Business Skills: The Art of Listening

Listening may or may not be an “act of love” or way to “tap into people’s 

listeningdreams,” but it sure as hell is (1) an uncommon act of courtesy and recognition of worth from which (2) you will invariably learn amazing stuff…and (3) it will build-maintain relationships beyond your wildest dreams.

—Tom Peters, best-selling author

To be a strong leader, you must be able to influence others. In highly complex organizations, everyone plays the role of leader from time to time. And communication is an essential mechanism for the exchange of knowledge and intentions. Mastering the art of listening is essential to the success of all participants in an interdependent organization.[i]

Those who are good listeners greatly increase their influence on others. Although listening is passive in nature, when someone feels heard, he or she feels inspired and validated. Sadly, many leaders fail to listen because they are biased, impatient, bored, or rigid in their views. This prevents the critical exchange of knowledge, insights, and intentions.

Listening skills are rarely taught. Communication training in business schools typically focuses on argument and persuasion. These skills fit the old management model with its top-down, authoritative approach.  Managers had little reason to listen. They communicated down the chain of command, and the workers followed orders.

As stated earlier, as organizations embrace new business models, listening is becoming an integral part of the communication process. Two-way interaction helps to clarify and prevent confusion, aid comprehension, and improve connection.

Listening goes beyond just hearing. Hearing usually triggers a reflexive response without any thought or reflection. Listening is deliberate and requires interpretation. A good exercise in listening is to ask recipients to reflect back what they heard.

Bad listeners:

  • Interrupt. They are impatient and may like to dominate the conversation.
  • Are inattentive. They are easily distracted, perhaps even multitasking.
  • Exhibit mind-drift. They are easily bored, perhaps even self-centered.
  • Are biased. They have strong marginal views (out of the mainstream), and cannot expand their thinking.
  • Have closed minds. They have already drawn a conclusion or stay with their own beliefs.

Good listeners:

  • Are quiet. They talk less than the speaker.
  • Are patient. They never interrupt the speaker.
  • Are unbiased. They avoid prejudgment.
  • Are curious. They ask clarifying and open-ended questions.
  • Pay attention. They sit attentively, take notes, concentrate.
  • Employ nonverbals. They smile, maintain an open posture and eye contact.
  • Reflect back. They verify and reinforce what was heard through summary comments.

Skillful listeners are natural leaders in the new business landscape with their ability to influence, engage, and inspire.

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[i]             William F. Kumuyi, “Sir, Listen Up!” 2008,;col1.

Seven Realities that Jeopardize Business Survival: Part II

In Information Revolution, Jim Davis, Gloria J. Miller, and Allan Russell discuss the

message-in-a-bottle “Seven Realities that Jeopardize Business Survival.” Each reality illuminates the need for new business models as well as styles of leadership. Here is Part II.

Business Reality 4: The Only Constant Is Permanent Volatility

This is a common theme but bears repeating: The company that is most agile and adaptable will gain and maintain a competitive advantage. Instead of just relying on past results to predict the future, companies need to tap into current trends through social networking, Web analysis, and employee feedback.

Business Reality 5: Globalization Helps and Hurts

Globalization presents many advantages, especially to small companies seeking a worldwide presence. Any company that is connected to the Web can strategically partner, outsource, or insource with relative ease. The downside is increased complexity when dealing with international languages, standards, and cultures. Strong communication skills are essential for navigating this terrain.

Business Reality 6: The Penalties of Not Knowing Are Harsher than Ever

In the new era of billion-dollar corporate scandals, personal accountability at the highest levels is not only prudent, it is now legally mandated. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was designed to systematize ethical behavior. In addition to the need for strong, honest leadership, information systems to handle this complex business data are essential.

Business Reality 7: Information Is Not a By-Product of Business; It Is the Lifeblood of Business

The seventh business reality is a direct result of the first six. Due to shrinking business cycles, level playing fields, changing rules, volatility, globalization, and the cost of ignorance, information has become the lifeblood of many businesses. Today, accurate, accessible, actionable information is necessary to compete in the global economy. There are strong pressures to achieve more results while spending less time and money. Companies need up-to-the-minute information about their customers, suppliers, competitors, and markets.

