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The Lust For High Performance

Welcome to part 7 of the series on high-performance teams. A series which strives to make the works of Richard J. Hackman, a or maybe the leading researcher on team performance, more accessible.

We are leaving the realm of the first 5 factors which are more like the physical parameters of the team. And we are entering the realm of the intangible, the spirit of the team. Team spirit won’t be a physical part of the teams’ work, yet without great team spirit the work might never be done and the work itself might be arduous. The team might never fulfill its meaning, without a team spirit that suits its ambitions.

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Condition VI: The Feeling That My Works Does Matter

Let’s take stock. What do we have for our high performing team by now? First, a compelling direction to orient the team. Second, a true team task that makes sense to use a team at all. Third, a small sized team so that people can bond with one another. Fourth, clear boundaries that guide efforts. Also, fifth, a good composition of skills to get the work done. That is all good and fair for the team. However, what is in for me, the individual team member? What is my role in this so carefully staged exercise? Why should the teams’ work be important to me?

Each team member needs something to tie her own motivation to within a team.

What that thing is that amalgamates the individual, and the team effort varies from person to person. It can be an extrinsic motivation, like not being fired, money or sometimes status from just being on a team. The problem with extrinsic factors that tie a person towards a team effort is often that the level of engagement will be limited. It is the nature of complex situations, the types of problems teams need to solve, and of knowledge work in general that the relationship between personal in- and outputs and the performance of the team is hard to observe. To rely on extrinsic motivation exclusively will often result in people just putting in token efforts.

For more profound levels of engagement, intrinsic motivations must be tapped and tied to the team’s efforts. There is a specific model that is describing how intrinsic motivation works in a business setting: Job Characteristics Theory. This theory is a cornerstone of the field of organizational behavior and work design. What this model is basically saying is that intrinsic motivation in a work setting rests on four fundamentals ways how people like to work:

  • Skill variety: People do not like doing boring things all over and again. By doing things that utilize multiple skills, work is less repetitive and more motivating ()
  • Task identity: People want to achieve something visible like a thing produced or service done for a customer
  • Task significance: People love to impact other’s lives positively by doing something that they feel increases a customer or a coworker’s well-being
  • Autonomy: People like to do things the way they want
  • Feedback: People like to know how good they are at work. Detailed information on the way they performed. Not to be controlled, but to improve and to feel good about their efforts more often by doing so

These motivators are deeply ingrained in our cognitive DNA. We long for job variation and dread repetition. We want to do the work on our own terms and not being coerced into behaviors that do not make sense to us. We like to see, touch and in any other way ever feel what we endeavored to create. We love that even more if the results of our work matter to other persons, and we are getting better in the things we are doing all the time. If people experience all those five factors while working they feel that what they are doing has a positive psychological impact on their lives: Work has meaning for them – they feel the impact of their work.

It is the “striving” that is intrinsic to every one of us: The longing for mastery, autonomy, and purpose, that we have explored in the other posts of this blog. By being part of a team people do not put aside these longings. They are as strong as ever.

Non Conformity and Anti-Learning Stances

However, people differ. Some people value connectedness to others less, some more. Some people revel in autonomy others are frightened by too much of it. The disposition towards Feedback, to get to know “how good one is ones work” varies strongly, too. Some people like to get feedback to learn and improve, while others revel in groupthink, hubris and a state of failure denial. Systematic anti-learning stances are not uncommon in individuals, groups or organizations. Furthermore, autonomy, “doing things the way they want” might help intrinsic motivation but might hurt performance, as results might be more varied or less than optimal.

But the existence of anti-learning stances or the non-conforming autonomous individual going ways that lead astray from team performance do not invalidate the model. The five pillars of the job characteristics model still provide the critical ingredients to intrinsic performance and therefore give the highest chance of job- or team performance. Indeed, the risks of things going astray for the team can be mitigated. A great way to do this is to set norms.

Condition VII: Social Norming that Fosters Performance

Certain behaviors of teams and team members are more beneficial for performance than others. Norms specify those coveted behaviors. Regulating behaviors is, more often than not, a deeply unpopular or even impossible act. If people can, they will ignore any inconvenient norm. The trouble is: Norming of behaviors is unavoidable. Every team will inexorably end up with a set of norms that regulate acceptable and non-acceptable behavior as there is a natural tendency of people to adapt their behaviors to fit themselves into a group.

