Responsive Orgs: What the Literature Says

October 23rd, 2019

It feels like every time we turn around another post, article, video, or report is discussing the changing nature of, well … everything. We’re constantly inundated with information showing the dynamic and ever-evolving world in which we live and work.

Rethinking How We Do Business: Responsivity

In previous times – when organizations could reasonably predict their environment for the foreseeable future – it was easier to set a course of action and revisit the plan every 3 or 5 years. That no longer works today. Businesses must now find a way to adapt and to change in ways that don’t become obsolete in the same amount of time it took to strategize about those changes.

So, what kind of organization will survive in the future?

Our prediction – the responsive organization.

But what exactly is a responsive organization and what steps can organizations take now to be more responsive?

Our current (working) definition of a responsive organization is:

An organization that identifies change, determines trends, and responds in ways that turns change and disruption into a distinct organizational advantage.

To begin understanding these organizations in more detail, we looked at more than 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books for this literature review.

What we saw

It may not come as a surprise that academic literature isn't flooded with research on the concept of “responsive organizations.” However, the concept has loosely been described throughout popular press and the foundational ideas have been rigorously studied. We looked at any concept we thought would help us uncover what makes an organization responsive (i.e., agility, decision-making, engagement, motivation, rewards, learning, empowerment, technology, performance management).

In reviewing the literature, we uncovered 5 themes of responsive organizations:

  • Structure is still needed, but rigidity won’t work
  • Authority and power can’t be held by the few
  • Empowerment leads to chaos if learning is lacking
  • The human element is a distinct advantage, now more than ever
  • Technology has an increasing role as a supporting actor

Structure is still needed, but rigidity won’t work

There's a general agreement that traditional hierarchical structures are barriers for organizations wanting to be more responsive. These organizational structures were set up to address efficiency – as though humans would always just make widgets on an assembly line. However, work is no longer done in a linear manner and efficiency limits responsivity – to customers, changing market conditions, new technology, etc. The modern world of work requires a network of individuals and teams that balances stability and flexibility.

More specifically, responsive organizations remove layers – opting for flat, more networked, team-based structures. Working in a network enables businesses to organize around what matters most (i.e., specific challenges, products, knowledge, customers, markets) and to remove traditional notions of control and authority. Yes, there are some decisions that should be made by leaders and within a centralized structure but, by in large, there's a lot more opportunity for the employees who are doing the work on the frontlines to identify problems and take action on solutions.

Regardless of the actual structure, the key point is that old models which primarily emphasize command-and-control operations will become increasingly less effective in the future. Instead, organizations have to provide enough structure to direct work but be flexible enough to evolve in real-time. This idea of flexible, network-based organizational structure is central to the idea of the responsive organization.

Authority & power can’t be held by the few

One of the key benefits of more network-based, flexible structures is the ability to facilitate decentralized decision-making and shared leadership. In traditional models, authority is held by the few and decisions trickle down to workers lower in the hierarchy in a (slow) process. Responsive organizations recognize that power can no longer be held just by the few and embrace the idea of shared leadership. Power – the authority to make decisions and to act on behalf of the organization – has to be pushed down to the people closest to the challenges being solved.

A cautionary note: This doesn't mean that managerial roles or leadership roles should become obsolete. In fact, they’re more important in responsive organizations. However, their roles will continually evolve into coaching and developing people rather than managing tasks and timelines.1

Responsive organizations trust their employees and provide the psychological safety necessary for employees to know they won’t be punished if they act – in good faith – on behalf of the organization. This is critical. Evidence suggests that, when employees feel trusted, it positively impacts performance and these employees are more likely to make extra effort outside of their role.2

Decentralized decision-making and sharing authority are more than simply telling employees they can make their own decisions. Responsive organizations create cultures that value entrepreneurialism and encourage – even reward – employees for coming up with solutions.

“The need for organizational sharing of information, decision making and responsibility among project team members requires a new paradigm of how data and personal relationships will flow.”3

All that said, responsive organizations also understand that strong organizational norms, articulated accountability, and organizational controls are still needed. These set boundaries for employees and help them interpret shared authority through the same lens – ensuring that employees know when leadership needs to be involved.

Empowerment leads to chaos if learning is lacking

Traditional command-and-control models can impede how quickly individuals identify and address skill gaps. When individuals have little insight on strategy and no authority to make decisions, in real-time, they're simply doing a job. They’re not as often confronted with the reality of what’s needed next for them to be able to succeed.

