Elements of a responsive organisation

Organisational responsiveness is primarily enabled through energised employees who are kept informed, involved and have the authority to make decisions.

Microsoft/Pop Tech’s Future of Work video series envisages a business environment that is more fluid, interconnected, unpredictable and faster than before. It argues that this increasingly digitally mediated global landscape will require organisations to become more operationally responsive to adapt to the new and changing paradigms.

A responsive organisation is one that embraces change, is able to learn quickly and respond to its business environment. This agility necessitates new approaches to work, leadership and resource management to remain viable.

How do organisations improve their responsiveness?

Aaron Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent argues that from his experience, organisations must become learning environments that have traits which,

“Put purpose ahead of profit, empowerment ahead of controlling people, valuing transparency over privacy. Because if a learning environment is paramount you have to give something up to drive that agenda.”

Authority, which typically pools around the top of the org chart needs to become more distributed, so that decision making can be faster, can make use of the information “at the edge”. Tightly knit teams that are empowered to work opportunistically and are kept informed will power a new way of meeting the challenges of the future. 

If information needed for decision making is moving faster outside the organisation, then the capacity for decision making within the organisation requires a similar pace. In an environment of information abundance organisations need to have effective internal channels of information.

Organisations with a localisation of decision making benefit from discovery and opportunity being shared with those who may have a greater operational understanding of a situation. This distributed system breaks down bigger issues into smaller components that can be dealt with more rapidly, replacing the flawed vision of having top-down control over an uncertain future and elevating it to having active control over current direction.

The opportunity in risk and failure

Traditional 20th century business culture has shied away from failure, usually amplified through the prism of large fiascos. The big bets, the scaled up production, the push into larger markets can produce big failures. New thinking is around smaller, more experimental moves, iterative testing, allowing lesser fails and learning from them. This can lead to developing better product and adapting and correcting strategic direction faster.

“Success is not following procedures, staying within the lines, success is accomplishing your mission.” – Stanley McChrystal, Ret. General.

If the business environment is changing faster than previously known, if there is more market unpredictability, how can you succeed if you can’t experiment, risk and absorb failure? The alternative might be seen as just executive guesswork.

One way for organisations to deal with failure is by strengthening the culture of trust. Building trust enabled teams will create a collaborative environment where failure is not feared, is not some paralysing element, but becomes a measured part of the process. To some this might seem counter-intuitive. However, acknowledging the possibility of failure dis-empowers its ability to stagnate innovation.

By making it ‘part of the process’ you normalise its implied threat. Failure that is dealt with through organisational responsiveness rather than repercussions for individuals will allow organisations to learn from missteps rather than be handicapped by them.

The metrics of responsiveness

One of the best metrics of organisational responsiveness is employee engagement. Organisations with a strong company culture have a better measure of engaged employees. Businesses should be asking questions like: Do their workers bring discretionary effort to their roles? Do they have the ability or authority to work as they see fit, to approach their responsibility the best way they know how? Are they properly remunerated or rewarded in a way that enhances this effort?

An engaged employee is one more likely to want to improve your business through improving themselves and by extension their role. If they have no authority or space to do this, then how can they achieve any desired innovative outcomes?

Dignan sketches a kind of virtuous circle of the thinking behind an engaged employee:

“Because I know I can do what I think is right, I’m going to put more into it. Because I’m going to put more into it, there will be more chance of success. Because we have more success, I’m going to lean into it more…”

A tricky yet critical process for today’s organisations is how best to bring together people (create teams) who will work together (innovate) to achieve their particular mission. Anil Dash, CEO of Activate states that when there is Purpose, his example being a barn raising, then the network forms behind it, a network of people who want to be there and will work together to create something.

The idea of placing purpose before profit, is not about blind altruism, but attracting the interest of people. Once you have someone’s interest it is easier to harness and channel their best efforts, their discretionary labour, their A-game. Increasingly, people will choose to be a part of a particular work culture rather than basing their employment choice on a salary level. All the perks in the world mean nothing in a toxic, uninspiring, controlling or stifling work environment. People will get behind work they find meaning in, having a purpose will sustain a long term effort.

Without switched-on employees who want to be there, an organisation will struggle to remain innovative and survive in an increasingly unpredictable business environment. Two central ideas from this short episode to takeaway are the agile benefits of decentralising decision making and empowering your employees. Yet neither of these will be effective without the ability to capitalise on efficient and reliable internal information flows. Something explored in the next video ‘Working like a network’.

Key points:
•    Need to be responsive to survive unpredictable business environment
•    Responsive organisations are learning environments
•    Distribute authority
•    Empower employees to speed up decision making
•    Fail fast and small to reduce risk and improve innovation
•    Culture of trust
•    Engage employees