Matrix Management

Are organizations really volatile, or are we just massive complainers?

I sat through an absolutely fantastic presentation on VUCA environments last week (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) and I’ve been reading around the subject since. The presentation covered relief work being delivered in unimaginably difficult circumstances
– war, natural disaster or civil breakdown. A lot of the VUCA literature I have seen since focuses on environments like emergency services or the military where the cost of failure can be measured in human lives.

The main thing I took away from this however, was how completely different that is from life in a large organization. We complain about volatility, complexity and uncertainty all the time but the reality is the chances of one of us being shot, starving or homeless is vanishingly small. Most of us are extremely fortunate, well looked after and very well resourced to manage change.

As an example, we complain about job instability, and getting fired is probably one of the biggest risks we face. However, the reality is that the average tenure in jobs has actually increased slightly in developed economies in the last 20 years. Millennials indeed change jobs more often, but then the young always did and even the rate of job churn in this group has changed very little. Based on UK figures people are getting fired less often than they were 20 years ago.

The external working environment may well be changing faster, it’s difficult to get good figures on this but we all feel that technology in particular is driving more change. Personally I feel it may be more something around the perception of change -because we are more connected and world events. News, opinions and information flows constantly and beyond our ability to assimilate so we perceive the rate of change in our own lives to be much higher than it really is.

However inside the organization most jobs change very little. Think about how much your own job has changed over the last years. You may be working on different projects or operating a different system but does this fundamentally change the nature of your work? If you’re an accountant, manufacturing operator or HR manager; this year the chances are your job is pretty similar to what it was last year. If you are in R&D, a project manager or in marketing you may be working on different projects sometimes using different tools over time but you are still likely to be applying some of your core skills fairly consistently over time.

We are also in developed countries undeniably living in a period of relative affluence and stability. When I hear people complain about change I often think of my great-grandfather who was born in the 1890s when infant mortality was high and life expectancy much lower, there were no cars or telephones in his village. He fought in the First World War, experienced the great depression and Second World War, increasing urbanization and by the end of his life saw TV, man on the moon, international air travel, computers and smartphones. I never heard him complain about change; in fact he was an optimist in particular about technology and the mobility it brought. There is no comparison between the rate of change and level of stress and risk of his lifetime and my own.

By comparison I joke with my own kids that the most traumatic thing that has happened to them is when the wireless Internet goes down 🙂

I don’t say this to deny the feeling that many people have of increasing complexity and change. There is a lot of evidence to support it, particularly in the area of technological change and information availability. But I also think we need to keep a sense of perspective.

On the day after the VUCA presentation I was working with the same group of people on the challenges in working in a matrix organization. Many of them commented that the previous day’s presentation had given them a real sense of perspective about their challenges and how important they were in the overall scheme of things.

It’s no bad thing to step back and challenge received wisdom on volatility. A perception of out-of-control change may reinforce feelings of inadequacy or powerlessness to manage when in reality things are a lot better and a lot more stable and we sometimes think.

So what do you think, is change accelerating, is volatility impossible to manage, or are we just spoilt complainers?

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