Three Principles of Organizing Forward

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Thanks to some work with a few clients, I have revised what I see as the three organizing principles one can consider when asking the question “How can we get organized to for ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty?” These may change again, but as I like to share anything I come up with as soon as I can. Here is the latest thinking.

Just to recap, Organizing Forward is my attempt to go beyond what we often see in popular agile frameworks to provide some theory and practical techniques to rethink how we organize ourselves as institutions so we can create value in the world of today and tomorrow.

We can say an Organization is Organizing Forward when they attend to the following three principles:

  • Organize Around Purpose – Increase meaningfulness and authenticity of purpose so we have the faith to grant the autonomy people need to achieve it
  • Organize Through Choice – Improve confidence (through fairness, trust, and safety) required to facilitate self – organization, self – management, and even self -direction
  • Organize For Change – provide sufficient organizational awareness ( through transparency, feedback, and flow) to allow us to continuously adapt and evolve structure through invitational, co-creative experimentation

For anyone wanting the cliff notes, stop here 🙂

For everyone wanting to dive deeper, here is a brief overview of each principle.

1 – Organize Around Purpose

Organizations with strong purpose perform better than organizations who’s purpose is weak or poorly understood. When people organize around a strong purpose, then motivation, autonomy, self – organization, etc all become a matter of course.

For a purpose to be considered strong, it must be meaningful to people working in our organization. A meaningful purpose can take many different forms, but market outcomes tend to trump financial outcomes, and world changing outcomes tend to trump market outcomes.

A strong purpose must also be authentic. A really strong mission state is nothing more that propaganda if it is not connected to the values, beliefs, and every day behavior of everyone in the organization. I’ll take working for an honest group of people who are really just in it to make a buck over a group in an honest and open way than a group that pretends to want something better, but in reality behaves much worse.

With strong purpose, we can then tend to organizing around that purpose. This means organizing teams around outcomes that achieve purpose and granting them the autonomy to do so.

Many agile teams stress organizing around cross functional teams. This is the right idea, but organizing for cross functionality does not go far enough. Instead, consider organizing around purpose. If you organize a team around achieving strong purpose, the team will likely evolve to be as cross functional as it needs to be over time. If you organize a team to be cross functional without a strong focus on purpose, it will rarely evolve to one that achieves a stronger purpose. Which team would you rather be a part of?

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Is organizational purpose both meaningful and authentic enough that people will accomplish it with maximum autonomy?

In contrast, the traditional approach to organizing our people is to create structure based on functions, skills, or capabilities. Most people’s outcomes are inward facing, ie output more stuff from a capability. The dichotomy of trying to fit agile methods into a structure that is not organized for purpose, is one reason why we see such poor outcomes in many agile transformations.

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Organizing For Purpose means we organize around outcomes that matter to the market, outcomes that impact customers, and outcomes that impact people external to our organization. Once we do that, agile methods are much more likely to flourish in the hands of the teams that use them.

There are many great agile inspired practices that can help us be better organized for purpose.

2 – Organize Through Choice

The unfortunate reality is that most workers today are not given enough choice. People in organizations, even “agile” organizations are often told what their role will be, they are told what team to be on, what method to use, where and when to work, and so on. We continue to bemoan why people do not take any accountability for outcomes, but we continue to rob them of even the most basic of responsibility, responsibility to make meaningful choices that give them ownership of their work.

Increasing the amount of choice people starts with improving Organizational confidence. Confidence that people will strive make the sound decisions, confidence that people have access to the right information, knowledge and capability to make those decisions. Confidence that decisions will not be undermined by others, and especially confidence that people will be allowed to make and learn from small mistakes.

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Is there sufficient organizational confidence to facilitate self – organization, self – management, and even self – direction?

This confidence requires hard work. The good news is that there is a wealth of practices that can be used to promote the systematic fairness, trust, and safety we all need to get this confidence. Organizations can move towards self – organization within teams, to teams that self-manage, to teams that are truly self-directing.

Organizational performance can increase dramatically when we are able to allow people to choose the roles they play, the teams they belong to, and even the outcomes that will achieve an organization’s purpose. Organizing through choice means we believe that treating others as the educated, professional, and committed adults they are, then they will behave in kind.

There are a number of things we can do to help us organize through the choices made by everyone in the organization.

3 – Organize For Change

The structure of our organization almost never seems to match the value we are trying to create. Most organizations, even one well into working using agile concepts, struggle with the amount of dependencies and hand offs they have to deal with as value seems to scatter across departments, programs, and teams. A world of constant uncertainty demands that we constantly look for different ways to flex the way we are organized.

People who are organizing for change are constantly look for different ways to come together to deliver value. They are agile about the act of teaming. But this takes commitment to increasing organizational awareness, though systems that maximize transparency of work, provides feedback of outcomes, and promotes a continuous flow of value creation.

With improvements in common understanding of the work, comes an increased ability to adapt organizing structure, such as the number and make up of different teams, in response to changes in our outcomes. Changes in how we organize ourselves can evolve using a change approach where we invite others to co-create change experiments that are validated for effectiveness.

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Is there sufficient organizational awareness to continuously adapt structure and evolve continuously through invitational, co-creative experimentation?

Again a number of practices and techniques can be used to help us Organize for Change:

That’s it for the three principles. If you made it through all this congratulations!

Up next is a concerted push to take what you see here and revise my book according to the above principles and matching concepts and practices. Until then I hope some of you try starting a dialogue with some of your peers on how to move forward with the principles of purpose, choice, and change. Contact me if this is something you are considering!

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