Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

monique-jordan_1's picture

Role NOT Position

By Monique Jordan on June 11, 2022

1.  TITLE: Role Not Position



Positions (and accompanying titles) are reflective of the rigid, hierarchical, fear-ridden and overly centralized organizations that [irrespective of the organization and by themselves] both set-up and reinforce non-adaptive behavior. 

What if we did away with traditional positions (and related titles) and replaced them with role names that reflected the value-added contribution of the individual.  Similar to a soccer team (or any sports team) where there individuals have specific roles [e.g. right-forward, center-midfield, etc.] each with a unique and value added contribution to make to the team’s success.


Would a seemingly simple change in the way we define ourselves in organizations change behavior?  If the CEO were the Head Coach and HR Mangers were People Support and we used roles names like inventor, coder, solver, performer or even bolder descriptors such as story teller, talent freak, or specialist would the hierarchical structure [and its supporting characteristics: fear, centralization, short-term thinking etc.] naturally fall away?  Would people identify more with [and be compelled to] behave in ways that were consistent to their roles?  I think so.






We have a long standing history with hierarchies which naturally give rise to the command and control style that no longer fits as organizations seek to become adaptive.  From the moment we are born the hierarchy is present (at first in the child/parent relationship this is necessary to guide development).  It is reinforced in our education systems and then finally at work. Titles that reflect position [rank] naturally create patterns of behavior (for all actors in the system) regardless of where one falls in the hierarchy.  Those at the top (the 'Tellers') are compelled (and expected) to have the answers, solve the problems, give explicit direction, reward and punish.  Those at the bottom (the 'Askers') are compelled (and expected) to do what they are told, not ask too many questions or make too many suggestions, get permission first, wait to be told, seek reward from above.  Everyone in-between responds in the same fashion telling those below them and asking those above them.  We have been conditioned since birth to behave in a hierarchical manner.  So much so that we've embedded it in the titles we assign people in organizations which reflect the person's position (i.e. rank/status -- Director, VP, SVP) and not their role (the value they add or the contribution they make to the team). 


Similarly if we look at the evolution of leadership we see some interesting transitions. Leadership was originally sought from the elders of tribes, and Age was the basis of leadership. A few centuries ago, that paradigm yielded to Ancestry as the basis of leadership. Leadership passed from a King to his son and so on. In the Managerial revolution, leadership started being decided on the basis of Assignment. The power and responsibility came with the position you were assigned.  Titles needed to convey the level of power associated with the assignment and position-based titles did exactly that. As a direct outgrowth of an era gone by they were designed to create and reinforce the management model of that time [command and control]. 

More recently however, there is enough evidence to suggest that leadership is now moving to people with Ability-to-engage-others. With the flattening out of the world, Ability is trumping the previous three. There is wide spread agreement that the command and control model no longer works.  Change happens too quickly, technology redefines what is possible -- overnight and the amount of information is growing far faster than is comprehendible.  Senior leaders in businesses around the world are looking for ways to stay relevant and understand they must learn how to adapt in harmony with the rate of change.  They see collaboration and innovation as key to their survival.  Senior leaders are beginning to both acknowledge the need to move away from the command and control model and embrace the concepts of adaptability.


What they cannot yet see are the subtle cultural norms that are reinforcing the old model and are getting in the way of a new model.  Position-based titles are a not only a manifestation of the power assigned them but also the domains (organizational turf) in which they execute their power.  This relationship to structure can lead to conditions that freeze the organization as opposed to enabling it to be fluid, agile, and responsive.   There is a natural sense of 'ownership' (defend, protect, etc.) when a position description relates to a patch and power assigned to that patch.


Cultural norms are supported by values and beliefs that are usually below the level of consciousness.  Not that we are completely unaware of them, we just don’t actively consider them.  We behave consistently with these values and beliefs without ever questioning what’s driving the behavior. Position-based titles and job descriptions make changing a command-and-control model difficult because of the strong ties and relationship to the associated structure/patches and power. 


So how does an organization break free of the command-and-control culture?   Switching from Position (assignment) to Role (ability) makes immense sense in this context.




 If people were value and role oriented (ability) with role-based titles then the patch/power syndrome (assignment) is less likely to occur and the organization could change far more easily. Role-based titles do not share the history or ties to the command-and-control model and are naturally more adaptive.  People can easily continue to perform their role in a new environment or change their role without consideration of power or patch.  They would tend to think less about structure, more about knowledge flow and organize around delivery teams – structured to deliver value to specific customers and markets.


Switching to role-based titles that reflect the value and ability (skill/ expertise) needed from the individual in that role from position-based titles (i.e. director, VP, SVP) that reflect the power one has been assigned and the patch one owns disconnects the deeply embedded hierarchal behaviors and expectations.


