I am a big fan of the Leadership Circle, its founder and Chief Knowledge Officer Bob Anderson, and their Universal Model of Leadership. I also really respect Bill and Cindy Adams who merged their company with the Leadership Circle in 2010. Bill is the CEO and Cindy is a senior executive. They wrote a book “The Whole Systems Approach” which is now integrated into the Leadership Circle’s leadership development programs. One concept that I found helpful was the six systems of organizational effectiveness which they recently described in a blog post which I’ve posted below.
As the world becomes more complex, disruptive, and fast moving the pressure on the C-Suite grows and executives get overwhelmed, burnt out, and can become bottlenecks. Being overwhelmed with the here and now can easily preclude developing the adaptive capacity of your people, teams, functions, and indeed the entire organization.Although companies can be agile without being adaptive in a productive, sustainable way (we’ve all been there…it’s the crisis of the day), it’s likely not possible to be adaptive without also being agile. The nature of what constitutes agile varies by industry sector and organizational culture, of course, so let’s just focus for now on the desirable goal of being agile as a team by being intentional with the six systems of organizational effectiveness. When you lead at scale, you quickly realize that senior leaders are not focused on the tasks as much as they are the systems that enable a group of people to work coherently, effectively, and efficiently together to both execute on the near term plans AND simultaneously adapt in service of creating results that matter. This can be a tricky thing to wrap your head around, especially for those who are used to contributing through their own task accomplishment.
While we’re most used to the typical hierarchical organization you can see these same systems at play even with self-managed organizations where there are very few layers, or agile organizational models like The UnFix Model. I thought it would be an interesting thought exercise to explore these systems from the lens of organizational agility and distributed leadership. I believe all organizations are living systems so while the system descriptions below may sound mechanical they are always addressing the very human dynamic of individual consciousness and capability combining to achieve results that matter. In this way you need to address the individual and the collective consciousness and capability. Organizational culture is booted up on a combination of both individual and collective consciousness and embodied in how the team decides to make products and services, design the work and organization, and basically everything. As you read about these systems I encourage you to reflect on the design and effectiveness of your own organization’s systems.
Here’s the blog post from the Leadership Circle:
“How Healthy is Your Leadership System?
When the Leadership System functions effectively, performance improves. The Leadership System is the central organizing system that must deliver on all functions owned by the Top Team or C-suite. These functions include and require that leadership: become cohesive, define the future vision, set direction, create and execute strategy, ensure alignment, communicate clarity, engage stakeholders, develop talent, manage performance, build accountability, ensure succession, allocate resources, craft the culture, and deliver results.
The Leadership System is the organization’s DNA—its genetic code or distinctive brand. It sets the context that produces all outcomes, gives everything its meaning, and indicates what we are predisposed to doing and being. The effectiveness of the Leadership System determines the performance of the business. Does your Leadership System predispose you for quality, agility, speed, stakeholder engagement, profitable growth, fulfillment, competitive advantage, and strong financial performance? How can we improve business performance by establishing a healthy Leadership System?
We use our proven Whole Systems Approach to advance the Six Systems of organizational effectiveness. This approach to developing the organization, with leadership at the core, balances the development of competence and capability with consciousness and character, and transforms any enterprise into a profitable and purposeful organization. Every essential system is integrated and aligned, and every stakeholder is involved.
The Six Systems are broader in scope than functional departments and must be understood independently and interdependently as part of an integrated whole. These Six Systems set up the conditions and components necessary to create a healthy, high-performing organization.
The Six Systems of Organizational Effectiveness:
1. Leadership. To achieve high performance or sustain results, leaders must define and refine key processes and execute them with daily discipline. They must translate vision and values into strategy and objectives, processes and practices, actions and accountabilities, execution and performance. Leaders address three questions: 1) Vision/Value. What unique value do we bring to our customers to gain competitive advantage? What do we do, for whom? Why? 2) Strategy/Approach. In what distinctive manner do we fulfill the unique needs of our customers and stakeholders? What strategy supports the vision for achieving competitive advantage? 3) Structure/Alignment. What is the designed alignment of structure and strategy, technology and people, practices and processes, leadership and culture, measurement and control? Are these elements designed and aligned to create optimal conditions for achieving the vision?”
