Centralize vs. decentralize. Authoritative decisions vs. consensus-based decisions. Top-down vs. bottom up change.
How many times do people in organizations get stuck thinking that there are only two variables in any one organizational challenge? Worse yet, how often do people try to negotiate the distance between the variables by finding some type of middle ground, only to find that it too is insufficient?
Robert Keidel presents a model of organizational design trade-offs in his book, Seeing Organizational Patterns. He argues that the way we organize should be intentional and consider three variables: control, autonomy, and coordination. This model was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. For the first time, it seemed to so clearly diagnose how at times organizational strategy, design, and processes can seem schizophrenic and disconnected. It has the potential to help us call into question what we truly want people to do and be rewarded for in organizations. The model posits no “right” or “best” answers, but rather a set of trade-offs that must be considered for aligning behavior in organizations.
I can clearly remember reading the corporate strategic priorities of one of my former employers. At the highest level, the goals were organized autonomously, by the various lines of business that represented the whole company. The achievement of each of these goals would depend on that particular product line’s market, changing consumer demand and preferences, local operating environment, and the leadership at an operational and tactical level to design, produce, and market the products. However, in parallel to these goals were other strategic priorities which emphasized, simultaneously, creativity and ingenuity (coordination), efficiency and cost reduction (control), and teamwork and sharing of best practices across the businesses (autonomy/ coordination). Reading these priorities, it became clear that the company did not truly know, or at least failed to articulate, what the most important goals were for employees. The result was a lot of discussion, debate, and often times confusion about where to direct energies. In the end, what got measured is what got done, and only studying the metrics could employees deduce the true priorities.
I can imagine using this model to help organizations think about what type of culture they have, and what type of culture they would like to move towards. It would be an aid in evaluating the major systems within that culture to see what is in alignment and what may need to be re-examined or tweaked. For example, consider an established organization in a mature market. In order to survive, it may need to look at ways to innovate its business and grow outside its traditional market niche. In other words, it may need to move closer to coordination to allow some of the freedom, creative ideas, and ingenuity of its workforce to take hold and grow. However, if this organization doesn’t pay attention to its reward systems, both formal and informal, or fails to provide the support, technology, and resources to try new things, the experiment will fail. A friend of mine talks about this as stretching the rubber band, only to have it snap back to its original shape.
I challenge the readers to think about a current challenge or issue in their organizations. Could applying this model help you think about what forces are at play, that could either help or hinder overcoming the challenge? What needs to be examined, tweaked, modified, or clarified to make the situation better?
Keidel tells us that thinking in threes can help us overcome one or two dimensional solutions to problems that don’t ever seem to help. He also says that once we get used to looking for the triangular relationships within a situation, new insights open up to us and help re-frame our thinking. Practice thinking in threes and see what new patterns, insights, and solutions emerge for you.