On the other hand, responsive organizations are pushing individuals to operate in roles not easily defined. They're giving employees insights on the vision, strategy, and goals of the organization so employees can better respond to customers. But to respond effectively to customers, employees need to have the skills, capabilities, and knowledge necessary to meet customers’ existing and future needs. This requires employees to be continuously learning both the skills they need to perform today and those necessary to prepare for the future.

Unfortunately, our recent research suggests that a majority of organizations are falling short in helping employees learn and prepare for the future. Less than 50% of organizations are providing an environment to facilitate information-sharing, encouraging continuous learning, or helping employees identify what's needed for future success (see Figure 1).


Figure 1. Developing and Preparing Employees for the Future | Source: RedThread Research, 2019.

Employees in responsive organizations are constantly faced with the reality of their own limitations and must work quickly to address these. This requires responsive organizations to place learning and development (L&D) at a premium for 2 reasons:

  1. Giving employees the power and authority to act on behalf of the organization and to take charge of problem-solving is great, unless they don’t have the necessary skills and abilities to actually do this.
  2. Expecting individuals to operate in roles, not jobs, means they need to also identify where the skill or knowledge gaps are among the team and find a way to fill those.

Responsive organizations are also learning organizations that push individuals to continuously build upon their capabilities and teach employees how to learn.

The human element is a distinct advantage – now more than ever

It would be great if we could read the “Responsive Organization Playbook” and see a few chapters on structure, authority and decision-making rights, and L&D, and call it a day. But the truth is, there’s a human element in responsive organizations that is often overlooked when reading up on organizational agility (a term similar to and highly related to responsive organizations).

Responsive organizations balance profit with purpose.4 Sure, organizations have to make profit to survive, but “rather than viewing profit as the primary goal of an organization, progressive leaders see profit as a byproduct of success.5” That means, responsive organizations are clearly attuned to the human side of their organization – creating 2-way channels of communication to understand their talent beyond the profit they provide.

This enables responsive organizations to create cultures that are intrinsically motivating6 – creating an employee experience that minimizes control and micromanagement, and increases individual agency and competence. These cultures recognize and reward progress, not just goal attainment.

Technology’s role as a supporting actor

The sheer volume and speed of information coming into and out of organizations necessitates the use of technology. In fact, many of the articles we read highlight a need for organizations to leverage technology to capture and interpret data both within the organization and external to the organization. This is especially true for responsive organizations. Next-generation technology has to be embraced by the organizations of the future.7

This doesn't mean that technology should be seen as something which will come in and disrupt the human element of the workforce. In fact, responsive organizations will need to identify the unique attributes that humans bring to the workforce and leverage technology in a way which enables people to do deeper, more creative work.

Just as responsive organizations need to create flexible, networked, and agile structures – they also need to invest in technologies, systems, and tools that will evolve with them. More importantly, disparate technologies have to be able to seamlessly integrate with each other. Employees are tired of leaving one system to manually enter data into another system about what they just completed in the first system. Unfortunately, this is the reality in many organizations – technologies aren’t integrated with each other and many don’t fit into the flow of work.

The truth is, there are a lot of great technologies out there, and many solutions are trying to provide seamless integration in the flow of work. But we aren’t sure we’re quite there – yet. This suggests to us that responsive organizations may need to think differently about their technological architecture and use a buy-and-build approach to ensure they're arming their people with access to the right information, at the right time, and in the right way.

What caught our attention

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contained information that we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

The Operating Model That’s Eating the World

Aaron Dignan

“These companies are lean, mean, learning machines. They have an intense bias to action and a tolerance for risk … They are obsessed with company culture and top tier talent, with an emphasis on employees that can imagine, build, and test their own ideas. They are driven by a purpose greater than profit….”


  • Discusses the responsive organization from 5 key components, including purpose, process, people, products, and platforms
  • Highlights the shift in each component of the responsive organization
  • Gives an example of an organization that has made the appropriate shift in each area

This article gets us excited about the responsive organization of the future. It gives a simple overview of the components of the organization that need to be reimagined and calls out the organizations that have made shifts in these areas.

The Future of Organizations is Responsive

Mike Arauz

“This difference – between optimizing for certainty vs. optimizing for uncertainty – is at the core of what separates successful organizations from everyone else.”


