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Liberated Companies – The Book

I started writing this book in 2017 to explore how companies can truly “go digital”. As a former CIO I knew that technologies, however powerful they are, are fiendishly hard to get to work at their full potential. The more my thoughts matured, the more I realized that a company is to benefit from technology, the more careful it must be setup to give people the space to work with, experiment with, and learn from people and technology alike.

After two years of writing, a lot of reading and some application in companies who cared to work with me on the subject, the book has finally arrived on Amazon.

You should read ‘Liberated Companies’ if…

  • You often despair about the mediocre ways of your company
  • You suspect that the workplace could be both, more challenging and more comforting to everyone in it
  • You have seen too many management fashions and appeals and seek changes that really make a difference

What you will learn from reading the book is…

  • Any organization can be described as a collection of about 20 to 50 Work Designs
  • Companies can use work designs to actively configure themselves in any way they choose, from ruthless executors to mindful innovators
  • Configuring companies with work designs in a development process, not an implementation

What awaits you is…

  • A novel way to think about technology as an entity with a trajectory on which companies can place themselves
  • A way to address, the profound, underlying challenges of changing power structures
  • A bunch of practicable methods, like the Liberation Scale, the Liberated Company Map and the 11 Principles of Liberated Companies

I wrote this book because I felt that there is something wrong with the way most companies are managed. At the same time, I felt that alternative recipes, such as more empowerment, participation, and self-Management, are very hard to put into practice. What I propose in this book is a way to set in motion more organizational dynamics that are useful to both those who prefer incremental action and those with revolutionary purpose.

Learn more on www.Liberated.Company or order at Amazon.com, Amazon.de (Germany) or any other Amazon Site- just search for “Liberated Companies” or my name “Frank Thun”. The printed version is available in most western countries, and the ebook is available worldwide.

Let me know what you think!

What The Extinction Crisis Means To Businesses

Business people! Why are we still talking about anything else than the global extinction crisis? We are heading not for a disaster or catastrophe but to the very extinguishing of life. The last five years alone have all been the warmest on record. Species of all kinds die off at an ever-increasing rate. Insects are dying in droves, by 75% in the last 26 years in Germany. Global Forest health is at the lowest it has ever been. Global CO2 concentration has exceeded 400 parts per million. With 415 ppm, it is the highest it has been on earth in 14 million years – and it is still increasing exponentially. 

These Curves Mean Catastrophe

Even supposing there is no irreversible tipping point, such as the sudden release of methane from former permafrost regions, we are on track to destroy all life on earth. The catastrophe is here already; we are all living smack in the middle of it.

Some frame the extinction crisis as an investment crisis, an opportunity to re-allocate resources to different sectors, like renewable energies or sustainable companies. While I think this is useful, it is not enough. Given the sheer size of the challenge, we are likely to need more than simple re-allocation of resources within an updated system of governmental regulation that. Sticking to the same system of running companies is like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Our ship has already hit the iceberg and water is flowing in. I think there are four levels to address the ecological armageddon as a business.

Ways to Respond to the Extinction Crisis

Level One: Acting in the market and legal framework 

For the most part, businesses are awaiting changes to (CO2-)prices, taxes, laws, and regulations pushed on them by the government sector. Business is groomed to work in the market framework supplied by the government, while big business is a detractor to those changes by lobbying for lighter, delayed, merely symbolic regulations.

Level Two: Minimize the impact on the environment

Business people often possess a “can do” attitude. Still, they take pretty timid steps towards a green renovation of companies. Much amounts to greenwashing, like reducing carbon footprints by this or that energy-efficient building design, small changes to vehicle fleets, or this or that petty change to a product. Some companies have promised to become climate neutral by some date, e.g., Siemens by 2030, Volkswagen by 2050. Microsoft even claims to have been carbon neutral ever since 2012. 

The underlying mindset here is to do less damage – in the awareness that upcoming government regulation and customer pressure will probably make curbing a companies worst environmental excesses inevitable. The problem with this approach is that it is unlikely to be enough. As economists have shown, we can’t grow out of this crisis by relying on technological advances alone. That might have been possible some decades ago. Still, now it appears too late, given the current and by some measures decreasing rate of technological progress and the much higher and exponentially increasing rates of environmental degradation.

In a quantitive study of the upcoming ecological challenges to the economic system, economist Tim Jackson (quote) concludes that besides technological progress, we will need de-growth, too, to save life on earth. If this is so, how can we de-grow? Well, first of all, we need to get rid of those things no one really needs.

Level Three: Changing products and services

Much more aspirational than to minimize ecological impact is to seek to improve the world with one’s products and services. A good start is to make products more durable, repairable, recyclable, sustainable. This will invariably mean to provide less physical products and focus more on virtual services. 

Still, wherever there is a buck to make, a company will race to meet demand. Tobacco companies, oil companies, suppliers of sugary drinks – if there is demand, companies will not only fill it, they will seek to increase it. After all, that is inherent in the dynamics of the capitalist system. Should the capitalist mode of production have a chance to survive, the free interplay of supply and demand needs to be harnessed in a way that avoids harmful economic activity. The result will probably be a more regulated, “socialist” economy.  

Companies can anticipate this trend by aiming higher than just minimizing their impact. They may give themselves a purpose that aims higher than just meeting customer demands. Companies may seek to play a positive role, not only by creating happy customers but by helping life itself to prosper on this planet while doing business.

Level Four: Seeking better internal guidance

Yet, schemes of voluntary restraint are hard to sustain for any company. The pressure to make money is just too big. In a clinch, will companies ever forfeit profits for ecological benefits? There is no way this will happen in a company using today’s model of corporate governance. For voluntary restraint to happen more often (not always), it requires a new model of corporate governance. A model that is tuned more towards

  • A holistic view of the world that encourages taking the high road more often.
  • A system that fosters evolutionary purpose in people and organizations.
  • More democratic, deliberate institutions that embed more checks and balances into decision processes.

