The Emerging Face of the 21st Century Organization

The Emerging Face of the 21st Century Organization

Different models compete to be the next big thing: “classic” Agile (and its frameworks such as Scrum, XP, SAFe), Modern Agile, Lean Kanban, Lean Startup, Management 3.0, Teal Organizations, Design Thinking, Podularity, Holacracy, Sociocracy, “flatarchy”, Deliberately Developmental Organizations, and more. Many of these models emerged to address specific contexts, and many of them are complementary with each other. This can become confusing fast.

What I notice is that what differentiate these models is often far less interesting than what they have in common. We can see these commonality in their approaches to evolution and in their application in real companies.

A portrait of the new face of 21st century organizations is slowly emerging through the fog of competing models. At its core are the elements shared across several models, often completed by individual elements taken from different models to better customize the approach to a particular business context.

Characteristics of the 21st century organization


Human beings come to the forefront of modern organizations. Employees now emerge as assets to leverage rather than resources to manipulate. This is made possible by energizing employee development and fostering leadership across the organization.

Employee development has moved from being an afterthought to being a core business strategy. Direct mentoring and coaching (two different things) are replacing the occasional two-days training seminar. Employees are exposed to a variety of situations and tasks, often across several domains, so they can learn from practice and increase their awareness of all facets of the organization. The more versatile M-shaped generalists and T-shaped specialists are replacing the I-shaped super specialists.

Such employees, with a better understanding of the organization’s realities and goals, need far less supervision to work toward the organization’s vision and are better suited to self-organize. The tendency is to start seeing them as adults rather than children, and to entrust them with the power to make their own decisions for the greater good of the organization.

It is the duty of every leader to foster the development of new leaders across the organization. With increased accountability (different from increased responsibilities, i.e. more tasks), motivation and talent comes into better focus, and emerging leaders can be mentored properly.

These new leaders are not necessarily moved to management positions. There is a tremendous advantage of having an organization strewn with leaders in every type of positions. It creates a more independent organization, better able to manage itself and react to change without the need for heavy rules and bureaucratic supervision.


All work, regardless of its nature, is done for the benefit of another party. That party is called the user, a term coming from software development. Delivering value to users now becomes the focal point of our endeavours.

Users also becomes the driving force behind innovation: users have pain points and innovation efforts are meant to address them through user-centred design. Most approaches calls for a closer relationship with users to better understand their needs and some, such as Design Thinking and Lean Startup, advocate sending people to follow users on-site to better empathize with their experience.

The net benefit from going user-centric is to limit waste by avoiding doing work nobody needs (and different from doing what they want).

Evolving organisms

The metaphor of the company as a machine is done. People are not replaceable cogs and machines do not evolve and adapt: they become obsolete.

Companies are now seen as evolving ecosystems. Rather than fixed five-years plans, growth and direction are set much more organically. Growth occurs to follow markets and opportunities, and unproductive areas shrink naturally. That evolution is not necessarily the result of top-driven initiatives, but usually is the product of a multitude of micro-decisions taken at the local level to respond to market changes. The result is a constant adaptation and evolution, less traumatic to an organization.

Same goes for jobs and positions. The idea of flexible, transitory roles rather than fixed jobs is slowly emerging. These roles are like hats, worn by the best person for it at the moment. They are meant to move to another person as the context changes. People are hired for cultural compatibility and talent, and then developed for them to fit a variety of roles. Traditional management positions are absorbed by those roles, and managerial roles adopt a servant-leadership approach and focus on removing obstacles and managing systems rather micro-managing people or work.

Network of communities with distributed leadership

People organize in interconnected networks, not into neat hierarchies. Even in bureaucratic organizations, the most powerful relationships are not hierarchical: they are your connexions to the right people.

Modern organizations recognize that fact and organize themselves in small networked communities (teams, workgroups, friends), who interconnect with other groups along organic lines. Individuals can be members of several communities at once and act as natural bridges between them.

In such a model, leadership and decision-making is distributed across the organization. It does not mean that there is not a place for the people traditionally known as upper management. Their role however has a more outward focus, guiding the organization across far-ranging decisions in the face of market realities. While the final decision on important issues still lies with them, voices from the whole organization can be heard.

Self-management through platforms

Self-organization of individuals and small groups has been championed by agile approaches since the very beginning. As teams move from 3–7 people squads to semi-autonomous 10–15 people communities, both self-organization and self-management become a necessity. Communities are free (and accountable) to manage their own finances, personnel, and day-to-day activities. This allows for much faster response to emerging situations.

To give governance to those self-managed communities, a model similar to franchising is slowly appearing. A controlling entity (headquarters, board of director, or head of division) creates a platform consisting of boundaries, constraints, shared information and tools. Dependent communities “plug in” into this platform, adopting its rules, and are otherwise free to self-manage. Platforms can be stacked: an organization can create a platform for its communities, and some of those communities can create their own to regulate what liberties individual members can take.

The beauty of this system is its adaptability: scale can range from small teams to large companies, the level of control can range from broad strokes to very precise, and staked platforms can easily respect the boundaries of parent platforms. However, the platforms are not set in stone: the system works if the groups using those platforms can influence its evolution through a feedback loop.

Small scale experiments for innovation and risk management

Innovation and creativity are the lifeblood of business success. In our volatile, rapidly changing world, innovation is not a luxury but rather the path to continuous relevance and growth. However, innovation is traditionally seen as risky and many organizations either limit it in a debilitating way or avoid it altogether. An alternative approach? Think small.

The era of large tasks is definitively gone, and while large-scale endeavours are still being undertaken, they are conceived as small mostly independent pieces that each bring tangible value.

Little or no dependancies remove the risk of catastrophic, cascading failure. Reduced size reduces risks associated with costs. These factors allow for a greater resilience to the occasional failure, a faster recovery speed and thus a better tolerance for innovation-driving experiments.

Degrees of change

While all of these characteristics can be seen as desirable, not all organizations have the willingness or tolerance to adopt them all, especially at once.

Many of the approaches named in the introduction call for a complete adoption of all of their characteristics. This creates a severe trauma on even the best prepared organizations. The reaction seen all too often is the lip service adoption of these new precepts as an additional layer over the old structure.

Leaving models aside, it is possible for an organization to gauge its interest and capacity to adopt the six characteristics above. Sometimes only a handful of small changes can bring a lot of value to an organization and prepare it better for further changes down the line.

One thing to keep in mind is that organizational change works much better by subtraction than addition: removing bureaucratic hurdles, red tape, and unnecessary processes and regulations is far easier and less traumatic on the organization than adding layers of new processes. It also has the advantage of better preparing the space for new ideas and approaches.

The Emerging Face of the 21st Century Organization
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The Emerging Face of the 21st Century Organization
A portrait of the new face of 21st century organizations is slowly rising through the fog of challenging models. Modern organizations recognize that fact and organize themselves in small networked communities with distributed leadership. Small level experiments for innovation and risk management.
Primos Populi
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