Coach Agile
Jul 8, 2024·11 min

Managing tensions and boosting innovation… Without any chief!

Managing tensions and boosting innovation… Without any chief!

In the modern business world, traditional hierarchical structures are being disrupted in favor of more open and collaborative spaces. This shift brings the challenge of divergent opinions and personal frictions. Companies that are bolder in their pursuit of autonomy and creativity face a new dilemma: how to manage disagreements and misunderstandings without the aid of traditional management?

These frictions, far from being nuisances, are true nuggets of innovation and growth, provided they are approached with finesse and foresight.

In this new world, without the familiar markers of boss and subordinate, who makes the decisions when challenges arise and opinions differ? How can we create a space for dialogue and listening that fosters collective evolution, without falling back into the traps of outdated authoritarianism?

Balancing collaboration and innovation in a flat hierarchy

Today’s work environment is captivated by the innovation of horizontally structured organizations, which redefine traditional organizational structures. Rather than eliminating hierarchy, these companies choose to flatten it. Inspired by principles like the unFIX model (an organizational design model for continuous innovation and better human experiences), they place governance within a specific team, the Governance Crew, while distributing decision-making and responsibilities across the organization.

This approach values expertise, engagement, and collective synergy, highlighting shared governance where every voice has the power to influence and shape the common future.

Navigating the tensions between collaboration and innovation with a flat hierarchy
Navigating the tensions between collaboration and innovation with a flat hierarchy.

Understanding tensions in collaborative workspaces

At the heart of this model is a familiar phenomenon viewed from a new angle: tension. Adopting a horizontal organizational structure does not necessarily increase tensions or create challenges that don't exist in more traditional environments. However, in a space where traditional hierarchy is replaced by extended collaboration, tensions emerge not as flaws but as driving forces for innovation and adaptation.

These tensions, far from being remnants of an obsolete system, become indicators of an organization's health and vitality, challenging the norm. They highlight where attention is needed, where ideas collide, transform, and ultimately lead to breakthroughs.

Navigating these tensions with skill and understanding becomes central in a company shaped by these principles. Embracing this approach means recognizing that every friction is an invitation to dialogue, rethink, and boldly co-create our way of working together toward common goals.

Turning tensions into opportunities

In today’s evolving companies, where traditional hierarchy gradually gives way to a dynamic and collaborative space, tensions sometimes arise. Although uninvited, these tensions bring unique opportunities for growth. The ambiguity of responsibilities, possible role confusion, differing visions, and communication challenges can be sources of tension.

For example, unclear responsibilities create a backdrop where everyone tries to define their role without always knowing others' boundaries. Differing visions subtly but significantly influence the company's direction, sometimes leading to unexpected results. Communication challenges add complications, making mutual understanding harder to achieve.

If ignored, these sources of tension can turn the workplace into a maze where productivity declines and employee well-being suffers. The work dynamic deteriorates, leaving teams in complicated situations desperately seeking solutions.

Productivity, an essential element, starts to decline towards unpredictable outcomes, while the much-desired employee well-being seems to diminish with every moment of confusion.

Yet, in this seemingly chaotic setting lies the opportunity to foster team harmony. Tensions, when addressed with clarity, empathy, and an innovative spirit, can become powerful growth drivers. They invite us to redefine roles, refine our visions, and improve our communication methods, creating a work dynamic where every member feels not only heard but also valued.

Turning conflict into opportunity.
Turning conflict into opportunity.

Keys to autonomous tension management

The key lies in our ability to transform these tensions into constructive dialogues, learning opportunities, and adaptability. By doing so, we can not only evolve but also thrive in this collaborative space, using today’s challenges to build tomorrow’s successes.

Managing these dynamics becomes both an art and a science, requiring a mix of insight, empathy, and innovation to turn challenges into opportunities for strengthening cohesion and fostering a truly agile and resilient company culture.

At the heart of collaboration, each member has the power not only to play their role but also to guide moments of tension towards harmonious resolution. Autonomous conflict resolution emerges as a space where active listening, non-violent communication, and peer mediation are the main pillars.