Instead of ending up with some random behavior, i.e., norms that just so “happened” to the group, it is better to establish norms inside the team that has proven to be beneficial to performance. Norming may be unnatural, but it certainly is useful.

There are three reasons why performance norms are important. They encourage the team to engage with the outside, they embed the team safely inside the organization, and they foster mutual dependability.

1. Outward Looking Norms: Engaging With The World

These norms are meant to encourage the team to engage with the outside. They regulate how the team is engaging with the world (i.e., the customer, the organization or anyone else not in the team). Typical questions are

  • How does the team get feedback from customers? In what form and frequency
  • How are the stakeholders involved in the project? Who is on the steering board
  • How does the team engage outside experts? In what roles and intensity?

Left to its own devices, without any conscious norming, teams are likely to under-engage with the outside world. Engaging with the outside world is stressful. It means customers are giving inconvenient or non-conclusive feedback, stakeholders hedging their bets in the game of organizational politics, experts providing advice that hard to understand or to adapt to the local situation. But it is needed for success. More than that, the team’s very reason for existence is the deliver results to the outside world. Therefore, norms that encourage the team to engage with the outside world are right front and center of effective teams. These norms describe the performance ethics of the team: The lust for high achievement.

Performance norms are at the heart of the Agile Movement, the SCRUM project method or the LEAN Start-up Movement. The customer with all its idiosyncrasies and ever-changing requirements are right in the center of all these hugely successful methods. Take SCRUM: It demands a product owner, arguably the most central role in the whole method, to fully immerse into the needs of the customer. It postulates working at short intervals to keep the feedback from the customer coming in, continually honing the team’s directions and ways of delivering value.

SCRUM enshrines performance ethics in a set of practical, dogmatic rules.

2. Organizational Conformity Norms: Avoiding Attacks By The Immunity System

The second reason why performance norms are crucial is the survival of the team in the organization. Performance norms specify which behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are unacceptable to the overall organization the team works in. Every organization has its established norms, and a team just can’t pretend that those do not exist. A short list of “Do’s and Don’ts” suffices. The target of such a list is defensive. It is to prevent the immune system of the organization to attack the project. Every project brings change, and the impetus to changes invariably drives resistance. By specifying behaviors that are helpful to get the teams work effort accepted by the organization, much is done to remove the organization from the list of impediments to a team’s success.

3. Mutual Dependability Norms: Learning To Rely On One Another

Every team effort is laden with moral hazards and frustration Slacking-off, free-riding, and a sense of being impotent to influence results are all contributing to project debt. These hazards are immanent to a team, and there is no way to get around them. However, establishing team norms that foster mutual dependability help to pay off the debt.

There are a number of ways to do that:

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities of team members: Role descriptions and discussions about roles in each phase of the team effort help team members to understand what is expected of them and others
  • Feedback culture: Giving each other feedback on behavior or decisions fosters understanding inside the team and creates a bond between each member
  • Drumbeats: Regular meetings, like SCRUM’s daily Stand-up, the sprint review or the retrospective, fosters mutual accountability. This is true for every regular meeting, as long as people are not just called to or incentivized to speak of but have an obligation to speak up. A meeting format that enforces the active participation of everyone is vital.

In general, the strengthening of conscientious behavior of team members is essential. Conscientiousness is being careful and vigilant. It implies a desire to do a task well, and to take obligations to others seriously. In psychology, conscientiousness is viewed as a personality trait and is therefore mostly unchangeable for the individual. However, in a team context, it can be built into the team’s procedures, by adopting, for example, the routines mentioned above. Over time, people implicitly accept conscientiousness as a norm for the team, even if some members are not at all conscientious but the opposite: Laid-back, less goal-oriented and less driven by success.

Mutual accountability has a lot to do with respecting the other team members. Not everyone wants to treat the office as a social club, and not everyone wants to work in an environment that is all about performance. Still, it is generally not a good idea to include only conscientious people in a team, as those people tend to be less creative, less adaptable and more driven by the urge to conform to expectations and rules. Again, the combination of personality types creates the diversity that positively impacts team performance.

Mutual accountability has a lot do to with respecting the other team member – but respect isn’t a privilege: Respect earned by working with one another and delivering results.