Glimpses of such a futuristic, even seemingly esoteric model can be found today in companies like Buurtzorg, a 14.000 people health provider; Bridgewater, one of the largest and most successful Venture Capitalists; or Haier, a world-leading manufacturer of household appliances. Patagonia, an outdoor fashion company, is, for example, actively discouraging customers from buying being more of stuff.

All these companies and many more are have adopted governing models that encourage holism, evolutionary purpose, and deliberation. What’s more, they are even more successful with these governance structures than their more conventional competitors.

So let’s stop rearranging deck chairs

Yes, measures to increase profits and productivity are good and necessary things to discuss in companies. But let us not lose sight of the big picture, you people in the business. A comforting bank account won’t come with the assurance of a comfortable life for you or your children. In catastrophes, the rational thing is to be radical. Alternatively, you may continue to behave like an ostrich and do business as normal. It is your choice: Radical or Ostrich. There is no in-between and only one of those option will save humanity and all life on this planet.

I know this may sound way too dramatic for many people. That’s because it really is.

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Further Reading

  • More on technology and the environment: Read John Lovelocks 2019 book “Novacene.”
  • More on the dramatic impacts of the climate catastrophe read Wallace-Wells 2019 “The uninhabitable Planet.”
  • More on economics and the climate catastrophe: Read Tim Jacksons 2017 “Prosperity without Growth” or Kate Raworth 2018 “Doughnut Economics.”
  • More on progressive organizational systems can found in my 2020 book “Liberated Companies- how to create vibrant organizations in the digital age” and on the Liberated.Company site. The ebook is in-store now; paperback will be in store the next days; hardcover is already available (Germany only)

Why I don’t like Coaching. Do you?

Nor Do I think highly of personnel development, the type supplied by HR. Four reasons for this:

  1. There is too much coaching and personnel development going on in many companies. People are tired of trainers or consultants preaching 
  2. In other companies, there is too little of coaching and personnel development going on to make a significant difference to anything
  3. Even worse: There is no right amount of coaching or personnel development so long as it’s primary use is to make people fit to a rather sick system that systematically disenfranchises people
  4. There fore and worst of all, neither coaching nor personnel development are producing decisive results. They never have 

Coaching and personnel development are these days all too often just feel-good riffs of pop-culture themes: Mindfulness, Teaming and Participation, Self- Efficacy, Vulnerability, Experimentation, Failure Tolerance, Innovation, Reflection, Empathy, Agility – you name it. While each of those themes is worthwhile, they are colliding with organizational systems that let good insights wither and die – systematically. After all, systems change people way more than people can change systems. 

Of course, there is bad and good coaching or personnel development. That is not the point. The point is that any initiative that is based on transforming individuals without changing organizational systems is futile. Organizations must be changed in ways that allow people to express themselves in novel, better ways. To preach to them values and behaviors that run against the grain of the values and behaviors enticed by the organizational system itself is like sending them on an exhaustive upstream swim – often against swift currents and in cold water.

Coaching and personnel development are all too often just excuses to avoid tackling the underlying problems of companies:

  1. The systems of work we use are largely not supportive to human values
  2. As long as coercion and enticement remain the main methods to align people’s actions with companies’ targets, people will systematically choose to withdraw into their shells. They will never bring the best version of themselves to work
  3. Hierarchies are extremist ways of regulating power. If aliens would land on earth and aim to subjugate humanity to a single will, they will use the hierarchy to achieve control. Of all the many ways to distribute power between people, the hierarchy is the most centralized and extreme one

Therefore, we need new systems of human collaboration. Don’t take it from me, take it from Management professors and successful entrepreneurs like Peter Drucker, Edward Deming, Gary Hamel, Frederick Laloux, Issac Geetz, Henry Mintzberg, Zhang Ruimin, Ray Dalio, to name a few (more can be found in the Corporate Rebels Bucket List).

In my book “Liberated Companies” I argue that we need to build these systems on four criteria:

  1. Reduce power differentials: A decrease in the power differentials between people to levels that are much more in sync to human flourishing – and that hold power to account much more than common now.
  2. Invite technology in: Organizing companies in a way that invites creative problem solving into the organization and is therefore much more compatible with the needs of technological progress.
  3. Provide creative tension systematically: Increase psychological safety for people while holding people accountable for results in a more effective manner than ever before.
  4. Re-align sensemaking of economic activity with planetary needs: In our time, it will be more and more difficult for companies to turn a blind eye to the escalating ecological and human catastrophe caused to no small part by the deeds of today’s companies.

Coaching and personnel development are so often used as just another tool to make people fit to company system that is way past their prime and in urgent need of a major update itself.

Coaching and personnel development are, in their essence, conservative and reactionary in a time when all companies, people and the planet need much bolder changes.

 It’s time to make this major update.

If you like to learn more, check out the central concepts on http://www.liberated.company and the announcement of “Liberated Companies – How to Create Vibrant Organizations in the Digital Age” – to be published by the end of November 2019.

200 Work Designs on a Map

It is strange. On the one hand most companies seem to be all alike and not so much different from one another at all: Hierarchical beasts that employ the classical work designs of Feedback, Delegation, Status Meetings, Protocols, Policies, Orders, Rewards, Appraisals etc. to get things done.

On the other hand there are more progressive companies like Google, Buurtzorg, Amazon, Haier, Netflix or Bridgewater that utilize some “leading edge” work design such as OKR’s, Self-Managed Teams, 6 Page memos, Culture Books, Promises Beyond Ableness, Mission Command, Consent Decision Making etc. They often appear to be using quirky ways to get things done differently.

Many people are fascinated by this or that “Work-hack”. Some even try it on their own Organization. Well, I guess by now most people have been subjected to daily stand-up meetings, KANBAN Boards and more engaging workshop formats with lots of breakout groups working in parallel – just to name a few of the better known practises.

What if we could explain companies by the way people are working with another? Introducing the Liberated Company Map.

