TECH PAPERS

Aug 19, 2014

A Leader’s Garden—Designing a thriving organization

when you aren’t in control

Written by Todd Webb, Senior Technical Leader

What if organizations were natural ecosystems, and like any other part of nature, cannot be controlled?

 

We like to think that we stand apart from nature, but what if we do not? What if our organization is just like a garden, with all its living and non-living elements, each at the same time independent and interdependent? How would this inform the way leaders approach the challenge of building and maintaining an organization?

If organizations were ecosystems then leaders must act as gardeners. Just as the master gardener must tend to an infinitely complex natural ecosystem, the leader must tend to an infinitely complex human ecosystem. Though the complexity of the ecosystem may be beyond our comprehension, if we understand its fundamental properties, we can help it thrive without the illusion of control.

What are the fundamental properties of a thriving organization?

A thriving organization is fundamentally a network of people with diverse motivations, sharing a purpose and objectives, and acting heedfully via systems and patterns of feedback.

A network of people

When you envision your organization do you think of a hierarchy? If you do, you are missing nearly everything important about how your organization works. If you were to visualize the real interactions between people inside and even outside the organization, you would see a tangled web of connections, some formal, some informal, some known, some unknown. You find people who influence the organization far more than their title or authority would suggest and others who have far less influence than you would expect given their positional power.

Although we may influence, we cannot control the network’s form, or evolution, but through an awareness of the network, can unleash its power.

(For more on networks watch The Power of Networks)

With diverse motivations

When you envision the motivations of the people in your organization do you think of everyone pulling the same direction with similar motivations or acting in self-interest and pulling against one another? Humans are wonderfully diverse and messy. They often have motives in line with organization goals, but they also have power motives, career motives, fear motives, outside interest motives.

Although we cannot control people’s motives, we can influence those motives through understanding and an expression of empathy. We must amplify shared motives and help people accept and find strength and creativity in diverse motives.

(To learn more about what happens when we fail to understand diverse motivations and act with empathy read Leadership and Self-Deception)

Sharing a purpose and objectives

When you ask anyone in your organization what the shared mission is, can they recite it? Do they list the organization’s values and principles? Do they share stories about people who embody those values and principles?

A shared understanding of values provides the glue for the foundation of the organization. This shared understanding of mission, values, principles, and objectives must permeate the organization and become a common lexicon within the company.

Acting heedfully

When you look around at the people working in your organization, are they aware of what is going on around them? If something went horribly wrong how quick would they notice and how well coordinated would their response be?

We must design and foster patterns of heedfulness. Heedfulness leads to resilient teams that can overcome significant chaos and change to reach a goal.

(To learn more about resiliency and heedfulness read Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty)

Via systems and patterns of feedback

Keeping all those fundamental properties in mind, we must tend to the organization by designing and encouraging systems and patterns of feedback that foster heedfulness, and harness diversity, while reinforcing shared purpose and objectives.

Designing in Systems and Patterns

A master gardener understands the underlying patterns of the garden. They understand how each element of the garden produces, uses, or affects the nutrients, sunshine, water, temperature and other factors that help the garden thrive. They design their garden to reinforce those patterns with no illusion that they are in control. Master gardeners are systems thinkers.

We must be systems thinkers too. We must understand and design in systems and patterns of feedback. A thriving organization has many layers of feedback:

  • An all-hands Q&A with senior executives
  • A personal pat on the back for a teammate
  • A practice community that shares knowledge about the Java programming language
  • A book club that studies management practices
  • A governance meeting that helps an engineering team decide what they should work on
  • Software developers pair programming
  • Employees job shadowing to learn what it’s like for someone in a different department
  • A retrospective meeting
  • An always-on group chat room for a project team
  • A team standup meeting at the beginning of each day
  • An employee survey
  • A weekly 1-on-1 coaching session

The next time you think about how to influence your organization, to build great culture, to do great things—think about systems and patterns of feedback. Know that you are not in control, but if you design and foster the right systems and patterns of feedback you can help your organization thrive.

(To learn more about systems thinking read The Fifth Discipline)