When the Industrial Revolution took off, there was a sudden need to manage large numbers of people. There were only two widespread models of non-feudal leadership available for inspiration: the Church and the Military. Both had a formal, hierarchical, top down structure. And a top down leadership model had worked well in a more agrarian system for managing productivity, so a top down model was understandably adopted.
Over time, as the Industrial Revolution faded in to the background and the nations that benefited grew stronger, this hierarchical model grew ever deeper roots. By the end of the 20th century it was all any recent generation had ever known and the loyalty to it had become so instinctive that to question alternatives had become almost heretical.
But that has now changed, dramatically. And if we re-examine today's experience of the military and the church, we again find a source of inspiration for organisational effectiveness.
The most troublesome military challenge of the day, the modern terrorist organisation, has a flat, fast learning, purpose driven, agile, networked and resilient structure; one that's in stark contrast to the military machines that oppose them. And, as such, they're having a real and psychological impact way beyond their numbers and budget. So, as uncomfortable as it is to accept, modern terror organisations have something to teach us about organisational effectiveness in this new paradigm. And the western military is evolving along with the threat: devolving information, decision making authority and training more nimble forces. But it's not just about how to act, but how to evaluate: you cannot evaluate a network like you would a machine. If the western military leadership in Afghanistan spent 10 years relatively cut off from the world, bunkered down in mountainous caves how would they, or the western press, have evaluated that? Almost certainly not in the same way as Al-Qaeda.
The second original source of structural inspiration, the Church, has also evolved over recent decades. Whilst the established, institutional church has experienced significant decline in terms of affiliation, conversely there's been an explosion in non-denominational church growth as people began to identify with something locally organic. For all intents and purposes the same "product" was on offer, just via a different stylistic choice in terms of delivery and leadership. Today, most of the larger individual UK churches (1,000+ attendees a week) are not part of the institutional structure and there are thousands of non-denominational churches spread across the UK landscape. Aside from what may be learned here structurally, it's also interesting to note that most of the formal statistics we read in the press do not take this changing environment in to account. A lesson for organisational effectiveness to be learned there is around our approach to measurement and decision making: organisations need to become more comfortable making decisions by sensing cultural change through experience and less by formal research. The modern Church, via the individual, sensed a need and pivoted towards what people wanted: devolved authority with a vision led more by culture and purpose and less by structure and control. It was not measurement led.
When it comes to the way we organise ourselves and make decisions, humanity will look back over the 50 or so years that we're in the middle of as the point we redefined our approach to organisational structure and leadership: not only in terms of training up new skills, but by embracing a whole new paradigm and way of thinking. Are we going to learn from where organisations are effective and change as a result? Or are we going to suffer the slow decline of the organisations we work within as they fail to grasp the nettle, because merely tinkering with leadership development programmes won't suffice. It needs radical organisational change. And organisations that deny or avoid this will end up paying a very heavy price.
It is undoubtedly an extraordinary time to be engaged in organisational leadership.
How are you going to play your part?