Patrick Gallen, Partner, People and Change Consulting at Grant Thornton Ireland

Patrick Gallen
Patrick Gallen

It is very difficult these days to write something on leadership and change, without referencing either COVID or Bexit and how that will impact the way we do things going into the future.

Even before either of these were referenced, it was very clear to me as a change practitioner, that to thrive in the modern world, organisations need to reflect changes within society, including technological developments and demographic shifts.

Organisations need to be pushed to become more adaptable, customer-centric and able to change direction quickly – to embrace agile technology. The pandemic has moved this more quickly than many of us would have envisaged and that will continue going forward.

Organisational design must evolve to allow companies to adapt swiftly to new developments.  Traditional organisational design premises on three assumptions: that the business environment will remain relatively stable; that workers need control and structure to meet company goals; and that companies are considered as machine-like entities, with each silo contributing in its highly specific way to the overarching bureaucratic structure.

Agile design turns these assumptions on their heads. It assumes a highly unpredictable business environment where rapid change is vital for organisational survival, as we have had with COVID-19 and continue to have going into 2021.

It encourages collaboration and trusts employee teams to act independently; it removes most hierarchical structures; and it allows mistakes.

A shift to this new world of work requires full buy-in from all members of the organisation, clear vision and direction, and a different way to measure progress. The company’s culture, technology, processes, talent and development systems enable these goals.

Leadership must coach colleagues, employees and stakeholders in the practical and ideological aspects of agile design. They must provide employees with practices that suit the company’s stated purpose and vision, and balance demands for “disciplined execution” with a pro-experimentation and adaption culture.

Managers may resist the changes needed, often due to fears about losing power or a simple lack of comfort with new practices.

To enable some of the change required, may require an overhaul of company culture. Organisational development focuses on the human element of a company’s operations, including power structures, learning and culture.

Embracing new ways of working requires a complementary approach to organisational development, specifically encouraging a shift in employee mind-sets and company culture. We need to help employees navigate the change from individual contribution to team contribution. Feedback practices that focus less on past performance and more on future goals can help.

Within this new world of work, managers cease command and control actions and, instead, become team coordinators and the persons responsible for helping facilitate continual learning.

Promoting a learning culture allows workers to respond more quickly to some of the changes we have seen over the last few months; and should occur at any time employees wish, formally and informally.

And finally all of this change prompts us to rethink our approach to performance management and reward.

Traditionally performance management examines an employee’s past behaviour and focuses on shaping employee performance to the goals and standards handed down from leadership.

In agile companies, the focus shifts from past to future, from management to coaching, and from evaluation to development.

If we embrace the idea of an agile, potentially “distributed organisation” where employees work from wherever they are comfortable and productive, that by implication means we need to reconsider a raft of other things, such as reducing and repurposing office space, and above all rethinking policies, culture and our approach to leadership.