The 21st century will force us all to evolve toward a fundamentally new form of organization. ‒ JOHN KOTTER (2014): ACCELERATE!

How do you respond when told you “have to” do something? Do you bring the same energy to the task as when you “choose to” take it on? People who feel included in a meaningful opportunity are more inclined to volunteer to make change happen. They go beyond their normal responsibilities to fuel change…if invited. Change of any magnitude is about changing behaviours.

In Our Iceberg is Melting, Dr. John Kotter observes: “…we never cease to be amazed at how many iceberg problems exist in our rapidly changing world. We never cease to be amazed at how difficult those problems can be to see and solve. But most of all, we never cease to be amazed at the creative ways people invent to jump ahead and develop better futures for very small groups, for very large organizations, and for themselves personally.”

Developing teamwork

During a pandemic or crisis, virtual organizations are disencumbered of the exigencies of convention. Instead, they thrive through teams that develop new ways of working. Information and communication technologies enable anyone anywhere to connect 24/7 in the language, format, and channel of choice.

Daniel Dworkin articulates six attributes of how work gets done and members relate in successful teams. In a nutshell, they align, achieve, adapt, trust, cohere, and belong. But what are the viable strategies in the public sector for teams to work in virtual time and space within constrained resources and talent?

Tapping motivation. External motivators like performance pay and rewards are not as readily available in the public service. But intrinsic motivators that connect to the purpose of the work can be even more effective than in the private sector. Leaders can create a sense of commitment that promotes energetic, enthusiastic teams by ensuring that the purpose and opportunities to improve people’s lives remain front of mind. Dan Pink’s book Drive makes the case for motivating employees by designing jobs that offer autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Engaging staff. Teams of public servants and project contractors often have longer tenures and deeper understanding of day-to-day operations and challenges than management. Change leadership can tap into the knowledge and ideas of teams that are better positioned to know what will work. Involving and communicating consistently with staff closest to the work early in project design generates opportunities for staff engagement across the organization.

Commissioning expertise. Public organizations require bundles of skills to deliver expert services in situ. Commissioning helps design and oversee various contracts (outsourcing, public-private partnerships, service-level agreements) and different structures (public, private, civil) to manage projects for results. Teams infused with energy and ideas harness these enabling arrangements.

Lessons for managers

In 1993, Warren Bennis predicted the possibilities for virtual organizations: “Tomorrow’s organizations will be federations, networks, clusters, cross-functional teams, temporary systems, ad hoc task forces, lattices, modules, matrices, almost anything but pyramids. Such organizations will be led by people who understand, as scientists do, the primal pleasure of the hunt that is problem-solving.”

Virtual organizations answer the question of how to marshal resources to accomplish significant projects when the time and expense of acquiring and owning resources are not otherwise affordable. In the private sector, virtual corporations form temporary networks of independent companies (suppliers, customers, competitors) linked by technology to share skills, costs, and access to markets. They forge a federation of alliances and partnerships tied together through ownership, contracts, and agreements. Assignments are made based on need, partners are chosen for competence and reliability, and incentives are negotiated to leverage results. Their focus on greater interests, rather than authority, promotes organizational integrity.

Similarly, central oversight bodies need to become clearinghouses that connect people interested in change with sources of expertise and ideas. The corporate team evolves as a virtual organization to model new approaches to central roles. This calls for a non-bureaucratic approach to reform in which corporate champions manage networks and communities for dozens of projects. Success is measured in terms of value-added advice, innovations replicated, and whole-of-government outcomes.