<Brad’s comments: First, remember that the organization’s results will never exceed the collective consciousness and capabilities of those in charge so ensuring that you have highly skilled and aware leaders capable of achieving your near-term plans and adapting for the future is critical. This is where 1:1 and team coaching has huge ROI. Every team of people needs this system, however it’s designed and staffed. Agile organizations do their best to distribute authority while retaining alignment. Jurgeon Appelo of UnFix (see graphic on the left as one example) describes the Governance Crew this way: “The Governance Crew is the management team. It consists of several Chiefs who are the managers of everyone in the Base. In the case of a Base being one entire company, the Governance Crew is the executive team.One responsibility of the Governance Crew is leadership: they set the vision and purpose for the Base; they decide on the business model and the domain; they discuss and plot the strategy, and they do their very best to make sure that all employees enjoy a feeling of belonging and recognition.
The other responsibility of the Governance Crew is, obviously, governance: the Chiefs set constraints on self-organization in the Base. They might decide which Crews and Forums exist, which people can lead them as Captains and Chairs, which Value Stream Crews are synced with a joint cadence, etc. The responsibilities of the Governance Crew also include discussions about the type of the Base: Fully Integrated, Strongly Aligned, Loosely Aligned, or Fully Segregated. The Base type has significant consequences for the kind of leadership and governance that is needed. The Governance Crew is usually the only one signing contracts with employees, customers, vendors, and partners. Typically, only the Chiefs can legally bind the business in agreements with other parties.
To keep a high level of agility and versatility, it is in the interest of the Base that the Governance Crew delegates as much as possible. That’s why we prefer to use the word governance for this team rather than leadership or management. The Governance Crew sets the rules of the game. But the game is played by everyone else in the Base.”>
“2. Communication. Everything happens in or because of a conversation, and every exchange is a potential moment of truth—a point of failure or critical link in the success chain. Strategic communication ensures that the impact of your message is consistent with your intentions, and results in understanding. What you say, the way you say it, where, when, and under what circumstances it is said shape the performance culture. When leaders maximize their contribution to daily conversations, they engage and align people around a common cause, reduce uncertainty, keep people focused, equip people for moments of truth that create an on-the-table culture, prevent excuses, learn from experience, treat mistakes as intellectual capital, and leverage the power of leadership decisions to shape beliefs and behaviors.”
<Brad’s comments: Rather than a top-down communication, I think agile and adaptable organizations need to emphasize openness, discoverability and easy access to information, curated content specific to roles, teams, and other contexts that can elevate performance and results, and more broadly a shared commitment to constant sharing and teaching. The standards articulated above make sense to me if applied to every person, even individual contributors because leadership is a way of being, not a role. That said, I am not recommending a free for all or sink-or-swim approach. In more traditional organizations the manager may be “on point” for ensuring helpful and timely updates and access to information is prioritized to her/his stakeholders. Or perhaps some combination of Internal Communications, functional leaders, and the Learning and Development teams. In more agile and distributed organizations where there’s more focus on multi-disciplinary teams (versus functional orgs) those responsibilities could fall to particular roles or teams and even be contractually agreed upon between teams. MorningStar Farms is a self-managed organization that uses “Colleague Letter of Understanding” to map out deliverables, service levels, data sharing, you name it.>
“3. Accountability. Leaders translate vision and strategic direction into goals and objectives, actions and accountabilities. Performance accountability systems clarify what is expected of people and align consequences or rewards with actual performance. Leaders need to build discipline into their leadership process and management cycle to achieve accountability, predictability, learning, renewal, and sustainability.”
<Brad’s comments: Accountability is a fleeting state that requires constant attention and is one of the most challenging things to do within a group of people. It’s much like nature; it’s default state is disorder and it’s only through directed, consistent effort does some sense of order appear if, and only if, all stakeholders accept that shared way of working. If you’ve ever had the experience of “herding cats” (i.e., a disorderly, distracted group of people loosely coupled and/or motivated by a shared purpose) you know what I mean.
