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Why Liberating Companies Is a Bad Idea

There are excellent reasons to be suspicious about an author who sets out to blast his own work, so you should certainly take this with a grain of salt. Still, what you will find in this post is an honest attempt to critique the thoughts spelled out in the soon to be released book “Liberated Companies.” 

Let’s start with a definition: 

A Liberated Company is a learning organization that evolves its work designs in a holistic manner towards a more egalitarian distribution of power. It aims to free people of oppression to put itself on the trajectory of technology, thereby maximizing its number of options over time. #liberatedcompany

Ready to shoot holes in it? Ready. Aim. Fire!

A) The claim to “liberate companies” is pretentious. 

Companies are coercive systems. By their very nature, they need people to submit to the needs of the company. Liberating people is unrealistic; it’s Anarchy. Companies need discipline and submission.

The Defense: If the way power is wielded in today’s companies is corrosive to a companies performance, and people’s and society’s wellbeing, liberation is indeed what is needed.

Agreed, a company needs to align people’s actions to its needs. But there are better ways to achieve that alignment than the formula “money for submission.” In a more and more knowledge-driven and dynamic economy, people’s creative problem-solving potential goes to waste, if an organization does not utilize people’s intrinsic motivation. Running companies on coercion or incentives is outdated.

Yet, liberation is a weak term. It describes the release of some constraints, but it does not represent the target itself. If the current way of running companies is to be replaced with something, what is it? It is undoubtedly not Anarchy, as Anarchy is often understood as an absence of rules. 

In a liberated company there are, actually, more rules than in traditional, more hierarchical companies. These rules are there to regulate the distribution of power between people so that everyone in an organization becomes more powerful while still enabling decisive action and focus of effort.

Companies need discipline and submission. But that discipline and the submission is to rules, not towards superior managers. The paradox of liberated companies is that, as a rule of thumb, the more liberated organizations are, the more regulations (in the form of work designs) they have. The crucial point to understand is that freedom is not the absence of regulation. Instead, freedom is the balance between autonomy and loyalty – between managing and being managed. In a traditional organization, that balance is out of whack, as most people are being managed instead of being in charge of their own work. 

We need to use work designs more deliberately to correct this imbalance. Which brings us to the second critique.

 B) Work designs are secondary: All it takes is excellent leadership – everything else will follow suit. 

Great leaders know what works and whatnot. They will come up with the right organization on their own initiative. It is their decisiveness and strategic thinking that is all-important to a company.

The Defense: Are we not beyond the strong man theory of management?

The strong man theory has all but been debunked in management and organizational research. The systems of work used in a company (and its expressions, the mindsets of coworkers, and the culture of a company) are more important than any individual, and be that the CEO. Chapter two of the book “Liberated Companies” lists all the evidence.

C) The concept of work designs is too fluffy, too open for interpretation, to be actionable.

Just look at the list of work designs on the Liberated Company Map: How can work hack’s like Kanban Boards, or the Advice Process change companies for the scale? All these work designs are not even solidly defined – they mean different things to different people.

The Defense: You got to deal with the complexity of businesses. To remain blind-sighted is not a good option.

Agreed, there are no norms for work designs, and no single work design is likely to be truly important for a company. Yet, any company is made up of work designs, and progressive companies evidently use different ones than traditional companies. Plus, they use more of them and in a more deliberate manner. The evidence about this in academic studies about progressive companies is hard to ignore. 

No work design will likely ever be precisely the same in two companies. That is not what is needed, what is ultimately crucial that work designs are used in a manner and composition to create a self-supporting configuration of work-designs.  

Reality is messy. Still, this shouldn’t keep us from describing the patterns we see in companies and develop a model to get to grips with this complexity. Work Designs, the Liberated Company Map, the 11 Principles of Liberated Companies, and others are all elements of such a model.

D) Well, work designs and liberation might be a thing – but there are more important things to focus on in businesses.

Product Innovation, Business Model Design, Talent Management, Restructuring, Systems Implementation, Cost-cutting, Growth, Business Transformation is all more important. All these initiatives have direct impacts on companies’ survival. Organizational efforts might be useful, but work more indirectly and are therefore of lesser priority.

The Defense: (i) The point is not to stop these initiatives but to supplement them with organizational measures that foster their success: More liberated work designs.

Every business initiative has an organizational dimension to it. After all, what else are business initiatives than people collaborating with another? No matter what a business is up to, it should do it by using the most ingenious work designs it can come up with. So the question is not to delay any necessary initiative but to use it as a vehicle to start weaving more liberated work designs into their very fabric.   

The Defense (ii) Liberating companies is more than a supplement to business initiatives: It is a worthy target on its own. 

Many companies struggle to get to grips with the digital age. In chapter one, “The Trajectory of Technology,” I argue that companies can be made much more technophile, i.e., able to absorb technologies and put them to good use, by adopting more adequate work designs.

Did I deflect all critiques? I do not think so, and I do not believe that I ever will. The concepts laid down in liberated companies are just a model, and there will be better ones in the future. Hell, there might even be better, more accurate, and more practical models out there today. If you know one, let me know.

That’s it for this post. “Liberated Companies- How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.” will be in stores at the end of this month. 

Stay in touch by subscribing to this blog.

More details can be found on www.liberated.company.

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How to Liberate a Company

Suppose you have embraced the following three truths:

  1. To truly engage people, with all their capabilities you need to distribute power between people more equally 
  2. To truly utilize technology, with all the unique solutions it can provide, you need to unleash the creative problem-solving potential of people at all levels in an organization
  3. Psychological Safety, Mindfulness, System Thinking – three significant tenets of every healthy organization – can not be achieved by appeals; instead, you need to weave them into the day to day work designs of a company

Armed with these beliefs, you are ready to liberate your company or team. There are two different, complementary ways to do that. Bottom-up or top-down.

Bottom-Up Liberation: The Company Board

There are five steps to do that:

  1. List and visualize your current work designs
  2. Learn about new work designs
  3. Experiment with some promising work designs
  4. Evaluate Work Designs together
  5. Adopt those that work for your organization – discard those that don’t
  6. Repeat & Evolve

The Liberated Company Map is a great tool to list and visualize your current work designs. Besides, it is useful to learn about the plethora of possibilities, their interdependences concerning the level of power inequalities existing in your organization, and the risk you expose yourself to in the experiment.

The Liberated Company Map

While the Liberated Company Map is a map of the current all work designs of a company or team, a second tool is useful to show and track the dynamics of the experimentation process: The Company Board. The company board is a KANBAN board in which columns show the stage that a work design is in, from idea, to test, to evaluation, to adopted or discarded. The key to working with the company board is to let everyone bring up the work design she or he likes to try – everyone at their own pace. Work designs are not mandated, but they are discussed and evaluated openly before a decision is made to include them into the DNA of work designs of a company. 

The Company Board

I have worked with customers who skipped step one and jumped directly into action two without too much upfront deliberation. That worked fine, also. The crucial thing in this bottom-up process is to evaluate and decide on adopting work designs together (steps 4 and 5). While this or that work hack can enter one’s personal portfolio of work techniques, the major work designs that organizations use should be aligned. Having a “zoo” of work designs is confusing, counterproductive, and ultimately doomed to fail. There needs to be consistency in the overall work designs of an organization.

Bottom-up Liberation works like a charm because it brings order to all the Agile, New Work, Work Hack, or other management initiatives that exist in a company. It provides a holistic picture of how work is done in a company, from the simple status meeting to complex decision-making procedures, and a way to evolve it. Even better, it lets people experience that it is worthwhile to re-think the ways they work together or manage.

Most of my clients choose to do iterate and evolve their work designs in three-month cycles. That’s one 4 hour workshop every three months. Compare this tiny investment with the cost of never reflecting holistically about the way people work together at all. After twenty-five years me being in the business of organizational development, I never experienced something as effective.

Top-Down Liberation: The Themes

But all is not well. Bottom-up Liberation is excellent to get started and evolve companies or teams, but it sometimes is not intentional enough. A company is a living system, but it also a target-oriented system. The intention of a company, its purposes, should be reflected in its overall configuration of work designs.

Bottom-up experimentation with work designs will definitely make a company better but is not a surefire way to link a vision or strategy to the inner workings of a company. A certain amount of top-down design is needed to inject intentionality into the bottom-up, evolutionary process.

These kinds of top-down interventions into organizations are quite tricky. Managers, Researchers, and organizational design practitioners have been pondering about providing optimal work environments intensively since the days of Stafford Beer, the father of cybernetic design of organizations, in the 1960s. “Cybernetic design” is really just a fancy phrase for the quest to learn how to provide a good or productive work environment. Its basic premise is that you can design an environment in a way that it best supports the purpose of a company, by manipulating all the social and psychological strengths and vulnerabilities of people in a professional manner. 

It is certainly not for lack of trying, but even today, effective cybernetic is as rare as it is ethically dubious. So, how can top-down liberation work? After analyzing progressive organizations, I got a hunch. Each of these organizations seems to have an underlying theme to the way it had configured itself with work designs. While the theme might not have been apparent at the start of a company, I think it can be clearly discerned in their current configuration of work designs.

Some companies are about decisions (like Bridgewater, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds), others about entrepreneurship (like Haier, a world-class manufacturer of appliances), and others still about service (like Buurtzorg, a 14.000 healthcare company). 

The question is, what is your company (or team) about? I have dissected this high-level question into five major ideas:

  1. The idea of Technology: What’s the role that technology has in your company?
  2. The idea of Performance: What constitutes good performance for your company?
  3. The idea of Ruling: How is power wielded and distributed between people?
  4. The idea of Work: What exactly is work in your company i.e., what are the criteria that should play a role when selecting work designs?
  5. The idea of Life: What does it mean to lead a meaningful life while being a part of your company?
What are your and what are your organizations deeply held ideas?

Of course, there are many other ideas possible, but I think that those five ideas describe essential underlying themes around which companies can be built. Even better: Around which companies can configure their work designs too – like the four companies listed in the table below did.

A comparison of one traditional and three progressive companies

You can start at any level

As explained in this post, you can begin the journey of liberation anywhere in a company, at any level, at the top of companies, somewhere in middle management, or at the team level. Both bottom-up and top-down avenues to liberation are possible at any level. However, the lower you are on the hierarchical level, the more restricted your options to use work design are, and the more your themes need to be aligned to the overall organization.