Similar to the role-based titles of members of a sports team (1st base, pitcher, or forward, goalie), business team member titles will reflect what they do, not what rank they hold.  If applied to employees in a call center, the agent may be a customer advocate; supervisor may be floor coach.  Other titles could include trainer, efficacy associate, head coach, team statistician, sense maker, curator, problem solver, coordinator, motivator, futurist, historian, revolutionary, entrepreneur, sage, connector, relator, provocateur, questioner,  teacher, reporter, catalyst, facilitator etc.   The list of possible role tiles is endless and teams can select names that make the most sense.  Over time, these role-based titles will be calibrated across organizations worldwide just as position-based titles have been.



This structure and role-based titles create a natural resistance to hierarchical behavior and force us to respond to the role and not the rank.  It eliminates the tell-ask relationship as it no longer make sense.  The goalie doesn't need (and would never think) to ask permission to make a play to prevent a goal.  In the same way the customer advocate does not need to ask permission to best serve the customer.


It sets up new expectations.  The customer advocate is expected to do what it takes to meet customer needs and the floor coach is expected to build individual competence and collective capability to do so.  It shifts the burden for doing the job well to the individuals in each role.  It changes the types of questions being asked. Employees at all levels will stop asking for permission and waiting to be told and instead ask for feedback or coaching to improve their ability to perform. 


This changes everything.  We no longer have a team or 15 all vying for the bosses job because promotion (higher rank) is the only way to acknowledge good performance.  Just as members of a football team are not all vying to be the quarterback, instead they are all vying to be great in their unique and value-adding roles.


The energy shifts from ‘managing the boss’ perception’ to ‘doing a great job’. Employees are encouraged to focus on specialization and to play to their strengths. There is a much clearer line of accountability rather than a whole lot of people being jointly responsible for a whole lot of things.




People who have the leadership / power hate to give it up! So the biggest challenge is going to come from those who have been ‘Assigned’ leadership by a Title or Position they have.

Both sides need attention as pressure exists from both the tellers and the askers to not change (regardless of how much they espouse a desire to change) because there is power in telling (reinforced by the connection between power and self-worth) and absolution in asking (reinforced by fear and the consequences of making a mistake if the decision is yours to make).


It is difficult to change because it requires very deliberate (and uncomfortable -- increase vulnerability) simultaneous behavioral changes by everyone in the hierarchy.  Trying to change hierarchical behavior, i.e. command and control, without fundamentally changing the way work-groups are structured is pointless.


There are also several environmental factors to consider (and adjust) before making these changes. Compensation systems – that reward with Position promotions as the primary means for advancement.  These systems could be augmented to include levels of expertise / degree of contribution/ impact on org or team as means for advancement.  Degrees of knowledge, by role, based on the needs of the team could replace rating and ranking session.  This no longer requires organizations to force a specific distribution (bell-curve) where it is not needed and does’t naturally exist –e.g.If there are 15 customer advocates who consistently exceed expectations they may all be master advocates.


To overcome these challenges, we must clearly define the roles, the contribution needed from each role and how that influences the teams ability to deliver and create value,.  It is also necessary to help employees understand their natural strengths, their skills, how they show up and why that matters.  Once this has been done the team structure and title changes can be introduced and implemented.  




This idea seems like a simple one but because of the associated undercurrent  and strong embedded behavioral responses to titles, organizations should start slowly by allowing teams to choose role-based titles alongside their position-based titles and encourage them to use the role-based titles exclusively within their teams.

As part of a deliberate effort to become more agile and adaptive, organizations should include an effort to retitle their positions and linked to the development of a team purpose.  When teams come together to define their purpose (mission/vision) they could add the following steps once they have defined their purpose:

1)      What must we be great at (to determine core competencies)

2)      How should we be organized to best deliver value to our customer (to define structure and positions)

3)      What is the value added contribution of each position (to determine role/ ability)

4)      What title best describes the role and ability of the employee

8.    At this point have the teams look at the role-based titles they have been using and rationalize as titles are selected.  The previous exposure and use of the titles, even as secondary titles will ease the transition and to varying degrees the hierarchical behavioral responses to the position-based titles will have diminished.    

