Performance
May 7, 2012

Collaborative Transformation: The key to high performance results in a complex world

CGE Vol. 14 No.5 May 2008

Why do only 30 percent of organizational initiatives achieve their objectives? The complexity of human resistance to change and the difficulty of achieving buy-in from multiple stakeholders are familiar to most leaders, and we have been studying change management for decades. Yet the cause of two thirds of the failures, according to Standish Group’s research, remains ineffective collaboration.

The good news – the latest generation of collaboration methods now offer more robust options to execute on a clear vision by transforming complex resistance into well refined ideas and the commitment to implement and achieve them. Collaboration, particularly when the challenge is complex, offers a means of achieving high performance results much faster than you may have thought possible.

Public sector leaders are acutely aware of the elements of complexity. They are challenged to make more complex decisions, create better solutions and produce higher results in a very dynamic environment. The required outcomes must be delivered faster and be sustainable. Due to multiple-stakeholder goals, frequent lack of clarity, resource constraints, planning and implementation requirements, leaders must have a deep understanding of the context and the structure in which their programs exist. Leaders need proven breakthrough approaches and methodologies to achieve their mission.

Minor improvements are not always enough. A cycle of “breakthrough thinking” must be part of the mindset and approach to meeting today’s challenges. Strategic transformations based on real innovation are essential to achieve success and sustained results. To realize the creation and implementation of the innovation towards transformation, proven collaborative approaches and methodologies are fundamental to create the conditions for success – approaches matched to the nature of the situation and the elements of the initiative’s complexity; and creating solutions from the knowledge and experience of the players involved.

This is not a one-time planning process, but is required continuously as the initiative unfolds towards a sustainable execution and lifecycle management process. The fundamentals of any change initiative can be expressed in evaluating where you are, envisioning where you want to be, elaborating how to get there, and then executing and operationalizing the plan.

Deciding which collaborative approach is appropriate to achieve a desired business result is not trivial. To assist decision makers with their evaluation there are a few critical indicators that help forecast complexity. These are common sense factors that intuitively indicate the magnitude of the challenge ahead.

Complexity does not necessarily mean beyond understanding. Rather, complexity refers to situations where many factors are at play, the inter-relationships are extensive and the impacts on the organization are challenging to define. One example is when there are a large number of diverse stakeholders, at least some of whom may be unwilling to adopt the initiative at hand. Another is when things have become mired despite good intentions. This type of situation can afflict any significant business initiative, but any mid- to large-size organization working to develop and implement a new strategy, merge or reorganize, deploy large IM/IT projects or implement significant innovation is likely to run into these challenges.

When managers are willing to stretch beyond the comfort zone of familiar approaches, complexity science can provide the exact method needed to get things done much faster than one may have expected. To achieve this, careful planning and a steady hand are essential. The fundamentals of any change initiative must be addressed.

Underlying principles
When referring to collaboration methods based on complexity science we encounter the terms “complex adaptive systems” and “self-organization.” Originally these terms described the behaviors observed by scientists in several types of living systems. What these scientists noted is that living systems have an inherent capability to do exactly what needs to be done for the system to evolve and thrive in ways that could not have been foreseen. For living systems to adapt so appropriately to their current situation there needs to be the foundation of clarity noted above. But there also must be considerably more chaos present than one might expect. In fact, that can mean twice as much chaos as structure. Not enough chaos means not enough adaptive behavior. Without adaptive behavior, the implementations of our initiatives often go sour – a situation familiar to every seasoned manager.

The idea that chaos can be useful may seem to fly in the face of experienced leaders who have long relied on clarity and structure to see them through difficult times. While clarity is a requirement for success, it is not sufficient when there are many people who must be engaged in the solution or when an exceptional effort is needed to meet demanding requirements.

Managers can take a lesson from mathematics when it comes to seeing chaos as a management tool rather than a herald of catastrophe. Mathematicians play with chaos and have shown that although a process may be at times unpredictable the end-result need not be. In other words, although complex collaboration may engage people in unforeseen but relevant ways, you will still arrive safely at your destination.

Public sector leaders operate within a structure of legislation, programs, and services aimed at fulfilling a variety of societal needs. The complexity of stewardship, accountability and competing priorities must be understood when communicating with elected representatives, citizens and stakeholders. Structure is a necessary ingredient, but the experienced leader recognizes that this structure and clarity often becomes evident only after intense collaborative efforts. The solution lies in between the integration of both structured planning and complex collaboration into the end-to-end flow of the change initiative to drive the required innovation and transformation.

You may want to delve into the wealth of material on the web on complexity, self-organization, chaos, dynamical systems and collaboration, including Collaborative Transformation, TRIZ, Whole System Change, and Open Space Technology. “How-to” manuals are available for some of these methods. As you may expect, each method is best used to obtain a specific type of result; look into methods designed to fit your needs. Complexity science is an evolving body of knowledge, so look for methods that are updated regularly.

Today’s leaders are learning that complexity science and collaborative transformation techniques for breakthrough innovation are proven bodies of knowledge and approaches that may serve them well when the challenge at hand is stretching their organization’s traditional knowledge to its limits. Public and private sector organizations are using complexity methods to accelerate business results. Executives and managers seeking to enhance execution may find that a well-planned complexity-based approach requires less time, money and effort than trying to persevere through the challenges of more traditional methods. Looking into these new options for high performance is a worthwhile investment for those seeking tools to help meet the demands of today’s workplace.

It’s all about people…and the right approach.

Jim Alexander is vice president, National Public Sector, for Chartwell, and former acting CIO and Deputy CIO of the Government of Can

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