In an article about strategy and execution, Roger Martin, in 2017 named the world’s #1 management thinker by Thinkers50, wrote in the Harvard Business Review:
“To fix our problem with strategy failure, we need to stop thinking in terms of the brain-to-body metaphor. Instead, we should conceive of the corporation as a white-water river in which choices cascade from the top to the bottom.”
Roger Martin does well to identify a disconnect between strategy and execution. However, it is interesting that when he does so, his criticism is still firmly embedded in a language of traditional, top-down hierarchy.
When organizations are run in a traditional hierarchical/functional manner, then inevitably silos are created. The various elements of the organization that are there to deliver the purpose for which the organization exists are artificially divided and experience a lack of flow. No wonder strategy and execution become fragmented and lose their sense.
A new management science
The problem is that so many organizations lag behind in their understanding of complex reality. Thanks to new science, we have a much deeper understanding of how nature, at every level, works. This new understanding is systemic. Life, as we experience it on this planet at every level, is based on interdependencies and interconnections. We exist, as Fritjof Capra has brilliantly pointed out, within a “web of life”, a network of interdependencies. Absorbing and applying this knowledge to management is what will take us to a new level in the ability to deliver the purpose of an organization.
The starting point for the shift in overcoming the artificial barriers in structure and actions is in our thinking. Leaders and managers need to think systemically. They need to learn to link together three faculties of the intellect to remain at the helm of the transformation process:
- The ability to generate new ideas (intuition);
- the ability to understand the full spectrum of implications of these newly developed ideas (understanding);
- the ability to design and execute a plan consistent with this understanding (knowledge).
In order to produce results, this systemic intelligence has to be complemented by a rigorous method of investigation that is typical of science. Dr. Edwards Deming embedded this rigorousness into the PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycle and its statistical underpinnings.
Last, but not least, systemic intelligence and PDSA have to be supported by a consistent organizational structure. Such a structure must be systemic in nature; this allows us to overcome the strictures of the traditional hierarchical/functional organization and to free individuals from the prison of wrong interdependencies.
We can do that practically by:
1. building interdependent processes managed through the control of variation
2. subordinating these interdependencies to a strategically chosen element of the system called constraint
3. designing the organization as a network of interdependent projects with a goal
The problem is not, as Roger Martin seems to suggest, the prevailing view of strategy. It’s the prevailing style of management. It is not about upstream and downstream or above and below. No amount of good intentions or techniques will fix the problem. It is about thinking, understanding and implementing in a systemic way and creating an interconnected continuum.
It’s a whole new world.
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About the Blog Author and Editor
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management and author of the business novel+ website The Human Constraint that has sold in over 20 countries. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore, founder, and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York.