Designing agile organizations

Every manager has run into bureaucratic inertia. Some have complained that getting a bureaucracy to change direction is like turning around an aircraft carrier in a narrow channel. Even more frustrating are the situations in which no one disagrees that things have to change.

So why is organizational change so slow and so painful?

Often it is because organizational units share power over decisions and actions. Collaboration between such units—or across functional areas, or between government departments and agencies, or between countries—becomes an exercise in what some management theorists have called the “complexity of joint action.” With multiple decision-makers, each decision entails some degree of “friction,” which adds time to the process.

In such circumstances it is easily possible for all players to agree on the precise aim of a joint enterprise, and on a blueprint for action—and for the enterprise to grind to a halt in spite of this agreement. What seems obvious and easy is actually extremely convoluted and complex.

For example, I recently worked on a project whose aim was to centralize certain core administrative functions across a vast bureaucracy. It seemed obvious to everyone concerned, from the designers of the project to the implementers and those whose work would be radically transformed, that these moves were necessary and that they would result in big cost savings and better work experiences.

But once we really got into the work, we discovered the range of interdependencies between these seemingly straightforward administrative functions. We identified over 70 individual administrative actions within four major functional areas. We had not initially appreciated that these interdependencies would grow geometrically over time, as more participants became directly involved in the new processes. Nor did we realize the difficulty of obtaining consensus between the major participants. Once we did, our problem-solving focus shifted from more rational organization design to consensus building.

Problems of joint decision and action have become more common, with the advent of more horizontal structures in government bureaucracies. This is not to say we need to return to rigid hierarchy and all the problems it entailed. But a healthy respect for the difficulties of joint action is a pre-requisite for anyone who proposes, designs, or implements such an initiative.

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