operating-system-agile

Have you ever faced the challenge of leading or championing a change that felt overwhelming? Where the gap between what life is like today and what you envision is so wide and vast that you are not sure where to start?

If you’ve spent any time around technology companies (and most businesses today are in the technology business*), you will most likely hear something about being more adaptable and agile in the way technology is developed, the way teams are led, and the way individuals are provided growth and development opportunities. In some companies, doing things in an agile manner – that places the customer first, delivers value every time, values collaboration, and makes feedback an integral part of pivots and adaption as a way of life – is not something they need to transform or become. They “get it.” Leaders support it. Teams execute on it and are rewarded for it.

But for some organizations, the road to being more agile is a bit more challenging because it fundamentally requires a different operating system.

Three organizational operating systems

In his theory of Structural Dynamics, David Kantor identifies three types of operating systems that emerge in any human social system where information is being transferred. They are Open, Closed and Random. Think of these like the operating system on your computer: they are the norms, rules and beliefs that shape and govern behavior within a system.

Here is a quick overview of each of the three systems:

  • Open System is oriented toward the collective. A belief here might be “hearing every voice is valuable and people will support what they help to create.” Leadership manages towards what’s best for the system, rather than what’s best for the individual. It’s okay to offer dissenting views and to speak candidly, even to those with power. Authority and power are shared.
  • Random System is the place of innovation, autonomy and freedom. Random systems can create, invent and make decisions in varying ways and at varying levels. A belief here might be “allowing autonomy for choices and decisions reveals new solutions that we never knew possible.” The focus in the random system is more on individuals, while authority and power are shared.
  • Closed System is the place of order and rules as well as predictability and efficiency. A belief here might be “order, roles and responsibilities – and a clear process for making decisions – are required to get things done.” The focus in the closed system is on the leader. You may see deference to power for decisions.

Why you need a balance

One system is not better than another. Like anything, each system has its advantages and its dark side (when overused). The overuse of open system could lead to a lack of clear decision making or fatigue of group process. Overuse of random system can feel chaotic and exhausting, or cause innovation burnout. Overuse of closed system can shut down new ideas and input that may be valuable.

While agile values align more with the beliefs in an open system, it does not mean that there is not room for both closed and random inside an agile organization. In fact, it is quite the opposite: organizations need a balance of all three systems. The balance may look different in each, but where organizations get into trouble is when there is a value judgement placed on one system over the other two.

For example, a startup company who operates 90% in a random system can have great success initially. But as the organization grows, there will be a need for some aspects of closed system. An example may be putting some definition or structure around roles and responsibilities to provide guidance and help people make decisions. Putting a process in place is a closed system thing to do, but doing it in a way that informs decisions, rather than becoming a checklist, honors the random system preferences.

Another example would be a large organization that has existed for many years with much success in closed system. The system is designed to support and reward authority; clear and structured decision making; and defined rules and processes. But what happens when the external environment changes around that company and they need to be able to adapt more to customer needs? Their journey to becoming more agile will look and feel very different. They will need to address loosening their grip on formal processes. They may really struggle with a transformation to agile, as the agile values and principles are more similar to open system.

Organizations can get themselves into trouble when they operate predominantly within one system. When closed is predominant, there is a value judgment placed on open and random as not being worthwhile. It is assumed that non-closed systems will not get results. This leads to overuse of one system.

Think of each system like knobs on equalizer: you need a mix of all three, depending on the situation. In the examples above, the goal is not to completely turn off one and turn up another. Instead, the goal is to balance the levels so that each system is heard.

In this way, you can create conversations where people in the organization can identify when the system is not serving them any longer and start from there.

Navigating change through the operating system lens

So what’s next? How do you work with change when the change you are proposing is different from the system that is in place?

A key tenet of the field of organization development is to “meet them where they are,” regardless of the system they are working in. Here are some ways to do just that:

  • Start by identifying your current system. How would you characterize it? How can you work with it?
  • Ask key questions. What aspect of your current system is not working for you right now? Where does it create challenges? In what ways is the operating system not serving the organization?
  • Help the organization see that the change they are asking for is different from the current system. How might this influence decisions to pursue change?
  • Find ways to honor the current operating system while incorporating aspects of another system. What can be preserved from the current system to show that not everything needs to change?
  • Help individual leaders expand their tolerance for different systems. How can they look at things differently without requiring a whole lot of initial change?

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*If you lead a company today, chances are you lead a technology business. Last February, the Wall Street Journal renamed their Marketplace section to Business and Technology. It’s a pretty accurate reflection of how influential and important technology is to business today.

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