Mapping the Passage to an Upside Down Organization

by Jennifer Miller on February 28, 2013

in Guest Blogger, Leadership

Guest post by Marilyn D. Jacobson, Ph.D

To be competitive in this global environment, leaders must go against the tide to ignite and maintain momentum. I believe that organizations benefit from an engaged workforce, and the only way to achieve that is to flatten the organization structure.  The hierarchy gets in the way of change with its concentration on numbers, promotions and bonuses.  Maintaining silos and layers of management suppresses creativity, and ultimately is more costly than investing in newness, innovation and international exposure. Competitive advantage in a global marketplace depends on major change.  So the big question is: how do you get from here to there?

The primary task is to discern what is needed to anticipate the future and what must be done to position the organization to capitalize on, rather than resist change. This is where effective leaders can be proactive.

Anticipate the Future

Anticipating requires transformation, which sets the stage for informed and inclusive positioning.

The revelation that anticipating and positioning is critical came early in my career when a large corporation selected 10 of the best and brightest to consider what the organization would look like in 2020 (this was in 2000).  Getting started was difficult, and one after another, the members were redirected to provide leadership in different areas.  The brightest of the best went on to have major roles in the company, and when there was a serious downturn, he restructured to a matrix organization which saved the day. My lesson was drawn from the intent, more than the execution. Planning ahead does make a difference because forecasting leads to informed positioning.

Subsequently, my work with clients led to other insights: attention must shift from what we do to attain today’s numbers and the organization’s bottom line, to assessment of what is on the horizon that will affect the future of the organization.  Developing scenarios or “what ifs” is a good start. Once the possibilities have surfaced, an analysis can proceed in reference to what must be done to allocate financial and human resources.

Streamlining, breaking down silos, and creating cross-functional teams replaces contentious conflicts of interest or competition for resources that has become a norm for many corporations. When people start to collaborate, goals are set that all commit to.

I have seen the progression from offices to cubicles, and have lamented the depersonalization at exactly when the reverse was needed. Getting rid of cubicles and creating an environment that is conducive to continuous interaction is essential.  If not doable immediately,  it can be introduced in stages to demonstrate to the workforce that sharing ideas and working together, rather than in tandem is preferable and will  lead to problem identification, enriched decisions, and solutions. In time, architectural alterations should provide multiple conference rooms of varying sizes to accommodate meetings from 2 to 25. Similarly, work stations that support teams during various stages of a single project encourage mutual interaction.

I also recommend reducing, if not abandoning, the use of traditional “slide deck” presentations.  Time spent on report production and delivery can be spent more effectively.  Lengthy PowerPoint presentations actually deny participants the opportunity to get involved, offer suggestions or start a dialogue.   Written reports and computer summaries transmit data; meetings are for interpretation, analysis and discussion. A hospital administrator and a top executive in a manufacturing organization both revealed that simplifying reports saves time than can be utilized elsewhere, and has accomplished their goals for engaging employees.

Position Your Company to Embrace Change

Once hierarchy is gone or greatly diminished, a highly committed workforce can move with vigor toward mutual goals and hold themselves and their team(s) accountable.

Leadership should not be based on position, power, or belief that one person or executive group has all the answers.   Instead, strategy is incumbent on the growing capacity to partner, build relationships, find synergies, inspire innovation, and enable creativity and bold thinking.  Asking questions, promoting openness and discovery, continuous learning, and fostering both right and left brain thinking are what will make the competitive difference.  Diversity ensures consideration of a broader range of possibilities.  Leaders need to think like entrepreneurs in respect to seeing promise and acting on it, and mobilize others by getting buy-in and energizing the team.

Often the catalysts for change, the expertise required emerges out of the workforce as evident in the organization where a matrix was substituted for a top-down, floundering, organization.  The teams persisted and were resilient, even as obstacles appeared.  The decision to pursue or jettison a project is best determined collectively.

Creativity is often thought to be limited to those few who have special genes or some unusual capabilities.  We are learning that is not the case. Twyla Tharp, in The Creative Habit; Learn it and Use it for Life, suggests that creativity happens when there is discipline and commitment. Being a visionary and identifying opportunities takes the creative process to a higher level.

Making continuous learning a mandate shared across the organization is vital; as is circulating books and articles, bringing in speakers, and encouraging membership in associations. Sending people to conferences and other events where it is possible to learn what competitors are doing and what other industries are doing that may transfer. Development usually means training. I have discovered that peers have a major role in helping each other to grow.

Having a global assignment is not for everyone.  A noted psychologist has said it can be brutal, and play havoc with people’s lives. Learning a new language and adjusting to new cultures is not for everyone. However, a global perspective is a necessary component in today’s marketplace.

Benefits of the Flattened Organization

The passage to a flat organization does not occur sequentially.  It is part of a simultaneous equation.  Leadership for the quest to restructure is not drawn from any one source, but it is those with vision and determination who will get the process started.

About the author: Marilyn Jacobson has had a wide-ranging career in two complementary sectors: Academia and Management Consulting. As a PhD. from Northwestern University, she has taught in the MBA programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University. Over two decades, she consulted with hospitals, retail, manufacturing, and service, financial, legal and academic organizations as well as government agencies in the U.S. and the Republic of Indonesia. Clients include Linens ‘N Things, GE Capital Rail AT&T Solutions, MacNeal Hospital, Encyclopedia Britannica and the New York State Commission on Education, to name but a few. She was able to learn what works and is beneficial to achieve organizational goals­.




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