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The role of a leader in an adaptive organisation

01.28.2014
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There has been a lot of talk in the past week or so about leadership and whether it is in fact a redundant profession.  The discussions were sparked by the news that Zappos are throwing their lot in with the Halocracy philosophy, and throwing their managers out in the process.

Of course, Zappos aren’t the only organisation to take this approach.  Henry Stewart of Happy Computers fame highlighted a number of other companies that have gone down the managerless route.  A part of me thinks this is often a semantic debate, with Stewart’s example of WL Gore summing up things nicely.  They have managers you see, just they refer to them as sponsors instead.

This is an important distinction to make, for it’s very easy to believe that complex systems, such as a modern corporation, can operate without central guidance, and therefore the role of manager is redundant.  I don’t think that’s the case.  For sure, the role of the manager in the traditional sense would be.  There would be little need for the five traditional roles of a manager as outlined by Henri Fayol way back when:

  1. planning
  2. organising
  3. commanding
  4. coordinating
  5. controlling

But that doesn’t mean of course that adaptive organisations are anarchical beasts.  The manager does indeed play a crucial role in such an organisation, but their role is more refined than that outlined by Fayol.  Indeed, it is broadly speaking limited to two distinct tasks.

Providing context

The first of these is to provide both the organisation as a whole, and the employees within it with a context.  The context is crucial because it outlines three things that are essential to ensure the organisation retains a focus.  It outlines the reason for the organisations existence (it’s purpose), it outlines the core principles by which it functions, and it outlines a high-level design for the business.

These things help to set out the over-riding goal for the organisation and some principles by which it will go about achieving that goal.  In essence it’s providing the organisation with some boundaries and rules by which employees can then play by.  They help to give empowered people some guidance on how to behave that are crucial to ensure that all employees work together.

Providing coordination

The second main task for the manager to provide therefore is that of coordination.  Once the context has been outlined, it’s important to understand if that guidance is being adhered to.  The sense and respond philosophy at the heart of adaptive organisations applies just as much internally as it does by pulling in external data.  It’s crucial therefore that managers play a strong role in monitoring what’s happening and adapting accordingly.

It should be said, this isn’t focusing on how people go about their job.  That’s very much the preserve of the old make and sell approach.  Rather it’s ensuring that what people do fits well together.  The actual way people go about doing their job is largely decided by them, within the guidance outlined in the context phase from earlier.

I think these two facets are crucial to a successful business, and as such are crucial tasks for managers to provide the organisation.  It may be a semantic issue and in reality, the organisations highlighted by Henry Stewart earlier do indeed have people performing these tasks, albeit under a different label to that of the manager.  Rest assured though, it’s far from desirable to do away with such tasks entirely.

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