A new perspective on management

A long time ago I attended a seminar on management. A partner of a well-known consultancy argued that managing is simple. He compared it to balancing a broomstick on the tip of your finger: the broomstick is constantly falling over. By paying attention to how the broomstick will fall and always making adjustments, it stays in balance. How hard can management be?

Managing for control
This story illustrates the (unconscious) beliefs behind traditional management: “if you do not (pro) actively control and adjust, there will be chaos.” Management gives instructions – what is to be done and how – and controls the output. Another important assumption is that the desired results will then “automatically” emerge from the process. And there is implicit distrust that teams can achieve the desired results autonomously: the broomstick will fall if it is not scrutinized all of the time.

For a long time this view worked fine: with apparently predictable and longterm growth, it was relatively easy to make a strategic plan, divide it into periodic schedules and use it to manage the organization.

Pulling the grass
But following such a process no longer automatically leads to the desired results. As discussed earlier, change processes often fail because employees are not taken along well enough in the movement that management aspires to: lack of support, insufficient focus and change capacity cause the most frictions. The result: insufficient agility and resilience and little pro-activity to external events and developments. The feeling that this creates among many managers is that they are busy “pulling the grass and hoping this will make it grow faster”. An exhausting and unsatisfying activity.

But grass cannot be forced. That applies to everything in nature, including humans. This in contrast to “things”, such as…well: a broomstick. Too much direction and control, driven by underlying mistrust, leads to stress. Burnouts as a result of work stress are now the most important occupational disease, possibly around the world. The way in which it an organization is managed plays an important role here.

Organize for success
Every gardener knows that you can influence the soil, creating a fertile situation. Responsive organizations manage to create such a situation and let teams thrive. How do they do that?

First of all, autonomy is invested as much as possible with the employees in teams. People are more motivated when they can work together autonomously. That means a high degree of independence, decision-making authority and responsibility. The degree of autonomy or self-management can differ, depending on the culture and beliefs that live within the organization.

But isn’t it going to be chaos, as the broomstick metaphor predicts? On the contrary. Research into self-managing teams shows time and again that employees who determine how they do their work are more motivated, collaborate better and achieve better results. Provided there is clarity about the direction and goals. Creating that clarity, together with the team, is where the manager adds value.

The key here is trust. Trust is mutual, so you get what you give: people try their best not to shame it and are motivated by it.

Don’t control, create!
There is then still plenty to do for managers. But their role now is about creating the breeding ground for success – not about directing and controlling.

What are the ingredients? Clarity about the goals has already been mentioned – of course with sufficient support (70% of the teams do not agree with the goals of their management!). In addition: ensure that people come into their own! That means that they do what they want to do, what they can do and that they can focus on their work. Encourage good team dynamics (feedback). This means that every team is complete, and that it is clear to everyone what their role is and how it contributes to the goals of the team. Psychological safety is the most important ingredient here. This ensures that people share ideas, give their opinion, dare to make mistakes and celebrate successes together. This is the fertile ground for creativity and growth!

Give your team freedom in confidence.
Just like the gardener trusts nature to do its job. Will it always go well then? Of course not: usually something happens that is not foreseen. Which is exactly why you have a responsive team and where you can make the difference as a manager. By overseeing the situation and helping people to find an answer to (new) dilemmas together.

The world is far from predictable. And that’s one reason responsive teams are needed. Another reason is that people thrive when you tap into their intrinsic motivation and creativity. This requires managers who inspire employees with clear goals and then let them come into their own in a safe environment.

Purposeful change (part two)

A lot of research is done by organizations. For example, employee engagement or customer satisfaction. Employees often experience that too little is done with the results of such research. This is partly because the way of researching (asking questions) often makes it insufficiently clear:

  • what the status or progress is of a (change) plan or strategy
  • what should be done now.

Moreover, you want to know what possible frictions could hinder success! That’s why you want to know in particular:

  • what the status is of the priorities (maturity levels);
  • whether the number of priorities is too much, too little, or just right;
  • what the improvement levels are on each priority;
  • what the agreement is for them is among the people involved;
  • whether there is sufficient capacity to deal with the priorities.

Good research questions are therefore verifiable, factual and they contain maturity levels. Also, respondents can indicate what they want to achieve with each of the priorities (see part 1 of this blog). For example:

To what extent are your role, tasks and repsonsibilities clear?NowIn 3 months
Not or hardlyO
Discussed with my manager, not documentedO
Discussed with my manager, and documentedOO

A simplified example: management wants one or more teams to be more responsive. For that purpose, six priorities have been identified: three for each individual and three for each team. These priorities are presented in six different questions, with 3-5 options per question that differ in maturity:

To what extent are your objectives taken into account in your work?
To what extent is known which skills and talents you want to develop?
How do you deal with deadlines?

