but SELECT wanted to know what companies as “organizations” can do to achieve and sustain agility.
This becomes increasingly pertinent. In Europe, the corporate recession is expected to deepen. In the US, consumer-driven as it is, retail sales have now declined. Both are facing a collapse of the traditional automobile industry.
So, SELECT identified what it means to be agile as “organization” in these challenging times. In what follows, I have summarized what the people of SELECT established and how they intend to help their clients.
Organizational agility, it seems, is built on two paradoxical pillars.
On a winter evening, attracted by the heat of the city, Rome, millions of starlings flock to shape rapidly changing formations just before they roost.
The presence of a peregrine falcon, the fastest bird on Earth — barely visible in the GIF image, explains why. By contributing to these magnificently changing waves, the starlings manage to shake off the falcon. As experts point out, the waves emerge spontaneously as each starling watches and entangles with the behavior of up to seven surrounding peers. This stunning display of “cohesion”, therefore, hinges on a shared goal (escaping the falcon) and behavioral entanglement (starlings training in on the behavior of peers).
Cohesion also helps organizations improve their reaction time, that is, their “ability to move quickly and easily”. The behavioral entanglement needed similarly hinges on “shared goals” such as threats or market opportunities and “organizational conditions” that persuade employees to train in on the behavior of peers.
Because competitive threats and market opportunities come and go, behavior entanglement is not a static organizational state. Behavioral entanglement swings, like a pendulum, between employee autonomy and interdependence.
In the high Middle Ages (about 1100 CE), the Persian philosopher, Al-Ghazali, observed that the making of bread involved several tasks such as sowing, harvesting, grinding, and baking. In other words, to get bread on the table, various specialists contribute their skills to what might be called an act of natural collaboration, which he coined as “mutual aid”. Ghazali reiterated his point by referring to a “needle factory”. “Even the small needle becomes useful only after passing through the hands of needle-makers about twenty-five times, each time for a different process.”
In 1776, some 700 years later, the Scottish economist and philosopher, Adam Smith, in his book on The Wealth of Nations, introduced his idea of the “division of labor”. Perhaps not by coincidence, Smith referred to a “pin factory” arguing that each of the eighteen tasks needed to produce one pin can best be done by an individual worker. This way, Smith reasoned, workers can specialize in the execution of one task so as to improve together the overall efficiency. Smith’s conclusion was soon criticized: this might be so when it comes to manual labor but why did he ignore the effect of technological innovation?
Much later, in the 1980s, Volvo appeared to prove Smith wrong by putting several assembly tasks back in the hands of one worker or group of workers. As Volvo argued, this fosters a greater sense of accountability, which would be reflected in overall quality improvements and process-time reductions.
Needless to say, a division of labor can make organizations more efficient in what they set out to do but it must be done prudently.
For one, to what extent does one divvy up the work? The need may arise for additional tasks, such as scientific management (Frederick Taylor), planning, logistics, and human resources (to attract, train, and retain specialists).
A division of labor also has a habit of continuing by itself until it fatally splinters an organization — look out for indefinable cost increases, dropping service levels, too-complex products (e.g. Windows Vista).
So, which criterium should ultimately rule the division of labor?
When pondering this question, thermodynamics rather than economics comes to the rescue. In organizations as much as in nature, not the shortest or fastest paths are typically followed but paths that take the least action (= energy) in view of the organizational conditions.
As individuals seek paths of least action to collaborate, the resulting division of labor will wax and wane as market developments continue to shape the organizational conditions that open and close such paths.
Cohesion can improve the reaction time of an organization and division, that is, a division of labor, can improve its efficiency. These concepts, by themselves, sound like magic but, frankly, as tools they are rather useless.
As the murmuration of starlings shows, it is very difficult to measure what exactly causes these birds to relax or tighten their flock and change direction. It might be the falcon’s path or just a whim of air currents. Similarly, when you divvy up tasks over time, how far should you go before you start sub-optimizing your organization to a point of stagnation?
Then again, there can be no doubt about what cohesion and division may bring about for organizations: reaction time and efficiency. So, how do you make sense of two such contradictory “pendulum-like” phenomena?
The crux, the people of SELECT discovered, lies in a paradox, that is, in a link between the two contradictory phenomena of cohesion and division.
As engineers know, when you plot two pendulum-like phenomena such as sines and cosines on an oscilloscope, their swings combined produce a cyclic phenomenon that goes round and round. Something similar happens when you plot the division of labor and behavioral entanglement this way.
In the crosshairs of the axes for the division of labor and behavioral entanglement, seasons emerge — shown by different colors in the diagram. These colors emphasize the changing organizational conditions as the division of labor progresses, followed by the entanglement that it entices.
Because both the division of labor and the entanglement of behaviors are waxing and waning due to influences outside, organizational agility necessarily is cyclic.
Organizational Conditions for Agility
Based on the above findings, earlier research into the natural progression of organizational conditions falls into place in the model below, which shows the organizational conditions by season. As you might expect, this model applies across companies and (as case studies suggest) across countries.
In addition to typical organizational conditions by season, the model shows the comfort zone and role of individuals (GEO, outside the circle). It seems people often feel more productive and at ease in one season specifically.
Of course, the model is conceptual: the duration of a season may differ from company to company, as the diagram below suggests.
In view of the cyclic nature of agility and the progression of typical organizational conditions, the prospects of a company can be forecast once you know its season — the model, in other words, is predictive.
Achieving Cyclic Agility in Companies
David Decouche, a psychologist who manages the consulting business of SELECT, explains that they use two short and succinct questionnaires to help client companies achieve cyclic agility. One questionnaire helps clients identify the present season of their company. The other helps them establish the seasonal comfort zone of their employees, that is, their ideal role each season and the related strengths and pitfalls.
David emphasizes that these questionnaires are not judgmental in the sense that they determine whether a company or employee is good or bad. In fact, when it comes to a company, the outcome of the questionnaire helps him point out to clients what the ideal organizational conditions might be so SELECT can help them to get there. When it comes to employees, the questionnaire helps clients show the natural role and value-add of an employee vis-à-vis the company’s season. As you can imagine, David adds, this is particularly useful when clients want to get the mix of their teams just right for the challenges that their company is facing.
To interpret the questionnaire outcomes, SELECT offers two tables. One spells out the ideal organizational conditions by company season.
The other tabel shows the typical developmental role, strengths, and pitfalls of employees by season.
David wraps up, “Considering the challenging time of change that our clients might be facing in the not too distant future, we believe that we can offer them something substantial that helps them not only become aware of what happens to their company but also something of a map that points out a path toward achieving and sustaining their company’s agility.”