In his book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal writes about the need for constant adaptation and resiliency. Like other contemporary management thought-leaders, he argues (from experience) that traditional hierarchy, top-down, command-and-control structures are rapidly gaining obsolescence. I agree.
But it's hard to let go of control.
I've watched associations manage from the top-down via extreme goal setting, hoping that the goal recipients "rise to the occasion." Sometimes they do. Then, executives look brilliant. But then, too, the strategy gets repeated until staff burn out, get demotivated from unrealistic goals, or worst of all become significantly disengaged.
There are also organizations where strategic thinking becomes concentrated "at the top" and politely filtered and funneled in appropriate bits and pieces to those who need to know. After all, why would staff in a publishing department need or want to know about strategies and tactics being executed in business development, education, membership, marketing, and government affairs? Here, the experience, knowledge, and interdependence of people is not being used to the fullest.
To me, it's clear that today's workforce wants more from leaders. No, they don't want to be handed their year-over-year growth goals. No, they don't want to be told what the 3-year strategies and tactics are so they can just be executioners of Board and executive planning. No, they don't want to be treated as cogs. These are the management remnants of the Industrial Age, when hyper-growth and a less educated workforce were, by the accounts of owners and management theorists of the times, to be 'kept in check.' In this environment, there's no place for the complexity of interdependence.
We're past that, aren't we? Well, our employees certainly are. People are much more educated, socially engaged and aware than ever. As such, in simple terms, our workforce wants to be part of the conversation and decision-making.
When we talk about and plan for non-dues revenue opportunities, we think in terms of programs, products and services. We put a person in charge (often a COO, a Vice President of Business Development, or some type of "strategic relations" position) or a department or two. We offer extreme goals (and I've heard them all, trust me) such as increase non-dues revenue by 25% in 3 years, or grow annual conference attendance by 20% in 1 year, or launch a new product line in a few months from scratch.
What's missing here?
We are trying to reach these goals in outdated ways. Our staff structures, not our lists of projects and opportunities, need to become our strategies. Our staff structures need to become more coordinated and connected. We must learn to let go of control-based management thinking to support the development of creativity and order from the bottom-up.
What could this look like? Here's an unorthodox analogy.
Have you ever seen a large flock of birds moving like a school of fish? This is called a murmuration, and Starlings are experts at it.
Scientists have studied murmuration. It's a definitive display of teamwork, distinctly characterized by thousands of individuals flocking together in elegant, emergent, fast-moving patterns. With murmuration, there is no single leader. Without going into the complex science of why these individual birds are able to act as one organism in dynamic, highly fluid and responsive ways, murmuration boils down to three key behaviors:
Cohesion: staying close to your neighbor
Alignment: moving in the general direction of your neighbor
Separation: not crowding your neighbor
So where is this leading? Executives might think twice about telling/dictating/planning 'what to do' and instead think oftheir new role as orchestrating the involvement and interdependence of staff in the discussion and decision process to purposefully create cohesion, separation and alignment. The more our employees become engaged in the conversation about non-dues revenue, and the more they help design the goals and responses to new opportunities, the more our organizations can act as a single, integrated organism when it comes to executing.
Perhaps McChrystal says it best: "...in situations defined by high levels of interaction, ingenious solutions can emerge in the absence of any single designer...”
Horizontal management (or perhaps we can call it Murmuration Management?) is not about command-and-control, it's about weaving people and teams together. Like networking computers, the processing power grows faster than you can imagine.
A large majority of association leaders say that non-dues revenue is one of the most important topics on their agenda year-over-year. If that topic never seems to go away, perhaps it's time to try something different. Create a new structure that gives employees a chance to develop their own non-dues murmuration.