These realities also point to the need for new business models as well as for visionary leadership. With the complexity of business today, decisioning throughout the entire organization has to operate like a well-oiled machine. The sections to come expand on optimal organizational structures as well as the core competencies, or success factors, necessary to operate at this level.

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Seven Realities that Jeopardize Business Survival: Part I

In Information Revolution, Jim Davis, Gloria J. Miller, and Allan Russell discuss the “Seven Realities that Jeopardize Business Survival.”[i] Each reality illuminates the need for new business models as well as styles of leadership. business_survival_life_ring

Business Reality 1: Business Cycles Are Shrinking

In today’s Web-enabled economy, speed within all parts of the business model is the great differentiator. To accommodate changing markets and consumer preferences, product development and testing that used to take years has been shrunk to months or even weeks. Today, the first to market often enjoys the competitive edge.

This shortened cycle challenges managers to make decisions with less time for consideration or analysis. As a result, they must depend on a combination of accurate, actionable information and intuition. And their decision must be in alignment with the overall strategy of the company.

Business Reality 2: You Can Only Squeeze So Much Juice Out of an Orange

The goal of improving operational efficiency drove a majority of the investment in the last decade. Initially the returns were high and provided a competitive advantage. However, now that enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is available, the field has been leveled. The next step is greater innovation and agility.

Business Reality 3: The Rules Have Changed; There Is No More “Business as Usual”

The days of following a typical path to business success are over. The same factors apply: profitability, customer satisfaction, stakeholder value, and competition. However, the path to success is very different and is fraught with new challenges:

  • Mergers and acquisitions have hindered agility and cohesiveness.
  • Productivity advancements have increased expectations from both customers and management.
  • Advancements in IT have overwhelmed the abilities of some companies to manage and leverage the knowledge.
  • The technologies that were introduced as the key to success often failed because the human issues were overlooked.

Stay Tuned for Part II and come back for more business intelligence and change management focused blogs by The OLIVIAGroup! Feel free to comment with questions, insights, or additions to this post. To receive alerts when the next blog is published, click on the RSS feed at the right of the page to subscribe.

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[i]             Jim Davis, Gloria J. Miller, Allan Russell, Information Revolution (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006), xv.

Business Success: Morphing Current Businesses

Business Success: Morphing Current Businesses

Many traditional businesses are adapting their business models based on customer behavior., the online bookseller, has grown into an Internet giant while many brick-and-mortar bookstores have closed. The publishing world has seen a change as authors enter the market independently using print-on-demand

Many small businesses are now gaining access to world markets. And larger, more established retail businesses, especially those with a traditional catalog presence, are creating sophisticated shopping experiences for their customers on the Web.[i]

Why are, Lexus, and Disney partnering with lesser-known online companies to sell products? According to Wiredmagazine’s Ian Mount, the large companies are moving toward the manufacturing-as-a-service model to stay competitive. It has become necessary to compete with the small entrepreneurs who are producing and distributing products on demand. The production of products has become a commodity.  Because of the low cost of entry, anyone with a good idea can compete in this market.

New businesses that leverage this model are popping up everywhere, and many have global reach. Jeffrey Wegesin, a furniture designer, advertises his designs on the Web. Upon receiving an order, he contracts with an on-demand manufacturing service in New Zealand to create and ship each piece. He has no inventory or other up-front costs. His business is pure profit.

Designers of clothing, jewelry, robots, you name it! The model is inherently charming because of its efficiency and simplicity. Individual musicians and authors can market their goods without any up-front investment. With little more than a product idea and a good design, anyone can become an instapreneur.[ii]

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[i]             Bradley and Nolan, Capturing Value in the Network Era, 7-8

[ii]             Ian Mount, “Upside of the Downturn: 5. The Rise of the Instapreneur: Manufacture and Sell Anything in Minutes,” Wired (April 2008), 129

Modeling Innovation With Business Intelligence

In today’s global, digital economy, companies that excel at innovation and speed to market unquestionably have competitive edges. Small companies have an inherent advantage. The challenge is for larger companies, especially those that have been around for a while. Think Google or Apple vs. IBM or HP. It’s not that IBM and HP aren’t innovative at times, but Google and Apple are known for their innovation. So what makes them different?

