Dual Operating System

An interview with John Kotter, Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, Rotman Magazine, Fall 2015

The big challenge for today’s leaders is accept the fact that a certain amount of hierarchy is necessary, and to design a separate system – a network – for innovation right alongside it.

innovation networks

I call this a ‘dual operating system’, and it doesn’t force you to choose bureaucracy over innovation. It enables you to operate part of your organization like a startup – with all of the agility that entails – while at the same time running an efficient, reliable hierarchical system that excels in what you already do well. I am convinced that every company you can name that has been highly successful has gone through a stage where it operated with a dual operating system.

The network is not an easy thing to develop or hold onto, unless you know what it is and why it’s so important. Change isn’t easy; we all know that, and the core issue is that people don’t want to reorganize – they usually think the current approach is fine. What you have to do is develop a network with a strong sense of urgency, with its focus maintained on a Big Opportunity.

When it works right, there is an inseparable partnership between the hierarchy and the network. The two systems work as one, with a constant flow of information and activity between them, and significant numbers of people are waking up each morning with a compelling desire to do something that day to move the organization forward towards the big strategic opportunity. With aligned energy among enough people across the network, you have a targeted, passionate force that is unlike anything found outside of wildly successful entrepreneurial firms.