Rethinking how we work in an era of disruption

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As the waves of disruption continue to shake every industry, we’ve hit a new tipping point. Based on conversations I’ve had with executives all over the world, I’ve come to realise that merely tweaking how we work is no longer good enough.

While we know what the problem is - the pace of change wrought by digital transformation - it’s far less clear what we need to do about it. How do you remain nimble and agile enough, at scale, to deal with unknown challenges headed your way? That’s not something you can just order up online or buy off the shelf. It’s more than a technology problem. We need to encourage people to think differently. But who do you start with and how do you get them involved to make changes?

I believe it’s time for a radical rethink in how we organise to get work done. Those that fail to rethink will be disrupted and face extinction.

Rethinking the organisation

The hierarchies and bureaucracies that are so commonly used today were optimised for their context. They were a well-engineered solution to the problem at hand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was all about defining a competitively-advantaged strategic position, dictating a plan and efficiently executing that plan by coordinating activities and driving compliance.

But in a volatile, uncertain world, our ability to predict and define strategic positions is diminishing. The fundamental plan, prescribe, execution system of the past worked well in a static environment where change occurred slowly and predictably. But now, in the face of constant change, it creates brittle, inflexible and, therefore, inefficient structures incapable of keeping pace with change.

Digital transformation has forced us to rethink how we actually organise to even decide, distribute and coordinate the work. 

If we want our people to change, we need to reconfigure how we work together in radically new ways. And we can look to open source communities—where so many pioneering models of organising to get work done have emerged—as a guide.

Image Credit: iStock

Image Credit: iStock (Image credit: iStock)

Configuring for change

When it comes to rethinking how we organise to get work done, we need to focus on three primary pillars that have been foundational in open source communities for decades:

1. Planning must be replaced by configuring for constant change:

Processes inside the organisation must be focused on experimentation and learning (try, learn, modify) rather than planning.

Organisational structures need to become more focused on modularity and the end customer than on efficiency and specialisation.

2. Prescription must be replaced by enablement:

Rather than making decisions from the top down, driving direction now requires pushing decision-making power - and the information required to make them - to the people closest to the impact of those decisions.

3. Execution must be replaced by engagement:

Rather than enforcing rules and dictating actions through a compliance model, organisations must embrace new techniques for motivating the right behaviours. It’s essential to recognise that you can’t micromanage complex work.

More than a focus on collaboration, organisations must be more focused on how teams and individuals coordinate with each other to get their work done.

The CEO of one Fortune 100 company described the kind of mind-shift needed to lead change in our new digital world as a “transformation of self”. It requires moving from defining direction and driving performance, to creating the context for your people to do their best work. That’s what makes the people component of open source so powerful, engaging, and dynamic.

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat

Jim Whitehurst
Jim Whitehurst is president and chief executive officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT software solutions and services. Whitehurst is an avid advocate for open software as a catalyst for business innovation. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.