Beyond the Org Chart: Adaptive Network Mindset

In using human systems dynamics to support clients, we work with organizations for whom traditional hierarchies and bureaucratic structures have become barriers to productivity, collaboration, and innovation. In large, loosely connected, more bureaucratic organizations, the structure is blamed for the often-heard complaints about silos; slow response times; lack of coherent, standard practice; and other organizational challenges.


Based on our observations and engagements in those types of organizations, we find that it’s not so much the structures, themselves, that are the barriers. We propose that those challenges emerge because of how people inside the organization have been trained to think about those structures as also defining and constraining the work they do, the people with whom they connect, the decision-making processes they use, and the formal and informal processes for getting work done.

Consider the conditions of work in the 21st century that contribute to those challenges in organizations:

  • The organization and the people who work there are buffeted by economic, social, and political forces that pose challenges at all levels. In large organizational systems that are not well connected, those challenges show up in unique ways at each local site across the system, compounding the challenges and impact at all scales.
  • Each site manages local differences in thought, approach, need, and expectations, which multiplies the impact of diversity across the whole.
  • Combinations of unique histories at each level influence individual perspectives that shape the work each day. Even as the system faces a future it can neither predict nor control, it is often mired in the expectations, beliefs, and constraints of the past.

Consider how those challenges play out in the kinds of organizations we support:

  • International NGOs that need to work coherently across geo-political and cultural boundaries
  • State and national membership organizations that are made up of a central organizing structure that supports semi-autonomous local member groups
  • School districts and school buildings that serve highly diverse students in smaller, localized units
  • Territory-wide health care systems that need and expect some level of coherence of care and service for all patients they touch
  • Governmental agencies that provide regulatory functions of designing, implementing, supporting, and enforcing policies at all levels of the systems they serve
  • Multi-national corporations take products to market, dealing with differences in culture, economic status, and political and governmental expectations

Traditional structures of hierarchy and command and control were not created to function effectively across these broad challenges. Those organizational structures too often constrain the flow of information and energy that fuels innovation and creativity. They can lose efficiency and inter-personal connections that support powerful customer service and employee engagement. They rely on organizational redundancies and duplications that can be costly and can reduce coherence across the whole. The structures themselves and the mindsets they engender have not met the changing demands of the 21st century.

Take hope. All is not lost. You can work “as if” you were networked without blowing up the old structures.

So What?

HSD offers an alternative proposition for seeing and understanding patterns of interaction and decision making. This alternative moves beyond organizational structures to create structures for Adaptive Action. At HSD Institute, we believe the complexity of the 21st century requires organizations to move toward working relationships, expectations, and connections that allow employees and stakeholders to engage in adaptive networks of shared purpose and productivity.

Barabasi named three characteristics of powerful networks that allow adaptation:

  • Adaptive networks are sensitive. To build awareness of multiple forces at multiple scales, participants across the network are vigilant to see and share what they know about conditions in their own environments. Individuals and groups know what is going on across the organizational structures and can respond directly to others in the network. This level of sharing information builds the system participants’ capacities to support each other and increase sensitivity across the whole network.
  • Adaptive networks are responsive. Simply knowing what is happening in the environment is not enough. Participants must also have the information, authority, and degrees of freedom to respond to local challenges and opportunities, while continuing to contribute to system-wide coherence.
  • Adaptive networks are robust. Regardless of size or geographical distribution, sustainable networks are stable in their identities—name recognition, brand, reputation, goals and expectations, and culture. Responsibility for creating stability cannot be assigned to an elite few segments of the system. In adaptive networks, each employee, team, department, and work group reflects the whole because:  1) They know about the whole system; 2) They understand, how their roles contribute to the success of the whole; and 3) They feel recognized and rewarded for their contributions.

These patterns call for a system-wide mindset that recognizes and celebrates collaboration and connection across organizational boundaries. They call for individuals across the system to recognize their own responsibilities and abilities to create and enhance patterns of adaptability wherever they sit in the network. They require system-wide supports in the form of policy and organizational structure that embrace and nurture this network-inspired mindset.

Now What?

In the coming months, the “Change the World” blogs will offer a series that explores and explains how your organization, regardless of its size, can benefit from building an “adaptive network mindset” that transcends whatever structures are represented on your org chart. We will explore this idea of a network mindset from four perspectives of seeing an adaptive network:

  • As a useful system map
  • As patterns of human interactions
  • As organizational and individual capacity
  • As a source of 21st century solutions

Each month, we will offer “tools” to support you in exploring how these perspectives can help you address your most challenging issues. This month’s tool is designed to help you launch your own reflection and exploration of how to network even when you are not networked! I encourage you to use this tool to help identify a network sticky issue that you can work on through the course of this series. Please join us in this exploration and let us know what you find.


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