Active listening means learning to hear beyond words, understanding the full range of emotions and unspoken thoughts. Non-violent communication invites us to express our needs and feelings without triggering discord, transforming each dialogue into an opportunity for genuine connection. Peer mediation provides a neutral space where differences can be examined by an impartial mediator, encouraging the emergence of creative solutions.

Creating dedicated instances for collaborative energy

Sometimes, the complexity of the moment requires the intervention of a dedicated group or committee specialized in conflict resolution. Far from acting as new managers, these entities work behind the scenes, facilitating communication and negotiation, ensuring every voice is heard and every tension is transformed into strength.

Creating such instances raises the important question of their integration without taking on a traditional management role. Their mission is to facilitate, not direct – to harmonize, not control. They must embody principles of transparency, fairness, and openness, ensuring their intervention leads to shared solutions that respect the diversity of perspectives within the company.

These groups act as consensus builders, facilitating communication where obstacles exist and guiding towards resolutions beneficial for all stakeholders. They equip the company with a flexible and responsive mechanism capable of turning frictions into growth opportunities and strengthening the social fabric of the organization.

Innovative strategies for autonomous tension management

To maintain a horizontal organizational model and avoid structures perceived as hierarchical, there are interesting alternatives:

Spontaneous Conflict Resolution Circles

Instead of permanent committees, specific conflict resolution circles can be formed, meeting only in the presence of certain types of tensions. These ad-hoc groups, with rotating members, offer flexibility and a diversity of perspectives without creating a fixed structure.

Regular workshops and training

Invest in ongoing training for all organization members in non-violent communication, active listening, and mediation. By strengthening these skills individually, the need for formal conflict resolution mechanisms is reduced, fostering a culture of autonomous tension management.

Digital mediation

Use digital platforms to facilitate conflict resolution, allowing employees to anonymously express concerns or seek mediators among their peers. These technologies can provide safe spaces for discussion and negotiation without directly involving formal structures.

Self-managed community agreements

Develop a set of community agreements or principles, co-created and adopted by all organization members. These agreements guide behavior and interactions, enabling individuals to self-regulate and proactively manage tensions.

Mentorship and coaching programs

Establish mentorship and coaching programs where experienced employees help newcomers or those facing difficulties. These supportive relationships can prevent conflicts and provide channels for informal tension resolution.

Continuous feedback systems

Encourage a continuous and open feedback system, where employees can share constructive feedback in real-time. This helps identify and address tensions before they escalate into more significant conflicts.

By emphasizing shared responsibility and engagement from all members, these alternatives highlight the importance of conflict prevention and proactive resolution. Integrating these practices allows a company to maintain a collaborative and innovative work environment while effectively navigating inevitable tensions.

Experience shows that organizations with less hierarchical structures often invest in developing communication and negotiation skills. This helps prevent misunderstandings and defuse tensions before they escalate, creating an environment where tensions are managed openly and constructively rather than avoided.

Encourage collaborative energy by setting up dedicated bodies.
Encourage collaborative energy by setting up dedicated bodies.

Ensuring legitimacy of tension management instances

Managing tensions raises a fundamental question:

How can we maintain the neutrality and impartiality of tension management instances to enrich corporate culture without becoming new centers of power?

The challenge lies in establishing mechanisms that ensure these entities facilitate dialogue and conflict resolution while staying true to the company’s values. This involves a transparent process for selecting members, regular rotation to prevent power accumulation, and thorough training in mediation and empathetic communication techniques.

Conflict resolution process at makesense

Founded in 2010, Makesense develops tools and programs for collective mobilization, encouraging everyone – citizens, entrepreneurs, and organizations – to act towards building an inclusive and sustainable society.

At Makesense, the conflict resolution process can be initiated by a participant or an outsider who notices tensions affecting team functionality or organizational values. The involved parties are first invited to discuss and reach a conflict resolution agreement. If this fails, a Pool of Coaches or an external professional mediator steps in. Often, this process defuses tensions, but if all previous steps fail, the Waterline, one of Makesense’s governance bodies, intervenes as a last resort to make a decision.

Enercoop’s animation and facilitation garden

Enercoop, a committed electricity provider, has established the Animation and Facilitation Garden (JAF), an internal body supporting operational cooperation and autonomy, inspired by the University of Nous’s approach.

