We have outlived the pyramid–the organizational model based on hierarchy and positional power.

That structure was useful in an industrial, product-oriented economy when demand outstripped supply for goods and the need for change was limited. That model is really great at providing structure, solidity, and stasis. If you want and need the reassurance that tomorrow is going to look the same as yesterday, it’s a decent design. The “organizational man” feels right at home there.

Yet the situation most organizations find themselves in today is quite unlike what they faced back only a decade or so ago. Information and technology; global connectedness; threat of new competitors from anywhere; speed; warfare and terrorism; meltdowns (economic and political); environmental concerns and governmental involvement in commerce all signal the need for new ways of thinking and new organizational designs.

The pyramid is not so great if you need anticipation, agility, and adaptability.

Another organizational design is emerging that delivers what the pyramid cannot. I call it “the coalition.” A coalition is “a temporary union for a common purpose” and comes from the same root word as to coalesce, meaning “to blend, mingle, mix…and grow together.”

If you like pyramids, coalitions are messy places. They are designed for change, so they lack a formal hierarchy. Teams form and dissolve as the situation demands. Leadership in coalitions is not granted by position, but by buy-in from potential followers; tasks are assigned to leaders who can “draw a crowd” of the best workers who opt into the new assignment. People across coalitions are selected for those next big assignments by their peers. The inmates truly run the asylum.

BUILT TO LEAD is a coalition.

It takes a special “inmate” to thrive in a coalition. It takes a self-directed person who knows what he or she wants in life. Someone highly educated, and who desires to continue to be educated long after formal schooling ends. Someone looking for meaning in their work, who is internally motivated by mission, not just pay. It takes someone who wants to “blend, mingle, mix, and grow together.”

Coalitions are much flatter than pyramids, so people who thrive in them like to grow by taking lateral assignments as they emerge. Their salary is important, but it’s not the only thing that drives them. What is VITAL in a coalition is: the meaning of the work flowing from the clear purpose of the enterprise; the autonomy necessary to make a unique contribution; the opportunity for growing skills from competence to mastery; and knowing the work has impact–it makes a positive difference.

So if you’re a pyramid dweller and have your heart set on the next plum middle management assignment as, say, “Associate Vice President of Forms and Procedures,” you’re likely to be uncomfortable in a coalition. To say the least…

This is not to say that the coalition is without structure. Just like the pyramid, it has a definite organizational framework. It’s just very different, designed for an environment that’s very different. Whereas the pyramid is all about “command and control,” a successful coalition is built on a power model of “engage and evolve.” The pyramid moves forward on the WHAT of “strategic planning;” the coalition on the WHY of “core purpose.” The pyramid hires for “talent and experience;” the coalition looks for “character, energy, and heart.” Pyramids are obsessed with lagging indicators of financial performance; coalitions are obsessed with leading indicators of associate engagement and ownership and customer involvement and referral.

The coalition is about as different from the pyramid as day is from night. Therefore it’s likely to be resisted by those who occupy positional power on top of all our pyramids. Watch out for those folks–they wield lots of power. This may take a while. The pyramid is a formidable structure. About the only way to bring one down is to undermine its foundation.

Funny thing is–that’s just what’s happening. Examples abound of tumbling pyramids: U.S. Steel got “NuCored,” Sears got “Wal-Marted,” United Airlines and others got “Southwested,” Merrill Lynch got “Schwabbed,” Harvard Business School is being “Phoenixed.” The list goes on and on and on.

Who’s next? Is it YOU?

Are you sitting atop a pyramid? Have you checked the foundation lately?

Has your environment shifted to favor coalitions?

What’s your next move?


2 thoughts on “Coalesce

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