Background: Agility, Flexibility, and Empowerment
So many trends have emerged in the last few years. New technologies are changing how we work, shop, and consumer products and brands. The rapidity with whom they appear is unprecedented in history. Technology is also responsible for blurring category boundaries and the edges of work and leisure. Companies face a paradigm shift from top-down strategy to bottom-up, emergent attempts to develop business in a trial-and-error form. More and more innovation is happening outside of the organizations, thanks to corporate acceleration programs, and in these turbulent times, agility and lean are a must-have for large organizations.
Nevertheless, agility and lean are more natural to the predicate of smaller, resource-constrained organizations rather than larger, political machines. How can large corporations, made of multiple and interconnected units, dependant on each other for decision-making, effectively adopt an agile and flexible approach based on delegation of decision-making?
Meet the Helix Organization
Struggling to integrate functional and geographical nuances, corporations developed matrix organizational structures based on dual reporting lines, primary and dotted-line, to ensure synergy and consensus. Those organizational structures are by-default, slow, and cumbersome.
The Helix organization bases itself on the notion of two parallel, direct, and equally accountable reporting lines: daily work leadership and process and capability leadership. The first is supervising the day-to-day work by ensuring the employee sticks to the common business objectives. The second type of leadership focuses on the employee’s capabilities, performance, and long-term work plan, all aspects on which the day-to-day boss provides input and feedback.
The two leaderships are rarely in contradiction with one another, and more often than ever, having two bosses feels like having none. According to a recent study from McKinsey, there are several benefits to the helix’s organizational type.
- From several bosses to none: by eliminating dotted-line reporting and by identifying a day-to-day business leader, employees feel empowered to take decisions and actions, innovate, and share.
- From parts of a (limited) small team to strategic pieces of an ecosystem: by changing this perspective, employees see a broader spectrum of opportunities to grow within the company. This new perspective directly contradicts the limited view of the organization that dotted-line reporting implies. And this improvement has a better effect on retention and job satisfaction.
The Helix structure allows for a flexible project team in fast-paced environments while at the same time providing for safe heaven where employees can go back for training and coaching.
And how do you make the helix happen?
The helix is critical in developing an agile and lean model for larger organizations. Incredibly the heavy, slow, and based n complicated structures tend to centralize decision-making and reduce the speed of change. But there are two critical conditions for the Helix two work: talent and purpose.
The helix is easily defeated, with the organization moving back to a matrix structure if the right visionary talent is lacking. As per McKinsey Research:
“No operating model is solved by structure alone, and attempts to change the reporting lines can all too easily be upended when a visionary and persuasive individual moves on. For the helix to work, new processes and different mindsets must be embedded to remove obstacles and overcome skepticism.”
On the other end, with strategy becoming emergent and the rapidly decaying role of a company mission and vision, the glue that keeps the organization together is the shared sense of purpose. And the shared sense of purpose is a by-product of the commitment of the company’s leadership and the coordination of the helix’s two leadership structures. This coordination happens when people in both leadership tracks relinquish a bit of their power and control to achieve greater organizational flexibility.
Addendum January 2022
The author published this post before the global pandemic emerged as a painful striking force of change. It is worth pausing on how the Helix organization would help firms handle the emerging post-COVID-19 reality.
Probably the most enduring challenge brought from remote work is the normalization of internal meetings towards a transactional nature. As Kitty Suidman (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kittysuidman/) – Director Color, Material, Finish & Product Sustainability at Sonos – explained in her interview with Marco Bevolo and me, puts it: “When you schedule a zoom meeting, you schedule it with the intent of talking about something very specific.” The Zoomification of work focuses on ensuring that “trains run on time” and that new projects execute as expected. It helps very little build a corporate culture and create a social dimension between colleagues and co-workers.
In this context, the Helix organization is most likely to make employees thrive. Because there is a well-defined operational and transactional track on one end to ensure that work is efficient and executed and projects move forward. But on the other end, it allows for an employee-centric focus. The manager can help the employees develop their capabilities and competencies and do practical work monitoring and improving their mental wellness. The latter is one of the critical management challenges emerging from the pandemic.
The helix organization, McKinsey Quarterly, Oct 2019 URL https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-helix-organization/