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InfoQ Homepage Articles Improving Organizational Agility with Self-Management

Improving Organizational Agility with Self-Management

Key Takeaways

  • More and more, companies should question "why" they practice or intend to learn agile ways of solving their problems
  • Bottlenecks can be encountered during an agile transformation in a company; through a "diamond" set of lenses, you can understand what may prevent your agility from thriving
  • Leaders may struggle to create and foster the right conditions to let agility thrive. We propose "self-management" as way for enterprises to liberate teams and people and set the "enough" structures and processes to sustain agility
  • Self-management may sound scary and messy; many companies have adopted and built their own "versions" of self-management- there are no "right" or "wrong" answers, and there are possibilities to experiment it in a safe way
  • At Indaco, we have developed our own ways of practicing self-management, combined with other tools to find our own path; agility may go hand-in-hand with self-management as a way to shift mindsets and open a conversation to really find new ways of working in organizations

Organizations may have already started a path in transforming their processes and structures in order to adapt and react quickly, as uncertain and unpredictable change may occur. This could include agile approaches, frameworks or techniques; they as a whole represent "the journey", the sequence of steps, an invitation to all the people within the organization. In a transformation, such "steps" may impact various aspects of the organization (e.g. from teams to management, from budget to product management, from delivery to incentive programs) and offer the chance to radically question them.

Some "questions" can sometimes be tough or hard to answer: how do we compensate and promote people within organizations? How do we motivate them? How are teams formed? Do they remain the same or do they change frequently? How can we also bring agility to the execution level?

Also, these questions can honestly be perceived as real threats to some of the foundational assumptions that sustain a company. On the other hand, not responding to these questions can represent real obstacles or bottlenecks that may prevent agility from thriving within an organization.

There are organizational models, tools and practices (like Holacracy, non-violent communication and the "Economy of Common Good") that inherently can offer opportunities to answer these questions. In this article, we present "self-management" as a possibility to natively support agility to plant seeds and let both institutions and people thrive and benefit from it.

Self-management is based on keeping commitments and making the most of personal creativity and initiatives to serve the company mission. This different approach can provide an environment freed of redundancies in decision-making in which new processes grow directly from value creation to delivery. In addition, self-management tends to decentralize power and distribute authority, which would allow fewer management roles and create savings on management costs and overhead.

What if there were no more hierarchical filters between who generates values and customers? This article is a good read to find out.

The benefits that agile can bring to companies

By embodying agility as a better way of organizing work and dealing with markets and products, organizations will develop a particular ability to adapt and react faster to unpredictable changes that may occur inside or outside and that may affect them in various ways. The key question is, "why?" Why do I [the company] have to adopt agility? Why can’t I keep my structure and processes as they are? Why do I have to change?

Due to many reasons - one of which is the impact of technology on society - the world has become a highly complex system where we are continuously learning new ways of interacting and drastically increasing the pace at which we are interacting; the more we are interconnected and interdependent, the harder it is to know exactly what will happen in the near future.

"We live in a VUCA world, they say": VUCA stands for "Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous", a world where the relation of cause-and-effect becomes non-linear and even very small variations could lead to highly unpredictable results (check InfoQ’s Q&A with Dave Snowden or the article Cynefin Applied: Adapting to Changing Contexts to better understand the Cynefin framework).

In a world like this, organizations are now having to face how hard it is to compete in markets and create strategies that may last even on middle terms. In a complex world, adaptability is a more effective way to survive. And that’s exactly what agility is: a different - and better - way for organizations to survive.

What prevents agile from thriving

During Massimo’s research for finding new and innovative ways to solve problems and organize work, we found an interesting model which proposes an integral approach to implement agility. The model is called "Diamond Agile" and was developed by Kyle Aretae (check the Agile Uprising Podcast's Q&A with Kyle Aretae for the entire explanation of the model). The model shows an octagonal diamond that represents different aspects that should be addressed in dealing with agility. They are: Process, People, Tech, Product, Enterprise, Change, Scaling and Mindset. In short, here are the definitions:

  • "Process" refers to all the procedures and practices regarding the agile methodology, like the "daily standups" or "sprint reviews" from Scrum or the "Three Ways" from Devops; all regard the activities and steps you do in a certain cyclical-fashion method to dealing with deep uncertainties.
  • "People" is the core of the agile manifesto; it involves the human factor, the teams working in agile, respect and honesty, Scrum values, a way of allowing human beings to have a better way of working together. How a team is able to own responsibility rather than having a manager assigning responsibility to individuals strongly relies on this facet.
  • Then comes the "Tech": in order to create software products with agility, teams should learn how to do "traditional" activities like analysis, design, documentation and testing without spending months on each one. The "Tech" is all the active work in learning about how to carry out good behaviors and good software practices; how to do development differently, how to do deployment differently, and learning how to apply TDD or Mob Programming. This is all it takes to get the technical pieces of agile right.
  • "Product" is all about understanding what the right product to build is. Product ownership is probably the hardest part of agile; understanding what we should discover first or how we "read" the customer’s needs - which is constantly changing - is really hard. The shift from a "one-person-product-owner" role to team-sport ownership is the most important piece of the software development.
  • "Enterprise" refers to what sustains agility at the infrastructure level; how much teams remain stable, how projects are funded, how compensations and promotions incentivize teamwork rather than individual endeavors, and how executives do agile practice in their work. Here we connect with self management, which has some interesting pieces at the "Enterprise" level to sustain agility.
  • "Change" refers to the impact of agility on management and organization. Organizational change is another big problem. What does it take to have agility penetrate all levels of the company? It impacts the leadership that leads in building the right practices in order to have everyone doing agile stuff everywhere.
  • "Scaling" refers to what happens when the work to be done involves more than one team. There is a swarm of methods available to solve this problem: Safe, Nexus and Less, among others. In this facet comes a tradeoff: how much coordination and control is it ok to give up in order to have more agility (and vice versa)?
  • "Mindset" refers to a fundamental shift in how we see and approach problems. In facing a new problem, an agile mindset would be about approaching it from the perspective of "teams-prioritization-feedback system-small units of work-long term approach-team support". Agile as a mindset takes time to grow, by doing agile for many years.

With this Diamond, Aretae helps to frame agility in all its nuances. Every facet represents various areas where organizations could work on in order to become more agile in dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability. On the other hand, a facet may represent an area where organizations could struggle, literally with "bottlenecks" on the path to building the sufficient agility to survive. Our talk "Self-management: the missing component in the agile transformation of the organization" at Agile Business Day 2020 (in Italian) focused on the Enterprise facet, exploring how the structure, the bureaucracy, the management and the HR programs could be updated in order to sustain the agile transformation of an organization.

Defining self-management

We can think of self-management as a progressive tool to liberate creativity in people and organize work around trust and purpose. The word "tool" can sound a bit simplistic, and it is: self-management refers to an evolutionary set of principles, processes and practices which let people and organizations address and solve some of the pains they are suffering in the 21st world. Employee disengagement, sustainability, environmental changes, increasing complexity and economical gaps in salaries are some of them.

There are organizations like Haier, Morning Star, Buurtzorg, Semco, Nearsoft, Favi, Patagonia, our italian Mondora (see the InfoQ conversation with CEO Francesco Mondora "Think of Software as a Force for Good, Using Teal and Agile")  and many others around the globe that are pioneering self-management. With all their ups and downs, they all describe their transformational process as a journey that needs to be embarked upon by the organization as a whole, and something that can lead to a profound shift in how we all see the work that needs to be done.

The shift they talk about comes also from within; organizations are systems that resemble our personal way of seeing reality, and only by profoundly questioning ourselves and our inner system can we then have "the space" to explore new radical and meaningful ways of working.

It’s difficult to define self-management in a singular way, because unlike agile, it doesn’t have a unique source of origin. It has been an evolution starting with previous paradigms driven by exceptional entrepreneurs who decided to drop old habits that were always producing the same (poor) results. These pioneers were doing everything by themselves, using their common sense and a lot of courage to leap into the unknown.

When I think about pioneers, I think of Chris Rufer, who founded Morning Star in 1970 in California, Gerard Endenburg, who applied sociocratic methods in the same period in Endenburg Elektrotechniek BV in the Netherlands, Jean-François Zobrist, who turned Favi on its head in the 80’s in France, and Ricardo Semler, who was already experimenting with smart working and self-set salaries in Brazil in the 80’s!

The best definition of self-management for me is "a continuous education on freedom and accountability". This describes the idea that self-management is not natural and we all need to practice and improve on this path. If you are a boss, you need to learn to give real freedom, if you are an employee, you need to understand and practice accountability.

In the end, self-management is moving away from "one person decides everything" to a sweet spot between dictatorship and democracy, in which decisions are made by the most competent people on the subject and the others can always contribute to give better ideas.