Why Other Norms Are NOT as Important

If performance norms are not deliberately set, other norms will form over time, by the norms brought into the team by the history and experiences of its members. These norms are more about the relationship between the team members than about outward focus. Norms will emerge that center on harmony, as harmony is in the direct interest of the group and every member. Furthermore, difficult decisions in the team’s future won’t be anticipated or actively avoided, to keep harmony. This gives rise to norms of reactivity, to just deal with whatever comes the team’s way at the time the challenge arises. The team under-invests and will pay a high price later in the team effort. Typically, these questions that should better be solved at the start of the project, are about

  • which persons with which skills and capacity to include in the team,
  • which elements are in or out of the scope of the project,
  • a projects time frame and budget.

As every experienced project manager knows, to avoid conflicts early means to face much more significant problems later on.

Every team will create additional norms over time, like certain meeting etiquettes, email and responsiveness ethics or office hours. Research has proven that any of these secondary norms, as Richard J. Hackman calls them, are by themselves not significant for the performance of the team. Other norms are inevitable in the forming of the team, but any secondary norm that is acceptable to the team is as good as another – as long as the performance norm remain intact.

Performance norms connect the compelling direction of the team to an ethic of risk-taking and performance. Consultant and Author Jon Katzenbach calls performance norms „the all-important connection between risk-taking and team performance”. 

As boring as the word “norm” is: Norms foster in every team member a lust for performance.

Who would have thought that Norms have something to do with lust?

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I am still busy writing on my book about “Liberated Companies” and I won’t bother you with another post in this year.

Merry Christmas to all of you!

box celebrate celebration christmas
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Sources

  • Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading Teams’
  • Job characteristics theory has been developed by Greg. R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman in 1975, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_characteristic_theory
  • The term “performance norms “or “performance ethics” is a central, recurring, element of Jon Katzenbach’s 1993 classic book, „The Wisdom of Teams“
  • Hackman calls the three norms (Outward Looking norms, Organizational conformity norms, and Mutual Dependability norms) “primary norms”, and all other norms, that have proven to be not very significant to a team’s success “secondary norms”. Actually, Hackman stated just two primary norms, outward looking and “behavioral boundaries within which the team operates”. I took the liberty to split the latter norm into to “organizational conformity” and “mutual dependability” for the sake of greater clarity. This split although aligns well with Googles project Aristotle, where “mutual dependability” has been one of the 5 factor of team success and Jon Katzenbach, “Wisdom of Teams” 1993, for whom Mutual Accountability is key to team’s success.

 

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Experimental Management

Meet Emil and Marc. Emil just signed a contract to work for Marc. This makes Emil an employee and Marc a manager. With his signature, Emil has agreed to follow the orders of Marc. Disobedience is an option, but it comes with the risks of being fired.

Marc the manager points Eric to chop a stack of wood. By doing this Marc is using the most basic form of a management practice, the direct order. Next day, Marc orders Eric to stack the firewood on a need pile in that corner over there. On the third day, Marc is late. Eric sees a stack of wood, and being human and not an automaton, starts to chop it, like on day one. Without knowing, Eric has developed a job description for himself: “My job is to chop wood and staple it”. The job description is another basic form of a management practice. It spares Marc the Manager the time and effort to direct Eric. Unlike a robot Eric the Employee is able to see the work and do it, without being ordered. Marc may continue to supervise Eric, but he might find a better use of his time in carting the firewood to the market and sell it.

One day, after a heavy rainfall, Eric sees that the roof of the shack, where the firewood is stored, needs repairs. Without being ordered, he fixes the roof. What Eric did is to use his judgment of Marc’s interest and decided to act autonomously. Marc has not directed Eric to do that, but Eric has developed a sense of purpose in his work, and chances are that he feels responsible for it. Marcs comes back later in the day and wonders that Eric has not produced his usual stack size of firewood, but he sees that the shack is repaired. Marc may tell off Eric for not making the numbers, but he decides to praise Eric for having taken the initiative and prioritizing repairing the shack over his chopping duties. Thereby Marc has embraced another two basic management practices: Feedback and Delegation. Eric is no longer just following orders but he is empowered to do other things necessary to keep up the production of firewood.

