Four action-oriented principles that could reshape your organisation for a digital world

This is part two of what I think will be a three part series, as it’s perhaps my most important and fundamental topic, and the essence of everything I do with my clients.

In my last article I left you with a true cliff-hanger: the imperative for you to drop everything and fundamentally shift in the face of an industrial revolution in full swing, equipped with nothing but a bunch of disconnected new-age words that are supposed to add up to digital. Eek.

In this article we’re going to progress to some more practical territory: from the ‘why’ to the ‘what’ in being fit for a digital world, and what the shape of the change itself is. Below I will try to explain some simple, yet what I find to be powerful, concepts that can help you to make your organisation more responsive, more digital, and I’d argue more human.

Be warned they’re not hard and fast implementable rules, but instead principles to embed within the activities that span your organisation. I will also seek to explain the important role that digital tools will play in allowing this shift to happen. A virtuous circle if you will.

Let’s jump right in.

Rethinking, or unthinking, your organisational shape for digital

OK… this is where I lied to you a bit (sorry), you see, the truth of the fact is that we need to stop thinking about, and planning for, shapes and structures, because shapes are rigid, and the more we fixate on trying to design a shape or a structure the more we constrain and slow ourselves. Whether tall or flat, sharp at the top or upside down, the triangular model becomes a way to control things, and avoid the simple fact that as humans we naturally form productive communities. Contrary to established thinking when they have the chance to take the initiative, humans willingly and responsibly do this, however the result is that it may not fit in a nice tidy box within the parameters of a designated shape.

In Brave New Work, Aaron Dignan, suggests that we should seek to prioritise two things in the new emergent organisational model: being Complexity Consciousness and People Positive. In other words, to help our organisations meet their potential, and be able to respond to the shifts around us, then we need to give staff the tools (i.e. digital ones) and the trust to allow this to happen, and acknowledge that a limited group of people trying to control everything is not going to be particularly responsive.

So perhaps the shape of digital looks, and dare I say feels, like this, or should I say these.

Or these.

If you’re understandably asking what this has to do with digital, then let me circle back to the shift I described in my last article. The shift to a hyper-connected, online, data driven and complex world that is taking place is a technological one. The ever-growing role of digital technology is increasing the complexity, and the ability to create more data, and more technology, and therefore more complexity.

Like every management theory before, the recent explosive popularity of progressive organisation theories (such as self management, independent teams, interdependent teams, micro-organisations, holacracy, etc.) increasingly covered in the leading business journals, is in response to the environment and dominant technology of the time. In turn they are made more possible by, and continually in response to, technological advances. I know my progressive circles would possibly argue that it’s because we’re waking up, stepping up and demanding more humanity in the workplace, but the mass driver will be down to adaptation to the dominant technology.

To put it another way organisational models are adapting out of necessity to the conditions created by technology. Those who don’t reshape to this more fluid model are probably going to be out-responded and disrupted by others.

So how do we actually make the digital shift?

In the last article I introduced you to the responsive.org manifesto. I’d like to talk you through four of the principles. Whilst at first glance it may look like I’m about to spurn more woolly philosophy, bear with me, as in my day-to-day practice doing digital with organisations, they are often ever-present, and quite tangible.

New digital technology is different from old IT technology: it’s no longer a big clunky box that people type data into, it’s often more open, online, flexible, adaptable, connectable to other good systems, and built for different a different purposes: pure digital creation or growth.

Consider Microsoft Teams and the wider ecosystem of Microsoft 365 ‘Apps’, offering a world of customisable and connectable possibility for those who know how to wield it. It’s not a system of structure and rules but more open to help people dictate their own productivity. The same principle applies to how many modern systems are now built: from Business Intelligence platforms, to CRMs, automation and Robot Process Automation suites, and far beyond. These new systems are no longer input templates, but are entirely different beasts — they’re ecosystems or connectable blocks that can be used to make up ecosystems, or a network of systems if you will. The network effect is coming to a cluster of systems near you!

Now, many of these platforms are enticing, and if you’re in the public sector even becoming mandated, but they’re often confusing because they don’t fit the established format of working. They’re harder to plan for, more messy, much more complicated and multi-faceted, and they’re incredibly difficult to control, standardise and roll out. Many leaders and IT departments show the same look of concern and frustration when faced with the prospect of taking on these mystical new systems. They want the blueprint, the answer, the schematic, the Gantt chart that precisely outlines what will happen, how and when with these systems.

