This week Wikipedia celebrates 10 years and I've read several pieces about this. One ends "Wikipedia is already starting to look rather stiff and middle-aged. To ensure its long term health, it needs to rediscover the flexibility of its early years". I liked this vision of an organization as a person with a personality. How does one keep an organization from creeping into arthritic old age?
One way that organizations try is by changing their logos as part of an effort to rebrand themselves in the public eye. Starbucks, turning 40 this year is one of them. There are lots of others. I was working for Prudential Insurance in the UK when it changed its logo from something I don't remember (I think an orange oblong) to the woman with the red headband that it still has. There was a huge internal launching party and much heigh ho about this but I our work did not change, nor did the way we did it.
Logo changes with no accompanying organization design changes seem to be rather like cosmetic surgery with no accompanying lifestyle changes. A facelift might make you look superficially younger, but if you retain dated attitudes "my secretary prints off my emails for me", there's not really much in the way of change. An external change is not going to create internal flexibility.
How Wikipedia could rediscover flexibility is an interesting question. Changing its logo is not one of the suggestions I've read for reinventing itself but still there are no shortage of other ideas on what to change: taking adverts, changing editorial roles, making the editing process less frightening for people who want to edit, changing the editorial language, interacting differently with people who contribute, and so on.
Alongside reading about Wikipedia I was reading an article - in AARP magazine. This is a bulletin targeted at the 50+ generation that needs to maintain both body flexibility and mind flexibility in order to maintain functional capacity (i.e. the level of ability to function within context of the demands of competitive employment, activities of daily living or leisure activities). Because, as people age their body's flexibility, strength, and bone density, depletes unless they have taken, and continue to take, consistent steps to maintain it.
The article notes that:
Yoga is an ancient healing practice that has become increasingly popular in our modern, stressful world as a powerful way to stretch and strengthen the body, relax and calm the mind, enhance energy and lift the spirit. Doctors often recommend yoga to people over 50 because it can help lower blood pressure, ease pain and improve balance. But people stick with the ancient practice because they find it improves their mood, reduces stress and, simply put, makes them happier.
Reading this I suddenly made the connection between organizational flexibility and yoga practice. Wikipedia won't get organizational flexibility by disjointed tinkering at what it does. It needs a fundamental holistic mind/body alignment. The yoga analogy seems to have some mileage - and who knows I may develop a whole new market in organizational yoga! (If dogs can do yoga so can organizations). Many organizations already tout the mantra of wanting a flexible culture - so they're on the path to enlightenment, but what they don't necessarily recognize but yoga practitioners do, is that flexibility is a whole body/mind practice that doesn't work well tackled in fits and starts, or through inconsistent, mono-dimensional approaches. You don't get back to the flexibility of your youth, or your spontaneous joy in living, by random bursts of yoga classes. Yoga practice is a discipline and, for many, a way of being that pays off in terms of health and well-being - physical, mental, and emotional - that inhibits the aging process.
Age is not just a play of numbers but can be studied by the flexibility or rigidity of the human spine. As we grow older, the spine tends to lose its flexibility and stiffen. Regular practice of yoga and allows you to maintain spine elasticity, ensuring the flexibility of a much younger person.
Yoga is an excellent fitness program to counter the symptoms of aging. This rich fitness tradition combines gentle exercise with deep breathing techniques and meditative practices to restore full body functions and maintain a harmonious balance between the body, mind and spirit
So what would the practice of organizational yoga look like if it were to inhibit organizational aging and inflexibility?
- A consistent and disciplined regime of exercises and practice of the exercises that addressed each 'muscle' group of the organization - for 'muscle groups' read systems, processes, and structures.
- The exercises would include things like, consistent practice to continuous improve ability, making small adjustments as skill developed, undertaking regular reviews for alignment, setting stretch goals, using a variety of exercises to develop capacity (in order to avoid laziness and predictability related to repetition)
- As well as addressing the explicit organizational elements, exercises would develop the implicit organizational elements in the same way that yoga develops the mind, relieves stress, and makes people feel happier. These might include doing away with formal performance reviews in favor of informal spontaneous feedback, changing the language of the organization from phrases like: No pain, no gain. Tough love. We're not running a charity, we're running a business. Failure is not an option. Towards using words of humor and play in what we say and do at work, laughing at and leveraging the inevitable mistakes. (See the LifeTrek coaching provision Wit Matters for more on this)