However, everything happens because of clear accountabilities whether you’re organized in a hierarchy, self-organizing team (SOT), or an ad-hoc “all hands on deck” fire drill. It is true that most hierarchial organizations set annual goals via the execs who then cascaded and contextualized them to their functions and teams which then informed how people set their own role accountabilities. The nature of SOTs requires real clarity of accountabilities. The key differences between org models are that (a) accountabilities are set by a broader group of people (b) there is a different cadence to both setting / changing goals (usually monthly) and governance (how the teams are defined, agree to work, etc.) and (c) responsiveness and alignment between teams and roles because there is no middle management. So this means shared clarity of purpose, context and priorities (so interdependencies are synced up and addressed in a coordinated way), and coordination so the teams are informed, supportive, and resourced.>
“4. Delivery. The best organizations develop simple processes that are internally efficient, locally responsive, and globally adaptable. Complexity is removed from the customer experience to enable them to engage you in ways that are both elegant and satisfying. Establishing and optimizing operational performance is an ongoing journey. Operations need to be focused on the priority work, using the most effective techniques—aligning initiatives and operations with strategy; continuously improving operations; pursuing performance breakthroughs in key areas; using advanced change techniques in support of major initiatives; establishing a pattern of executive sponsorship for all initiatives; and building future capability and capacity.”
<Brad’s comments: Structure determines performance; the “right” organizational design for optimal customer experience really depends on your business context and the complexity of your product or service. Horizontal integration across functions is hard and gets harder with more people, regions, products/services, and customers. I’ve never worked in a company with SOTs but have become more open to them simply because having a dedicated multi-disciplinary team focused on results is a great starting point. I also appreciate models like UnFix because they also have a coordination function across SOTs so even as you get more products and complexity the teams have the authority and methods to figure out how to balance their needs while ensuring their colleagues also are successful for the customer (who also have people dedicated to their experience and success).This also alleviates a lot of pressure on the senior executives to be involved in many decisions, although they generally are involved in key monthly meetings where key changes are approved and coordinated.>
“5. Performance. The Human Performance System is designed to attract, develop, and retain the most talented people. The idea is to hire the best people and help them develop their skills, talents, and knowledge over time. Of course, it becomes more critical, as they add abilities and know-how, that we reward them properly so they feel good about their work and choose to remain with the organization as loyal employees.”
<Brad’s comments: SOTs often have dedicated people managers who hire, develop, and deploy people onto projects. They coordinate amongst project leaders to find roles and experiences that balance project success and employee development goals. This allows people with creative or technical skills to focus on the project/product/service and to rely on others for people operations (it’s obviously not this binary). I really like this approach and when you combine your talent development and management programs with AI enabled skills-based tools like Gloat.com and Eightfold.AI you end up with a very detailed inventory of every employee’s skill set, desired growth goals, and the ability to apply directly to project teams, or shadowing or mentoring opportunities. Where it gets really cool is that the AI combines the insights it has across companies and sectors so the faint signals of important and emerging new skills can more easily be discovered and then users can easily find resources to help them acquire those skills. So the “home room” dedicated people manager function coupled with technology and project teams gets my vote as the more modern, scalable approach in today’s world. >
“6. Measurement. A system of metrics, reviews, and course corrections keeps the business on track. Organizations need concrete measures that facilitate quality control, consistent behaviors, and predictable productivity and results. Within these parameters, control is instrumental to viability and profitability. Every activity has a set of daily rituals and measures. Leaders establish and maintain the measurement system to ensure disciplined processes. They track progress against strategy and planning; review status on operational results through clear key metrics; update the strategy regularly; and ensure action is driven by insight based on relevant, current information that is focused on achieving the vision.”
<Brad’s comments: One of my former CPOs Rusty Rueff at Electronic Arts used to tell us “expect what you inspect”, while my coaching mentor Karen Kimsey-House used to tell us “energy flows where attention goes”, and metrics are no different. The absolute most important thing about metrics is that they need to be predictive as much as possible versus simply recapping the past. This is true however you’re organized.
In summary, every organization needs to be intentional about their six systems of organizational effectiveness. I believe the world is forcing organizational designs to be more distributed and agile in service of both better execution and adaptability, but of course there are so many factors that enable that polarity. Especially when you’re a smaller organization, I encourage you to design for the optimal customer experience right from the beginning. This includes clearly defining a shared, motivational purpose, values and principles informed by your desired customer, employee, and partner experiences with your company, and then using those inputs to create the simplest, most accountable, and agile approach to getting stuff done.>
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 contingent search, assessments, training, leadership coaching (1:1 and group), leadership development programs, and culture & organizational development consulting.