Why reinventing organisations is about more than just changing structures

Lisa Gill
11 October 2019

Arrow pointing upwards with people sitting on it

It’s no secret that the way we’re working isn’t working. Even the most dyed in the wool organisations are acknowledging that they need to adapt and transition from, as author Chuck Blakeman puts it, the Industrial Age to the Participation Age.

However, most people are focusing on structures, and busying themselves with installing the latest trend, whether it’s Agile, Lean, Beyond Budgeting, Results Only Work Environments, Holacracy, Sociocracy or another system. Structures are important and certainly need to be redesigned. But changing structures alone is not enough.

Miki Kashtan, author and international teacher of Nonviolent Communication, describes two other shifts that need to happen (in addition to changing structures) in order for us to achieve a new, more purposeful level ofcollaboration in our organisations. They are human shifts — in being, in relating, in mindsets.

Firstly, those who have (or have had) structural power, for instance managers, need to unlearn their top-down tendencies, and learn instead to welcome new perspectives and trust others with radical responsibility. Secondly, those who don’t have (or haven’t had) structural power — in this case, employees — need to unlearn their bottom-up tendencies, to overcome fear and deference, and instead ask for what they need, dare to question or challenge or propose. In other words, both managers and employees need to shift their mindset and way of being to one of distributed leadership and shared power. Mary Parker Follett was writing about this as early as the 1920s, calling it a shift from “power over” to “power with.”

These shifts will be challenging because they go against, in some cases, decades of “power over” conditioning from our families, schools, societies, and workplaces. But without shifts occurring in these two places, as Miki describes, any attempts to become an Agile or self-managing organisation (or anything else) will be short-lived and surface level. You could characterise this human shift as transforming the dynamic between managers and non-managers from a parent-child dynamic (where the manager is responsible and the one that problem-solves, decides etc.) to a more adult-adult dynamic (where individuals relate to each other as partners, collectively responsible for the organisation’s outcomes).

So how do we facilitate this shift then? Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here, but here are some starting points for facilitating the two human shifts Miki has outlined.

  • Upgrade our communication and relational skills — for instance with Nonviolent Communication training, or, for managers, training in how to be more coaching, empowering leaders

  • Create spaces for “growth pain” conversationsFrederic Laloux recommends we create spaces for people to talk about the “growth pain” of letting go of our old identity and growing into a new one, whether it’s through making coaches available or creating spaces (e.g. for middle managers) where growth pain can be spoken, acknowledged and transformed

  • Build the capacity in teams to talk about what’s “under the surface”— in “power with”, everyone is responsible for the working climate of their team (not the manager or HR), so it’s vital to learn how to talk about what’s “under the surface” (for instance, interpersonal dynamics, tensions, ways of being etc.) and create agreements to design and maintain a working climate that’s productive and inspiring to each member

  • Embrace “needs” as an organising principle — Miki suggests that if we can dialogue about what the team or organisation needs as well aswhat individuals need, it radically shifts the scope of possibility, for example when making decisions or designing roles

I believe if we start with taking steps towards these two human shifts, it will create a more robust platform on which to start co-creating new structures with new awareness. As organisational coach Simon Mont writes:

“…if you don’t plan for the power relationships that you want, you will unconsciously reproduce the power relationships of the culture you inherited.”

–Simon Mont

This piece was originally commissioned as part of an ebook to be published by Academy of Culture Ambassadors.

For more about the shifts Miki Kashtan has outlined, you can listen to our full conversation as part of the Leadermorphosis podcast here. You can also learn more about her work via her website http://thefearlessheart.org/

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