In an era of hyper change and hyper competition, where webbed networks level all points of control, and today's participants abhor centralization, work and life demand a new way, a more natural way.
I am 3 years deep into a 30 year old organization that is a very successful joint venture of 2 self confessed hippies and best friends gone corporate baby boomers. These 2 best friends and successful entrepreneurs are now passing the torch of ownership onto their respective Gen X and Gen Y (Millenial) sons while the organization is swimming in the deep, turbulent waters of intense competition, a globally webbed landscape, and technolical revolution. Organizationally, we have an entrenched management legacy of historic mindsets that stretch back to the industrial revoluiton, however mixed right along side that older model of leading are the fertile soils of the technological boom and the social network revolution. Managerially, it is a culture top heavy with the management of science peppered with the occasional burst of the 21st century trying to press in.
My model of leading and the one peppering so many organizations today is vastly different than the model still ruling management and stretching back over a century. I believe in decentralizaing the pyramid legacy while being the architect of interconnected communities and a conductor of teams. I am an evangelist of people and believe that if we value and then empower them through trust and responsibilty that is quantifiable, the results will be nothing less than dynamic.
I use surfing to lead and build innovative teams. Let me explain. I am a surfer and self professed management innovator that loves to surf both literally and metaphorically. Through the symbol of the ocean, the action of surfing and the platform of open systems and interconnectivity, I build teams of self-managed and self-directed people in a decentralized business unit through autonomy and accountability. However, the org. chart where I work and to which I report is the typical pyramid of command and control, but I have successfully re-drawn my organizational cosom in my business unit as an interconnected web of autonomous "circles." I am trying to flip the pyramid upside down.
Currently, I am the Director of Operations in a newer business unit about 5-7 years old. I was hired in the company from outside the industry as a "change agent" three years ago and have been in this specific business unit for 2.5 of those three years. Specifically, I was charged to redirect, rechannel, and rebirth the business to it fullest potential. What I found was that it was ripe with the bad kind of chaos, team dysfunction, top down leadership, fear, anxiety, frayed and splintered silos, and the challenges driven by a new global landscape. I had to hurry and "fix" the people and then the team, and from that stage rebuild and exponentially explode the business. In year one, through a concerted team effort, we grew the business 40% year over year, and in year two we doubled the business over the previous. We grew from a team of 15 to 25. According to the CEO, I built, motivated, and lead the team to be the most dynamic unit in the company in both team morale and spirit and overall growth and potential.
We have a long way to go but we are forging a path in an unconventional way as we crack open the historic and antiquated model that minimizes both people and organizational optimization. By leveling the playing field like the internet did to our world and Google did with information, I have decentralized the strucutre and built a foundation of autonomy and accountabiliy through value, empowerment, trust, and failing forward. I am teaching my team how to surf.
Because technology has altered both life and work life, I knew we needed to create a new paradigm of leadership in a glolbal landscape where hyper change is both common and complex and robust and simple (but not easy). Not just in my business unit or my organization but in organizational life at large, both leadership and our teams need to be immediately flexible, quickly adaptable, and always evolving. Like a surfer on a wave, we must be all these things at all times. For example, when I surf, there are physiological phases on a wave. There are bouts of “bursts” next to the calm evolving, fluid adaptation, and there is a seamless blend from an explosive state of change into one lucid state of emergence. As leaders, we must learn to be nimble enough to implement this combination of speed and agility and fluid adaptability into the people and teams we lead.
In order to fix my business unit fast and with sustainable results, I needed to implement drastic change at the most base level all the way to the highest functioning component. I needed to build an arena where trust, autonomy and accountabilty were paramount. I realized the growth we needed and the change requried could only thrive in this new global landscape if I decentralized the playing field, created a place where innovation became the standard mantra in all my team, and meritocracy became our battle cry. I had to level the traditional barriers that suboptimised organizational performance.
For example, like the organization and like surfing, there are three distinct phases when I surf. 1) The explosion of pulling and paddling into the face of the wave and snapping up to a stance like a race horse bursting from the gates, 2) the smooth drop and rolling down the shoulder of the wave like a stiff sip of scotch, and finally 3) riding and creating on the edge of the wave in an innovative state of natural emergence like an artist sculpting a piece of art or the quiet splendor of a silent snowfall.
I had to implement these phases into the business unit in order to optimize performance in this new and lucid landscape of interconnectivity. As you know, our new reality is like the ocean and that wave that brings explosive change, which requries nimble and flexible responses, and forces us to live on the edge where we are pushed to create evolving innovations. We need systems and people that govern themselves and then quantify and measure the results. We all need a more natural way that exponentially innovates and creates.
