The cascading Helix

The Cascading Helix. An Agile Solution to the Deadly Consequences of Cultural Rigidity

The 1980's saw the emergence of In Search Of Excellence and the pursuit of the holy grail for successful organisations. Technology was emerging rapidly and changing the traditional landscape of command and control systems with their hierarchies and bureaucracies. Everyone was looking for new, more creative and more effective ways of structuring and managing organisations.

My Helix - 1984 (An Orwellian overture)

My contribution at the time was an article The Cascading Helix, which was published in 1984!

In principle I was looking to create a more dynamic and intelligent structure that fully exploited the intellectual and practical capability of every employee. I proposed that power and decision making should be more closely linked to the knowledge and experience available in the moment rather than the prevailing military/manufacturing model. The goal of course was to drive higher levels of energy, innovation and competitive capability. In modern parlance - agility and disruption.

McKinsey's Helix 2019

I was therefore delighted to see a new article by McKinsey this week that has injected new life into the helix conversation in an article titled The Helix Organisation.

In this article McKinsey have offered the possibility of two parallel structures that perform different functions but are linked to each other, symbolically like the linkages of the DNA strand.

The top down/bottom up dilemma

In our consulting work we pursue both helix concepts, the flexibility of the cascading or dynamic structure and the dual structure principle. This is how we do this in practice.

The formal or traditional structure is there to drive efficiency and generally works best in top down format. However this does little for creativity and innovation.

Our second structure sits outside the formal hierarchy with a completely different culture code - more Montreal Protocol than selling or manufacturing widgets. Creativity and the natural evolution of new ideas always work from the bottom up.

We have found that two cultures work best and that the second or creative structure must be well ring fenced from the formal hierarchy. If you try to mix them, the traditional culture dominates and you go back to square one.

To summarise

Traditional hierarchies are best for delivering machine like efficiency. The new world however requires an additional dimension, based on dynamic cascading helix principles of high energy, intelligence, creativity and continuous evolution. This duality cannot be encompassed by one culture.

I believe the future will see organisations customising not one but two culture codes. One that works from the top down and the other from the bottom up. No more will we talk of culture transformation as a singular event. Customising culture codes will become a dynamic, complex and unfolding process. There is much work still to do.

Code 15 - Rigid cultures kill organisations
The magic of November 1859


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