I’m often asked what is the single, best way for organizations and individuals to stay relevant and forward-looking in a rapidly changing environment. It’s a tough question, but one answer rises to the top every time; it’s agility – both mental flexibility of the individual and fluidity within the systems of the organization. The ability to improvise in solutions finding is fundamental to innovation, and we’ve seen in our consulting practice as we work with mostly large organizations to accelerate innovation, the hardest thing to teach. So why fluidity?
Fluidity delivers more control and autonomy to individual intrapreneurs and small groups, and less to the management layers above them – and promises to increase innovation if managed properly. The trouble is that the type of organizational structure that enables fluidity is less rigid than we are accustomed to today. Just as everything digital tears down existing walls, we need to eliminate artificial, outdated boundaries and allow intrapreneurs some latitude to self-direct, self-manage, and self-organize. Here’s a look at how to make it work.
- Create a Team of Teams
Support fluid teams. Organizations must institutionalize how they support teams. Again: support, don’t control; eliminate rigid, outdated bureaucracy; give teams resources to achieve their goals; and create a culture that accepts responsibility and expects some measure of failure. Do whatever it takes to empower teams to succeed.
Allow room to self-organize: Intrapreneurial activity thrives in organizations that are not overly rigid about roles or too split into silos to allow some creative self-organization. If you want to see new ideas bubbling up and turning into valuable new offerings and ways of working, you must enable teams to form and disband on their own based on your people’s shared passions and varying skills. You must find ways to set hierarchy aside and to ensure the free flow of information that allow colleagues to become aware of each other’s initiatives. Whether or not you go as far as Tony Hsieh’s model of holacracy, think of what he is trying to achieve with it and how you might move closer to that, as well.
Keep fluidity simple. You may have heard of Amazon’s “Two Pizza Rule.” When Jeff Bezos recognized that teams needed to be less constrained and more efficient, he mandated small, highly autonomous groups—with no more members than could be fed with two pizzas. His simple solution swept away a barrier to fluidity.
Get “agile.” The agile software development methodology is an obvious place to look to inspire action and identify a path for organizational fluidity. It presents a set of principles under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing cross-functional teams. Begin by reading the Agile Manifesto published in 2001 by a set of forward-thinking software developers. Cherry pick the parts of the agile way you can use to evolve your organization. Agile principles are closely linked to the fast and frugal approach of Jugaad Innovation, and Eric Reis centered his foundational book, The Lean Startup, around it.
- Make Management Fluid
Rethink the role of managers. Fluidity is made more manageable in organizations with far fewer management layers. Yet the role of managers should morph, not disappear. The job of line managers at ING, for example, is to coach and mentor teams, remain informed, act as an advisor, and gain trust and followership—not to focus on adherence to process.
Measure for fluidity. More and more, we celebrate leaders who collaborate, make connections, and empower their teams to set goals and make their own decisions within the context of an overarching strategy or business plan. This in turn requires organizations to rethink the traditional orientation of goal and performance management within the context of teams.
Prepare to get messy. Fluidity drives intrapreneurship but it is seldom neat and clean. Managers need to adapt their structure, empower people to experiment, and learn from what does not work in order to leverage everything that does.
- Support Agility Through Structure
Make tech fluid: Software tools for goal sharing, information sharing, and project sharing are all part of creating fluidity. Consider technologies like Slack, Hive, PivotalTracker, and others. Then standardize and implement them as a component of the organization’s IT and HR management system. Or don’t, if it’s simply too hard for your organization to integrate at scale—but make sure it’s easy for your intrapreneurs to use these on the side without a lot of red tape.
Get centered. Centralized or separate innovation centers can help design the standard for fluidity and help you set up structures to put self-organizing teams in place within an organization.
Some of these approaches are easy to implement now – while others will require more time and buy in from others. Get started by experimenting with the changes that will occur most easily, and having a conversation with your colleagues using the guding questions in the executive scorecard below. What’s most important is to get started.
Executive Scorecard: Questions for Exploration
- Does your organizational structure support intrapreneurship by allowing people to move fluidly across the organization and engage with external partners to collaborate for innovation and problem solving?
- What place do empowered teams play in your organizational culture?
- Do your management and performance measurement systems support fluidity and agility?
- Have you found ways to allow the “messiness” that fosters intrapreneurship and innovation?
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