Written by: Terry Meyer, Leadership SA on 22 August 2018

“When General Stanley McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2004, he quickly realized that conventional military tactics were failing. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a decentralized network that could move quickly, strike ruthlessly, then seemingly vanish into the local population. The allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, equipment, and training—but none of that seemed to matter.” (1)

So what is it that made the difference? Why was the greatest military force ever assembled unable to fully defeat Al Qaeda and subsequently Isis and the Taliban when they had every advantage?

In a complex, disrupted world, whether in a war zone or in business, it is not just superior resources that make a difference. There is something else.

The following are some of the organisational characteristics that are increasingly taking on greater importance than size and resources.

Firstly, the new hard is soft. Intangible issues such as culture, community relevance, ethics, governance and environmental responsibility are key values and behaviours that matter.

Secondly, it is all about agility. Guerrilla organisations have the ability to understand what is going on in the environment and respond very quickly without having to scale various levels of hierarchy to get consensus to take action. Julian Birkenshaw of London Business School observes:

“In today’s rapidly changing world, it is rarely the firms with the greatest processing power, the smartest data scientists, or the fastest connectivity that come out ahead. Instead, it is the ones that move forward faster than the others by developing the capacity for decisive action—the ability to address opportunities as they emerge, to experiment with new offerings, and to make big bets when called for. But action without direction is a dangerous commodity. To channel it in an effective way, firms also need to develop emotional conviction—to listen to their own intuitive reasoning, and to create meaning for their employees and their customers.” (2)

Speed and action are essential for agility.

Thirdly, organisations that abandon traditional hierarchies often adopt a “team of teams” organisational design. This means that individual teams cannot take on greater priority than the greater organisation. It means that “intelligent teams” are formed, dissolved and reconstituted on an ongoing basis to find solutions to business challenges rather than just focus on functional process management.

One success factor for such teams is empowerment. To be successful such teams need to be empowered to take decisions and action on the spot based on their knowledge of the greater organisational purpose – and purpose and commitment to a common purpose is the glue or gravity that holds such organisations together.

In order to sustain such an organisational design, it goes without saying that collaboration is a key value and that organisational silos need to be identified and destroyed. Such silos include functional, divisional, geographical and hierarchical separation. Rather the focus should be on the organisational greater good than the goals of a particular silo. Organisational knowledge and energy needs to be able to flow without blockages and interruptions.

It is also true that the organisation itself should avoid being a silo. Increasingly successful organisations have porous boundaries with the outside world and where it begins and how it relates to external stakeholders is becoming less clear. The idea of the gig economy in which your top talent may not work for you is just one example of this idea.

One of the benefits of collaboration across diverse teams is innovation. It is not possible to generate innovative solutions to problems and opportunities within a silo dominant organisation. Therefore, silo structures, and more importantly silo behaviour, needs to be eliminated in a disruptive environment.

This begs the question: what does this mean for Assessment Centres (AC)? There are a number of implications.

Firstly, assessment should not take place without a clear understanding of the environment in which individuals have to operate. Assessment Centre Practitioners need to assess the environment as much as the person to understand how they may relate to a specific environment rather than generic assessments.

Closely aligned is the need to assess the organisation. What is the organisational context in which people are expected to be effective?

The next level of analysis must be the intelligent team in which people need to work. We all know of teams comprising highly competent individuals that, together, result in high levels of toxicity. It is all about the chemistry, not just individuals!

When it comes to individuals there are many thigs that can be assessed. However, more important than competencies in the mental model that creates the reality of the individual. Do they have the mental dexterity to be effective in the kind of environment and organisation referred to above? There are many highly competent people who just do not have the, almost postmodern, mental model required in a contemporary business environment.

The above has a significant effect on the role of ACs. Most assessment reports that I have seen are about the individual. This no longer makes sense. The end result of assessment is not about individual performance. It is about organisational and team performance. The real value that ACs will add in the future will be to assess organisational relationships and competence rather than individual competence. The assessment role will start to encroach on and make use of the expertise of social psychology and social anthropology to ensure that assessment does not occur in a vacuum. To make the shift and to ensure ongoing relevance Assessment Centre Practitioners are going to, themselves, have to seriously question their own assumptions and mental models. They need to “smell the coffee” and shift from contributing to only individual effectiveness to enabling organisational effectiveness. They need to move beyond the relatively narrow field in which they work to a much broader understanding of the context in which performance is expected to take place.

1 "Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World ...." Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.
2 "Fast/Forward Julian Birkinshaw and Jonas Ridderstråle - Stanford ...." Accessed 13 Feb. 2018.

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