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Leadership Q&A: An Organic System

The main challenge that most leaders face today is trying to incorporate new ideas and work collaboratively within the hierarchical organizational structures of the past.

There is a perception that the way organizations are organized is set, fixed, given, and unchangeable. This is not so. Every system is simply a product of human decisions that create processes that produce results.

Is there only one way to sell insurance, manufacture a car, run a hospital or manage a city? No, of course not.

The problem is that most leaders are so close to the systems of the organizations that they manage, that they don’t see them. Or, they only see them as discrete processes, activities and decisions to be made.

Consider how internal issues are resolved. Do they percolate up through the hierarchy until they get to your desk? Why is that? Why is it that the regional manager or the Senior Vice President is the one who must resolve internal organizational issues?

There are two reasons. One is a lack of understanding, and the other a need for control.

Leadership is an ambiguous, tenuous, and opportunity-rich experience. However, if you are ill-prepared to lead, then it can be frustrating, highly stressful and problem-filled.

In an organic system, leaders understand that the system is a set of interrelated processes that feed off each other. This interrelationship is led by people at every stage of the organization, from the maintenance person to the CEO. Each person has a responsibility to function within the system. This means that each person needs to understand how their role fits into the system.

If senior leaders require high control of the system, then line employees will not take initiative to resolve issues that are clearly in their domain to do so. Instead the issue resolution system is a pass-the-buck system until it lands on someone’s desk who is removed from the complexity of the situation because they don’t deal with it everyday.

An Organic System is a system of personal responsibility. The key change for most leaders is giving up control of every decision, and creating a system which rewards personal initiative that benefits the system.

Control is another word for fear, doubt and lack of understanding.

Leaders who demand control are not leading, but doing its opposite. Genuine leadership is about equipping people to lead, which at its most basic level is taking responsibility for the situation you are in, and acting in a manner that elevates the system to function better.

To create a more Organic system requires developing personal initiative and responsibility from the bottom up.

For example, a dispute about the functioning of a piece of equipment on a manufacturing line develops between the machine operation and the maintenance supervisor who is in charge of keeping the line in shape. The old way of resolving the issues is to pass the issue up the line until it reaches someone who is willing to take responsibility and resolve.

In an Organic system, the issue gets resolved at the point of implementation. And if necessary becomes a basis for a change in policy that is determined by those responsibility for strategic decision-making.

The benefit to the system is that everyone understands what their role and responsibility is, and issues of control are minimized in the system.

The work of leadership encompasses the functions of Communication, Collaboration and Coordination.  The first two are relatively easy to develop, which is why there is so much emphasis on these. Coordination of the system is much more difficult. There are many more variables. As a result, not one person or even a group of people can manage this well. It requires a different approach than what is traditionally been used.

The key to the Organic system is personal responsibility – top to bottom, bottom to top.

Each employee, manager and executive needs to be responsible for? Each person is responsible for the communication, collaboration and coordination that is needed to function in their role.

To be responsible to communicate is to focus on being clear, open and honest. Most communication in large systems is built on fear of retribution. As a result, the most honest communication takes place in the parking lot after work, not inside during it.

Senior leaders must eliminate fear as a strategy for managing people. This means that managers should be chosen as much for their people skills as for their ability to coordinate the work of their departments.

The freedom to communicate openly and honestly, with respect and responsibility, provides a sound foundation for the collaboration that needs to take place between people. When employees voluntarily join together to resolve an issue, the Organic system is beginning to function. If there is no personal initiative to collaborate, meaning it is forced from above, then there are still issues related to the freedom employees have to lead.

The coordination of the system of any organization is a product of better communication and more collaboration. Leaders encourage this by refusing to let the system become dependent upon them. Even well-meaning leaders who are not control oriented can squelch initiative by trying to be too helpful in resolving issues. The principle to be emphasized is for issues to find their resolution at the closest point of implementation of the solution. In the case of our equipment maintenance dispute, the operator and the supervisor should resolve it as that is where the solution will be deployed.

Organic systems leadership is a great idea that inspires many leaders to want to grow in their abilities. The challenge is not just about personal growth, but about systems change. A system is just a collection of interrelated activities and processes that have a certain logic to their interaction.  However, systems don’t change effectively at just one point, for example, at the CEO level. Systems change where the whole system is open to change. This is why equipping every employee to lead is so important, for only then will the many individual changes combine to create a better functioning system.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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