Of dinosaurs and dancing elephants 3: Resilience and the avoidance of bureaucracy is key

Of dinosaurs and dancing elephants 3: Resilience and the avoidance of bureaucracy is key

by Chris Marston | March 22, 2023

Part three of a four part article on breaking through to better business performance
by Chris Marston, chief executive of LawNet

As we face up to economic and political turmoil and change, all of which will directly impact our businesses in the months ahead, what can we learn from the experts: how should we drive leadership in this complex world?  

As outlined in the earlier articles in this series, we are reflecting on the leading-edge thinking outlined by the keynote speakers at our annual conference.  

Concepts alone are of little practical use; we needed practical ways for our members to take action within their firms.  So, each speaker drilled down to demonstrate how we could truly embrace their ideas to build organisational resilience, nurture talent and high-performing teams, and so make the breakthrough to better business performance. 


A key theme was the role of resilience in facing up to the challenge of life and learning.  As Matthew Syed explained:  “It is inevitable that we will make mistakes and occasionally have our strategic assumptions violated.  I think that having the resilience to deal with that, being able to extract the lessons and to grow, and not allow ourselves to be defeated, I think that is a really useful attribute for both individuals and teams.” 

The theme was developed further by Julian Birkinshaw, who looked at how to stay resilient and respond successfully to a fast-changing world, by embracing new ways of working.   

Pointing to the disruption and challenges faced by the legal sector, Julian explained: “The shocks are greater than ever.  Being agile, and therefore able to respond to new opportunities, is important, but resilience is crucial.   It’s about surviving through thick and thin, withstanding shocks like the pandemic and beyond.”

Looking first at the huge pressures on organisations to adapt, he evoked an array of mythical, extinct, and fanciful figures to drive his point home.  For many, the prevailing business narrative is about the dinosaurs and the unicorns: older, long-established companies are presented as dinosaurs, stuck in their ways and destined towards extinction under the remorseless ascent of the unicorns, the fast, adaptive innovators in their sectors. 

But, Birkinshaw argues, rather than being dinosaurs, many are dancing elephants, harnessing their resilience to refashion themselves to better suit the future.  Examples are the big banks who are not just surviving the disruption of new unicorn challenger banks, but actively thriving and putting on a strong performance.  They may be elephantine but, thanks to their resilience, extinct they are not. 

Seeking out the right behaviours is the route to achieving such resilience, he says: “Companies may gravitate towards an organisational model founded on bureaucracy, based on command and control leadership, but that is a little bit slow and a little bit cumbersome.   A meritocracy is another option, with expertise and information flow prioritised, but it tends to favour knowledge over action. 

“I think we need to embrace something that is more like an adhocracy.  An ad hoc approach which privileges action and creates a sufficiently fluid structure that people are enabled to pursue opportunities in a much less encumbered way.”  

According to Birkinshaw, adhocracy is the natural preserve of start-up companies and is often lost as organisations grow, but for those that can create such an environment within existing structures, it can provide an action-oriented approach that is both accountable and transparent, but with fewer levels of reporting.  

This brings us back to those maverick voices again, as Birkinshaw explains: “Sometimes people with cool ideas are discounted, or have no platform, but in an adhocracy they can find their rightful place.”  

Hear from Julian Birkinshaw and LawNet members in this short video (3 mins)

Part four: Of dinosaurs and dancing elephants 4: Share more to learn more and feel the force 

A longer version of this article was previously published in Solicitors Journal 

Photo: Julian Birkinshaw at the 2022 LawNet conference.