Let’s face it, we take too many things in today’s advanced, high-tech economy for granted. And sadly, others we often just plain neglect.
Maybe it’s the radio waves that enable us to communicate with cool gadgets, untethered from the sockets that power them. Maybe it’s the transformation from watercraft to aircraft that allow us to soar to our destination. We often forget to appreciate both of these remarkable developments. Air is another source of power and production capability that we often take for granted.
Living Work Communities
In 1999, Arie De Geus, a Royal Dutch/Shell Group executive, wrote Living Company in an attempt to understand why, with few exceptions, the average life span of a Fortune 500 company is less than half a century. The conclusion: the most enduring organizations treat their businesses as “living work communities” rather than pure economic machines.
Anyone half-serious about their physical fitness understands the importance of breathing, yet, we seldom give it much thought. It just seems to happen (or not). We all remember Mr. Miyagi’s coaching in Karate Kid (1984), “breathe in through nose, out the mouth” and yet we take for granted or neglect this very basic instruction. To create these living work communities, we need to stop neglecting air.
Organizations Need Air, But a Different Kind
Any basic search of what concerns today’s senior organizational leaders will reveal one variant of the following: Alignment, Engagement, or Risk Mitigation (A.E.R.). This is the air or A.E.R. today’s organizations need if they expect to compete in today’s turbulent market.
Alignment is the relative arrangement or placement of key job roles and core functions within an organization. Whether we are talking about personnel from senior leaders through the front line or the alignment of the organization’s business units with their supply chain, alignment is critical. Kaplan and Norton (2006) describe an alignment strategy as an alignment process.
Too often organizations treat strategy as something they do annually versus “something [they] have” (De Geus, p. 184). Both strategy and alignment must be tended to with discipline if organizations expect to maintain the alignment they need to be effective.
To engage is to attract and captivate. Organizations that attend to engagement are serious about how they capture, commit to, and form a covenant with their workforce and customer base. For these organizations, satisfaction is not the absence of complacency, but rather the presence and pursuit of fulfillment, and ultimately the creation of raving fans (both inside and outside the organization).
Too often, organizations have a start-stop approach to talent and customer engagement. We are seeing an explosion of talent management, mostly through recruiting and leadership development activities by organizations that foolishly let those activities slip during the recent difficult economic environment.
Organizations that are thriving are those that apply rigorous discipline in good and lean times to ensure the consistent health and vitality of their organization.
Finally, while risk mitigation may seem less noble than other goals, it is equally important. Tichy and Bennis (2007) describe three domains in their framework for leadership judgment, including: judgments about people, judgments about strategy, and judgments about crisis. While it is true that “space must be created for people to experiment and take risks,” at the same time, people cannot simply do what they like at the expense of the organization’s common purpose.
Clearly, one needs both: “empowered people and effective control” (De Geus, 1999). Because of the precarious world in which we live, full of uncertainty and instability, it is necessary for organizations to be concerned with the safety and quality of their products and services.
An Organic Approach
Can organizations survive without alignment, engagement, or managing their risk? Yes, sadly, we see it all too often. It’s true they don’t last for long, and they are certainly not thriving, but they do seem to eek out an existence. It is important to remember, “you do not navigate a company to a predefined destination” (De Geus, 1999).
There are too many unknowns. Instead, you take a more organic approach to strategy leadership by “taking steps, one at a time, into an unknowable future” and maintain flexibility as you lead your living organization.
If you are in a leadership role in your organization, regardless of what level that leadership role is, you can begin to make a difference by giving some attention to the organizational A.E.R. in your company. Work on alignment, engagement, and risk mitigation. Begin somewhere. Start small. But, do something and you will be surprised what a difference you can make.
How Do You Give Attention to High-Tech Organizational AER in Your Company?
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