The making of an agile corporation…

This is the story of what it took for one huge company to transform its leadership and ways of working.

Why is this of interest to me?

It’s another of the “imaginal cells” that are emerging in this time when we see ever-more clearly that old systems are no longer working. As I mentioned in my post on Metamorphosis, I’ve been on the lookout for examples of different ways of thinking and the experiments that are testing these new paradigms.

The first was Doughnut Economics. In that post, we heard economist Kate Raworth describe her vision for an economic model that ensures sufficiency for all without exceeding the limits of what earth can provide. In April 2020, Amsterdam became a Doughnut City. I’ve just received further information about the application of this model for our post-pandemic future…

 In June, the city council of Copenhagen committed to turning  into a Doughnut City—a good life for all within planetary boundaries. Dozens of other cities and towns worldwide have been in touch with Kate Raworth, economist and author of Doughnut Economics, to indicate they are also interested. These commitments demonstrate very exciting and bold examples of leadership in how we can transform the crisis of the pandemic into an opportunity for human renewal.

Leading for agility…

Today’s imaginal cell story is about a huge corporation and its whole-system transformation. I learned about it through an interview on the coaching summit I mentioned last week.

I almost didn’t watch this session, though. The title was Scaling Leadership, Agility and Vertical Development Inside an Organization, and the organization is Hoffmann-La Roche (Roche), a global healthcare company with about 94,000 employees in more than 100 countries.

I’m a fan of localized business and the small is beautiful philosophy, so I was sceptical that I would find anything of interest in this conversation. But they used words such as whole-system, transformation, emergent, and sustaining. It seemed they were speaking my language.

…we will explore lessons learned and emerging insights from Roche’s whole-system transformation of leadership and ways of working. As one of the highest profile (and most currently relevant) organizational transformations taking place, Roche’s unique integration of agility, vertical development, and emergent change has resulted in significant impact across all areas of the business. They will also explore how Roche is sustaining transformation in today’s disruptive environment…

It was inspiring!

So I listened…and was inspired. I’d like to let you hear for yourselves but unfortunately the video isn’t available for sharing. So here are some of my impressions…

  • What Roche wanted was greater agility, which they define as speed and flexibility with stability.

  • Changing “how” starts with mindset, and requires self-transformation of company leaders.
  • The old leadership approach was reactive, trying to keep everything under control and putting out fires as they flared up. Leaders expected that there were right answers in any situation and they were the source of those answers.
  • It had become apparent that the level of complexity they were dealing with very quickly outmatched those traditional strategies.
  • The experiential program that Roche implemented was to shift leaders from the reactive mindset to a creative mindset, one in which they would proactively shape processes and structure to fulfill the company’s purpose and vision.
  • Leaders were coached to notice their reactive patterns, recognize their creative capacities, reconnect with purpose, and remember the key principles of the company.
  • The main competency they were aiming for was the ability to act in the face of limited data, ambiguity, and complexity where there is a high likelihood of not being correct, at least not entirely—and to still do it. In other words, they needed to find their confidence and inner knowing to navigate the predicaments that arise in this complex world we live in.
  • The courage of these leaders was acknowledged—courage to be vulnerable, to go into uncharted waters, to risk taking the next step when there was no clear path or right answer.
  • The benefit to leaders was a huge release of stress when they came from this entirely different place while carrying out their duties.

The language of agility is important…

Here were a few distinctions that were made:

  • invite (to encourage self-authority) …instead of… order or direct (which makes the person subject to someone else)
  • mapping (to see interconnections) …instead of… choosing (A or B)
  • value creation (when we can create value, it is unlimited ) …instead of… value capture (resources are limited and we have to compete for our share)

Summing up this approach…

  • People are invited to choose somethig new. A different way. A more empowered way. A more purposeful way. A less-frightened, more courageous way.
  • According to Tammy Lowry from Roche, “It isn’t about processes or practices, it’s a fundamental change in the way our organization works together. It’s a revolution.”
  • People are invited to courageously step into it and be prepared to do their own inner work.
  • If you’d like more details about what this deep-dive experience looks like, check out this article.

What makes this inspiring for me…

  • The program quickly moved through the company because the leaders who participated were so enthusiastic.
  • There have been measurable results in terms of company performance in relation to its purpose.
  • They are bringing leaders together to have connecting conversation in which they can benefit from learnings across all divisions of the company.
  • The initiators see this approach as translatable into society. It starts with shifting the mindset and creating an opportunity for reimagining how that might work. That is what excites me most!

The fact that this is happening in a huge company—the fact that almost prevented me from listening—turns out to be the convincing aspect. If this new mindset can permeate a large corporate culture, where else might it percolate? I wonder…

Metamorphosis

In school, I learned a simplistic version of how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly—it hangs from a branch, spins a cocoon, and then a butterfly comes out after a process called metamorphosis. I took this description at face value and didn’t think much more about it until I became interested in transformation.

Butterfly

It’s actually much more magical than I was told…

Inside the chrysalis is where the magic happens. The caterpillar disintegrates, except for a few key cells—the imaginal cells. They are the essence of the completely new form that is about to emerge. How a caterpillar totally rearranges itself into a butterfly is described in this passage from Scientific American.

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.

But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess.

Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on.

…Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. …One study even suggests that moths remember what they learned in later stages of their lives as caterpillars.

Don’t I have more important things to think about right now?

After all, our economy is being decimated by a pandemic of epic proportions, and long-standing injustices have come to a head, catalyzing violent societal upheaval.

From my viewpoint, metamorphosis is highly relevant at a time like this. Humanity is in the midst of transformation—experiencing disintegration of the systems that created the structure of who we thought we were.

We’re in the soup…

Beliefs we held dear, things we were sure were true, our unconscious biases—these are being challenged and, in the process, losing their power to hold our societal structure in place. At the moment, it all seems like an amorphous mess.

The good news is, our society is sprinkled with citizens who have been inspired to see a more beautiful world and develop their ideas into the beginnings of better systems that are waiting to grow out of this mess, to form something completely different. These are the imaginal discs of human society.

Butterfly or dead caterpillar?

By the way, most caterpillars successfully transform themselves into beautiful new creatures, but not all. Those that don’t…they become dead caterpillars.

We are at a choice point in our transformation. We can try to go back and seek comfort in what was familiar but not serving us well. The consequence will be similar to that of the unsuccessful caterpillars.

OR we can each do our part to help the imaginal cells flourish. This time in history is calling on us to become more conscious…

  • to become better humans by examining our behaviours and the unconsious beliefs that are driving them, and
  • to believe that constructive change is possible. The power of thought is stronger than most of us are willing to acknowledge because we don’t want to take responsibility for what we create. But whether or not we admit it, our thoughts give energy to what happens around us.

What do you want your thoughts to energize?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of what is in the chrysalis and ready to emerge.