For companies to be innovative, they must be highly adaptable. This may sound simple, but several characteristics of an adaptable company can be modeled. One characteristic is a well designed enterprise business intelligence solution.data_mining

I really like the model put forth by Jim Davis, Gloria Miller, and Allan Russell in Information Revolution: Using the Information Revolution Model to Grow Your Business. In this book, they propose four dimensions to consider when evaluating your organization’s ability to leverage information:

  1. Infrastructure. This dimension addresses all the software, hardware, and networking tools and technologies that support every phase of the information process. The assessment, purchase, implementation, and use of these components must be part of the overall business intelligence strategy. This requires an effective communications process to ensure that everyone’s needs are considered, and that all decisions are optimized at the organizational level.
  2. Knowledge process. This focuses on the strategic as well as specific uses of the information infrastructure. This includes the policies, best-practices, standards, and governance of all aspects of the information cycle, as well as the performance metrics, reward systems, and commitment to strategic use of information at the highest levels of the organization. For this dimension to operate smoothly, a cohesive, collaborative leadership team is essential.
  3. Human capital. This focuses on the importance of assessing and developing all team members to their highest potential. An inherent organizational wisdom is unveiled and leveraged for maximum innovation and adaptability through the skill development and nurturing of employees.
  4. Culture. This focuses on how your organization positions information as a long-term strategic asset. Specifically, it addresses the interaction between organizational and human influences as it relates to information flow. This includes the moral, social, and behavioral norms of corporate culture as evidenced by the attitudes, belief, and priorities of its members. This requires effective communication skills and an ethos of trust.

Evaluating an organization on these four dimensions highlights a shift in our view of business intelligence. Until very recently, organizations thought of BI strictly as a technology issue. This is the underlying reason for most BI failures. The power of the model proposed by Davis, Miller, and Russell is its holistic focus on the impact and relevance of these important dimensions on all aspects of an organization.

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Discovering New Businesses Opportunities

Several years ago, Lester Thurow made this observation and posed several timely questions: “The old foundations of success are gone. For all of human history the source of success has been controlling natural resources — land, gold, oil. Suddenly the answer is “knowledge.” The king of the knowledge economy, Bill Gates owns no land, no gold or oil, no industrial process. How does one use knowledge to build wealth? How do societies have to be reorganized to generate a wealth-enhancing knowledge environment? How do they incubate the entrepreneurs necessary to bring about change and create wealth? What skills are needed? The knowledge-based economy is asking new questions, giving new answers, and developing new rules for success.”[i]business_opportunities

This statement highlights several important characteristics of the information economy. The assets themselves are often intangible. This inherent instability makes the market even more volatile. Early movers such as America Online were able to gain a strong foothold by giving away their software and charging a monthly fee for their service. But within a few years, market pressures forced them to change their model. Luckily, they have been able to adapt and maintain their value. Other companies, such as Bloomberg, Dow-Jones, Reuters, and, provide real-time, aggregated data for the financial services industry. News is delivered from every major news source through the Internet. And blogs have becomes sources of news as well as forums for questioning the veracity of information.

Many back-office and outsourcing businesses have grown out of virtual connectivity. Services such as bookkeeping and answering the phone that were historically performed within the same building are now done in other cities or continents. Today, some are surprised to learn that most taxes are prepared and X rays are read in India.

Given this relentless pressure to adapt our business models, companies are embracing innovative technologies and developing new strategies for capturing value.

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[i]             Lester Thurow, Building Wealth,

Where Business Intelligence Fits Into the Information Evolution Model

In Information Revolution: Using the Information Revolution Model to Grow Your Business, authors Jim Davis, Gloria Miller, and Allan Russell introduce the idea of the Information Evolution Model. As I discussed in my last blog, Modeling Innovation With BI, they propose four dimensions — infrastructure, process, people, and culture — as guides for evaluating your organization’s ability to leverage information in an effort to achieve your business goals. Here, I’ll take a deeper look at these four dimensions, framing them in context of the five-level Information Evolution Model.

The model’s five levels — operational, consolidation, integration, optimization, and innovation — are hierarchical and reflect aspects of maturity across the four dimensions. Generally, companies fluctuate within different levels across the four dimensions during this evolution.