Self-management at Indaco

Imagine a group of freelancers bonded together only by a common purpose: to help people work better in order to allow organizations to achieve the best. This is "the boss". This means that it is not someone’s idea that wins against others’ because she is "the boss". We often refer to our purpose, reflect on it, and act accordingly.

It happened many times that we made decisions in this way, but the ones that stood out the most were:

  • The decision to create a startup outside of Indaco for a specific service because the purpose was different. Some people decided to participate and some others didn’t. Today the new company is a partner, but not controlled in any way.
  • Discarding some projects because we didn’t have the possibility to work with people to improve their work and we were asked only to work on processes from outside.

Saying there is no boss also implies that nobody can force others to do anything, for example I cannot force someone to do a project with me or have her take on more projects than what she wants.

All the rules and roles we have created are in constant evolution and everybody can move things forward. Complaining is no use for us. Who are you complaining about? There is no boss! :)

The same is true of all the typical aspects of a company: compensation, professional growth, and strategy. All the energy of the individual is captured and the group helps to amplify it.

We have experimented with different practices. Now we have our own version of Holacracy (to give a clear structure and practical decision process) combined with non-violent communication (to create a solid human context).

When we started thinking of working together we were very skeptical; we knew from previous experiences that bringing freelance consultants together is not easy. After all, we are consultants and each one of us thinks we have the best idea! And we talk too much ...

We were not even sure about creating a new group, so maybe the solution was to be on our own and just collaborate?

Anyway we started writing down things we wanted and things we wanted to avoid. It was pretty clear we needed something different; Pietro was studying self-management and proposed to try it.

Holacracy was a great starting point for us because many books describe self-management as a philosophy but give no comprehensive answers to questions like, "Who can decide this?" or, "What can we do if the majority wants A and the most competent person on the subject says B?"

The method is like a new operating system (as usually described by its founder Brian Robertson) and can function immediately out of the box with no customization. The main thing that was missing, in our opinion, was a space for people to speak about their feelings and needs (in Holacracy you are always energizing one or more roles and you are encouraged to always speak from a role). Luckily, we happened to have the perfect complementary solution to that: non-violent communication (NVC). One of our colleagues was completing his certification and he started training the entire group.

NVC is quite simple because it is made up of only four steps: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Practicing it however, we discovered how deeply it changed our way of dealing with strong emotions towards our colleagues. After three years of practice we can now address any subject, even the most difficult ones, and can be certain that it will not escalate into a conflict; on the contrary, the sooner we deal with it the better.

Moving on with our practice we started changing more and more "functions" of the operative system of Holacracy:

  • We moved away from the lead link role to embrace an election process for assigning roles
  • We began different decision-making processes for extraordinary decisions (budgeting, onboarding, etc)
  • We followed a new standard for tactical and governance meeting that embeds NVC when necessary
  • Etc.

Recently we started doing an evaluation following the ECG Economy of Common Good as Indaco felt the need to be more conscious about its impact on the world at all levels.

We knew as consultants that we were using our cars too much and polluting the environment. We knew we wanted to help some non-profit organizations by lowering our prices for them. We wanted to help our customers be more responsible towards society and the environment. But how can you fit all these positive aspects in a strategy that makes sense? How can you communicate clearly to inspire others and attract like-minded customers?

ECG gave us a systemic approach to analyze every aspect of our business and open our eyes on the impact - positive and negative - that it generates. We are starting 2021 with a lot of ideas and projects to improve on this sustainability path that has no end, and which will become part of our way of doing business.

After all, every company does a financial report at the end of the year, but if you believe that there’s more to life than money, maybe it’s time to start measuring more: a common good report.

"Because if enough people do it, we can change society's definition of success away from the moronically simplistic notion that the person with the most money when he dies wins, to a more thoughtful and balanced definition of what a life well lived looks like." -  Nigel Marsh

It has been an incredible journey for a small group like us, in just three years.

We had some clear ideas of what we did want in the beginning, because we knew from the past how bad it could turn out: no bosses, no traditional hierarchy, no decisions taken together voting with majority, no earning money from the work of other people (i.e. junior and senior consultants), no hidden tensions between us, etc.

At the same time, we had no idea how to do that. The key has been to give constant attention to the quality of the organization (if something is not working, we need to change it) and the happiness of the individuals (if someone is not happy, we need to take care of that).

