Change and Leadership

My recent posts have looked at changes in roles in sporting organisations. I am struck by the diversity of roles in these organisations. What is becoming evident to me is the role leaders will play in the flourishing of these organisations and their transformations that will occur as they deal with change.

I do think recent discussions about the roles of technical and sporting directors (link) has focused this conversation as have debates about investing in learning opportunities (link). After reading my account of Graham Taylor’s coaching journey (link), a friend involved in coaching football noted “Graham wrote that he lost his opening 12 games of the season at Lincoln and was fortunate to still be in the job”. It was interesting to me that someone at Lincoln saw Graham’s potential as a coach and dealt with the local political issues about his appointment and supported him through to become Lincoln’s youngest and most successful coach. I believe that was a great example of leadership.

I am indebted to Jo Gibson for her encouragement as my PhD student to explore leadership and followership. She has helped me think about how entangled these two are and in the process has introduced me to Karen Barad and her sense of “individuals emerging through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (link). Jo has led me to Emma Uprichard and Leila Dawney‘s (2016) discussion of data diffraction as well (link). Emma and Leila consider how we respond when the data we collect, through a variety of mixed methods, diffract rather than become integrated. These data “provide an explicit way of empirically capturing the mess and complexity” that is intrinsic to “the social entity being studied”.

Many of these issues came together when I discovered the work of Julien Clement, an assistant professor of organisational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has been considering How to Stay Ahead When the Rules Change (link). Lee Simmons (2019) (link) introduced us to Julien in a review of his work.

Julien is the author of Sensing the Next Game Changer: Organizational Architecture, Cognition and Adaptation to Environmental Change (link). His paper provides the detail that Lee points to and is a discussion of “a theory of collective sensemaking in the face of environmental change”.

To explore staying ahead in business, Julien looked at eSports professional multiplayer games. He noted:

the elements of business competition are there: eSports teams are high-stakes, profit-seeking enterprises that can earn millions of dollars a year and that use strategy and tight coordination in an arena where sudden and unforeseen changes occur in the form of game updates.

Julien looked closely at a game called Defense of the Ancients 2. Lee Simmons (2019) (link) observed of this approach:

His theory was that something in the very structure of organizations — of any sort — shapes how the individuals inside them see the world. And that worldview, in turn, can make them slow to adapt.

In Defense of the Ancients, disruption comes in the form of revisions to the game’s code. Julien’s research considered “when these updates came out, would teams revise their game plan, or would they continue with the same plan and just swap in stronger heroes?” Would this be systemic change or “business as usual with different personnel?”

He noted:

  • When hero abilities changed, most teams responded only by switching heroes.
  • Only after a lag of several weeks did some begin to revise their strategies.
  • Immediately after a change, teams were less innovative than in stable periods.
  • Small, nimble teams exhibited the same inertia that big corporations exhibit when faced with change.
  • It was a failure to recognize the full, systemic implications of external change.
  • Firms fail to adapt when they focus on specific tasks at the expense of system-wide behavior.

Julien pondered if in “times of tumult, could strong leaders guide their organization’s adaptation?” He noted:

information flowed in a hub-and-spoke pattern from the leader to the other players. In others, the flow was more even and distributed, as players seemed to be mutually adjusting to each other rather than just listening to the captain.

He added:

Teams with flatter structures, where everybody seemed to be talking and contributing, were more likely to recognize the need to look for a new strategy rather than just swapping in new heroes. Only when the updates had an obvious and direct system-wide effect, such as far-reaching changes in the rules of the game, did teams with dominant leaders adapt faster.

Julien observed:

A central leader may speed things up when it’s fairly clear how the organization should respond to change. But when the problem is to figure out how to respond, a less hierarchical structure might be more effective.

His conclusion to this research was:

Companies might view change as an opportunity, especially when the consequences of the change aren’t immediately obvious. When things are moving fast, it’s natural to narrow your focus and concentrate on keeping the ship on course. But it might be smart, this study suggests, to take a step back and think about where you’re headed and how the entire organization works.

This conclusion resonates powerfully with the issues discussed at the start of this post. I think it provides an excellent example of the entaglement of leadership and followership and how organisations enable a less hierarchical structure that is not a threat to the organic structure of the organisation. In the process it will be fascinating to see how dynamic they can be in response to structural changes in performance environments. As Julien concludes in his paper, discussions about change advance “our understanding of the mechanisms underlying organizational adaptation and the coordination structures which may facilitate it”.

What will be of great interest is how we develop our cognitive understanding of what will be and how we as decision makers can facilitate mental time travel into what will be given that we are often appointed for what we did. It seems to me that we will have to make sense of entanglement and diffraction as we address and flow with change.

Photo Credits

Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

Julien Clement (Stanford)

Jonny Kennaugh on Unsplash


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