Level 1: The operational enterprise

The most common type of organization at this level is the startup. However, many small businesses and large siloed businesses operate at this level as well. The following describes key Level 1 characteristics:

  • Level 1 knowledge process focuses on day-to-day tactics. This results in high variability in the access, analysis, and use of information.
  • Level 1 people tend to thrive in unstructured environments. The information technicians are often self-motivated and risk-takers. They tend to strive for differentiation and recognition, which might serve a company still operating at an entrepreneurial level. However, they resist change and loss of control, which may inhibit maturing to the next level.
  • Level 1 culture is well-suited for charismatic leaders and self-starters. Information management positions are structured to compete, allowing for the emergence of “information mavericks.” Job security is gained through individual control.

The manner in which Level 1 organizations share and use information is highly inconsistent. With the right talent, a business can thrive at this level up to a certain point or in a limited market. As it tries to grow, the individual focus can lead to inefficiencies, redundancies, and errors. Since little intention gets paid to coordinate silos, alignment does not play an important role. Skills in social interaction and teamwork are of little value.

Level 2: The consolidated enterprise

Organizations at this level have integrated information management within a silo or department. Typically, they’ve optimized knowledge processes to support operations within the functional areas.

  • Level 2 infrastructure features all data management hardware and software designed to optimize information and decision processes at a departmental level. Departmental discrepancies and duplication of effort are common pitfalls.
  • Level 2 knowledge process supports decision-making at the department level. This may result in inconsistencies and suboptimal results on an enterprise level.
  • Level 2 human capital and culture dimensions aren’t managed with an intention toward integration. Teamwork may be encouraged in small, homogenous areas, but strategic and interdepartmental collaborative efforts are challenged by the organization’s competitive structure. Communication also may be challenging without the benefit of a shared vision or enterprise-level goals.

Level 3: The integrated enterprise

An enterprise-wide approach to data management and decision-making characterizes organizations at this level. Integrated knowledge systems generate value by standardizing processes that promote coordinated marketing efforts. Resources are mobilized around market and customer relationships that optimize long-term value.

  • Level 3 infrastructure features a seamless, enterprisewide system of hardware, software, and networking that supports data reporting, analysis, and auditing while delivering a single version of the truth.
  • Level 3 knowledge process enables the company to optimize reporting and analysis to meet enterprise-wide goals and objectives. The focus shifts from a product to a customer or market focus with emphasis on relationships and long-term value. All information access and quality is aligned and standardized. Performance management is automated. This level of interdepartmental cooperation requires highly developed communication and collaboration skills.
  • Level 3 people balance departmental goals with those of the enterprise. Their holistic view and emotional intelligence allows them to contribute to and champion enterprise efforts.
  • Level 3 culture views business intelligence as a corporate asset and essential strategy. Training and organizational development focus on the importance of enterprise-wide access and intelligent use of information.

As the organization realizes gains of rapid decision-making, enhanced customer relationships, and shorter time-to-market, alignment becomes crucial for departments striving to coordinate actions and achieve enterprise goals. As the enterprise promotes cross-functional collaboration, competencies in the areas of communication and collaboration are increasingly important.

Level 4: The optimized enterprise

Adaptability is the distinguishing competency of organizations at this level. The ability for constant realignment with changing markets allows Level 4 organizations to maintain a competitive edge.

  • Level 4 infrastructure enhances Level 3 by linking internal business systems across the supply chain, from back-office functions through customer touch points. This enhances communications, data exchange, and connection to partners and customers across functional areas.
  • Level 4 knowledge process focuses on bringing the information systems to a higher level of quality, access, and relevance. All workflow patterns are modeled across the entire information value chain to optimize continuous measurement, decision-making, and real-time analytics leading to consistent and immediate customer response. Closed-loop feedback processes ensure continuous evaluation and improvement.
  • Level 4 people have many similarities to those in Level 1. They are independent, adaptable, innovative, and driven, and take calculated risks. However, their approach to the organization is more holistic. They, along with their peers, are focused on enterprise-level goals. So along with being innovative and adaptable, they must be highly skilled in the areas of communication and collaboration.
  • Level 4 culture empowers individuals across the organization to take on leadership roles. Along with access to rich quantitative information, they are given the autonomy to fine-tune the business model as needed by making incremental improvements. Doing this requires clear communication of the goals and vision from top management as well as the willingness and skills to collaborate and share ideas across departments. Change-readiness is an inherent part of the culture.

