Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

chris-grams's picture

Sprint 1.3 Synthesis: The Design Principles of Adaptable Organizations

By Chris Grams on June 7, 2022

In Sprint 1.3, we turned our attention away from the things that get in the way of our organizations becoming more adaptable to focus on the building blocks of adaptable organizations—the design principles that might help evolve the DNA of all organizations.

In Sprint 1.3, we turned our attention away from the things that get in the way of our organizations becoming more adaptable to focus on the building blocks of adaptable organizations—the design principles that might help evolve the DNA of all organizations.

Over the past few years, Gary Hamel and the MIX team have studied organizations at the vanguard of management innovation, all the while building insight into the core principles that undergird the most resilient, inventive, and inspiring organizations. So to get this sprint started, we pre-populated the list of design principles with some of our favorites. But we were also excited to take advantage of the combined knowledge and experience of the 1000+ of you now participating in this hackathon. Our hope was that by combining perspectives we’d generate new and interesting insights.

We were not disappointed.

What follows is a list of some of the most important design principles that might help our organizations become more adaptable, as developed by the hackathon team. You’ll notice that many of these principles encompass broad categories. Some of them overlap and some are deeply intertwined. But we hope you’ll agree that they all provide clues that will help us begin to hack adaptability in Sprint 2.1.

Design Principle #1: Experimentation & Learning

To continue to adapt, organizations must experiment more frequently and learn more quickly.

In Sprint 1.3, it became very clear contributors viewed experimentation and learning as critical elements of adaptability.

In Continuous Improvement, Deb Seidman says “The habit of the mind is to question what is and be free to define what could be.” She suggests we need experimentation not simply “for its own sake, but rather experimentation with a purpose.”

In Experimentation, Sandy Wilkie notes that “adaptive organisations give time & space for employees to think differently, experiment, and innovate. An important part of this is accepting that mistakes will occur and probably a number of blind-alleys will be encountered during the experimentation phase.”

In Learning Organizations, David Rajesh Sundardas suggests “organizations adapt effectively when learning continuously and even more effectively when learning from failures.”

Design Principle #2: Transparency & Openness

A committed and clever approach to transparency energizes and connects people across boundaries. The most open organizations—in spirit, design, and practice—are the most engaging and nimble.

The hackathon team also clearly identified the opportunity for greater transparency and openness, and contributors like Andy Lippok pointed to the open (and wildly successful) culture of the Internet as a key driver and model to examine. As hackathon participants observed, this principle is not only about free flow of information, but also about being inclusive and receptive to outside perspectives.

In Transparency, Chris Willis , while agreeing that transparency is critical, notes that just opening the floodgates to information without proper filters or context is also dangerous. He thinks that “perhaps one of the keys to success for future business leaders will be the ability to curate and push the right data at the right time to those who need it, then empower them with the tools and authority to assemble on demand and act on that information appropriately.”

In Openness, Martin Sutherland points out “a structure that is restrictive cannot open channels through which information can flow.” He further suggests that openness goes beyond the ideas of openness in the context of transparency, and also refers to approaching opportunities with an open mind. “A mind that is closed to possibilities cannot even begin to adapt because it blocks any new or anomalous information that is the catalyst for change,” he says.

In Accessibility – More Appetite, Less Approval, Sean Schofield observes that “transparency is a great first step to—at least—enable visibility, but if we wish to enable execution there must be thought given to transforming ‘giving access’ into ‘access given’ by default.” His reasoning: “Nothing withers excitement like having to "wait and get permission." Let the hungry have at it.”

Which brings us to our next principle…

Design Principle #3: Autonomy & Trust

Increasing trust and reducing fear opens the door for the kind of participation, experimentation, and passion that is so crucial to building resilience. Shifting the balance from control to freedom unleashes new levels of individual initiative, imagination, and involvement in the organization.

By cultivating a high-trust environment and injecting more autonomy into every practice and policy, individuals can take the lead when it comes to building a more adaptable organization.