During the last couple of years I have assembled a library of Work Designs of both traditional and more progressive organizations. All these Agile Work-hacks, New Work or Self-Managed Practices were too intolerably disordered for my limited teutonic mind. So here is my roster for ordering them. It consists of three criteria.

First, all work designs have a primary function, a target that they are used for. I have clustered these targets into nine functions of management in a 3*3 matrix. That order is inspired largely by Henry Fayols classic six functions of management.

The nine types of management practices

Please note that “Management Practices” are a subset of work designs – more on that in later posts, I do not want to get bogged down in theoretical discussions here.

Second, work designs are ordered by the size of the power differential that exists between people. By doing this, I am assuming that the amount of discretionary power that bosses have over employees has a critical influence on a persons behavior. People in more hierarchical, authoritarian companies will weigh every word and deed to not upset superiors, wherelse people in more self-managed organizations will find it easier to disagree and speak up. There is much more psychological safety in more self-managed organizations, and that causes work designs that foster on intrinsic motivation and social team dynamics to work much better than they would work in an enviromment of conformity and fear. I clustered the size of the power differential in four levels.

Companies can be distinguished by the size of the power differential between people

With increasing liberation level, the power shifts away from a manager towards employees and groups. This way of ordering companies is based on a scale proposed by Renis Likert, an American business professor, and is similar to other popular ordering systems, like Laloux’s Teal Model.

Developmental stages of organizational systems: 4 models

Last, I use the severity of a work design as an ordering criteria. The “severity” is the risk of a major backlash occuring if things go wrong with the use of a work design. For example, there is usually no harm in using pratices like “Daily Standups” or “Kanban Boards” but immense harm is done by using “Elected Superiors” or “Self-Service Remuneration” out of place, i.e. without a suitable company environment and other supporting work designs being in place.

Putting it all together, here is the map. It uses the 3*3 Layout of the nine management practice categories, subdivides each of the nine quadrant’s into four sub-quadrants by liberation level, and orders the list of practices in these sub-quadrants by severity. I call this the Liberated Company Map.

The Liberated Company Map

It’s a big map: You need to zoom in to see the details; you won’t know some practices and you might disagree with some of the mapping. I can offer you some help right now: If you want to dig into the practices, here is a complete list. Howeever, there is more to it, more to the art of configuring companies with work designs. But I leave that for the next posts.

I like to close with a preview. Any company can be mapped on the Liberated Company Map: Amazon, Google, Haier, Netflix, Buurtzorg or Siemens and Ford – any company. So here is a mapping of Bridgewater, a company of about 3500 employees and the worlds successful Hedgefund, known for its radically progressive organizational design.

All the management pratices not used by Bridgewater are left out in this graphic.

In the next posts, I will go through configurations of progressive companies and explain how they work. Companies on the very edge of organizational design, such as Buurtzorg, Haier and Bridgewater – but also more traditional companies.

I have just finished a manuscript for a book called “Liberated Companies: A Map and a Compass to Better Organisations in the Digital Age” that explains the topic in about 300 pages and 45 graphics and tables. If you are interested in learning more, sign up to my blog.

And spread the word, if you like what you see.

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Featured Picture by aitoff, https://pixabay.com/users/aitoff-388338/

I Was Wrong: Holacracy is The Thing!

Holacracy is dead. It is has been abandoned by prominent companies such as Medium or has problems (Zappos); it’s is too rigid; it puts processes over people; it’s unnatural and mechanistic. I myself did a comparison of Holacracy to Management 3.0 and Liberated Management Practices two years ago, followed up by a series of posts and did not judge it favorably.

I was wrong. Two years have passed since then. Time, I almost exclusively dedicated to learn and practice the art of mastering more self-managed organizations. My advice for those seeking to improve companies or teams is to read Brian Robertson’s “Holacracy”, just after you read Frederick Laloux’s “Reinventing Organizations” or listened to his excellent new video series. Mr. Laloux’s work fills you motivation and Robertson’s work will give you as close a view on the future of management as you will ever get.

The crucial thing which I got wrong in 2017 is that implementing Holacracy is not the thing. It is understanding Holacracy that is crucial for a move towards more self-management. Implementing Holacracy without having gone through a journey towards more self-managed for a couple of years before that, will properly get your company, team and yourself into deep trouble. It is simply too radical for most people in an organization to understand. Still, there is no better way to understanding a possible vision for the destination of the journey to “Management in the Digital Age” than Holacracy. The one approach on par with Holacracy is Sociocracy3.0, an updated and now very accessible version of another, similar “Self-management” Operating system. But beside it, I see no equals, no better way to understand Self-Management thoroughly.

Management 3.0 is certainly much more easily digestible with its colorful Mindsettlers app and has its merits to get more agile, liberated ways of management going, but it is ultimately less useful as a vision. It is something that you can use to start your journey but will not sustain you for long, as it lacks consistency and perspective.

Liberated Management Practices, is a term I use (inspired by Issac Geetz and Brian Carney’s book Freedom.Inc), to describe all the various management practices of progressive, more self-managed companies. They are not part of a system at all. Instead, they are just a diverse bunch of practices used at Buurtzorg, Gore, Patagonia, Haier, Bridgewater, and many more progressive companies. They lack order and consistency.

A way to picture all the ways to manage companies these days looks like this.

Agile, The Lean Start-up and Management3.0 are focused on the team level within more open hierarchical companies. The three main methods to scale Agile to the company level, SAFe, LeSS, and Nexus, ended up to be more classical portfolio management methods than anything that amounts to a management system.

Management as we know it — a lax way to describe all the paternalizing ways of organizing the work of individuals — is focused, well, on the individual level. It pays just lip service to teams. Its twin sister “Leadership as we know it”, is more aspirational in its whish to empower people and set good examples, but is ultimately stuck with inwards reflection on one’s own “leadership abilities and styles” or Michel Porter like strategizing and business model-talk.

