As we inch further into the dynamic landscape of the 21st century, our long-established Alpha organisations stand on shaky ground. The organisations whose DNA is infused with strict command and control, woven into the fabric of every process, are feeling the tremors of a rapidly evolving, technologically charged market. Not since the 1970s has the Alpha model, whose roots lie in the stagnant waters of stable markets, been a viable proposition for companies seeking to thrive in an era of unprecedented change and unpredictability. This is crystal clear: We cannot continue to coat deep-seated Alpha practices with a thin veneer of Beta innovation and expect sustainable transformation.
Alpha: Born of the Industrial Age, these organisations strut with command-and-control bravado, erecting clear hierarchies in their stable “Blue” markets. Bureaucracy is king; sluggish responses and missed opportunities are their Achilles heel in our fast-paced “Red” markets.
What is the crux of the issue? I see countless individuals trapped in the bureaucratic maze of Alpha organisational structures, their creative potential stifled, their drive for innovation subdued. The belief is that switching to a Beta model could liberate them from this stifling environment, fuelling both individual and organisational growth.
In summary, Alpha (command & control) has overcome Beta (agile), but it’s not a lost cause.
Beta: These are agile warriors of the “Red” markets, thriving in their decentralised matrix, bred on Follettism’s principles. Cross-functional teams at the periphery dance with market demands, while the centre, void of decision power, plays the faithful squire. Nimble and adaptable, they ride the waves of change.
While market dynamics have witnessed dramatic shifts in the last half-century, businesses’ operations remain stubbornly static. Businesses crave the ability to flex and adapt in response to the ever-changing market landscape, but this necessitates more than merely tweaking team operations. The need of the hour is for businesses to radically overhaul their organisational architecture to facilitate better alignment with contemporary markets’ swift, volatile pace.
Sadly, agility has lost the battle against the monolithic Alpha paradigm, and the ghosts of hierarchical structures continue to haunt our organisations. The inherent flaws in most organisational transformations lie in their inability to address the root causes of dysfunction, opting instead for the allure of quick fixes and superficial changes. This approach does little more than perpetuate the reign of command and control, allowing it to thwart the advance of agility.
Moreover, the high failure rates associated with organisational change initiatives have desensitised people towards change, leading to widespread apathy and scepticism. Why invest energy in an endeavour doomed to fail?
Tracing the historical trajectory of the market landscape, we see the colossal momentum generated by the Industrial Age, characterised by rapidly expanding stable markets and limited competition. A relative state of stasis governed these markets, creating a safe haven for businesses to grow unopposed.
During the height of the industrial revolution, Fredrick Winslow Taylor crafted a business model tailored to this market reality. Born amidst the emerging markets dominated by textiles, steel and large-scale goods production, this Alpha model thrived in the predictable, slow-changing, or ‘Blue’, markets.
Blue Markets: In our colourful market lexicon, “Blue” signifies markets of the past, those forged in the crucible of the Industrial Age. These markets are stable, predictable and move at a comfortably sluggish pace. They’re the giant cogs in our economic machine, turning predictably, seldom shocked by innovation or disruption.
As the 20th century dawned, competition intensified, and product diversity increased, nudging markets from the predictability of ‘Blue’ towards the complexity and volatility of ‘Red’. This shift gained momentum in the 1940s with the advent of television and software, spreading ideas at a breakneck pace.
Red Markets: “Red” markets, on the other hand, embody the dynamism of the modern era. They’re complex and fast-moving, fuelled by ceaseless innovation and fluctuating consumer demands. Unpredictable, frenetic, and challenging, they represent the pulsating heart of today’s global economy, relentlessly beating to the rhythm of constant change.
The advent of the microprocessor in the 1970s and the euphoria surrounding the moon landings pushed the economy into overdrive. These events marked the transition of almost all markets to the complex ‘Red’, and the Alpha organisations, unable to cope with the speed of change demanded by these markets, began to falter.
This transformation, however, went largely unnoticed, and many businesses, although effectively obsolete, continued to lumber forward, propelled by financial reserves, customer goodwill, or sheer scale. Vast amounts of waste encumbered them, and If these organisations fail to breathe life into their moribund structures, they will indeed stumble and fall, though it may take them many years to do so.
Moreover, I’ve noticed a tendency for businesses that initially abandon Alpha practices to slip back into old habits as they grow. An even more profound realisation is that all start-ups are essentially Beta organisations. However, these businesses gradually transform into Alpha organisations characterised by hierarchies, departments and command-and-control dynamics without regular organisational hygiene or refactoring. They build up organisational cruft.
Enter the Beta Organisations, born out of Mary Parker Follett’s revolutionary concept of a decentralised organisational structure. Leveraging her social work experience and fascination with organisational dynamics, Follett centred her approach on social organisation.
Every Alpha organisation has an underlying Beta organisation within itself, a network of communication and collaboration that drives success without relying on the steering and escalation mechanisms that the Alpha model so heavily depends on.
Despite the rise of numerous attempts to create more dynamic organisations – from the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to the Spotify Model – many of these initiatives merely layer more control mechanisms atop the existing Alpha model.
The time has come for a resurgence, a renewed drive towards the Beta organisational model. Agility’s dream of a decentralised, democratic, low-atrophy organisation that can swiftly adapt to market changes is not an impossibility. To make this dream a reality, we must shift away from the Alpha model and move towards the Beta model. However, we continually allow the Alpha to persist.
As agile practitioners, we’ve enabled this complacency by making organisations believe that only minor changes are necessary. We must challenge these misconceptions, actively promote Beta models and practices, and stop accepting that organisational change will take years.
With concepts such as OpenSpace Agile and OpenSpace Beta, we can transform from the traditional, rigid Alpha model to the modern, adaptive Beta model that can truly thrive in the face of complex, modern markets within only a few months.
Then with the continued application of constant refactoring and organisational hygiene, we can maintain a nimble, modern organisation at scale that can continuously adapt to the changing needs of whatever the market throws at it.