To what extent does the team have objectives?
Is there a clear division of roles, responsibilities and tasks?
Does the team celebrate successes?

Now suppose you want to realize the change plan in six months. Planning six priorities, like in this example, is of course relatively easy. But normally there are many more priorities, sometimes 20-30, which can also differ per team, department or country. But since not all priorities can be achieved at once, a choice has to be made. That is why we question everyone involved. Everybody? Certainly! Everyone is included in responsive organizations, and that yields a lot. A typical question in that context would then be, for example:

To what extent does your team work with objectives?NowIn 3 months
Not or they are not clearOO
Team objectives have been shared with the teamO
There are team objectives, and it has been assessed how my role contributes O

According to the respondent in this example, there are team goals and they are shared. He wants it to be clear in three months how his role contributes to the team goals – the highest maturity level in this example. This clearly has priority for this respondent.

Now everyone can indicate what they consider priorities and how much they should be improved. This leads to insights, such as:

  • how do individual employees prioritize?
  • to what extent is there support (among teams, teams with their managers)?
  • do teams take on too many priorities, or just enough?
  • where do we find “waste” – employees wanting to improve priorities more than necessary – or “shortage” – employees wanting to improve on certain priorities less than desirable?

And these insights arise at all levels: individual, teams, departments, organization. This also allows you to include everyone in the changes you want to initiate with your organization!

Sharing knowledge and working more focused
You now also know who has already reached a desired maturity level on a priority – because we ask for verifiable and factual behavior. Now you can stimulate people to share knowledge. Helping each other means not reinventing the wheel. This saves costs. But not only that: it has turned out that the approximately fifteen minutes that an employee spends on such a questionnaire frees up one to two weeks, because the work will be more focused!

How to lead and on what
By obtaining this information, management knows how and on what to lead. For example, in the event that a team agrees among themselves on the priorities but does not have sufficient support for the priorities of management, a different action is needed than if the team does agree with management. In the first case, there is a need for alignment. Maybe there is a conflict management doesn’t know about yet? In the latter case, everybody is clearly on the same songsheet, so let’s get going!

Of course you want real-time insight in the results, and you don’t want to wait months for these results to come in. Moreover, you don’t want (to wait for) extensive calculations to find out all these insights. Your organization will not be responsive! Here the algorithms of Artificial Intelligence platforms help, at all levels:

  • employees get a better grip on their priorities;
  • managers will have a better understanding which people come into their own or not. And what can be done about it;
  • the divisional director gains more accurate insight into why certain teams are on schedule or not and what intervention would be helpful.

In the example, the priorities for the next three months could be as follows:

  1. Everyone’s personal goals are discussed and documented (highest maturity level 3).
  2. Development of skills and talents of everyone are discussed with management (maturity level 2).
  3. Team objectives: clear and documented and for everyone it’s clear how their role contributes to the team objectives (maturity level 3).

Three of the six priorities have now been chosen. The dashboard confirms that there is support and that the amount of priorities is feasible with sufficient capacity within the team:

If more time is freed up through better focus, cooperation and knowledge sharing, then nothing stands in the way of accelerating the change program. It’s not surprising that responsive organizations often set the pace of change and innovations in their sector!

On Thursday, February 11, Moving As One is organizing the free webinar “Know How To Change Purposefully”. Participants learn how they can engage their teams or organization in change processes more effectively through better and faster surveys, with the help of Artificial Intelligence. Includes a live demo. More information can be found here.

Purposeful change (part one)

A global scientific study of more than 3,500 teams investigated the causes of frictions that hinder successful change (see also one of our earlier blogs on frictions that cause most change management initiatives to fail):

  • lack of support or agreement: 70% of teams disagree with management’s priorities. And 40% of the teams surveyed disagree among themselves.
  • lack of focus: more than 60% of the teams set too many priorities with either a high level of ambition for improvement (not realistic) or a low level of ambition (no focus). Only 3% of the set a manageable number of goals with a high level of ambition.
  • overexertion: in 80% of cases, the effort to be made is either too high for the people involved and/or not evenly distributed within the team.
  • insufficient capacity: in 50% of cases there is insufficient capacity to implement the change.

