“We don’t know where we are,” a client said to me. Last year, a lot of my work focused on organisational changes and the impact that social trends, movements and dynamics have on this sensation of “not knowing where we are”. They are exciting projects, but in all honesty I can tell you that, more often than not, they end up stalling. Much has been made of participative projects, new bottom-up approaches to decision-making, improving leadership and a long etcetera. I’ve been part of this type of projects and, in many cases, I’ve realised that many organisations aren’t actually ready for the changes that would bring them in line with 21st century societies.
Let’s take it in parts.
Where we come from.
In short, Max Weber made the first attempt at defining modern organisational systems as a type of social structure. According to Weber, organisations are a way to coordinate human activities or manage the goods they produce, regularly, through time and space. Weber added that an organisation needs precise rules to function and archives to store its memories. For Weber, any organisation has a hierarchy, with the power at the tip of the pyramid (authority and bureaucracy as the maximum degrees of efficiency). This description corresponded to the birth of modern organisations in the 20th century and was closely tied to the concepts of bureaucracy and charismatic, traditional and legal/rational authority.
Where we are.
Right now, we can say organisations have many traits that come from the models of the 20th century. Models that, however, are becoming obsolete because they:
A) Don’t carry out the functions they were designed to do.
B) Have been affected by the arrival of new technology that has widened the gap between organisations and social trends (thus rendering them obsolete both for those who are part of them and those who interact with them from the outside).
C) Don’t meet the expectations of those who are part of them or those who interact with them from the outside.
There are many definitions of what an organisation is and variables to describe it, but I’ll stick to five basic elements: its organisational structure, decision-making structure, internal culture, leadership styles and permeability to exterior changes.
All five elements tend to give me a pretty precise idea of what I will find in analysing an organisation. Often, with projects of this sort, once I’ve finished the initial diagnosis, it is clear that, for now, some techniques (highly innovative in themselves and their goals but with little future in some contexts) cannot be used without first changing the structure, the decision-making system and/or the internal culture. To say it straight, it can feel like banging your head against a wall.
We could take, as an example, many projects involving internal innovation processes (to generate new ideas, improve systems, create new services), encourage participation (internal and external) and transparency. As sociologist Pablo Collada noted: “Participating is —in theory— quite easy. Achieving transformative participation is harder.” I often think this is due, in part, to the rigid organisational structure.
Something is changing, quite a bit, and organisations, in general, have understood this. This summer, to go no further, I gave an online session on leaderships, team-building and change in organisations to an audience of Russian executives with decision-making power (an opportunity I would like to thank the EU Business School for). I started this introductory session explaining three concepts:
- Organisations, how they were defined and what is happening with them now.
- How these organisations deal with the impact of phenomena stemming from societies where change has accelerated and nothing seems stable (and I stress, ‘seems’).
- How organisations fit into their context.
The message I wanted to get across was the following: you can’t apply some innovation techniques or leadership styles unless you change the organisation and align it with the many social trends and changes we are seeing. As I said at the beginning, this isn’t at all easy. Also a few months ago, at a class in the Master programme at LCI design school in Barcelona, I did a simple but quite effective experiment to show the students this “rigidity” and get them used to co-existing with it (for the time being) when they were designing experiences.
Taking advantage of Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of ‘liquidity’ (and the feeling of constant instability), I had them spend some ten minutes dripping water (a symbol of society today) onto hard cardboard boxes (organisations). The water bounced off, hit the walls of the bucket, even, at one point, seemed to be penetrating the cardboard. But the hard boxes kept their shape and couldn’t be changed. This was the feeling I was looking for. Actually, most organisations aren’t open to change and this is a luxury, I believe, we cannot afford. Many define organisations as a social phenomenon (and I fully agree), so they must start adapting to these changes in participation, improved decision-making and, above all, internal culture. Leadership styles tend to be a great help, but they’ll come up against the wall of the internal culture again and again (like the drops of water on the boxes). We have to find the spaces, the ways, to make changes, gradually if necessary, but real. The other way, I think, would lead organisations to disappear completely.
 Max Weber, Economy and Society, 1922
 Pablo Collada, “21st century citizenship: Education + Participation + Technology”. Democracia Abierta, 14 June 2017