Redesigning Organizations for Engagement: Is the Manager Obsolete?

10/06/2015 03:54 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2016

Eight years ago around a campfire on a chilly desert evening in Tucson, Arizona participants in what was then the Knowledge and Innovation Network of the Society of Organizational Learning talked organizational design. The group included senior executives from Ford, Hewlett Packard (HP), plus independent consultants from the U.S., Australia, and Canada (me). Our conversations reflected on research conducted by HP showing that performance ran horizontally, with team members working around impediments posted by the hierarchy in order to accomplish a goal they cared about. It was a repetitive pattern not unique to HP. The insight relevant to the role of managers was that the network engrossed in accomplishing a shared and stimulating goal stretched well beyond the boundaries of the organization.

How could a manager control the contribution of talent not in their control? What did this mean for managers, the manager's role and for management? Could a different organizational design convert passive employees (made passive by unconscious management practices) into fully engaged contributors? What could that mean to employees stifled by the misuse of power at the management level?

As the fire danced in a mesmerizing way, we reflected on whether the hierarchical design of companies was over or whether the role of managers was undergoing a change. The thought of dismantling a hierarchical structure was daunting and loaded with confrontation. There had to be another way.

Flash forward to 2015 when proponents for eliminating the traditional manager's role, as director or controller, strike fear into the brains of managers who depend on 'being in charge'. Spreading the idea to eliminate the manager's role, incites fear and resistance to doing what is necessary: making the bold moves essential to realize today's business opportunities. Resistance is created when change is being driven instead of being inspired. Autonomy -- the freedom to chart the future -- is lost, as is the sense of control over personal and professional contribution. Add to that, the fact we are human. Neuroscience explains quite clearly why people resist change yet decision makers continue as if the ingrained response to uncertainty isn't relevant.

Participants in the European Organizational Design Forum 2015 conference in Milan October 2-3rd, dove deep into what makes an organization dexterous. Conventional thinking about how change gets done creates resistance hence the slow pace and incremental results. In contrast, processes and principles more fitting for complexity can accelerate the transformation of workplaces from stiff and formal into fluid, dynamic, co-creative interactions. What role can managers play now that we know more than we did before about adapting organizations?

What if the manager's role was reimagined to one that offered greater personal fulfillment by distributing power while reducing stress? Colleague Marco Calzolari coined the term 'integrators' to redefine the manager's role as a more inclusive approach. In the role of integrator, the manager employs collaborative decision-making to replace directive decisions. Then those responsible for implementation don't have to be sold or told because they initiate removal of barriers creating energy sucking roadblocks to fast execution.

Cooperatively managing how work gets done is a 'soft' approach to hard-core business sustainability. It isn't the systems that create the performance; it's people. As self-evident as that appears, the majority of companies aren't designed to optimize workplace interactions to achieve outstanding performance while simultaneously foreseeing outside pressures. While talk about creating a more cooperative approach to getting work done is easy enough, it's a higher step in leadership to let go of the control that managerial identity is based on. Yet without entering a zone of discovery by letting go, the company is doomed to failure. Speed of change calls for growth not fixed positions.

How can managers make the leap from controller to integrator? Some managers in hierarchical companies already perform this role in spite of metrics that contradict a cooperative approach. They are true leaders. But the majority remains shaped by the wrong metrics and beliefs embedded in the business culture no longer relevant to today's world.

Three major steps lie on the path to business viability in the crucial near term:

  1. The decision to convert from a traditional organization designed to engineer outcomes, produce profit or shareholder value TO an organization designed for interactions and capacity to scan, sense, and embrace emerging market, societal and environmental conditions. The latter requires a more sophisticated skill set and a higher level of awareness plus courage from the informal and formal leaders. It's a growth mindset.

  • The personal decision to trust the calling to do work that is meaningful. Many employees of mid to large companies in particular know their company must change but management resists sticking to a course that can only end badly. It's a bold move to 'follow the joy' rather than stick to the familiar yet a company's relevance is built on bold moves, not complacency.
  • An executive decision to share the reins of organizational change with employees who are strong witnesses of customer values and what is inspiring and what disengages. To be clear, it's more of a partnership than minor tweaks resulting from continuous improvement because for a company to redesign itself means everyone has to work together. The gap between management and employees must close if the company hopes to successfully navigate new territory.
  • I believe we have the courage and the creativity required. I also believe that it will take adversity and big challenges to elicit the best in each person and in each company. To realize dormant potential, courageous decisions must be made to intentionally design for change rather than wait for crisis.

    Dawna Jones brings intelligent insights to transforming business leadership for a fast changing world. Rising above the noise of everyday routine, she offers original thinking so decision makers can see higher-level solutions that enable business to be better for the economy and for the world. Speaker and business innovator, she's the author of Decision Making for Dummies and known to be a tad nomadic.