Can organisational structures act like water?

category - society
type - opinion
Too often, hierarchies within businesses stifle innovation and restrict the flow of ideas. There is much to learn from taking a more fluid approach

The entire ocean surrounds 70% of our Earth, and water makes up 60% of our bodies. When a force of nature this substantial and resilient exists are there transformative benefits to gain from looking closer at the main property of water?

Taking inspiration from a recent Frieze thematic essay on How Liquid Modernity Shaped Art and the World, in which writer and curator Carson Chan asks: ‘What if art institutions acted like water?’ Chan references philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s book, Liquid Modernity: ‘Fluids… neither fix space nor bind time. Fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready [and prone] to change it.’ It’s a state and behaviour Bauman deems as ‘modern’ – ever-changing, and ‘modernising’.

It calls to mind The Future Laboratory’s macrotrend Elastic Brands, which says that ‘businesses and brands can no longer afford to be stagnant’ and provokes ‘brands to pilot a new transformative future for business’.

So why do organisations and businesses feel so fixed? We’re familiar, of course, with organisational restructures that come and go, responding to everything from cost reduction to turnaround or spin-offs. And while some organisations feel they have gotten there with ‘agile’ processes and digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic and blockchain technology, these approaches can often feel limited to those working in the field of digital and Web3. But what would happen if organisations behaved like water? Why wouldn’t we create a business that is fluid, flexible and malleable? Where water is fluid, can reach freezing and boiling temperatures and withstand destruction, is it too radical to embody a ‘liquid’ state of mind? After all, what can at first seem radical, is actually a state of innovation.

Published by:

19 October 2022

Author: Danni Mohammed

Image: Imagery by Angela Lidderdale, The Netherlands


Left: Danni Mohammed, founder, GentleForces, UK. Right: Photography by Eva Bronzini, Estonia.

Two profound examples come to mind, both concerning the climate. The first is John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line, a concept revolving around the three Ps: people, planet and profit, which, as he stated on its 25th anniversary, needs reassessment and some strategic fine-tuning.

The other is from the marketing expert and author Philip Kotler, who has called for a ‘degrowth movement’, and rightly so. For someone who defined marketing and advertising as ‘creating demand’, he reversed his stringent thought leadership and instead embraced the much-needed constraining of consumption and ‘growing our population at a slower rate’.

If ideas were more fluid, we’d flow with the current state of affairs, while rigid definitions and academia would become more adaptive, transforming over time. But what does this tell us about leadership? Rightly or wrongly, Elkington and Kotler were willing to ensure the state of business or economics, and moreover the world, weren’t harmed by their formerly fixed opinions: a fine example of a liquid mindset.

In its simplest embodiment, to act like water is about being fluid and free-thinking. But it’s also about letting go and riding the wave of uncertainty – and this requires organisations and leaders to put their ego to one side. In this way, we can enable new perspectives to come to the surface, and eradicate unnecessary titles and hierarchies to create a culture that flows. By acting more fluidly, we can embody sustainable practices and work towards the collective goal of progress.

Danni Mohammed is the founder of creative studio GentleForces. A seasoned strategist and transformation leader, she is focused on driving teams and collaboration with partners to deliver large-scale solutions with impact.

‘Is it too radical to embody a ‘liquid’ state of mind? After all, what can at first seem radical is actually a state of innovation’
Danni Mohammed, founder, GentleForces

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