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Controllability and agility: The need for a good balance.

Our contemporary thinking is largely influenced by principles that arose during the Enlightenment: Rational Thinking and Universal Laws. But in the early 20th century, thanks to scientists like Erwin Schrödinger and Albert Einstein we came to realize in addition to stability and controllability, dynamics and mobility are fundamental characteristics of our world.

It would be naïve to pretend that one of these perspectives is the only right one. By doing so, we would simplify reality. Both perspectives, both lines of thought are valuable because they each interpret and describe a part of the complex reality. On the one hand, our world will not function without order, without things being "properly regulated". International aviation e.g. would not function if it were not strictly organized. And on the other hand, we cannot imagine creative and development processes being designed according to the strict rules of the international aviation rulebook. For the very simple reason that creative processes do not allow themselves to be strictly regulated and therefore a certain degree of agility, unpredictability, is essential.

The art of VIBRANT THINKING is to find the right balance between the more static and the more dynamic perspective and to differentiate the perspective according to the nature of the activity or the nature of the context we are dealing with at that moment. Because different situations and different activities require different perspectives. The nature of the issue, the nature of the situation, the nature of the activity determines which of the two perspectives is most applicable.

But how does this balancing act work out on issues of Strategy, Organizational Development and Leadership? A relevant question, because within all these thematic areas, there is a certain imbalance. The static perspective, the craving for control, is dominant in our views on these themes. How would these fields change if there were a better balance between Manageability and Agility?

Strategic Thinking: Hard Facts and Inner Purpose

Static Strategic Thinking starts from confrontation and maximizing returns.

In the 1980s, Harvard professor Michael Porter, a trained economist introduced a contextual approach to strategic thinking. Strategy became a position within a powerplay of strategic forces in the company's external context. According to Porter, the touchstone of successful strategy was profitability.

Dynamic Strategy focusses on Purpose, Involvement, Thinking and Doing.

The dynamic perspective is based on an evolutionary perspective or a natural perspective on the longevity of organisations. A perspective in which developments are a logical extension of an evolutionary path and in which things do not develop after they have been conceived, but in which things develop "as we go along". The dynamic perspective on strategy has five essential starting points.

A strong Inner Purpose

Organizations start for a reason. Often the conviction of the entrepreneur. An Inner Purpose. This purpose is almost always of a qualitative nature.

Focus on vitality

Strategy within the dynamic perspective is the next logical step in the realization of our Inner Purpose. Strategy becomes vitality.

Strategy is Evolution

Vibrant strategic thinking starts from a clear awareness of history, of the "entrepreneurial reason for being" of a venture. Without proper awareness of this PURPOSE and its strategic historical path, there can be no sound strategic next step.

Everyone is involved

Every actor within the complex adaptive system, every employee within an organization is involved in and responsible for the long-term well-being and vitality of the organization. Strategy is not reserved for the happy few.

Congruence between Thinking and Doing

Within the dynamic perspective, strategy is not something that is thought up before it is executed. Strategy emerges progressively. Always with an eye on the Inner Purpose.

And therefor at the end of the day when we balance the static and dynamic perspective strategic thinking boils down to fact-based and purpose driven strategy. To Facts & Purpose. Because Facts lose all relevance if there is no underlying deeper Purpose and Purpose becomes a day-dreaming exercise if somehow somewhere it doesn’t lead to hard facts and results. One can’t do without the other.

So strategic processes should not only address hard core economic and business analyses. It should also leave room for less tangible discussions on PURPOSE and historical developments. Numbers provide a basis. They provide a photograph of where we stand today in the light of our competitive environment. But they are never the sole answer to the question “what strategy to pursue next?” Next to numbers and sound analysis good strategy requires a deeper understanding of the PURPOSE of a venture. The entrepreneurial reason for being”. The iconic people in the history of the organization and the implicit message of their decisions and actions. From this understanding we can start to consider how we will keep this original PURPOSE “alive and kicking”. How we keep it vital. How to find new relevant forms for the original PURPOSE. And once these new possibilities, options gain clarity numbers and analysis again come into play. As a sanity check. Are these options, these idea at all realistic? Are they possibly feasible?