That’s it for the post. “Liberated Companies- How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age.” will be in stores at the end of this month.

Stay in touch by subscribing to this blog.

More details can be found on www.liberated.company.

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The Trajectory of Technology

“Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age” will be published at the end of this month. The book begins with turning a question that many company leaders ask on it’s head:

It’s not what technology can do for a company – it’s what companies can do to no longer stand in the way of technology.

I hope you like the following excerpt.


Chapter One: The Trajectory of Technology

So, you tell me that you are taking your company digital? I want to hear your idea of technology, not that you introduced this or that app… – Paraphrased from Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1891)[1]

To devise an organizational design that works well in a world increasingly dominated by technology, one has to understand two things. First, we must grasp the essence of technological progress, the direction in which it is leading us—in short, we must understand the “wants” of technology. Second, as technology and humans become ever more closely intertwined, we must ask: how do humans and technology flourish together? Let’s save the first question for later and answer the second question first. 

The three ways of understanding technology

Old truth: technology is just a tool

A hammer, a coffee machine, or a smartphone app is a tool, a technology that we are using. Humans use these tools to manipulate the world around them, to get results. Natural problem-solvers that we are, we look around for the best tool to assist our efforts. If the tool is available, we simply need the skill to use it, and our lives will be easier. The basic thinking of many people in business is similar: tools help to solve problems. All we need to do is to make a tool available to workers and train them how to use it. 

But is this really true? Of course not. For as long as technology has existed, the relationship between tools and people has never been a one-way street. Humans invented and used tools, and their use shaped human culture. No technology was ever inconsequential to human mindsets, values, social systems, even the rise and fall of empires. Anthropologists even divide cultures according to their tools: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Age of the Sail, and Information Age, to name a few. The impact of tools doesn’t have to be as dramatic as gunpowder or printing; even the inconspicuous coffee machine intervenes in the way we structure our day, determines where and when we gather, takes up a prominent place in our homes, changes our biological mode of operation by drugging us slightly, and sends many of us into fits of rage when dysfunctional. 

Tools have shaped us into what we are today. There is every reason to believe that with ever more technology available, the more and more we are shaped by it. As Marshall McLuhan is often attributed to have said, “We shape our tools and thereafter tools shape us.”

Even more true: technology as a maker of decisions

People in companies have already lost control over many things they used to do. In the information age, companies have delegated many tasks to complex systems, be it in production, distribution, accounting, or sales. These systems are so complex that no single person knows what the systems are really doing. Even teams of experts often struggle to make sense of the sheer complexity of modern systems—a fact that is clearly visible in the high failure rates of modern software projects. Humans have set up these systems, but are they fully in control? Are they making the decisions? Our control is limited by design because we want the machines to take over our work, to automate much of what is happening. The algorithms humans have set up mesh with other algorithms to produce the outcomes that we want, and we tend to understand less and less of their inner workings and true complexity. Still, we choose to rely on them out of necessity. 

How much will we be in control tomorrow? Certainly less, as artificial intelligence becomes more pervasive in the workplace. The more we utilize technology, the more that technology will make decisions for us: today, it simple deterministic decisions, those that can be easily automated; tomorrow, more complex decisions, those requiring judgment. Without experts to act as translators between business and technology—be they engineers or highly specialized functional experts in logistics and accounting, for instance—modern businesses could not exist today. Yet even experts are limited in their ability to control, as it takes five things to be in control of complex systems.[2]

This is a five-point recipe for making solid decisions about complex matters. The better an organization is able to apply this recipe, the more it will prosper. The trouble is that hierarchical companies find it hard to apply this recipe effectively, for the following reasons:

Major power differentials between people are systematically detrimental to making sense of complex systems, and this defect has grave consequences. As technology becomes increasingly complex and important for the survival of companies, conventional hierarchical companies will be less and less able to benefit from technology. 

New truth: technology as a co-worker

As Kevin Kelly mentions in his book, What Technology Wants, “technology is an independent force in itself. Nobody is in control now and humanity will be less in control tomorrow. The technium is already whispering to itself.”[3]

Today, most companies are already so complex that decisions are made by a mixture of humans and machines. In companies like Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Facebook, most day-to-day business decisions are made by algorithms in real-time. Have you ever tried to talk to their “customer service people”? Overwhelmingly, the product itself, in the form of some specialized algorithm, is in charge of customer interactions—and those algorithms are doing their job extremely well. Much better than the customer service peoples of cable or telecom companies usually do.

People inside technologically advanced companies tend to work more on maintaining and experimenting with algorithms. The algorithm becomes a co-worker—one that is extremely skilled in specific functions. Humans specialize in those things that they are more adept at, such as the holistic perception of contexts and setting purposeful directions. AI researchers have concluded that humans in the digital age will be an asset to any company, as they supply a certain form of specialized intelligence.[4] Supplemented by all the multiple forms of intelligence that AI has to offer, the human-algorithm team can achieve much more than either can alone. Take chess, for example. There is no human on earth today who is able to beat modern chess programs. However, in tournaments where humans are allowed to play assisted by AI, the combination of human and machine tends to beat AI that is not supported by humans. There may, of course, come a point in the future when human interference in chess AI will no longer increase but may actually impair performance, but business is much more complex than chess—its rules are much more fluid, and its streams of information are much more ambiguous. In the context of businesses, human intelligence and machine intelligence are likely to have a productive relationship for a longer period. If humans and machines are more and more equal co-workers, the companies that benefit will be those that manage to create a work environment that fosters this cooperation. 

Today, we work and live with companies that are a reaction to the challenges of the industrial age, and the work-environment design that best suited industrial technologies was bureaucracy. Bureaucracy replaced charismatic domination with legal domination, replaced haphazard arrangements with standardized processes and a clear hierarchical way of making decisions that was focused on analytics, efficiency, consistent outputs, and reduction of waste.[5] At the time of its invention, bureaucracy was considered an antidote to bad management. Max Weber, a German sociologist credited with “inventing” bureaucracy, wrote in 1922 that “organizations are shaped by the relentless march of technological and managerial reality.”[6]

Today we face the relentless march of the algorithm. There is so much benefit inherent in algorithms that we adapt our beliefs, behaviors, values, and social norms) to them, personally, socially, and in companies. According to Max Weber, technology puts us in an “iron cage”: we are defined by technology and will be redefined every time technology changes. In the industrial revolution, the “iron cage” trapped individuals in systems of efficiency, rational analysis, top-down control, and digressional power. Now, with the rise of dematerialized digital technologies and artificial intelligence, we feel the need to adapt our ways once again in order to catch up with technology.

If technology is rapidly evolving and technologies are quickly becoming obsolete, today’s challenge for humanity is not to align itself to any single new technology, but rather to find a method to keep evolving its cooperation with technology continuously and forever. Companies need a work design that is so sensitive and adaptable that technological and social innovation at the workplace occurs naturally and permanently. It is not enough to understand individual technologies: the internet of things, social media, 3D printing, virtual reality, block-chain, self-driving cars, big data, cloud systems, or AI, to name a few emergent technologies of the last decade alone. To overcome the challenge of building a design for human, social, and technological cooperation that is able to flourish in ever more technologically driven times, we need to understand what technology wants and how a company can serve these needs best.

The Trajectory of Technology

Company leaders often ask: What does our company want from technology? How can technology help our company to be more competitive? To answer these questions, companies engage in all kinds of futuristic ideation workshops, creative sessions, company visits, and pilgrimages to Silicon Valley or coastal China. They declare success if they have identified or implemented or invested in this technology or that start-up. This is naïve.

The really important question to ask is: What does technology want from companies? This is an unusual question. Can technology “want” something? There are some thinkers, like Ray Kurzweil, who predict that a “singularity” will occur around 2045[7]—a point where machines become sentient to such an extent that they will be able to self-construct. A point where the power of the kingdom of technology outstrips the power of the kingdom of biology, to which we humans belong. That point will be a point of no return for the human race—a singularity. 

The chances are high that technology will become more independent in the future. Machines are becoming sentient in unexpected ways—it may not be that machines will trump the general versatility of biological human intelligence in the coming years, but machines are already coming up with alien forms of intelligence that make them superior for many specific applications. Recommendation engines determine what we buy, filter algorithms determine how we perceive reality, navigation apps shape the way we experience geography. The sheer numbers of proliferating specialized forms of intelligences are replacing more and more areas where our generalist human intelligence once reigned. Over time, the area where we use our human intelligence will become increasingly focused. This process has already begun. 

What I am getting at here is something else. We know from systems theory that complex systems develop emergent properties, which are behaviors that are revealed on an aggregate level but cannot be observed in any single component of the system. The system of biology, as an example, always moves towards greater specialization of species in a process of evolution determined by its inherent characteristics. The biochemical algorithms surrounding DNA shape the trajectory of biology, pointing toward what biology wants.

The system of technology can be visualized in the same way. Instead of biochemical realities, technology is based on the physical and mathematical realities that the world is made of. The laws of physics and mathematics are the algorithms that technology uses to progress. At first, that may sound outlandish. After all, if my computer bothers me, I can cut its power supply. But I can’t unplug the whole system of technology, everything that surrounds us and that is manmade. No one can unplug the internet. And the more the internet of things becomes a reality, the less it will be possible to disconnect physical reality from virtual reality. 

More shocking and significant is that we do not want to unplug technology because we are already a part of it. The American author Kevin Kelly, who is known as the philosopher of Silicon Valley, has devoted most of his adult life to thinking and writing about technology. Kelly uses his own definition of technology, the Technium, which he defines as “the accumulation of stuff, lore, practices, traditions, and of choices that allow an individual human to generate and participate in a greater number of ideas.”[8]

The Technium is made up of technology and humans. Our current culture still holds onto a human-centric view of the universe—a view that puts the rational human mind in control of technology. But in academia it is generally accepted today that no human, no institution, absolutely no one is in control of technology.[9] Technology is an independent force that worms its way forward as a result of technical, social, political, psychological and commercial forces. It is a system that has inert wants, just as biological evolution has. The wants of technology have been making themselves felt for decades and can only become more prominent over time, especially after artificial intelligence becomes sentient.

