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  • Dean Williamson

What is organisational flexibility

I've thought about organisational flexibility a lot. I've found that it mainly refers to "flexible" working arrangements - an umbrella term for employment conditions like remote work, adjusted hours etc. (just google "organisational flexibility" and see what I mean). However, I think that flexibility is a valuable lens through which to look at an organisation. I've searched to see if there are any good, practical articles, and I couldn't find anything great, so I thought I'd put my thoughts down (please feel free to comment or email with anything, and I'll link/update the post).

Flexibility came at me from the world

I was inspired to write this post by a few disparate things coming together:

  1. I listened to a great podcast episode with Samantha Wong from Blackbird talking about In this episode she described the model they're developing as "startups within startups" - or entrepreneurial units that draw from a "centralised base of talent that can be pointed in different directions". It got me thinking about the challenges of developing that kind of organisational flexibility.

  2. In our practice with clients at Human Systems Co. we're often working to make our organisations more resilient. In this, we often use internal language about "brittleness" and "malleability". If a shock event is a hammer, we work towards our client organisations being able to absorb the blows and bounce back, not snap or break because they are too rigid. For example, one of our clients at Exploring Tree is almost 100% women in early childhood education - these women are called to love children and nurture them! At any one time they may have up to 10% of their staff off on maternity leave. Last year, this was BOTH of their senior executives at the same time. This year it's looking like it will be 3-4 of their senior team leads. Rather than treating maternity leave as a problem, we need to design a system that is flexible/malleable enough to adapt quickly and easily to the ebb and flow of educators and leaders.

And this all got me thinking - when we talk about "flexibility" - what do we mean?

flexibility - woman with leg in air

Why I think flexibility has a valuable place in our lexicon

I want to start by looking at the term flexibility, and why I value it when thinking about organisations, teams and our clients. I'm sure many of you are thinking - "we already have terms like agility, adaptability, redundancy etc, so why would we need flexibility?" I think that flexibility is more important than agility, although agility is one of the major business traits that we strive for today.

The reason I like it is that flexibility is a description of a more core function than other concepts like agility. In essence, a muscle, a leg, a body, or a system is always on a scale of flexibility - it is flexible, or it is not (or naturally somewhere in between). For some more nuance: flexibility is "the quality of bending easily without breaking... the ability to be easily modified....willingness to change or compromise." (From Oxford Languages via Google)

Agility is related, but not the same. Agility is the ability to move fast and light - easily pivoting from one thing to another. I'm a runner, and my agility is my ability to have fast feet and change my balance. My flexibility is my ability to stretch, lengthen and accept load without breaking or hurting anything. Both can be developed, but they are different traits. They also have different dependencies - you can't have agility without flexibility, but you can have flexibility without agility. Agility depends on developing some level of flexibility, so flexibility is more of a core trait.

As an example, in my Exploring Tree case study above, we are agile if we can change direction - add new rooms, change the rooms of educators, add more children, add in new aspects of education, remove some other parts quickly. However, the success of these changes is going to depend on the characteristics of the underlying system - can educators work together, or are they inflexible in their team choice? Can we add new people in easily to undertake new endeavours without compromising our good culture, or does adding new people pose culture risks? Do we have the ability to scale systems and structures to make the new things a part of our underlying architecture? I would say that agility depends on the flexibility we have engendered in our system - we can't be a fast-running mountain goat without musculoskeletal flexibility.

So I think flexibility is valuable because it's a trait that we can focus on and train as a core organisational skill, and it underpins the success of many other organisational priorities. Want to play football? Flexibility means that you won't break when you try to be an agile football player. Want to do yoga? No agility needed, but flexibility in spades.

Types of flexibility in organisations

Which brings us around to the types of flexibility in organisations. I think there's lots of different types, or ways that it can be seen to manifest. The six types below are extremely interwoven and dependent on each other (particularly 3, 4 and 5). Here's some that I see (and again, I'm open to additions if you geek out on this like me):

  1. Strategic flexibility: Think strategy - how are we setting our direction? How practiced and comfortable are we flexing our mission, goals and KPI's? What are our processes for sensing changes in our world? How do we collect information, decide on priorities, and make changes to our direction? What kind of cadence/rhythm do we do this on?

