From Hierarchy to Self-Management: Where do you begin?

How does an organisation start the process of change? How does a company built on tried and tested business models and principles that are no longer delivering the stakeholder experience its leaders would like, start even the smallest shift? Many hundreds of change management theories and excellent books have been written, and yet I still walk into so many organisations that are frozen by the complexity of just getting started.

I cut my teeth in business as an external consultant supporting brands that are famous worldwide for their culture. Companies like Patagonia, Timberland, and Virgin. Their respective cultures grew with them, held and shaped by their respective leaders. So I am frequently asked in to explore with leadership teams how those cultures were built and how their organisations could ‘get a bit more of that’!! There is fortunately also a recognition culture is not a magical sprinkling of fairy-dust created by a few artistically hung bicycles on the wall, but something that is intimately linked to behavioural science, organisational psychology and most importantly structure and design.

One of the things I am absolutely convinced of after the past three years of research, is that you can’t deliver the kind of entrepreneurial and innovative culture leaders are looking for inside rigid hierarchies. One of the most significant factors in current positive cultures inside companies like Patagonia, Morning Star, Buurtzorg – is a much more vibrant ecosystem which offers more autonomy, more creative opportunity and more life to its people.

Designing a startup organisation on more egalitarian structures — whether you use Holacracy, Self-Management, Agile or other — isn’t easy. There are still very few organisations of reasonable size you can look to as role models and learn from. Those that do exist are often hidden within their own ecosystem bubble. If you’re a global or even national business, it’s incredibly hard to know where to start.

I want to share some of the steps I think are essential preparation for change.

STEP 1: Know What It Is You Want to Change and Why

Firstly you have to be really clear about what it is you want to change and why. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? You would be surprised how many leadership teams don’t stop and spend some time on this step. This step is about having a Vision about what your company will be like in the future, what difference that will have made to its performance, success and way of operating. It’s about understanding very securely why you want to make that change. It’s about finding your Creative Route Map to the future you can’t imagine. Yet.

Typically the sort of thing I hear — even from multinational organisations — is “We want to be more agile and entrepreneurial.” Why? What does that mean? Are you just succumbing to the zeitgeist of the times or is there something more substantial behind the wish? Something like this is one stage deeper:

We are concerned about the proliferation of startup competitors who can bring solutions to market much faster than we can which could erode our market share in the future. We have strategies in place to acquire and absorb startups that match our business goals, but we would prefer to be incubating this kind of innovation internally.”


The speed of change in market conditions is affecting our organisation’s performance. Our culture is and has been deliberately risk-averse, we have strong hierarchical management structures and this has resulted in an employee base that demonstrably doesn’t contribute to our future thinking rather does what is asked.”

So one of the first things I suggest leadership teams do is articulate in a simple statement what is required through an open imagineering process involving all stakeholders of what the future state looks like. It’s not always easy to do in an organisation that has stiffled creative thinking, so sometimes you have to start with a learning programme that allows people to explore their own boundaries for imagination and lateral thinking.

Often this needs to be done in completely safe frameworks on subjects that have nothing to do with the organisation. Gamification can be very useful; using tools and techniques such as Systems Games, Open Space Technology, World Cafe, Appreciative Inquiry and DeBono’s lateral thinking techniques to begin to open up thinking are valuable introductions before a fully fledged re-imagineering programme.

When you’re ready to explore future scenarios, getting different groups to imagineer along different fault lines is one approach. The key here is the relationship the change agents have with the leadership team. You have to know how far you can bring an organisation without pushing the boundaries of their confidence and your own credibility.

Using a change system like Theory U in some groups to activate sensing, feeling, and an intuitive expression of what is needed from the emerging future can seem a little radical in some organisations. When combined with other processes, it seems less ‘out there’.

Another approach might be to look at what people find meaningful in their lives and at work and map the gaps in meaning to the potential for future change. What would have to change to meet unmet human needs in the organisation and how would that impact strategy?

A third approach might be to extrapolate from existing trends — most of which look like hockey sticks — and allow a group to future-imagine conclusions of the continued trajectory. Then reverse engineer what the organisation is doing now to prevent impact on any potential catastrophes.