Today, many companies are lumbering slowly along the technological highway, only to be smashed by Amazon, smashed by Airbnb, smashed by Netflix, smashed by online pure-plays with their data and algorithms. It can be argued that these major successful companies today do not stand in the way of technology but are simply traveling on the same trajectory as technology. What if we could find a way of organizing a company where the use of technology proliferates naturally? Where the technological, social, and commercial spheres establish self-reinforcing feedback loops and evolve together? That company would be on the same trajectory as technology—and it would be a very powerful design for a company indeed.

To sketch a work design of the future, more is needed than just looking at today’s technologies; sn understanding of the inner workings of technology as a whole is required. So, what does technology want? Kevin Kelly has discerned a number of directions that technology works towards that together make up what he terms the “trajectory of technology” (Table 1). Let’s go through this list and consider its implications for the work design of a company.[10]

Technology wants efficiency

Technology loves efficiency. The more efficient a technology gets, the more it begets other technologies. Take electric cars, for example, which only became a mass-market option with more efficient batteries. Or virtual reality, which was invented in 1989 but became viable only when high-resolution smartphone screens became cheaply available in the 2010s.

Humans are in love with efficiency, too. Efficiency has been our faithful companion since the industrial revolution, and it won’t leave us now that we have passed into the digital age. Efficiency is clarity; it is rational and comforting in a world of uncertainty. Efficiency gives us a problem to solve. Dealing with the brother of efficiency—effectiveness—is much more tedious. Effectiveness, which is about choosing what to do rather than how to do it, comes with too many options and is less rationally computable for us than efficiency. It is not only humans’ laziness that lets us seek efficiency; it is technology itself that seeks efficiency. The quest for ever more efficient solutions is one we share with technology. Companies will continue to seek efficiency today and tomorrow. The change is that there will be much more potential to find efficiencies as technology has more and more to offer over time. Therefore, the way work is done in companies—their “work design,” a term we will use extensively throughout this book—needs to adapt more and more often. Organizing must become more of a process of evolution and less of an incremental exercise.

Technology wants opportunity

Over time, technologies offer more and more opportunities to do things differently. The Amazon bookstore begot the Amazon marketplace, which begot Amazon Prime, Kindle Unlimited, and Amazon Dash, which begot Amazon Web Services, and so on. The peer-to-peer file-sharing technology underpinning Napster begot the streaming mediums of Youtube, Netflix, and Spotify, which begot advanced artificial intelligence used for recommendations, which begot social collaboration on videos and music with friends. Youtube, Netflix, and Spotify in turn became possible because of cloud technologies such as those offered by Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and similar cloud services that offered server capacity on demand.

As options for technologies to progress increases, so too does the number of options companies have for solving problems. This is increasingly true not only for the design of products but also for the way companies do their internal work. In the 1990s, companies grew a nervous system for the processing of information, called enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, in the form of packages like SAP or Oracle. These core systems contributed a great deal to a company’s ability to go global and outsource work. Today, web technology has joined ERP systems as the backbone of internal and external collaboration, enabling real-time business and new forms of combining humans and algorithms into new creative solutions.

As we discussed earlier, humans are problem-solvers. Companies are always desperate for better solutions, and technology provides them. An organizational design that is to stand the test of the technological tsunami must ensure that people are aware of the solutions technology has to offer. The need for more opportunity is the same for technology, for companies, and for people: they all want more opportunities. It is up to the work design of a company to transform opportunity into benefits. If people feel encouraged to be on the lookout for new opportunities, can conduct experiments without fear of failure, and have the autonomy to decide on their own to include this or that technology in their daily work, the needs of technology and companies will be aligned.

Technology wants diversity and specialization

One technology begets another, but no technology will ever go away. They stick with us as part of the Technium, forever offering an option of how to do things. Even once-obsolete technologies may be rediscovered and suddenly become attractive again if they are combined with new technologies. The Technium never forgets.

More than that, technologies come in multiple variants. For example, they change form according to their area of application. Google’s search algorithms are both similar and different for searching pictures, videos, geographies, or medical scans.[11] They are similar to and different from filter algorithms used by Facebook, Tinder, or Amazon. Every technology is adapted to the specifics of a situation and becomes ever more specialized, thereby increasing diversity.

The more diverse and specialized the technologies on offer are, the more decentralized and varied a company must become to make good use of the richness of the technological environment—more varied than can be supported by company hierarchies, which are designed to suppress variance, as we shall see in Chapter 2: The Corrosive Impact of Power Differentials.

Technology wants complexity

Technology is one of the main reasons why doing business is becoming more and more complex. Companies must organize themselves in such a way as to handle this complexity, but ever-increasing complexity cannot be controlled; it can only be worked with. Failures will be unavoidable, but research has shown that competent people who are in close proximity with technology, and who are authorized to make decisions, can prevent failures from becoming disasters.[12] Two proven methods to increase a company’s ability to handle complexity are to let the people who are closest to the problem make the decisions, and to ensure that they are competent. Give them competence and freedom, then trust them to act.

Technology wants emergence and sentience

Handling the increasing complexity caused by technology is difficult—so we use technology to stay on top of it. Intelligent agents that keep technologies in check are already at work in every smartphone, every computer center, in cloud systems, in medical systems, or in routing algorithms at call centers. Companies specialized in this field are mostly hidden from public view but are worth billions of dollars. Take ServiceNow, a company that came from nothing in 2014 and is now valued at US$50 billion in 2019. Their business model is to provide companies with the capability to stay on top of their sprawling IT operations, no matter whether the workers are humans or machines. 

Technology will increasingly be running itself in the coming years. Indeed, it has already taken on a life of its own, and determining where sentience starts is an open-ended debate. Some think it starts with intelligent, self-organizing behavior that apparently works but that we are unable to fully understand. We will be using more and more algorithms and intelligent assistants over time. Kelly and others predict that the benefits we are able to give to our organizations will crucially depend upon our ability to collaborate with machines. A work design for the digital age must provide an environment where people can get acquainted with their new technological companions and quickly adapt to the fast pace of change.

Technology wants ubiquity and freedom

Technologies, even dangerous ones, spread no matter what we do. There is no way to control the very real problem of nuclear proliferation, for instance, but there are less dramatic examples. The so-called “washing nuts”—the fruits of the Sapindus saponaria—have been used by local communities in India for thousands of years, but they recently became popular in Western households seeking more sustainable ways of cleaning fabric. Demand for them caused prices to rise so much that Indian communities were forced to switch to “modern” washing powder. Any technology, old or new, spreads. 

Companies align themselves with technologies’ desire for ubiquity by making it easy for technologies to both enter and flow forth from the company: they pull in technology by making it easy for people or units to observe and adapt whatever technology other people, units, or companies are using, and they also let technologies travel from the inside to the outside. Why should a company share its technologies with the outside? The more technologies change, the less a single technology represents a competitive advantage for any prolonged period. Technologies become stale if they are cut off from contact with the outside world; if outside observers cannot scrutinize a technology, if insiders cannot freely discuss its merits and opportunities, its full potential benefits will fail to develop. There will still be a case for secrecy in areas where technological progress is not fast—such as preserving the recipe for a vintage drink like Coca Cola—but in most other cases, openness and the freedom for technology to spread in all directions is a better choice. More and more options become available to an organization that is open to the spread of technology. Freedom begets options begets progress. 

It takes an open organization to let technology proliferate. The primary mechanism for this is to make it easy for people at all levels to take a break from their close colleagues and explore other technologies “out there,” then come back and synthesize their findings at home.[13]

Technology wants mutualism and structure 

Technologies build (and rely) upon each other. A car’s navigation, parking, and voice control systems rely on its electrical systems, which in turn rely on the car’s mechanical systems. Technologies are mutually dependent, and the more advanced the technology, the more dependent it is. 

However, there are two traits that a successful technology—one that spreads—must show. First, it must be reliable. Those technologies prone to breakage are unlikely to spawn new technologies or combine with other technologies to form more complex solutions. Second, its structure must be easy for those interacting with it to understand. Today’s phone apps, for example, are only so ubiquitous because they are built on very stable operating systems (ioS, Android) and developers can access the published library of Application Programmable Interfaces (APIs) released by Apple or Google. Another, more low-tech example is the way that a light bulb interacts with the electrical grid. It can only do its job because it can rely on a stable grid with well-described properties and because its socket conforms to mechanical norms.

In the digital age, work designs need to be geared towards creating combinations of human and technological activity. Therefore, they must cater to experimentation, playfulness, and local variation while still providing a high level of reliability.

Technology wants evolvability and beauty

The result of all of the above is that technology will necessarily evolve. Becoming both ever more efficient and increasingly complex, it will create more opportunities, greater diversity, and more specialized uses. It will show more forms of sentient behavior, will increase freedom, and will rely on and be relied upon by other stable, structured technologies.

Kelly argues that technological evolution and biological evolution are very similar. The specialization of species, the striving of all life forms to become ubiquitous, and the ever-increasing complexity of biological systems is not unlike the process of technological evolution that we have been exploring. The biggest difference between these two types of evolution is that biological evolution is much, much slower. Biological evolution is bound by the realm of biochemistry and scarce resources. Technological evolution is not bound by any material constraints; it is only limited by the laws of physics and mathematics. Technological evolution happens in a realm of abundance; biological evolution happens in a realm of scarcity.

The implications are quite shocking. There is no way that technological evolution will not outpace biological evolution. That means that humans will need to cut loose from their biological origins and humanity will need to come to grips with artificial forms of intelligence that will become ever-more superior. Humans and technology are players on the same team, however. It’s likely that they will become closer and closer entwined.[14] In humanity’s fight to gain dominance over nature and biology, technology has always been our greatest ally. 

Of course, with the limits of our planet so clearly visible, the time has come for us to stop fighting with biology. After all, we are biological creatures, and continuing to fight against biology is likely to get us all killed. It is time to change our ways through a better understanding of holistic ecosystems.[15] Technology can be our ally if we stop using it to overpower biological systems.

