Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hierarchy AND Network

Today in our R&D Core Team meeting we started to read the book Accelerate by John P Kotter.  The first few chapters that we discussed are about how organizations start as networks but then evolve into hierarchies which are not quick enough to identify important hazards or business opportunities early enough.  The argument behind this book is that both hierarchies and networks are important to take businesses forward and to deal with the rapid rate of change.

Earlier today I had the pleasure of listening to our Superintendent talk at the Board AGM.  One of the parents there later spoke about how the presentations had given her goosebumps (in a good way).  What gave me goosebumps was the way that Craig spoke about wanting ASB to be a school known around the world as being a place where the best international teachers in the world teach, or perhaps have taught, and a place where the best teachers in the world who are not already here want to come and teach.  I started to think about how we need to change in order to achieve that.

Let's go back to the network/hierarchy idea now.  Most organizations, including schools, are organized into a hierarchy.  A superintendent at the top, heads of school below that, heads of department below that, and the teachers sorted out into grades and departments somewhere at the bottom of the list.  Now Kotter argues that hierarchies do have their place and are absolutely necessary for organizations to work - being sorted into departments allows strong expertise to develop and there are very clear relationships and responsibilities.  When you want something to change in a hierarchical system a traditional way to do this is to add task forces or project management teams into the existing system, and usually the same small number of people lead these initiatives.  The problem with this is that change is limited and communication is slow and not very effective as it relies on being passed from the top to the bottom or from the bottom to the top.  However because a business has already been successful and grown - turning itself from a network into a hierarchy - people see it as already being successful and therefore resist change.

The model that is proposed by Kotter is one where a hierarchy and a network exist side by side and operate together.  Hierarchies, while serving a purpose, are not designed to be creative, to be innovative or to take risks and the people who have risen in hierarchies are less willing to think outside the box or to see things from multiple perspectives.  The whole idea behind a hierarchy is to keep people in their place and to minimize risk - it tends not to change from year to year.  The network, however, is flexible, quick to change, innovative and creative and allows many individuals to get involved to bring about rapid change.  The network isn't so much about management, but about leading strategic initiatives.  The network draws information out of the silos and hierarchical layers, so the information flows quicker and further.  It is connected to the hierarchy because the same people are in both systems, and yet it provides a different way to collect information, make decisions and implement change.

This is the important thing about the network:  it must be done with insiders.  People within the organization need to be given the opportunity to step in and get involved.  In fact people do - in my experience organizations such as schools are packed full with very dedicated people who are simply dying to work with others on something that is important and purposeful.  They bring to the network vision, passion, intelligence, commitment, connections, skills and the desire for action, and these are the people who go back into the silos, communicate the information and create the will for change among the rest of the people there, so that large groups of people - not just the senior management team - are thinking about various opportunities and challenges and about implementing the initiatives that have been agreed upon.  In fact only a fairly small group of people is necessary to be in the network - Kotter suggests between 5-10% of the employees of an organization - and this is an easy number to find because people love to volunteer to be part of a network as it is so rewarding on various levels:  for example collaborating with a wider variety of people than normal, being increasingly visible across the organization and being able to develop professionally.

What else is important?  Well in the chapter that my group read and discussed today we talked about the importance of celebrating successes and making them as visible as possible to the whole organization.  We also alluded a number of times to the way that the R&D teams are sort of like Kotter's idea of a network, running alongside the hierarchy of the school itself.  I've ordered a copy of the book, so I'm just waiting for it to arrive now and then I'll blog about the other ideas in it.

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