From Management to Leadership – Redefining The Agile Organization

Moving fast and efficient requires awareness and agility. It’s just not possible for a large ship to change course as fast as a speedboat. Often, highly bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations, with all the good intention of making things better, embark on massive organizational changes and don’t see warning signs until it’s often too late and the change management processes are pushed into a reactive mode.

A Day Onboard the Big Ship!

One morning, a junior Seaman Recruit observes a huge mass on the horizon. Fearing that it’s an iceberg ahead, he reports quickly to his supervisor, who in turn, compiles a report to his boss (the Petty Officer) at the end of his shift.

The Petty Officer knows that he can’t pass every piece of information up the ladder and he must first confirm that it is indeed an iceberg. He uses the ships internal communication systems and sends an order back down the chain of command for confirmation of the report.

Redefining The Agile Organization

Up on the deck, the Junior Seaman confirms that it’s indeed an iceberg and it’s approaching fast. He sends his report back up the chain of command. Now the Petty Officer can send the report up the channel with absolute certainty. His job is secure, for the moment.

The report eventually travels all the way to the Captain who receives an urgent message of a collision ahead. He quickly issues an emergency order to avoid the accident.

The Captain’s order arrives at the operation room when they are already dealing with the huge crack on the ship’s body made by the collision with the iceberg!

This is an extreme example, depicting a slow adaptation to change. Although it might seem absurd and preposterous, we might act the same in our own organizations, without noticing it.

The Awareness

Organizations, as interconnected networks of human beings, are much more complex than we might think. There are multitude variables affecting an organization, internally and externally; and this number increases exponentially as the organization grows in size.

The natural way we deal with these many number of varieties is through our perceptual systems filtering out irrelevant information, to only see what we are looking for.

Those who filter out important information, and don’t capture them in a timely manner, will most probably leave the scene in favour of other competitors.

One lethal variety attenuator is sheer ignorance.

- Stafford Beer

Effective organizations excel in designing and utilizing these “information filters” (variety attenuators) in a way that they can perceive required, valid, and important information in time.

Therefore, effective organizations –

  • create and develop awareness throughout the organization
  • develop and utilize effective communication channels to propagate the awareness

The Agility

In a rapidly changing environment, a viable system needs to move with agility. The timeframe to act is too short that you cannot afford rigidity and slowness. Decisions should be made; actions need to be taken. Every manager needs to trust the judgment of his/her people to do the right thing in the right way.

In a traditional organization, on the other hand, the roles are upside-down. The manager is there to tell the employees what to do and how to do the task, and make sure the task is done according to some specific standards. The employees, trust the judgment of the manager and perform the tasks as they have been told.

An effective organization is not an assembly of several managers and a group of doers, it rather consists of many interconnected managers following the leadership of the organization.

Change the Paradigm Towards Leadership

An agile organization needs to be self-managing and does not waste time sending reports and orders back and forth. Every subsystem (i.e. department, unit, individual) needs to have a managerial function to organize, direct, and manage its operation in absolute harmony with the whole system.

This means every single employee should operate with such a mindset. They are not just “doers”; they are “thinkers” and “decision makers” as well: they are viable systems.

The role of the head of the organization is not to manage the operations; it’s rather to lead the performance of the whole system and secure the viability:

  • Envisioning the future
  • Asking questions
  • Developing high-level policies
  • Developing the guiding value system
  • Coordinating multiple subsystems (departments) towards the vision
  • Aligning and harmonizing
  • Motivating and inspiring
  • Spreading awareness
  • Empowering people


On the other hand, different managers from top to bottom of the organization have the role of managementcontrol, and monitor:

  • Coordinating with other subsystems (departments/individuals)
  • Managing constant conflicts on the way forward (making decisions)
  • Raising expectations
  • Collaborating to set the direction
  • Planning the details
  • Collaborating to implement plans
  • Appeal to hearts and minds
  • Controlling the compliance and standards
  • Developing people
  • Creating awareness
  • Monitoring performance and direction


An agile organization is a Viable System. It requires redefining employees across the organization as interconnected managers, following the leadership of the organization. Every single employee should operate with such a mindset. They are not just “doers”; they are “thinkers” and “decision makers” as well: they are, themselves, viable systems.

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