Leading Change Through “Communityship”

“Organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources”

~ Henry Mintzberg

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of participating in an international conference on “communityship” hosted by Henry Mintzberg, unquestionably Canada’s leading thinker in management and business strategy.

The Coaching Ourselves Reflections 2015 conference in Montreal featured an extraordinary line-up of speakers sharing their experiences and ideas on how to shift from a traditional hierarchical model of organizational behaviour to a more agile and collaborative way of working through “communityship”.

From Dan Pontefract’s story of Telus’ “Flat Army”, to case studies on peer coaching applied across the United States, Japan and Denmark, the event was a testament to the extraordinary impact Mintzberg’s thinking has had on a global scale. By creatively leveraging and packaging his thinking into the Coaching Ourselves enterprise and tools, Mintzberg has found a remarkably efficient and effective way of spreading his “Managers not MBAs” message which is taking root in hundreds of businesses and governments around the world. As a fellow Canadian and long-standing fan of Mintzberg’s work, I listened as the international presenters recounted their experience in applying his models with a mix of pride, awe and inspiration.

For me, the highlight was having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear from Professor Mintzberg’s own teacher at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Edgar Schein, who was Skyped into the conference for a lively exchange with his septuagenarian star student. Schein (the grandfather of the concept of “organizational culture”) shared insights on building community and solving business problems through humility, openness and trust, in contrast to more conventional approaches that over-emphasize hubris and hierarchy.

One of the most helpful insights I got from the Conference was the importance of analyzing the unexamined assumptions of the way organizations structure their employees and their work, rooted in the industrial era principles of Taylorism.

In particular, as a change management practitioner, I was struck by Mintzberg’s critique of traditional, ubiquitous models of change, which tend to be rooted in these highly fixed and hierarchical models.

Case in point: Professor Mintzberg challenged us to take a closer look at John Kotter’s classic 8-step model for change and ask the question: who is doing what step? In considering that perspective, one quickly identifies that the underlying assumption in Kotter’s model is that change activity happens at the top management of an organization. Of course, the next logical question is: what about everyone else?

That’s where the concept of “communityship” comes in – the creative, collaborative exercise of leading change through managers working across the organization. The focus is on managers engaging up, down and across the organization through participatory processes such as peer coaching – a refreshing and pragmatic shift away from the traditional model of heroic leadership in which senior leadership shapes strategy and sends it down the organization for execution. As Professor Mintzberg stated: “Sometimes that works, mostly it doesn’t.”

Once in a while, a Conference manages to spark your thinking, your passion and your imagination – the Coaching Ourselves Reflections 2015 session did just that. To get started on this more creative and collaborative path to leading change, follow Mintzberg’s sage counsel and focus on “communityship built through an engaged management that cares, not a heroic leadership that cures.”