Do your employees function like ‘nodes’ or ‘cogs’?

The webinar “Riding The COVID Wave” threw up engaging tropes, some even bordering on the literary. One of them particularly stood out — “live nodes in a network”. The panellists persisted with this analogy as they explored how organisations could swing the current crisis around to their advantage by injecting a heavy dose of self-management into their teams, and restructuring them as self-driven units free of choking layers of hierarchy.They explained that the COVID-19 situation was forcing teams and also individuals within them to function like “live nodes in a network” instead of “cogs in a wheel”, and suggested that organisations go the whole hog and make this exigency-driven work culture — only the good parts of it, of course — the new norm. Raghu Anathanarayanan, co-founder, Quinnergy Leadership Academy, who brought up the analogy of every employee and team as a “live node”, remarked that often organisations stood in the way of employees taking ownership of their roles, with systems that forced them to work in a constrained manner. Raghu said the COVID-19 situation was making it clear that teams and their individual components that worked horizontally, with cross-functional efficiency, and were self-managed, and laid great store by customer relationships would thrive now and forevermore. He suggested that corporate teams take a leaf out of crafts groups with their cohesiveness and a high degree of personal engagement with customers.Raghu explained that often in organisations the real issue might not get nailed as the malaise arising out of it could be non-specific and conveniently associated with a readily-noticeable and parallel issue. He illustrated it by drawing attention to an intervention his group carried out in a multi-national, multi-discipline project involving distributed teams. The teams had to interact with each other virtually, Raghu pointed out. “Fifteen to twenty years ago, we were engaged by the European Union (EU) to carry out a study. EU was doing an innovative programme that had to do with small industries — one in England, two in Germany, one in India and one in China — that were working together virtually on a mechatronix project,” he began, adding that the group had been called in to sort out a “culture issue” that had surfaced, and it was being put down to the cultural diversity of the distributed teams.Raghu said the study revealed a whole new story: “The idea of work and the idea of an organisation that people held were all in pockets. Each of the teams was just focussed on doing what was required to keep the boss satisfied.”Raghu further’s explanation made one thing clear: The teams did the right things in letter but not in spirit, and the raison d’etre of the businesses seemed to be lost on them.“We made sure that every person knew who their customer was. How each individual responded to the other individual who was the customer became critical,” Raghu said. “Do you know where the greatest resistance came from? From the bosses. The bosses had now become suppliers of resources, of platforms and of knowledge.”The individuals had become “live nodes in the network”, enabled to work with a sense of responsibility. “The traditional system does not trust this fellow to be an adult who could act responsibly. People are trained for skill, but not taught to be responsible,” Raghu added. “We suggested that the groups in these countries work together to build some sort of community among themselves, understanding each other, and the moment this happened, the way they were solving problems was simply a dimension apart,” Raghu concluded his account of the case study. Trust as differentiator Sanjay Anandaram, entrepreneur-mentor, who moderated the discussion, said that when employees became self-driven live nodes, the power of the network would grow exponentially. He raised the issue of opposition coming from within traditional hierarchies when they were being broken down. Suresh Sambandam, CEO, Kissflow, remarked that a hierarchical team structure can’t be suddenly changed into a “network of nodes architecture”, without inviting resistance. It called for a deeper cultural change, which essentially meant building trust incrementally. Trust was often erroneously viewed as only a set of character attributes — being honest and punctual et cetera. “Only when competence and character come together is the trust element born. You can trust a doctor, not just because he is honest and punctual, but also because he is competent,” Suresh said, adding that only with trust forming the core of an organisation’s culture, could the outermost layer of organisational structure be changed from a hierarchical to a network-of-nodes architecture.Suresh explained that there would be little resistance to moving to a distributed power structure, if people would be convinced that by doing so they would not lose their importance and relevance.Raghu said, “Trust is the basic differentiator between Company A and Company B. Whenever I have worked with large IT companies, self-managed teams where the trust, and the feeling of community were a high were always outperforming those teams where the trust was low.”Sanjay asked how errors by self-organised teams would be viewed by the organisation. Would there by a tendency to go back to the “good old days”? Suresh explained that failing ‘n’ of times was acceptable as long as the methods justified those failures. Acceptance obviously did not cover “unprepared attempts” and mindless mistakes. He illustrated: “Jumping off a cliff without a parachute is not acceptable. If one had a parachute on, and the jump proved unsuccessful, that is a different thing,” he illustrated. Culture as bulwarkSanjay underlined that transformative change took time and in the free-wheeling discussion that ensured around the question of time and related ones, the panellists agreed that organisations should first understand the value of being committed to consistently building a culture that is future-ready. Suresh said that today it was COVID-19 and tomorrow something else could affect your business, but what would help you through these uncertainties was culture. From what he had shared earlier, it could be inferred that he was talking about a people-first, trust-driven culture that could fire the organisation with a sense of oneness. He explained that his organisation had invested heavily in culture working on it for four to five years, and this investment was helping them during the ongoing crisis.Sanjay explained culture in this manner: “It is important for startups and younger companies to realise that a feature is not a product, a product is not a business, a business is not a company, and a company is not an organisation. And it is a long-scale shift from feature to organisation and as you shift what really starts manifesting itself as qualitative aspects, all of which one can summarise and call culture.”The gardener’s mindsetThe speakers also agreed that organisations should be quick to make a start, though the vision might not offer any glimpses of the faraway scene, and they might often have to step on uncertain ground. Sanjay drew attention to how as a vision Purna Swaraj declaration in 1929 energised vast numbers of freedom fighters, and gave them a direction, though they could not have grasped the whole of what it meant. Suresh likened a mission-driven journey to scaling a continuous outcrop of hills, from one unknown peak to another unknown peak. One peak would be scaled, and then the higher one, and the even higher one — it was just that one should get the range right. Suresh added there would be mistakes along the way and they were only par for the course. Raghu said that organisations should have a gardener’s mindset where they seeded for the future, and his exposition of what this mindset meant suggested that it was geared towards promoting processes that would ensure continuity and survival — and, if one may add, even during times of overarching crisis such as the current one.When Sanjay raised the possibility of “bad actors” derailing such progressive efforts, Suresh said that it was necessary to mastermind processes that would ensure it did not happen most of the time. He gave an example of how instead of handing out an amount to an employee to buy whatever he felt was essential to setting up a home office, it would be better to offer to reimburse 80 p.c. of the cost incurred in buying these essentials. It would encourage the employee to make a responsible purchase decision. Suresh conceded that there would still be bad actors constituting 5 p.c., and to pull a system by the roots because of that, was to be unfair to the 95 p.c. who are aligned with it.

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