In Trust and Empowerment Across the Organization, Tojo Eapen notes that “trust and credibility are built through conscious organizational behaviors at all levels” including “the best intentions assumed by default” and leading to a culture where “everyone is actively invested in, feels that she/he contributes to and works towards the success of the organization.”

In Autonomy, Leila Ljungberg points out that in organizations with a high degree of freedom, autonomy becomes an important point to consider in the recruiting process. In her words, potential employees should consider “are they ready to be their own captain?” Those who are not shouldn’t join the organization, and those who are “will contribute, will develop (in more ways than perhaps [their] traditional set of skills, since [they] will have to understand the business and [their] part of it) and [they] will control [their] future.”

In Empowered Enthusiasm, Keith Gulliver observes that people in adaptive organizations “are empowered to make decisions at the point it matters most: customer interaction” and “are encouraged to take sensible risks.” The result is that they are often “passionate about what they do” and “ooze enthusiasm.”

Design Principle #4: Purpose & Meaning

Organizations must offer a compelling case for why what they do matters, one that animates and aligns every person in the organization—and every person the organization touches.

To fully engage the hearts and minds of employees, organizations must have an original and persuasive blueprint for where they, their employees, and their industry could and should be going.  They also need to integrate the purpose or values into management practices, so that these are made meaningful/reinforced for people in their daily work.

In Purpose, Kev Wyke suggests that “a key principle of adaptability is understanding, and keeping right in front of us at all times, our Purpose, the reason why we do what we do, the reason why our organisation exists, that great and wonderful thing that we are setting out to achieve.” According to Kev, “purpose is central to understanding who we are, what we are trying to achieve and how we want to go about it. It helps us find meaning in what we do, both as organisations and as individuals, enables us to have our sights set on a bigger goal and to react to the environment that changes around us enabling us to adapt our systems to meet those new demands.”

In Meaning, Edna Pasher states “in the age of informing ourselves to death people drown in data and information and badly need help to make sense of it all.” For her, “meaning emerges out of meaningful conversations made possible in organizations that allow for them, enhance them, create time and space for them, etc.”

Design Principle #5: Diversity

Organizations that welcome and value diversity and dissent—that are as energetic about exploring the edges as they are about preserving the core—are better able to anticipate and respond to changes in the environment.

Organizations that don’t embrace and exploit a diversity of experiences, values, and capabilities will be unable to generate a rich variety of ideas, options, and experiments—the essential ingredients of strategic renewal.

According to CIPD Chief Executive Peter Cheese, diversity is an important factor for several reasons. First, he says “diversity is the source of innovation - different experiences, different backgrounds, different skills, coming together to think of new ways to solve old problems.” But secondly, “diversity reflects the communities and societies in which every business works, so engaging and working with a more diverse workforce vs. just continuing to recruit people that look and think like us, will help create organisations that are better mirrors of the communities they serve.”

For Peter, “the challenge is then to ensure that we are aligning this more diverse workforce, and that begins with a shared sense of purpose and values, as well as amongst other things a better adaptation of talent management practices that can accommodate the diverse nature, aspirations, and needs of a more diverse workforce.”

In Evolution, Stefan Blobelt channels Charles Darwin, using evolution as a metaphor for adaptability in organizations. He says that there are three fundamental principles that help companies evolve: variation, selection, and amplification. “To be adaptive, organizations have to implement variation (via experiments, diversity, and sufficient slack), selection (via forward orientation, focus, holism, and complex adaptive models), and amplification (via investments into people who live by management 2.0 principles),” he says.

Design Principle #6: Flexibility

To intercept opportunities that come and go at lightning speed, organizations must be able to quickly reconfigure capabilities, infrastructure, and resources.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, rigid unit boundaries, functional silos, political fiefdoms, and deep-seated inertia hamper the rapid realignment of skills and assets. To become more adaptable, companies must close the gap between “sense” and “respond” wherever they can—whether by organizing themselves into smaller units or creating fluid, project-based structures.

