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What you need to know to accomplish transformation at work

From better Coordination to actual Collaboration - pick the right level

One of the problems we face in transforming our workplaces is that:

you can’t organise for both consistent and reliable outputs AND creative, emergent impacts at the same time!

It’s either certainty, consistency and control OR uncertainty, creativity and emergence. Not both!

However, without making any real changes to how we organise and structure our work, we are increasingly demanding both kinds of results.

This is NOT a recipe for success, but rather one for stress, burnout and deep frustration both for those committed to transformational change and those committed to delivering secure and reliable outcomes.

It's a bit like sexism, unaddressed, everyone loses.

Getting things done consistently and well

In our businesses (and I do try in my home also) we create systems and processes in order make things run smoothly (I wash up and the kids dry and put away).
In many cases, we understand organisations to be essentially agglomerations of systems and processes (they are more, see HERE for an Organic view of organisation). These systems are designed to make getting things done easier. Without endless negotiation. The apogee of this thinking is the Ford Motor production-line, or Ray Croc's multinational behemoth built on the labour of a poorly educated teen workforce (ie. McDonalds).
From a system perspective,  people are largely reduced to a set of skills that are more-or-less interchangeable. Put together in the right ways, with appropriate controls and buffers, we can rely on these systems to produce consistent results.

Certainty and control are the hallmarks of good practice.

One thing we grapple with is that: systems always produce the outcomes they are designed for

There are no 'broken systems' (something we say about our education system for example). There are only poorly defined outputs.

Nb. I love Systems Thinking. I've attached the foundational piece here by Donella Meadows "Leverage Points to Intervene in a System". Please note however that there is no 'interiority (ie. experience) in systems-thinking and no cognition or growth so it is useful, but not the final word!

Also, systems protect themselves - there is no conception of social good or the value of the people that constitute the system (you and me).

Values-free operating environments

We mostly imagine our organisations as groupings of these systems - as a values-free operating spaces where orders are passed through a well-defined hierarchy so things get done reliably and of consistent quality[1].

We often confuse other forms of cooperative effort with improved coordination when there are at least three other levels. I've written a primer on this called "Implementing Ambitious Strategies (email me if you want to see it HERE). The highest (and hardest) level of engagement is a Collective Impact (read THIS article by Standford University to find out more).

In this realm of organisation, you don’t have to know anything about the people delivering the next step of your work. You just have to know they are there because the limit of your interest is the quality of the output.

When it comes to the kind of ice-cream I like, the quality of the water that comes out of my tap, or the safety features in my car – these are all good values!

Creativity, Transformation - making NEW thinks happen

On the other end of the spectrum lies a realm where creativity, uncertainty and emergence are operating values. The organising principle here is diametrically opposite to traditional hierarchy.

This is called Heterarchy: leadership is distributed and overlapping realms of interest and concern consistently shift and evolve.

In this space, your values are critical and often more important than the traditional skills you bring or hierarchical position you hold.


When we ask people to ‘leave their name tags at the door’ in order to create something new the hierarchical authority and resources people bring are valuable attributes equivalent but not more important than their personal experience and the skills they embody. Certainly less important than their intangible leadership qualities (it’s for this reason that these groups sometimes skip senior people and include highly-effective, juniors).

Increasingly we demand a recognition of the impact of our work from our teams and organisations.
The world is becoming more complex and so is our work. This demands a rethink of how we organise ourselves because collaborating for impact requires a fundamentally different operating structure and thinking from coordinating for output.

One of the problems we are facing is that:

you can’t organise for both consistent and reliable outputs and creative, emergent impacts at the same time!

It’s either certainty, consistency and control OR uncertainty, creativity and emergence. Not both!

By conflating the two realms we make demands on the systems we have designed to generate reliable and consistent outcomes they are incapable of fulfilling.

Like water and oil. The organising principles of hierarchy and heterarchy are inherently incompatible.

This is why so many of us have the experience of exercising our relationship and creativity skills despite the organisational structure we work within, not because of them.

We can get great things done through traditional hierarchically organised institutions and teams, and we will always want them. We just can’t really get new things done.
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