With this knowledge it is not surprising that most change projects fail or do not achieve their goals …

How would you know where you are, and what to do?
Let’s assume that you have taken all the steps to make your organization more responsive. And you have a strategic plan that is now being followed. How do you know how if your organization is progressing according to plan, or better? How do the teams score on the relevant factors of Agreement, Focus, Effort and Capacity? And is everybody aligned on what should be done next?

Ask everyone involved
All of them? Certainly! Moving As One means involving everyone in the motion you want to create! This is necessary for a committed and responsive organization. And it is easier and simpler than you think if the monitoring tool meets two conditions:

Use a real-time AI platform
Technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) enable us to use valuable data and insights from research in real time. In clear dashboards, for all levels: individual, team, department, business unit, organization. Now everbody can really be “on the same songsheet”!

Unfortunately, too few companies are still aware of its possibilities.

“Amazon has brought the world same-day delivery, but we still have to wait three months for the results of the employee engagement survey.”

Amazon executive in ‘Big-4 or Big Tech:Who Drills First?
The Search for A.I. that drives automated consultancy.’

Quality of the questions
The quality of the questions determines the quality of the answers. Many organizational studies use the “Likert” scale, a so-called “psychometric” that charts people’s opinions or feelings. We all know them well, for example in a question or statement like this one:

My role, tasks and responsibilities are clear.


Opinions and feelings are not verifiable
The disadvantage of this kind of surveys is that opinions and feelings – although important – are not verifiable. Such questions are not about facts or actual behavior. While the causes of friction always concern specific priorities with which an organization wants to move forward. Moreover, you want to get people moving with concrete actions – and the right actions.

Verifiable questions
What if we twist the above question and base the answers on verifiable and factual behavior. For example:

To what extent are your role, tasks and responsibilities clear?
Not at allO
Discussed with my manager, not documentedO
Discussed with my manager, and documentedO

As you can see, a number of verifiable maturity levels are linked to the question. These will help to set priorities, create focus and involve all people in the team or organization. To this end, we add one more dimension: what is the situation now and what does the respondent want to realize with regard to this question in, for example, three months? Then the possible answers will look like this:

To what extent are your role, tasks and responsibilities clear?Today In 3 months
Not at allO
Discussed with my manager, not documentedO
Discussed with my manager, and documentedOO

Now suppose you have 20-25 questions (which takes appr. 15 minutes per respondent). They are about what you and your management team consider important in the organization. For example: psychological safety, individuals come into their own, there is enthusiasm for our organizational goals. Or whatever strategic area: agile working methods, following safety procedures, reducing working capital. Now you can have an overview of how your organization actually scores on these relevant aspects. You also see what people themselves would see as priorities, which gives you insight in what is needed to move forward with any team.

And that in turn will help you map out the support, focus and available capacity for change. Now your change program becomes concrete and possible frictions are known. E.g. because people think differently about priorities than management. Or because it becomes clear that there is insufficient capacity when certain changes are “pushed through”.

This immediately – remember to use online AI in realtime – makes it clear what the feasibility of the change plan is and what you need to do to increase it. Now you know what aspects in the priorities are covered well and which ones need more attention from management. The organization will be involved better in what needs to be done.

The next blog in this series – Purposeful change part two – explains how you can bring it all together.

How to get moving – part two

Responsive organizations emphasize the need that every individual comes into his or her own. The blog ‘How to get moving – part one’ describes that, if this is the case, people do what they want to do and which matches their skills and potential. Further to that, the organization encourages them to work with focus on their tasks and regular feedback lets them know how well they are doing (these are the four elements known to bring people in a state of flow). The next step in creating a responsive organization is to develop the right teams dynamics, suited to the vision, mission and culture of the company. These are the conditions that effective teams need:

Psychological safety
Multiple studies have shown that effective and high-performing teams have one thing in common: people feel comfortable in the team, accepted for who they are. They experience psychological safety as a member of the team. Practically this means that people dare to speak up, disagree, come up with ideas and be open about their mistakes, because they understand and feel that the team ‘has got their back’. As a result, people feel fulfilled being part of the team and the team develops a continuous learning mode, in which people thrive.

Systemic team needs
Next to psychological safety, there are other basic ‘needs’, the so-called ‘systemic needs’, for every team to perform well. These are:

  • clarity about the team’s purpose and objectives;
  • understanding and acknowledgement of the events and history relevant to the team;
  • the team is complete – all necessary roles and functions are in place;
  • there is clarity about the order in the team;
  • people in the team experience a good balance of ‘give and take‘ in the team.

Often, when teams are not functioning well, one or more of these systemic needs appear not to be in place. For example: if at some point in time, a manager has suddenly left without proper explanation from upper management, this may cause the team dynamics to suffer in a way that will give any succeeding manager very little chance for success (which is why the second systemic need is important).