In Disaggregation, Sandy Wilkie points to W.L Gore as a good example of this. “Their organisational culture is typified as a 'flat lattice', with the emphasis on relationships, multi-disciplinary teamwork and flexible projects that generate innovation. There is something about the freedom that smaller project teams have that allows quicker decision-making and a shorter cycle time from design through prototyping to implementation,” he says.

Hendrik Dejonckheere believespeople in organizations must all have the power to organize for the better.” According to him, “disaggregation is only a condition to recreate the spirit of the start-up where everybody sees himself as a builder of the company.”

In Human Inspired Organization, Johnny H. Ryser uses a powerful metaphor to explain these concepts of natural fluidity and flexibility. “When we just use the natural way of organizing everything I believe we could save enormous amounts of energy and resources,” he says. “It is like sailing a sailboat: If you understand the nature of wind and waves, you will be able to sail smooth and fast, whereas you will get blown backwards if you don´t understand the basic principles.”

Design Principle #7: Creativity

Everyone is born with the natural capacity to create, yet more organizations are designed to cramp that essential human gift rather than to unleash it.

While we know a lot about how to engender human creativity — equip people with innovation tools, allow them to set aside time for thinking, de-stigmatize failure, create opportunities for serendipitous learning — little of this knowledge has infiltrated management systems. Worse, many companies institutionalize a sort of creative apartheid. They assign the label “creative” to select individuals and roles — and tacitly (or not) relegate the rest to mundane work. Management processes must nurture innovation in every corner of the organization.

In Creativity, Frank Calberg says “to adapt to and participate in developing new realities, I would think that a certain degree of creativity is needed [and] everyone can be creative.” He agrees that there should be ways to adapt organizational culture to optimize creativity. “I think we can help each other learn to become more confident and competent in thinking creatively, seeing and trying out something new. Besides practicing how we work efficiently, I would think that it is just as important to practice how we use our imagination to work in different ways / renew what and how we do things / discover new opportunities / create something new that adds value in different ways,” he says.

Indy Neogy was shocked that creativity wasn’t rated even higher, feeling it is crucial for organizational adaptability. “It's no accident that all the big corporations who claimed they were in a "war for talent" rarely looked for new pools of talent. No blue sky thinking,” he says.

Design Principle #8: Peer Collaboration

Collaboration and accountability should be driven horizontally through peer-to-peer interactions, rather than vertically through the chain of command.

Traditional organizations managed through hierarchy are ill-suited to collaboration, since decisions and interactions move up and down the structure, and each structure is siloed from others.   Accountability also flows up and down, with most people only having one boss, which can be problematic if that boss isn’t open to embracing change. To be adaptable, organizations need collaboration that can connect peers more naturally wherever they are, with shared accountability amongst the group.

In Subscription, Julie Steel asserts that “relationships between individuals and how power is distributed in a truly adaptable organisation need a new paradigm.” She suggests a “subscription” model where each individual has the “ability/right to terminate a subscription or de-subscribe from a toxic manager or bullying peer” while “underpinning any subscription are core explicit organisational values and shared purpose statements.”

According to Hendrik Dejonckheere in Peer Regulation, “peer regulation is so valuable because most people aren't capable of self-discipline in all areas.” He believes “peer regulation means transparency, systematic sharing of personal purpose, goals, development-targets and organizing reflection between colleagues” and that “defining of what each and everyone expects from the other can be a good start.”

Design Principle #9: Natural Leadership and Meritocracy

Status and influence derive from the ability to get things done with other people and from demonstrated excellence rather than from the ability to accumulate positional power.

As change accelerates, authoritarian power structures will become ever more untenable.  In traditional hierarchies, power flows down from the top, rather than up from the bottom.  This model encourages managers to safeguard their careers by “managing up,” rather than by managing out and down.  It also produces misalignments between positional power and leadership capability, and thereby undermines employee morale.