Positioning companies on the trajectory of technology

How can a company align itself with a trajectory of technology that calls for continual evolution? The answer is simple: it needs to evolve, too. However, evolution is something totally different than the typical corporate transformation programs of today. A traditional change program follows a number of steps: (1) decide on a vision for the company; (2) assess the status quo; (3) determine the delta between vision and status quo; (4) create an implementation plan; and (5) execute this plan, which usually requires people to be trained, processes and systems to be established, and accountabilities restructured. Five years on, however, the company usually ends up with an outdated vision, implementation that has become bogged down, and a general sense of disillusionment. The classic change program, though rational and controllable, is a relic of the industrial age. It has four fundamental flaws that render it obsolete in the digital age:

1 Reliance on prediction. It assumes that the future can be predicted.

2 Assumption of no important unknowns. It assumes that this vision can be broken down through a rational process into an implementation plan.

3 Assumption of rational agents. It assumes that people at the top have the objective ability to sense what’s needed for both vision and implementation.

4 Assumption of relative stability. It assumes a period of stability after the change has been made so that all implementation costs can be recouped.

An evolutionary work design is quite different. It rests on the following four assumptions: [16]

Reliance on mental models: Multiple predictions are great for building mental models that prepare for the possibilities that the future holds. 

Assumption of fundamental learnings. There are very important things to learn that we are not even aware of. A high-level yet meaningful organizational mission is enough to give direction to the evolution of a company. Visions become more like forecasts, repeated along the way, and less like directions.

Assumption of collective intelligence. Individual actors are even better if they support themselves. A company’s work design must be open and transparent so everyone can sense technological, market, or customer needs.

Assumption of fluidity. The future consists both of stability and change of any magnitude. We don’t know how long stability will last, nor do we know how fundamental a change will be. But we do know that we need to be prepared. 

Biological evolution brings to life highly complex things that humans often call beautiful: zebras and giraffes on the savannah, a flock of geese in flight, meadows filled with flowers. In the same sense, technological evolution brings about beautiful things through its evolutionary drive: virtual worlds, beautiful tableware, sleek cars. The chances are that organizational evolution will bring about companies that we experience as beautiful, too. Places where people are free to invent, to heed their inner calling, to look after others, to contribute to the world with less fear of oppression.

As a very earth-bound North German, I need to add a caveat here. Evolution brings about many highly specialized things that we do not classify as beautiful: cockroaches, bed bugs, intestinal worms. There will also be ugly, exploitative organizations. However, organizational evolution will make sure that the safari will be much more colorful than ever before. 

*** That concludes this excerpt of “Liberated Companies”. If you enjoyed it, consider signing up to this blog to stay connected.


[1] (Nietzsche, 1974)

[2] Adapted from (Silver, 2012). Silver describes what a good forecast is built upon. I think that this list is applicable to the management of any complex system.

[3] (Kelly, 2011)

[4] (Kelly, 2011)

[5] (Birkinshaw, 2012)

[6] (Weber, 2019)

[7] (Kurzweil, 2006)

[8] (Kelly, 2011)

[9] (Harari, 2016)

[10] (Kelly, 2011)

[11] To get an impression, skim through the AI Services offered by Amazon Web Services today. All these world-class algorithms are available today, for everyone. https://aws.amazon.com/machine-learning/)

[12] (Spears, 2010).

[13] (Pentland, 2014)

[14] Historian Yuval Harari believes the emergence of “super humans” is likely—that is, humans augmented with technology in ways that make them significantly less human. (Harari, 2016)

[15] (Raworth, 2017)

[16] The list is inspired by (Sanford, 2017).

0 comments on “Great Books on Designing Work in the Digital Age”

Great Books on Designing Work in the Digital Age

During 2018 I become unsure if “management” is still a thing. I was suspicious of the word “leadership” before – after all, there are far more people wanting to lead than to those who want to follow.

The aspect of management which become suspect to me is the notion that people must be managed. Things surely need to be organized in order to reach anything meaningful but do people need to be managed? Isn’t it enough to build an environment where people can prosper and organize themselves as deem best to reach the target of the company?  Is the provision of an organizational environment still management or should it better be called work design?

Now, on the 1st of January 2019, I tend towards ditching the term “management” and talk about “work-design” more. Words matter and people often have either a negative connotation of management or an attitude towards management that leads to overbearing behavior.

In the digital age is might often be wiser to think of yourself as a work-designer than a manager.

That way you might keep yourself from interfering too much.

New Years Day is a great time to reflect on the past year. As most of my time in 2018 has been devoted to reading and writing about “organizing companies in the digital age”, I decided to update my list of favorite books on this big topic.  The ones that most influenced my thinking can be found on top of the list

GreatBooks.png

Legend:

  • Grey Background: Essential Reads
  • Yellow Highlight: New Entries in 2018
  • Green Highlight: Books which I came to value more in 2018 – they took time to take root in my thoughts
  • Red Highlights: Books which I came to value less in 2018 – these are still very good books, though

Books that Describe the Workings of the Individual Mind

This Category is about Mindfulness,  Vulnerability, Bias,  Mental Focus and all those things that make up the intrinsic motivation of people. What has proved to be quite consequential in my daily work is “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. I think that the ability to deeply focus is not only a personal working technique – it is a quintessential design criterion of an organization seeking to maximize improve knowledge work.

Books about Teams

Oh my, how many years did I delay reading the works of Robert J. Hackman. His work has been cited so often and everywhere, that I thought I already knew everything Mr. Hackman had to teach. How mistaken have I been! “Leading Teams” by Robert J. Hackman is a must read. As is Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming”, which is delivering important underpinnings to ones understanding of teams from the realm of psychology.

“SCRUM” by Jeff Sutherland is still a great book, but I became a lot more skeptical about the rigidity of the method and the dogmatic way SCRUM it is used. SCRUM is so often executed with no understanding to its inner working, that it lends itself pretty well to being corrupted with the conventional, corrosive workings of excessive power differentials between people. Often SCRUM becomes a method of exploitative productivity rather than customer value and excellence.

Books about Organization

Henry Mintzberg fortified his position on the top spot in my mind in this category with his extremely wise book “Simply Managing”. I don’t think that anyone will come close to that. But be warned: Simply Managing does not, despite the title, supply any recipe for management. Rather, you will end up not knowing what to do now in face of all the complexity.

The same feeling will haunt you after you have finished Philp Rosenzweig’s “The Halo Effect”: Crushing complexity and no easy solutions.  Do not despair – hope is just two columns to the right: Liberated Companies.

Books about Digitalization

So many things are written about Digitalization, yet so little new is added. Over the last year, I came to value the challenges posed by the intersection of technological challenges (Companies IT-infrastructure and IT-Architectures) and the way that people are organized more and more: The collaboration of Man and Machine. I came to value these seemingly so techie topics of “DevOps” and “Continous Delivery” even more. Although the understanding of those topics requires quite a bit of insight on the work of software engineers, I believe more and more that there is no alternative for managers than to understand tech.

Digitalization without understanding Technology from a genuine Technology perspective is crucial –  a User/ Strategist/Entrepreneur perspective alone is not enough.

Managers, Organizers, Work designer – however, you might call them to need to immerse themselves in the realm of technology or be left out.

Sorry about that, you techno-agnostic writers on digitalization or you organizational psychologists. It far from “nerdy” to know what “DevOps” is. I am convinced that understanding concepts like DevOps is a necessity is a technology to lead companies in a technology-saturated world.

Books about Liberated Companies

What Laloux manages to deliver on examples and theories, Peter Block underpins with spiritual insight in “Stewardship“. The discovery of the word “spiritual” was central for me in 2018, as all more advanced organizations need people to hold open space where performance can prosper, where people can self-direct themselves more.  And the conviction that “holding open a space for self-management” is worthwhile doesn’t come out of the blue. It is, strangely enough, a spiritual process.

Now, “spiritual” is not a word often used in management literature. Yet a state of mind naturally precedes any action. A wonderful example which is focused on ACTION but is essentially a spiritual journey is delivered by David Marquet’s “Turn the Ship Around“. A book about a nuclear attack submarine and its crew – a setting like in a Tom Clancy thriller.

If you want something futuristic to read, read Yangfeng Cao’s “The Haier Model”: Haier’s organizational model is probably the most sophisticated company on earth.

Books About Work Designs

The skeleton of today’s companies is the hierarchy and the process. With self-management on the rise, the hierarchy will be replaced with work-designs that ensure checks and balances that allow people to govern themselves. Some of these work designs can be gleaned from the books on Liberated Companies or Teams. Deeper insights into microstructures that make up work can be found in books like “Liberating Structures” from Keith McCandless et al. It is full of practical recipes, too.

Books about Strategy

A company is a purposeful system and cannot be seen disconnected from its purpose. That is why understanding strategy is important for anyone in charge of organizing. A strategy is nothing else than the way for a company to work towards its purpose. Therefore, read Henry Mintzberg’s “Strategy Safari” if you want to manage purposefully – and you want to show those consultants of McKinsey’s and Boston Consulting Group how outdated their analytical way of approaching strategy really is.

Books about Data Science

In a VUCA World, it is indispensable to get a grip on understanding and using uncertainty to the advantage of a company. Running experiments will never suffice is not supported by the capability to understand such thing as volatility, variance, covariance and the difference between causation and correlation.

Nissam Taleb’s “The Black Swan” focusses one’s views on the things that really matter, i.e. when events occur that may be very unlikely but have so much impact, that all other event’s do to really matter.

On the other hand, the small events matter, too, especially in those shorter time frames that most companies use to focus on.  Nate Silver’s “The Signal and The Noise” is still my favorite classic for this field. It has very practical implications for the set-up of teams, technology, and processes.

Books about the Digital Age

I read Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” for a second time in 2018 because I was looking for an answer to the question “What does Technology want from Companies?”. A strange question at first glance, but I suspect that the impact that technology, the cooperation of Men and Machine, has on human collaboration is still undervalued.

In the Digital Age companies must not only solve the problem of human engagement – they must solve the problem of human-machine engagement, too

A special mention goes to “White Working Class” from Joan Williams for explaining the downsides of globalization and digitalization:  The divide of society into many have-nots and the few prosperous.  This economic and cultural divide cannot be solved by Silicon Valley’s Elitism.

