Leading Blog






04.26.10

Leading Outside the Lines: Mobilizing the Informal Organization

informal organization
Right now, the informal elements of your organization are either working for you or against you. Yet for most leaders, say Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, authors of Leading Outside the Lines, the informal organization is poorly understood, poorly managed, and often disregarded because it is too hard to think about.
The formal organization has its own way of attracting, selecting, developing, and rewarding people—but it rarely has the power to affect promotion or compensation. Therefore, those who rise to influential positions in the hierarchy are more likely to be more comfortable with and skilled at using the formal organization than the informal….Informal leaders rarely have the kind of explicit qualifications that can be easily documented or communicated, much less evaluated.
The informal organization lies in the human side of the enterprise and as most things that reside there, it is hard. Unlike the formal side with its top-down, rational approach, the informal is fuzzy, constantly changing and hard to measure. So it is understandable that we would like to somehow ignore it or work around it. But, “if you want your entire organization to improvise frequently and energetically in response to fast-moving change, formal management techniques alone won’t get you there. You need help from the informal side as well. Mobilizing the informal organization helps support formal management mechanisms, increasing their chances of success and deepening their long-lasting impact on the organization.

For leaders, the challenge is to find the balance between the formal and the informal elements of the organization in their particular situation, to achieve concrete, measureable results.

When trying to make a change, our default tactic is to explain “in excruciating detail why the new plan is important.” We think if they get the logic of it, they will get behind it. But they often don’t. People need an emotional connection. Simply formalizing a new set of rules, programs, and structures will not pull the company's culture along. “To that end, leaders need to be able to translate vision, targets, and strategies into personal purpose, accomplishments, and choices that each one of their people can understand and feel good about pursuing.”

The authors make the distinction that while the formal organization is best when dealing with predictable and repeatable work that needs to be done efficiently and without variance, the informal organization is best suited to unpredictable events—surprises that need to be sensed and solved. They add that in many cases, when activity in the informal organization starts to repeat itself, it “is a signal for broader changes that need to be made to the formal organization.” To move beyond “best practices” and the status quo—to get to “best performance”—a leader needs to learn to mobilize the power and plasticity of the informal.

What You Can Do Now
  • Identify and understand the key elements of the informal organization (e.g., back channels, shared values, beliefs) that are at work in the organization at all times.
  • Know which personal and emotional motivators work (e.g., pride in the work itself). Formal motivators, such as money, can be counterproductive. They can actually undermine the natural pride people take in their work.
  • Develop bottom-up and cross-organizational approaches that complement and accelerate hierarchical efforts. “The more admirable enterprises take advantage of three motivational vectors: top down, bottom up, and peer to peer….Motivational leaders invariably treat their subordinates as peers as often as they can.”
  • Design meaningful "values" that are tied to specific behaviors and results. And not just values-displayed. But values-driven; values that are “lived, breathed, and drawn upon to guide day-to-day actions and decisions.”
  • Enlist employees adept at managing both sides of the organization. They call them “fast zebras.” These are people who absorb information quickly, adapt to sudden challenges, and act constructively.
  • Mobilize peer networks and communities to spread knowledge, behaviors, and message. Not manage. “Leaders need to prod the informal organization, to guide or herd it in the right direction without trying to control or constrain it.”

Posted by Michael McKinney at 12:05 PM
| Comments (0) | General Business , Human Resources , Management , Motivation



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