Many of us would like organisations to run in a deliberate and planned way. Things would be linear, ordered and done in a sensible sequence: it would all run like a finely crafted Swiss watch.

By contrast, in my experience, most organisations consist of disparate efforts to nail jelly to a wall.

To mix my metaphors, many organisations resemble the 'unconventional' soccer match described by Karl E. Weick in the mid 1970s:

... the field for the game is round; there are several goals scattered haphazardly around the circular field; people can enter and leave the game whenever they want to; they can throw balls in whenever they want to; they can say "that's my goal" whenever they want to, as many times as they want to, and for as many goals as they want to; the entire game takes place on a sloped field; and the game is played as if it makes sense.

Aside from its aptness at the time of the World Cup, this quote sums up the structured chaos of much organisational life.

Weick goes on to make the case that organisations are 'loosely coupled' rather than having dense tight linkages. Loosely coupled units are responsive, but each preserves its identity and separateness. "Loose coupling also carries connotations of impermanence, dissolvability and tacitness."

There is more than an echo of loose coupling in the common complaint about large organisations being ‘siloed’ when Weick writes of “numerous clusters of events that are tightly coupled within and loosely coupled between.”

The looseness which afflicts organisational coupling would seem to make it impervious to change efforts: how can we get change through an organisation when silos abound, and efforts are dissipated (or lost altogether) in the loosely coupled spaces between those silos? Planning and deliberate decision-making founder precisely because plans and actions are themselves only loosely coupled.

So what are we to do?

Leadership: The First-Best Solution
The first-best solution of course, is strong and visionary leadership. This brings the organisation together (tightly, rather than loosely…) with a unifying vision and relentless follow-up. There is simply no substitute for this. In his autobiography, Peter Drucker noted that “Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.” Think of Jack Welch at GE, or Steve Jobs at Apple, or Alan Mulally at Ford.

I’m hard-pressed to think of any great organisation which achieved success on the back of looseness. Rather, a culture of discipline prevails. Even large and diversified organisations with independently operating units, when they are well-run, have a tightness in terms of cross-cutting (‘horizontal’) aspects such as corporate values or the approach to developing staff.

But what if this strong leadership and culture of discipline doesn’t exist? These attributes, however desirable, are in short supply: what then?

Hand-to-Hand Street Combat
In that case we’re in the realm of second-, third- and nth- best solutions. In these situations, it becomes a pragmatic exercise of localised hand-to-hand street combat rather than large-scale battle plans. It’s about short-range, situation-specific tactics.

An example here might be to manoeuvre a risk-averse executive into releasing some short-term funding to run a pilot for a project you want, on the basis that it can help use up budgeted funds (that would otherwise be forfeited) toward the end of the financial year. (Has this ever happened in real life? You be the judge…).

Once the pilot is complete, the next step might be to go for a full-scale roll-out of the project on the basis of an appeal centred on the fact that the pilot helped iron out bugs and so is relatively risk-free. You might also tee up an ally in another organisation to drop a favourable mention about the pilot to the executive at an appropriate time. You get the idea…

The best you can hope for in cases such as these is to thread these tactical plays together in such a way as to move the organisation in a certain direction. But it’s a more general affair that moves incrementally and non-linearly, rather than a tightly programmed effort with a clearly pre-defined outcome.

I recommend the use of stakeholder analyses (along the lines I wrote about last month) to assist in formulating these tactics.

Which brings me to my next point … what’s the role of planning in such an environment?

Tactical Planning
The absence of tight coupling should not equate to an absence of planning. But the planning is a different kind of exercise.

Instead of ‘grand plans’ that presuppose tight coupling (and a stable external environment); it is rather tactical planning that maps peoples’ agendas, searching for openings and susceptibilities through which your own agenda can gain a foothold. There is still goal-setting in this kind of planning, but it’s embedded in the broader picture of stakeholders’ interests and agendas. Goals are short-term staging posts that emerge from strategic analysis, rather than long-term aspirations that you start with.

I also recommend regular and strategic reviews. In a tightly coupled organisation these are about tracking performance against predefined goals. In a loosely coupled context these centre on scanning the environment; assessing which tactics worked and which didn’t; and recalibrating tactics in a fluid landscape.

So there is still rationality; it’s just smaller-scale, iterative, and it constantly course-corrects according to changes in the environment.

It might not be the precision of a Swiss watch, but it’s better than nailing jelly to the wall…

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Have you set a time for your next strategic review? Since we’re halfway through the calendar year, now is the time to do this. Please drop me a line if you need assistance.

Michael Carman
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374

© Michael Carman 2014