Another principle of resilient systems is connectivity, the state of being interconnected. Resilient systems flow. If we wanted to understand a resilient system, we would look for a few things:
- The patterns the system creates.
- How the system flows between its different aspects.
- The quality of its relationships.
- The synergy and mutual exchanges that exist in the system.
All of the above qualities are the ones we also try to notice and understand in living systems and ecosystems.
The problem is that our organizational designs were initially based on machines that don’t focus on the connectivity of the whole system. They are typically mechanistic organizations focusing on the linear connection of function and positions, like the chain of command. Over time, our traditional organizations develop silos and “accidental adversarial relationships” between those silos. What we don’t understand is how silos make our organizations more fragile.
Organizational chart as a living tree versus a pyramid with small boxes
In my organizational consulting, I often work with organizations that want to break down their silos and create a more integrated organization. In one organization, tensions existed between the programmatic (revenue-generating departments or programs) and the “backroom” functions. The support functions often charged the programs a fee for the services they provided to the organization. Of course, this is standard practice in organizations to financially support finance, technology, human resources, marketing, communications, and other infrastructure services an organization needs to maintain purpose.
Over time, the people in the organizations began to rank departments on the value they brought to the organization. Because the organization was siloed, tensions arose within the organization based on function:
- The programs saw the financial fee as a “surcharge” that reduced the money they could spend on programs.
- The financial department saw the internal fees as necessary to support the organization’s infrastructure.
The dynamic of these different perspectives often resulted in some departments (the cost centers) being seen as second-class citizens in the organization because of their function. The situation provided a classic example of what happens when there is a lack of understanding and appreciation for interconnectedness within an organization.
Shifting the dynamic toward interconnectedness
I was coaching the leadership team once a month to help them reduce the effect of these silos and improve interconnectedness. We decided to experiment by using a tree as an organizational chart instead of the traditional pyramid structure. We put the leadership team in the tree’s root system, deeply connected to the soil and providing core stability, grounding, and drawing nutrients from the soil. The infrastructure departments were the trunk of the tree, whose role was to facilitate the flow of nutrients and resources from the roots to the canopy. The programs were the branches that came off the trunk.
Lastly, the front line staff were the smaller branches and leaves that used photosynthesis to turn the energy of the sun into life giving nutrients to the tree. instead of being at the bottom of the pyramid – vulnerable, powerless, and invisible, this new visual helped the front line staff to see their role as essential to the organization.
The other benefit of the tree image was they saw how everything in the tree was interconnected – and how they were interconnected with the outside environment. The sun, rain, nutrients of the soil, and the forest surrounding the tree were all part of the system! This image was a way of showing the connectivity of their organization and helped strengthen the resilience of the organization. People began to see each other across the functions, not as enemies or drains, but as partners in helping the organization and its mission succeed.
Where should we focus to create conditions of connectivity and resilience?
As leaders, we focus on productivity and profit and connect those key performance indicators with organizational success. We even promote competition and conflict as a way of accelerating sales or revenue.
If we use resilience science as a guide, we can focus on the quality of our relationships throughout the organization. We can promote that we are all interconnected. We can help the team understand how active cooperation increases resilience and the overall success of our organization.
We will be focused on ways to create conditions for connectivity between our employees, between our organization and with the outside environment including our customers.
I love the image of the tree for organizations.
I appreciate the tree imagery for organizational life. An extension of the metaphor might be consideration of how the roots mesh with other members of the ecosystem.
I too like the Redwood Tree as an example of an organizing principle
This has given me an inverted approach to viewing how intertwined an organisation is .A totally different approach. A much easier flow. Well articulated as always Dr Kathleen. Thank you. I now see things differently.