Today, in organizational life, you and I are both caught in a whirlwind of hyper competition and hyper change while under the traditional and controlling hand of the management of science. The place I work and likely the place you work is no different. Management still has its roots entrenched in the historic underpinnings of landscapes sculpted a very long time ago while the people you lead require a new paradigm that upends the traditional model. Management 1.0 was effective for its time where stark efficiency and productivity ruled, but Managemetn 2.0 requries us to lead differetly, to lead from a more natural and lucid state. Today, the old guard is still watching while we are headlong into the most explosive, nimble, and innovative era of all time.
I took my book that I authored, "Leadership and the Art of Surfing. Move your team out of the box and into the Wave" and applied the concept to my business unit, and to this point is has only been met with resounding and immediate success.
Like I said, I was brought in from outside the company and outside the industry to usher in change. The command was get this fixed or we will find someone who can. To fix it I knew that it didn't just need a reshuffling of the boxes on the org. chart nor did it just need a simple process overhaul. To build a model that mirrored the current globally webbed landscape, I needed to break down the management of science and lead with an innovative hand where teams were held accountable to the innovations they implement. Coupled with that, I was personally compelled to build from the ground up a leadership model of mentoring, coaching and teaching. I wanted to build a place where people learned from failure instead of fear it. I wanted to tear down the "I say and you do" culture and build a place of trust and risk. From my experience of 5 years as a high school English teacher, soccer and surf coach, and my 15 years as business leader, executive, and entrepreneur, I have learned that fundamentally if people are to excel, they must be valued, trusted, and then let loose to live and create on the edge.
When I started, my team was one of specializations and assembly line mentalities. They "assembled widgets" according to task assignments and communication was minimal and limited to their sphere of influence - billing, close out calls, dispatch, product orders, etc. In other words, each person had an isolated task only and kept to themselves and lived only in their assigned world. My first goal was to break down the fear and instill trust. Second, I needed to create interconnections within the team that reverberated like the spider's web at all interactions. Finally, I had to build teams that innovated and created based on need that were then accountable by those innovations. I had to break down the assembly line mentality, the fear of failure, and then lift the shadow of the heavy hand of corporate consequence. I had to open up the system.
First, I sat myself down in a chair in the aisles every day with the team one at a time for the first few months getting to know them personally and professionaly, and then I dove into their accounts and processes to understand their life in the "trenches" with the customer and the system. Second, once I established the framework of how things worked, I restrucutred how they went to process by doing away with isolated specializations and introduced interconnectivity and community. Third, I created "circles" of 3-4 team members where they all intimately shared the load of achieveing high levels of customized service levels as a team of peers on all points of delivery.
In doing this, I elimatned the task mentality where one person was only responsible for his/her specialization and had them instead bear the entire process of an account from cradde to grave. In other words, instead of just being in charge of billing, they were now in charge of an account where billing was just one bit of the whole. However, not only were they responsible for their own portoflio of accounts where they fulfilled orders and interacted directly with the client, but they had to now be keenly aware of their teams portfolio and unique nuances so they could support the team. Instead of living in the silo, they now had to interconnect with the team. The team was forced to collaborate and innovate together as well as intimately support in order to achieve success. Although I held individuals responsible for their named accounts, I also tasked the entire team with aggregate health of the team portfolio. When one failed, it was because of the teams struggle to raise support and create a culture of interconnectivity and community.
In order to make this stick, I took the tool from the "managing without managers" model at the highly effective company Morning Star in Norhtern California (http://morningstarco.com/index.cgi?Page=Self-Management). I took their concept and created our own CLOU. I simplified the content of the C.L.O.U. - Colleague Letter of Understanding - so that we could build on our own DNA. At Morning Star (HBR and Gary Hamel), this is how they manage without managers. On our teams, each person is required to input their own metrics in 15-18 key measurable categories in their process ownership to guide productivity, and then the team as a whole approves or amends the metrics. The team then uses this to gauge the performance of their peers, hold each other accountable, and direct outcomes.