HR process being hacked:Performance Management

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monique-jordan_1's picture

Great conversation and yes we clearly all understand and see the value of a systems perspective but how do we move this idea past the 'believers'? Trying to teach the concepts of systems thinking before we can make this type of a change is too large of a task. I firmly believe that making the kind of changes we are talking about requires what I like to call 'covert disruption'. Getting buy-in at the task level (agreement to change titles to roles) which will, by the nature of the change, begin to influence other types of changes in the system (naturally) without any heavy-lifting (training). What are the natural consequences of making this seemly simple change? And once this begins to gain momentum, what other changes can be introduced in the same manner that will reinforce the initial change and move the organization closer to an adaptive culture?

fiona-savage's picture

I don't thing anyone would expect a large scale change to be undertake, in systems thinking the first step is to create curiosity ? Did you watch the below videos? John Seddon answer your question in the first video. Avaiv started in one department and once the outcomes were see then began to roll out the the program.

How do we change thinking? from John Seddon Business Physiologist

Aviva Systems Thinking

When one part of a system is changed with out taking the whole system into account the law of unintentional consequences pop up, if a positive outcome occurs we call it good luck or if its a negative out come occurs it called a disaster, a parts "Role NOT Position" cannot have individual goals apart from the system. Playing devils advocate ! You have mentioned the positive aspect of changing from "Role NOT Position" What might be the unintentional consequences other than the positive aspect you mentioned?

monique-jordan_1's picture

Fiona, Brilliant!!! I looked at the videos and they say exactly (only better) what's rolling around in my head. I do get systems thinking and agree the goal is not to teach the concept but to live it... how do we do this on a large scale?

fiona-savage's picture

Monique, you may also like this video on how to undo current thinking, which is the flip side to your question. we need to unlearn to beable to relearn!

Undoing current thinking

fiona-savage's picture

Absolutely Monique! Gandhi quote is what it’s all about, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

People say they understand what systems thinking but often can’t articulate it, fundamentally it’s a different way of thinking and once you believe that at least 85% of outcomes are from the system and less than 15% are from the people the focus shifts.

Systems thinking it’s just like nature you do not attempt to make big changes, evolution is slow, I have been involved in systems thinking for just over two years and see the momentum gathering and I firmly believe the tipping point on systems thinking is emerging.

First step is to create curiosity, it’s not a logical process for most as it counter-intuitive. Then take a project and use PDCA (plan–do–check–act). Once the results are seen the organisation will buy into the concept and it is then rolled out. Happy employees satisfied customers, reduced costs and increase customer loyalty all add up to a better bottom line.

Monique, you may be interested in a group I belong to;

The Unreasonable Learners www.unreasonable-learners.com/

Lifting the human spirit by exploring new ways of working together within organisations colleagues within this group are eclectic! The founder of the group was trained by Edward Deming, other by Peter Sege and John Seddon and more. We also have members who present at symposiums on CAS, Human Systems, others trained in Spiral Dynamics, postgraduate degrees in Mindfulness, Physiologists, and members of Chartered FCIPD. Others work with UNICEF. and social enterprise. We all a common understanding of systems thinking and are continually learning and sharing with each other. We have all learned that that you can have the best intentions, great motivation but if underpinned thinking is wrong introducing new methods is just like putting icing on a S*** pie! (excuse language)

One of the biggest cost to an organisation is failure demand;
1. Value Demand – doing that which adds real value to your external and/or internal customers
2. Failure Demand – failing to do the right things that would deliver value or doing the wrong things both of which consume more resource to minimise the damage caused by these failures.

Failure Demand runs between 40%-60%. In both public and private organisations. In the Scottish public sector the “Christy report June 2011” estimated failure dammed runs at above 40%, simply put, for ever billion pounds spend they are wasting 400M! The Unreasonable Learner a group both Andy Lippok and I are actively involved in, have been lobbing MSP, civil servants and petition Scottish Government on this topic!

Andy Lippok and I are trying to set up a Google + or Skype call about Systems thinking see and’s Hack you are welcome to join

heidi-de-wolf's picture

I agree, HR and OD's role is to support better informed decisions by sharing balanced information (not one-sided - more like 'if you do ... then' & 'if you don't ... then') through a coaching style of facilitation.

fiona-savage's picture

Hi Heidi., You may all-read have seen this in some type of public sector journal given you work for Lincolnshire County Council., Head of Housing at Portsmouth City Council was one of 6 winners of the world’s first ever management innovation prize, ‘The M-Prize’ for his extraordinary work in housing repairs. Portsmouth City Council did this by using Systems Thinking



Interesting thoughts, Gillian and Grant.

Grant, I would think that everyone, who is interested, could help do many of the tasks you mention. For example, I imagine that by using collaborative technologies / social media / platforms like this one / blogs / micro blogs / brainstorming platforms and/or other tools such as the ones Joris Luijke writes about in his interesting blog posting http://www.managementexchange.com/hackathon/contribution/big-enemy-good, everyone could help contribute to, for example, defining needs, problems and reasons for problems, developing ideas, selecting ideas, and/or help make ideas happen by doing a variety of practical things that you touch upon. In that respect, I find Gillian’s idea of micro roles / micro tasks that people decide to take on for short periods of time – for example a few hours / days at a time – interesting.

fiona-savage's picture

Systems Thinking (Deming and others) is a fundamental challenge to the current management orthodoxy. It is diametrically opposed to command and control thinking. Gone are the functional specialization and procedures.

