Many organizations try to scale their Agile way of working and get advised to adopt some sort of scaling Agile framework. The impact on the organisation is huge but during the process of scaling, whether scaling is the right thing to do for your company or not, we forget to redesign the organization and thus actually keep the same levels of hierarchy in place. And lately, I’m getting quite fed up with some Agile gurus preaching only about leadership showcasing the wrong behavior and so killing any early Agile culture inside an organisation. We have to step up and at the very least propose solutions other than just retraining managers. You can’t change something as fundamental as a way of working without touching the design in which people need to operate. The easiest way to turn things around is getting a white piece of paper and design the future organization and put people in their new roles… Errr, but there’s also something like continuation of business, so implementing a new design overnight might disturb your organization just too much. So how to go from A to B and slowly install a culture of collaboration that can actually support the Agile organizations of the future? I think the answer is ‘triangles’.
At the start of the 2004-2005 season, the basketball team I was playing for at the time was introduced to a more open and flexible way of playing the game. The coach talked about principles of playing an offence, more than narrowing down possibilities into a system. The end goal was to make players start thinking for themselves or “better read the game”. The transition from a tactical playbook to an open offence culture based on principles was a though nut to crack. But the moment that the team started to adopt triangle thinking and saw the possibilities that arose from that, was the moment we’ve started to play better basketball. We didn’t won every game, because there is more to winning games than just an offensive approach, but at the very least, understanding how triangles worked and balanced out our offensive play, was something I’m still cherishing today.
In the beginning the team was really struggling with this way of playing. And after a couple of games, I had a discussion with the head coach about why we were struggling. It wasn’t about the principles, it wasn’t about the effort, … it all came down to the fact that the team just didn’t understood ’triangles’ yet. So, I’ve asked the coach to focus on explaining on how triangles actually worked and how they constantly change, yet how they needed to be kept into shape because otherwise you’d loose that balance that was needed. And so, the team started to work on understanding the method and keeping the balance. At some point, I really felt we were going places with this type of play, but we were going to need some time and no disruptions to fully adopt this. It still feels sad to say, but there were too many disruptions during that season and after that first year, the team fell apart. Yet, for some of us, with a greater insight on basketball than before…
“The strength of The team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
– Phil Jackson –
Triangles have intrigued me since I have started playing basketball, because I really feel they open up possibilities and give balance to things. And I also start to see those possibilities in a business context. Especially today, with the ongoing digital revolution disrupting organisational designs, we need to redefine principles to find the balance again. Many organisations want to adopt Agile ways of working for the sake of more ‘agility’: faster go to market, more business value, … . All of a sudden, they redesign their organisation on the lowest hierarchical levels because Agile ways of working prescribe cross-functional teams. Yet they keep the old structures in place. And so the old Project Manager is now the new Product Owner, the department manager became a Chapter Lead and besides new naming, nothing much has changed so it appears, yet all of a sudden many people feel unsafe and don’t understand what is expected of them when they need to work in a self organising and cross-functional team. The company is completely disrupted, people are fed up with this ‘Agile monster’ and in the end the old residues of controlling remains.
So, what does self-organising mean for teams in business context?
A self organising team is a team that has the autonomy to choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Unlike traditional management principles, the self organising empowered teams are not directed and controlled from the top; rather they evolve from team members participating actively & collectively. This means that organisations want to build the structures in which those self organising teams can thrive. Then the one million dollar question comes to mind: how do we build these structures while the residues of old structures are still present in an organisation?
From 2008 till 2012, FC Barcelona conquered the world and won 14 titles. Pep Guardiola’s example of tiki-taka at FC Barcelona is considered the best application of this style after Barcelona won the sextuple in 2009. Guardiola preferred freedom in the final third of the pitch which was effective as the team created many chances per match. The style involves roaming movement and positional interchange among the football players, moving the ball in intricate patterns. “In a fast-moving world, Barcelona established a school of TIKI-TAKA that has since been embraced across the globe – despite the dwindling appeal of possession football”, stated Jordi Punti.
In the 90’s and later in the nillies, the triangle offence from the Bulls and the Lakers dominated the NBA. Phil Jackson perfected the Tex Winter’s triangle offense and won the Championship a staggering 11 times as a coach. It has been claimed that the triangle offense is the optimal way for five players to space the floor on the basketball court. This way, it creates a lot of possibilities and with gifted players like Jordan or Bryant in your team, special things happen and titles will be won.
What these basketball and football systems have in common is triangles. New possibilities arise from the situations, but it gives also safety and balance. Most of the time players are free to receive the ball or move the ball around to another station.
The laws of Nature are written in the language of mathematics…the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word.
What can those triangles in sports mean for business?
Let us be honest, we are struggling. We want all the benefits from Agile way of working, but redesigning an organisational structure is hard, really hard! So we focus on ‘culture’ and ‘values’ and ‘behaviour’ to make sure the change lands inside an organisation. We ask leaders to stand up and embrace a new way of leading (servant leadership) in which they better support the individuals and the teams. We ask the teams to become self-organising after rebuilding teams from the ground up and putting people together that barely know each other. Face it, when I write it like that, it doesn’t seem to be a recipe for success. And yet it is! People are getting more empowered and are respected for their hard work more than ever. But we’re not there yet, there still is this residue from the old structures and the hierarchical organisational designs that might jeopardise agility. It will take organisations some time to embrace the designs that better support teams and individuals. The evolution towards structures that better support Agility is ongoing. The end goal is less hierarchy and more guidance and coaching from the sideline. I truly believe we’re actually pretty close if we dare to think different.
So, in the meantime, what if we create triangles in business as well and so more easily break down hierarchy and silo’s? What if we add a red line for more balance?
In this drawing you have 2 hierarchical levels:
- The tactics line: creating, communicating and executing a strategy
- The delivery line: delivering solutions in line with the strategy, operations
Often, strategic items are brought to the team via a single point of information. And so, in the communication hand-over, important information might get lost. Best case scenario, those delivery teams speak to the other delivery teams and they might understand what was meant. Often, these delivery teams start making assumptions based on the incomplete information they’ve received. We all know that assumptions make an Ass out of U and ME. And so, delivered solutions might not live up to the expectations.The red line for balance creates an extra line with the strategic level and breaks down the silo you might be in. The red line also prepares the organisation for a future-proof organisational design. And unless what you might think, we’ll start to see much more real servant leadership inside the organisation.
You might say this is nothing new, the leadership is expected to support teams and so it’s not necessary to make this explicit. I believe in the opposite, it’s very much necessary to make this explicit because this helps people to break the barriers without giving them the feeling they’re doing something wrong or bypassing their boss. It’s very much necessary to setup the structures like that in order to give that self organizing team the mandate to actually self organise. It’s all about openness and safety. It’s about creating a culture in which servant leadership can thrive.
One of the Agile principles state: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” A possible conclusion could be: put them together in a room, have some people to facilitate discussions in which everybody feels heard and finally … just get things done. How great would that be?! When we hear about these stories, we use them to make a point and state that this is the only way forward. But we need to respect how most of the organisations are still designed. We aren’t there where we need to be to put everyone in a room and deliver stuff. So we need solutions that might help us today… like an explicit red line, to help people change their behaviour in the long-run. With a red line comes different kind of behaviour: openness, willingness to help, togetherness, opportunities, alignment, servant leadership. Future and more Agile driven organisational designs will arise from it automatically. So implement the red lines and rewrite the way we change organisational design from now on. Draw the red line and start building triangles for balancing your organisation.