Leading a network organization, part I

In the following series, I am highlighting my work at Yunus Social Business, a global leader in impact-first investments in emerging and developing countries. In our effort to integrate social businesses into global value chains and transform corporate leaders towards net positive impact for people and the planet, we have set up a network organization that supports our projects around the world. Read about our journey and failures. This content has first been published on yunussb.com.

Networks exist in many forms and serve a vast array of different purposes. There are the beautiful synergies in nature that allow humans and trees to breathe each other’s waste, and there’s the way that organizations function through a distributed network of interacting social animals. In all these examples, shared purpose and communication (of one type or another) are key. Taking these learnings from nature, we think the same approach should be taken to business.

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At YSB we believe it is particularly important to embrace a “network” approach and consider not just individual elements but the relationships between these elements. One of our key values is humility. We acknowledge that we are only one piece in a larger puzzle. We do our part but most importantly, we engage many others to achieve our objectives. Complex problems are best solved through collaboration and teamwork: in the words of Aristotle,

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Encouraging large and collaborative organizational networks allows the collective power of multiple minds to flourish. This often achieves greater output than would be achieved with each person working in isolation.

This is why, at YSB Corporate Innovation, our organization is structured as a network – something we’ll go into later. We believe that by connecting the dots between different stakeholders, we can create communities and maximize our impact.

Yunus Social Business: A network-centric organization

We are network geeks and we are proud of it. We believe in the power of networks so much we adapted it to our internal network.

Why? Because we realize that we are a small company, tackling big-ass issues. And as much as we’d love to know-it-all, we just don’t. So we need to spread our wings and reach out to the best and brightest when delivering on our projects. We need to build unlikely alliances. And – not the least important – we need to stay nimble and avoid creating large overhead structures. So we have created an organization and team based on skills and relationships, not just structure.

Sounds messy? Sounds scary? Sounds fuzzy? Well sometimes, it is all of that. But there is lots of thought and team collaboration in it. We distill the best of many schools of organizational structures – holacracy, matrix, project management, agile, [fill in your favorite buzzword here].

Take Holacracy: It allows for flat, fluid and adaptable teams in contrast to rigid and hierarchical structures. It propagates a single team where all governing power is distributed to the person best equipped to make a decision.

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This shift in mindset gives teams more freedom to self-manage while staying aligned with the organization’s purpose. Based on the virtue of openness and transparency, this structure embraces diversity and creates a space for open conversation amongst colleagues. Following this type of decentralized decision-making allows for the rapid uptake of ideas and can lead to important innovation.

Let’s take an example: When setting up a new project, we generally work around challenge statements – a term borrowed from design thinking. It could be “How might we enable waste pickers to escape poverty through plastic waste?”. Answering this question becomes the project team’s purpose along with key metrics linked to partnerships and financial sustainability. Within that framework, our teams get full autonomy to explore options, innovate and develop new collaborations.

A breathing organization

Creating networks instead of organizations makes the system much more fluid. If a company is structured in terms of networks (as opposed to hierarchies), every person has several networks that can shift and change. With organizations, they are locked within a rigid structure and don’t have the same opportunities to expand their breadth of knowledge and social contacts.

The best way to describe our team is collaborative, borderless, flexible, fluid and efficient. Despite having employees in 4 different continents and time zones, we find the model to be highly successful – shown by high engagement levels from our team feedbacks and high feedback scores from our corporate partners.

In this series of blog posts about our organizational structure, we want to share what we have learned along the way, the struggles we faced (and/or continue to face) and the journey we are taking. After all, we would hope that you can join us at some point in that journey!

We’d love to learn from your experience with remote work and networked organizations. Reach out to us with comments and insights!

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