You no longer hear that’s not in my job description” or “the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

We have seen some amassing transformation of performance in both public and private sector using the systems thinking method. Including a reduction in failure demand which reducing costs. Phenomenal outcomes, for public services waiting times, rescued from months to next day provision.

See Forget your people – real leaders act on the system, posted here on the MIX.http://www.managementexchange.com/story/forget-your-people-%E2%80%93-rea...

Aviva insurance in the private sector has been very transparent in their uses of systems thinking and these two videos below show the repose, I will let the story of Aviva speak for its self.

How do we change thinking?

Aviva Systems Thinking

If your intresed to find out more on Sytems thinking as discribed above do a webserch on any of these names Deming, John Seddon in Vanguard, Peter Senge, Ackoff, Scholtes.

Great proposal.
My background is in projects, programmes, business start-ups and organisational change (25 years) and have always ignored position descriptions.
I find it more useful to think of co-workers/ collaborators/ leaders etc as having the following roles, Problem formulators, Problem solvers, Practical do-ers, Pathfinders( whole system thinkers). The roles of Networker, Sensing and Sense-making are also evolving as essential roles in a fast changing, complex world.
Others ???

Monique, thanks for opening this rich discussion. Roles are a fabulous way of linking task boundaries to individuals in a system. An egample of a role from the Agile development language of 'DSDM Atern' system, where roles are allocated on a project basis, is say the role of "Solution Developer" or "Business Ambassador". An individual may hold several roles, or one role, and this may change from project to project.

The concept of roles also jells with the adaptability required at a personal level. For egample to respond to a situation in the moment, one might ask which micro-role I need to adopt? This may point to archetypes, which by their existance offer adaptability.

andy-lippok's picture

What's the role of the manager in a truly infected and practicing systems thinking organisation? It is simply to remove the obstacles that get in the way of the people doing the job. And the role of the people doing the work. understand what the customer wants, redesign the work to deliver what the customer wants. The position is a symptom of command and control thinking, is outdated and needs to go.
In my view HR and people practitioners should start to become the change it and they want the organisation to be, and I reckon the key area would be around the systems thinking as espoused and demonstrated both academically and eminently practically by Deming, John Seddon in Vanguard, Senge, Ackoff, Scholtes, and countless others.

All change beings at the thinking level and not the doing level, yet the result of the change in thinking then delivers change at the doing level. Great intentions, motivation and competencies underpinned by the wrong thinking changes little.

Managers need to recognise the organisation as a system, it’s their job to remove the obstacles within the organisation. They also need to understand human motivation (Dan Pink, Alfie Kohn, etc.). Design of the work from the outside in, and focus on what is the real purpose what matters to the customer. Then, analyse the demand, design measures for what matters, then when you understand the systems thinking that determines the current way of doing things, you simply get the people who do the work to re-design the work in order to achieve purpose and what really matters, and what happens is almost magical! Service improves, costs reduce, morale increases, and the culture change happens for free. At no time do we do anything to the people, we simply get the people to work on the work. That's the systems thinking at the practical and yet quite profound level that I believe HR could help to make organisations more adaptable and adept.
If you want to work more on the Systems Thinking hack, please join the team on page 2!

stephen-remedios's picture

Language is everything - that's the way we give meaning to everything, the way we express ourselves. I think you have a very important idea here. A departure from positions and hierarchical designations will create a more open and transparent organization. I think Thomas Bata was ahead of his time when he carried a business card that read - Shoe Sales Man!

To complement your interesting idea / hack, Monique, as well as what Fiona mentions, I learned by listening to this conversation between Ms. Terri Kelly and Gary Hamel http://youtu.be/47yk2upT7tM that people working for Gore have no titles.

fiona-savage's picture

Ops posted twice

fiona-savage's picture

W.L.Gore ... found through trial and error that 150 employees per plant was most ideal. They work as a connected enterprise, with no silo-zisation as you said a.ll are know as associates

ulrich-nettesheim's picture

Monique - love this idea of role not position. The Holocracy One organization has pushed this concept far already as mentioned by other comments below. I would encourage you/us to think about not only changing the names of positions, but changing the structure of the organization to a temporary role based approach. There is a need - you role is to fill it. When that work is completed, you move on to another role (another need). Temporary work contracts based these roles as well- so that purpose is baked into the essence of the role. Fix X, invent Y, move Z. When its done you move on and the role goes away. It becomes a rethinking of organization architecture and governance, not simply naming conventions. Thanks for your thoughts!

fiona-savage's picture

Yes I totally agree and understand the move to roll bases working labels. My comments were in the context of employee’s temporary contract in a system that does not allow them to perform.

