Recently, I encountered a captivating leadership theory that offers valuable insights into the internal dynamics and tensions within organizations. The professor and scholar Mary Uhl-Bien named this complexity leadership theory, which she uses to define a set of fundamental processes that operate inside any organization–and which often lead to tension. What makes Uhl-Bien’s theory so interesting is that she draws parallels from the natural world to help explain how this tension is something every organization needs to embrace if it hopes to adapt and grow into the future.
The Tension Within Every Organization
Every organization has two key processes that help it function:
1. Operational Systems. These are the stabilizing functions inside the organization, like HR, IT, and finance. All of these functions are critical to the survival of any organization. But they thrive in predictable and stable conditions and seek to rein in the chaos and change as much as possible.
2. Entrepreneurial Processes. This is all about coming up with new things by breaking the rules. This is where you see dynamic areas inside the business, such as sales, product development, and marketing. People who thrive here are all about embracing creativity and chaos in pursuit of something new.
Based on these definitions, it’s easy to see how the tension between operational and entrepreneurial systems naturally occurs. Each area requires a different mindset and style of leadership. They are essentially opposites. But that leads us to the third key process inside every organization:
3. Enabling Processes. This leadership function in the organization regulates and manages the tension generated by the friction between the operational and entrepreneurial processes. The goal is to balance the other processes’ needs without killing either. And, as it turns out, this is the area that can help make or break an organization’s ability to adapt and evolve.
The Secret to Survival
There is a natural tendency for most human beings to avoid conflict and tension. We’re drawn to finding smoother paths with less resistance. So, it can be tempting for the leadership of an organization to try and tamp down on the friction between the operational and entrepreneurial processes inside the business. They might try to resolve that conflict. But that would be a mistake. They might look to stoke the fires of that tension even more.
Consider what happens in the natural world when an organism is safe and stable. It isn’t forced to change, so it doesn’t adapt. But, when change does come–like from changing climate conditions that impact its food supply–that organism cannot adapt quickly enough. So, it doesn’t survive.
On the other hand, organisms that face constant threats are constantly adapting to those conditions. They continue to survive precisely because they have every incentive to keep changing. The same principle is true for organizations. If an organization isn’t generating tension because it’s not pushing boundaries, it’s likely not healthy.
Stoking the Fires of Innovation
I worked in a function that spanned marketing and product development early in my career. I was very much on the entrepreneurial side of the business. I often conflicted with other functions like HR and accounting because I was always breaking the rules. Always. My job was to develop innovative new ideas we could turn into products, while their role was to keep the organization stable and out of trouble. There was always plenty of tension between us. We butted heads because our goals were different.
But, to the credit of our leadership team, they didn’t try and put that fire out. They encouraged me to keep pushing while also providing cover for me with the operational folks who wanted my head a stake. Leadership understood that we all played key roles in how the business operated. They were willing to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty of the situation because they understood that we needed to keep changing if we wanted to be able to adapt and grow into the future.
Thriving Into the Future
Suppose you want to build an organization that can thrive in uncertain times. In that case, you need to enable the creative entrepreneurs inside the business to push boundaries and break rules–even when it makes some people extremely uncomfortable. But you must also respect and support the stabilizing forces that keep the business on an even keel. Neither creative nor stabilizing forces can be supreme. Nature teaches us that the tension brought by the change will help you not only survive the day but also evolve in ways that you will thrive well into the future.