The concept of organizational development can be confusing to our clients so today I wanted to experiment with a different way for people to think about it. Groups of people – in other words, an organization – need to effectively and efficiently do certain things for their stakeholders (execute) AND adapt so as to continuously improve, evolve, and remain relevant. They’re a polarity with each other, just as inhaling and exhaling are polarities in our bodies; we need both.

The term stakeholder simply means the people that are relevant to the organization and includes employees, partners, customers, and even the broader community if that’s elected. When you imagine a group of people trying to figure out what to do, how to do it (especially to support and embody organizational purpose, values, brand promise, and desired stakeholder experience), when to do it, for whom, etc. the idea of organizational development begins to be a bit more tangible.

Groups of people create results via organizational systems and capabilities. The six essential organizational systems are shown on the left, with leadership being the most important (there are likely lots of ways to slice and dice this idea, but this model from the book “The Whole Systems Approach” by Bill and Cindy Adams is easy). Each system has capabilities relevant to their function. You provide your product or service via delivery systems, some of which are table stakes to just be in your business, while others can truly differentiate you in the marketplace. A good starting point is to think about the life cycle or desired experience of those people across your organizational systems. For example:

  • The life cycle of a customer including how we find them (or them finding us), how they learn about our offering, how we help them with a purchase decision, how they first experience our product or service and then achieve success with it, how we support them and perhaps even connect them with additional products and services as relevant and desired, etc.
  • The life cycle of your products including suppliers, transport, assembly, whatever goes into a group of people being able to make something to a certain standard using identified resources reliably over time, including continuous improvement.
  • The life cycle of your partners including recruitment, evaluation, onboarding and certification, integration, performance management, development, etc.
  • The life cycle of your employees including recruitment, evaluation, onboarding and certification, integration, performance management, development, utilization, rewards, retention, etc.

By life cycle I mean stages, phases, processes, developments, changes, or however a team of people think about achieving something together.

How Is This Relevant? 

  • Customers pay for a transformation achieved via your people, systems, and capabilities, not your org design.
  • Stakeholders’ expectations are met via your people, systems, and capabilities.
  • Your purpose, values, brand, and leadership principles are embodied through your people’s behaviour and the structure/design and execution of your systems and capabilities. A client of mine called these “proof points”, the experiences we want to create with narrow variability.
  • Structure determines performance; alignment and horizontal integration is hard and reflects the collective consciousness and capabilities of your employees.
  • Your people will not naturally think about horizontal integration and the customer experience; their natural orientation is to their role, team, and personal mastery so it will take time to help them expand their awareness, alignment, and ownership of enterprise cross-functional systems and capabilities.
  • Your job as an executive is to constantly develop your organization’s culture and capability by developing your people so they can run the business and own the culture through these integrated systems. When they feel true ownership of these systems and deliverables you are on the right path.

It’s Time For A Metaphor!

I’ve been playing with a metaphor lately to make the concepts of organizational and talent development more understandable to clients. Pretend you and your friends have co-founded a company and we are able to travel to the future where we come upon two very different metaphors of your organization: one is the highly dedicated and skilled athlete with superb moral character (pictured above) competing with the best of the best at the World Games, and the other is Frankenstein.

What Went Wrong? In the former example, the executive team is the CrossFit Coach starting with the athlete literally on day one as she learns the smallest details of a movement. Every exercise the athlete must master has different elements that must be integrated in just the right way to properly perform the movement and – importantly – not injure herself. As her knowledge and mastery grows, the coach is able to teach more complex movements so that she can master more complex exercises. A growth mindset is essential because mistakes will be made and progress is more important than perfection. This requires humility to not just learn the movement itself, but to assess how you are learning so it’s effective and efficient. The athlete is focused on her goals, and in leading herself and others in a way that embodies her life purpose and values. She takes pride in her character and impact on others, and you take pride in her.

At the World Games she competes against the best of the best, all of whom are there because they too were dedicated and put in the effort to compete with the world’s best. Performing at this level is a fleeting opportunity made possible – to paraphrase Andy Grove – by the paranoid athlete and her coach being all in. At this level you cannot coast; I’m not advocating for anxiety, but a continued focus on the authentic and ongoing development of the athlete’s inner world (mindset, character, and indeed consciousness; her own “operating system”) and her outer world (skills, knowledge, mastery). The outer world “boots up on” her personal operating system, just as an organization’s capabilities boot up on its culture and collective consciousness.

In the other corner we have Frankenstein, an unfortunate combination of parts hastily assembled that ends up taking on a life of its own and thwarting its master’s plans. Some of you may have felt that you were working or part of a Frankenstein organization. In fact the natural path of organizations is entropy unless there is a continued, widely owned and acted upon focus on the organization’s people, culture, and capabilities. It’s hard work, and it gets way, way harder as you scale, expand geographically, and have to manage more stakeholders and much greater complexity, and that’s before global events like a pandemic.

How Is This Different Than Strategies and Tactics?

I think we are missing a critical tool in our leadership toolbox when we only focus on goals and tactics without first assessing our athlete’s stage of readiness and competence for certain movements. Organizations are a complex system and I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that it has its own life force or influence on us, and on our plans.

If we regularly discuss, assess, and develop our athlete’s character and capabilities year after year we create a storytelling tool to understand how organizational culture and capabilities inter-relate, and how each person’s own capacity impacts that of her team, function, cross-functional capabilities, etc. I think strategies and tactics are downstream of this assessment, but it’s also fine for the execs and board to set key goals provided they and the team then revisit how to achieve this from a developmental perspective.

I’ve been calling this concept an organizational framework, and it helps leaders identify the most important elements and how they should be integrated for authentic and optimal organizational performance AND adaptability. All healthy systems have both differentiation (the parts or elements) AND integration. Too much integration and you have rigidity, and too little and you can get chaos. This is true of your body, relationships, and companies. When people work in silos it’s because (in part) of a lack of horizontal integration, awareness, alignment, and accountability. The Adaptive Flow model below is one example of an organizational framework, and as you can see this dynamic representation of the organization’s focus and evolution is a very compelling way to attract the right people to your organization because their purpose, values, capabilities, wisdom, and developmental focus can meet the organization’s needs in a win-win, mutually beneficial partnership.

You can’t develop and manage what you cannot name.

Adaptive Flow Model 2022This clarity allows leaders to create a deliberately developmental and mutually beneficial partnership with your employees where hopefully people can achieve flow states frequently in service of the company’s goals. As an executive, you can also integrate engagement and performance data about your people into these assessments so that you truly have a holistic assessment and accurate understanding of the team’s ability to deliver on its plans. For example, does your most critical new product launch have your best players who are also committed to your company, or are they a flight risk? Which elements need to get shored up before you take on more? How does the accountable team assess progress and take time to reflect on insights and potential improvements?

Without this clarity and ongoing collective development, you run the risk of evolving into a Frankenstein organization, especially as you scale, expand globally, and/or the external complexity exceeds the consciousness and capability of your people & organization. This can happen quickly and the symptoms you’ll notice are not likely the solution; you’ll need to go deeper. People will automatically populate other ways of working into your company if there is a vacuum, or if you say one thing and act another. Your culture and practices end up being a weird combination of things.

Does this help clarify organizational and talent development a bit? Please let me know what resonates with you, and where I can make things more clear.

Adaptive Talent is a talent consultancy designed to help organizations achieve amazing results and ongoing adaptability. Founded in 2008 and based in Vancouver, Canada we offer retained and executive search, assessments, total rewards consulting, training, leadership coaching and development programs, and culture & organizational development consulting.