That’s why Holacracy and Sociocracy 3.0 are so important: Only they light the way to run companies and teams that are truly self-managed. Oh, why do I think self-management is important?

  • Digital Technology will only spread and inundate Organizations if they become networks of people who are free to be critical and creative, with no hierarchy of submission standing in the way. To adopt digital technology ever better is what will give any company an edge. Therefore, it is a question of performance that leads to self-management.
  • In the age of the Extinction Crisis, we will need to see fundamental changes in the way we run companies, too. Letting people work in an environment based on exploitation is doing immense damage to peoples psychology and societies fabric. It is no good way of enlarging anyone’s concerns for the limits of the planet. Therefore, it is a question of survival that leads to self-management.

Holacracy is a great vision to aspire to, as is Sociocracy 3.0. They are well-rounded systems that finally do away with the industrial age’s exploitative hierarchy. They will allow companies and people to flourish more, by replacing coercion with motivation and exploitation with consideration.

The time is ripe for such systems. But companies are overwhelmingly not ripe for the big leap to self-management. Still, every company needs to start on its journey to the digital, green age. If only we could identify a great transformation path to more self-managed, liberated companies! All the Liberated Management Practices that Frederick Laloux propagates, that are the hype in New Work and Agile conferences, are great — but where are the map and the compass which could provide orientation?

 

I have a suggestion to make. But not now. In the next post.

Let me know what you think.

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!

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

The Lust For High Performance

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

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

Screenshot 2018-12-12 14.30.44.png

Condition VI: The Feeling That My Works Does Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non Conformity and Anti-Learning Stances

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

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

Condition VII: Social Norming that Fosters Performance

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

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

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

1. Outward Looking Norms: Engaging With The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a number of ways to do that:

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

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

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

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

Why Other Norms Are NOT as Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

Merry Christmas to all of you!

box celebrate celebration christmas

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Sources

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

 

How to Defeat "Best of the Best" Teams Consistently

This is part 6 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. Read this if you are interested in great teamwork and high-performance teams in businesses.

Key points:

  1. The higher team diversity, the greater the chance of solving complex problems
  2. Diversity that is most useful for a team comes in two shapes: A. Diversity of Skills and B. Diversity of Personality
  3. Team’s made up of “the best and brightest” are often bested by teams made up less skilled, but more diverse individuals
  4. More homogenous teams are better suited for repetitive tasks
  5. Diversity is an investment: You might get novel solutions, but you have to invest first and provide time for the team to form
  6. Keep a team stable. Period.

The diversity of people and the stability of membership are crucial for a team. Each person brings into the team a set of skills, intrinsic drive, and beliefs. What matters is the way those individual assets can be employed for the team.

Diversity

Let’s talk about diversity first. Diversity breeds innovation. The more diverse people are, the more original and innovative the solutions that the team can come up with. Diversity is a crucial driver of innovation.[1]Get together a crazy bunch of highly skilled people with wildly divergent world-views and backgrounds and the team will likely deliver highly innovative results. The only thing that stands in the way is the integrative ability of the team to get from immense social stress to the right level of social bonds that allows a joint team effort.[2]
We tend to glorify innovation, but innovation is finding small creative solutions in daily work, too. Any effective team is a team in search of big and small solutions, every day.  Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions.
There are lots of things that make people different, but the two elements with the most impact on team performance are skills and personality. A team needs to have all the required skills available to do a job. The more complex and unpredictable the environment is, the more diverse skills are required. It might turn out that some of those skills are not actually needed. However, complex situations are hard to predict. Who would have thought that calligraphy would be a useful skill for Steve Jobs while designing the User Interface for Apple IOS Operating system? So, it is not only important to have the right kind of skills inside a team, it is beneficial to have more diverse skills available than one would think are needed, too.
Then there is personality, which is much harder to measure. Combining different personality types, like introverted thinkers and extroverted achievers, optimistic and cautious people, inventors and perfectionists is important. A practical way to think about different team roles has been described by Meredith Belbin in 1981, the “Belbin Team Inventory.”[3]While such and other psychological tests are useful for choosing the right people for jobs, not many companies use them, or they fail to apply the insights gained from such an analysis in a carefully crafted decision process.[4]
Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.
Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.


Still, diversity has its drawbacks. The more diverse a team is, the less cohesive it is. But it is cohesiveness, which makes the team stable. It is tough to align a bunch of very different persons into a productive way of working. The more diverse the team, the more time is needed for people to bond with one another, and the higher the potential for conflict. Diverse teams are great for innovation, but homogenous teams are great for stability.
There is a trade-off between innovation and the stability of a team.

