“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
This quotation is thought to originate from a translation of a work by French writer and poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. More recently, it is the statement that Netflix have used to encapsulate the organisation’s talent management ethos. Netflix are widely viewed as an exemplar of agile leadership and agile organisation design principles. So it is worth asking why they have chosen this quote in particular, and what that can tell us about organisational agility.
On the face of it, the quote has a simple message: rather than micro-managing a team from the top, it is better to inspire the team with a shared purpose and empower individual members to manage themselves. This should chime with most people’s working experience. Few organisations now behave like programmable machines, if they ever did, and the idea that they can be easily designed or redesigned by omniscient leaders and their HR counterparts is naïve in the extreme.
To achieve the organisational agility needed to thrive in today’s fast-moving, digital world we must, somewhat paradoxically, put people at the heart of our organisation design, aiming for structures where no one group is privileged and where power is distributed in egalitarian and evidence-based ways. What might such an organisation look like? One possible conceptual model is outlined below. This model is taken from the forthcoming book, Strive: unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world by Dr Kiran Chitta, renowned organisational psychologist and industry expert on organisational agility and Sova strategic partner.
Agile Organisation Design and Development Model – from Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world (Chitta 2018)
This model highlights four mutually enforcing elements of organisational agility – leadership, culture, architecture and careers – while, in the background, we see the constant dynamic interplay between individuals (self), organisations (system) and their context (situation).
Let’s look at each of those four key elements in turn:
The organisation that is implied by these four key elements is less like a programmable machine and more like a living organism – a complex, adaptive, open system that is highly porous to people, data and ideas. This takes us back to our original quote. For, while leaders still have a critical role to play in agile organisations, that role is not to exert control over the workforce but rather to empower and enable employees to become change leaders in their own right and, yes, to teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. Or, to use another Antoine de Saint-Exupéry quote, this time from the posthumously published The Wisdom of the Sands:
“Your task is not to foresee the future, but to enable it”
For further analysis of the four key elements of organisational agility, and approaches you can take to embed them into your business, read our white paper ‘Being digital, human and agile’.