Biographies – Long, Deep Reads

Last not least I have added my three favorite biographies that shaped by view on many of the topics of work design:

  • Seize the Fire” by Adam Nicholson – how Lord Nelson, 1st Sealord of the British Admiralty made the Navy. Fundamentally, a book about intrinsic motivation.
  • “The One Best Way” by Robert Kanigel – a biography of the “worlds first business consultant” Frederick Taylor. He came up with “Scientific Management”, which still dominates companies today. A voluminous book about a thinking process which went on around 1900 and  is to thank and to blame for today’s, often inhuman and underperforming state of companies
  • “The Undoing Project” by star-author Michael Lewis – a biography of the collaboration between Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, two of the most important organizational psychologists.  The essence, as I see it,  is: We can’t trust our brain and judgment alone. Human judgement benefits from checks and balances that companies may weave into their work designs.

That’s my year 2018 in books. Let me know what you read and have been fascinated by! I sincerely like to hear from you.

Have a Liberating 2019!

___

Next post will be continuing the long series on “Effective Teams” – to be found in your mailbox at the end of January.

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

Int.png

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?

___

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.

 

0 comments on “Silicon Valley Clowns and their Fanboys”

Silicon Valley Clowns and their Fanboys

After absorbing the N’th podcast/video/article of some random guy who used to work in Silicon Valley bragging about disruption and boldness, I couldn’t stand the platitudes anymore. I couldn’t help but be making a checklist on how to recognize a Silicon Valley Clown:

scc.png

I guess you can add to this list.

What really annoys me about this kind of talking are three points:

A. Just because you have worked in the Valley doesn’t prove anything

Remember: Most Start-ups fail and there is not always learning involved. Not seldom, it is just silly. In our days there is a lot of money around that wants to be spent in hope for the next unicorn.

And if you worked for some poster company (Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, etc.): Congrats, you have been a corporate robot, like so many of us. Does this make you an expert on innovation? I do not think so.

B. Snake oil traders selling to the Hinterland

It’s all Sales. Skim through the table above and look for a pattern: Name dropping, impressive insider wording, the time spent traveling and networking. There is just one job where you can do these things consistently: Sales.

There is nothing wrong with being a Salesperson. The danger is that that kind of persons usually become the trusted advisor to CEO’s, in roles like Chief Digital Officer, Chief Innovation Manager, etc. So you got a Sales guy trying to orchestrate all the aspects of a thing as complex as digitalization AND a resource-rich but fundamentally disoriented CEO listening to him.

Good luck with that!

C. Focussing on the Obvious while remaining Oblivious to Deep Challenges

Everyone knows that digitalization will fundamentally transform businesses. It is just that the term “fundamentally transform” is often interpreted in a very narrow sense -like this:

  • Building up new streams of revenue by investing in start-ups
  • Old Business Models die, new ones that involve more Technology and Data come up
  • All this happens real fast in an uncertain environment, so I better get my organization agile

That’s a consensus view, right? The trouble is, the transformation is much deeper than this.

  • With an ever-accelerating rate of change, the race to build up new start-ups faster than the old business dies is doomed from the start: If maturing start-ups experience the same organizational sclerosis than traditional companies, these “throwaway companies” cost too much investment for a shorter and shorter pay-back period
  • Digital Technology and high rate of changes make every front-line worker to a Knowledge Worker. Hand on Heart: The overwhelming number of companies and managers never did a good job managing knowledge workers
  • All this agile and lean entrepreneurial stuff will not work, without trust, transparency and finally the acceptance of vulnerability of humans. Without that – my dear Cowboy CDO/CEO-  people will never open up. Without open communication, groups of people can never be innovative, and the pace of learning will be dismal

Face the deep challenges… or else

So the deep challenges are

  1. Building companies that last and avoid instititional sclerosis
  2. Learning to see everyone as Knowledge Worker
  3. Step away from the Cowboy Style of Leadership and becoming a Servant Leader

That’s why I believe organizations need to move towards more Self-Management. To rely on the fickle whims of an autocrat, which any manager with the hire and firepower is, is fundamentally not good enough to let people open up and be innovative.

So the hierarchy has got to retreat. It does not need to disappear, it just needs to fade more into the background.  There needs to be more checks and balances on hierarchical power.

Is that the silver bullet, the hierarchy needs to take a back seat? As always, it’s just one element.

But it might just be the one that requires the most time and is the hardest to pull off, as it requires such a broad mind shift in managers and people. A mind shift that goes against the command and control we all learned in school and experience in the business.

On the other hand: Ugh, that’s tough. Maybe you should just continue wasting your time with your Silicon Valley Clown, you (CEO) fanboy.

___

Sources: 

Here are some legacy posts which you might find helpful:

What kind of Organization do modern Companies aspire to be? – how companies like Amazon or Netflix do it

The Startup Way by Eric Ries – Book review – how not to do it

The World’s Leading Hedgefund is Relying on Key Principles of Self-Managed Organizations – how an arch-capitalist is embracing vulnerability

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0 comments on “What can be done to maximize the use of Collective Intelligence?”

What can be done to maximize the use of Collective Intelligence?

There is precisely one place where collective intelligence happens. Just one. Do you know where this is?

It’s where people meet. It is the – so often dreaded – Meeting. It is so apparent: People come together to share their views. By definition: A Meeting is the very embodiment of collective intelligence. Yet companies squander the chance to harness the collective intelligence of its people carelessly.

Meetings are right, square and center in the heart of every endeavor of companies. One would think, there would be a lot of tuning of meetings to get the best out of them. A lot of analysis, structure, and discipline to get the best out of meetings. Yet most people are unstructured:

  • Most meetings run without an agenda
  • If there is an agenda, it is often ignored
  • The discussion itself is unstructured and free for all
  • Seldom, there is disciplined facilitator keeping the discussion from not veering off into fringe topics
  • Minutes of the Meetings are  – if send at all and promptly – often ignored, except by the most structured kind of people

It that too dark a picture? I don’t think so. I have seen many organizations and most meetings were that badly unstructured. Even on board level, where Agendas and Minutes are the norms, the meetings themselves where often unstructured, agenda and Minutes of former Meetings basically ignored.

To explore typical meeting types and their impact on collective intelligence let us go through 5 types of meetings where issues are discussed, and actions are taken. I am not talking here about an educational meeting, that is a separate topic (albeit somewhat related).

A. The Unstructured Meeting – aka: Let the Extroverted Courtier win!

The unstructured meeting is terrible in so many ways. People seem to be there at just the hunch of a direction spelled out in the meeting title, the discussions veer off topic, Minutes are not kept, etc. But the real killer is: People may be invited to join the meeting, but they are not enticed to engage.

It is not only that people fail to prepare for meetings. Worse even if they could contribute ad hoc, just the extroverted ones will. Unstructured Meetings are usually dominated by the Highest Paid Person In the ROom (Hippo) and his extroverted henchmen, who try to please her or him.

B. The Structured Meeting – is so often a formalized recipe for boredom

A Structured Meeting is way better: There is an Agenda, a presentation of the issue to be discussed before the discussion, a systematic capturing of actions items and responsibility written down in a protocol.

But these kinds of Meetings are often a drag. They are formal and rational, which is fine. Yet they fail to invite people to engage emotionally. Noone is ever asked to contribute and to engage. You can get through these meetings without ever saying a word. Again, the pleasing henchman and the HIPPO dominate the meeting. People may contribute, but they will anticipate the way of least resistance, especially if only marginally impacted at all.

The structured, formalized meeting usually is a real drag. Its rational, but it is often boring.

CIM.pngC. The Modern Meeting: Asking for Feedback to get Thoughts going

The modern meeting is often facilitated. As skilled internal facilitators are usually rare inside organizations, consultants often drive those kinds of meetings. It is even more scripted than the structured meeting. Therefore facilitation is of the essence.

First, people are invited to say what is on their mind, a round robin where everyone, in turn, shares what is on his or her mind. The agenda is adopted, or agenda points are added. This “Check-In” into meetings is more important than just updating the agenda. It allows people to focus their mental energy on the meeting and gives them a point to share feelings right at the start of the meeting.

Giving each participant a voice at the beginning of the meetings allows people to connect with each other – an investment into the Meeting that will be repaid with a higher engagement level of each participant. All participants are able to gauge the emotional stance of others and cater to this in their interactions with each other.

Meetings are not existing in a vacuum. They are set in the context that each individual participant is at the particular point of time the meeting starts. An opening question like “Whats on your mind”  during the check-in to each participant is easy to do and effective.

Such is the check-out, where people are again asked individually to share their feedback, their benefits, and concerns regarding the results of the meeting. There are multiple forms of this feedback possible, from just asking for one point of benefits and one main concern to writing post it and putting them on a Whiteboard or “Happiness door.”

D. The Connecting Meeting: Where passivity is not an option

Asking for feedback in Meetings during Check-in and Check-outs is not good enough to fully engage people. After all, it is the central part of the meeting, where some people engage, and most people stay disengaged. But, to harness collective intelligence, a company absolutely needs the engagement of everyone involved:

What the point of having all those experts, with all those diverse observations backgrounds if only a few actually engage and dominate the solution?

In a connecting meeting, people are drawn out of their habitual passivity. For this the connected Meeting follows an even more formal script than the previous meetings:

  • The agenda is not pre-determined. It is built right at the start of the meeting, after the check-in. Thereby, people are able to influence the purpose of the meeting in line with their actually needs – not just the need of the one person who wrote the agenda or had the time and discipline to add agenda items. One of the beauties of building the agenda after the check-in is that people’s actual needs and feelings, thereby giving a place to compassion and caring. Feelings come into play from the start.
  • After check-in and the presentation of the issue, people contribute their observations on the issue, one after the other. Passivity is not an option – everyone needs to speak up
  • Only after everyone has contributed, the facilitator starts the discussion. The discussion itself should be time-boxed. The initiator of an agenda item then has the opportunity to wrap-up or amend the proposal. Everyone’s opinion on the amended motion should be gathered during another round-robin.
  • After that, the proposal is decided upon by whatever decision mechanism is in place: Hierarchy, Consensus, Voting, etc. For an overview of decisions, mechanisms check out this post: Delegation on Steroids

What the connecting meeting achieves is to engage the left and right side of the brain  more:

  • More of the left side, rational thinking is applied by everyone contributing
  • More imaginative, feeling  left side thinking is coming into play, as better connect to one another and feel valued

cXm

The script for the connected meeting is a core element of Holacracy (see Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0), but it works outside the Holacracy context, i.e., in an ordinary hierarchical company too. The difference is that with hierarchical power still in play people will be defensive with their contributions and with sharing their feelings, as the HIPPO needs to be pleased in this or that manner.