Why has Marc opted to praise Eric and accept his autonomous acting? Marc, hard pressed to make living out of his business, see’s those management practices as being efficient. In his mind, Eric has saved him a lot of trouble, as wet firewood doesn’t sell. Marc may not know it, but he has developed the performance hypothesis in his mind that Job Descriptions, Feedback, and Delegation produce better results, than just ordering Eric the Employee around. Marc the Manager benefits from adopting those Management practices. Eric the employee likes being responsible, too, which is part of why these management practices are working. But even if Marc didn’t give a damn about Eric, he knows he would hurt himself by not employing these practices.

Over time Marc might decide to adopt other management practices, like

  • a regular, weekly meeting to discuss issues
  • providing a budget to Marc that he can spend on axes or saws
  • a bonus scheme based on Erics productivity
  • job sharing, so that Eric is assisting Marc at the market from time to time, in order to get a larger picture of his duties and exposure to customers
  • Annual objective setting and performance review  to clarify high-level targets for Erics work

Marc the manager will introduce and maintain these management practices only if he expects that these contribute to the performance. Margins in the firewood business are so slim these days.

The Case for Constant Experimentation with Management Practices

Shouldn’t any company seek to emulate Marc’s way of working? Things like…

  • Adding new management practices if they work
  • Getting rid of those that don’t seem to work
  • Constantly adapting practices to the need of the business

In a business world that is ever-changing, why do we emphasize so much the need to act like a daring entrepreneur, who finds ever better problem-solution fits, but overwhelmingly fail to engage in experiments with the very ways we are working together? Instead of seeking to constantly improve our way of collaborating with one another, we focus hard on business models, productivity figures, financial performance.

Marc would see that fixation with direct business results as being silly. Results are important, yes, but they can not be enforced directly. Instead, they need to be approached obliquely, by working better together. If we can achieve that, results are not guaranteed, but they will come much more easily.

What is a business if not a sum of decisions taken at all levels of the company? If we can just increase the quality of decisions by some minuscule percentage point, isn’t a companies performance bound to increase? Better management practices result in better decisions result in better performance.

Management practices are like the underlying factors of a companies performance formula.

  • Company Performance = f (Strategy, Execution, Chance)
  • Strategy and Execution = f (Management Practices, Chance)

In other words management practices, the way work in done, influence a companies ability to come up with a good direction (strategy) and competent implementation (execution).

This sounds like a no-brainer. But there are three caveats with this logic:

  1. Managers do not care too much about the performance of management practices
  2. Owners care about performance, but can’t really observe the impact of management practices on performance
  3. The empiric, scientific evidence of the link between management practices and company performance is weak

Manager’s Do Not Care so Much About Performant Management Practices

Marc the manager holds four distinct advantages over most other managers:

  1. Direct Feedback: The impact that the management practices he adopts have on Eric’s performance are very direct
  2. Underlying simplicity: The firewood business is simple. Causes and effects are directly visible
  3. Small numbers: It’s just Eric the employee, not a group of employees or a host of departments to coordinate. This spares Marc the manager from the otherwise inevitable power and social dynamics
  4. No agency problem: Marc is the owner and the manager. He is able to prioritize performance of the business very highly – his performance and the business’s performance are the same. Managers, who are not owners, quickly see their well being and the businesses well being as two separate things
  5. No ingrained, legacy practices: Most managers join companies that have a certain way to do things, a certain management culture. It’s much harder to experiment with management practices if social norms are already firmly entrenched

For a typical modern-day manager, it is not only much harder to see whether his way of managing works better than other ways. On top of that, an employed manager does not even share the same passion for performance than an owner. Risk minimization by not sticking out one’s neck, social conformity and self-optimization might be more important than performance optimization. The fact that the performance of one’s management practices employed can’t be measured easily compounds this agency problem.

The result is that performance becomes a secondary concern while selecting management practices. Control is much more important.

Owners Can’t Really Tell What Management Practices Work

Owners care about performant management practices, don’t they? After all, it is their money that is wasted. But even owners care for performant management practices is limited:

  • Ownership might be diluted. If an ownership share is sufficiently small, influence is very limited.
  • The Agency problem, again: Managers, who are in day to day contact with the business know a lot more about the business they are managing than owners. Owners might employ a few checks on managerial powers here and there, but finally, owners have no option, but to trust.
  • There are other factors easily observable, like those found in the P&L or balance sheet. By their very nature management practices do not lend themselves to be measured in hard numbers. Humankind is excellent at measuring financial systems, but we suck at measuring social systems

The point that I am making is not that no one is not concerned with the performance of organizations. Indeed, there are many people caring about profits and corporate outlooks. The point I am trying to make is:  Few people are making a major effort to influence the performance of an organization by virtue of its management practices.