Julien Pascual suggestswe could even consider, more than ‘natural’ leadership, that tomorrow’s leadership is granted to leaders by the employees themselves. You are not a leader, you are selected to be the leader by people, because people trust you to personify the purpose of the activity, the project you will lead. That means, in some projects you can be a leader, in others a contributor. Leading becomes a duty and not a right.”

Andy Lippok observes that “adaptability and agility will be dependent upon people collaborating spontaneously to meet a need however and from wherever the need arises. They can no longer afford to wait for direction, if they do the opportunity will be missed.”


What do you think? Do you agree with these nine design principles of adaptable organizations? Do you think we’ve missed any crucial principles? If so, let us know in the comments section below.

In Sprint 2.1, we’ll explore how to take advantage of many of these key principles as we begin the hacking phase.

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nigel-cox's picture

I am only now catching up with this, so I hope I have not missed some key outputs. However, I am concerned that there is insufficient weight being given to basing what we do on evidence and understanding what evidence for our professional interventions looks like. For this reason, I applaud the group for placing experimentation and learning as #1 principle. I look forward to seeing the evidence that this and the other principles have the impact on organisations and on HR professional practice we so desperately need.

Richard's comment about customer focus is really important. For HR to be effective, they need to understand how their business meets customers' needs and provides a great experience in each transaction and interaction conducted through the (hopefully) enduring relationship. That meeting of need, or pre-empting emerging need (e.g. Peter Cheese's CIPD instigating these debates enables free discussion and sharing of ideas), sits at the heart of purpose and meaning. Peter Drucker distinguished between starting a business to meet need and investing in one to make money. Where HR is operating on a different track, e.g. a HR team in a retailer that doesn't know the core performance figures, they are not going to be particularly helpful or constructive. Every job in the organisation needs to have a clear line of site out to the customer. If it doesn't it is superfluous. And this extends up the supply chain, too. Even in these days of pell mell change and voracious competition, the old adage of structure follows strategy and person fits structure remains apposite. It falls apart when everything is rigid and "HR process" gums up the system, which is not a mechanical one but is a biological one because it involves people.

The key to me is that HR needs to be better aligned to the business strategy. It is HR's role to build the leadership capacity to deliver the organisation's strategic goals. HR can either take a lead in this activity or wait to be told what the organisation needs. If HR wants to be considered a truly equal partner in the leadership team, then they need to align their activities with the business strategy and deliver what the business needs. That requires an external focus to proactively identify the workforce needs to deliver the strategy.

I have missed the need for 'de-regulation' as a means to become more agile and adaptable. Most companies are now too overregulated because they are afraid not to be compliant or are afraid for any other reason.
Not only many HR processes are complex and time-consuming and do not deliver against promises (e.g. Performance management). Also many other processes from various disciplines such as finance, procurement etc. are frustrating and time consuming because they entail too many control mechanisms.
Another topic that can prevent improvement is a negative view on people in general. Especially if this view is widely shared by senior management. A negative view would be that people are viewed as irresponsible and not able to make clever decisions. If (senior) management support this negative view it can be destructive for any progress.

miguel-sacramento_1's picture

From Triple Helix to Turbine

There are two questions to be answered before starting any action towards developing Adaptability in an organization.
1st Why should the organization become adaptable?
2nd How to know what would have to be changed in the organization?
Before spreading the answers of these two questions throughout the organization any effort will be worthless. Why? Because there must be a very good reason to the huge effort required to create an adaptable organization. People will demand understanding it!

From my point of view what the two answers should be:
First question - I would explain that any organization is an open system that must be continuously adapted to the environment in order to survive. I would also emphasize that environment has been changing at different speeds in different organizations, but always at increasing speeds. There are many examples of companies that, failing to adapt, died. Fear and survival are powerful incentives to changing.

