1.  The Failing Strength of the Structural Organisation

Today we are living with the legacy of a couple of hundred or so years of office work. We have found ourselves at the mercy of command and control hierarchies which have become more or less irrelevant in today’s digitally connected world” (1).  This is the view of Dave Coplin – Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft.

Hierarchies were created when manufacturing was the order of the day, where work was predictable and ordered.  Back then, decision authorities and resource management could be organised hierarchically; they established the order and ensured that pre-designed ways of working were maintained and delivered efficiently.

However, things have changed.  Businesses now need to reimagine how they organise themselves, as they adapt to today’s conditions:

  • With the shift in the type of employment towards more knowledge working, Daniel Pink (2) suggests that to engage knowledge workers requires providing them with a sense of purpose, giving them more opportunities to develop and provide them with greater autonomy to operate.  This demands a different form of leadership, and starts to weaken the historical power of hierarchy.
  • Secondly, with the economy being more disruptive and less predictable, businesses are having to manage multiple sets of products and services that could be at different lifecycle stages, so requiring different types of focus, capability and leadership (see diagram 1).  City & Guilds is one such example of this, with its portfolio of businesses.


2.  Evolution of the Organisation

All of this means that the way in which businesses have organised themselves has been evolving, as they respond to the changing world – building additional infrastructures over time:


page10-diagramDiagram 2: Evolution of the Organisation


Evolving from Hierarchy to Heterarchy

These stages can be additive, building on the infrastructure that already exists.  This however means that the organisation has become far more complicated to manage.  And it has meant the emergence of individuals, teams or functions that are connected laterally to other individuals, teams or functions.  They share the same ‘horizontal’ position of power and authority, spreading ideas between themselves and making decisions with less need for permission from their hierarchial parent.

This is the emergence of the ‘heterarchy’, which can exist within the overall hierarchical business framework.  A heterarchy can make organisational life far more ambiguous, and may cause confusion to those with a more traditional mindset.

Stage 1 – Functional Order
Where efficiency and order prevail.  When a business is stable, it can optimise functional excellence and efficiency.

Stage 2 – Business Unit Primacy
Where multiple businesses, at different life-stages and sizes, facing different markets /customers / channels, dictate the pace and direction of the organisation, and are supported by centralised corporate functions and / or services.

Stage 3 – Cross-Business Proposition & Platform Development
Where group-wide initiatives in value proposition and platform development cut across Business Units and Functions for the benefit of the group.

Stage 4 – Capability Networks
Where professional groupings of capability from across the business, develop methodologies and new thinking, and share their resource and expertise across the whole business.

Stage 5 – Building Disruptive Innovation
Acquiring or partnering innovations from elsewhere that might challenge the Business Unit status quo, on the basis that it is better to disrupt oneself than to be disrupted by others.


3. Reimagining Teams in the Ambi-Dextrous Organisation

One consequence of all of this is the re-emergence of ‘autonomous teams’, where the leader provides a framework within which a team can operate and make decisions, interacting horizontally as well as vertically within the organisation.

In our recent pan-European research on autonomous teams (3), we found that although there is a desire to offer greater autonomy to teams, businesses are struggling to make it a real success.  The difficulties lie in creating the right environment for the teams to operate, establishing a healthy relationship with the hierarchy, and having managers who are able to achieve a healthy balance between control and freedom.  The research found that the biggest complaint was ‘too much interference’ from managers.


4. Reimagining Jobs in the Ambi-dextrous Organisation

With the evolution of organisations, and the emergence of autonomous teams comes an equally radical shift in how we work – from designing ‘roles and positions’ to designing ‘capabilities and projects’.  Businesses have moved away from job titles with tightly defined responsibilities and tasks, towards designing roles focused on outputs, utilising pools of expertise across the business.

In this way, the individual identifies with a specific community of professionals to develop their competence, whilst work becomes more multiple-project-based.  Individuals need to manage their workload, multiple bosses and exert influence laterally, far more than ever before.



Many firms are moving along in this direction, and adapting as they evolve.   The growing pains can be difficult, but as they mature into a more ambi-dextrous organisation, they will be better-suited to the world around us.




1. “Business Reimagined” by Dave Coplin (2013) Harriman House Publishing
2. “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink (2011) Canongate Books
3. “Autonomous Teams Research” (February 2015) by OE Cam