If systemic needs are not met, they will be the root cause of symptoms like too many changes in team management or relatively high levels of sick leave. Resolving the root cause will help find solutions to these symptoms – fighting them does not. For example: if employee turnover is relatively high, companies may be tempted to initiate an employer branding campaign, with the purpose to increase employee retention. However, the root cause may be in one of the systemic needs. For example, there may be a lack of clarity in (team)purpose which causes a lack of motivation (the first systemic need). In such a case, the remedy is in engaging the people involved and develop a compelling purpose and clear (team)objectives. This would be the proper and lasting solution in this example. The envisioned employer branding campaign would not, because it would be initiated with the wrong motive, and hence risk to realize adverse effects.

Self-realization is an individual need. It is also a need among teams. Therefore, successful teams function in certain autonomy. Not only for this reason, there is also a practical reason: centralized decision making is in many cases no longer effective if an organization aims to be responsive. So a certain level team autonomy – up to complete self-organization – is necessary.

Therefore, effective teams have clear arrangements how they work together. These arrangements deal with the way decision making takes place, the work is divided etc. They also contain conflict resolution mechanisms.

Putting the conditions in place
The conditions as described here cannot be put in place overnight. First of all, the organization needs to define how they will work for them. Secondly, it is a continuous process that requires constant evaluation and adjustment, so the dynamics will fit the organization. In other words: the organization finds it own flow. Once the desired team dynamics are in place, they require continuous monitoring, feedback and interaction (coaching, adjustments), to ensure the teams’ performance remains at the desired levels.

How To Get Moving – part one

Moving As One is about setting up your organization for success and creating coherence so it will respond effectively to its environment.

Good vibes
Let’s assume you and your management team have defined the Vision and Mission for your organization. They describe why your company is in this world and what it aims to achieve. It is concise, inspiring and memorable. You have shared it with your organization and stakeholders and  the feedback is excellent: you notice that the new vision and mission create positive vibes. You have hit a sweet spot…now what?

How to get moving…
The question for many executives then, is how to get their organization moving and build a responsive organization. As with all walks of life, this starts with the first steps and these had better be right.

Make people thrive

The ‘how’ for creating a responsive organization starts at the level of each and every employee. As everybody in the organization is part of a team, alignment starts with clarity for every team: how do they contribute to the vision, mission and objectives of the organization. What is their primary function and what are its objectives? 

This seems obvious. Yet many teams experience a lack of clarity to this regard. That is because people often struggle to understand the bigger picture and how their team can deal with the challenges at hand. For example: in times of turmoil and changes, sales departments may struggle with the question what product-market combinations they should prioritize and why. If leadership doesn’t help to get that clear, the sales professionals will find it difficult to move as one and be effective. Here’s a role for leadership to help make that clear, so the team can make effective decisions.

People in the right place
In sports, one player who doesn’t play well can drag the team down. In companies it is the same, even though you can’t always notice it on the spot. So first you want to ensure that every individual comes into his or her own. That is because you want every person to contribute to the best of his/her abilities and potential. To do this, you need to know to what extent each person is set up right for their job. This comes down to answering these four questions:

  1. are people doing what they want to do? This is about aligning personal objectives and purpose with those of the team and the entire organization. People who are unhappy with what they are doing increase organizational friction and stress levels.
  2. are they doing what they can do? In other words, do their skills, abilities, and  potential match their work? You don’t want to challenge them too little, as it will bore them. Neither do you want to over-challenge them: it creates too much stress. People need to be challenged just right, so they are inspired and energized to stretch themselves.
  3. does the organization enable them to focus on their job. This seems an obvious statement, yet in many organizations people get distracted all the time. E.g. too much of a meeting-culture or constantly changing priorities prevent people from working with dedication.
  4. does everybody know how they are doing, and how they can progress and learn? Feedback should be continuous and not confined to an annual appraisal session. It should be motivational and constructive: motivate people with their achievements and inspire them to learn from things that have not gone according to plan. 

It’s a scientific fact that people come in a state of flow if they do what they want to do and can do, have the opportunity to dedicate themselves to it and understand how well they are doing. That’s why specifically these four questions need to be addressed.

Understand where every person is
If each person is ‘mapped’ along these parameters, e.g. by their team leaders, it automatically improves the interaction among your organization. That is because such mapping can only occur if people connect with and understand one another. You will find out whether people feel they are in the right place or not. It gives you an opportunity to understand how you can help them in their ambitions, aligned with the company vision and mission.

