In past articles, we have discussed promoting dynamic learning and discovering the superheroes hiding within your organization. Let’s now shift our attention to structure and learn what kind of organizational structure is required to have a successful ambidextrous organization (AO).
Structure in an AO is at times vertical and hierarchical, and at others horizontal, dependent upon internal as well as external factors. The ability to change structural postures when needed however is difficult if not impossible for most organizations.
Allan Afuah provides insights into ambidexterity in his study of incremental and discontinuous technological change. If a structural path into an old technology was vertical he contends, then the organization would perform poorly in integrating a new technology. If the organization was not aligned vertically into the old technology, however, the organization would perform well in integrating the new technology. The implications for learning strategies in this study suggest firms need to have both vertical and horizontal structures and be capable of navigating and pursuing evolutionary as well as revolutionary changes using different learning.
Obstacles, and Structural Paths to Radical Learning
The tyranny of now is always biting at an organization’s heels. The result? It can have the effect of keeping the collective anxiety of the organization high enough to promote almost exclusive exploitive activity and subsequently only exploitive learning, it would be fair to say that exploitation is sometimes the enemy of exploration, and breakthrough learning. Ian Mcgilchrist in his video The Divided Brain suggests structural decisions come down to an argument between the hemispheres of the brain. The argument of the left hemisphere (more closely associated with exploitive thinking) is a more convincing one than the right because it shaves off everything from its model which it does not like and everything which is not already known, there are no risky “what ifs” in the left hemispheres thinking.
In order to begin to rejig your current structure for increased performance and stability you need go no further than to relax your stance and thoughtfully consider where your organization and its members appear to be going and what they are doing. If your organization seems preoccupied with marching ahead with arbitrary internal processes, bogged down in bureaucracy and complicated rules and activities that are outdated or non-sensical, then you could be suffering from structural inertia. When this happens, organizations become too rigid and inflexible to explore desired strategies or to prepare to exploit the next big thing when it is spotted on the horizon.
If the single most important thing a CEO does for their organization is set the culture then the single most important thing culture does is create a flexible organizational structure and playfield in which its members are as equally comfortable running with scissors as they are building a jigsaw puzzle. It’s not enough to learn to do something well and then do it to exhaustion, you also have to stretch yourself, stay on the steep side of the learning curve, and be ready to change structurally. What can you do to promote a dynamic (ambidextrous) learning organization with the structural flexibility to pivot and change? Consider these ideas for starters.
- Chief Learning Officer (CLO). When we are too close to a threat in our path often times we just bite without thinking. This pack mentality while cognitively understandable isn’t sustainable and illustrates the problems with continual exploitation and exploitive learning. Mainly it’s too close, too narrow-focused, and too immediate. Many companies are making room for a new position known as the CLO, Chief Learning Officer. This position gives learning an equal ranking in the organization alongside performance and represents a desire to keep learning from taking a back seat to performance. CLO’s can interpret complex dynamics of social and organizational interaction and help members and leaders alike understand the why behind the what, enriching understanding and bolstering motivation and buy-in, think of them as your learning coach along the sidelines.
- Examine the Field of Play. Field theory, Structuration, and Habitus, may seem like alien concepts or foreign words but they represent the simple idea that organizations and social groups are similar to soccer or football games, consisting of a field of play in which agents interact with their environments as they affect, and are affected by their activities while being influenced by a bank of accumulated knowledge. The concept goes something like this: as agents (organizational members) enter the field of play (the organization), they inter-act with other players on the field during their activities and affect, and are affected by, this exchange. At the same time, they are also receiving and contributing to an institutional realm of codified knowledge accumulated by the organization. This institutional realm can be thought of as a cloud of knowledge collected by the organization in the form of norms, data, beliefs, etc. Why is this important to know? Because this ongoing exchange says something important about structure, namely that these agents and their institutions act as stressors and influencers upon one another either challenging and modifying or supporting and reinforcing current organizational structure.
- Consider Different Learning Models. When looking for smart plug-and-play models to use in your organization instead of looking at conventional decision models based on known categorization and familiar structural pathways, look instead at integrating different models, like ones based on learning and sense-making. These models provide a more appropriate base from which to strategically step forward into the unknown, answering tomorrow’s questions vs. reinforcing what you already know and do. One such model is the Cynefin Framework (pronounced CAN-AV-IN) created by Welsh researcher Dave Snowden. What’s unique about this model is unlike other models which are based upon traditional categorization consulting models with a four-quadrant framework applying known best practices, the Cynefin is a complexity, sense-making decision model. In this model “data” precedes the framework (not the other way around) making it perfect for ambidextrous organizations. In Snowden’s model, the decision “patterns” or “framework” emerge from the data. Traditional categorization decision models are good for informing exploitation practices but ill-advised to tackle exploration strategies and reveal new strengths and emerging practices.
- Perturb Learning. In the article, Wellsprings of Creation: How Perturbation Sustains Exploration in Mature Organizations, the authors prescribe a culture that includes intentionally “shaking things up” or “perturbing” specialized exploitative routines to break cultural inertia (becoming too rigid in thinking and practice). This is also a great technique for examining structural inertia (becoming too rigid in norms and processes) and keeping your structure from becoming too rigid to change when necessary. By perturbing your own processes, you expose yourself to greater learning opportunities and experience a higher percentage of changes than would be encountered normally through routine operations, think of them as your routine structural earthquake drills. Leverage perturbation to continually refresh learning processes and shake your structural foundations to see how strong and flexible they really are!
Dr. Zabiegalski is available to talk to your organization or venue about this ground-breaking research or speak informatively and eloquently about organizational culture, leadership, strategy, learning, complexity, neuroscience in business, creativity, mindfulness, talent management, personal success, emotional intelligence, and Action Learning. Contact Eric Today.