E. The Challenging Meeting: Where Feedback is intense and in real time

Bridgewater is a Hedge Fund that made more money than any other Hedgefund ever in existence. As said in the previous post (The World’s Leading Hedgefund is Relying on Key Principles of Self-Managed Organizations), it can’t get any more capitalistic than that.

Under Bridgewaters Founder and CEO Ray Dalio, they basically digitalized the feedback process: Feedback is given via an application (the “Dot-Collector” in real-time, during the meeting and everyone’s rates. Then Everyone rates the issue and personal contributions to the meeting qualitatively and quantitatively. In this example, the lady and the guy in the rows assess their CEO’s performance in the meeting

Screenshot 2017-12-15 12.47.48.png

It takes quite some guts to give such a negative feedback to your almighty CEO. An excellent structured Meeting is one thing, a culture of radical transparency and truth is quite another. Don’t expect that this can work in a conventional hierarchy, without a more profound and sustained drive towards liberating your company.

Already during the meeting, everyone can see on a screen how his contribution to the meeting is ranked.

Screenshot 2017-12-15 12.47.07

The beauty of this system is that it draws out people. It forces them to contribute – even those introverts. People over-“contributing,” in other word spending too much time talking, do get the feedback immediately and can adjust their behavior.

The rankings of the discussed alternatives can be voted upon on via the app. The vote can be binding or just have informational character, and the real choice is to be made by an individual decision maker. Multiple decision rules can be applied, as needed and agreed on before the meeting.

Ray Dalio prefers a decision rule called “Believability weighted decision making.” Within this model, not everyone’s vote has the same impact. The most weight is given to those persons with the best track record, the most demonstrated experience in the matter discussed. Weights have to be assigned at the start of the meeting.

Over time, a lot of data on the contribution of each individual over any number of meetings is captured. This might just be the best 360 Degree Feedback there is, as everyone rates everyone at any time during meetings. This way, behaviors good and bad can be spotted and be improved. People are able to use this data to develop themselves and others, and therefore organizations develop to higher levels of consciousness.

Screenshot 2017-12-15 12.49.16

Conclusion: We just started exploring collective Intelligence

What do you think of the Challenging Meeting that Bridgewater has pioneered? A nightmare of transparency. The death of all introverts? An overstructured Utopia?

Maybe.

But one thing is clear: We absolutely need a better way to maximize the collective intelligence of people. Not just of overpaid and elitist hedge fund managers, but of all people, may that be room cleaning teams, nurses, workers in a distribution center or rubbish collectors. Using everyone’s knowledge, observations and intellectual capacities in a group will deliver

  • better results,
  • more accountability,
  • and more engagement.

It will beat the thoughts of a responsible manager who thinks he has figured out the “one best way” every time.

Connecting and Challenging meetings do provide feedback that penetrates beyond behaviors and into assumptions and mindsets.

It will let people connect to each other, connect to their work, connect to the organization. It will bridge the divide so many feel between making sense of their lives and the need to work for money.

This is what I think. What do you think?

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Sources:

 

 

 

 

1 comment on “How to Transform IT into a Start-up?”

How to Transform IT into a Start-up?

The vibrancy of Startups. The relentless customer focus. The relentless adapting and testing of products for an ever better solution. Shouldn’t all IT departments be like this? What an exciting place to work in such an IT organization would be!

What are the waypoints on the way to transform traditional IT Departments into Start-ups?

Some answers have already been given in my recent post A 4 Step IT Manifesto – without the boring Bits. But here is a new perspective, adapted from a 2016 book “The New IT” by Jill Dyché, a seasoned author on IT Organization. It is a business practitioners book, not an academic one and therefore lacks empirical verification. But Dyché has come up with some interesting models, which provoke thought.

Start from your Archetype

Dyché clusters IT Organizations into 6 distinctive Archetypes. Most IT Organizations have elements of some or all archetypes at once, but one archetype will likely be dominant.

arch2.png

Most IT departments are associated predominantly with the Tactical, Order Taking or Aligning archetypes:

  • Tactical: No frills, just keep the system going
  • Order Taking: Write a request or initiate a project, IT will implement based on the specifications
  • Aligning: Representatives of IT discuss the direction of each Business unit with Business and IT Leaders on a regular basis and try to shape applications accordingly

The more progressive Archetypes are:

  • Data Provisioning: IT does everything possible to provide excellent data sources to business units, makes access as easy as possible and supplies analytical tools thereby enabling business units to discover insights on their own. Most notably, there are not only “Application Owners”, there are “Data owners” for the different Data objects (Customer Master, Replenishment Data etc., Sales Data), too
  • Brokering: IT is not so much “delivering services”, it is rather orchestrating services across the enterprise from a multitude of internal and external service units. A lot of Service Level Agreements are typical. IT’s aim is to focus internal services only on strategic areas only. For all other services, it tries to remain agile to ramp up or ramp down services as required by the shifting situation
  • IT Everywhere: IT nearly dissolves as a unit. It is just retaining Project Portfolio and Architecture Management. Every other function, even most IT Staff, is allocated to the Business. In a world of proliferating Cloud Applications, that cause Shadow IT Units to appear in Business, this might be a formal approach to governing the complexity of the modern IT and Business relationship

All archetypes are valuable. There is no better archetype. If an organization just requires the IT Organization to keep everything stable and change nothing, the “Tactical” Archetype might be the Best for an Organization. Every attempt to go to a different archetype would be “unnecessary excellence”, aka waste.

The interesting job for the IT Manager is to find out – together with his Business counterparts –  which model to adopt. In the example found in the lower half of the graphic above a fictional IT unit spends 70% of its time and resources on “keeping the lights on” and 30% on “processing orders”. After discussing with the business, the IT Leader determines to scale down the number of time and resources spent on these “Tactical” and “Order Taking” archetypes and aims to transform her IT operations towards the more advanced models over the next 3 years.

Once the target composition of archetypes has been determined, the next question is how to get there?

Adjust your IT Governance model

The IT Governance model is like an operating system that IT is working on.  It is the sum of all processes that IT uses to provide its services. In any IT Organisation it invariably encompasses the following seven areas:

itgov2.png

Changing IT Archetypes means to change some or all of the seven Elements of the IT Governance Model. A switch towards the “Data Provisioning” Model would require:

  1. An updated,  re-prioritized Roadmap that does not only encompass Systems but Data objects too
  2. New policies to allow Business users access to Analytical Power Tools or even access to the Data Bases directly
  3. Updating funding plans for IT, as Data Exploration can hardly be funded by submitting business cases based on Return of Investment figures. It would be a better idea to create a new “innovation” budget for use of IT and business
  4. Portfolio Management processes, that allow Business Units to understand where IT is heading and to understand the staging process IT uses to progress from data exploration to research, to test, to re-test and finally to implementation
  5. A Talent Management that seeks to recruit or cultivate data savvy personnel. This includes not only the cultivation or hiring of Data Scientists but helping Managers to get data savvy, too
  6. A new understanding of how to manage Innovation, of the inner workings of innovation within human groups. Once that insight is there, the environment (down to office spaces and the possibilities to encounter external knowledge sources) needs to be shaped
  7. Systems: New Systems Data Management or Analytical Tools are to be supported

Once the new IT Governance has been sketched out, the Organization should be adapted in order to support it.

IT Organisation: Think “Service Lines”

IT organizations are traditionally built around applications and mirror -more or less – the organization of business units. Typically, there are units within IT that care of Systems for Finance, Systems for Purchasing, for System of Production, for Logistics etc.  Plus some universal units for Infrastructure Management, Helpdesk, Architecture or Reporting.

This makes great sense, as businesses know exactly whom to hold accountable for a certain set of systems and the IT units need to know exactly who the client is. But there are problems with this model:

  • Local Applications, such as MS Office suite Apps, fail to have a strong voice in the organizations, even tough they are immensely important to users. By failing to promote the professional use of these tools, productivity potentials remain untapped. The day to day importance of working on the big enterprise applications simply crowds out any attention on supposedly small local applications
  • User Access Devices fall in the same category: They are often overseen, if not given a voice inside the organization at a higher hierarchical level via the organization chart
  • Data ownership is automatically decentralized if data owners just reside on some low hierarchical level or data ownership is just assigned as a side task to someone. Today data is often so important, as to be represented in a separate unit reporting directly to the CIO
  • Analytics is often either just an add-on contained in other IT units. Sometimes analytics is just a big Data Warehouse application. But if a company is to become more data savvy, a unit may be useful that promotes analytical practices, tools, processes across the whole enterprise

A service line oriented organizational chart may look like this:

neworg.png

But there is an even bigger problem. A typical IT organization that more or less mirrors the Business Organization or that retains too much IT services under its authority may  suffocate any initiative workers in  Business organizations have to utilize IT to maximum effect:

Having IT taking care of everything even remotely connected to information technology has the inert risk of business units always being under parental advice.

In such an environment, the business may never grow up into (digital) Adulthood.

So what can be done to let Business grow into digital Adulthood? Give them responsibility for parts of IT.dsavvy

User Access Devices, Analytics, and Local Applications are all Services of IT which can be delegated to Business Units. IT willingly withdraws out of these areas and gives business units the freedom to experiment and implement what business thinks best. Except for architectural oversight, IT will no longer be providing services as buying and maintaining Phone, Pads, Workstations, local software, reporting tools etc.

By formally handing off responsibility to business, IT moves towards the “IT Everywhere” Archetype. This might be the most effective and sustainable way to raise the digital maturity of a company as a whole.

To new frontiers: Innovation

Raising the overall digital maturity of an organization will result in the whole company feeling more like a start-up, where people are empowered to experiment and utilize IT in surprising manners. This experimentation will only happen if management behavior and values change (see for example Tired of hierarchy? Try this).