Second question - I would explain that the first challenge most organizations has faced is finding out how environment is changing. And that most organizations are not affected just by local changes anymore but by changes occurring anywhere around the world. It means that environment has become much bigger therefore harder to be monitored.
The Triple Helix approach – Government, University and Industry defining what the next steps must be – is not working anymore. Since the beginning of this century changes are mostly coming from the social economic environment and three blades are not enough to “hear” its new demands. In order to get answers to the second question organizations should use the Turbine concept – multi blades exchanging information with the social economic environment. But what would these multi blades be? They are many, several tools continuously created by the Information and Communication Technologies ICT.
Applying the Turbine concept in order to improve Adaptability firstly requires the organization to humbly accept that it doesn’t own the knowledge anymore. Knowledge is spread all over the world. It means monitoring the social economic environment by continuously introducing ICT new tools. It means transforming the organization in a knowledge hub able to anticipate what environment movements will be demanding from the organization.

From the first question we will get the indispensable meaning, necessity and motivation. And as soon as the Turbine concept is implanted, changing will not be someone’s personal decision anymore but a demand from the environment (which customers belong to) … therefore accomplishing means survival!

Design Principle #5: Diversity

Solution: Make HR independent

Diversity is not in the roots our social behaviour to survive as a group, one has to be able to predict what others are going to do, their behavior and decisions. (multinationals are manageable in that way) If diversity is a condition to be more adaptive, something has to change in an extreme way, disruptive.

It's time to recognise that shareholders value and human develpment are different topics. Only one can drive the car. Solution could be to outsource HR (all employees, except the board)

*Design enterprise: strategy, production, profit. = Hiring teams and professionals.
*Design HR: independent cooperations with specialized teams, professionals. The profit of the HR cooperation can be used for all things HR was used to + pensions!

Being adaptive
What I learned is that professionals are well able to organize their own professional education. It's their life. People have their own blue print and direction they want to develop, ever heart of an ICT professional with permission for an acting class, what if it's his/her dream? A HR cooperation can set a clear culture of curiousity, essential is a broad orientation and rich reference framework.

andy-gilbert's picture

I think you have missed the point & design principle of "Solution Focused Thinking at all levels" . Under "Creativity", you mention that "management processes must nurture innovation in every corner of the organisation". I believe that they must go beyond this and enable/embed "Solution Focused Thinking at all levels". This design principle not only includes creativity, it also encompasses enables the principles of "Flexibility", "Experimentation & Learning" (see Deb & Sandy's comments re habits of the mind & thinking differently), Transparency & Openness (see Martin's comment re approaching opportunities with an open mind) and Autonomy & Trust. Your comment about shifting from control to freedom unleashing new levels of individual initiative has to not only be done through management practices but also the individual having the desire, belief, thinking skills to be solution focused. "Organisational Adaptability" starts in the heads of its people with them thinking in an adaptable & solution focused way. This needs to happen at all levels.
Having written this I am not sure if "enabling Solution Focused Thinking at all levels" is a principle of design or a Management Hack. Either way, I hope it helps someone with their thinking.

richard-james-barnes's picture

Missed this due to being away on holiday but I feel that customer-focus is not well represented although it is touched upon in openness and diversity. As I have said before we are fooling ourselves if we think that we are in charge of change any longer. Empathy with customers will be the dominant skill of successful organisations. Adapatability to changes in customer needs and demands will mean that everyone from back room to front will have to start facing outwards, capturing data from the digital as well as the practical environment. The challenge for organisations is to create a core business system to channel that information into new design and service opportunities and deliver them rapidly to market before the market moves again. HR, Finance, Audit and other corporate controllers have to rethink their purposes to prevent themselves from being a block or drag to this process which is organic and fluid, not structured from 'building blocks' like training modules or ISO Standards.

Organisations will need to distribute decision making much more widely in order to handle the traffic which such a system will generate so I like the idea of the latticed organisation structure referred to by another contributor.

michele-zanini_4's picture

Hi Richard, thanks for your comment--you make a valid point about the need to develop a customer focus (and more broadly an outward-focused orientation). There's lots that HR can to do help reinforce this in terms of skill building, org design, etc. The list of principles mentioned in the blog are by no means exhaustive, so feel free to generate hacks based on customer focus in this phase!