It’s more crucial than ever before that organisations are able to capitalise on the knowledge they have in-house. To facilitate better knowledge sharing, leaders must learn how to create ‘adaptive spaces’ remotely.
As work moves increasingly online, leaders and managers will require a different skill set in order to foster the trust required for effective knowledge sharing.
It’s been a tough time for business leaders as well as employees. While the move to remote working has forced many to rethink their operating model, it has also created the conditions for businesses to be more adaptive. This in itself is a positive thing, as businesses that can be agile and adapt to change are best placed to succeed during this period of uncertainty.
The continuing effects of a global pandemic, coupled with the growing economic uncertainty caused by Brexit, mean that business agility and adaptiveness are now paramount to ensuring the future of a company. Knowledge remains at the heart of achieving this, to ensure that leaders and their workforces aren't left behind.
The power of complexity
Before we can understand the value of adaptiveness, we first need to consider how a typical organisation can develop the ability to adapt.
Complexity researchers Mary Uhl-Bien and Michael Arena argue that organisations are usually made up of two main systems: the operational system, which aims to control and manage, and the entrepreneurial system, which attempts to generate new ideas. In times of uncertainty, such as we’re now experiencing, it’s common for leaders to focus on order and control in order to minimise risk. In other words, they default to the operational system.
This approach can often be counter-productive, however, as it can prevent organisations from being responsive and achieving the agility required to capitalise on changing market conditions. Organisations that evolve effectively are often those capable of incubating, sharing and integrating the new ideas emanating from their workforce.
Uhl-Bien and Arena propose that this happens by creating adaptive spaces that offer a way of brokering the differences between these two systems to create new opportunities. So what are adaptive spaces, and how can you create them online?
Creating adaptive space online
If you’ve heard of a hackathon or a hothouse, or if you’re familiar with the ‘scrum’ framework, these are examples of adaptive space. These short, intense events that involve bringing together individuals with diverse talents to collaborate intensively on a given problem.
The value of these events is that they provide opportunities for ‘brokerage’. This is the first requirement for adaptive space, and is a term describing what happens when ideas spread from one part of a network to another.
The second requirement is ‘group cohesion’, which requires high levels of trust in order to stimulate learning, risk-taking and constructive feedback. Group cohesion cannot be left to chance, it requires a purposeful approach to collaboration and knowledge sharing based on mutual respect, openness and valuing difference.
Remote working has meant that many more people are now accustomed to working online. This has made it easier than ever before to bring together people from across a business, which dramatically increases opportunities for brokerage and knowledge sharing. As work moves increasingly online, however, leaders and managers will require a different skillset in order to foster the trust required for effective knowledge sharing.
The role of enabling leadership
Hackathons and hothouses rarely happen by chance – they require a particular type of leadership recognised as ‘enabling leadership’. This can be understood as leaders and senior managers working purposefully to create the conditions that enable the emergence of new ideas.
According to the complexity leadership model, enabling leaders possess a particular set of skills that allow them to work at the intersection of the entrepreneurial and operational systems. The role of enabling leaders is to take the ideas emerging from the entrepreneurial system and broker them into the operational system, so that they become business as usual.
Enabling leadership requires emotional intelligence and empathy, and an ability to create the conditions in which everyone feels safe to contribute. As we increasingly meet through Zoom or Teams, meeting hosts need to think carefully about how they might achieve this. Some suggestions are:
Arranging a pre-call with each meeting participant
to identify a) whether they need to be at the meeting, and b) the specific issues or concerns they would like to bring to the discussion. During the meeting, the host then creates time for each participant to share their views.
Listening closely for moments where attendees ‘link up’ with each another
around a given topic or point, then create opportunities for them to develop their thinking – for example through breakout rooms.
Keeping a look out for moments of tension
and conflict that result as new ideas or directions emerge through discussions. Fostering an acceptable level of ‘adaptive tension’ is necessary to ensure that a group does not get stuck in groupthink, while still maintaining productive working relationships.
Identifying opportunities for individuals to take a lead
on new ideas in order to increase their sense of agency and empowerment.
- Creating simple guidelines for online meetings that support complexity dynamics such as brokerage, cohesion, linking up, and adaptive tension. These guidelines might well involve the use of a set of values similar to the scrum values of courage, focus, respect, openness and commitment.
Embracing new ideas
Many leaders have had to fundamentally rethink their business and operating models, with product-based companies having to transform into service businesses in order to satisfy their customers’ new needs.
Forward-thinking businesses have realised that, more than ever, their employees are their greatest asset. Employees often know the challenges and opportunities in a business better than anyone, and can quickly identify new ideas and ways of working that could lead to new products, services and revenue streams.
These employees can be viewed as part of the ‘entrepreneurial’ system that is capable of generating new approaches and innovative responses. These new ideas are unlikely to be taken seriously, however, unless they can be fed through into the operational system and become part of business-as-usual.
As home-working has already become the ‘new normal’ for many employees, taking a purposeful approach to online meetings and collaborations will be increasingly important in order to maintain effective communication and innovation. Online adaptive spaces provide a practical way to ensure that a business continues to adapt and evolve in the face of continuing uncertainty.
Interested in this topic? Read Adaptability during times of uncertainty: readjusting your approach to a crisis .
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Great post Tony and a 'learning culture' is based upon knowledge sharing and free-flowing ideas and innovation. Really enjoyed reading your post.