Of course a organisation is part of a system that stretches beyond the company. What would be the unintended consequences on the economy of a high number of employee’s on temporary contract?

fiona-savage's picture

Semco a highly successful company is one of the most interesting companies on the planet. There are no job titles and no personal assistants. People set their own salaries. Everybody shares in the profits. So I love the idea of the flat structure and would even say roll are not needed.

However I am horrified at the suggestion of temporary work contracts! Companies like Semco value employees highly and employees respond to being valued and not being a disposable commodity.

Temporary work contracts smack of saving money and could be seen as emotional blacking mail of employees. How would a high volume of employees on temporary contract reflect in the economy?

If you so much as skim the business pages in a newspaper, there's little doubt you've heard it said or seen it written that corporate officers and directors are required by law to maximize shareholder value and that they're subject to lawsuits if their decisions favor any other stakeholder such as employees, customers, or suppliers over profit. The well-entrenched view started by Milton Friedman that shareholders are paramount is widely regarded as the cornerstone of contemporary business law -- and it's flatly untrue.

In The Shareholder Value Myth, business law professor Lynn Stout proves this point, citing chapter and verse in court decisions going back more than a century.

Companies that will be successes full in the 21st century will have a purpose that differs from the Shareholder Myth. They will value employees and the companies purpose will be far great than making money. As The B team and other enlightened organisation are promoting. Richard Branson priorities, employee, customer then shareholder, how comment to an organisation is an employ on a temporary contract? How do temporary contract fit with the companies social responsibility to employees?

monique-jordan_1's picture

Fiona, I agree that temporary work contracts seem scary when set against the backdrop of current organizational norms. And surely this idea must be able to sustain people's livelihood which would require other types of systemic changes (not exactly sure how it would work, yet) however, I imagine that is could be wonderfully fulfilling if it did. Employees would be more valuable than ever (and would be treated that way) if employers (private, public or nonprofit) had to compete for workers to join specific assignments and employees would be motivated to keep their skills current and produce good work in order to obtain an assignment. It would be very freeing to choose your assignment and take complete charge of your career doing work which is meaningful while playing to your strengths and the length of a temp assignment would vary depending on the business need and employee availability.

I hear too many people today complaining about their work yet take no action to change positions or up-skill to take on new work. The very act of complaining and not taking action also reinforces our current norms and keeps us from becoming adaptive. Maybe the work of HR will include a plan/process or policy for managing transitions, supporting people as they continue to learn, grow and take on new work one assignment at a time.

fiona-savage's picture

Monique, I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding how systems work, a human organisation, a company is a highly complex adaptive system in its own right. Why focus on employee skill when they represent as little as 5% of outcomes?

The key insight here that is total missed by many; when you look at the performance of the organisation, around 95% is determined by the system, i.e. the way the work is designed, and therefore only 5% is determined directly by the people. Therefore, we need to learn to stop using command & control thinking which acts on the people, and instead act on the system, the way the work is designed.

The people doing the work actually do the re-design, managers and leaders remove the obstacles. The adaptability principle necessary here is a complete change in the way we think about organisations, human nature and motivation.

When 95% of outcomes are a design of the system, why focusing on the 5% the employees?

monique-jordan_1's picture

Fiona, I fully understand and appreciate the influence structure (the system) has on outcomes. I agree that we need to make a change in the system and saying that we should stop using command and control thinking is much easier said than done because the system -- specifically the hierarchical structures and titles are currently reinforcing that very behavior -- hence the suggestion to move to role-based jobs.

We are in complete agreement.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Ulrich, you are spot on! Moving to role-based work is a way to flatten our orgs and become more adaptive. While the actual title is more symbolic in nature, it is important to realize that these types of symbols (hierarchical titles are one of many) are deeply embedded and will get in the way if we don't recognize how these symbols influence and reinforce the status quo. Therefore the approach to making such a change must take that into account. Changing the symbol (title that represents a top-down, centralized-power approach to org structure) is a more subtle way to introduce the concept of role-based work. By getting people comfortable and accepting the role-based title before moving into a role-based environment (as you've described).