This is understandable, because it’s how we rolled out IT systems in the past, and many try to use the traditional techniques (ie. the Gantts; blueprints etc.) but often find themselves amongst the high casualties in the battle of traditional thinking vs modern digital systems. Considering the staggeringly high rate of digital failures, I’d argue that many, if not most, of these are because people have mistook what these systems are, and not responded accordingly with a different and more appropriate approach.

I’ve written a more detailed comparative article in story form on how a digital transformation went wrong and how it could have happened differently.

As we boldly venture into the next section, the main thing I’d like you to hold on to this logic: modern digital technologies are different to what came before, and without them our organisations will fall behind and fail. We can’t make them successful in the old way, so WE need to change how we approach and use them, and create the right environment for them to succeed.

And with that thought in mind, let’s jump into the four shifts that will allow you to do this.

Network is the new hierarchy — it’s all about the flow; yunno!

In the last article I started to tackle the consequences of being a hierarchical organisation, but I’d like you to consider the flow of work, that takes place in a typical organisation with chains of command and myriad policies. Does it allow you to be responsive to changing circumstances? Does it allow decisions to be made close to the action? Does it encourage initiative and innovation? Does it grant enough freedom for different skills and insights to combine and create?

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. But we really do need these to be present for digital success. For example everyone loves the principle of being user centric and designing with the user, especially in my world of health and social care. But genuinely, how can that actually work within a hierarchical structure: they’re opposites because the power sits with the user and those closest to them.

The simple answer, for the sake of a short article, is that we need a form of increased devolution that when trucking will largely deem hierarchy to be a bit of a pointless shell. Which conveniently takes us to…

The cost of the control mechanisms vs the potential of empowerment

Digital devolution is a form of empowerment, and very few organisations I work with feel that their staff should be more empowered, particularly with ‘the digital things’, and they definitely try to empower those they manage. Job done, high five, easy peasy right? Not quite…

Because principle and practice are definitely not the same things, and the control that strangles those digital digital things is the control mechanism. Now obviously nobody apart from evil villains actually call them control mechanisms, because that sounds horrible. Instead they come in various defensible forms such as policies, standard operating procedures, governance frameworks, data protection impact assessments and various other central dictats that try to avoid people doing bad or silly things.

However, if we return to user design, and other forms of devolved or empowered digital practice, these documents are not your friends, because they usually come in a traditional format that wants to define what can and can’t be done, provide advance permission, and not give it until all of the answers are provided to a specific group of (usually senior) people. This needs to change.

Immediately when you start to address a different form of policies, you’ll be told that “we can’t just let everyone do whatever they want” or “it will be chaos if everyone does different things” or “we need to consider risk before we do things”. This is the moment that you know that both in principle and practice that people are scared of the unknown and possibly catastrophic cost of genuinely devolving empowerment. Control feels safe, but safe isn’t going to save your bacon in the 2020s.

In my failing attempts at brevity, I will say this, of course we need some processes, governance and risk consideration. Especially in high risk environments such as health or the military. What we need to do is totally reconsider and change their form to increase trust and empowerment, and drive shared responsibility.

And this takes us to:

Experimentation for extensible digital systems

As above these digital technologies are like the game of Go: the opportunities, directions and deviations are limitless. This is because they are based on the principle that they should fit you, so you can shift and evolve and improve, and then they fit the new you. Within this lovely picture your system and your environment (or individual teams, departments or services) are in a virtuous circle of responding, testing, iterating and growing together. This is progress: practice creates a system, which shifts practice, which then shifts the system, and to infinity and beyond.

But how the **** do you plan for this? It’s an implementation nightmare. Simple answer you don’t. You create a workable v1, test it, update it, and basically progress is defined at steps. You may have heard of Agile, which is in it’s simplest form: this. Planning needs to then become responding to what is in front of you, in real time.

This doesn’t mean that you will be rudderless, or without direction, but hopefully within an environment where devolution, empowerment, experimentation are taking place then this will be more defined by consultation or collective, and therefore more attuned to reality, an more willing to morph as the digital cycle continues.

