Optimising difference is a key challenge for many businesses.  We hear that the most effective organisations somehow use both high levels of collaboration, listening and mutual respect along with incisive and focused effort to deliver success. But how do they do this? Let us explore and reveal how more organisations might be able to secure the benefit.

In this article, the OE Cam team looks closely at the ways and means of obtaining bigger bangs for the same bucks. We explore how organisations make more of the richness within to harness the prevalent differences and discontinuities that are so often smoothed over with rules, procedures, attitudes and politeness; driven by the desire to create harmony and a unitary focus.

The combination of wider involvement of multiple views and focused delivery can be presented as a balance – a seesaw that tips back and forth working to maintain equilibrium.

Sometimes there will be more of one than the other but always a constant pull for one to have supremacy.


Breathing not Balancing

In considering how we make clearer the better use of our diverse people and resources, let us challenge the notion of balance. This has a sense of limitation, perhaps of compromise where the whole may be at best only the sum of its parts. I think that optimising the diversity and richness of people and resources adds up to a far greater ‘whole’, in true gestalt fashion. When innovation and bold thinking are needed, we do not want to straight-jacket those at the fringes of our core modus operandi.

I wish to share with you the sense of organisations as concertinas, where there is less emphasis on balancing and more focus on breathing – breathing to develop and sustain the organism.

It is hard, in this difficult world full of uncertainties and possibilities, to even contemplate opening up debate to all people, ideas and points of view and simultaneously pushing towards decisions and actions.

However, if we use the analogy of the concertina, we can see that both needs are met, not as a trade-off but as a natural living phenomenon. We open it up to breathe in, we absorb in many ways and then breathe out to produce a result – in the concertina’s case, the music. At times, more or less breath may be required depending upon the rhythm or pitch the music demands. In organisations, there is skill in how much and when we open out and close in, and how we focus the mix to produce a specific outcome. This is true of the concertina in deciding how far to extend or close the bellows and which buttons to press. There are different types / models of concertina, with differing levels of sophistication and results just as there are different types of organisations, varying in purpose, complexity and sophistication.


The Richness of the Mix

In the organisation’s case, the concertina analogy stops short however. In addition to the bellows, buttons and a skilled player, we also need sources and resources on which to draw. A rich mix that informs, challenges, builds on and develops thinking and ideas so that the next point of focus is deeply and broadly informed. So, our challenge is to see what organisations can do to: attract the mix, enable and support the expression of differences and make sense of multiple perspectives so that bold yet feasible solutions are generated and add real business value.

In our quest for effective organisations, especially when times are tough, a focus on the forums, infrastructure and more informal mechanisms that parallel the concertina functions will help us to optimise difference and deliver improved results.

At a micro level, we can see this concertina idea operating in decision making – there are points where we open up and involve a breadth of thinking and others when we close down and move on. Consider Figure 1 below and the rhythm of opening out the debate to feed consideration and then focusing in to move on. The pattern is critical to best ensure a robust decision that is feasible, implementable and appropriate to the need. There are more stages and levels of detail which comprise the whole decision-making process but like this simplified one it requires the concertina action of opening up, considering and focusing in a repeated pattern to end up with a sound result.

figure 1


Our organisations are built up of many examples of such sequences and patterns. Our task is to ensure that moments of opening up are inclusive and embracing of diversity across many dimensions, that closing down is clearly signalled, purposeful and based on the collective sense developed. This is not to say that everyone is necessarily involved in everything. I hope the example of the decision making process indicates that there may be different players at different points – what is key is that they know why they are involved or not.


The Organisation as Concertina – Think Rhythm, Think Music, Think Impact

We can consider how well set up our organisations are to operate as an effective concertina organisation – what formal infrastructures we create and uphold and the informal behaviours and practices we demonstrate and condone.

I see three elements of the ‘organisation as concertina’:

1. Open up to breathe – what is the evidence that we:

  • attract
  • encourage
  • applaud
  • enable diversity?

Do we demonstrate the desire and practice to hear and learn from disparate others, to include diverse perspectives and thinking that expands people’s understanding and brings together our range of stakeholders on our business map?  How do we ensure that individuals are comfortable and prepared to express themselves and challenge others, to have their ideas rejected or superseded? Where are the forums, venues and even job requirements to make this possible?  Where are the leadership, governance, principles and attitudes that value it and rejoice in it? How do we manage individual expectations and inevitable disappointments?

