How to reduce pressure on leaders and prepare for change


Thinking ahead is key for organisations involved in fast-paced industries but the traditional model in which senior leaders act as the originators and conveyors of change is now dated, according to researchers in organisational behaviour.

Writing for INSEAD Knowledge last year, associate professor of organisational behaviour Henrik Bresman, drew on the analogy of a symphony orchestra in describing an inter-team model structured to keep pace with change.

“The state of play in today’s most innovative, dynamic industries requires organisations to think and adapt in new ways,” Bresman wrote.

“The familiar paradigm of strategic change — wherein senior leaders dream up the vision and see it through to completion — is out of place in a world where no one, in or out of the C-suite, knows what the future holds. To remain innovative, strategic change itself needs to evolve from a top-down, linear process to a more democratised, open-ended process.”

Dividing responsibilities among frontline teams

Bresman and his colleague Quy Huy explored such a process for strategic change in a paper that was presented at the most recent Academy of Management annual meeting.

The model serves to remove pressure from top leaders, with the task of determining an organisation’s future to be divided among frontline teams. Each team will be given an area of expertise, that can, with the support of senior leadership, develop collective knowledge resources.

“Of course, without some form of discipline the whole system would be in danger of collapsing into chaos,” Bresman explained.

“We use the analogy of a symphony orchestra: the various sections and subsections of an orchestra each play different music, yet the conductor’s baton unites them.

“In our model, the ‘conductor’ is the top team, whose role would include (among other functions): fostering a safe, empowering context for the frontline teams’ experimentation, aiding horizontal coordination, setting behavioural norms, and guiding selection and implementation of appropriate strategic options.”

Bresman acknowledges the “analogy isn’t perfect”, with there being no predetermined plan and the top teams required to maintain “harmony between team experimentation and overarching strategic goals”.

He points to “three areas of critical importance” for companies:

1. Discovering: a function in which silo-busting teams engage in “scouting tasks”.

“By learning more about their wider terrain, they ensure the experimental process remains relevant to the real-world context,” Bresman said.

“Before experimentation begins, a main concern for leaders will be whether team members are diverse enough in their abilities and approaches to tackle the task environment. Where knowledge is lacking within the team, leaders will set up cross-team collaborations to compensate.”

2. Deliberating: a function in which organisational politics are addressed.

“Once experimental results are in, teams will compete with one another to win scarce resources,” Bresman explained.

“In essence, this is a political process wherein actors proffer contrasting change visions in hopes of swaying higher-ups.”

3. Embedding: a function in which new strategic directions are translated into “into manageable, sustainable routines”.

“At the grassroots, it will take many forms: coordinating with various stakeholders to address their concerns about the change; collecting evidence to reinforce the legitimacy of the new direction; and conveying timely information both from and to higher-ups (to name a few),” Bresman said.

Bresman advised that while these functions are not entirely unique to the model, the model differs in that they are performed simultaneously, rather than in a linear sequence.

“The chief beneficiaries of our model would be incumbents experiencing fast-moving, existential change in their operative environment, e.g. automakers such as Daimler or Toyota,” he said.

“Organisations with a clearer notion of what the future holds are better able to execute strategic change using the familiar, top-down structure. As fast-moving market and tech trends capture more and more industries, we predict that our team-based schema will become increasingly pertinent.”


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