As a shape, circles have no beginning and no end. There is no head and no lowest denominator. The strength of the circle is the unity and uniformity of structure. I borrowed the concept of circles from a book called "The Starfish and the Spider" by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. In it they talked of the great successes of the Apache Native Americans who held off the entire Spanish Army through decentralized circles or communities. They could plan and launch an attack at anytime from anywhere from any "circle" on any part of the Spanish fleet. They didn't have a specific leader commanding and controlling and therefore didn't need the premission to act or move. They moved on their own strategic initiative. In contrast, the Spanich military had to rally, build, and then execute an extensive plan becuase it was dependent on a single leader and the centralized struture of the entire military group. Here is an excerpt from their book, "Circles are important to nearly every decentralized organization...The Apaches for example, lived in many small, nonhierarchical groups spread across the Southwest. Though they shared a common heritage and traditon, each group maintained its own particular habits and norms. Each Apache group resembled a circle: independent and autonomous...This doesn't mean that a decentralized system is the same as anarchy. There are rules and norms, but these aren't enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people and across geographic regions...Because there was no capital or command post, Apache decision were made all over the place" (Brafman and Beckstrom, P. 20, 88).
As our business grew by 40% in year 1, we were tasked to double the business the next year while only very minimally adding head count. As the circles executed and delivered excellent customer service, grew revenue by 40%, and built interconnnectivity and highly collaborative teams, the existing head count could only handle so much growth without crippling effectiveness. The circles were working great, but without being able to add new members to the teams to share the load of the exploding business we were immediately limited.
At the beginning of year 2, the "circles" and the C.L.O.U. (Morning Star) were well under way and yielding solid results in both concept and outcomes. We had measurable results and a philosophical buy in from the team. People were learning to surf. However, with the new pressure from the executive team to double our business year over year, we needed yet another innovation. Like Twitter, I needed to keep the practice of immediacy, transparency, and innovation vibrant through the circles but also find a new way to build on the momentum like a surfer does a wave. While keeping with the practice of circles, we re-engineered how we went to process. By examining the business case of General Electric in Salisbury, NC, we learned that through high levels of team interconnectivity and collaboration, they were able to bring production of highly customizeable and complex circuit boards down from many, many weeks to 2-3 days. They implemented a similar "circle" concept but shifted the structure. They made teams populated by self directed, horizontal process owners of core processes. These process owners 1) owned their own process, 2) were self-directed and didn't act as lone individuals, 3) were cross-trained to perform another's task, 4) had the freedom to think creatively and respond with flexibility, 5) used customer experience to drive the horizontal strucutre, and fianlly 6) the cultural components were openness, trust, and continuous improvement.
I took the "cirlces" foundation that propelled us so quickly into effectiveness and put into play this model of horizontal process ownership. We changed again. By implementing these process owners into the already highly functioning, collaborative networks of circles, we were able to spread out and diffuse the amount of work across a horizontal experience. Not only did this increase our "bandwidth," it created even more creativity and flexibility. We could handle 2x the business while holding to the minimal headcount additions permitted in the executive budget. Currently, under this concept of circles, my metaphor of surfing, and the structure of horizontal processes, we have doubled the business over last year.
First, some initial and lasting challenges will always be time, people, and trust. Typically, as leaders we are taught to get things done now, and if it goes wrong under top down management we have someone to blame if it doesn't. Instead, in an self-directed environment that evolves as it learns, the fear of failure is negated and replaced with the drive to create and risk. Although in this environment, things can and will go wrong, this is necessary and absolutely vital to keep innovation fresh and the human spirit alive and pulsating.
Second, because it involves time, people and trust, it takes a long term investment by the leader. This kind of leader is committing to serve the people, the company and the cause until the vision becomes alive. It requires a slowness like that of a gentle but steady snowfall. The leader in this environment must become a teacher, a mentor, a coach while still being able to keep up with the newer speed of both business and change.
A third challenge is the fear of change. Not only could we be undone by the rapid pace of this newer change but by the fear of change itself. For example, even though what I initially proposed to my team and what I still push every day in the aisles is about accoutability and autonomy, people can still be hesistant. As leaders, we must unfreeze entrenched behavior, teach the new paradigm, establish new behavior, and then freeze new behavior. And then we have to do it all over again and again and again. I have to continually "sell" it and overcome the resistors and naysayers at any and all points - from front line employees to executives. Tipping the pyamid upside down takes time and perserverance and a willingness to constantly confront the fear of the change as well as your own fear and fear and failure.
Fourth, it can feel slow. I had to keenly execute this "art of slowness." Change of this magnitude whether in my business or yours requires us to take the foot off the throttle of business a bit because the goal is to connect to the deeper part of their humanity. It's not just and only about the numbers. Although numbers are key indicators, there is more. Even though I was atttempting to dethrone fear and instill trust, it still made people nervous. If I didn't operate like a surgeon, instead of turning the pyramid upside down it could topple to the ground. I was moving a closed system to a open system.
A fifth challenge is that learning new things for people is hard. “Nothing is harder work than democracy” (Semler, 1993). What was and is risky and costly with a living system is what Coutu calls the anxiety of learning. “There’s an inherent paradox surrounding learning: Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all” (Coutu, 2002). In this anxiety is the reality that you and I also have to motivate the employees to “unlearn what they know and learn something new” (Coutu, 2002).
