The big divide: What differentiates super-flexible organizations from others?

„The big difference is the notion of super-flexibility“ – that is how  Homa Bahrami encapsulates the  increasingly critical divide between traditional industrial organizations and modern digital organizations. We had the great opportunity to meet Homa Bahrami, senior lecturer at Berkeley Haas Management of Organizations Group, to hear and discuss some of her thoughts from her and Stuart Evan’s book „Super-Flexibility for Knowledge Enterprises: A Toolkit for Dynamic Adaptation.“

In the raft

A modern digital organization is like rafting in white water, change is a constant factor, Homa depicts, whereas many traditional organizations still show up mechanistic, highly hierarchical, bureaucratic and often hardware-oriented and -dependent. There, change happens from time to time. In a world of digitization, globalization and contextual shifts, although, driving change has become critical for success. For example, software changes the business models of all industries. Information is the new value, information is generated by different means, including the use of hardware – machines, assets – and information as enabler for new ways of utilization and disruptive innovation. This requires dynamic organizational models that allow to drive change continuously – by teams, in adequate and smart ways of coordination, often geographically distributed, or, put in a nutshell: super-flexible organizations

The DNA of super-flexibility

So, what characterizes super-flexibility? According to Homa, the DNA of super-flexibility can be defined by five core attributes: robust, resilient, hedging, agile and versatile.

  • Robust is to be understood in two ways: First, robustness means to have clear intentions, to know where you want to go, to be stable in thinking, probably change the way, but not the vision. Secondly, it means robustness in the core: in values, core competencies, identity, but not necessarily, not even probably, in products, clients or employees.
  •  Resilient depicts the quality to „bounce back“, to experiment and to learn from iterations.
  • Hedging as third core attribute depicts the ability to think in „what if“-scenarios and contingencies, not just to have a „plan A“, but also B and C.
  • Agile, in this framework of super-flexibility, stands for concentrating on the essential must-haves instead of 100%-thinking, for simplicity – e.g. simple products, simple processes.
  • Last, but not least, versatile describes the ability to use strong sensors and first-hand information and to switch gears.

Sorry, there is no recipe

The natural question at this point clearly is: How can the divide be narrowed or leaped? How can organizations become more flexible and fit for the future? There is no recipe how to start this journey, Homa underlines, but some guidelines should be considered:
Start with the edges, on the periphery, not with the core. Like an iceberg, also an organization’s core is usually the hardest part of the whole and the hardest to start with in change. Start with units that struggle, have any kind of „burning platform“, or with remote or rather new units. Position it as experiment and iterate, if useful.
Do not go for big bangs from the scratch, start with baby steps. Go for low impact/early implementation – but do it in a fast way.
Abstain from huge change programs for all parts of the organization, with detailed plans for the upcoming years – this does not allow for adaption and agility and therefore might be the wrong way to implement agility. Constantly take deadlines short and reasonable, but keep direction. And, as a necessary attitude: Be open-minded, let yourself get irritated and learn with your companions on the raft in white water.

Author: Eva Grieshuber