In my last post I described a hypothetical situation where a startup company grew in size and created an organizational hierarchy. This is actually a common way that self-organizing systems deal with complexity. In an organizational context, work becomes organized by functional specialties, each designed to carry out specific tasks.
As the title stated, hierarchies themselves aren’t bad. From a systems perspective, hierarchies reduce the amount of information that any part of a subsystem has to keep track of. However, as part of growth and transition to a hierarchal organization, my hypothetical company lost its way. The purpose of the hierarchy shifted from supporting and helping to coordinate the work to controlling it.
Over-control constricts the subsystems – individuals and departments – from performing as well as they can. An analogy is a sports team where a coach is prescribing every action to such a degree that a player isn’t free to explore and develop his or her own strengths or unique abilities, let alone take informed, independent action on the field based on the fast-changing circumstances and realities of the game as it is unfolding – and losing the game as a result.
Like a lot of things in life, balance is important. With lean and agile thinking, we’re not after anarchy; we’re after efficient, effective coordination of people to produce the greatest value from the least amount of effort expended. This requires a team focus with people who understand the big picture and who are determined to make contributions that help the team to win.
This means that people must have a team-first mentality. And by team, I’m talking about what it takes for the organization (or even a collection of organizations) to produce goods or services that are of value to the customer. Anything less than that leads to a sub-optimization, which occurs when a subsystem's goals dominate at the expense of the total system’s goals.
To win in business – as we do in team sports – individuals must be knowledgeable and capable. They will have positions (specialties) that require disciplined, solid execution in a team context. What we don’t want are capable team members who are more interested in personal glory or personal statistics than they are in the team winning because this can cause the team to lose (or miss critical deadlines).
There will also be times when people will need to fill different roles to help the team win. Standing by and watching instead of defending because “I only play offense” is a dysfunctional over-specialization that leads to failure, not success. So, if you need to block on a play instead of carrying the ball to help the team win, do it!
Balanced, disciplined, coordinated, skillful team execution – to the point where we’re executing faster and more smoothly than ever before – is the goal. But getting there requires us to re-think a lot of assumptions about how work is organized and managed.