Where are the horizontal thinkers going? To the quality departments!!

There have been an interesting low intensity conversation about horizontal or complex thinking. (See e g Zenpundit post 1 and post 2, Enterprise Resilience blog post, Mapping Strategy blog post, Eide Neurolearning blog post as well as deeper analysis by Thomas P.M. Barnett. I believe this touch on a terribly important issue for the future: how do we allow people with these abilities to have an impact on the agenda of governments and big corporations

When deep technological change is making traditional hierarchical structures more of a rucksack hindering development, some people (including me) is arguing that the way forward is to reinvent the way we organize our society. Fundamental changes in prerequisites have happened before and we clearly see this happening again. If we are following the “organization instincts” as e g the Maya-culture have done before us, centralization, more efficient control and securing vertical borders seems to be the solution. This way leaders think they have a better control of the events, better be able to rearrange internal resources to places where they are most needed, and focus on solving the crucial problems. This strategy is known to work when the changes are limited and solvable by internal resources, but when the change is too big and the problems is inherent in the systems, which I argue, is the case, this strategy historically has been shown to be fatal. Instead of leading forward it will lead to rapid crystallization of existing structures which will most likely lead to a sever crash rather than a smooth transition. What you gain is a leader-imposed period of illusory stability in the period before the crash.

To avoid such a development we have to stepwise rearrange the internal of the organizations as well as changing direction and aspiration. I would argue that the key to that is to allow horizontally or complex thinking people reinvent the value creating processes around which the organization is built.

But where are these people today? What I suddenly realized the other week was that most of the horizontal thinkers in my vicinity, who are still employed by large organizations, have stepped away from their former paths. They are not even having positions in the top management teams which I would have suspected they should have reached by now. They are not even in places concerned with strategy, business intelligence or finance anymore. To my surprise they are all flocking in the QUALITY departments!

After thinking about it for a while the reasons are evident. A person working in a quality function is usually encouraged to

  • have a horizontal view of cross-functional processes and analyze these in order to improve the quality
  • engage in educating and talking to people all over the organization and make them understand the wider picture
  • define and improve structures rather than just following the existing ones in order to increase the quality
  • look outside the organization to find best practices on how to improve quality

In short: he or she is almost given a carte blanche to improve the inner structure of the organization, which if successful will render a lot of positive feedback, but he or she are not in a position to question the overall agenda. The quality function is sometimes called a strategic resource, but is by definition an operative function
Of course! They all are horizontal or complex (pattern matching) thinkers, which makes them very difficult to cope with in an increasingly vertically organized world. Don’t even think of allowing them into the board room. They would certainly wreak havoc by asking difficult questions and have new and innovative ideas about new directions, threatening to rock the boat and crash the illusion of stability.

I am afraid that the quality departments have turned out to be the perfect appendix for the horizontal crowd – the people who is the organization’s best hope of survival the next 10-20 years. We can only hope that these people will thrive and develop in order to in due course return to functions in the organization where they will provide the necessary horizontal and pattern matching capability to make a difference in the long term strategic thinking processes.