Alice MacGillivray

Supporting Leadership & Knowledge Work Across Boundaries

Archive for April, 2010

Adaptive Tensions: Fuel for Innovation

In the twitter-based group that explores knowledge management topics (#KMers), John Bordeaux made some comments that piqued others’ interest. For example, he wrote that organizations pull for repeatability; people pull for creativity; and conflict can lead to novel approaches for both.

This statement speaks to the heart of my interests as a reflective practitioner. In scholarly circles I might say that I’m most interested in the intersections of complexity thinking, knowledge management and leadership. Since the mid-nineties I’ve not been able to think of any of those fields without the others. In lay terms, I might say that organizational structures serve good purposes AND constrain some types of knowledge-intensive work critical for growth or even survival. So many principles and norms in organizations are designed for predictable environments. This frustrates people who recognize the complexity around them, and have the energy to innovate and make a difference. These people find each other in coffee rooms, by water coolers, and increasingly through social media that can support networks and communities of practice. These connections can lead to anything from cynical camaraderie to deep learning, synergies and innovation.

Some KMers asked if I’d published anything related to the ideas in John’s comment, and I have, though I plan to expand this work in the future. For example, I identified 10 ways in which leaders work with the boundary between vertical and horizontal environments. One is to sustain adaptive tensions between the vertical and the horizontal. I illustrated this with a story of how an exercise was being planned to test and refine counter-terrorism capacity and capabilities. This quote from “Brenda” describes the process:

  • The first exercises very strongly focused on: “Here’s a spill, let’s clean it up” or “let’s find it first.” The second exercise was still along those lines, but they were a little more receptive to what if there were persons in that area of contamination. The third exercise was actually throwing in 50 rowdies who are potentially contaminated. How do you deal with them? So I’m anticipating that because of the way that I pushed for the exercise design, we’re pointing out gaps that will need to be addressed. And hopefully that will expand the areas of research interest for the next round of funding.

This quote is from p. 188 of Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.

One of the points I was making was that networks of people that span organizational boundaries might be valued, respected and drawn upon by those in the vertical structures, or they might be excluded and marginalized to the detriment of learning and innovation. Even if they are respected, there are inherent tensions, which should not be ignored and which can contribute positively to innovation.

I posted my dissertation abstract below, and also have some papers that explore complexity-KM-innovation connections in the publications area of the blog: http://bit.ly/59PRMkAdap

Respected Leaders’ Work with Boundaries

I am about to respond to a request from some colleagues to post ideas from recent research. To set the stage, I am sharing the abstract from my dissertation here first. I have added a couple of notes to it in red font:

Abstract

We work in organizational structures designed by industrial era architects, yet find ourselves in a knowledge era that is more like an ecosystem than a machine. We measure things, yet the real value may lie in the relationships amongst these things, especially as leaders face multidimensional challenges including climate change, terrorism and enabling organizational learning. This empirical research is driven by the need to better understand leadership in complex, unpredictable, horizontal, boundary-spanning environments.

This study explores how persons who are respected for their leadership in horizontal environments understand and work with boundaries. Each participant also brought current or recent experience as a leader in a vertical hierarchy, enabling them to compare and contrast these environments.

Data were gathered through interviews and–in many cases–direct observation of leaders at work. Phenomenography, ethnography and the integration of theoretical material were combined as an experiment in systemic phenomenography. This approach revealed detail and diversity of potential value for practitioners working in varied contexts. It also added to theoretical work about boundary critique and complex system leadership.

Participants generally described their vertical environments with factual statements about numbers of employees, structures, software, products and services. They generally described horizontal environments–such as communities of practice and shared leadership teams–with more emotion, revealing passion and frustrations. They had moved into horizontal work for several reasons including problems not being resolvable through traditional, vertical approaches. Frustrations sometimes related to the marginalization of horizontal environments, difficulties bringing learning and innovation from the horizontal into the vertical, and workload.

Participants understood boundaries and edges in different ways. One of the most common was to see edges of organizations and groups as places for the mixing of ideas to enable learning and innovation. (I have called these places Intellectual Estuaries )

Some participants thought consciously about boundaries in their work, and all worked implicitly with boundaries in several interconnected ways. Their behaviours included scanning the environment for potentially productive connections, making context-specific boundary decisions and maintaining adaptive tensions (the focus of my next blog post). Many worked consciously to integrate multiple identities associated with work in different cultures and disciplines.

KEYWORDS: Leadership, horizontal, boundaries, communities of practice, complexity, knowledge management, governance, counter-terrorism, narrative, systemic phenomenography.

Taken from: Perceptions and uses of boundaries by respected leaders: A transdisciplinary inquiry by MacGillivray, Alice E., Ph.D., Fielding Graduate University, 2009, 256 pages; AAT 3399314 available through ProQuest database.