How to Determine the Pathways in Your Organization?

When Walt Disney envisioned Disneyland, he waited to observe where visitors naturally walked before laying down sidewalks, allowing natural behaviors to dictate design. This approach, mirrored by Michigan State University (main image), emphasizes adapting to natural pathways rather than imposing predetermined routes. Unfortunately these examples are rare and more often than not, control is prioritized, often resulting in the emergence of unintended paths (image below).

Image 1: Blocked path.

In the context of agile organizational development, the examples above lead to the following question: Are leaders constructing barriers, or are they observing and facilitating natural paths?

I have worked with leaders who recognized increasing business agility as paramount to delivering on a new strategy. Crafting and communicating a clear and compelling strategy is the responsibility of leadership, but that doesn’t mean leadership can’t rely on the rest of the organization to help figure out how to execute the strategy.

To increase business agility, organizations should not adhere to a rigid, one-size-fits-all model. Instead, leaders should foster environments where agile practices can organically emerge and evolve, rather than blindly following a rigid frameworks. In addition to communicating the strategy, this includes establishing clear and safe mechanisms that allow employees the freedom to navigate their own paths within certain boundaries, similar to the natural path development at Michigan University.

Here are 5+1 strategies leaders can adopt to foster this sense of empowerment:

  1. Establish a Clear Strategy: As discusses above, the first step is to communicate the organization’s vision, values, and goals clearly and consistently. Ensure that every employee understands how their work contributes to the larger purpose. This alignment helps individuals feel part of something bigger and motivates them to co-create meaningful paths towards these shared objectives.
  2. Create a Culture of Trust and Safety: Cultivate an environment where employees feel safe to express their ideas, take risks, and make mistakes. This involves being transparent, admitting your own mistakes as a leader, and treating failures as learning opportunities. A culture of psychological safety encourages innovation and co-creation.
  3. Encourage Autonomy and Ownership: Give employees the freedom, resources and support to make decisions, take initiative, and take lead on initiatives within their areas of expertise. Autonomy fosters a sense of ownership, which is crucial for motivated and proactive co-creation. Ensure that teams have clear boundaries within which they can operate independently.
  4. Listen and Respond to Feedback: Actively seek out and listen to employees’ ideas, concerns, and suggestions. Ensure that all voices within the organization are heard and valued. Diverse perspectives lead to richer discussions and more creative solutions. Implement a structured process for collecting and responding to feedback, demonstrating that you value their input. This two-way communication ensures that employees feel heard and that their contributions can lead to real change.
  5. Encourage Experimentation and Learning: Foster an environment where trying new things is encouraged, and learning from outcomes- whether success or failure – is valued. Provide time and resources for experimentation. This includes access to relevant data, connecting people in and outside the organization, and allocate time to explore new ideas. Support might also involve connecting employees with mentors or coaches who can act as guides.

The most powerful thing (the +1) you can do as a leader to accelerate an agile culture of empowerment, innovation and experimentation, is to Lead by example. Your actions, such as welcoming feedback, adapting to change, sharing doubts, and being transparent, set a vital tone for the entire organization. If employees see that their leaders actively engage in change, they are more likely to follow suit. Conversely, if they observe a gap between what leaders say and do, they will likely be hesitant to take risks.

Therefore, your role as a leader is show and tell, not just tell. Show people in your span of care that it’s safe to challenge the status quo, to voice novel ideas, to not have the answer, and to fail constructively. Your engagement in these behaviors serves as a powerful endorsement, encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and contribute to the organization’s evolution. By leading by example you can foster a culture where people feel safe and empowered to actively participate in shaping the organization’s journey, ensuring that the paths created are diverse, innovative, and aligned with the shared vision and goals.

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, so please leave a comment below. And please feel free to share this post with others to spark more conversation.

This post is a rewrite of a post I wrote in Danish in the summer of 2020.
Image credit: Google Earth

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