Jill Dyché offers specific advice for the CIO on how to foster innovation:

  • Encourage Questions: Who do we want to be? Who could we be?
  • Maintain an up to date knowledge of technology
  • Shift focus away from ERP towards e.g. machine learning or the SMAC Stack (Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud)
  • Move towards openness inside and outside the company
  • Regards Research as an end to itself, not just a mean
  • Learn the Lean Method, e.g. willingness for experiments to fail and start again
  • Rely on more organic methods to manage things and less on Up-front Business Planning
  • Do less underdiagnosing and overprescribing – do more research instead

Innovation Labs

A lot of Companies do not approach innovation in a holistic manner. Instead, they cordon off innovation in “Labs”. These are shiny new, start-up like organizations which are set-up in parallel to the old IT. While this approach is seemingly supported by a management technique that calls to apply different management techniques in for example “productivity” and “innovation” zones (see You are playing the wrong game! Learn to zone), there are pitfalls.

Innovation relies on two basic elements: Exploration and synthesis (see Social Physics: The Revival of Science in Management).  Everything must be done to maximize the opportunities for exploration and synthesis. A typical pitfall is to set up an Innovation Lab, as a “New IT”, with permanent full-time dedicated staff. This is hurting both, exploration and synthesis massively.

Instead, people should be only temporarily assigned to innovation labs. There should be:

  • a constant exchange of staff with the rest of the organization (business and IT) , based on the tasks at hand
  • people from outside the organization constantly intermingling with the internal staff
  • A democratization of initiatives, top down assignments won’t work. Instead, people need to have the autonomy to initiate lab projects on their own. Of course, this requires a new funding method, too, as the way money is to spend is effectively controlled by subordinates

Summary: Organizing IT like as Start-up

All of the above can be summarized into three steps:

orgsup.png

  • First get Business engaged. Show them how to use IT effectively
  • Second, create a culture of openness, dynamism, and autonomy.
  • Third, create an Innovation Zone that allows people to use their full potential

With this compelling blueprint in hand, whole companies can really get going along their road to Digitalization. Existing IT Organizations can be revitalized and Business gets new powerful tools.

Oh yes, it will be a rough ride – learning to lead and be managed in a different way is very hard. But this blueprint has a very positive “bias for action”, which is surely better than waiting for Digital Businesses to disrupt your business.

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By the way: I have changed the name of the blog from “Signal-and-the-noise.com” to “ManagementDigital.net” for the sake of greater clarity what this blog is all about.

Plus: There is a German language Podcast available on iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

Comments are appreciated!

0 comments on “A 4 Step IT Manifesto – without the boring Bits”

A 4 Step IT Manifesto – without the boring Bits

IT departments are boring. In the time of vibrant start-ups, who wants to work in a department that used to be called “Data Processing Department”?  IT departments are still organized more for data processing than for anything else. Despite the hype of IT as being “strategic” there are next to none IT Managers on the board level. The title CIO is numerous, board representation is as good as nil. CIO’s are seconded to the second or third level of an organization, usually reporting to the CFO and too far removed from the business.

One major reason is that IT departments are not strategic, despite all the rhetoric about IT. And rightly so! How can a department that is mainly concerned with providing “water, heating and light,” i.e., keeping systems up and running, be strategic? Ok, it is supplying information to the whole organization so it might be more strategic then facility management. But not by much.

IT units are simply not adding enough value to their organization today. Some organizations do not expect more from their IT units, they are happy if systems are stable. More is not needed, the organizations aim to plow on without much help from IT.

But more and more organizations are disrupted and need their IT units to help them transform their businesses. Here is how to make IT units a valuable asset in a companies transformation.

Step 1: Keep the lights on

All is nothing without systems being performing, available and stable. IT should not aspire to anything higher if this sine qua non is violated. So if your companies systems are not satisfactory stable, get them in order before aspiring to anything else.

Oh yes, this big investment, the new integrated shiny system will do the trick nicely. But waiting for the big cheque to be handed over might take forever, maybe longer than many  IT Managers hold on to their job.

Other strategies are asked for. IT’s performance gap might have two root causes: An obsolete application landscape or an obsolete organization. Often it is a combination of both.

The obsolete application landscape might be cured by methods discussed on the blog in November 2015:

The obsolete organization of an IT department can be cured by applying ITIL concepts, which are there to help set up IT to business needs. Having solid concepts for Application-, Infrastructure- and Project Management plus the myriads of supplementing IT service processes is a must. But do not go overboard with the concepts. As the founders of ITIL state themselves: ITIL is not prescriptive. Take the concepts you need and make them work for you. It is no bible.

 Step 2: Enhance

Once the lights are consistently on, step up the game. Now that IT applications are in control and IT Service Management processes are solid in the perception of the business units (perception is reality), get some excellence going.

A. Seek excellence in Effectiveness

With IT service management you may drown in the process, approval processes, documentation, tracking, and procedures. While quite a bit of rigor is needed, a high number of IT departments drown in procedures, squashing agility, business reputation and innovation in the process. Stop at a good workable level. Common failures are:

  • Multiple levels of approvals of changes
  • Documentation that encourages redundancy
  • Using intermediaries to relay business requests to IT developers

Do not seek excellence in administration. Seek excellence in effectiveness.

B. Go forth and Eliminate Waste

ITIL is just about qualitative best practice. It is not about quantitative efficiency. There are no recipes in ITIL how to find and eliminate waste in the IT services you are offering to your organization.

You need to eliminate that waste. First, you will need to free up resources for more value adding work. Second, you need to demonstrate to higher management that money is well invested in IT, that IT delivers higher business impacts for the buck, that the IT unit is healthy, alive and kicking.

How to identify waste? Measure.

  • Macro KPI’s: Benchmark your organization’s expenditure on IT vs. competitors or industry benchmarks. Meet with other organizations IT Managers and analyze the shop they are running on a quantitative basis to learn what can be done better and what is already good. Apply Controlling to all regular expenditures on systems or applications. Identify the most costly regular items.
  • Micro KPI’s: Measure ticket closure time, the number of tickets, the number of changes, the workload per developer, the backlog in efforts and days, the timelines of projects.

After that, you’re come up with an action plan and tackle item by item. But not in isolation, as certain wastes are connected to the same root cause and should be tackled with some foundational measures – e.g., IT information engineering and management by deliverables.

C. Management by Deliverables

Management by deliverables is a project management principle that calls for all project planning and monitoring to be achieved through the production of visible work products.

IT service standards such as ITIL or project management standards such as Prince2 stress procedures and activities. They provide formal frameworks that might become a”formalistic” nightmare because they lack the focus on outcomes. If an activity is not producing a tangible deliverable (a specification, a piece of code, a configuration, a concept, a test plan, tc.), it is of questionable value.

The 5 Rules of Management by Deliverables:

  1. All tasks must produce a deliverable,  a tangible outcome of human effort such as a functional specification or a piece of code
  2. Set duration at typically  5 to 10 days (up to 3 weeks maximum)
  3. Obtain commitment from the responsible persons on the schedule
  4. Monitor the progress of large deliverables with intermediate analytical deliverables  (technical investigation reports, outlines, draft specifications, rough notes)
  5. Formally inspect and accept the completed deliverable.

Thinking, planning and tracking deliverables instead of tasks has immense advantages:

  • It keeps the focus on the economic value add of an activity, an antidote to over-administration
  • It gives people autonomy room to manoeuvre: They decide how to come up with the deliverable. The activities needed are decided and ordered by them alone
  • Deliverable orientation can be easily inserted into known, conventional waterfall, “gated” delivery models by tracking Deliverables on project management level and not activities.

Last not least, management by deliverables prepares the organization for agile methods, as those rely on deliverables and personal autonomy.

D. A System for IT

IT needs a system.

Most IT managers are aware of the need to plan and engineer application landscapes and IT system architectures consistently in domains, e.g. systems of transactions, engagement and perceptions (see Can IT departments get anything straight?).

But few IT Managers apply the same rigor of planning and engineering to their own landscape of IT applications like incident management, monitoring, demand management, approval management, knowledge DBs, user directories, development tracking, document management, project management, time keeping, collaboration platforms, meeting platforms etc. All those systems often reside in isolation from each other inside an organization.

This situation is like a work shack where all the different tools are stored in more or less order.

By not engineering the data flow between all those different tools, IT works on a workshop level and not as a professional information manufacturing operation.

Demand management, for example, relies on a specified demand from a business organization. This demand must be evaluated, approved, implemented and released. There is information and documents flowing  between all the different actors in this process. Yet, there often is no single system in capturing and organizing all those information. Requests come in via mail, specifications are stored in files in sharepoint, approvals are given via mails etc. It is nearly impossible to remain on top of this very important processes without engineering this process into a single or interconnected systems.

IT needs an application landscape on its own. A landscape that allows to be in control of the production processes of IT. The results are transparency, automation and efficiency in more routine processes- thereby creating the space needed to excel in change and transformation.

The first derivation of the business needs is the application landscape of the organization.

The second derivation of the business needs is the application landscape IT uses to manage the applications demanded by the business. 

Central pieces of such system landscape are provided by jira, Servicenow or can be build based on the MS Package (Sharepoint Extensions, Project Server etc.).

Step 3: Change

With step 1 and 2 in place, the internal workings, the effectiveness and efficiency of the IT department should be in order. Now it is time to help the organization.

A. Project Management

Project Management is the art of getting something new done by a collaborative work-effort over a certain length of time for a certain budget. Project Management is all about change.

ITIL already sets some standards for it, as does Prince2 but in much greater detail. There are many flavors to project management. Setting up the right kind of structures – structures that fit the organisations maturity level and allows it to grow its ability to handle change over time – is key.

Real proficiency in project management is hard to learn for organizations. Organizations are single dimensional hierarchies, where nearly everyone has a exactly one superior. With  project management a second dimension is opened up, with temporary assigned team members holding two or multiple jobs/assignments, work extends in other branches of the hierarchies, cross hierarchical collaboration is needed.

Therefore project management structures are often overpowered by the hierarchy. Visible signs of the meagre role of project management inside an organization are:

  • Part time dedicated resources, say one or two days a week
  • Project Gate Reviews with steering group never happen or high ranking managers never bother to show up
  • An expectation by the the organization that a project should deliver something but not being able to tell exactly what or be willing to participate in it to any significant extend: “Sure, we will fix it – we have outsourced the solution to a project”

Here is some advice how to establish project management capabilities in an organization:

  • Start up with the easy steps of getting decent project management structures up and running
  • Educate the organizations. Be a missionary. Be diplomatic, tough
  • Stick to traditional project management techniques where resistance is
  • Try agile methods wherever there is a pocket in the organization willing to embrace autonomy and there is enough trust to accept a variations in outcome
  • Do not try going agile where the organization is not embracing autonomy and trust The immune system of the organization will reject it

B. Visualize

Visualization is a powerful ally for any change. Visualization makes abstract things real, tangible, understandable, truthful, it shows what is important, it aligns people on a common view or goal.

