The octopus organisation
While reading ‘Never mind the bosses’ by Robin Ryde, I was caught by the author’s suggestion of using the ‘octopus’ as a metaphor for a new type of organisation we should aim for. Aligned with this metaphor is the recognition that modern companies should possess a series of features to be able to cope with the new operating environment.
Why should organisations aspire to be ‘octopuses-like’? Well, Ryde gives us different reasons.
An octopus has no skeleton but four pairs of arms, three hearts, a highly developed sense of sight, excellent memory, sense of reflection and ability to match his skin to his surroundings.
This unusual animal possesses a number of qualities. These include being highly agile, smart, creative and innovative, quick and responsive, supremely resourceful, has excellent sensing and situational awareness, can easily change and adapt to the environment and has an outstanding supply of energy.
Those organisations that are able to possess and exploit these ‘octopus’s capabilities’ are the ones who will survive and succeed in current times. Ryde argues that qualities such as adaptability, agility, creativity and energy cannot be found in workplaces where deference is strong.
What is deference? Why hasten its death?
“For organisations, the fundamental problem with systems of deference is that they cause a drag on organisational performance and on the ability to change” – Robin Ryde
When deference is strong inside organisations, the opportunities for broadening and sharing responsibility as well as the diversity of voices, ideas and solutions are significantly reduced. This in turn narrows the judgements on which organisations can rely on, causing a negative impact on making effective decisions against business challenges. The kind of organisation that deference creates often possesses a hesitant, weak dialogue, fears failure, adopts a controlling mindset, is ethically inconsistent and under-utilises its talent. I was reminded of the demise of RBS – the biggest bank in the world before CEO’s Fred Goodwin’s controlling management style drove it into bankruptcy and government ownership.
On the other hand, when deference is weak, an organisation is more likely to make use of quick, free exchange of dialogue, has the confidence to innovate and an empowering mindset. This kind of organisation is strongly unified, well-leverages its talent and authentically supports change.
Dealing with deference: the SPEED model
“Recognising that deference impedes organisational success is a first-order objective”, writes Ryde. The author not only emphasises the need for challenging deference in the workplace, but also offers a solution to track it and minimise it. This solution is summed up in the acronym SPEED.
Backed up by research and studies, Ryde’s model is intended to help organisations be stronger, higher performing and more able to adapt to the modern environment.
Symbols are the starting point for understanding the type of culture and application an organisation possesses toward deference. Symbols can take many aspects such as space, time, sound, title etc. For example, in meetings, the deferred to are permitted to talk when they wish while the deferrers have to back down; the time of the deferred to is considered to be of greater value than deferrers’; terms such us ‘chief’, ‘senior’ as contrasted with ‘assistant’, ‘junior’ denote positions and the extent to which deference is accordingly expected.
Ryde emphasises that leaders need to look within, and take ownership of the impact that these symbols of deference have within their organisation, which implies moving on “to shape them accordingly”.
The unwritten mutual rights, obligations and expectations that exist between the organisation and the workforce, are difficult to be seen but they are active. Exploring the psychological contract through dialogue between management and employees is crucial to help remove deference inside the organisation.
In particular, Ryde recognizes nine features of the psychological contract to pay attention to:
- The expected degree of openness and forthrightness in dialogue and discussion
- The extent to which responsibility should be taken rather than passed on
- The extent to which authenticity is sought
- The level of demand for innovation and creativity
- The expectation of agility/adaptiveness
- The value given to ethical behaviour
- The degree of empowerment that should be granted/assumed
- The level of expectation in terms of contribution and performance
- The extent to which corporate citizenry and integration are required
To explore the tacit deal between workers and management, organisations should ask themselves questions such us: ‘What lies in the heads of workers in relation to the psychological contract?’; ‘To what extent do the expectations placed on workers (as understood by them) fit with what the organisation genuinely wants from them?’; ‘What causes people to hold these expectations and assumptions?’; ‘What would need to happen in order to change the story in people’s heads?’