  2. Structural flexibility: This might be similar to internal agility, but how easy is it to move and change units, teams, systems, structures etc? To be REALLY successful, this one rests very firmly on the next two...

  3. Role flexibility: There are lots of people who don't like change, or haven't been acculturated or supported in learning how to do/accept it. Role flexibility is the ability or will to do other or new things, either in combination with a current role/agreement, or in a large jump. For example, I might have been hired to do admin, but am I willing to add on or jump to doing sales? This definitely a condition of startups (I love the awesome Give Away Your Lego's post by Molly Graham), but is a necessary precondition for structural flexibility.

  4. Skill flexibility: If you're trying to achieve role and structural flexibility, how much skill flexibility do you have in your system? For example, one of the major areas in which skill flexibility lacks is in the jump from individual contributor to manager/supervisor/team lead. This is usually a very different skill set from their IC role (e.g. think about a great hands-on landscaper becoming a team leader - a shovel and a feedback meeting are very different things!). How do people learn the skills they will need in future, and what systems are around them to help them do these things? Also, when do they start learning them? What are core skills that everyone should have that will help them to be flexible?

  5. Mindset flexibility: This might also be called psychological flexibility, but I would generally describe this as - "how willing are people to see things different ways?" Can they accept the views and needs of others, and shift their mindsets, mental models and perceptions? Can the expert statistician or data scientist amend their high need for statistical validity in order to help a colleague solve a problem using incomplete data? Can someone shift from their need to be liked enough to voice a new idea to a team who are experiencing groupthink? How much will people step into the challenge of mindset flexibility?

  6. Organisational flexibility: Mainly just a summary aggregation of all of the above.

Just one example of how to build upwards

I've just realised while I'm writing this that my belief is that you mostly need to build upwards (from 5 up towards 1). I'm not sure if that's actually right, but I think that people with inflexible (read: fixed) mindsets won't be great at skill flexibility.

People who can't identify their own skill gaps and are unwilling to learn new skills continuously probably won't be very useful when the time comes to do new things/roles. Likewise, if you don't have a team practiced in role and skill flexibility, you're going to have very brittle structural flexibility. And if you don't have any of the other forms of flexibility, you definitely don't have meaningful strategic or organisational flexibility.

We have a few ways that we've approached this with different clients, but I'm going to stay with Exploring Tree as our example. In order to build upwards, we're developing a range of resilience-oriented measures to help enhance organisational flexibility:

  1. Hiring passionate educators with a growth mindset: We've found that hiring educators who really want to serve children will be more flexible with their attitudes and therefore have more of a growth mindset. Once we hire them, we have once-per-month probation reviews to either provide them feedback or to keep them extending on their promise. We always issue them a "challenge" in these first probation meetings, in order to see how they adapt and lean into learning and flexibility.

  2. Developing a "learn everything" culture. Because of their rate of growth and constant change (mainly due to maternity leave), our aim is to have each educator building towards multiple roles at once. So most of our team leads are starting to learn centre leadership functions, but some are learning education leadership. Many educators are learning team leadership, or some of the other roles that exist in the system. This is coming out of what Exploring Tree is calling "growth plans" - which all centre directors are doing with their staff. This "learn everything" culture is helping with a gentle acculturation to mindset, skill and role flexibility, so that we're more resilient in future.

  3. Network communication model: In the past, when you were an educator in a room, you rarely worked or communicated outside of that room. Last year we introduced Slack to help communication be more transparent, which has had significant benefits for resilience and flexibility. One of these has been establishing a number of horizontal networks to support structural flexibility. For example, the rooms for the oldest children across centres have their own channel to share ideas, and this has begun producing the sharing of staff and purchasing. As this continues, we are seeing greater relationships across centres, which should allow us to team more flexibly in future (e.g. when a new centre starts and some educators leave to be part of this new premise).

I hope the above example is helpful for understanding the value of flexibility as a single organisational construct, and that the break-down of six different types of flexibility will help you in making your own organisation(s) more resilient and flexible.

As always I'm open to discussion, critique and ideas, so please feel free to comment or email me.

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