This dovetails with transparency (it’s almost as if I planned it!)

Transparency of information and digital assets

There are various lightbulb moments I see with clients when we talk about the principles of making the most of these new kinds of digital systems. One of the biggest is when they see the benefits of openness. Previous IT systems were built to maximise privacy and minimise openness, but perhaps in alignment with the wider move towards open information on the internet, there has been a shift towards greater visibility and transparency.

If more people are to be empowered and able to make decisions closer to the edges of the organisation, then they’ll be disadvantaged if they can’t understand what is happening within their places, and the places of others. Greater access to information becomes an imperative and the more the better. In some cases this is a challenge for leaders, who feel concerned about what would otherwise be sensitive or held by a specialist team, and this needs to be worked through as a cultural shift, however, one of the main reasons that privacy has existed has been functional: it wasn’t practicable or viable to give everyone everything in big spreadsheets in emails. Now, however, with modern business intelligence systems (BI) the digital solution doesn’t just allow this, it actively encourages and enables this. The virtuous circle of greater transparency begins.

On shape 🟥📐⭕ to 🐙

To recap: modern digital technologies are different to what came before, and without them our organisations will fall behind and fail. We can’t make them successful in the old way, so WE need to change how we approach and use them, and create the right environment for them to succeed.

Whilst this shift is a big one, and by no means an easy one, if you can start with thinking about four principles of Networks, Empowerment, Experimentation and Transparency, and with the right systems begin a virtuous circle of practice to system, and so on, then you’ll definitely find yourself heading in the right direction in a more organic way.

But what this does mean is that you’ll find yourself becoming a very different shape, that may continue reforming over time into all kinds of shapes that aren’t shapes, or that only incredibly experienced shapeologists with PhDs can name. It may feel uncomfortable, but maybe it will feel less heavy, when it’s no longer the job of a few people to carry such a load in defining and then bearing the responsibility of maintaining such control and rigidity. The digital world is calling you to let go, leap and trust. Do it.

Liam Cahill is the founder of Sector Three Digital. For more articles, ideas and insight please Information flows upwards through an ever-thinning series of tributaries to feed the leaders who make decisions that trickle downwards to the workers. Small groups are party to select information, categorised and summarised into intelligence that justifies the biggest and most important decisions. In order to standardise and streamline these day-to-day decisions, policies and procedures are formed and bolted, acting like canal locks to stem the flow, and help the worker navigate the parameters of their day-to-day work. New ideas travel through the tributaries carrying gifts in the form of proposals, plans before receiving an answer downstream. Like mountains some triangles may be larger peaking above the mass it holds, and some may be flatter, with myriad variations defined by context and nature. Regardless of the nuances the model restricts and slows the flows, with bottlenecks and mechanisms that stop us flowing in real time. follow or connect with Liam here.

🦶🎵 — Footnote — BONUS poetic take on hierarchy and flow 🎁

Soooooo… this might be a bit weird but in my first iteration of this article I ended up writing a kind of poem on hierarchy and flow, which was inspired by a book on humans and our relationship with paths (The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane). It’s not a poem per se but a poetic take. I was going to chop it, but something stopped me. Here you go:

Information flows upwards through an ever-thinning series of tributaries to feed the leaders who make decisions that trickle downwards to the workers. Small groups are party to select information, categorised and summarised into intelligence that justifies the biggest and most important decisions. In order to standardise and streamline these day-to-day decisions, policies and procedures are formed and bolted, acting like canal locks to stem the flow, and help the worker navigate the parameters of their day-to-day work.

New ideas travel through the tributaries carrying gifts in the form of proposals, plans before receiving an answer downstream. Like mountains some triangles may be larger peaking above the mass it holds, and some may be flatter, with myriad variations defined by context and nature. Regardless of the nuances the model restricts and slows the flows, with bottlenecks and mechanisms that stop us flowing in real time.

Published by

Liam Cahill

I facilitate digital-organisation change in health and social care. Healthtech advisor & mentor. National advisor. Social enterprise advocate, founder and non-exec. Founder of Sector 3 Digital.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Liam Cahill

Liam Cahill

I’m Liam. CEO of a social consultancy called Sector Three Digital. We help organisations respond to the disruptive present and future.