2. Absorb and analyse – how skilled are we at looking for different meanings and ‘facts’, rather than dragging data down into our preferred burrows? How do we define, codify, provide and manage data, numbers and measures – do they curtail or expand our understanding? Where do people reflect, ponder, explore and experiment? How fluent and broad are the cognitive skills and approaches to make real a shared sense of what we have gathered? How do we seek out the motives and needs of fellow stakeholders so we can steer, satisfy or manage their expectations? Where do we acknowledge the shifting power bases and emergent players? How do we pull together the wealth of input into a coherent set of conclusions?

3. Breathe out to produce outputs – where does building trusting relationships figure and how are they actively renewed? Where and how do we enable habits to change, be refreshed, rewarded? Where do we marry action plans and deliverables with using resources differently, story-telling, stimulating energy? What places, triggers and practices exist that rejoice in and celebrate great and multiple team playing?  Where do we acknowledge the benefit of opening up to breathe in and make space to absorb and explore the essential elements of producing outputs? Where do decisions get made and how are actions agreed and taken? How are energy and passion triggered to create responsibility-taking? How do we execute and implement to honour the richness of contributors?

Examining indicators of these three aspects of our concertina organisation helps us judge where our effort goes, whether we value the whole sequence or not, and what might be missing or become more of a blocker than an enabler.

The table below offers a sample of indicators of opening up to breathe in, of absorbing and analysing what we have found and of breathing out to produce an output. These are just lists and beg wider questions about managing their co-existence. But let us start here – how evident are they in your organisation?

What carries most weight – is there a skew?




None of these ways of working, of organising and running our organisations, detracts from individual and indeed team differences. In fact, different people will enjoy different stages and aspects of this way of working – that is part of our being unique. This only works if those differences are welcomed and used. If we like the idea of a concertina organisation then inevitably we are opening our arms to employing diverse thinkers, from diverse backgrounds, with different experiences and habits to bring to our table and from which to view issues and opportunities and reach conclusions. We reject ‘group think’ – a seemingly balanced yet unwitting body of like-minded thinkers – and work to prevent it from clouding our focus and decisions.

Whatever the picture of your organisation, having reviewed these sorts of indicators, where there is imbalance, too much looseness or tightness, there is an opportunity to develop the organisation as a more tuneful concertina.


Deciding on the Rhythm

In organisations there is an overall rhythm to how they work.

Those of you who are musicians will know that better music results from all the elements understanding, honouring and reinforcing the overall rhythm and ultimate collective sound as well as that of their own specific parts. Where is that manifest in our organisations? Is a statement about vision and values enough?

If the concertina analogy works then it suggests that we need conscious development of the organisation to produce desired outcomes within orchestrated, shared rhythms of breathing in, absorbing and drawing from, then breathing out, in focused and finely tuned fashion.

How does the leadership cadre set the rhythms and enable a concertina organisation? They are individuals too with their own preferences, styles and prejudices, so how do they not only cope with but optimise the potential richness of those around them? How do they galvanise this richness to produce tangible business results?

In OE Cam, we consider how leaders make clear such things as:

  • Reputation and values
  • Purpose and goals
  • Primacy of markets, products and services and core operations
  • Customer communities and their expectations
  • Attitude to risk and approach to cost-benefit analysis
  • The stakeholder map and power positions on it
  • Leadership style and capability
  • Attitude to learning, exploring, sharing – from multiple perspectives
  • The Board or CEO’s desired legacy.

Consideration of these ‘givens’ and others helps us set the tone and lay the ground-rules for our decisions, choices and actions.

Where there is an overall sense of the rhythm of the organisation and of the concertina in action the will, capability and opportunity for optimising difference is most likely to deliver.

There are many examples of this in action. Think about the Paralympics teams which comprised people of mixed ability who worked soundly together and collectively delivered great results.

Think of Apple – tremendous degrees of organisational freedom and celebration of diverse ideas to create products and services, combined with fiercely focused delivery.

Alternatively, think of those organisations which have multi-national teams constrained by politeness and wanting to fit in which somehow fail to deliver. Or, those which recruit diverse talent only to spit it out after 12-18 months because it doesn’t fit and can’t breathe within the dominant culture. Or those where the tightness of processes and procedures and dominance of group think mean that exceptions to the rule freeze the operation and improvement ideas have no listeners.

There is no music produced in these!