Stability

The integrative ability of a team is limited. It is time-consuming and emotionally stressful to integrate new team members or part with existing ones. A team needs stability. A team that is changing every day or week, where team members keep dropping in or out is no team. There is no time to bond with another, and there can be no shared feeling of commitment, there can be no “us.” Again, this sounds rather obvious. There is a tendency in business to ignore stability. There are always unforeseen things happening, and there are always other priorities emerging, so often there is no other way then exchanging team members, at least for some periods of time. Just a day of the week, maybe, how bad can that be?
Pretty bad. A team which is continually changing might have no chance to perform.  People might never get sufficiently close for effective teamwork. Even worse, if people keep on dropping in and out, people learn that it makes no sense to build up good working relations. People might be gone tomorrow.
A lack of stability hurts the performance of a team tremendously. People need time to get to know each other, and they need to have the time to familiarize themselves with the collective work. Only then the group will build a shared mental model of the way work is done. The academic evidence comes to a universal verdict: The longer a team is stable, with no team members entering or leaving, the better the team’s performance.[5]In a study of research teams, Mr. Hackman has found that exchanging one or two team members in a team of 5 to 7 team members doesn’t hurt performance only if it happens every two to three years. If a team member is to be added, exchanged or dismissed at all this should be done in the early phases of a team’s life cycle, for example with an eye on increasing the skills available to the team.
Yet it is hard to keep a team stable in a dynamic business environment. Certain things can be done to increase the resilience of a team against excessive fluctuation:
•    Get the team composition right from the start. Invest extra time and care to recruit the right people, free them up, and back-fill vacated lines positions. Compromises made early, during the forming of a team, will come back to haunt you manifold later. It is easier to start a team if you allow for some compromises, but it is hard to deliver the results that make the team a resounding success
•    Set the team’s task broadly. A broadly defined task is likely to be more stable if business priorities keep changing. Thereby, while priorities for the team might change in detail over time, the overall direction of the team will still be stable. A team faced with a broadly defined direction in a dynamic business will likely configure itself to use frequent iterations of work, reflection and adjust to evolve their work to the changing priorities. That’s a core idea of the Agile movement.
•    Go for more homogenous teams at the costs of diverse teams. The team will properly not come up with a lot of innovation, but it is inherently more stable. It starts up with much less motivation and coordination debt. Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions. Homogenous teams find it easier to apply already known solutions. If my house is on fire in Bordesholm, my hometown in the north of Hamburg, I want those local volunteer fire-fighters rushing in, who know themselves since elementary school. I am not interested in novel solutions to fight the fire. I am interested in getting it out, fast and reliably.
Sometimes – and I guess not to infrequently- innovativeness might not be what is called for. It might be more important to get a job done
•    Finally, consider doing less things with teams. Teams start with debt. It takes time to recuperate this debt. If the payoff period is likely to be not long enough to achieve break-even prior this or that change ripping the team apart, it is better to work on things in a manager led, workgroup setting. Only the most important things should be done in a team, as these tend to be more immune from ever-shifting priorities
The Integrative Ability of Organizations
But wait, there is another thing you might want to try. What about if forming and reforming, norming and re-norming teams is a natural part of an organization? What about if the integrative capabilities of groups are so high, that they allow for much more instability without hurting performance too much? Think for example of consulting teams, especially highly specialized ones. Those kinds of teams need to reform and re-norm all of the time, with each new engagement and each new client. While research has shown that even their performance would benefit from more stability of the team itself, good consulting organizations have usually achieved a high integrative capability. In fact, integrative capacity needs to be part of their very business model. However, consulting companies are project-based organizations. So, their model of operating won’t help other types of organizations.
Now imagine an organization that comes with a high degree of integrative capacity, so that effective teams bond fast.  Where people are used to work in effective, high performing team environments. They know what is expected of them and the forming, storming, and norming phases are mastered rapidly. Indeed, some norms for teamwork comes inbuilt in each coworker because it is wired into the DNA of the organization itself. Such organizations are those that rely more on self-managing teams than the traditional hierarchy.
(More on self-managing teams can be found in the previous post https://liberated.company/2018/10/18/forget-about-agile-reduce-overbearance-in-management-first/)
That’s it for today. Let me know what you think!
By the way, I decided to reduce the frequency of posts a bit, as I am busy writing a longer text for the next couple of months.


[1]Pentland, Alexander (2014) ‘Social Physics’
[2]American Psychologist, and disciple of Abraham Maslow, Clayton Alderfer calls this Under- and overboundedness. Alderfer, Clayton (2005) ‘The five laws of group and intergroup dynamics’
[3]Belbin, Meredith (1981) ‚Management Teams‘
[4]Bock, Lazlo (2016) ‘Work Rules!’
[5]Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading Teams’
And: Tetlock, Philip (2016) ‘Superforecasting’; Page, Scott E. (2008) ‘The Difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups…’

How to Defeat “Best of the Best” Teams Consistently

This is part 6 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. Read this if you are interested in great teamwork and high-performance teams in businesses.

Key points:

  1. The higher team diversity, the greater the chance of solving complex problems
  2. Diversity that is most useful for a team comes in two shapes: A. Diversity of Skills and B. Diversity of Personality
  3. Team’s made up of “the best and brightest” are often bested by teams made up less skilled, but more diverse individuals
  4. More homogenous teams are better suited for repetitive tasks
  5. Diversity is an investment: You might get novel solutions, but you have to invest first and provide time for the team to form
  6. Keep a team stable. Period.

The diversity of people and the stability of membership are crucial for a team. Each person brings into the team a set of skills, intrinsic drive, and beliefs. What matters is the way those individual assets can be employed for the team.

Diversity

Let’s talk about diversity first. Diversity breeds innovation. The more diverse people are, the more original and innovative the solutions that the team can come up with. Diversity is a crucial driver of innovation.[1]Get together a crazy bunch of highly skilled people with wildly divergent world-views and backgrounds and the team will likely deliver highly innovative results. The only thing that stands in the way is the integrative ability of the team to get from immense social stress to the right level of social bonds that allows a joint team effort.[2]

We tend to glorify innovation, but innovation is finding small creative solutions in daily work, too. Any effective team is a team in search of big and small solutions, every day.  Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions.

There are lots of things that make people different, but the two elements with the most impact on team performance are skills and personality. A team needs to have all the required skills available to do a job. The more complex and unpredictable the environment is, the more diverse skills are required. It might turn out that some of those skills are not actually needed. However, complex situations are hard to predict. Who would have thought that calligraphy would be a useful skill for Steve Jobs while designing the User Interface for Apple IOS Operating system? So, it is not only important to have the right kind of skills inside a team, it is beneficial to have more diverse skills available than one would think are needed, too.

Then there is personality, which is much harder to measure. Combining different personality types, like introverted thinkers and extroverted achievers, optimistic and cautious people, inventors and perfectionists is important. A practical way to think about different team roles has been described by Meredith Belbin in 1981, the “Belbin Team Inventory.”[3]While such and other psychological tests are useful for choosing the right people for jobs, not many companies use them, or they fail to apply the insights gained from such an analysis in a carefully crafted decision process.[4]

Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.