Team dynamics
Creating clarity for each team and assessing to what extent everyone is in the right role are the first and necessary steps in actively creating a responsive organization.

Once the teams are complete and everyone’s roles are clear, it’s time to look at the team dynamics. Which is what next week’s blog will be about. 

Workshop The Art of Moving As One

There is a growing need among business leaders for insights and inspiration on how their company could become Responsive and organize for success. Our Workshop ‘ The Art Of Moving As One’ does just that.

The Art Of Moving As One is a modular workshop that could be brought to your organization either as an interactive presentation of 60 – 90 minutes or as a full four-hour workshop that includes break-out sessions and sharing of insights and inspiration among the participants.

The program of the workshop will be tailored to your organization’s specific situation and needs. It takes the participants through the following topics:

Part I: Management As We Know It

  1. Conventional ways of organizing and managing. How do they work? What are their assumptions and starting points?
  2. Why and how have these ways of organizing and managing arisen? Here we deep-dive into the last 3,000 years of cultural history to explain how unconscious imprints influence us throughout our existence and build organizations built on fear, competition and impulses to control.
  3. Why are these conventional ways of organizing and managing less and less effective? What are the symptoms? Why do they cause employees to generally be non-engaged? How does it hamper change for the better?

Part II Why is change so difficult?
Roughly 70% of transformations fail. Whether we’d look at Mergers and Acquisitions, Cultural Change Programs, large ICT investments, Infrastructure projects – the majority fall dramatically short or fails all together. This part of the workshop explains why change is so hard – if not impossible – to manage. We do this on two levels: that of the individual and that of the group or team.

Part III How could we organize for success?

  1. This part starts with inspiring examples of organizations that have taken the leap and Have become Responsive. Organization that are coherent in their development, learning and growth, because the adapt almost organically to their environment while at the same time delivering according to their vision and purpose.
  2. What are their characteristics, how do they collaborate, decide, lead, resolve dilemmas?
  3. The foundation: vision, mission and unique potential. Although most organizations do have visions and missions, in most cases they are not used for what they are meant to and, hence, are not powerful: to provide a clear direction and strong energy to the stakeholders involved and to hold a compelling appeal to (future) employees and (prospective) customers. Unfortunately, the potential of authentic visions and unique missions is often underestimated which leads most of them to be no more than correct but generic statements that do not generate much of a stir among its stakeholders.
  4. How to build such an organization? This section discusses starting points and natural principles that help individuals and teams find their flow and come into their own. A straightforward model, peppered with surprising and inspiring examples.

The workshop holds many examples and case-studies (successes, failures, in- and out-of-the-box), history, society and science and has continuous interaction with the audience.

Knowing What To Do

As we discussed on the page ‘Get Moving’, there are specific factors that inhibit coherence in organizations. In order for our plans to succeed, we need to organize for success. This comes down to making sure there is alignment and focus. We also want to ensure that the required effort can be pulled off by the team.

How do we gain insight in these parameters to the extent that  everybody knows where they are now and what needs to be done next? In essence we want to have insights like:

  • ‘John has too much on his plate. We need to sit with him and understand how we can help him.’
  • ‘Team B is well aligned with the company objectives, but they are not aligned among themselves on their priorities. Let’s get together and resolve this first.’
  • ‘The Business Development Team is moving too fast on lead generation, since ICT isn’t ready for the CRM rollout, yet. We should  align them with ICT and alter their priorities for the coming quarter’.

Ask everyone involved
How do we arrive at these insights? We do so by asking all the people involved. By asking we engage people in the movement we want to create.

As an example, let us assume management wants to improve the  effectiveness of one or more teams. For the sake of this example, we use six priorities that management deems relevant. Three priorities for individuals to thrive in their team and three for team effectiveness:


  1. To what extent are your personal objectives taken into account in your work?
  2. To what extent is it known which skills and talents you want to develop?
  3. How do you deal with deadlines?


  1. To what extent does the team have objectives?
  2. To what extent is there a clear division of roles, responsibilities and tasks in the team?
  3. Does the team meet to discuss status and progress?

There either is a natural order in these priorities, or an order should be set. E.g. for the individuals we could agree that their personal objectives should be reckoned with first. On team level: without objectives there is no need to have a team. Et cetera.

For the purpose of engaging everybody involved, we ask everybody about these priorities. Since we want to gain specific insights for concrete actions, we ask for facts or verifiable behavior. In the questions we incorporate the maturity levels that we have in mind for the team and our organization. Last, but not least, we ask people for the status now and the status they want to have arrived at in the near future, for example six months from now.