Level 5: The adaptive, innovating enterprise

Innovation is the distinguishing competency of organizations at this level. These organizations continuously seek ways to reinvent and transform their value propositions. This proactive model, based on BI and creative energy, lets organizations stay competitive continuously.

  • Level 5 infrastructure features an “intelligence architecture” capable of integrating and expanding quickly and seamlessly based on organizational needs. An advanced combination of analytic tools allows organizations to test and perfect new ideas in virtual environments, thus reducing time to market. Innovation is systematically fostered and supported through information access and sharing.
  • Level 5 knowledge process encourages innovation at the highest levels. Extensive analytics provide the ability to model the future while minimizing risk. As a way of stimulating new ideas, organizations encourage and facilitate collaboration on an enterprise-wide basis. The entire innovation process is documented, analyzed, and communicated throughout the organization.
  • Level 5 people are holistic thinkers. With a keen eye for the bottom line, they are also proactive, creative thinkers. They thrive on juggling many roles and activities. They actually enjoy change and get bored if the business becomes stagnant. They know their competitors are able to reach Level 4 with cutting-edge technology. But at Level 5, they can always outpace their competitors by continuing to innovate.
  • Level 5 culture embraces holistic thinking. All ideas, even the most absurd, are examined. Processes aim to facilitate creativity and support an intuitive flow of ideas. Constant change is the norm. To support innovation, inquiry, feedback, and collaboration are embedded in all aspects of the Information Evolution Model.

According to Davis, Miller, and Russell, no organization has truly reached Level 5. Some have pockets of Level 5 competencies, but most organizations find it difficult to thrive during constant change.


The skills needed for success in our high-tech, global, interconnected economy are moving from the technical to the human realm. Organizations are automating or outsourcing all linear processes. Enterprise BI based on accurate, accessible, useful data is a driving force behind this shift. Innovation as a core competency lies in an organization’s ability to align its infrastructure, processes, people, and culture to progress through the Information Evolution Model.

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Enterprise Business Intelligence: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

The all-too-familiar promise of enterprise business intelligence is the ability to optimize decision-making at every level of the organization through a blend of systems and technologies that leverage highly useful, accessible, accurate data. In many industries, BI use is so pervasive that it is essential just to remain competitive! But many organizations never realize the full value simply because they are not agile enough to adapt to the new speed and complexity. leadership_techniques

The good: Great opportunities

Enterprise BI solutions offer a powerful competitive edge in today’s fast-paced, high-tech, global economy.

For years, organizations have been automating their reporting and online analytical processing capabilities. Recent trends are moving toward advanced analytics as the central focus of BI. This includes data mining, predictive analysis, complex SQL, natural language processing, statistics, and artificial intelligence. Advanced analytics provides a competitive advantage as it allows organizations to detect and model patterns and trends in all areas of their business, such as market shifts, supply chain economics, cost fluctuations, and more.

The bad: Typical challenges

Given the myriad of enterprise-BI solution options, just getting started can be challenging. In addition to the standard solutions that have been in use for many years, new Web 2.0 services, virtualization, social networking, and software-as-a-service options are available now, too. With so many choices and possible implications for the business, the decision-makers need to be thinking about how to optimize the balance between customer and shareholder value while considering all the financial and political implications.

The ugly: The real competitive advantage

Following an enterprise BI implementation, the expectation is that our day-to-day tasks will get simpler and more satisfying. After all, we have streamlined and automated many of the left-brain linear processes, freeing us to focus on expansion and innovation. But the reality is often very different. What many leaders don’t fully comprehend is the destabilizing effect that enterprise BI can have on an organization. Successful BI implementation requires a level of agility that is not inherent in most organizations.

Optimizing the benefits of BI in our continuously changing business climate requires the adaptability to manage the enormous complexity of redesigning processes, management structures, and measurement systems. In other words, to really understand and leverage the benefits of enterprise BI, we must understand the effect on all aspects of the organization — especially our culture and human capital. So what can we do?