Philipp Tetlock, a British researcher 2016 writes in his 2016 book “Superforecasting”, that diverse groups of problem solvers consistently outperform individuals as well as groups composed of the best and the brightest. That’s not to say that skill is irrelevant, but a better-rounded set of skills is more useful than more of the same. One rocket scientist in a team of ten production engineers makes a HUGE difference, but ten rocket scientists and no production engineer leaves the team with no idea how to manufacture that good dam rocket.


Still, diversity has its drawbacks. The more diverse a team is, the less cohesive it is. But it is cohesiveness, which makes the team stable. It is tough to align a bunch of very different persons into a productive way of working. The more diverse the team, the more time is needed for people to bond with one another, and the higher the potential for conflict. Diverse teams are great for innovation, but homogenous teams are great for stability.

There is a trade-off between innovation and the stability of a team.

Stability

The integrative ability of a team is limited. It is time-consuming and emotionally stressful to integrate new team members or part with existing ones. A team needs stability. A team that is changing every day or week, where team members keep dropping in or out is no team. There is no time to bond with another, and there can be no shared feeling of commitment, there can be no “us.” Again, this sounds rather obvious. There is a tendency in business to ignore stability. There are always unforeseen things happening, and there are always other priorities emerging, so often there is no other way then exchanging team members, at least for some periods of time. Just a day of the week, maybe, how bad can that be?

Pretty bad. A team which is continually changing might have no chance to perform.  People might never get sufficiently close for effective teamwork. Even worse, if people keep on dropping in and out, people learn that it makes no sense to build up good working relations. People might be gone tomorrow.

A lack of stability hurts the performance of a team tremendously. People need time to get to know each other, and they need to have the time to familiarize themselves with the collective work. Only then the group will build a shared mental model of the way work is done. The academic evidence comes to a universal verdict: The longer a team is stable, with no team members entering or leaving, the better the team’s performance.[5]In a study of research teams, Mr. Hackman has found that exchanging one or two team members in a team of 5 to 7 team members doesn’t hurt performance only if it happens every two to three years. If a team member is to be added, exchanged or dismissed at all this should be done in the early phases of a team’s life cycle, for example with an eye on increasing the skills available to the team.

Yet it is hard to keep a team stable in a dynamic business environment. Certain things can be done to increase the resilience of a team against excessive fluctuation:

•    Get the team composition right from the start. Invest extra time and care to recruit the right people, free them up, and back-fill vacated lines positions. Compromises made early, during the forming of a team, will come back to haunt you manifold later. It is easier to start a team if you allow for some compromises, but it is hard to deliver the results that make the team a resounding success

•    Set the team’s task broadly. A broadly defined task is likely to be more stable if business priorities keep changing. Thereby, while priorities for the team might change in detail over time, the overall direction of the team will still be stable. A team faced with a broadly defined direction in a dynamic business will likely configure itself to use frequent iterations of work, reflection and adjust to evolve their work to the changing priorities. That’s a core idea of the Agile movement.

•    Go for more homogenous teams at the costs of diverse teams. The team will properly not come up with a lot of innovation, but it is inherently more stable. It starts up with much less motivation and coordination debt. Diverse teams find it easier to come up with novel solutions. Homogenous teams find it easier to apply already known solutions. If my house is on fire in Bordesholm, my hometown in the north of Hamburg, I want those local volunteer fire-fighters rushing in, who know themselves since elementary school. I am not interested in novel solutions to fight the fire. I am interested in getting it out, fast and reliably.

Sometimes – and I guess not to infrequently- innovativeness might not be what is called for. It might be more important to get a job done

•    Finally, consider doing less things with teams. Teams start with debt. It takes time to recuperate this debt. If the payoff period is likely to be not long enough to achieve break-even prior this or that change ripping the team apart, it is better to work on things in a manager led, workgroup setting. Only the most important things should be done in a team, as these tend to be more immune from ever-shifting priorities

The Integrative Ability of Organizations

But wait, there is another thing you might want to try. What about if forming and reforming, norming and re-norming teams is a natural part of an organization? What about if the integrative capabilities of groups are so high, that they allow for much more instability without hurting performance too much? Think for example of consulting teams, especially highly specialized ones. Those kinds of teams need to reform and re-norm all of the time, with each new engagement and each new client. While research has shown that even their performance would benefit from more stability of the team itself, good consulting organizations have usually achieved a high integrative capability. In fact, integrative capacity needs to be part of their very business model. However, consulting companies are project-based organizations. So, their model of operating won’t help other types of organizations.

Now imagine an organization that comes with a high degree of integrative capacity, so that effective teams bond fast.  Where people are used to work in effective, high performing team environments. They know what is expected of them and the forming, storming, and norming phases are mastered rapidly. Indeed, some norms for teamwork comes inbuilt in each coworker because it is wired into the DNA of the organization itself. Such organizations are those that rely more on self-managing teams than the traditional hierarchy.

(More on self-managing teams can be found in the previous post https://liberated.company/2018/10/18/forget-about-agile-reduce-overbearance-in-management-first/)

That’s it for today. Let me know what you think!

By the way, I decided to reduce the frequency of posts a bit, as I am busy writing a longer text for the next couple of months.


[1]Pentland, Alexander (2014) ‘Social Physics’

[2]American Psychologist, and disciple of Abraham Maslow, Clayton Alderfer calls this Under- and overboundedness. Alderfer, Clayton (2005) ‘The five laws of group and intergroup dynamics’

[3]Belbin, Meredith (1981) ‚Management Teams‘

[4]Bock, Lazlo (2016) ‘Work Rules!’

[5]Hackman, Richard (2002) ‘Leading Teams’

And: Tetlock, Philip (2016) ‘Superforecasting’; Page, Scott E. (2008) ‘The Difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups…’

Forget about AGILE! Reduce Overbearance in Management first

This is part 5 of a series exploring what makes an effective team. Read this if you are interested in great teamwork and like to explore different types of teams.

COE4.png

Condition 4: Clear Boundaries

Effective teams are groups of people that act towards a particular direction. Although everyone is different, people inside a team align actions with one another. A crude but essential way of achieving alignment is setting clear boundaries.