I have come to believe that resistance to change is far less when people don't have to consider both realities (the old way and the new way) simultaneously. By easing them into a 'revolutionary' way of working more slowly feels more evolutionary and easier to handle. To that end, I believe that covert-disruption (getting buy-in and commitment to the outcome without fully defining the process of getting there) will be necessary if HR is going to lead such a change.

fiona-savage's picture

Hi All
The B team their r vision of the future is a world in which the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.
Business leaders from around the world; Richard Brandon, Arianna Huffington, Mo Ibrahim, Paul Polman, Ratan Tata, Guilherme Leal, Strive Masiyiwa, François-Henri Pinault, Professor Muhammad Yunus, Shari Arison, Kathy Calvin and Honorary Leaders Mary Robinson and Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.

This video many be of interest to your http://bteam.org/leadership/watch-the-plan-b-kick-off-livestream/

perry-timms_1's picture

A good friend of mine called Nick Isles wrote a terrific book in 2010 which I would recommend. It is called "Good Work Guide", Nick is a former advisor to the EU and ex Work Foundation and CIPD. He gives us a reminder of where the shareholder model came from; and what should now be the shape of work and organisaitons to come.

It is very much a hackers' handbook.

In it Nick calls out other measures in his 10 steps to creating good work showing how the results of organisations built on good products and services built, delivered and supported by good people culminates in a sustainable and profitable/cost-effective organisation.

Through Nick's work - which in 2010 widened my sphere of thinking - I support your hack Monique and comments Fiona.



fiona-savage's picture

The Good Work Guide: I was just given a Kindle last night by my nephew who does not use it and was looking for a book to try out on the kindel will down load the The Good Work Guide:

monique-jordan_1's picture

Thank you , I will check out the book

fiona-savage's picture

I totally agree Monique, success needs to be measured in other forms not just GDP.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Your quote at the end of your comment is spot on! and it is the million dollar question that we must answer if we hope to help organizations become more adaptable

heidi-de-wolf's picture


May we need to take it a step further to understand it better? How about strength-based names? Does this then come down to personal marketing, personal reputation and personal resilience? And would psychometric testing support the identification of these strengths or do we trust people to know themselves best through a coaching approach.

I like the TV programmes that turn OCD into a positive strength that can support communities to clean up their streets etc. Everyone has a talent even those that are societally described as a weakness.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - Albert Einstein
So what does this mean for organisations? Some call it Talent Management, other speak of Entrepreneurial thinking. Personally I think the issues created are the result of large structures where people are objectified, and judgement, blame & distrust are the order of the day caused by the large distances between levels in the organisation.

So, how do people react to this objectification? They naturally start working in smaller silo's with their own culture, which leads to competitiveness. HR and other centralised services tend to then try to fight against this under the principle of 'fairness and consistency'. While the intention is a positive one in creating harmony across the organisation, it actually draws organisations back into distrust, objectification and blame culture.

In order to support adaptability, HR needs to let go of the reins, trusting this will install more personal accountability, including individual roles within the organisation (a bit like being an entrepreneur I suppose). Ultimately we need to move towards smaller organisational structures ('the two pizza rule' – Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon) which attracts a cluster of 'free specialist agents' towards 'specified project outcomes'.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Heidi (and all) , thank-you for your thought provoking comments. It is beginning to feel like we are converging towards something that is tangible, doable and efficacious.

What I am suggesting sounds simple and it is a systemic change which means it is not simply changing titles and therefore, not easy to do. In looking at the barriers to adaptive behavior it occurred to me that asking HR to drive a whole new way of working is completely inconsistent with their current purpose and role they play in organizations. Additionally, our HR systems strongly reinforce our current (non-adaptive) behavior and these systems are deeply embedded in our values, beliefs and organizational norms (well below the conscience level) which make changing non-adaptive behavior very difficult. Therefore I strongly believe that changing adaptive behavior requires major systemic changes.

Changing titles to align them with the Value-Added Contribution (VAC) needed from each position to achieve the organization/team goals is a systemic change has significant implications including a natural flattening of the hierarchy (and influences positive movement in all the top rated design principles either directly or indirectly). Of course, this will take time and will be hard because the very people who have attached their self-worth to how much power (the root to almost all of the barriers we have identified) they have, will have to give up their power (as they currently define it) – a difficult, if not impossible request for these people.
I am not suggesting that there are evil power-hungry people trying to control the world. I am suggesting that our current systems (including title hierarchy) lead to non-adaptive behavior that is unnoticed even by people who genuinely espouse desires to create flatter, engaging work environments. Consider the executive who decides to be more visible and schedules regular townhalls so the ‘common-folk’ can see, hear from and ask questions of the ‘Leader’. This is a behavior that is usually fully supported and appreciated by employees (common-folk) and wholly reinforces the hierarchy (control from the center) that these same employees say they don’t like and is dis-engaging. In a truly flat and engaged organization, leadership is a verb not a noun. It is organic and appropriate with different people taking the lead, when needed, depending on the task/problem to be completed/resolved. And there is no great need or desire to see, or be seen by, the ‘leader’ (noun) to feel important, valuable or heard.