Science found a bit of evidence, just a bit

Financial performance is a primary concern for any company. But it is usually tackled head-on by looking at market share, product portfolio, customer bases, competition, cost structures, distribution networks, business models etc. Management practices get into view only with hindsight: If a company is successful, it must have great management practices. Phil Rosenzweig, a professor at IMD in Lausanne,  has written a whole book about the ex-post sanctioning of management practices. He named this the “Halo Effect”. Huge business books bestsellers like Jim Collins “Good to Great” or its predecessor “Built to Last” or Robert Watermans “In Search of Excellence” fell for the Halo effect. Great stories, but no scientific value.

But there are a few recent studies that imply a link between good management practices and a companies performance. According to one of those (Bloom et al 2011)  management practices explain about 10% of the success of companies. And according to another study (Bloom, Mahajan, McKenzie 2011) that link is causal, i.e. management practices improved first, company results followed.

That is not overwhelmingly strong evidence. But this is only natural: We just can’t measure social matters with the same exactness as physics. Social systems are highly idiosyncratic things. Take for example the human invention of the stock market. The way prices on the stock market are determined is a result of the human social system, the value humans attach to the stocks listed. Despite hundreds of billions of investment, no one can predict stock values with any certainty. Great efforts are being made in analyzing stocks, but finally, all this effort is undermined because we suck at measuring social systems. It hard to predict human behavior with certainty. Social systems are even more complex than the individual human actor, so science is bound to fail. There are no social physics, no immutable rules. There are things that appear to work for a time, but that is no guarantee that those correlations will hold in the future.

Experimental Management

To sum up my argument:

  1. There is a clear logical link between management practice and a companies performance. The sum of all decisions of all employees should make a great deal of difference to a companies success.
  2. There is academic evidence of this link, but it is weak
  3. Owners and Managers prefer management practices that work over optimal management practices. All sing the hymn of performance, but asymmetrical information, the pure opacity of causes and effects in social systems and individual incentives let them focus on the observable, largely financial facts, instead of the underlying intangible social performance of the organization

My point is:

  • If we can’t say what management practice is really working, why are nearly all companies keeping their management practices static?
  • Do such companies suppose they already found the optimum?
  • Those companies implicitly assume that there is nothing to gain from experimenting with management practices
  • Is it not silly that Lean Start-ups, Entrepreneurial and Agile Movements all have a strong emphasis on experimentation, but experimentation with management practices are of a (at best) secondary concern for most companies trying to become fit for the Digital Age?

Therefore, I suggest Experimental Management. If we don’t know what works best at that time, we need to try things, observe the effects and tune and tune and tune our way of “doing things in a group”, of managing.

We do not need big theories of Leadership and Management for this. We just need to experiment and watch. In other words, managers need to work empirically, not ideologically. Find out what works themselves and not following snake oil selling business book authors, leadership gurus or opinionated non-empirically focused consultants.

Liberation?

Experimental Management is a term that is slightly provocative to our cultural norms. First, we expect competent management that knows which practice works. Dabbling in management practices smells like incompetence. We want certainty. For certainty, we are ready to prefer the professional illusionist to the empirically driven realist.

Second, we shouldn’t subject humans to experiments. Manipulating humans is rightly abhorred. We value freedom and self-fulfillment.

My hunch is that experimenting with better ways to work, will lead to more freedom and more self-fulfillment in the workplace. Why? The only way to get better decisions is to employ the abilities and senses of all the people in an organization. And we can’t get that level of engagement without offering more freedom and self-fulfillment.

The arch-capitalist quest for performance might just end up liberating people. 

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Sources:

  • Rosenzweig, Phil “The Halo Effect”
  • Bloom et al “Mangement Practices Across Firms and Countries”
  • More information about research on the link between management practices and companies performance can be found on WorldManagementSurvey.org

 

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My CV of Failures

Unless we try, we do not learn. But if we try, we will fail from time to time. I tried a few things in my business life which did not work out. Things that are never mentioned in any official setting. Here are what I consider to be my biggest blunders.

