The adaptable organisation

Runnin baby memeHow well do you propagate your limes?

Whenever I run a large group seminar I get great questions, some of which live inside my head long after the seminar has ended. Last night’s seminar on “Strategies for a Changing World” left me with these beauties:

How does a large, complex organisation become agile enough to meet local needs? And can it scale up that local agility, to become a more adaptable, responsive, and successful organisation overall?

I think the answer lies in how they propagate their limes. But I’ll get to limes, once I’ve talked about memes. Roll with me on this one.

When you ask most people what a “meme” is, they will usually describe it by example, typically of something on social media – a viral post, or a gif that’s constantly in circulation. Gene Wilder’s enigmatic smile with a topical caption; an amusing clip of a child running into and back out of a room; or maybe a longer running meme, like the Ice Bucket challenge.

But in sociological terms, a meme is more than that. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, to mean any behaviour, or style, or idea, that spreads through a society. He chose the word in analogy to the gene – a unit of genetic information, or in this case, a unit of cultural information.

His thesis, and I paraphrase heavily here, was that human culture evolves through the exchange, proliferation, and “natural selection” of memes, in a similar way that a species evolves physically through the exchange, proliferation, and natural selection of genes.

Management by Objectives was a powerful meme in corporate culture. Agile has become the dominant meme in software development today. The Compassionate Leadership meme is appearing ever more frequently across health and social care.

Memes are important, and not just “in the wild”. The ideas, the beliefs and behaviours that make up your organisational culture, they’re memes too.

Managing culture is about propagating the right memes, not leaving it to natural selection, but accelerating it through artificial selection. It’s about using the various channels we’re all familiar with: leadership modelling, reward and recognition, hiring and induction, appraisal and firing, and so on, to cultivate and propagate the memes that will form the culture we want.

So, back to that beautiful question, and back to limes…

The only way that large organisations can adapt to meet local needs, is to give local leaders the flexibility to adapt, to change, to innovate at a local level. Of course, this yields an immediate benefit at that same local level, but it also offers the potential to create far greater benefits across the organisation more widely.

Because in organisations that can enable that local flexibility, every locale becomes an experiment, a hothouse of innovation and evolution. And the most successful of those local innovations can spread. Maybe not in their entirety – every locale is different; but certain elements of those Local Innovations: the successful, transferrable “Limes” as I call them, they can spread. And they do.

My last “proper job” (as my mum would say) was in a large, national pub chain. One of our most successful concepts, was dreamed up by one rogue manager under the radar, desperately trying to drum up midweek trade. We only got wind of it when a couple of others started trying to copy it, with less success. Once we picked out the best, most transferrable limes from his concept, we ended up rolling them out to over 150 sites.

Closer to home, a large animal rehoming organisation I worked with a few years ago, was rolling out a new model of “home to home” rehoming – bypassing their kennels entirely where they could find a match to a new home that could take the animal immediately. It had begun as an idea, a single lime, in one rehoming centre, and quickly caught on across the region.

So, assuming you’re giving local leaders enough degrees of freedom to adapt to local situations and needs, how do you unlock the power of all that innovation potential inside your organisation?

First, you start actively looking for the local adaptations, those hidden gems of innovation, the beautiful little limes that are hopefully growing, right now, in the hothouses of your organisation. Find them, select the best, and then work out how to propagate them across your organisation.

Because the ability for any large, national organisation to learn, adapt and respond to a rapidly changing environment, largely comes down to those two things: how good its hothouses are, and how well it can propagate its limes.

So, how well does your organisation spot, select, and propagate its limes?

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