By setting boundaries, two things are achieved: First, the freedom to act is clearly defined. The team can do everything that is within the limits of the team.  Second, everything that is set out of bounds is simplifying the mission: It is one less thing to take care of – which is very welcome as long as the boundary does not overly restrict the team’s ability to deliver. Cleary stated limits create certainty for the team. They are giving the team something to work with. They lessen the risk of the team running into major, unyielding, yet unstated boundaries later.

Boundary conditions are everything that is framing the team’s mission: Resources, scope, and deadlines are the three classical boundary conditions given to a team. However, it is although its decision-making power and the very definition who is on the team and who is not, and what is means to be on the team.

Who is on the team?

To merely assign team members is not enough. There are two things to consider. First, what does it mean to be on the team? Which rights and obligations come with team membership? A decision on team membership is a decision to include a person – but it is a decision to exclude a person, too. There should be no in between, and there should be no half-baked assignments, no “extended teams”- just universal clarity. Extended teams are a backdoor to increase team size and dilute responsibility, often for the sake of political convenience. There are always persons outside the team who need to contribute, but usually, that contribution can be limited to consulting with the team, delivering some tasks, contributing to workshops, reviewing and testing.

Second, in high-performance teams being on the team does mean to spend a lot of the time on it, the more, the merrier: Everything being equal, a full-time dedicated team will always outperform the part-time team in efficiency, speed, quality, and any other target dimension. This is not to say that the team needs to be together all the time. It may be necessary to split up the work or explore different paths, while all the time working on the team’s task.

These two demands, clearness who is on the team and who is not, and full-time dedication are so immensely essential and easy to understand yet appear so often utterly unrealistic in most companies. All the right people are already over-assigned.  Restricting the number of assignments is often hard to do, as there is always some constituency to please by demonstrating action. This is all too understandable. Well then, go ahead and over-commit your team to multiple endeavors simultaneously. Just do not expect high performance.

Again, this sounds a bit passive-aggressive. I do not mean to. The fact that people are overcommitted again illustrates the underlying theme in this series of posts: Organizations do not care about individual or team effectiveness too much. They are willing to sacrifice performance for other priorities, like stability and predictability.  Sometimes, they even choose to sacrifice performance to uphold the appearance of busyness. Where results are hard to link to individuals, hierarchies tend to reward people who appear to be busy. It takes much discipline for a company not to overload its co-workers with work. More on that in part III.

What is the authority level of the team?

What is the team allowed to decide on its own? What is the team’s freedom to act? Hackman describes four levels of authority:

  • Level 1: Authority to execute the task
  • Level 2: Authority to monitor and manage work processes and progress
  • Level 3: Authority to design the team and its organizational context
  • Level 3: Authority to set overall directions

Based on these authorization level 4 types of team’s can be identified.

ToT

Type I: The Workgroup that is executing the team task

At the first, fundamental level, the team needs to be authorized to execute the team task. That may sound very basic, but in more political companies even this authorization level is sometimes not given to a team.

One of my very first projects, as a young consultant, was of this kind. Our team was supposed to fix the multi-billion investment management process in the Volkswagen Group across all its brands, VW, Audi, Skoda, Seat. For this, we were supposed to be using a brand new shiny new software package from a south German company called SAP, which offered work-flow functionality to fully digitalize the very communication intensive review and approval process of investment projects. Albeit the very same corporate grandees that initiated this project didn’t want any change in the way work is done to not upset the powerful brands. To implement standard software without changing historically grown processes is a blatant contradiction. Still, our mission was: Implement but do not change anything. While informing a senior partner in our company on our straits, he just smiled thinly and said: “Oh well, they are playing their old game: Go wash me, but do not get me wet.”

Every boundary set on the way the team task is to be executed closes down an avenue to a solution – possibly up to the point that the job is no longer feasible – or becomes bereft of economic sense. An example for this is the demand often faced by teams to keep within just one silo of the organization: You can do everything here, but do not change process X or System Y, that is a given. It is the nature of really important changes to have an impact on multiple organizational silos. Most modifications done to just one part of an organization quite often result in a local optimum – and global dysfunction. They might make sense for a unit, but not for the company a whole.[1]Such boundaries can turn an otherwise pretty sensible team mission to one might make limited or no sense at all.

Type II: The Self-Managing Team that is Monitoring and managing its work process and progress

Once that first, existential hurdle is cleared, and the team is all set to execute the task the next question is: Who is to monitor and manage the work process and progress, i.e., to lead the team? Usually, a manager (or project manager) is assigned to do this, no questions asked. The alternative that a team can monitor and manage its own work is not even considered. Yet this amount of freedom to organize in a way it deems best is precisely what a high-performance team needs. Mr. Hackman and all the researchers specialized in the science of high-performance teams have delivered an abundance of evidence about that.

Managers are not irrelevant in ta Self-Managing team. They still set the overall direction, convene the team and provide the working environment, including setting the boundary conditions. However, they refrain from intervening in the way the team does the work. If managers intervene, for example by coming up with meticulously detailed work break down structures, teams just won’t perform on a high level. Such manager-led teams are workgroups: Collections of individuals to whom work is assigned by a manager. A workgroup might be good enough to do a job, but it is unlikely to achieve high-performance levels. If the work process is managed by a single person, the team cannot build its emergent properties, not integrate in a way to deliver results that are more than the sum of its parts. In such a one-sided power structure, the openness and integration needed for a genuine team effort are unlikely to occur.

Beware about the overbearing manager (especially in projects)

Wait a minute! I just said that the manager led teams are a killer to a team’s performance. I even said that those are workgroups and not teams at all!

This is true. Workgroups are the way most company units or departments are organized. A loosely bound collection of individuals coordinated by a manager. Their performance will never be as high as a team, but their results are predictable and controllable. Work-groups are the norm, and Self-managed teams are exotic. Performance aspirations of line units might not justify a team effort, but within more significant projects, performance aspirations are usually higher. A good case for a high-performing, self-managed team. So how often are project teams self-managed?