  • Illustrates that organizations are thriving – and will continue to – because they are responding to disruption by creating new ways of working
  • Argues that traditional structures impede resource availability
  • Suggests that responsive organizations optimize for uncertainty, rather than certainty

This video presentation (slides and transcription provided) illustrates why work isn’t working anymore and provides a compelling argument for organizations that embrace uncertainty. In addition, the presentation highlights where technology is best-suited to support organizations and where the qualities unique to human (creativity, collaboration, etc.) should be leveraged.

Elements of a Responsive Organization

Dean Kimpton

“The idea of placing purpose before profit, is not about blind altruism, but attracting the interest of people.”


  • Gives a short review of the ideas central to responsive organizations
  • Discusses the potential upside in risk and failure
  • Outlines the link between engagement and responsiveness

This quick read offers a fast skim of what makes an organization responsive and outlines a few reasons why. It also highlights what organizations should consider when trying to measure responsiveness.

The Four Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Employee Engagement

Kenneth Thomas

“ requires workers to make a judgment – about the meaningfulness of their purpose, the degree of choice they have for doing things the right way, the competence of their performance, and the actual progress being made toward fulfilling the purpose.”


  • Argues that intrinsic motivation is essential when workers are asked to self-manage
  • Highlights the factors involved in whether a worker is likely to experience intrinsic motivation
  • Discusses each fact in the context of how organizations can create a high-engagement culture

This article provides an overview of current thinking about intrinsic motivation. It highlights the 4 components that help individuals determine whether they are intrinsically motivated, including meaningful purpose, choice, competent performance, and progress toward purpose. It also provides 7 recommendations for how to build a more intrinsically rewarding environment to boost engagement.

The Darkside of Transparency

Julian Birkinshaw and Dan Cable / McKinsey & Company

“We’re getting used to transparency in our lives … But transparency can also cause pain without much gain.”


  • Summarizes the potential benefits of transparency within organizations, but cautions where this can go awry
  • Suggests there are certain times and internal practices that shouldn't be open to radical transparency
  • Discusses the role of transparency in daily activities, employee rewards, and creative work

There's an increased discussion around sharing information and pushing it down to the right levels. With that discussion comes the debate around transparency. This article highlights that debate, suggesting there might be times when privacy wins out over radical transparency.

Overall impressions

When we started this research, we weren’t sure what we’d find. To be honest, there isn’t a lot of information outside of the popular press to help organizations understand what the idea means. It’s still a bit of a muddy concept, and we had to get creative about the avenues we took to research topics that supported this concept. However, in taking a step back, we see that yes, it is a thing – a real thing that’s more than just organizational agility.

Responsivity requires organizations to:

  • Rethink how they're structured
  • Invest substantially in learning
  • Give up control, and push leadership and decision-making down
  • Embrace technology
  • Rethink the importance of the qualities unique to the human-side of their enterprise

Additional readings

  1. "Responsive Organization Practices: Lessons from Pepisco, AirBNB, and Charity: Water," Responsive Organization Practices – Responsive Org – Medium, Seidman, D., 2018.
  2. "Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage," Harvard Business Review, Reeve, M. and Deimler, M., 2011.
  3. "Linking Empowering Leadership and Employee Creativity: The Influence of Psychological Empowerment, Intrinsic Motivation, and Creative Process Engagement,” Academy of Management Journal, Zhang, X. and Bartol, K.M., 2010.
  4. "Knowledge Sharing in Teams: Social Capital, Extrinsic Incentives, and Team Innovation," Group & Organization Management, Hu, L. and Randel, A.E., 2014.
  5. "The 5 Trademarks of Agile Organizations," McKinsey & Co., the McKinsey Agile Tribe, 2017.
Emily Sanders Redthread Research
Emily Sanders


  1. “Performance management in agile organizations,” McKinsey & Company, Darino, L., Sieberer, M., Vos, A., and Williams, O., 2019. Dery, K. & Sebastian, I.M., MIT CISR Research Briefing, 2017.
  2. “A Closer Look at Trust Between Managers and Subordinates: Understanding the Effects of Both Trusting and Being Trusted on Subordinate Outcomes,” Journal of Management, Brower, H., Lester, S., Korsgaard, M., Dineen, B., 2009.
  3. “The Human side of organizational agility,” Industrial Management & Data Systems, Crocitto, M., and Youssef, M., 1997.
  4. Source:
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Four Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Employee Engagement,” Ivey Business School Foundation, Thomas, K., 2018.
  7. The 5 Trademarks of Agile Organizations,” McKinsey & Co., the McKinsey Agile Tribe, 2017.