The author suggests three critical messages that management should take into consideration when shaping the psychological contract:
- understand what you are really asking for from your employees
- say what you mean, and mean what you say
- show that you value what you are asking for
“Taking all of this into account”, writes Ryde, “inspires two final observations”. The first one is that the act of starting a conversation with employees is a first big step toward the establishment and renegotiation of the psychological contract. The second one is an important consideration of the kind of positions the organisation takes on deference. And, “if organisations are serious about surviving in modern times”, Ryde says, they “should conclude in favour of the removal of deference”.
In organisations where deference is weak and trust is high, leaders are capable of enabling their people to take decisions, and accordingly they share power rather than withholding it. However, according to Ryde, for many organisation – where deference is strongly embedded – there is a need to shift towards a broader distribution of power.
For those businesses who find themselves in the latter position, the author proposes a strategy which involves creating a safe transition for which leadership feel confident as power is shared and employees feel inspired to take on greater levels of responsibility.
This implies management looking to:
- strengthen people capabilities on new responsibilities – including raising the level of trust between ‘seniors’ and ‘juniors’;
- strengthen processes – such as strategy development and the management of information which involve people at all level as well as provide scrutiny over results;
- strengthen structures – such us the relations between the corporate centre and the line divisions.
The encouragement here given by the author is for managers and leaders to exercise their role in devolving power by sidestepping any tendencies to micromanage tasks or to control behaviours.
“Putting it plainly, part of the process of creating a new deference dynamic is to engage, involve and empower workers to a greater extent than is found in most organisations today” – Robin Ryde
Engagement as discussed in Ryde’s work positions the needs and contributions of management and the rest of workers onto a much more equal level, closer and more respectful between one another than is often the case. That is because organisations need all their people – and not just the top team – to be smart, strong and at the top of their game is they want to be successful.
When looking at organisational change efforts the author invites readers to think at them as representing the ‘five ages of organisational change’:
- The Age of Tell: a distinctly top-down, ‘command and control’ style of change leadership;
- The Age of Sell: a time when senior managers understood that it was important to persuade workers of the rational, the merits and the drivers for change;
- The Age of Consult: an age when decisions on the type of change needed (and particularly the approach to implementation) were subjected to consultation, often with representative groups of employees, by senior managers;
- The Age of Involve: a time when senior managers sought to co-construct the change agenda with employees;
- The Age of Empower: an age when workers were empowered and encouraged to identify change priorities for themselves and take action.
The development of these ages to change corresponds to a shift from a culture of strong deference – associated with the Age of Tell – through to a culture of weaker deference – associated with the Age of Empower. Therefore, Ryde advises organisations to focus attention on the final two stages, as “they offer up the key to quick, smart and sustainable change”.
Discourse is shaped in many different ways and is strongly affected by the habits of deference. In fact, deference blocks employees’ voice, it encourages people to hold back and over-examine their words to make sure they do not disagree with the opinions of the deferred to. However, “to amplify diverse voices at all level of the organisation is a priority”, says Ryde. Having workers to be able to speak up and bring their ideas to table, is a must have – not a nice to have – today.
Ryde claims that habits of discourse are formed by everyone within an organisation. However, according to the author, it is especially managers and leaders, because of their influence, who are particularly well placed to introduce and reinforce specific types of interactions. That is why, providing they are committed to practise appropriate approaches to discourse, deference can be eliminated.
For example, rather than practising ‘Deficit Thinking’- an approach to discourse which focuses on faults, shortcomings and weaknesses of people – leadership could adopt ‘Strength-based Thinking’ – searching out what works well and why. The latter, would drive discussions into an entirely different place, where employees are able to open up and offer authentic and genuine contributions.
Should you read it?
‘Never mind the bosses’ is a refreshing resource that could be of real, practical value for any internal communicator and leader in today’s organisations. The author pushes us to think critically on our own organisation’s traits and examine our particular deference challenges from a range of perspectives. Ultimately, the choice is ours: which type of organisation would we want to work in and go the extra mile for? Perhaps the best answer lies in a beautiful marine creature.