My CV of failures

  • 2000/2001 Not sustaining the Startup I co-founded for longer than a year
    We wanted to build a cloud solution for managing B2B contracts (Links2U.com) on marketplaces. Then the 2001 dot.com bubble burst. We were forced to earn money doing services and not building the product.  But I guess the dot.com bubble is not really to blame: Our business idea was a bit too early & a bit too academic
  • 2008/200Not being promoted to Vice President at Capgemini: Despite all my success in managing projects – my skill and interest in sales have been found wanting. I guess these observations are still correct.
  • 2011 Not getting a Culture of Experimentation going: Who is to blame for today’s sales? Always the weather! I wanted to move beyond that and use experimentation and statistics to help to guide our efforts to run our European Store network. But the methods I used didn’t stick across the organizational silos – all reverted more or less back to the status quo ante after a year. There were always other things to take care of.
  • 2014 Costly negotiation with Microsoft: In negotiating an important group-wide contract on Office365 I failed to invest enough time in building my next best alternative. The skillful negotiators on the other side saw through the veils I employed to obscure that fact. We overpaid.

Failures are embarrassing…

We all have been groomed for faultless performance. That is what schools, universities, and businesses aim for. We have, consciously or not, transferred the basic performance ethics of the machine to the human social sphere: If only everyone would do the assigned job without any fault, the organization would enjoy success. Cogs in a machine doing their jobs.

Therefore we hide failures instead of learning from them. We might reflect on failure silently but rarely choose to talk about them with other people in the organization.  For the sake of keeping our outward appearance shiny and clean, we miss out on a great learning opportunity.

..but vulnerability is a must in high-performance organizations

We fear to be vulnerable. But Vulnerability is one of the core features of truly agile, innovative, liberated organizations.  One can only truly engage with others, if it is safe to speak up and if ego is not in the way of a better solution.

Looking back, one can argue that I did not fail enough: I should have tried more often and aimed higher. I could respond to that: I did try often and aimed high, but I just had success more often than I failed. Alas, that would be a lie. Careers in traditional businesses are made more by avoiding failure than by seeking success:

A failure makes a powerful narrative that may destroy careers. A success is often not more than a statistic.

So the better, time-tested career tactic is to not try too much.

Battles not picked

A second, lesser class of failure could be those times where I might have picked a battle but did not. These are more numerous.

  • Not pushing the envelope in a major global implementation. Instead, I choose to support it but husbanded my energy.
  • Not facing up to a company crisis and help to turn around the company at all costs. Instead, I choose to cut losses and leave.
  • Not transforming a company into a fast, real-time driven business with a masterful supply chain. I weighed benefits, costs, and risks and walked away from this vision. I still deem it feasible, but not in every circumstance.
  • Not driving google cloud adoption all over the company. Instead, I choose to focus on customer demands, which might have been short-sighted.

Success lies in the skill of knowing which battle to fight, and which to avoid. I might have been clever to avoid those battles. Or not. One will never know until one tries.

Failures are Silent Evidence

I think that people should not only be described by the things they have done and succeeded. Failure is an integral part of what a person is. Failures are silent evidence. Being open about it, without “humblebragging”, might be beneficial for everyone around.

Are you willing to be vulnerable?

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This blog is about finding better ways to manage organizations in this more and more digital age.

Sources

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Can Agile, Liberated Organizations Succeed in Overturning the Status Quo?

To be an idealist is a great asset to the world as it takes a non-conformist to change the world. But the graveyard is full of – mostly young – idealists whose ideas fell victim to the harsh realities of the status quo they were (naively) trying to change.

The whole Agile Movement is an idealistic movement. A movement of smart people who want to change the way people collaborate into a more liberated, engaging and fundamentally more humane way. In this effort, the Agile Movement has much better chances to succeed than many other idealistic endeavors, as it appeals to the profit motive that is so predominant in today’s business world. The obvious success of Silicon Valley and those liberated ways of working provide companies with a justification to try those high minded agile management practices. In other words: The profit motive is a strong reason to embrace Agile.

But still, the odds are steep, and the fight will be one for generations. Let me explain why.

