When it comes to leadership development, John Kotter is one of a small handful of authors I consistently recommend because he is able to distill the fundamentals of leadership, management and organizational change down to very digestible concepts. I was recently reading an article he wrote for the Leader to Leader Journal entitled “Capturing the Opportunities and Avoiding the Threats of Rapid Change.” It was one of those head-slapping moments where he clearly articulated something we do in this organization that a) I thought was rather unconventional, but worked for us, and b) gave a convincing rationale for a strategy that, quite frankly, we implemented instinctually. His concept had to do with maximizing impact by using dual operating systems — in effect, dual exhausts.
Kotter’s observation is that many organizations start as flat interconnected networks, which maximize speed and flexibility. As the organization grows over time, hierarchies necessarily begin to develop and the network approach tends to shrink until ultimately, in many organizations, there is an evolution to a pure hierarchy model. His assertion is that, to respond to the volatility of today’s market, organizations need to strive for dual operating systems that capture both the speed and agility of the network, and the efficiency and reliability of the hierarchy.
I absolutely agree. As someone who leads an organization committed to dual operating systems (even though I couldn’t have put that name to it until I read Kotter’s article), I would also add that the balance point between network and hierarchy is a moving target, and while ultimately effective, “dual exhausts” can be rather messy. Why? Because you do not have two separate operating systems that function side by side in a silo. Rather, the fast, agile network system pulls in people from all points in the formal hierarchy who have the unique skills, energy and commitment for the project at hand. Managers whose job it is to ensure the reliability of the hierarchy have to be on board with this, and allow at least some of their people to function with a foot in both worlds.
Why would your staff subject themselves to living with two sets of rules and expectations (those of the network, and those of the hierarchy)? In a word . . . passion. These people are so excited about the chance to do something extraordinary, that they are not only willing, but eager to take on an additional role to have a hand in creating something new and meaningful. And when you give them a target and let them run, amazing things can happen.
I’m told the advantages of a dual exhaust system include more horsepower, better gas mileage, better sound, cooler look . . . yep, sounds about right. Thanks, Mr. Kotter