A typical question would look like this example: 

Note that we can work with up to five maturity levels, however three appears to be the most practical number to work with.

According to the person in this example, there are team objectives and they have been shared. However, he thinks the team should step up in the coming six months by making it clear how his role contributes to the team objectives – the highest maturity level in this example.

Every person in the team can indicate where he or she is at, and where he/she wants to be six months from now (or two or three, depending on the rhythm you want the change to occur at). Now we can have an aggregate understanding where the individuals and team are and what needs to be done, for example: 

  • ‘Within the team there is little alignment on the priorities to work on.’
  • ‘Suzy has reached the highest maturity level in dealing with.’ deadlines. She can share her expertise with John, who is lagging.’
  • ‘There is clarity on the team objectives, yet the division of roles is not fully clear.’

How to lead and on what
By getting this information, leadership now gets a grip on how to lead and on what. For example if the team is well aligned on their priorities, but not in agreement with leadership’s priorities, leadership should take a different action compared to when the team does agree with them. In the latter case, there is no need to hold back: everybody is on the same song sheet so let’s move forward! In the former case there is a need for clear communication. Maybe there is a conflict that needs resolution!

Engage everyone involved 
In order to engage everyone, we actually ask everyone involved. All of them? Yes. But wouldn’t it be cumbersome and time consuming to get  all the answers and process them? Not if you use Artificial Intelligence, let algorithms do that work and present you the dashboard, on all levels of granularity – in real-time! 

The Praioritize platform, developed by our partner Transparency Lab,  does all that. It automates all the tasks involved in measuring and reporting on the change progress. You don’t need to wait until all responses are in and you don’t need people to process responses – the platform does all that in real-time, through 360º input from every person involved. The platform gives insight on levels of agreement and calculates priorities to work on for the organization, the teams and all individuals. Management of course ultimately decides on these priorities, and is supported by the platform in knowing whether the effort required is feasible and the capacity in the team is sufficient.

Knowing what to do…
In case of this example, the plan and priorities for Team A in the coming six months could now be assessed as follows:

  1. Personal objectives of everybody discussed and documented (highest maturity level 3).
  2. Development of skills and talents of everybody discussed with manager (maturity level 2).
  3. Team objectives: clear and documented and for everybody involved it is clear how their role contributes to the objectives (maturity level 3).

Note that of the six priorities dealt with in the questionnaire management has chosen three to focus on in the coming period. That is because, based on the algorithms of the Praioritize platform they know that this is a feasible amount of priorities (focus), the effort of which can be borne by the team and there is sufficient capacity within the team to pull this off.

Dashboards on every level
The platform provides dashboards on every level. This means that every individual has access to the information relevant to his/her performance (where am I, what do I need to do next?, who can help me?), every team leader has insight on team level and the board of management has a comprehensive overview, including insights on how teams are progressing together.

The Inside-Out Paradox

Responsive organizations have a strong focus on their people and relationships. They emphasize that it is the people in the company who create value – not the strategy. In other words: effective teams build strong companies. Growth happens from the inside-out.

…or outside-in?
Regularly, we are asked whether this contradicts the notion that a business must be focused first and foremost on its customers – ‘the outside’? Are their requirements not the starting points for change and innovation?

The paradox
It’s a very good question and it points to what could be called the ‘inside-out paradox’. Steve Jobs once pointed to it when he said that ‘people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.’ What the statement emphasizes, is that people know what they want, based on the known options. Whether as consumer or industrial buyer, they know what they want based on what they have seen and experienced in the past. They generally are not in a position to understand the full range of innovative possibilities of all products and services they use.

And that is where the expertise and creativity of your company comes in.

Case in point…
Market research – which is an ‘outside-in’ process – done before 1880 on lighting would not have revealed that people would want electric light bulbs. They would probably have asked for candles that lasted longer, produced less smoke and maybe smell less. Of course this is a classic and compelling example. Yet there are numerous other examples, big and small, where the thinking and collaboration of people in an organization created something better and compelling for customers. Think about examples like the internet, harvesting machines, industrial cleaning services, medical devices or accountancy services. In every market segment there have been instances where the perspective on the customers’ problem, along with the creativity and persistence of people in the organization, resulted in innovations and solutions ‘beyond the customers’ demands’.  

Similarity of competition
Why is it that in many markets most competitors look similar? This is, among others, because in the outside-in approach, the emphasis is on delivering what ‘the customer wants’. Or on promising what the company thinks ‘the customer wants to hear’. Although it can be tempting, it is not genuine. Authenticity gets lost and competitors start to look alike. If this happens, the only differentiator becomes the pricing of products and services. A differentiator that eats away at long-term competitiveness.

