Open Organizations: Innovate Sustainably

Reflective and learning organizations are continuously faced with the challenge to elaborate a cohesive vision that will help them understand what possibilities exist for them to fine tune their products/services to ever changing behaviors and cultures.

by Michele Visciola

Medicine Square Garden (Paris Hilton Syndrome). Photo by Martin Denker. Courtesy of Torch Gallery

I have always been attracted towards organizations that combine action and reflection to manage their creativity processes. There are several examples worldwide that can consistently showcase how a company can be successful when it evolves by listening to consumers and by observing how products and services are used in real life situations. The structure of these organizations, their leadership styles, their fact-finding and knowledge creation methodologies are all governed by the vision that cooperation is a conditio sine qua non for sustainable growth.
Although cooperation is generally considered necessary, I believe that we still need to ask ourselves what cooperation does mean today. Our answer to this question is also a way to develop a meaningful answer to the question that Work Style asked me, namely: “how can our organizations keep a “balance” in a constantly changing world?”

Although I have always been interested in the advancements of management theories and organization studies, my work is only indirectly concerned with the topic of how to govern the complexity of an organization.
In my opinion complexity and continuous change are the two main conditions that any organization today is immersed in: change is everywhere, it is fast and it adds to the complexity. Reflective and learning organizations are therefore continuously faced with the challenge to elaborate a cohesive vision that will help to understand what are the adjacent possibilities for them to fine tune their products and services to the continuously evolving behaviors and cultures. This is a very demanding challenge. In particular, the most difficult tasks for the vast majority of the companies we have been working with are: first, to understand when their vision and strategy need to be modified; second, to establish how to make this vision actionable and third, to design a map of opportunities according to a shared calendar that should harmonize the vast arrays of relationships that characterize a learning company.

The only sustainable way for an organization to keep its equilibrium in a continuously changing world is to open the internal creativity processes to external contributions.

Tati’s Bike, photo by Robert Doisneau, 1949 © Atelier Robert Doisneau

My company motto is “putting people first” and its rationale is that technology is easy to innovate, whereas we also believe that it is much more difficult to help behaviors and values to innovate in a way that reflects the vision of a sustainable growth and of a responsible society. In other words, cultural changes are very difficult to be pursued without a continuous interchange between the company and the customer basis. In this perspective, to cooperate means to expand the boundaries of an organization so to foster any possible mutual influence between its internal and external worlds. This is what makes the real big difference between a vital organizational culture and an opportunistic one. That is not a simple difference. It requires companies to acquire a Darwinian attitude and assimilate all the lessons that the theory of evolution has still to teach us. Opportunistic behaviors can still provide organizations and companies with survival options, but cooperation will instead guarantee considerable advantage over those competitors who still behave opportunistically.

When the cultural selection between the external and the internal parts of an organization becomes an appreciable evolutionary force, it sets in motion a process of product-service-culture co-evolution: the best combination for a company to stay alive, sustain its growth, innovate and play a responsible role in society. In order to support such co-evolution, it is possible to use a variety of methodologies, ranging from participatory design workshops to shadowing and observational techniques. The tools and practices of ethnometodology deserve a particular mention because they keep the internal components of an organization in close touch with its external ones at all times. My recommendation is to always keep alive the dialogue between the two parts, especially when the organization has achieved a recognized success in its market. This will help contrast the “innovation dilemma”, that is the natural tendency for any organization to keep its stability and to avoid the risks associated to changes in the market. My concluding point is that disruptive innovations may take place only after a series of continuous frugal innovations have deepened their roots in the culture. Frugal innovations are essential for evolution, as well as more disruptive ones: for them both open organizations are necessary.

A lesson from Tati on reassembling a bicycle yourself
One of the open-ended questions taken from Work Style Talking we are trying to close is “how can our organizations keep a ‘balance’ in a constantly changing world?” Michele Visciòla’s answer can be found in opening oneself to the strategic and creative collaboration, between company and market. Visciòla suggests your company keep an open mind in order to make the processes more collaborative. The artist Martin Denker challenges perceptions by producing works that are seemingly endless amounts of layers. The goal is to force the viewer to search deeper to understand what the work is trying to say. He feels that in the communication age the abstraction of images leads to a better understanding of our minds.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Fall 2010