Strategy as Monuments and Mobiles  – Which executives get to make the bold moves?

Which executives get to make the bold moves?

Could you teach the same action-learning class on transformational leadership to executives from any sized corporation? Are the options available to them the same? Monuments are different to Mobiles. Monuments are big, fixed structures. Mobiles hang above the baby’s bed and dance in the breeze. 

The idea of monuments and mobiles came to me when I was talking to Dr Naomi Stanford. She reminded me that the political forces against change in an exceptionally large organisation are so significant that they consume most of the learning time. She said, “transformational change in large organisations is monumentally difficult,” and so I started to think about “monuments.” 

Monuments take a monumental effort to change. Mobiles dance effortlessly. If organisations are monuments or mobiles, and executives could be in a monumentally large or mobile-small organisation – which executive benefits most from a lesson in transformational strategy? Dr Stanford blogged about a conversation with Nick Richmond (then Chair of the Organisation Design Institute). In that blog, they explored the issues around leading organisation design efforts. You can read that blog here

They did not get to any conclusion but raised some powerful questions about what we mean by the role of “leader” in organisation design (and generally). 

Does the catchword “pivot” mean anything for leaders of monumental organisations? Louis Gerstner Jr.’s book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” explains how, for a time, the monumental elephant might dance like a mobile wood sprite. His lesson was one of benevolent autocracy, the super-hero leader, quite unlike anything preached by the agile generation. 

What we know is that the entire organisation changes (transformational change) when one or more of the external environment, leadership, strategy, or culture changes. I would argue that apart from the external environment it is difficult for one of these factors to change without all of them changing. Bass and Avolio (1993) were more overt – transformational leadership is transformational because it can change the culture. 

It takes a tremendous amount of force (power) to change a monument. A breath of wind can change a mobile. A monumental organisation has hundreds or thousands of executives and senior managers (for some definition of “executive” and “senior manager”). Teaching some small fraction of them the levers of transformational change may be akin to teaching a fish how to move the ocean. By the time the fish has swum the ocean’s span it is dead. A handful of monument executives can mobilise the power to make a monumental move, and they do so at their and their shareholder’s peril. 

A Mobile organisation has a handful of executives and senior managers. Teaching them about transformational change teaches them about the work they do anyway – a series of bold bets that need to be optimal and efficient and effective so that they get to play another day. “Safe to fail” experiments in small and medium sized firms might require more resources than they have at their disposal. 

Is there something about nudging that suits monumental players and big sweeps that suit the mobile players? Dave Snowden talks about estuarine mapping, amplification and dampening in safe to fail experiments. Read about that here: / where the Cynefin company have linked multiple frameworks to facilitate leadership, decision making and work-execution in conditions of complexity. There is a subtlety to this approach that is useful in the monument and may be frustrating for the mobile. 

In conclusion, I wonder whether the big lessons on transformational strategy and grand organisation design are better suited to smaller organisations, and the lessons of complex adaptation lend themselves to the monumental firms? If you have read this far, let me know what you think please! 

At WorldsView we work wherever possible with intact cohorts all drawn from the same organisation, so that the client context is the ground on which we do the work with you. We find the approach to transformational change that works for you (rather than generally). Have some coffee with us if you would like to dive into this conversation.