Although knowing what customers want is relevant, focusing too much on it risks that companies overlook their own expertise and creativity. The reason they were founded once, was because of the belief that they had something special to offer. As every company is unique, this most likely is still the case and should not be forgotten.

The ultimate differentiator
Working ‘inside-out‘ deliberately deploys the ultimate differentiator of any organization: its people. This leads to stronger relationships within the organization. Information is shared better across teams, enabling them to better sense signals from the outside and use these creatively for new solutions.

In responsive organizations, problem solving capacity and creativity are better mobilized. Among others through better collaboration across departments, geographical areas and different layers in the organization. Significant value is added to ‘what the customer wants’. As a result, better solutions emerge that the customers weren’t aware of. What is delivered becomes more genuine and different from the competition. Working from the inside-out improves the relationship and interaction with the outside world.

Growth from the inside-out will be more gratifying for the people involved and, ultimately, delivers a stronger brand. And this is just what happens in responsive organizations: they have a better sense of what their customers need, because of their strong self-awareness (see the blog: Vision and Mission) and strong collaboration – internally and externally. They ‘sense’ beyond customers’ requirements and have a deeper understanding of their needs than those customers might have themselves. As a consequence, they make better use of the unique problem solving capacity of their whole organization. They respond better and more creatively with products, services and innovations. Ultimately, this improves the experience of the market ‘outside’.

Case in point...
A manufacturer and distributor of industrial equipment worked with us to improve their strategy. The whole company was involved. One of the behavioral principles that was introduced, was that ‘every customer interaction should be proof that we are better than the competition’. The CEO asked of every department that they consider how they could improve customer interactions in that spirit.

Within the whole change process, the Accounts Receivables department was in the process of improving working capital by resolving delays in customer payments. Getting your money in time from customers can be a delicate balancing act. The people of the department came up with an original approach: they would call up every customer that was late in their payments, kindly explain that they appreciated the relationship, yet needed timely payments for their cash flow. With every customer it was discussed and agreed when payment would take place. As soon as any customer had made their payment according to the arrangement, the Accounts Receivables department would send them a small present as token of appreciation along with a letter, stating how much they valued the customer’s business and relationship.

This surprised the customers in unexpected and positive ways. The initiative by the department had a significant effect on the brand reputation and the relationships with the customers. Not to mention the effect it had on the engagement of the people in the Accounts Receivables department.

This case demonstrates that the creative potential of an organization increases when people are truly engaged and connected.

Why change management often fails

Responsive organizations are better able to adapt successfully or anticipate developments in their environment. If you want build such an organization, it is important to understand why conventional change management often fails, as we discussed in one of our other blogs.

Organize for succes
In many change projects, companies do not organize well enough for success. By that we do not mean organization charts, KPI’s, reporting lines or meeting schedules. These are usually well in place. Maybe sometimes a little too much.

Many companies do not adequately tap into the human ability to change.

No, we mean that the plans take insufficient account of people and their  relationships. For example: are people energized by the company’s strategy or change plan? Does everyone do what he or she wants to do – and does that match their abilities? Is there sufficient agreement – or ‘buy-in’ – on the goals and priorities? Is there enough focus, or is the number of priorities so great that no focus is possible? And do the teams involved have sufficient capacity to realize the change? 

Common sense tells us, that agreement, focus and capacity are prerequisites for successful change. And it is clear that, when these factors are not addressed well in the process there will be too much friction. Friction exists within organizations as well as between organizations and their environment. A certain amount of friction is good – it leads to resolutions and innovations. But too much of it creates resistance, frustration and lack of progress. This is the case in the far majority of change initiatives. It prevents companies to tap into the human ability to (contribute to) change.

Understand blockages to change
This was demonstrated by the Artificial Intelligence specialists of Praioritize, led by Dr. J.M. van de Poll (See: van de Poll, J. M. (2018). Ambition patterns in strategic decision-making). They have conducted a global study among more than 4.000 teams. Part of the study was to find out how teams score on the factors of agreement, focus and capacity to change. The results are quite revealing.

On the one hand the study measured the agreement among the teams of the respondents with regard to their priorities (from low to high). On the other hand the study measured the teams’ agreement with the objectives that were set by upper management (low to high):

Most teams have insufficient agreement on priorities

Seventy percent of the 4.000 teams does not agree with the company’s objectives (!), and 40% of the teams do not agree among themselves. How will that bring about coherence in the organization?