A different and much more common approach — thankfully — is to use the template of the UN Sustainable Development Goals to examine how the organisation could change to have a significant impact on achievement of those Goals.

There are many others to choose from.

STEP TWO: Gain A Deeper Understanding of What You’ve Got in Your PEOPLE

Whilst you are articulating what it is you want to change and why, it is fundamental to understand the kind of qualities you have in your organisation as it stands. Where are the potential champions of change? Who are the people who have shown a spark of interest in changing the status quo and wanting to participate in something new? Who, with a little extra support or training, could step up towards future change?

It’s also imperative to understand where the potential roadblocks sit. Who has a vested interested in derailing any sort of change? How are they going to feel and react to change? What can be done to help and support potential blockers to adopt a new mindset? What qualities and skills are missing?When you know where you want to go, you then need to understand what you’re looking for to help you get there.

The kind of ‘game-changing’ mindset that so many organisations are looking for, is found inside the very person who probably never applied to their organisation in the first place. Or was weeded out in the interviews for management trainees as a post-grad. One whiff of disruptive thinking was swiftly shown the door — until recently.

Corporates have historically preferred their own definition of team players; people who will not rock the boat, ask awkward questions or shake the political tree. Many leaders who rose to the top of the corporate ladder in the past would have fitted the description ‘Teflon’ very well indeed. Utterly capable people to whom shit never stuck, who came up smelling of roses no matter what was happening, but often at the expense of others in the lower ranks! Fortunately these days we are ‘growing’ more and more great leaders. People who have not only excellent business skills but a much deeper understanding of people and themselves.

This is a list of the qualities I found most common in the successful future-fit cultures I interviewed:-

1)Creative Thinking / Systems Thinking. The ability to join disparate dots, to look at and solve problems from a different perspective, avoiding orthodox solutions. The ability to explore connections, meet new challenges and seek solutions that are unusual, original and fresh. It can be done structurally through lateral thinking techniques as well as through less structured processes.

Many believe that creative thinking techniques are based on experience. There is no doubt that everyone can improve their capacity for creative thinking, but neuroscience now tells us that there are indeed people who have a pre-disposition towards this way of seeing the world. Creative thinkers are often natural born systems-thinkers.

Steve Jobs famously said: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’d had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people”.

System thinking is a method of critical thinking by which you analyse the relationships between the system’s parts in order to understand a situation for better decision-making. A system is a set of parts that interact and affect each other, thereby creating a larger whole of a complex thing. People who can naturally see relationships between the different parts of a system rather than using a simple cause and effect process are often much better at spotting the general patterns which may be found in these interactions. In its turn this helps explain the system and find solutions to the problems by changing the patterns of interaction between the parts.

2) Taking Initiative. “It’s very hard to deliver constructive feedback to colleagues or cause positive change in processes without a willingness to take the initiative to do so.” Doug Kirkpatrick, Self Management Institute. Taking initiative includes the willingness and ability to speak up when necessary. Closely connected to being able to take initiative is a highly developed sense of self-responsibility, grounded moral courage, confidence and self-awareness.

3) Comfortability for Ambiguity and Uncertainty. Self-management can be something like a cultural car crash as new colleagues meet new people, engage with new processes, and learn a new way of working. Self-management is never as clear-cut as hierarchies. There are rarely binary solutions to anything or a process that works forever. To be flexible and agile, you need a high degree of comfortability with uncertainty, since you cannot know or predict how long any given intervention or action will pay dividends in a rapidly changing environment. What you have to be able to do is react with equanimity, decisiveness and resoluteness when the change strikes.

4) Consciousness. It takes real effort to locate the energy needed to pursue an attitude of self-responsibility consistently, every day. This is the kind of energy that entrepreneurs use to create entirely new enterprises out of ideas — the reason ‘entrepreneurial culture’ is so prized. Constantly working on personal consciousness gives rise to awareness and presence, and is the source of confidence in your ability to get things done — even in the face of adversity. I would describe people who are at a level of consciousness that is useful in creating change as ‘ready to act’.

