Agile Organizational Design

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The traditional approach to organizational design has got it wrong, completely wrong. More specifically, traditional org design models are a barrier if you want grow an organization where smart people make amazing decisions that delight customers and enrich their careers.

If you talk to many in the organizational design profession, they will lead you down a path where you define functional departments based on specialization, you add in layers of management with explicit spans of control, and define individual account-abilities for each layer and role in your organization.

The traditional approach to org design, and its accompanying management system, is based on concepts that are over 100 years old, built to meet the needs of the industrial age. The goal was to drive down the price of production, and eliminate scarcity. And this approach was successful in bringing a wealth of goods in to people hands.

The world looks very different today, product life cycle no longer span decades, or even years, and they continue to shrink (compare how long it took for PCs to become ubiquitous, as opposed to smart phones for a real an example that is almost to easy). We are in a hyper competitive, global economy, at least most of us are, or will be soon. The goal now is to provide differentiated services to distinct customers, and to do it quickly. Oh and to do it constantly, the next change is coming faster than the last one.

The key to accomplishing this to facilitate the continual organization of diverse skills and opinions (re: people) into missions and teams that are empowered to solve specific customer problems, and teach them to deliver value in a way that maximizes feedback and learning, especially customer and market feedback.

Sounds simple? It is, or at least it could be. Getting buy in to do this across an entire organization is in extremely short supply. There are also very few techniques around to help organizational designers move in this direction. Also note I emphasized the word facilitate, movement of people is not a command and control exercise, movement of labour requires voluntary participation for it to be effective.

In this section of my upcoming book on Agile organizational change, I’ll be devoting an entire section that provides a set of thinking tools and design skills to help them both grow formal org structure and promote informal informal org structure in order to increase org agility. The approach is meant to support incremental evolution to a new normal, when working at scale change agents won’t often have luxury of transforming an entire organization in one go.

I believe this section of my book will present a very different approach than you have seen in most established texts on the subject. I’ll provide pragmatic tools to help the reader make progress on the following principled behaviors:

  • Organize people into cross functional teams not functional departments
  • Influence outcomes using social density not command and control
  • Enable team to team coordination not manager led coordination
  • Place the majority of people close to the customer and decentralized, not into centralized support functions
  • Enable workers with the all the permissions required to deliver on their mission
  • Constantly eliminate cross team hand-offs that are interfering with self organization not allow existing team structure to results in hand-offs as demand changes over time
  • Stand up support teams that focus on community, capabilities and platforms and not on managing or governing customer value creation activities
  • Define support services so that support team members travel to where the work is, work doesn’t get handed off to them
  • Let people self form into teams that they want to be a part of over management people into teams
  • Align your organization and architecture, according to domains that can be delivered and managed by an independent, full stack team (Inverse Conway)

So why Is Agile Organizational Design worth writing about?

The need for a better approach is obvious, I hope. And good material on the topic already exsist, so why am I taking a crack at it? Well, a good deal of content on the subject comes from a variety of sources and over a decade of experience across over several dozen agile change initiatives. A key goal of this part of my book will be to take all of the different ideas that my team has used to effect better organizational design, and get as much as we can under one roof.

Sources of inspiration include David J Anderson’s Kanban method, Jurgen Appelo’s Management Books, the works of Donald Reinertsen and various other agile like sources (eg: LeSS, Beyond Budgeting) and the Oreilly books on Micro-Service Architecture and Build. We have borrowed many concepts like Bounded Contexts, Domain Aggregates and Context Integration patterns from Eric Evans Domain Driven Design as well. These all work amazingly well together, but it may be a tough slog for many to read all of this. Hopefully my work will be a more approachable, integrated path to getting a handle on this amazing content, all with real examples and lessons learned!

A special mention goes to Organizing For Complexity

Recently, our team have been leveraging the excellent book Organizing for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging. The book is an awesome read for a number of reasons. This text is now serving as a baseline for us to better describe our own thinking and experience on the topic of Agile Organizational Design, so much so that I’ll take the time to provide some coles notes on the parts of the book that we are extending for my take on a new way to do organizational design.

Read this work as it is being written in real time

Each Chapter in my book will feature a facilitation approach to achieving one or more of these behaviors, along with a supporting design method. The material is constantly evolving and can be found here.

I will be filling sections out iteratively, so check this page for updates. I’ll be adding references to power points and other supporting documents as well. Looking at the below this section may become a book on it’s own, there is a lot here. MVP 1 is the chapter, and any supporting power points I have created in the last decade or so that match the topic.

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