Finally, move the system from a closed system to an open system. The risk and distraction is in the very chaotic nature of open systems where things are constantly evolving and continually under disturbance. These challenges to traditionalism and routine command and control can threaten certain community members and those comfortable with the Newtonian mindset. It can create a disorderly chaos. If buy in from the top management is not complete and if commitment by leadership is not firm and disciplined, a living system could cause unproductive and damaging ripples that splinter and fracture the organization. “These running an organization, if they want maximum learning and growth, have a very fine line to tread to maintain this. If there is too much freedom, then the system can tip over into chaos, witness what often happens in a revolution” (Lewis, 1994).
There is also a risk in giving up control and allowing a living system to self organize without the controls. Things go wrong and some decisions that emerge and relationships that bubble up damage progress and hurt community if no one is guiding and steering the ship.
However, if you manage fear, learning, change, speed, anxiety, and people in an open system, anything that disturbs or disrupts the system helps it self-orgnize into a new form, a new order. The system then can take that disruption and decide if it wants to assimilate and adapt that new information into its structure or simply leave it alone. For example, if the rules are maleable, they can be changed to adapt to the speed of change instead of held tightly because "that is just how we've always done things." In my story here and in my book, the system I was directing was siloed and splintered under top down management, the people were disconnected from eachother, transcendent purpose was no where to be found, and specializations were everywhere. When I initially spoke of collaboration and interconnectedness, it was as if I said we were taking a field trip to Mars. If I didn't figure a strategic route to implement my model laced with patience and perseverance, significant disruptions to this historic and entrenched, top down model would simply cause the dark side of chaos to emerge and displace the whole system.
There is a dark side to complexity as Dee Hock points out, “ One of my deepest beliefs is that everything with capacity for good has equal capacity for evil. Chaordic, self-organization is no different” (Hock, 2005, p. 16).
In business, we can measure numbers as one sure sign of movement. For example, in year one we grew the business by 40% and in year two we doubled the business of year one. We took the department from about 15 people to 25, 2 service vehicles to 6, opened 2 new service centers, grew 600 work orders a month to 1000 a month, and became the fastest growing and most dynamic business unit in the company.
It's easy to see by the numbers alone the process was successful and measureable. However, some of the more "soft" business metrics and I believe the more important measurements are that of people, moral and culture. In one year the CEO said I built, rallied and led the best business unit in the company of 300 people in morale and business potential. We took a culture riddled with fear, anxiety, top-down management, specializations, high turn over, low morale, wanning revenues, weak customer service and we exponentially grew the business from every angle. We built a dynamic culture that contains highly effective, self-directed teams of "circles" that constantly innovate and evolve. We created team metrics to drive their business (CLOU) and built a highly, flexible and collaborative community. We attracted top talent and formed interconnected networks that reverberate like the spiders web. I am told the culture we have developed is distinct in the entire company and that the business unit is alive and vibrant. People want in.
Of course as a businessman, I can measure the results and see the benefits from both a for profit organization and thriving business. I love that. However, as a former educator and current senior business leader, what really excites me is what this concept called "Leadership and the Art of Surfing" is able to stir the souls of the people and move them collectively forward. It proves that given the right impetus like autonomy and accountability, people are hungry to learn, eager to develop, and ultimately want to create highly dynamic outcomes both persoanlly and professionally. Ultimately, "Leadership and the Art of Surfing" teaches people how to metaphorically surf as it powerfully moves people and organizations to unparalleled results.
“Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.” -Henry Brooks Adams, American Writer and Historian
Our thoughts about organizations are obsolete. In this time of rapid change, we need leaders and organizations that are able to quickly respond to an ever-changing environment. The time has come where we can no longer control and isolate things to tiny and tidy boxes. Our current mentality runs short in this time where the current shift calls for leaders and organizations who are willing to adapt and navigate through a more undefined space. We have to be comfortable with uncertainty.
We have to teach our teams how to surf.
My team ultimately deserves the credit for making my theory in organizational life and my deep beliefs in the human spirit a reality. It is their wrestling, their wrangling through the alleys of change, their passion to deliver excellence, their commitment to innovate and create on the edge, their sweat equtiy in serving the customer relentlessly, and their trust in me as their leader that has doubled our business and risen us to new heights.
I am thankful that I could take my concepts from my book "Leadership and the Art of Surfing," put it in the real world of the business with real customers, real teams, and real results and watch it endlessly evolve. I love that my team is learning to "surf."
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