Experiment with self-management in a safe way

There are some practices that can help an organization try self-management in a safe way. We can rely on Frederique La Loux’s perspective: according to La Loux, there are five key-processes that, if implemented, may let an organization move to a more self-managed approach. Those processes are related to how people make decisions, how much information is shared, how job titles are split in roles and distributed, how performances are evaluated, and how conflicts are processed.

In order to start the journey, the organizations - starting from its leaders - should reflect on the reasons why it should move towards self-management, what the drivers that motivate this transition are; and what can be considered "safe" to lose or how far can it go.

La Loux’s five key-processes offer guidance to open deeper and more meaningful conversations. Let’s take the "decision-making process" for instance. We can put some questions on the table to help reflect on the topic: what are the structures and approaches we tend to follow when we make a decision? Are they more similar to top-down decisions made by leaders? Or more like a democratic decision? Or are they more about reaching a consensus to have everyone on board? What are the challenges and pitfalls we face in applying those practices? Is there a desire to change on this topic? What is our aspiration? What are our assumptions?  Do we imply people should have more freedom and autonomy in making a decision? What are the impediments that prevent something similar from happening? By navigating these questions, we should reach the clarity that may help an organization to start this journey.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to describe a specific path with a sequence of steps to follow.

For sure a powerful way is when someone is passionate about the subject of organization, and takes the time to go out and explore. There are hundreds of companies and practices to copy; they are all very different and must be evaluated to understand if they make sense in your environment.

One attempt to improve things that hasn’t worked (processes, methods, rules, structures) has always been to make a benchmark of what similar companies usually do and copy that.

The problem is, these attempts don’t produce better results, as Gallup and others have shown over and over again with poor results on employee engagement.

What if we aren’t able to go out and copy practices from the most innovative companies?

Organization is just a game for adults; the problem is we believe too much in the rules we have created and we forget that it is all just an illusion! Do you want an example? Think about parking spaces: 99% of companies give the best spots to the top managers. What if instead we get rid of that policy and leave the parking spaces free for those who arrive first, or maybe for those who are most fragile.

Unfortunately, it has been demonstrated that managers lose their empathy* due to the power they have over their subordinates, but we believe that many of them are unhappy and would love to give away some of the weight of power.

Here is some reading on this topic:

Increasing agility in your company

Looking at the "Diamond" that Kyle Aretae mentioned before, in order to improve their agility companies should periodically ask themselves, "Where is my company still lacking agility?", "What is the ‘facet’ that the company should address next?", "Where I can improve, and how?" At Indaco, as we are a group of interdependent consultants who self-manage their work, we tend to iteratively question some of our core processes, like how we conduct proposals or our economical model. We consider it vitally important to revise them as new experiences are made or new people join the group.

This continuous reflection represents a journey of an organization that may struggle and face difficulties, maybe due to some of the "resistances" perceived internally, e.g. around the point of view that an "Enterprise" - a combination of structure, bureaucracy, execution and human resources’ processes - may cause a bottleneck in this journey. As Graig Larman observes, "Culture follows structure": by properly acting on the structure, we may nurture a different culture based on values, co-creation and support. The ways companies can improve their agility may vary, but finding their whys I believe is still key to improving.

If you are in command, we have two questions for you:

Do you think your decisions are most of the time better than groups’ or other people’s decisions?

If your answer is "yes", then don’t look any further, but make sure you create a copy of yourself for when you get older. Otherwise your company may die with you.

If you answered "no", the second question is, what are you truly passionate about? What kind of decisions do you really like to be involved in?

Once you have the answer, find a way to leave all the rest to others giving them clarity and freedom. If you do this at all levels, you will create a company made of free and accountable colleagues.

We did so, and it has been much better for us and for the results of Indaco.

About the Authors

Massimo Lavelli - As a computer science engineer, he started practicing agility in 2011 by using Scrum in solving problems in IT projects. Since then, he’s been on a long journey; with the help of Agile, he has learned the importance of adaptation, feedback loops, change and complexity, and with the help of La Loux’s book "Reinventing Organizations'' started to see agility as a step in human evolution. He works to support others in creating innovative and progressive environments.

Pietro Antolini - is an aerospace engineer, has been passionate about Lean since 2006, and has practiced the Toyota philosophy ever since. Since 2013 he has worked as a consultant in small and medium companies in the north of Italy. In recent years he has been mixing traditional re-organization practices with self-management.



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