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Creating a Next-Level Organization: 11 Steps to Get Beyond Command-and-Control or Sense-and-Respond

Updated: Apr 11



In the ever more complex landscape of modern organizations, traditional top-down command and control structures are no longer as effective as they once were. The command and control organization worked much better at a time when economies were local or national, and when there was relative stability in the infrastructure and national economy. Today, with multiple disruptions due to political stalemate, new legal and cultural demands, climate instability, and supply chain breakdowns, organizations are faced with more complexity than ever before.


Organizations need more than just strategic planning to optimize narrow metrics of success, and employees seek more than just a paycheck – they yearn for autonomy, meaning, and a deeper connection to the work they do. Furthermore, the popularly termed volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions of our global system demand a more adaptable approach. Some organizations reject the predict-and-control approach altogether and replace it with the sense-and-respond approach -- there are no plans and no hierarchy, just collective sensing of what's needed on a moment-to-moment basis. Leadership is flat instead of hierarchical, meaning power is distributed and self-organized, so anyone can take actions according to their best judgment. This gives more flexibility, responsiveness, and empowerment throughout the company, but it could also lead to chaotic misaligned actions, hidden power struggles, and financial instability.


Beyond the “predict and control” approach of a conventional organization and the “sense and respond” approach of alternative organizations is the evolutionary organization that “integrates and actualizes”.


This evolutionary approach integrates the best of all the approaches and adapts dynamically for an increasingly resilient system that supports the thriving of all stakeholders and multiple bottom lines. But it's more than just about resilience -- the organization has a purpose, and is going somewhere. The evolutionary approach actualizes that purpose.


This evolutionary approach integrates the best of all the approaches and adapts dynamically for an increasingly resilient system that supports the thriving of all stakeholders and multiple bottom lines. But it's more than just about resilience -- the organization has a purpose, and is going somewhere. The evolutionary approach actualizes that purpose.

So, how can you lead an evolutionary organization that not only survives and thrives but actualizes its purpose in this dynamic environment?


I’d like to propose 11 major principles of evolutionary organizations. You can use these steps while you're in the process of creating your for-profit, non-profit, or voluntary organization, or you can use them to re-invent or re-calibrate your already established organization so that it gets back on course. These steps can more or less be conducted sequentially over the course of a couple of weeks or months. Step 11 is more of an ongoing practice of Polarity Management that can be done at any time.


1. Gathering: What Brought You Here?


Gathering is more than just bringing people together physically. It's about creating an environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Invite each person in your organization or core group to speak. Invite them to share their individual stories and motivations that brought them into your organization. Capture common themes even as you acknowledge the diversity. Each story is now woven into the story of this organization. Articulating this generates a sense of belonging and shared purpose, which is essential ground for an evolutionary organization.


2. Contextualize: Zooming Out to See the Bigger Picture


To set the stage for your organization's evolution, contextualize it within a larger historical or cultural narrative. Help your team understand that their efforts are participating in some larger currents or processes. You can explicitly share the evolutionary story itself (see blog post), which is the biggest picture imaginable, or you can describe your particular initiative in the context of the larger cultural zeitgeist (e.g. the gig economy, or the work-from-home culture) or even the history of your industry (e.g. the biotech industry has gone through phases).


In whatever words work for you, communicate that this organization represents the convergence of a societal need with the technology (physical, social, or otherwise) and people that can respond to that need. Convergence is precisely how the evolutionary process works -- when parts are allured together to form a larger whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Here, people are allured together to respond to a need that they could not respond to alone. Consider also that your local and national culture, laws, and infrastructure provide the enabling conditions to create your organizational structure, utilize technology, and coordinate people to meet the demands of the time. Each person's individual story of becoming more and doing more is part of a larger story of humanity's becoming more and doing more, which is part of an even larger story of evolution -- your organization is threaded into these stories. In short: matter enabled life; life enabled conscious human life; the modern era enabled freedom, democracy, science, technology, and achievement*. And now, here you are with a need in the world, and a team that has come together to meet the need.


If your team won't do it, then who will?


If not now, when?


This broader perspective creates a field of connectivity and purpose that energizes the team.

Convergence is precisely how the evolutionary process works -- when parts are allured together to form a larger whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Here, people are allured together to respond to a need that they could not respond to alone.


3. Visioning: Painting a Picture of a Better World


Visioning is about crafting a vivid image of the world you want to create through your collective efforts. Crucially, describe this vision in the present tense, as if it's already a reality. This technique motivates and inspires individuals within your organization to work relentlessly toward this compelling future. For example, “a world where cancer is no longer feared”, “customers use our products to implement new technology that improves the quality of life for all”, or “a world where every child has access to education”. Every organization has a larger context to which it is offering a service, just like every plant and animal in a rainforest contributes to the ecosystem.


You may be thinking that your company is simply meant to sell parts and serve your customers. But how will you impact your customers by serving them, and how do your customers impact the world? What would happen if you were not there to provide these parts to them? What niche does your company serve?