Beyond that balancing the static and dynamic perspective influences the process of strategy formulation. The balancing act changes the formulation process from being solely a board room activity to a process in which content and commitment originate from the involved of all parties relevant to successful strategy. So multiple levels of the organization are involved in strategy formulation and strategic choice. Recognizing that all levels of the organization play a role in the successful formulation and implementation of strategy. The impact differs from role to role and the content also but the principle is the same: regardless of role or task, every employee within the organization is daily involved in and responsible for the long-term vitality of the organization.

And finally, the balancing act influences the rhythm of the strategy process. From sequential to iterative. From thinking and then doing (the separation between formulation and implementation) to iterative loops of learning and deciding. A much more agile approach to strategy whereby the thinking, acts, test, analyse and thinking again in short sequential loops. A congruence between thinking and doing. An agile approach to the strategic process. Not in a big bang but in a step change, iterative process of thinking, learning and doing,

Organisational Development: Well-governed and Self-directed

Taylorism, the core of the static perspective

Taylor developed his theories about organizations in the early years of the industrial revolution. He was the first to look at organizations and management from a scientific perspective - also known as Scientific Management - and in many ways he still shapes the way we organize work today. Taylor started from the following premises: Work can be controlled and structured, Thinking and acting can be separated and Workers are lazy.

Thus developed the pyramid organisation structure of companies, which we still know very well today. Even today about 90% of organizations are still structured based on basic tayloristic principles.

The dynamic perspective on organizations

Within the dynamic perspective as living organisms, which are in a constant process of trying, learning and further development in reaction to the outside. Not as rigid structures that function like a machine according to predetermined rules. The dynamic perspective represents a different starting point entirely.

Organizations are permanently in an evolutionary development process

From a dynamic perspective, an organization is constantly on the move. We understand it as a complex, adaptable entity. Not only is each individual constantly changing, but through the exchange between employees and with other actors outside the organisation, the organisation as a whole is ultimately permanently in development.

The basis is trust in employees and their ability to organise themselves

In dynamic organizations we assume that it is the need of each individual to contribute to the success of the company, to participate in making the company successful. Therefore, trust does not have to be earned or proven.

Dynamic organizations are a fluid network where hierarchies are naturally formed

Alone we will not get very far in this dynamic, complex world. The dynamic perspective builds on teamwork, where we support each other, advise each other and make decisions. Hierarchies form because someone has a lot of experience in a particular area, because he or she is particularly interested in a certain topic, has a specific talent/strengths or is keen to get particularly involved.

And therefor at the end of the day when we balance the static and dynamic perspective Organsational Development boils down to a workable balance between the efficiency of operational excellence on the one hand and the flexibility to react to and act upon market situations and market changes on the other. To Structure and Self-directedness. To Stability and Flexibility. To Rules and Room (to adept).

First and foremost, the balancing act shifts the organizational focal point to the professionals in the front-line processes. To the professionals executing and organizing the primary process in close relation to context. Decentralized teams with autonomy in the way they execute and organize the front-line processes. All eyes on the most market-relevant execution of the primary or core process. Function over Hierarchy. It thus redistributes authority. It places the authority where the primary process is executed. Authority to self-organize the primary process, the frontline. Authority and autonomy become role related and not hierarchy bound.

Furthermore, the balancing act changes the relationship between frontline professional and Headquarters. The central hub becomes a service center to the professional and has the objective to support. It becomes a support infrastructure geared towards best serving the professional in the front line. No more directing and controlling as they are expected to do within the tayloristic perspective on organizations.