This first stage is all about developing Awareness. One of the reasons mindfulness meditation has been so successful is that it is one key way to activate that moment of awareness where you can allow yourself a pause to think and reflect before you act. It helps activate part of the brain that can allow you to make a choice to respond from multiple different platforms — not just hair-triggered emotions. More on the post-Awareness journey in future posts. You need a relatively high number of people at this level of awareness to make self-management work.

5) Curious Seekers. People who are obsessed with learning and opportunity. They’re always on the lookout for ways to improve a process, a product or a service. They’re natural life-long learners, but they’re learning to improve their ability on the job. Because of their open-mindedness and creative instincts, they know that learning can come from the most unusual of places so they are always experimenting. They often seem to have a design or engineering type of mindset (something I’m still exploring).

6) Self-disciplined and Responsible. If today’s society has conditioned many people not to take responsibility for themselves, this trend has passed these people by or they’ve passed beyond it. They are instinctively fully responsible for their actions. They don’t wait to be told something is their job, they take action straight away to put something right that’s going wrong. They are able to ask for help, they’re very self-aware, know their own strengths and weaknesses and work on both. Jobsworths don’t last 5 seconds in these environments.

They execute or ‘put it on the ground’ as one company described it to me. They are action takers with a preference for learning by doing. They don’t spend all day strategising, they prefer development methods like Agile’s Scrum Methodology or rapid prototyping and fast iteration. They get things done.

7) Collaborative Co-Creative Contribution Mindset: they have strong people skills and are emotionally intelligent. Certainly at first in some of the companies — particularly those in very technical environments — this didn’t come easily and required a lot of support in personal development through individual coaching. But with supporting processes, particularly around collaborative decision-making, this improved. They become very good at decision-making within a collaborative framework, able to seek the best solution for the organisation for the most part devoid of ego.

Peter Drucker talked about a contribution mindset in his 1966 book, The Effective Executive. That mindset applies to everyone who wants to be an effective self-manager in a self-managed enterprise. The Colleague Principles used for example by Morning Star who founded the Self Management Institute, create an affirmative obligation for individuals to share relevant information with colleagues even when not expressly requested.

8) Low Power Distance Sensitivity — another nod to Self Management Institute here as they express this better than I do. Power distance refers to the concept of deferring to individuals perceived to have more power than you do. I see this constantly in organisations with strong hierarchies. People don’t speak up in the presence of people they feel might impact their future. They defer to those in power.

In a self-managed environment there is more likely to be a hierarchy of credibility, which springs from experience, trust, communication, social proof and many other things. This is not the same thing as a hierarchy of powerbased on command authority or control of others. Effective self-managers will find ways to express themselves to anyone in the organisation, and will listen to anyone and everyone who wishes to talk with them. To cut off colleagues based on perceived status is to cut off information, the lifeblood of a self-managed organisation. Communication is everything.

9) Empathetic Communicators. Leaders in particular embody this quality. They have a deep understanding of the communication methods and style of different levels of consciousness; they understand different communication styles across cultural diversity. The know and see the different ways people make decisions, lead, communicate, and give feedback. They are acutely aware of the challenges of gender diversity, and understand the importance of charater and personality differences in developing high performing and highly happy teams. This enables them to develop strategic communications programmes that support change. Always with an eye on the future state, they instinctively know how far the culture in their organisation has come, and how much information they can take. They will successfully ‘stage’ change according to the organisation’s ability to take it.

10) Personal Purpose. This is not necessarily some mythical reason why each person was born on earth. It is about having a deep understanding of your natural talents, your acquired talents through learning, your values and what is meaningful work for you to do. It is also understanding how you then can relate to and fit within the organisational purpose and goals. Understanding personal purpose helps to shape responsibilities and roles inside de-centralised organisational models.

So. Do you yet have a vision of where you want to go, and do you know how to assess who you have that are ‘ready to act’?

Next Up: Tools and Techniques that help. But in the meantime, if you would like to have an exploratory conversation about where to start to Activate a future-fit culture and structure, please do connect with me. We have many short, sharp interventions that can give you a taste of the future.

By | 2017-10-20T00:22:23+00:00 October 19th, 2017|Culture Change, Self Management|0 Comments

Do Stuff That Matters: Create Positive Change Through Activating Future-Fit Business

Holler Box