Comprising a team of 2 to 7 people, its role is to disseminate the organization's culture within various entities and participate in community animation (training, communication, design, support, and advice). Facilitators handle diverse situations: taking a step back, ideation, emergence, convergence, and conflict management.

The JAF has its own budget to support and train teams that request it.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Practical Process Improvement

Since 2002, Practical Process Improvement (PPI) has been central to Thermo Fisher Scientific’s problem-solving approach. It is a simple yet effective toolset enabling teams to address issues and understand their root causes. With this clear understanding, employees can:

  • Implement countermeasures that significantly improve the company,

  • Eliminate waste, and enhance customer loyalty to Thermo Fisher.

PPI is how Thermo Fisher Scientific achieves improvements in Productivity, Quality, and Customer Loyalty.

Marc Casper (President & CEO of Thermo Fisher Scientific)

These examples illustrate that, far from being traditional conflict managers, these instances can become catalysts for positive change, fostering a culture of constructive tension resolution. By adopting an approach based on listening, mutual understanding, and respect for company values, they contribute to weaving a resilient social fabric. Thus, tensions are viewed not as threats but as opportunities to learn and grow together.

Ensuring the legitimacy of tension management bodies.
Ensuring the legitimacy of tension management bodies.

Maintaining agility in a changing world

In the modern business environment, where every step must be precise, flexibility and process adaptation are essential assets. However, in this pursuit of excellence, how can companies maintain their agility when, over time, processes tend to become rigid or lose transparency?

Establishing a flexible mindset within the organization is the first step towards sustainable agility. This means being ready to question and adjust processes that no longer serve the common good or efficiency. Regular reviews of work methods, encouraged by the active participation of all team members, help identify areas of friction and foster continuous innovation.

Transparency plays a crucial role in this process. It acts as a means to uncover problems hidden behind habits, routine, and complacency. By cultivating a culture where information sharing, constructive feedback, and open dialogue are valued, companies can prevent tensions and embrace a dynamic of positive change.

It is crucial not to underestimate the importance of maintaining constant communication: it is the thread that guides the organization through the maze of daily challenges. Establishing transparent and open communication channels allows concerns and ideas to be shared, enabling teams to work together toward common solutions. In this shared space, each voice contributes to collective harmony, making the organization more responsive and cohesive.

By integrating agility and transparency as fundamental principles, companies do not merely manage uncertainties; they learn to move forward despite difficulties, transforming each challenge into an opportunity for continuous development. It is in this ongoing process of adjustment and dialogue that the true source of adaptability lies, allowing the company to remain resilient and dynamic under any circumstances.

Preservation of agility in a perpetually moving world.
Preservation of agility in a perpetually moving world.

Conclusion: managing tensions to build the future

In a creative and collaborative business environment, innovative management of tensions, conflicts, and issues is crucial and forms the core of an organization's success and achievement.

An organization without tensions might seem peaceful, but in reality, this absence can conceal significant risks. The lack of debate and diversity of opinions can lead to stagnation, stifling innovation. Such tranquility might also indicate a culture where open expression is discouraged, likely hiding unresolved issues. Moreover, without the challenges posed by constructive tensions, employees can become complacent and disengaged, threatening the organization's competitiveness and adaptability.

Far from being warning signs of dysfunction, tensions can become catalysts for profound transformation, continually driving the company to reinvent and innovate. They invite us to rethink our modes of collaboration, refine our communication, and strengthen our cohesion around shared values.

In this delicate balance between respect for the individual and commitment to a common goal lies the magic of liberated companies. For this magic to work, every member of the organization must become a craftsman in managing tensions. Drawing on a range of techniques from autonomous conflict resolution to the creation of dedicated bodies, while remaining open to innovations and adjustments, is essential.

In this context, the drive for continuous evolution is an invitation to adapt to change and also an imperative to stay aligned with the principles of flexibility, agility, and collaboration. These principles define the very essence of the liberated company. Every resolved tension, every overcome challenge, is a stone added to the building of our common future. It is one more step towards creating a work environment where freedom and responsibility come together to reveal the best in everyone.

By adopting this perpetual quest for balance and harmony, companies do not merely navigate the uncertainties of the modern world. They shape it, drawing the outlines of a new paradigm where work is synonymous with growth, meaning, and collective achievement.

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