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The Synchronized Organization

2014 December 7
by Greg Satell

Hundreds of consumers standing in line at your local Apple store.  Thousands of protesters rushing to flood the streets of Kiev, Istanbul or Hong Kong. Millions of fireflies blinking on and off in complete unison.  These are all synchronized systems.

Our hearts are synchronized systems too.  They rely on millions of pacemaker cells to coordinate every second of our lives.  If they falter even once, we cease to exist.  Yet they rarely do.  They continue to carry out their mission, with little conscious effort to organize them on our part.

So  why is it that the institutions we build—and put so much effort towards managing—are so rarely able to synchronize?  Despite our best efforts, most organizations are highly dysfunctional.  Fortunately, research into network science has begun to shed light on how synchronization happens and how we can make our enterprises function more effectively.

1. Small Groups

Most leaders tend to think on a macro level.  That shouldn’t be surprising, because our efforts tend to be focused on our responsibilities.  So if we’re responsible for an entire organization, then we tend to think in those terms and act accordingly.

Actions, however, are driven at the grassroots.  As Solomon Asch showed in his famous conformity experiments, we tend to adopt the opinions and biases of our peer group and will conform to those around us even when their views are demonstrably untrue.  Majorities, even local majorities, do more than rule—they influence.

Asch’s research helps explain why it is so hard for enterprises to adapt to new challenges.  It may be possible to create alignment among the leadership team, but that consensus will break down once the individual members return to their working groups.  There, they will find that they are confronted with local majorities opposed to the global leadership view and, in time, even leaders will conform.

That’s what seems to have happened at Blockbuster.  Faced with a competitive challenge from Netflix, CEO John Antioco came up with what seems, even in retrospect, to be a viable plan.  Nevertheless, various groups within the enterprise balked at the plan, Antioco was fired and Blockbuster went bankrupt.

So leaders need to treat new initiatives not as mere organizational governance, but as a grassroots movement of small, interconnected groups, each with varying thresholds of resistance—some enthusiastic, others hostile and many in between. Moving an idea forward is not just a matter of persuasion, but also of managing the connections between constituencies.

2. Loose Connections

Those close to us tend to have the same limited knowledge we do.  They have similar experiences, are confronted with similar challenges and share many of the same personal relationships.  So while our views tend to correspond to the local majority of our peer group, the global information we need usually lies outside of it.

That’s exactly what sociologist Mark Granovetter found when he began studying how people landed jobs in communities around Boston.  It wasn’t through close friends that people found employment, but more distant acquaintances—friends of friends.  He called the phenomenon the strength of weak ties.

It is the combination of tight circles and loose connections that drives high performing organizations.  A study of star engineers at Bell Labs found that the most accomplished ones worked in a close-knit group, but also frequently reached out to people outside of it.

Another study of Broadway plays found the same thing.  If no one in the cast and crew had worked together before then results were poor.  However, if there were too many existing relationships, then performance suffered as well.  You need the right mix of cohesion and diversity to both innovate and operate efficiency at the same time.

And that’s what makes synchronized organizations top performers—they are not only aligned internally but also able to adapt to new information that arises externally.

3. Shared Purpose

In nature, the purpose of a system is hardwired.  Nobody has to tell a pacemaker cell in the heart what it is supposed to do.  However, in organizations it is incumbent on leaders to set direction.

Hamel and Prahalad call this concept strategic intent.  Southwest has prospered by being “The low cost airline” and seeks to be nothing else.  Google strives to “organize the world’s information.”  Apple creates products that are “insanely great.”  It is the mission that drives the strategy, because that’s what defines what winning looks like.

Yet a clear mission, although important, is not enough.  There also must be a shared context of values and beliefs.  Apple, for example, has committed to specific design values and an integrated architecture.  Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has described his company’s values at length in a new book called How Google Works.

What’s interesting about firms with strong value systems is how seamlessly they are able to adapt to new challenges.  Apple and Google, of course, have been successful across a variety of market contexts.  McDonald’s thrives in India, where it must cater to vegetarian diets. Cosmopolitan magazine succeeds in Islamic countries where discussions about sex are taboo.

The Path To Synchronized Organizations

Most leaders focus on strategies and plans because that is what stakeholders are asking for. It is easier to formulate a story based on market analysis than it is to promote better organizational health.  Nevertheless, research shows that informal networks within an organization are crucial to success.

We can no longer rely on hierarchies.  The problem is not that they have suddenly become illegitimate, but that they are slow and the world has become fast.  It is no longer enough to merely plan and direct action, today we must inspire and empower movements of belief.

So in addition to the role in formulating strategy and optimizing financial performance, managers must also seek to create synchronized organizations to carry out strategic intent. That requires a focus on small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared context.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Tom LaPlante permalink
    December 7, 2014

    Sounds like leaders need to figure out how to “empower” as well as identify these networks within their org.
    Any examples/specifics where and how this has been done?

    Even the “burning platform” (Blockbuster) doesn’t seem to provide enough motivation at times.

    As always, great reads!


  2. December 9, 2014

    Thanks Tom. I appreciate it.

    Have a nice holiday.

    – Greg

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