Expect your experience to diverge from what you’ve read. A lot.
There’s no real ‘how to’ for successfully decentralising your organisation. You will probably have read a lot of books on what a networked organisation looks like. Be prepared for the likelihood that nothing you’ve read will work for you as it is written, and be ready to carry on regardless. We found that most of the literature was describing a destination and not how to make the journey there.
Don’t take the examples you’ve read about as off-the-shelf models for transforming your business.
This is probably the single most important piece of advice we would give to anyone starting this journey. A drag and drop approach, we assure you, is an exercise in frustration and disappointment.
While the concept of networked organisations is new to many and only recently gaining broader attention, there’s a significant amount of literature out there with examples from a broad range of sectors, geographies and scales. Before we began this journey at TACSI, we had read hundreds of pages on how a decentralised organisation should work. Sources were full of compelling case studies showing learning, ever-adapting workplaces. The theory was familiar to us, and we were excited by the implications of a new way to work, not only for TACSI, but for the future of organisations worldwide.
The problem was in how we interpreted this information. The literature appropriately (and conveniently) outlines themes for the mechanisms commonly observed in networked organisations, giving examples of similarities and differences in their approach. These themes gave us the impression that networked companies all looked and worked a certain way. There were structures and systems that they all had in common, and which distinguished them from traditional hierarchical businesses. It therefore seemed easy to identify the changes we needed to make to become like these companies. We expected an adjustment period to make these changes, which we knew would be difficult, but from which we hoped to emerge as a fledgling, functioning networked company.
This is not what happened. It’s hard to overstate how disruptive it was when we implemented a ‘podular’ working model, with no real guidance on how to work within it. Many of the problems we were trying to address – overwhelm, poor communication and low morale – actually got worse. The new model was so alien that nobody knew what they were supposed to be doing, so we began to backslide. The new structures we implemented started to look (and work) suspiciously like the old hierarchy we were trying to eliminate. Silos that hadn’t existed started to emerge between pods, which then became static, competing business units.
We realised we were essentially trying to reverse engineer a networked organisation from the examples we’d been shown. We hadn’t put nearly enough effort into creating the right conditions for our people to work a new way. Our culture hadn’t evolved, and we hadn’t built the skills we really needed – in particular, the capacity to support each other to grow and change. We hadn’t gone far enough along the inward, personal journey for any meaningful change to stick. None of what we had read had prepared us for how absolutely vital this would be.
This is not to say that the resources available are of no value; they are all useful, inspiring and informative. We wouldn’t have started on our journey without them. That said, in our experience, they describe the destination, rather than how to get there. We placed far too much importance on looking like the destination, not appreciating at the time that the journey is the change. Finding our own solutions and discovering how to work as a system was essential, and there’s no guide for that because the DNA of every organisation is different.
Three years on, we are still in the process of our evolution, and we continue to learn things that we never read in any of the sources. For anyone looking at that same source material, we would recommend against taking it as a roadmap or a set of standards, as we did. The literature’s value is in outlining the critical principles and themes of a decentralised organisation. The rest – the unique journey to get there – is something you’ll have to create within your organisation.
Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.