Conventional project teams are headed by a project manager. Although Agile Methods like SCRUM discourage the use of project managers, most companies hold on to the notion of project managers. A manager leads a business unit. A project manager leads a project. Someone needs to be in control. It just makes so much sense to them.

Here comes the snag: Effective teams are NEVER manager-led workgroups. They are at least Self-Managing teams, where every team member can engage more wholly. Science has proven that classical, manager-led teams that come with micromanaging, intrusive, administrative procedures, overbearing interventions into the team space do not lead to exceptional performance.

The trouble is that most project managers approach projects with the same mindset as line managers. To be in control is their core concern. The question of control is at the heart of the world’s leading project management methods like PRINCE2 or PMBOK. To reliably come up with projects that deliver on time, in quality and to budget. Control is what is expected by them by the line organization. Get out there, take charge of a project and deliver according to the plan.

The problem with big project management frameworks is not that they do not solicit good advice. The problem is rather that they give too many methods, tools, and advice. If you learn the whole curriculum, you are likely to end up with a zoo of intrusive management interventions that patronize team members and undermine their initiative. There is a commercial incentive to blow up what it takes to manage projects successfully. Project managers tend to think they need to apply all those methods. I am not saying that learning about project management is a bad idea. However, I am saying that a core condition of effective teams, the freedom to determine its path on its own, is often threatened by overbearing project managers. Those types are keen to show what they have learned and are eager to display to the rest of the organization that they are in control.

That sounds like a fundamental attack on the time-treasured ancient art of project management. Old style project management may lead to great charts, great reporting and the illusion of control, but seldom to a great performance.

What’s the alternative to run successful projects? The standard answer nowadays is Agile and Scrum. The trouble is, Agile and Scrum can just be as overbearingly intrusive to teams as classic project management methods can be. The underlying solution lies, according to a host of research on high-performance teams, in managers not intervening too much: Hands-off – Eyes on. The actual project method, waterfall style or SCRUM, is of secondary importance.

Great team performance needs managers who enable teams to do their best. For that, they need to devolve control to the team and give people the freedom to act. According to Hackman and other researchers, a manager should design the team and its organizational context, but not interfere and intrude into the group dynamics of a team. A useful manager is an environment builder and coach, not an overbearing patron or a dictator. Alas, the sheer size of world-leading project manager standards leads people to believe that the more interventions, the merrier. The contrary is true.

Type III: The Self-Designing Team that is designing itself and its environment

Time to go even further. A team can also be trusted with designing itself and its work environment. For example, and contrary to popular belief, it is not a law of nature that managers need to “staff” teams. People can assign themselves to teams and teams can decide on shedding team members themselves. They can produce their own boundary conditions, setting targeted costs, marshaling resources, and to determine the scope of the project without managerial oversight.

Teams can be “self-designing.” In such a context, a manager points a team at a direction and let the team figure out everything on their own.

Wait a minute! That sounds like a free for all. A chaotic commune. Anarchy. Sure, if you make a team Self-Designing, without doing anything about the other 11 conditions for effective teams, you are bound to get into trouble. Those things only work if one takes a holistic approach to work design. What’s more, this holistic approach needs to extend not only to the management of teams but to the management of the company as a whole. Precisely what this blog is about.

Type IV: The Self-Governing teams that set its own directions

The fourth level is to authorize the team to set its overall direction. Such a “Self-governing,” free-ranging team is subject to the same team dynamics described in this part of the post but needs an entirely different organizational context to operate in than a traditional hierarchical organization provides. Such a team is found in Self-managed organizations that replace hierarchies of authorities with hierarchies of purpose – a  phenomenon that is explored in this blog, e.g. Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0.

How common are these four types of teams?

What is the empirical frequency of the four different team authorization levels in today’s companies? I have found no studies about this, but here is my hunch:

  • The overwhelming majority of teams are managerial led, co-working groups, let’s say 85% in a line organization and 70% in a project context
  • Self-Managing teams are about 13% in a line organization and 25% in a project context. These are those teams, where a manager is shrewd enough to take on an enabling role to the team and keeps his interventions to a minimum. Such a team might call itself “Self-managed,” but it is.
  • Self-Designing Teams make up the larger share of the remaining 2% in line and 5 % in project contexts. Using such a high authorization level on teams would seriously undermine the appearance of being in control and decisive that a manager needs to uphold, so this is seldom done. It is most common in informal groups, like for example communities of interest.
  • Very few teams are Self-governing. Self-governing teams are only possible in a self-managing organization, and those are very few. They are in the vanguard of today’s organizational thinking.

Managers relinquishing control is a rare phenomenon. Yet it is what is required for great team performance. However, without a manager being in full control, how can a team stay on track? How can low performance be sanctioned? Please hold on to these questions until we make through all 12 conditions of effective teams, as all of those deliver important pieces to the answer.

That’s it for today. In the next post, in two weeks, I will show why diverse teams are sometimes a good idea, but not always.

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Audible…no: I hope you enjoyed this post. Let me know what you think!

Key points

  • There is just one team. Not an extended Team, too.
  • Full time dedication of people to a team is king. Period
  • Authorize the team to organize on its own. There simply is no other way to high performing teams.
  • Good Managers refrain from intervening in the way the team does the work. People call that Self Management.
  • Effective teams are NEVER manager-led workgroups.
  • Agile and Scrum can just be as overbearingly intrusive to teams as classic project management methods can be

Previous posts in this series on effective teams:

  1. Performance in general and what makes individual performance: You call yourself a Great Manager? Let Me Hear Your Theory of Performance!
  2. Why Most Companies Should Not Seek to Work in Teams
  3. The twelve conditions for effective teams, including condition one, a compelling direction

Sources and Footnotes

[1]For more on local optima and how to find out the things that really need to be changed in businesses check out Goldratt, Eliyahu (1994) ‘The Theory of Constraints‘