Being a Great Company is Optional

Peter Drucker listed the three things that a company really needs to be great.

knauli.png

A company can only exist if it serves a customer need by supplying a product.  This is mandatory. In contrast to this, having a great company culture is helpful but not required to build products, good economic results or to simply survive as a company in the long run:

  • A company may survive quite comfortably for a long time if the competition is as badly organized as it is
  • A great culture improves the odds of building a great product, but you might end up with a great product just by chance even with a mediocre culture
  • The law of high numbers is at work here – provided that many try, some will get lucky

According to economic theory, competition will come in the long run and uproot the underperforming companies, simply because there is a profit to be made. This might be what is happening today in the digital revolution, but this process takes time.

The Status Quo is far from abdicating

Agile or Liberated companies (as I prefer to call them) have great working cultures. They are, therefore, systematically more likely to achieve great results than companies running a command and control model. But is that enough to win against the status quo en masse? Here are some reasons why the command and control paradigm might still win:

su.png

  • More and more Start-ups are sold directly to corporate investors. Mostly, they become a part of the established way of doing business thereafter
  • Every generation, even the youngest, is still primed for command and control. The Education system is still built on conformity to hierarchical norms
  • The economy gets more and more geared towards monopolies or oligopolies. It is the very nature of the platform and digital economy that the winner takes all benefits (e.g. Amazon, Google, Facebook). By their very nature, the dominant strategy for monopolies and oligopolies is to exploit their customer, as this is a much safer way to compete than risky innovation
  • Income inequality and the rise of the new right in global politics (e.g. Trump, Brexit) and of autocratic leaders (Erdogan, Orban, Al-Sissi, Putin) will not leave economic structures of the companies unaffected. With the suppression of free speech in the political realm, facts becoming optional alternative facts and filter bubbles companies will not be able to hold a space for truthful and open speech, two core pillars of liberated companies in jeopardy
  • The prevailing mindset today is that of shareholder value, which is centered on making profits no matter what while still being legally compliant. With Liberation, managers got to pick up a trick: In order to achieve profits, it is better to approach the profit target indirectly,  obliquely: Do not go directly for the Sale or the cost cutting but manage by values. Sales and efficiency will follow.

In total: Not a pretty picture- the Imperial forces are strong, young padawan.

What can be Done?

The most often heard criticism of Liberated Companies is that it takes an enlightened benevolent dictator for it to succeed. A leader who holds the space for the values of the Agile Manifesto, for the 10 Habits of Liberated Companies and who allows people to implement Agile management practices.

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That kind of leader is hard to find. Plus, an organization running on liberal principles is inherently unstable, once its top leader changes (or changed her mind). This instability is even greater in Liberated Companies than in Command & Control Companies. Things like trust, open speech and individual autonomy and freedom to act are very fragile things, time-consuming to grow and very easily destroyed. In contrast to this, command and control organizations are much more stable: Everyone knows the rules, the direction might change with a new leader but the way work is done is almost never changing to a significant extent. People might need to learn a new trick to please their superior, yes. But not much more.

As long as there are private property rights, people remain entitled to run their companies (or delegate running their companies) the way they or the stock market wants. This won’t change over a foreseeable period.

Hold the space, young Padawan

Let me explain why I still think that liberation is worthwhile:

  • Every period of Liberation is likely to produce superior economic results
  • Everyone involved in a Liberated Organization picks up skills and mindsets, that will make it easier to work on a higher level for her at any point in time in the future
  • With every agile practice the DNA, the organizational memory of the Organization, evolves. A part of this DNA might become inactive for a time, but it can be reactivated

Meanwhile, we Corporate Rebels, Management 3.0 enthusiasts or Holacracy champions, need to work on achieving a tipping point. There definitely is momentum for Liberation within even the conventional business community, and the Liberation movement is getting at least nearer to a Tipping point:

  • There are more and more important multipliers embracing the values of Liberated Organizations, like for example Management Thinker Gary Hamel or Microsofts CEO Satya Nadella.
  • The staying power of the leading figures (e.g. Brian J. Robertson, Jurgen Appelo or Frederick Laloux) is strong and their number of energized followers is expanding
  • Liberated Organizations have all the hallmarks that deliver a deep sense of motivation to individuals: Innovation, Self-Fulfillment, Human Betterment and even Profits and Efficiency – what a package!

