Braid your business

Coordinating a purpose-driven organization improves performance

Alex Smith
5 August 2020

3 min read

In a fast-moving digital world, large organizations with strict hierarchies can struggle to respond with the agility of a small startup. With the release of his book Braided Organizations, Michel Zarka, CEO of Theano Advisors, advocates more open structures that reject formal rules and processes in favor of purpose-driven collaboration.

COMPASS: What do you want readers to learn from your book?

Michel Zarka: Firstly, I want readers to realize that a successful company is driven by a purpose, not just by targets or figures. People fight for a purpose, not for a numerical target. We’re currently working with a company that wants to reduce its environmental impact. In working to achieve that eventual goal, it would be a disaster for the company to say that the project must reach an exact place at an exact time. Instead, they must manage a flow of contributions from both specialists and non-specialists, delivering results that demonstrate the fulfillment of the overall purpose.

What is the braided way of working?

MZ: Any given organization has more or less a hierarchical structure consisting of silos. Because of this, solving or addressing certain problems becomes very difficult and takes a lot of time, because the right people are not always involved at the start of the process.  

Braids provide a solution to this problem. A braided organization is one in which data and information is shared across the company, ensuring the right people – no matter their seniority or expertise – contribute to building a solution. We do not consult an organization on its structural side; instead, we reorganize people according to a given purpose. The purpose can come from anywhere, but it needs to be clear and generally accepted by the community. 

In a fast-moving digital world, larger and more established companies need to compete with agile startups. Does the concept of braids offer a way for larger companies to meet this challenge?

MZ: The founders of a startup are united by a shared purpose; it’s a natural braid. However, when the organization becomes more complex, it becomes difficult to maintain that initial unity of purpose. Braids are, therefore, a way for complex organizations to become much more agile. The idea is that a complex organization becomes driven by a purpose, and these purposes are achieved through braids.

Can you give us an example of an organization that has adopted braids?

MZ: One example we had was in an organization in the nuclear industry. Due to the constraints of regulation, the system was designed in such a way that if you had a problem, it was taking 14 months to close the loop. This was because you would have to communicate with the nuclear safety authority, then you would have to call the quality system of the client, then you would have to call the engineering division, and so on. So, we tried to put all the stakeholders into a larger ecosystem to which they could all contribute – a braid – with the purpose of improving the response time to a problem.

By doing that, we pushed people to think differently about the production process, to think differently about the quality process. We also pushed the authority to think differently about the procedures, and most importantly of all, we pushed everyone to think differently about the documentation that is necessary to safely deliver a component. In the end, we reduced the response time from 14 months to 1 month, on 30% of the problems that arose.

Once you create a braided way of working, how do you continue to repeat the process?

MZ: If you want it to become a natural way of working, then you need a business experience platform that supports a collaborative way of working but also embeds the knowledge within the platform so the process can be repeated. A cloud-based experience platform instantly enables such collaboration from anywhere in the world, with the capability to perform deep analysis, data analysis or knowledge analysis, all operated through the platform. It allows for the development of a new cultural and managerial approach.

How does braiding change the role of leadership in an organization?

MZ: I would like to emphasize that braids completely change the role of leadership. In the book, I have developed the concept of “pollination leadership.” This involves people that, wherever they are in the organization, will be able to listen, balance and feed other people with ideas, which are not necessarily coming from their specific expertise. The more of these people you have, who have the capability to braid together different areas of knowledge, the better the braided organizations work.

For example, if you have an urban mobility project, you will have people taking on different roles, with some designing the infrastructure and others addressing the regulations. If you think that any one group will solve a problem alone, it won’t work. They must braid among themselves, and they must braid without anybody looking for the power along the value chain. It is an approach which requires a different mindset to that which has been used in an organization’s operation up until now.

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