An evaluation of interpersonal skills is a good first step. Why? Because in our new interconnected, interdependent organizations, team members must be able to connect and collaborate. This requires effective communication skills and a culture of trust. Skill-building in effective communication is a great place to start. Team-building and leadership development also deliver great value. Team-building develops a culture of trust. And with the current pace of change and need to adapt constantly, everyone is called on to be a leader at times.

Building adaptability through collaboration taps into the innate wisdom of the organization. The total benefit to the organization is often greater than the sum of the parts. This unleashes enormous energy for channeling into designing strategies for innovation, greater efficiency, and increased profits.

The finale

Whether you are just embarking on a BI solution, already have one in place, or are somewhere in between, it is worthwhile to assess and develop the interpersonal skills of everyone in your organization. The effectiveness of your BI solution will depend on the cohesiveness and agility of the CIO and his or her team. The failure of BI is typically blamed on the technology. But in truth, it is often a people issue.

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A Dynamic Organization Principle #10

Re-envision Leading: From Command and Control to (R)Evolutionary Influence

Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they  want to do it. —Dwight Eisenhower

In contrast to years of hierarchical management, leaders in adaptable organizations play a more subtle leadership role. They are the visionaries who envision a future that seems impossible today. They inspire, empower, and motivate others to make decisions. They manage the flow of information and communicate extensively. They take the broadest possible view and encourage collaborative problem solving.

The term (r)evolutionary influence is used to capture these qualities. The evolution of management_for_changecomplex systems is guided by probabilistic influence rather than deterministic control. When discontinuities arise, leaders must occasion a revolution by declaring a future others may not see as possible, and get alignment in the organization so that actions forward that future.[i]

The leadership model in the adaptable organization is more egalitarian. A manager might admit to not knowing an answer or even know the answer but still delegate that executive decision to someone on the front line. Rather than being the solver of all problems, the leader’s role to disseminate decision making by engaging the whole organization in the bidirectional sharing of information and knowledge.

Some powerful tactics facilitate and encourage evolutionary influence. Leaders must be willing to let go of control, take calculated risks, and envision the impossible for themselves and the organization. To maintain an environment of perpetual transformation, they must be willing to accept a higher risk of failure. This is achieved by treating everyone in the organization like a valued member of the team. True dialogue and information flow are necessary to facilitate communication. Conflict is managed effectively, leading to the generation of new ideas and energy.
Referring back to fractals, it is essential to see the system in its entirety. Each decision must be linked to the larger context. Some decisions may be suboptimal for a small group but still serve the larger good. The survival of the system depends on the quality of the relationships of each of its parts.

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[i]Christopher Laszlo and Jean-François Laugel, Large-Scale Organizational Change (Boston: Butterworth Heinemann, 2000), , 124.

A Dynamic Organization Principle #9

Use Organizational Instability to Catalyze Learningleadership_training_models_

Organizations that succeed in leveraging instability unleash enormous amounts of energy for fueling innovation and adaptability. As situations present themselves—such as a new competitive threat or loss of investment money—management must maintain a delicate balance between reacting too quickly and resorting to old patterns.

Working in a culture of constant instability can be stressful, especially when it is new to the organization. Because of years of experience with the stable, predictable model, many managers resist moving to a model of permanent instability. What is required is a delicate balance between maintaining enough discomfort for learning and productivity to be optimized while avoiding the risk of demotivation, paralysis, and complacency.

Some tactics are well suited for fueling innovation and adaptability. One is to make sure that every member of the organization knows the truth about the difficulties facing the company. Holding people accountable is important. Doing so might include publicizing risk taking to highlight successes and explain shortcomings while avoiding blame. During times of stress, typically 20 percent of employees step up to be change agents. Another 20 percent resist or retreat. By raising the visibility of the change agents, the other 60 percent typically follow their lead.

Encouraging diverse points of view enhances adaptability. Discussions that support opposing points of view often trigger ideas that can be advance warnings of needed transformation.
To maintain the energy and loyalty essential to adaptability, organizations should design and share relevant metrics. A strong vision accompanied by clearly communicated roles and responsibilities will lead to accountability. With distributed decision making in a rapidly changing environment, success metrics must be clear and equitable.
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Christopher Laszlo and Jean-François Laugel, Large-Scale Organizational Change (Boston: Butterworth Heinemann, 2000)
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