“There appears an assumption or myth among many classically trained leaders that if something is described as flat, Open, leaderless or self-led that it somehow has no structure or rules. The Open Organization is far from this. In fact, the Open Organization is very much an ecosystem with structure and complexity.” – Philip A Foster, The Open Organization.
There is and always shall be order in the universe. All things have order of some form. When we observe the murmuration of birds (flying in a swarm like pattern), we at first see chaos, but then as we observe more closely we note form. Rarely ever do these birds collide in air. It is amazing to watch literally hundreds if not thousands of birds flying in a clump and moving in unison. Open Organizations are much like a swarm in that they have an inherent hierarchy. To assume chaos only perpetuates the notion or perhaps mythology that systems other than “formal hierarchies” as we know them are without form/structure. When I speak of emerging systems like Open Organizational systems, I speak from the foundation that they do have a structure. I use the word structure because hierarchy is typically envisioned by many as having depth and width with formals lines of process flow. When asked to draw a hierarchy, most will draw the familiar top-down structure. This is a problem inherent in most business school curriculum. As noted above, all things have order and form – even nature.
I do not consider an Open Organization to be a new structure. I do, however, think by the very nature of open systems that the old structure will eventually change. When I speak of an Open System I am less inclined to consider it as a structure insomuch as it is really a process or “way” or running an organization. Open Organizations are really a way of approaching work. The problem with the top-down hierarchy is that it, by design, limits the open flow of information and capital. This is why the format of an organizations structure must change in order for the system to act with greater agility.
Consider American history for a moment. The Minute Men were able to take on the greatest military force at the time. Not because they had a better structure or were better thinkers – but because they were dispersed and able to make decision more freely. Had they been forced into a formal hierarchy at that moment – they would have probably lost the American Revolutionary War. The Militia of the time did have a formal line of command-and-control – but the process by which they engaged the enemy had an agile process.
The ecosystem of an Open Organization can best be described as a framework of agility and empowerment. While the structures of classical business models are hierarchical in nature, the organizational structures of the future are emerging as anything but. An Open Organization has a natural balance between chaos and order. The natural balance of the Open Organization pivots on the organizations ability to flex, bend and accommodate shifts and changes within its environment. Its flexibility is rooted in the organizations ability to respond immediately to environmental challenges in real time and without bureaucratic “red tape”. The 21st century organization will continue seeking greater flexibility as its access to full-time human capital diminishes. The benefit of an Open Organization is that its structure is less rigid and more flexible than its traditional counterparts. It is this flexibility that permits an Open Organization to compete in complex evolving environments.
It is not possible to operate open systems within a rigid hierarchy without the agile processes having some effect on the structure. In the truest form – open processes will degrade the rigidity of a closed system and force it to either flex under pressure or to outright reject openness and create a more rigid response. A more rigid response could render the organization ineffective in a competitive fast paced world. If there is any truer mythology it may be the notion that a rigid hierarchy has a future in a globalized dispersed cloud based world.
Dr. Philip A. Foster is considered a Thought Leader in Business Operations, Organization and Strategic Leadership. He is a prolific writer, published author and lectures internationally. His most recent book “The Open Organization” is now available through Ashgate Publishing. Philip is certified in both Leadership and coaching and serves as Adjunct professor at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN. He is the Founder and CEO of Maximum Change Leadership and Business Consulting, serving clients from around the world. He is a Doctor of Strategic Leadership with emphasis in Strategic Foresight and holds a Master of Art in Organizational Leadership, both from Regent University, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.