By Julian Birkinshaw, Simon Caulkin, and Jonas Ridderstrale
The information age carries the seeds of its own destruction
Drowning in data
The starting point is the counterintuitive way the world is changing. One of the paradoxes of progress is that the information age carries the seeds of its own destruction. Where data is ubiquitous and search costs zero, it becomes a commodity that can’t confer distinctive or enduring advantage. So at the same time as steering a course through huge oceans of data, firms have to look over the horizon to the next stage.
There is a less obvious point. Yes, there has been and is a steady generational increase in human intelligence; but the overall global stock of knowledge is growing even more quickly. So relative to that global measure, we are each becoming more ignorant. The more we know, the more we don’t understand. The implication is this: the ability of any individual, however insightful, to master all the disciplines needed to guide a firm of any size lessens by the day. To quote Warren Bennis, ‘None of us is as smart as all of us’.
Furthermore, the more connected the world, the more complex it becomes. Variables and feedback loops become ever more numerous and entangled – their complexity outstripping the ability of computers to provide meaningful results – and this even before the full-blown internet of things. The result is a non-linear business landscape where the only thing that can be predicted is unpredictability.
Neither bureaucracy nor meritocracy are good at coping with rapid change
In this environment, where the future can’t be predicted, the focus shifts to the need for decisive action. Conventional planning and strategy, and even basics like budgeting (‘plans with numbers’), are ‘just not a very useful way of spending your time’, notes Birkinshaw. Indeed, beyond a certain point, planning by rational analysis is no longer a help but a hindrance. In individuals and companies – sometimes even states – it can lead to analysis paralysis and round-in-circles debate, or obsessing about getting things exactly wrong instead of roughly right. Think Nokia, Blockbuster, and Kodak, all of which were well aware of what was happening in their marketplace but couldn’t get beyond knowing to doing.
Hence, says Birkinshaw, effective management involves ‘getting beyond sensing and looking ahead to actively build an organisation and a style of leadership that underpins ongoing change’.
In the new world, the top-down strategy ‘cascade’ is inverted. Assumptions about predictable markets and all-seeing leaders are rendered useless. Instead, propose the authors, strategists should take their cue from the ‘agile’ movement that has revolutionised software development over the last decade, and whose thinking is now steadily permeating other management domains.
Adhocracy is more about adopting a new mind set rather than ticking boxes
Fluid and adaptable
Unfortunately, being inwardly focused and rules-based, neither bureaucracy nor meritocracy are good at coping with rapid change. With their bias to consensus and detail, meritocracies can get bogged down in seemingly endless debate, at the expense of actually doing anything. Immersed in their own preoccupations, they fail to notice the world speeding up around them. Instead, getting beyond analysis paralysis requires a less fixed, more fluid and adaptable form of organisation: what Ridderstrale and Birkinshaw term ‘adhocracy’.
Adhocracy is an idea that has been around for decades, in the general sense that it is the opposite of bureaucracy. But it comes into sharper relief, says Birkinshaw, when viewed through the lens of the new emphasis on strategy-as-action: ‘We want to redefine adhocracy to make it useful’. Realistically, few large firms will be able to reshape themselves as agile organisations able to turn on a sixpence in the blink of an eye – or even ever. While an internet start-up would aim to avoid bureaucracy and the endless pursuit of perfection, established companies face research, regulatory and reporting needs which make elements of bureaucratic and meritocratic organisation unavoidable. They face the difficult task of cultivating islands or cells of adhocracy within the larger structure.
Combining different organisational types is hard. Adhocracy is an uncomfortable bedfellow for more staid hierarchical forms. Yet some large companies have managed the feat: the authors single out Amazon, WPP, Air Liquide and Lloyds Bank as examples of firms that have successfully cultivated action alongside thought, exploration as well as exploitation, experiment as well as rigorous execution. As the name suggests, adhocracy is more about adopting a new mind set rather than ticking boxes. Projects, ‘skunk works’ – experimental laboratories within a company that operate independently of a main research division – and internal start-ups are well-known examples.
Pay more attention to purpose and intuition and less to rules and regulations
Ride the roller coaster
Adhocracy, based on opportunity, decisive action and commitment, is a management as well as an organisational model. As such, as Birkinshaw acknowledges, it is a challenge to today’s approach to running organisations – an approach based upon finance, engineering and algorithms.
The opposite of managing by the numbers, it requires of leaders that they are present at the heart of the action rather than lurking apart in offices. They need to learn directly from customers and the front line rather than from reports and spreadsheets. They must pay more attention to purpose and intuition and less to rules and regulations. For individual employees and middle managers, it promises – and demands – something more like a ride on a roller coaster than a daily commute from Surrey on the 7.25. The authors end their book with a plea for spontaneity. Adhocracy favours the open, the natural, the uninhibited – the reverse of the structured, sterile and anxiety-ridden approach that characterises decision-making in many large companies.
In other words, it’s human. Behind the theory, what Fast/Forward ultimately says is that management is an activity that’s best – in both senses of the word – done by humans, not computers.