The value-added contribution roles enable everyone to play to their strength and do meaningful work that is fulfilling and eliminating the need to be validated by ‘higher-ups’. It also supports much of what I am reading in the mini-hacks about being purpose-driven, with smaller teams organized organically to solve a problem, plan/analyze/deliver/create/invent . . . something – coming together as needed and goal (purpose) focused each person with a valuable contribution to make to the groups success. When that happens we won’t have to come up with ways to get people to collaborate, listen or learn as this will be a natural outcome of the system (org design & structure).

fiona-savage's picture

In order to support adaptability it requires much more than HR letting go of the rains ,as has been said the hieratical structure of management need to be flated and silos need busting! Companies are being destroyed from within by their structure.

Nonhierarchical leadership is decentralized -- the authority to make decisions is spread across a flat organization, not concentrated at the peak of a vertical one. Decentralization gives employees a higher level of responsibility and accountability for their work, as well as bigger stakes in outcomes.

Systems thinking is based on the work and insights of Deming, Ohno, Scholtes and others, a organisation is a highly complex adaptive system in it's own right. The key insight here is that when you look at the performance of the organisation, around 95% of outcomes is determined by the system, i.e. the way the work is designed, and therefore only 5% is determined directly by the people. Therefore, we need to learn to stop using command & control thinking and acting on people, instead managers need to act on the system, the way the work is designed.

No one goes to work to do a poor job, but with 95% of outcomes coming from the system, people in work in systems that do not enable then to do a good job everybody is a genius when working in a well-designed system .

By applying systems thinking business can simultaneously reduce costs through reducing waste, rework, staff attrition and litigation, while increasing quality, customer loyalty, worker satisfaction and, ultimately, profitability

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Fiona, you are right about it not being enough for HR to let go of the reins, however as advisors to the Senior Management team, HR has to be brave enough and take certain risks to advice and challenge the thinking of those whose roles may no longer exist in the flatter hierarchy. Buy-in by all is crucial to transform to a more adaptive system. The question it raises for me is whether HR is best placed and has the right strengths to offer this challenge or are there others who more naturally have this strength to think outside of the box and take bigger risks? I'd welcome people's thoughts on this.

fiona-savage's picture

I think you have raised brilliant question Heidi. Your correct this process is much wider than HR, but little seeds…. Hacking HR is one of many initiatives that is looking at the future of business.

HR maybe the starting point to develop the thinking of senior management team, first HR need to learn and understand that organisations are Complex Adaptive Systems CAS and how CAS function and start education senior management in systems thinking and move away from the outdated reductionist and liner thinking.

There are projects and examples of companies out there that could be utilized to start the think process and that is exactly where changes starts at thinking leave, the first step is always generate curiosity,

Have you seen Richard Branson B Team http://bteam.org/

I have now said this in other hack, over the last few days. I have been mulling over, a few thought re Hacking HR is it underpinned by reductionist and liner thinking? How is Hacking HR are going to connect all these min hacks. Simply by using the voting process will not take into account that the “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s the interaction between that parts that is as important.

Any thoughts?

heidi-de-wolf's picture

I like the expression 'Think Global, Act Local' as it identifies two very different mindsets which in humble opinion represent OD and HR. The challenge is how the two mindsets work as one when one focusses on the bigger picture and the others' strength is detail. One cannot work without the other, but the relationship may suffer in a hierarchy as both may compete for a seat at the top table.

Until the interdependencies between the two parts are fully understood and respected, there will be no integration of the parts.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Fiona & Heidi, very interesting comments and thoughts from both of you. I don't think it is by accident that we are looking at ways (hacking) HR can help increase adaptability. There is a very unique opportunity to leverage HR towards this end if we can get it right. We all see and understand the system that HR is a part of and understand that while HR is clearly part of the problem (positioned to protect the current ways of being) it can also be (and may be the best suited) part of the solution. I like the global/local analogy for HR and OD. It seems that the best place for OD is in HR yet as you both point out it isn't a natural fit as OD seeks to disrupt HR policy where that policy works against the organizations effectiveness. And given the continuing change and direction of change in the world away from purely capitalist mindset to one of sustainability, current HR policy is 'mostly' in the way. Is is possible for OD to create a new type of structure that can be protected by new HR policies?

heidi-de-wolf's picture

I think does come back to the fundamental question of what 'policy' means. In my view, policy is the bridge between Employment Law and day-to-day practice. For every 'must' written in a policy are we really ready to spend time (and money) measuring whether managers are compliant? In my view for all other non-legislative direction HR should offer performance support, guidance, roadmaps, checklists and toolkits.