This package might feel too good to be true. But many inventions made people feel that way. Liberated Organizations are a social invention. Social inventions take more time than technical inventions to take root. But it might propel humans to new heights by enabling humanity to use our collective intelligence more systematically than ever before.

So young Padawan: Hold the space.  Embrace an Agile Mindset. Fill organizations with the 10 Habits of Liberated Organizations. Management Practice by Management Practice.

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This what I think. What do you think?

Sources:

0 comments on “Going Native: The Best Way to Link Traditional​ Companies and Start-ups”

Going Native: The Best Way to Link Traditional​ Companies and Start-ups

From a corporate perspective, the Startup world is chaotic, hard to understand, seemingly irrational and even irresponsible. Similar feelings come into play if just a unit inside a Company adopts Agile working principles, for example, an IT Unit adopting SCRUM as its project method.

It is here that the paradigm of Control & Predict meets the paradigm of Autonomy & Evolutionary Purpose. There are bound to be misunderstandings, crisis, conflicts, drama, and frustration in this interface between the traditional corporate world and the Start-up World.

Yet many Companies are rather inept dealing with this interface. A typical reaction is to assign a single point of contact (SPOC) by each supporting unit, such as IT, Logistics, Purchasing, Accounting or Legal to take care of any issue raised by the Startup. The well-meant message to the Startup is: “Do not worry. We will take care of your issues”. And so the trouble starts – boys and girls working for the startup usually:

  • Don’t know which question to ask. There are there for a mission, but the intricacies of e.g., corporate IT, Legal finesse or accounting laws are not their area of expertise nor their primary concerns. All their focus is to get a product with a viable business proposition off the ground
  • Don’t know how to formulate question, so that the experts in the supporting unit can understand it
  • Are not sure who should ask a question. In such a fluid way of working as a Start-up environment demands, responsibility can hardly be pinpointed to single person
  • Have other concerns. Yes, there might be this or that – for example – legal quirk with this or that decision, but this is often a secondary concern. Too many decisions need to be taken at a moments notice
  • Change their questions fast. Even if a question is formulated, with all the experimentation going on, there is no guarantee that the question will not be outdated tomorrow
  • Need answers real fast. A hierarchy, where there is an awareness that answers are nothing else than commitments, and commitments costs resources, needs a lot of time to come up with an answer. After all, the hierarchy is built for reliability and efficiency – not for speed and effectiveness

Giving these problems, the single point of contact model is doomed to fail.

Going Native

So what is the alternative to the SPOC model? It is not waiting for issues to be raised by someone in the Startup but integrating some co-workers deep in the Startup. Thereby those co-workers, which might be described as liaison officers, agents or advisors, stay  in the full context of the Start-up and are able:

  • to scout for issues with all their knowledge
  • to solve issues by directly addressing real or potential issues with their support unit
  • to work relive the tensions between the Supporting Unit and the Start-up

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Costs

The support unit has to dedicate the liaisons, which can be hard given that the liaisons will be the more effective, the more knowledgeable, the higher their social skills and the better their existing network is.

The Start-up has to accept an increase in their number of co-workers. If multiple supporting units do send liaisons, the number of persons to be integrated can be quite large. But Start-ups need to be close-knit teams where communication is plenty and relations are close and meaningful.

Therefore the liaisons should be integrated not into any single team of the start-up. In the open space facilities so typical of start-ups, the liaisons should have their own table. But they have the permission to change their desk to this or that team table from time to time, just like the situation demands it.

It is the liaison’s job to make themselves useful to the start-up, to seek meaningful work where the start-up team might not be able to identify it and be instrumental in solving it.

Conclusion: Time to move, HQ!

I think that going native is a very good option – after all, the agile way start-ups are working, with lots of experimentation and engagement, lights a way for the corporate world to change.

It is the corporate units that got to integrate into the new world of working- not vice versa.

“Going Native” allows this. It is challenging for the leadership of the support unit to be faced with this new way of working, that provides so much autonomy and decision making authority to the liaisons. But this is exactly what needs to be learned to survive in the digital age.

This is what I think. What do you think?

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Sources:

  • Kotter, John “Accelerate” 2014 – gives a good hunch what it takes to lead a conventional, command and control organization (first “operating system”) and simultaneously a second agile one (second operating system)

Special thanks to Holger Balderhaar for making me rethink my position on Kotter’s 2nd Operating system.