Lost your responsiveness to change? Apply some World Cup logic.

If you’re watching any World Cup soccer this year, you know the Netherlands recently won a match against Costa Rica in overtime thanks to “super sub” Tim Krul on the Netherlands’ team. Krul specializes in defending the goal against penalty kicks and was put in specifically for this reason at the end of the game shoot-out.  As a result, Krul blocked a crucial kick.

Change management guru and bestselling author, John Kotter, would have liked this match because Tim Krul personifies his latest strategy to help organizations adapt quickly to change. In Kotter’s new model, which I explain below, “the network” is put into play rather than repeatedly relying on upper management, those with the most seniority (the starting goalie) or hierarchy to seize opportunities or accommodate changes.

But first, why is adapting to change so important? We are experiencing exponentially growing change—change for which we are not prepared unless we adopt new ways of anticipating and responding to our fast-paced environment. Kotter’s book, Accelerate, “is about how to handle strategic challenges fast enough, with agility and creativity, to take advantage of windows of opportunity which open and shut more quickly today.”

Kotter shows you how people in leading innovative organizations are maintaining their competitive edge, managing turmoil, and coping with unanticipated challenges while executing short-term objectives, all without exhausting the staff in the process.

So what’s behind Kotter’s curtain this time?

A dual operating system. It sounds excessive but, in reality, it’s not. Kotter argues this framework doesn’t require you to eliminate your current hierarchy but, rather, augment it with a more nimble companion that enables you to respond quickly and adeptly to the rapidly changing landscape around you.

The result is the best of both worlds—a reliable structure for core operations and its flexible equal that is responsive to urgency and innovation.

What does a dual operating system look like?

The actual features of a dual operating system are your traditional hierarchy on one side and “a network” on the other. The dual structure is dynamic: Initiatives coalesce and disband as needed. Since a management hierarchy is well-known in the nonprofit sector, Kotter focuses on how the network side works. It is similar to a start-up in that all people are working together toward a goal and with urgency. Kotter explains the network in this way: “Populated with a diagonal slice of employees from all across the organization and up and down its ranks, the network liberates information from silos and hierarchical layers and enables it to flow with far greater freedom and at accelerated speed.”

Who can best leverage this kind of dual system?

Kotter’s dual system helps mid-sized to large organizations get back to their early, nimble roots. Virtually all organizations begin with a network-like structure where founders are at the center and others operate at different nodes working on various initiatives. Individuals work quickly, responding to and seeking opportunity. Over time the organization evolves with the installation of managerial processes. This more mature organization is reliable and well-designed to produce results. However, one limit of this system is that it keeps going back to the same people to move key initiatives forward. In today’s demanding environment, this solution isn’t sustainable. That’s why the network is ideal for organizations that have traditional hierarchies and still want the benefits of a network-like structure. Similarly in World Cup matches, teams don’t go to the same players every time; they put in different specialists depending on what the situation demands.

If you think this is a glorified task force, Kotter answers why it’s not.

Question: We already use something like this sort of structure in the form of interdepartmental task forces, “tiger teams,” “self-managed work teams,” or the like. This is basically the same, right?

Kotter: These kinds of teams and task forces have some characteristics in common with a dual operating system, but overall the two are very different. Interdepartmental task forces and the like are controlled by, and work within, a single-system hierarchy. They are meant to supplement the 20th century organizational form to help it develop and execute new strategic and other initiatives in today’s environment.

The people who do the work on these teams are appointed (although sometimes the word “volunteer” is used, the reality is more like “volun-told”). Often they are directed by a project or program manager who is also appointed. Such teams rarely involve more than a few dozen people. They almost always go away after a set period of time. They usually use the standard management processes: creating plans and measurements, defining accountability, setting timelines, reporting progress on all plans and milestones regularly to those higher up in the hierarchy.

Under the right circumstances, these vehicles can be very useful. But in terms of the sheer energy and alignment needed to help you stay ahead of fierce competition in a turbulent world, there is no comparison between them and a dual system.

If you find yourself in a larger nonprofit that’s lost its ability to adapt or respond quickly to change, consider looking at Kotter’s book Accelerate. He not only explains how to build the framework without taxing the staff, but he also presents eight “Accelerators” that keep the network producing for you. Experiment with John Kotter’s dual operating system; you’ll have a fit and responsive team supporting your hierarchy in the field and playing as super subs when the competition gets tough. You don’t have to depend on the same people every time to get a variety of projects or initiatives done. Instead you can assemble a network that wins the match for you.

Read more:

A Sense of Urgency

Buy-In: Saving Your Good Ideas from Getting Shot Down

Image credits: theaustralian.com, espnfc.com, rediff.com, kotterinternational.com


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