Beyond that the central hub has another very important role to play. It designs and guards the way in which interaction within the organization is structured. The interaction between professionals. And thus, organization becomes a way of “structured interaction” not a way to allocate authority and decision-making authority to levels in “the hierarchy”. Structured interaction requires a set of Meta-rules that regulate interaction between intelligent professionals. Intelligent professionals that we assume know how to carry out their work themselves, but that we want to provide an interaction context in which their work can be as effective and creative as possible. Thus, safeguarding the required effectiveness and efficiency of the organization.

Leadership: Boss and Buddy

Leaders take control and provide direction

From our tayloristic view on organisations comes our dominant perspective on Leadership. It is usually understood to be all methods of directing, motivating and controlling people (human resources) to achieve a set of company (economic) goals. Leadership was predominantly seen as reserved for or related to a hierarchical position. Leadership based on climbing the ladder. The higher up in the organisation the greater the Leadership.

Leaders stimulate and provide purpose

Gradually our view of Leadership has changed. Whereas our tayloristic starting point led to ideas of Authority, Control but also Distance and Autocratic in a world of increasing complexity a different view of Leadership has developed. A view in which we have come to except that:

  1. Leadership is Stimulation

Leaders stimulate rather than direct and stimulation is closely related to providing purpose. An Inner Purpose. A dream to pursue.

  1. Leadership is Knowledge

Leaders share but do not possess knowledge. They work towards the development of knowledge and accept the Leadership of those with “more” knowledge irrespective of position or hierarchy.

  1. Leadership is Agility

Leaders accept that complex environments demand constant interaction with and adaptation to context. Therefore, Leaderships is flexible and adaptive, is geared towards constant evolution and development and therefore allows for large degrees of self-organization and self-directedness in the light of pursuing the companies Inner Purpose.

  1. Leadership is Behavior

Leaders understand the value of the human dimension. Not only are humans at the heart of an organization, humans interact humanly, eye-to-eye, with an open mind, accessible and humble as a rule. Always in search for human strength and talents.

And therefor at the end of the day when we balance the static and dynamic perspective Leadership boils down to taking responsibility and providing direction on the one hand and to providing room and stimulation to explore new ways on the other. To Managing and Stimulating. To Responsibility and Freedom. To Doing and Daring. To Boss and Buddy. Thus, Balanced Leaders exemplify several key traits or characteristics.

Their approach is situation based. They distinguish between situations that require them to take control and responsibility and situations that require them to provide room and stimulation. Situations that require a more directive stance versus situations that require them to provide lea way, encouragement and trust. Leaders naturally move from one to the other whilst remaining “close to themselves”. In that sense Leadership is not a role you play, it is rather the impact you have.

Their authority is based first and foremost on personal style and competence, not so much on hierarchy. In today’s complex environment leadership is competence and style based. Leadership originates from knowledge and impact, form doing what is best in a particular situation. This has little to do with hierarchy. It has everything to do with competence related to situation or issue. “Leadership befalls to him or her who knows best.”

Balanced Leaders are very much “part of the team” rather then “that guy (or gall) on the top floor”. As Leadership is competence based and not hierarchy related, those in the organization to whom Leaderships befalls (because they are the most qualified for the issue/situation) are very much likely to be “part of the team”. This is wher, next to knowledge/competence, the source of their leadership impact lies. Leaders are effective because they are “part of the team”. Not because they hold an elevated position in the hierarchy. Translating leadership into hierarchy automatically kills the informal authority on which Balance Leadership is build.


*1 Why Descartes thinking can't solve today's problem and What Heisenberg, Prigogine and Margulis can teach us about business

*2 See also VIBRANT STRATEGY – Inner Purpose as a driving force by Koen Hazewinkel

*3 According to a Kienbaum study from 2017

*4 See also Why we should finally come to alternative organizational models…. by Anna-Leena Haarkamp

*5 See also Leadership is dead, long live VIBRANT LEADERSHIP by Utho Creusen


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