The Strengths of Adaptive Organizations

While most of my posts can be applied to many different kinds of organizations, and even more can be applied to businesses specifically, I write all my posts with adaptive organizations in mind.

Adaptive organizations are generally loosely-structured, non-hierarchical, and depend on temporary teams to pop up and disband on their own. They’re the primary focus of Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations, as well as the driving philosophy behind the consulting firm Undercurrent.

Adaptive organizations are designed to maximize the co-operation of human and machine. Unlike Industrial Age organizations, adaptive organizations (what Frederic Laloux calls “teal” organizations) do not rely on humans functioning as machines. Instead, they depend on the value created by healthy individuals, collected from diverse backgrounds and bonded into communities by a common vision for the future.

The contrast between the two concepts can be so pronounced that some can’t even fathom how these futuristic organizations would work. But the fact that adaptive organizations are already beginning to emerge (as with Spotify, Valve, and GitHub) shows that they aren’t just a philosophical exercise. They are real, they are successful, and they will continue to thrive.

Laloux outlines three principles of adaptive organizations: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. While these are incredibly useful guidelines for creating a future organization, they don’t quite explain why adaptive organizations work. I’d like to propose three corollaries to Laloux’s principles.

  1. Traditional organizations rely on planned behavior; adaptive organizations encourage emergent behavior. Traditional organizations are heavily planned: they hire people with specific skill sets to fit into specific roles and accomplish specific tasks that make up a system that’s carefully designed to play out the vision of the entity at the top. This ultimately makes traditional organizations less than the sum of their parts. Adaptive organizations operate at the opposite end of the spectrum: they expect employees to manage themselves and one another dynamically. Fixed hierarchy is counter-productive because it limits deviation from an established agenda; in a fixed hierarchy, I don’t have much room to do anything that doesn’t directly benefit my immediate supervisor, and he in turn has little room to do anything that doesn’t benefit his immediate supervisor. Designing an organization to encourage emergent behavior means opening up to unplanned innovation by anyone at any time. It can be equal parts dangerous and game-changing; the art and science of emergent behavior is to minimize the danger without discouraging the game changers.
  2. Traditional organizations consolidate efforts in an attempt to design the best, most efficient single outcome; future organizations rely on multiple discovery to generate iterative, multi-dimensional innovation. When a traditional organization discovers two different efforts to accomplish a similar goal, it’s seen as inefficient. Duplicative efforts are shut down and/or consolidated into one another, leading to political battles and possibly resentment on the part of the employees who were trumped. These consolidation efforts frequently fail, either in process (they are never completed) or in product (the outcome is too unwieldy or unhelpful). Multiple discovery allows several efforts to reach the same point from multiple directions, or to reach different points from a similar origin. The outcomes of the individual efforts tend to be leaner and more focused, and if one option fails there are others at the ready.
  3. Traditional organizations depend on metric productivity (output divided by hours divided by pay rate); adaptive organizations develop unique value. Metric productivity is the enemy of unique value: it suggests that all products, customers, and employees are comparable and judges each employee against some Platonic ideal of productivity. Metric productivity is what causes us to believe that putting in more hours makes us more valuable to our employer, that what we do to our bodies in our off-hours isn’t important to what happens when we’re on the clock, that our mental and spiritual and social well-being is something we do on our own time and work doesn’t factor into it. But metric productivity isn’t just bad for employees, it’s also a dead end for employers. If your concern is wholly for metric productivity, chances are high that you’re in competition with someone. Competition is a sinkhole. If you’re not digging yourself out of it and creating unique value, you’re bound to lose.

This is how adaptive organizations can thrive in spite of the concerns that keep leaders locked into traditional models. Adaptive organizations eschew the assumptions of traditional organizations–efficiency, competitive pricing, planned behaviors and outcomes–and take the lead because they engage both employees and customers in a way that makes traditional competition obsolete. They also gain efficiencies in unexpected ways–from Buurtzorg spending less time on patients by spending more time with them, to Netflix’s “the best are 10x better than average” philosophy. In the end, adaptive organizations are even better than traditional organizations at traditional metrics, because they focus on purpose and put the future of their organization in the hands of each individual. Instead of focusing on functional planning, an effective leader provides focus, narrative, and inspiration to the efforts of the collective–as Saint-Exupery puts it, she teaches them “to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

This post serves as the frame for my next several posts, in which I’ll tackle multiple discovery and dig further into emergent behavior to provide some practical understanding of how to apply these concepts to a real organization.

What do you believe about adaptive organizations? What’s keeping you from applying these principles to your own organization? I look forward to discussing with you in the comments.