Another factor that was measured was the ambition or focus level of the teams. For this, the study looked at the number of priorities the team wanted to improve (the width of improvement) and by how much they wanted to improve them (the depth). Again, the results of the study offer a surprising insight:

Most teams choose too many priorities in change projects

Only 3% the teams have a clear overview of a limited number of improvement points that they want to improve significantly – on the road to progress. The other 97% of teams either pile too much on their plate – wanting to improve too much at the same time or they have no ambition (improve a few points just a little).

An organization could agree on highly ambitious objectives, but what if the organization is not up to the required effort? The next image illustrates that only in 20% of the teams, the team can easily meet the required effort. In the other 80%, the effort is either (too) high or unevenly distributed among team member:

The effort required for teams is usually (too) high, or not evenly distributed among team members

Last but certainly not least: we could all agree that there must be capacity to change in the team. Capacity can be defined along two dimensions: two what extent are people working on non-priorities and to what extent are they already scoring the objective on actual priorities? As with agreement, focus and effort, the research has revealed that the majority of teams has the tendency to ‘bite off more than they can chew’:

Capacity is another factor in change management that is generally overlooked

Take the basics into account…
Change is hard when there is lack of consensus and lack of focus. It is also hard when there is consensus and focus, but the required effort is unevenly divided among the team or does not match the capacity of the organization at all. As the results of the Praioritize study demonstrate, the far majority of change programs start off at the wrong foot and fail to take into account the basic managerial factors that enable organizations to move as one and accomplish change for the better. 

Inspire change. Don’t manage it.

As an executive or entrepreneur you want to adapt your company to a changing environment. Ideally you anticipate change, to create an advantage over your competitors. For this you want to get your organization moving. It would be great if this motion is effortless: everyone works together seamlessly and does what needs to be done. The organization is so well connected with its environment that change actually takes place automatically, it is inherent in your organization. In other words: the organization is responsive.

It appears, however, that most companies have a limited capability to change successfully. Do we understand why that is?

Managing change is difficult
Why is it, for example, that about 70% of the planned transformation programs in businesses do not achieve their goals or simply fail? Why do between 70 and 90% of all mergers and acquisitions fail? How come that so many companies have a great marketing plan, but in practice hardly succeed in standing out from the competition? Why do so many tenders – ICT projects, infrastructure, etc. – run out of the budgeted time and costs? Why are stress and burnouts within companies such a big problem nowadays? All these problems have a common denominator: managing change turns out to be more difficult than expected.

…and cumbersome
In an article in the Harvard Business Review publication ‘10 Must Reads On Change Management’, the now retired Harvard Professor John Paul Kotter, who has studied over one hundred transformation processes, shares his lessons learnt. The following is a quote from his article ‘Leading Change’:

“…the change process goes through a series of [eight] phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result...[…]…critical mistakes in any of the phases can have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains…[…]…even very capable people often make at least one big error.

In other words: successful change management is hardly feasible. And the numbers above support the notion that successful change management is rare.

Organize for success
This is because, in many cases companies do not organize for success. By that we do not mean organization charts, KPI’s, reporting lines or meeting schedules. These are usually well in place. Maybe sometimes a little too much.

No, we mean that the plans take insufficient account of people and their  relationships. For example: are people energized by the company’s strategy or change plan? Does everyone do what he or she wants to do – and does that match their abilities? Is there sufficient agreement on the goals and priorities – both within teams and between teams and managers? Is there enough focus, or is the number of priorities so great that no focus is possible? And do the teams involved have sufficient capacity to realize the change?

In one of our earlier blogs we have shed some light on this. For example, 70% of teams involved in change processes do not agree with their management on the objectives or priorities. Over 60% of teams have to deal with too many objectives and priorities – either giving them a sense that their ambitions are not realistic or not focused. In the article we have described other (scientifically researched) factors which deal with people, their interactions and relationships. The results clarify that these factors are often overlooked in the scheme of things, creating unnecessary friction that hampers the realization of ambitions.

Responsive organizations adapt organically because people are inspired to contribute to change, not because they are ‘managed’ to.

The ability to change is an organizational skill
The ability to change is a skill that is already present in the people of your organization. Too much friction diminishes that ability. A good fit between people increases this ability to change. 

What if you create the conditions that make your organization change and grow from the inside-out?

The point is to create the right conditions in your organization so that people are triggered to take action. And move together towards the company goals. This is what inspires change. It then is initiated from within and not imposed by a management program. Wouldn’t that be much more fun and effective?