Challenge and Sustainability
Most would agree that a sustainable course of business success is reliant upon organizational health. Those conditions exist when our collective intellectual, emotional, social, and practical energies and coping capacities prove to be sufficient to the challenges we face. We’re able to adaptively deploy our strategies, skills, and goal-directed actions in ways that usually prevail and achieve our aims; and we’re able do so over time across generations of leadership.
But just as individuals can encounter stubborn challenges that resist their best efforts and leave them feeling overwhelmed, organizations too can experience “rough patches.” Moreover, it’s not always the task itself (complexity, novelty, difficulty) or skill and ability deficits that make the presenting challenge insoluble. There may be larger, unpredictable intervening events in the economy or market that intensify the challenge and make it feel “impossible.”
In any case, should such acute conditions persist and become chronic, the effects of stress and strain may grow to deplete our adaptive resources and sap us of energy and motivation. As the famous football coach, Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Our stores of optimism and resilience to snap back can be eroded. Self-confidence and belief in ourselves, or even our mission, may begin to founder.
This phenomenon is illustrated in Figure 1, the Challenge-Development Curve. As the level of challenge rises, our energies are focused and intensified. Adaptive capacities (intellectual, emotional, and practical) grow (A-B); that is, to a point (B), the Inflection Point.
Beyond that inflection point, absent some kind of intervention and support, we are likely to experience not only diminishing gains but an actual decline in performance and development (B-C). However, with timely and effective intervention (constructive feedback, supportive conversation, perspective-taking), we may be able to “leap” to a new growth curve (B-D) of Adaptive Change.
The Role of Leadership
When I say it’s the role of leaders to notice these things and intervene in a timely manner, I am not referring to upper management alone, or to people with the formally designated authority to lead. Indeed, that is why identifying emerging leaders and encouraging their development is so important. In today’s flatter, faster-moving, global organizations, we need people at all levels to assert leadership properly, to help guide action and prompt intervention.
And that brings us to a discussion of the three keys to organizational sustainability. So, I shall now briefly describe these critical factors, which promote capacity building and sustainable business performance. As you’ll see they create their effects by positioning more people to assert leadership. Through effective leadership, we not only get things done through others, we also build the capacity of others to do the same.
Vital Structure versus Static Structure:
Static structure is the more fixed framework we see represented in org charts, jobs descriptions, procedures, and policies. It defines a company’s skeletal structure and operating model. Vital structure consists of more pliable and enduring patterns of interaction (behavior) the contribute regularity and predictability to how we play our roles, interact, communicate, and coordinate in the course of execution. Vital structure is highly adaptive and guided more by principles more than procedures.
Agency and Responsibility:
Agency concerns initiative and choice in decision-making and action. We will always have constraints on our freedom to decide or act, as individuals and as groups or firms. Responsibility concerns the value-based, internal norms that we identify with and that shape our work ethic and motivate our best efforts. Accountability, by contrast, concerns what we owe to others as a function of our role, fiduciary duties, and performance objectives. As agents of accountable action, we must be able to assert responsible leadership.
Relatively little can be achieved in the arc of realizing a firm’s mission through coercion. That’s why leadership is reliant upon communicative action, influence, and reason-giving. It’s how we shape direction, motivate commitment, and mobilize performance. And it’s how we navigate rising levels of challenge. Leadership is dynamically granted and claimed over the life of a project, in pursuit of shared goals, and by means of vital interdependencies and ongoing adaptive action. We must all be ready to offer leadership.
Wrapping it Up
Reliance on static structure alone is not responsive to the adaptive demands of coping and thriving in periods of peak challenge. A focus on accountabilities and contingent rewards alone is not enough to produce responsible leadership. And relying on formal authority and top-down hierarchy in a world that is getting flatter all the time won’t suffice. Simply put, the fixity of older ways of operating and relating to one another just won’t cut it in today’s world!
We must shift to a more conversational style of communication and collaboration. It's through vital structure and structuring that we align and realign our actions and interactions to meet the changing demands of our operating environment. We must free all to assert aligned acts leadership at all levels. It means less hesitation, more timely action, and greater leadership capacity. And it's by building relationships in which power and leadership is shared that we become fully accountable to one another.
Simply reviewing these variables conceptually and conversationally has an awakening effect. It brings to mind contrasting mindsets, attitudes, and beliefs. We recognize as self-evident the consequential impact of treating structure as a vital adaptive force rather than a static framework. We prime our sense of potency as agents, free to choose to act differently, more responsible and accountable. And we’re reminded that the force reason and reasonableness, and relating to others with respect as fellow agents of action, evokes everyone's best efforts and increases our productive capacity.
Yes, translating insight and cognition into effective change is not easy. Habits can hold us in patterns of belief and action that have served us well. But, we also know that it’s the malleability of our mind and brain that has enabled us to survive and thrive. The translation of insight into new practices begins by asking ourselves, “What would it look like if…?”, where the “if” is a cue to envision and shape collaborative action, imagining how it looks different when we rely upon vital structure, agency, and relational dynamics.
You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 401.885.1631.