I have been in organizations that do not allow any visualizations at all (except in power points) – in order to keep the office floor and offices nice, tidy and uniform. Those organizations enshrine the status quo as the way it should be – all by a policy dictated by  facility management.

Visualisation is a key concept of any change: If it is to ramp up manufacturing plants, completing production of Boings or Airbus Planes, improvement projects, merger & acquisitions – you name it. It is a key point for all modern management, software development or start-up techniques.

Often visualization is interpreted to mean togo and create an interesting chart explaining an abstract concept. That is far too less. Good visualization must flow into the view of the recipients. It is not waiting to be accessed and experienced, it is there for all to see, on the floors, on bill boards, updated, importance, meetings and speeches are performed in front of the visual display in order to convey its message.

C. Embrace the Cloud

The winning strategy to develop a static and more and more outdated application core –  to escape the “cycle of stuttered innovation” (as defined in Innovation-ready-IT: The way forward for IT) is to “strangle” the legacy application: To implement new functions as an extension to core based on a different platform and link it via stable API’s.

These different platform can and should be primarily cloud systems:

  • Cloud systems relieve IT of its main job to “keep the lights on” and let IT move to more value add
  • Business units are craving for specialized, lightweight, mobile solutions that help them now and can be tinkered by them to their needs
  • There are so many cloud applications out there which offer immediate benefits, are available for immediate experimentation. More and more, this is the place for innovation

IT departments are usually reluctant to support business departments in moving to the cloud. After all, they are the gate keeper of the integrity of systems and it is IT’s job to cater for all systems. If business department are allowed to build up lots of shadow IT departments, that consistency and -god beware- the job of the IT department is ultimately threatened.

I believe that trying to suppress this storm of cloud applications means fighting a loosing battle and is suppressing innovation.

It is a fight to conserve “the way it always has been” while the world is changing. More variety is needed, more business departments have valuable IT skills on application level that can be utilized. Hell, nearly everyone is skilled in some IT skills from education or private live. IT is a part of live of everyone more and more.

IT needs to learn to live with that reality and utilize it for the best of the organization. It needs to let go from the vision to “own” all applications. It needs to evolve from a dictator of IT Systems to a Gardener. A gardener that plans the layout of IT structures, gives place to grow, nurtures and sometime cuts back plants for the sake of the organization.

How? Think of IT as the provider of…

  • the overall architecture
  • the core systems (system of transaction)
  • and of a ever expanding catalogue of API’s that can be used inside and even outside the organization

D. Bring your own Device

As anachronistic as the notion that all systems must be owned by IT is the notion devices need to be owned by IT. People, employees, customers, partners and contractors, have very powerful devices at their disposal: Mobile phones, computers even servers. It is silly to not utilize this potential:

  1. It saves money for the company in purchasing and maintenance
  2. It is less of a hassle for everyone involved
  3. It blurs the lines between private and work live

Yes, every of these three points has its pro and cons. But at the heart of the issue is this:

Guys we are talking devices here. That is not the main point.

The main point is to use of  information for the benefit of the company. And that aim we will come closer by allowing everyone to bring their own devices.

And you security spooks: Yes, it is an architectural challenge, but one that can be coped with: Who is doing online banking or brokering with their private devices? Raise your hand! Thank you.

E. Adoption, not Outcomes

Mature IT departments are pretty good at delivering the things they promised. After all, that is their job, they have been trained to do that for years. ITIL and Prince2 are basically frameworks for the art of delivery. It is measurable and tidy: IT has done their part.But still a lot of IT projects fail to deliver business benefits.

The problem is: Even if a change or a project is delivered by IT, business may not adopt it. The reason for lack of adoptions are manyfold:

  • Ordered it, but no longer need it
  • Some else wanted it, this guy has gone
  • Never wanted it, but had to do something as a token
  • The way IT has implemented it to the letter, but not to our intended purpose
  • It is useful, if only those pesky specialist would do as i told them
  • Oh yes its good, but i do not have enough time to use it properly. Give me resources
  • etc

Usually IT, plans for “Post Production Support” after go-live to fix problems and provide help where needed. Usually, this effectively means that IT enters a reactive mode. The project is delivered and IT leaves the center stage for business to perform its act.

There are numerous concepts to stream line this “hands-off” process between It and business departments, both in ITIL and PRINCE2. But at the end of a project people are usually exhausted and want to move to something else. Alle recommendations are hard to implement in reality, it is only human.

So what is to be done to get better Adoption of systems? Here are some cues:

  1. Engage the business departments heavily from the start
  2. Do not relent getting business people engaged in the project, ever
  3. Do not relent and be very active in the post production phase:  Engage
  4. Measure adoption qualitatively, inspect, discuss with business  and act
  5. Change Management should be there all along to help, but esp. in the post production support phase

Finally, the propensity to adopt is a function of the companies culture. By taking on an Agile and a DevOps approach to software projects, the adoption propensity will increase immensely.

Step 4: Transform

Caution. It is no use to transform into something that is alien to the organization. It will not pay to be implementing more radical, advanced concepts into IT if the organization is not sharing the same willingness to transform. Try it as a stand-alone exercise inside IT and the immune system of the organization will come to attack you and prove you wrong.

With each step of this Manifesto IT becomes more outward looking, more engaged in the organization. Step 4 can not be undertaken to any meaningful extend, if the organization is not transforming as well.

A. Explorer, Gardener, Coach

First, change your and others management styles. Without this change at the higher hierarchical levels, all advanced methods will deliver limited results. All advanced methods rely on one thing: To release the creativity and commitment of the individual for the good of the company. This does not mean doing away with hierarchy – it is always there- but it provides much looser reins to the individual.

In fact management must consider itself as…

  1. A Gardener that plans, set-ups, nurtures and maintains the organization
  2. An explorer that is always curious to try new things and has the stamina to get it right
  3.  A coach for the team that creates the best odds to succeed but accepts that the players must find their game on the pitch once the game started

This approach is described well by the CEO of IDEO in an HBR Article about how Leaders are able to nurture creativity in others or hear this HBR idea podcast. Beside take a look at my previous blog posts about leadership, e.g. Tired of hierarchy? Try this.

B. Autonomy

Autonomy is a central element of releasing creativity and achieving commitment. Ironically, organizations tried to handle the complex and demanding  IT structures by installing ever tighter controls: Reviews, Approvals, Specifications, Change Control Boards, Transport Approvals, Release cycles etc until any initiative has been smothered by “the process”. But the way towards management of complex structures is more autonomy to the individual.

The Agile Manifesto, originating in a 2001 Meeting of software developers, provides a good view of what autonomy means to IT personell.

Screenshot 2016-08-03 10.54.53.png

All forms of team based work rely on greater autonomy for its members. Autonomy is a big challenge to the hierarchy, which used to rely on command and control, on leading from the front. This changes to gardening and leading from behind. Leading from behind does not been been present at the front, but it mean trusting team members “do to it their way”.

This concept is best described in mission type tactics (“Auftragstaktik”) or in  Kaizen Process improvement techniques. This is the basis for some of the most important concepts of the lean start-up movement.

dilbert.jpg

C. DevOps

Unbridled autonomy is a recipe for disaster. The solution is not to remove all controls and replace it with “Hej Joe, you do what you deem best”. Instead, there need to be three  elements in place in an organization:

  1. Responsibility for results
    Ideally, a developer who builds should be in charge to deploy and maintain the software too: You build it you run it. For IT this a 180 degree turn from the traditional distinction of IT units in “build” and “operations”. These units become one, thereby establishing the strong incentive to deliver reliable, well tested software, as there is no-one else to blame for failure.
  2. Architecture: Planning and Control
    The “Blast radius” of failures in software deployment is to be limited by a robust application landscape architecture, that limits failures to single functions instead of the whole system going down.
  3. IT delivery processes, a tool chain and automation
    Developers need to be empowered to push their code into production by a largely automated Tool Chain that integrates development, testing and operation. That requires a lot of investment in IT systems, in “the system for IT”, as described above.

DevOps aims at establishing a culture and environment where building, testing, and releasing software can happen rapidly, frequently, and more reliably. It is a twin to agile development methods, as agile methods are limited to development and DevOps extend agile methods towards operations. With both, Agile and DevOps in place, the autonomy of individuals in IT are released.

D. Experiment

With autonomy in place, enabled by agile Development and DevOps, Business and IT can collaborate much more easily to come up and perform much more interesting hypothesis, tests and validations.

A cycle of learning gets underway. Ultimately, this is what IT should do: Not only provide Information Systems, but deliver insights that create business Value.

The spirit of constant Experimentation and Learning in captured best in the  lean start-up movement.

E. Zone

Experimentation is important for any company to prosper in a more and more disrupted, digital  business environments. But it is not required everywhere.

There are realms within the organizations, periods within an organizations life cycle, and industries where stability and efficiency is called for. For those organizations and Situations, Autonomy, Agile and Devops may not be what is called for. Step one, to keep the Lights on, might be everything what is called for.

A golden Rule in business process engineering is to eliminate unnecessary Excellence. Agile and Devops might be useful, but are not necessary and ultimately might have a negative or insufficient cost/benefit relation.

Therefore, management needs to pick a zone and derive from that the aspirations for the IT unit. So that IT will play the right game in the right zone of operations.

1 comment on “Exponential Organizations – a way forward for traditional companies?”

Exponential Organizations – a way forward for traditional companies?

An “exponential organization” as defined by Salim Ismael is a business model that is poised to take advantage from the digital revolution. It leverages the abundant nature of information goods to transform business models of any sector, even physical, manufacturing or brick & mortar based sectors.

Even traditional companies can harness the power of the digital revolution, change their direction and tweak their organizational structures in order to propel their business forward – instead of viewing the digital revolution as a threat, a head wind.
They can use it by changing their organization, their course and flexible exploring where customer value is – they can harness the power of the digital storm and sail.

Here is how.