Empowering Change Through Decentralization
As we look at the world today, it is clear that the pace of change has increased. Gone are the days when we could experience periods of stability between disruptions. Now, change is perpetual, pervasive, and exponential. This has led to a pressing need to build systems, organizations, and a society that can meet the changing needs of our ecosystem and stakeholders today and into the future.
However, despite the exponential change we are experiencing, our institutions continue to evolve linearly. Even the most forward-thinking organizations tend to evolve incrementally, which has resulted in the creation of what Azheem Azhar coined the "exponential gap," which is the increasingly widening gap between incremental improvements and the exponential change the world is experiencing. This gap is a multifaceted problem because it's not just digital technology that's changing exponentially; it's bio-science, manufacturing, material science, artificial intelligence, our political landscape, climate change adaptation strategies, and our environment. Any one of these fields would be challenging to adapt to, but addressing them together feels near impossible. As a result, it requires diverse, divergent, and collaborative approaches to create adaptive environments which promote agility when addressing organizational change.
Traditional Change Management
Traditional change management practices are centrally controlled and rely heavily on time-consuming and rigid planning, which worked fine before the year 2000 when the rate of change was still somewhat manageable. But with each passing year, planning-heavy centrally controlled change management practices produce results that are often less than relevant by the time they are half instituted.
When we rely solely on traditional change management practices, we run the risk of falling behind. To stay ahead of the curve, we need to explore new solutions focusing less on planning and more on just-in-time proactivity. In addition, we need solutions to be more distributive yet accountable.
Coordinated Autonomy Model
A possible solution is to move away from a centrally controlled hierarchy where time-sensitive decisions get bogged down through multiple levels of corporate bureaucracy. Instead, we could explore a variety of models that emphasize coordinated autonomy which allows teams and departments the nimbleness needed to be proactive while still ensuring coordination with others and compliance with requirements. This would enable us to navigate changes more efficiently while promoting accountability and compliance.
At the heart of this solution is coordinated autonomy, which involves empowering teams and departments to take ownership of the change management process at a granular level. By doing so, they can become more proactive in addressing issues as they arise rather than waiting for directives from above. This would help eliminate the lag time between identifying and addressing a problem, which is essential in a world facing the exponential gap.
Of course, this idea has its challenges. Coordinated autonomy requires trust, collaboration, and practice, often needing improvement in hierarchical organizations. Additionally, there is a risk that teams may become too siloed or even rogue leading to a lack of coordination and accountability. And as we look at multinational organizations globally, there will be a significant variance in how hierarchy and change management is addressed with cultural nuances and differing authority styles.
However, if we can find a way to overcome these challenges, coordinated autonomy can transform how we manage change within our organizations. By giving teams and departments the autonomy to address issues proactively, we can ensure that our organizations remain agile and adaptable to pervasive, exponential change.
The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Braufman illustrates the distinction between a traditional hierarchical organization model and a coordinated autonomy model. At a distance, a starfish and a spider appear to have a similar structure, with multiple appendages extending outwards from a central body. However, a spider has a central nervous system, while a starfish is a collection of individual autonomous cells working together for a common goal. The rise of the internet demonstrated the power of a networked model versus a centrally controlled model, but how can we apply this to our organizations?
Policy Governance Model
Policy Governance, a governance model created and managed by the Caver Institute, is a relatively obscure approach designed for the Board of Directors - CEO relationship and may provide insights into how we can encourage creativity, proactivity, and autonomy while maintaining accountability throughout an organization. The Policy Governance model comprises three main components: Goals, Limitations, and Processes.
- Goals establish a long-term perspective and embody the vision and reason for the organization's existence. They define what needs to be accomplished, for whom, and at what cost.
- Limitations are policies that cannot be broken to achieve the identified goals. They provide boundaries of acceptability within which staff methods and activities can responsibly be left to staff. These policies limit how goals get achieved.
- Process policies determine how authority is delegated, how performance is evaluated relative to goals and limitations, and how decisions are made.
While there is more to the Policy Governance model, the core principles create an environment where staff is given direction, limitations on achieving it, and a process for evaluation. The key feature of this model is the freedom offered to staff in that any action they choose to achieve the desired goals that do not violate a Limitation is permitted by default. When done well, it cuts through most bureaucratic review and approval processes. This creates a permissive environment that nurtures the creativity of individuals and teams to move fast and try new things.
For a practical example, Jocko Willink, a Navy SEAL and executive consultant, discusses a similar approach using different terms in his book Extreme Ownership. In his model, the higher-ups set the mission goal and delegate authority to a seal team leader. Still, the leader and their team members have the authority to make all necessary tactical decisions. He argues that this makes for a stronger team and a chance of success because of a coordinated autonomy approach.
This model has been on my mind since I helped our local food cooperative transition to it 20 years ago and saw the transformation it brought to a small organization. Since then, I have worked in state and local government, witnessing opportunities missed and employees becoming disenfranchised from the organization's mission because of bureaucratic processes. Adapting this model outside of Carver's intent and throughout our organizations could be a solution to addressing the exponential gap.
The Policy Governance model and the ideas presented here could offer potential solutions. For example, organizations can move away from hierarchical structures and create truly adaptive environments by setting clear goals, establishing limitations on achieving them, and empowering staff with the authority to make tactical decisions. The result is a permissive, creative culture that fosters experimentation, innovation, and calculated risk-taking. While it is not a guaranteed solution, it is an idea worth considering as we strive to build organizations that can meet the accelerating demands of our world.
Creating Agile, Innovative Workplaces
Enabling an innovative work environment that allows for risk-taking to reach ambitious global goals set for a sustainable, equitable future is crucial. As we think about the many global topics multinational clients face around biodiversity, energy transition, carbon neutrality, human rights, and more, outdated, slow models of change should not hold us back. Instead, allowing creativity in how individuals and teams steer change through real agility from within organizations will get us much farther, much quicker.
While the exponential gap continues to widen, there is hope for organizations willing to explore new solutions to the challenges they face. By moving away from traditional change management practices and embracing coordinated autonomy through adjacent models like policy governance, we can create more agile, adaptable organizations that are better equipped to meet the changing needs of our stakeholders. This is a challenging path, but it is also an exciting one that could reward those willing to walk it.
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Jason Schneider, Altruistic Mischief Maker with Civic* Possible
Jason works with local governments, nonprofits, and public-private partnerships to innovate and do impactful work for their communities. His strength is working across disciplines, silos, and ideologies to identify opportunities and then facilitate, plan, and build collective solutions. Real change starts from the ground up and is created by those directly involved. Jason has created meaningful change in a broad range of roles over two decades, including Marquette City Councilor, Alaska’s Innovation Officer, Marion County’s Economic Development Manager, Executive Director of the Marquette Chamber of Commerce, and business/organizational coach in Michigan, Tonga, Vietnam, and Australia. Through these experiences, he developed a deep curiosity and skill set around civic ecosystems and a passion not only for sharing these lessons but also for helping others create meaningful change.