The organization of industrial society, which keeps within clear and effective boundaries, is an increasingly poor match for today’s expectations and requirements, and so gaps are opening up. Mats Tyrstrup has been researching leadership and organization at the Stockholm School of Economics since the 1980s and also lectures in SSE Executive Education’s Manager and Leader program. He has extensive experience and many examples of such gaps in both the public and private sectors. But he also has positive examples and suggested solutions when it comes to bridging them.
Gap described as organizational empty space
Mats has been discussing this kind of gap as an organizational empty space since 2007, and it has now become a widely used term to describe the vacuum that occurs between two or more bodies, where it is unclear who holds responsibility. Organizational empty spaces are common in both the public sector and the business world, and can lead to people, issues and opportunities falling through the cracks. Formal boundaries can be a particular obstacle to dealing with large and complicated challenges.
Mats believes there are good ways to fill the spaces between organizations, despite the complex times in which we live. Essentially it boils down to embracing overlapping fields and spotting opportunities beyond established boundaries and long-standing habits.
"We are accustomed to working in line with given templates, structures and hierarchies. It comes naturally, because it’s the logic that we have followed for so long."
Bridging the gap creates value
Hard borders work well as long as the focus is on producing and managing in a standardized production chain. Building a bicycle, for example, is easy because the exceptions are few and the variations small and rare. The mathematics are simple. But when it comes to services or custom products, this narrow view leads to frustration among employees and managers, who know they could perform better and achieve more if they had greater influence over the circumstances and the work. Simply operating within the confines of your own area, with its silo mentality, doesn’t work, since the complexity of our services, goods and behaviors has grown, and continues to grow. The value of complex services is generated in the same way as any other value creation – by working on integrating and combining different resources, know-how or perhaps information.
Contextual leadership encourages cooperation
Because we still work in systems with boundaries, reflecting the way our society has been built up over the past few centuries, there is a need for leadership that looks beyond such constraints. For example, managers can build networks within their own organization and beyond. It is also a good idea to connect your relationships across the networks, both private and professional, getting people to meet and share – and giving generously yourself. Broad knowledge is important in order to keep up, as is finding a common narrative and inclusive language for employees, according to Mats. What he is talking about is contextual leadership, which he believes is necessary to avoid the organizational empty spaces. This approach is the polar opposite of dividing up and creating units, and for the leader it is about reaching beyond previously accepted boundaries and encouraging employees to do the same.
The unexpectedly valuable meeting
Within contextual leadership, the roles of employee and manager become less accentuated, with the focus instead on coming together to direct and cooperate on responsibility. This creates synergies that cannot be achieved any other way. Introducing new platforms and forums for meetings is also hugely important, since it is often in the unexpected meeting that something new happens. These meetings could be as simple as having lunch, where parties who are already collaborating, or feel they might cooperate on future projects, meet and eat together. Just arranging such a gathering is an exercise in contextual leadership. These meetings may not lead to anything right now, but they can sow valuable seeds for the future.
Mats picks out an example of successful cooperation and contextual leadership in which a couple of doctors joined forces to open a practice on the ground floor of a sheltered housing block. The chain of cooperation included the property owner, county council, pharmacy, municipality and the clients, who also lived in the building. By the time the project was complete, the block had a doctor’s surgery that shared an entrance with a pharmacy and satisfied the needs of its clients (the users of the health service). Making the most of the opportunities for dialog on the various needs and for rapid feedback created a project that was a resounding success for everyone involved.
Hidden costs conceal inefficiency and silos
Mats stresses that he is not actually revealing anything new or secret – most people understand successful cooperation and may have their own experience with it. But this leads us to ask: why doesn’t it happen more?
“It’s problematic in the current climate. Our organizations have been pared back to the bone in a drive to trim away all costs. This can cause us to end up focusing on what absolutely has to be done, with procedures playing an important role in achieving efficiency. And if everything needs to be handled with hyper efficiency, it often leads to caution when it comes to exploring other paths and trying new things – keeping costs down is paramount. But finances and money are not the same thing. We’re fooling ourselves if we believe the visible costs tell the whole truth. Not all hidden costs, for example of relatives providing care for their family members, are apparent in the figures, but they’re just as real.”
Cooperation requires dialog and time
Making use of rapid advances in technology can sometimes be a useful way to establish dialog and knowledge sharing when time is short and physical meetings take up too many resources. There are apps that enable organizations and companies to meet up and cooperate, including chat functions, collaborative work platforms and other forums for the exchange of experiences. Mats also sees a positive opportunity for technology to take on more of the tasks that do not require human intervention. Not as an excuse to further trim the organizations, but as a way to allow more space for things that are under-prioritized today but have the potential for long-term development – knowledge exchange, cooperation and creativity across boundaries.
This article is part two of a series on the theme of ‘New opportunities for organization’. Don’t miss part one.
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Mats Tyrstrup is one of the lecturers at Chef and leader where he helps managers and leaders understand the challenges and opportunities from a leadership and organizational perspective.
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