Thinking Globally though, it is vital to assess every policy for its impact on future direction and sustainability, and not solely inside the organisation. We all know that in the future employees will have very different expectations around the use of technology etc. For example, some organisations have embraced Social Media and Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) Guidance which encourages employees to explore the power of these tools for business.

As to your question whether OD can create a new type of structure, my answer is yes but only in full collaboration with a facilitative HR Service who are brave enough to switch off that which is hindering.

fiona-savage's picture

Most MBA courses are outdated, companies still believe in the “ Sharholder myth” Prof Lynn Stout, you may like to read the book or watched the U-tube. The culture of business needs to change and move away from the shareholder myth, because its “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
Upton Sinclair.

fiona-savage's picture

Monique, there are companies who have a lattice structure that are very successful.
Our world and economy is changing faster than ever before, making companies and corporations consider how they can keep up with these changes. The old hierarchical structure is too slow and unresponsive in the new marketplace. The lattice organisational structure started over 50 years ago,is a possible replacement to the old hierarchical structure, that is currently failing.
W L Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication. Instead, they communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of their multi-disciplined teams. They encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organise around opportunities and leaders emerge.

This kind of corporate structure has proven to be successful and adaptable, and employees enjoy working with W L Gore , Also look at the structure of Semco in Brazil.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Fiona, thank you for sharing these examples. The question for me is how (why) is it that these organizations have moved to new and more engaging structures? I assume the answer has to do with the leader. I am guessing in each of these cases the leader implemented a structure that they believed was better in achieving their goals and is finding these new structures to be viable in the 21st century where successful organizations will need to become adaptive. Unfortunately, most leaders do not know, understand or believe that or they too would change their structures. The current structures have given rise to the majority of today's organizational leaders and it is naturally difficult for them to question those structures without questioning their own success.

Somehow we need to incorporate examples like these as models demonstrating that a flatter structure doesn't take power away from leaders but rather enables leaders to inspire and unleash the collective power of the entire organization. I think the idea of role-based names begin to move us closer -- but at this point it is still mostly an undeveloped idea and I am not sure how to get today's leaders to see what they currently don't see in a way that they can and are compelled to take action on -- I am hoping we will figure that out in this hackathon. :)

bruce-lewin's picture

I like the idea Monique, but my feeling is that politics would soon usurp any title changes (admitedly I don't know how your hack works when it comes to changing roles)...

Lord of the Flies and the Stanford prison experiment (extreme I appreciate) come to mind, but maybe there's more to this than I can see?

monique-jordan_1's picture

Bruce, as with any change (especially anything radical enough to increase adaptability) it must be managed correctly. You are right that politics (along with the rest of the cultural norms) left unchecked (or unmanaged) will -- and frequently do -- usurp any change. I believe that the point of this hack is to find ways to change the norms that prevent organizations from being adaptive and that will not happen by discovering new information as we already know all we need to know to be adaptive. We already know how leaders and followers should behave, in fact the first set of sprints called out all the things that are in the way of being adaptive. The feedback has been spot on but not new or enlightening and this has been a dilemma I've been thinking about for a while -- how is it that we know what is getting in our way but don't act (or can't) on it?

I have come to believe that the problem is deeply embedded in our organizational systems which are designed to reinforce what already exists. I appreciate that you both find merit in my idea and don't understand how it works. This is the first hackathon I've participated in and expect that viable hacks are those that seem to make sense but we have not yet figured out how to do -- if we knew exactly how to execute it would be existing knowledge. If we want our organizations to be adaptive, we must learn how to resolve adaptive challenges like how do you change titles to be more role based (given the degree of political charge associated with titles) in a way that de-politicizes all positions in our organizations? Politics (basically power and control) is a problem for adaptive organizations.

I do actually have some ideas but in keeping to the rules of engagement around mini-hacks I have only shared my idea (albeit half baked :). I am curious to know how you (and others) would approach this type of a change. Clearly this is not an easy shift and will take time and given the way knowledge is shifting the balance of power in favor of knowledge workers, I think the timing is right.

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Monique, I think you're on to something here... it reminds me a lot of the Holocracy work. I'm not too familiar with it, but it may be similar to what you're proposing, along with having some thoughts on implementation...

monique-jordan_1's picture

Bruce, I had not seen the Holocracy work before and it is interesting. Again the information or concepts are not new, we already know what works so how do we make it happen?

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Monique, I think Holocracy is an all or nothing approach, I may be wrong though... but I think they've got some info on making it happen. I suspect it will require some cultural shifts, along with new processes and structures...