Creating Responsive Organizations

This year’s Responsive Conference brought together management innovators and organizational transformation practitioners to share ideas and practices for creating responsive organizations. I was delighted to be a member of the team organizing the conference as lead facilitator for the small-group discussions that took place both days.


The Responsive Manifesto makes the case for responsive organizations and outlines their attributes.  According to the manifesto: “Responsive Organizations are built to learn and respond rapidly through the open flow of information; encouraging experimentation and learning on rapid cycles; and organizing as a network of employees, customers, and partners motivated by shared purpose.”  These organizations are designed to operate effectively in fast-changing, unpredictable environments and must balance tensions between profit and purpose, hierarchies and networks, controlling and empowering, planning and experimentation, and privacy and transparency.  There are many “movements” in existence today that can be considered within the realm of responsive organizations, including Teal, Open, Participatory, Emergent, Beyond Budgeting, Agile, and Beta.

What these have in common is a movement away from traditional “command and control” styles of management towards more agile ways of working.  Most businesses operate in fast changing, unpredictable environments where continuous engagement with customers and ongoing innovation are critical for success.  We are shifting from mechanistic forms of organization to more organic forms and new technological tools support new ways of working and engaging with each other.


We are experimenting with new practices and learning as we go.  The tensions created by more organic ways of working come when there is no road map for how to work together.  Recent management articles and blog posts reflect the challenges of managing time, avoiding collaborative overload, initiative overload and respect in the workplace.   New ways of working and responsiveness to a constantly changing work environment have intensified these challenges.

Whether organizations are large or small, for-profit or non-profit, mature or fast-growing, leaders are focused on ensuring that their people can adapt to agile ways of working. In the past year, we’ve been helping our clients to:

  • create a more robust pipeline of diverse leaders
  • establish and maintain respectful, inclusive workplaces
  • understand organizational capacity for marketing in a digital world, as part of the organizational transformation of the marketing function
  • put processes and tools in place to execute, monitor, and make mid-course corrections on projects, as project work becomes more pervasive and complex
  • set priorities, manage time, and manage stakeholders

Questions of roles and responsibilities, information flow, influencing and conflict management, and overload management underpin every one of these engagements.


Our work with teams is often in response to requests for help with conflict resolution, productive communications, defining information flow, and decision-making.  New demands bring these issues to the fore.  If you are working on organizational transformation, the people in your organization must grapple with the underlying questions of power and influence within and across project teams that manifest in team communications and decision-making.

There was an order to old forms of organizations that defined roles and responsibilities, decision rights, communications norms, etc.  Much of how people worked together was dictated by internally-focused organization charts and operational processes.  People didn’t have to formulate how they would work together nor manage interpersonal relationships when there was a procedure to point to or a manager to escalate to.

With new forms of organization, we need to find ways to answer the questions about how to work together that older forms of organization answered for us. This means that rather than relying on a fixed set of structures and processes, each team that comes together on an initiative must specifically define how it will operate and team members must hold each other accountable for fulfilling their agreements. For that to happen, people will need to gain comfort with constructive debate.  In our experience, a facilitated conversation aimed at clarifying group operating rhythms and norms is a worthwhile investment that is often overlooked.  It can jump start team agility and accelerate organization transformation.