Every organization has a larger context to which it is offering a service, just like every plant and animal in a rainforest contributes to the ecosystem

After collecting as many ideas for that vision, boil it down to a paragraph description of that world.


Then create a single sentence that summarizes the vision. You will repeat this vision over and over throughout the life of the organization and, if the vision is compelling enough, it will inspire stakeholders every time. You will attract investors, recruit professionals and draw in customers or beneficiaries with this vision.


4. Mission: The Vehicle To Realize Your Vision


Your mission statement should define what your organization does collectively to achieve the vision you have set forth. It provides the direction and clarity needed to focus your team's energy and resources effectively. Whereas the vision is the way the future world is because of your organization, the mission is what your organization does to actualize that vision. Use verbs. For example, “we create novel treatments at the cutting edge of cancer research", “we enable transformative technology in start-up companies”, or “we connect tutors with students in need of educational support.” It should be general enough to enable many kinds of strategies to achieve the mission, but specific enough to be a unique mission for your organization.


5. Appreciative Inquiry: Embracing What's Working


Appreciative inquiry is a term coined by researcher David Cooperrider that refers to the power of recognizing and appreciating the elements in your organization that are already contributing to your desired future. Appreciative inquiry reveals glimpses of how evolution is already always happening (which is true!), and can serve as a powerful sources of inspiration, guiding your team forward and opening up the path for the next step. Ask your team: What’s working? What small successes have you already achieved? Even if it is just convening this group of founders, achieving success in previous projects from founding members, or simply noticing the excitement that has been generated in the news about the kind of organization that you’ve envisioned. Practicing appreciative inquiry energizes you and your team. You can start meetings with appreciative inquiry, you can invite ongoing email submissions by your employees, or you can create formal processes for recognizing the shining moments of success throughout your organization.


6. Implementation: Translating the Vision into Reality


Harness the power of your collective imagination to brainstorm specific actions and strategies that will actualize your vision. Think creatively and consider innovative approaches to make your vision a tangible reality. What are some specific actions that we need to take? This is similar to visioning described earlier, except this is much more specific and tangible, and starts with verbs instead of nouns. Let's say your vision is a world where youth have access to tutoring services. Your implementation plan would need to include create a program and a six week course, or hold an event in San Francisco, or hire a marketing person. You really want to use your imagination to think of, well, how do we get there? Consider recruitment, infrastructure, operations, training, and performance management, and list 1 to 3 tasks in each category. Each action should be SMART - specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound -- so that you can check it off the list when its completed.


7. Unique Self Symphonizing: Leveraging Individual Strengths


Identify the individuals within your organization who are best suited to take ownership of specific tasks based on their unique strengths, passions, and capabilities. Ownership is really important – task owners should feel like the success of this lives or dies because of me. Ensuring the right people handle the right responsibilities is essential for efficient execution.


Now, there will be times when nobody wants to do a task, but it has to be done. A question certainly could be if nobody wants to do it, then does it really need to be done? Or is it that we need to find someone else that wants to do it? It is also the case that tasks are not always fun or exciting right away (and will eventually be), or represent stretch zones that will ultimately lead to professional growth in employees.


So, we have to put in the hard work to do things we don't want to do, and that is actually how evolution works too: the overall process is not meant to merely satisfy our own superficial comforts and desires. We participate in something larger, and so sometimes we have to suspend our immediate gratification and commit to doing things we don't want to do. The 80/20 rule is helpful – each person should be doing 80% of what they want to do, and 20% of what just what needs to be done.


When each person contributes their greatest strengths toward whatever is needed for the overall purpose of the organization and trusts that others are doing the same, what emerges is a Unique Self Symphony**. It is when there’s a synergy between all members of a team. The Unique Self Symphony is a self-organizing dynamic system where individuals respond proactively to the needs that arise, without coercion or micro-management, for the sake of a common purpose.

The Unique Self Symphony is a self-organizing dynamic system where individuals respond proactively to the needs that arise, without coercion or micro-management, for the sake of a common purpose.

Note that you cannot have a Unique Self Symphony without the previous steps. If you have not gathered everyone's stories, provided a larger context, clarified the vision and mission, appreciated what's already progressing, and given people tasks that they can act on, you instead are left with imposing top-down mandates or anxiously hoping the self-organizing non-hierarchical structure will bear fruit.


8. Aligning Rewards: Toward Holistic Motivation


Balancing intrinsic and extrinsic motivators is key to sustaining the energy of the organization. Intrinsic motivators energize a person to do something because of their own needs, whereas extrinsic motivators are more like carrots and sticks, incentivizing people to do what you want them to do. Examples of intrinsic motivators are connecting to a purpose, having autonomy in workflow, and developing mastery in a skill (per author Daniel Pink), as well as feeling belonging in a community and being recognized by peers. Extrinsic motivators include fair compensation, bonuses, vacation time, company apparel, and meals. Intrinsic motivators without extrinsic motivators lead to burnout, and extrinsic motivators without intrinsic motivators lead to low productivity and costly management. A balance fosters a motivated and committed team that requires minimal supervision.

A balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators fosters a committed team that requires minimal supervision.

9. Aligning Systems and Culture to Support the Vision


Evaluate your organization's policies, guidelines, infrastructure, and culture. Align them with your mission and values to ensure they support your vision. Effective systems and culture can reinforce the behaviors and actions that drive an evolutionary organization. Routines like quarterly staff lunches or monthly performance conversation templates regularly infuse the culture with life and purpose. You can anchor the culture that supports the vision by locating art that depicts customer success, or posting meeting guidelines in conference rooms. Building semi-open cubicles invites employees to talk to each other and collaborate. This is an ongoing process of increasingly ensuring that the infrastructure and cultural rituals reinforce the vision.


10. Spiraling: Continuous Evolution


Spiraling is a word that refers to the fact that you are never finished – this is a living, dynamic system that requires continuous revisiting of each of these elements. It means reinforcing the previous steps, weaving them together, integrating and deepening your efforts while expanding your reach. It's about recognizing that evolution is not a linear path but a dynamic, ever-expanding journey that continuously incorporates more information, more technologies, more approaches, and more stakeholders. Every time you revisit these steps, you don’t just repeat the same process, but hone in, trim, integrate, streamline, and upgrade everything as you go.

Spiraling is a word that refers to the fact that you are never finished – this is a living, dynamic system that requires continuous revisiting of each of these elements.

For example, let's say a staff member creates an onboarding process for the organization, and then another staff member creates an interview process for hiring new people. As you spiral around back to the vision and mission, you can realize that recruitment and onboarding need to be integrated. So, you create a unified process for recruiting, onboarding, and training employees. Perhaps you implement a new technology that supports this, or you change a position title from Human Resources Specialist to People & Culture Specialist to reflect the greater scope of responsibility. Each time you spiral, the organization either gets bigger or better, or more in alignment with the needs of employees, management, and stakeholders.



11. Managing Polarities: Integrating Opposites for Resilience


Within your organization, at every step, you'll encounter polarities – interdependent opposites that require skillful integration in order to flourish over time. A basic example of a polarity is action and rest. If there’s too much action and not enough rest, then employees are overworked, experiencing burnout, or wasting efforts on the wrong activities. Incorporating sufficient boundaries (e.g. encouraging vacations, supporting family events, and discouraging late-night emails) so that employees get the rest they need is an important way to manage this basic polarity.


Other common polarities include supporting and challenging employees, individual recognition and team recognition, giving top-down direction and inviting bottom-up self-direction. Recognize these polarities and ensure that both poles are sufficiently incorporated to ensure your teams' and organization's resilience and flourishing. In future posts, I’ll specifically outline the most common polarities and how to manage them. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Barry Johnson's website on Polarity Management. This is one of the most powerful skills that you can use to integrate and actualize yourself and your organization over the long-term.


Indicators of Success: Vitality and Resilience


How do you know you’re tapping into this current of evolution?


  • Your organization has a regular flow of innovative products and/or services.

  • There’s a palpable dynamic energy among your team.

  • Employees proactively voice concerns and solve problems without being told what to do.

  • Employees frequently refer to the vision when facing challenges or making decisions

  • Employees learn and bounce back from failures.

  • The systems are strong yet nimble enough to adapt to ongoing changes, and the culture attracts people with similar values while encouraging diverse perspectives and capacities.

  • Employees aspire to leadership development, and you see just as much benefit from internal promotions as hiring from the outside.

  • Your organization is recognized for its cutting-edge approach by outsider observers.


Your organization is not a well-oiled machine but a dynamic living ecosystem. As such, you treat it and those who make it up with the dignity of living organisms. Nurture the culture, evolve its systems, and invite individuals to grow and adapt. I hope these 11 steps show how a the integrate-and-actualize approach of an evolutionary organization is more resilient than merely a predict-and-control or sense-and-respond approach alone. Here, you can tap into the powerful force of evolution that has shaped our universe for billions of years.


*The modern era also enables species mass extinction, indigenous culture destruction, and climate change. With every transformation comes other potential disasters, and it is up to every organization to consider the potential "collateral damage" and externalities caused by their operations, and move toward mitigation.


**Unique Self Symphony is a term coined by Dr. Marc Gafni


For more information on the topics discussed above, click the links:

 

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I provide customized organizational coaching based on the vertical development framework that enables small and medium-sized organizations to continually learn and respond more effectively to a multi-stakeholder environment's ever more complex needs. Email me at David@evolutionaryemergencecoaching.com. for a free consultation.


 

Watch my impromptu video that inspired this blog post:


*Note that this article was written using some assistance from ChatGPT.

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