Saturday, August 8, 2009

Connecting the silos

Creating new knowledge is now critical to organization success. It's about getting our different parts of the jigsaw to fit together as a single unified whole, so what we do is perfectly attuned with the market/technological/social trends.

The issue is that many of our organizations still think success goes to the winners of the competition for resources, power and influence. So we fight to make sure our idea wins, even though it's not the complete story. We try to treat pneumonia as if it was a head cold.

Some of us find it hard to make the switch to new ways of working/thinking, particularly if the new world that is emerging looks very different to the one we know so well. New words and concepts. New technologies. New methods. New kinds of relationships.

Like the transition from water to ice, the shift from dinosaurs to mammals, or the demise of the horse and buggy and its' replacement by the motor car, freeways, shopping malls and service stations.

Complexity theory offers a rich explanation of how these changes occur. We now know that not only do physical, chemical and biological systems undergo periodic transformations to a more organised state through a process of auto-catalysis, but laws of complexity even apply to human social systems, how groups become teams, relationships develop and the human brain learns.

So what if we used this knowledge about transformational change to design better meetings, corporate retreats and organization-wide conferences?

Biologist Stuart Kauffman uses the example of random graphs to show how systems change the way they are organised at critical moments. Random graphs are vertices or nodes (“buttons”) connected by links or edges (“threads). He asks you to imagine a large number of buttons, say 10,000 lying on a floor. The buttons are randomly connected in pairs, two at a time. Pick up any thread when there are few threads connected and you are likely to pick up a new pair of buttons every time. Pick up any threads or buttons near the transition point and you are likely to pick up most of the buttons, in a complete assemblage. The system changes state when half the buttons are connected.

As the diversity of people and their separate goals in the system increases, the ratio of reactions also increases. But only if they are in the same "test tube". The number of catalysts in the system rises above a threshold at which time the likelihood of collectively autocatalytic sets in the system becomes almost guaranteed. The organization begins to act as a single athletic entity rather than a motley collection of warring tribes or fiefdoms.

We now have the tools to do it, to increase the adjacency between people so the contagion can spread. Web2.0 technologies allow everyone in a meeting room to give instant feedback to a presentation. The corporate retreat is no longer a one-way series of presentations by divisional teams. Instead it can be a lively real-time conversation between hundreds of people. People who rarely get together. People who even more rarely have input to each other's work. People who only discover what others are doing via their manager, a very old and inefficient co-ordination mechanism from the days of Taylorist scientific management.

Now we can instantly share our thoughts and feelings about ways to take advantage of our respective strengths and resources. We explore how we can do more together than by acting alone. We help each other iron out the bugs in projects. We minimise the distrust and suspicion about what others are doing and how it impacts on our work. We achieve greater organization flexibility. All at the same time.

Imagine 50-100 or so people at such an event. Perhaps 5-10 teams. It is an approach we use to help coordinate and orchestrate the activities of cross-boundary teams. Each team has responsibility for some aspect of the organization's activities. We use it with marketing/sales teams responsible for different, but vaguely related products, sometimes with overlapping customers, so they help each other make more sales, more strategically. We use it to help teams that deliver different aspects of a major construction, defence or information systems project to integrate complex systems that must work perfectly together. And we use the method to help the functional divisions of an organization - finance, marketing, sales, production, distribution and services - bring every piece of information to bear on an issue.

It's similar to what the great systems thinker Stafford Beer conceptualized as "syntegration", the simultaneous synthesis and integration of ideas and interests.

Here's how it works:

After each team presents, we ask the audience to discuss and capture their comments via a large screen that makes the ideas instantly visible to everyone. Just one-minute per question:

1. What was great about the plan/proposal/project?
2. What improvements/enhancements could be made to the plan/proposal/project?
3. What could we contribute to the plan/proposal/project?

At the conclusion of all the presentations, we brainstorm a list of the top 10-15 REALLY BIG issues/opportunities. We spend just one minute brainstorming ideas to deal with each issue. Just 20 minutes in total. The most effective meeting the organization will hold this year. By the time we return to our hotel rooms there's a copy of what we said in our mailbox. And on Monday morning we have new relationships to explore and a plan to continue what we started.

4. Describe an issue/opportunity that needs to be/could be addressed.
5. What ideas do we have for dealing with this issue/opportunity.

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