Modern Corporate Structures and Skills Needed- Takeaways from Agile India 2014


Modern Organization Structures

Modern Organization Structures

In my last blog post we took a fresh look at hiring in the context of changing organizational structures. In this blog we will see how these changes are demanding new skills and strategies. Most of the content here is based on various presentations at Agile India 2014, held in Bangalore in February and March.

Organizations Powered by Cross-Functional Collaboration

Organizations are progressively moving towards less structured , more collaborative forms from Agile to Holacracy to Lattice to NoManager. Here are some of the thoughts on leadership presented by Tathagat Varma –

1)   Adult Supervision- Management is a service available on demand for employees if and when needed. Otherwise employees are work independently without any management oversight.

2) Horses for Courses – Use networks for innovation agility and speed. Use hierarchies for efficiency, predictability and scale.

3)   Distributed and Rotating Leadership – Shared decision-making across the board. No permanency or carry over of roles. 37 Signals and Valve use rotating leadership model.

In these flat organizations; individuals don’t rise up but move laterally in multifunctional teams. The skills required are T shaped with depth in one or two areas accompanied by breadth in many areas. Open allocation is a concept where employees choose what they want to do.  Valve, GitHub and TreeHouse are some of the well-known companies using open allocation. Holacracy focuses on structures that establish lines of communication to get work done. Holacracy does not focus on roles and designations of individuals. In 1855 an organization chart for NY Railroad was drawn on the basis of how work happened. Not surprisingly it resembled the rail network and traffic patterns and not the hierarchy.

Innovative Culture Nourishes Learning Minds

Social exchanges and idea flow facilitated by an open organizational culture help individuals to innovate as per Alex Pentland. We are better off creating the right culture than importing innovation by hiring innovative individuals. Idea flow between individuals is more important than individual creativity.  True innovation happens when people are allowed to experiment and tinker without the fear of failure. In Etsy the developer who breaks the build is rewarded a sweater with 3 arms – thus providing feedback in a sportive manner.

Quick successive experiments is a continuous and ongoing process in such organizations. No amount of classroom training or attempts to implement a tool /process to innovate can replace the iterative , trial and error nature of innovation. Growth often hinders innovation as processes are brought in to lay down rules to bring discipline and make things more predictable.  The sheer complexity of a growing organization impedes the performance of high performing innovators who relish the messiness of creativity and dislike processes.  Complexity often leads to unknown consequences- taking the same action in the same situation doesn’t yield the same results. HP Laserjet business is an example of an organization where the average time spent on innovation increased from 5% to 40% in 3 years. This was a result of continuous improvement effected by daily use of practices like “Improvement Kata”. Change has to be continuous ; hence we need to establish a sense of urgency.

To give latitude and independence of implementation; define the end state but not the implementation. Let the team decide how it wants to reach the desired end state. For software development the project paradigm needs to change.  Building software is quite different from building a bridge where the end state is known. Enormous amount of time and money is spent on defining end state or scope of a software which is essentially undefinable. Jez Humble says that 50% of efforts are spent on this fuzzy front end.  The “project” simply doesn’t start till we have some semblance of scope defined. Also the software is not really used till its “ready” for release. This leads to what Jez calls as the Water-Scrum-Fall model. Unlike bridges or dams; software can start yielding value much before its completely “ready”.

Skills 2.0 – New Age Skills Common Goals – Independent Strategies

Self organizing teams not only have the freedom to implement their chosen tactic for a given end state but also have the latitude to decide the strategies to achieve stated long term mission. Many collaborating teams work on a common mission that guides the whole organization but have their own strategy. Phil Abernathy presented how agile method can be applied to the process of strategy formulation and execution. Strategies of other collaborating teams decide its goals. Each team in turn formulates its own strategy to meet its goals. This exercise of goal setting and strategy formulation is done on a what is popularly called “Fedex Day”- strategies are shipped on the same day. Teams work to get a buy-in by all their members thus making their strategies inclusive and based on shared understanding. While executing the strategy no command and control is required as all members work in unison. Frequent feedback is taken by comparing progress against goals and timely course correction is applied.

Tacit Knowledge

Crossfunctional, self organizing teams depend a lot on idea exchanges that happen in close knit teams that are socially and functionally integrated. These idea exchanges happen over coffee or at the water cooler or in a chat session. The knowledge or social intelligence of the group gets build over a long period of time and this “Tacit Knowledge” is what differentiates and experienced team member from a newbie.  Dave Thomas says that only usable knowledge is “Tacit Knowledge”.  Pilots don’t refer to manuals or guides while flying. Most of their actions are reflex actions directed by “Tacit Knowledge” . Any number or detailed manuals or video demonstrations can’t capture all that a pilot knows. Human intuition is far more deep seated than big number crunching and analysis. Experts often can tell the outcome of a situation based on their intuition. They already know the answer which they rationalize later. The “Fast Thinking” powered by “Tacit knowledge” is hard to explain . Michael Polyani in his book the “Tacit Dimension” says we know more than we can tell. This is the unknown known says Dave Thomas . Most stimuli like gravity are subconscious. Its hard to explain the visual signals that help you accurately recognize someone from distance. Explicit knowledge that is shared in classrooms and conferences only becomes useful when one fully internalizes it by experience.  Ideal mentors don’t teach what they were taught but inspire people with what they have learned.

Versatile Experts

One of the requirements of a flat , crossfunctional , self organizing team is the ability of team members to rotate roles they play. This results in innovation when some one takes a fresh look at a problem.  This mandates the  team members to have “T” shaped skills – where they have breadth covering many subjects and in depth knowledge of one subject. Polyglot programmers. are language agnostic and so versatile that they can program in any new language with minimum learning curve. Polyglot programmers believe that just like an artisan they need a different tool for every job. They master many languages including JavaScript, Scala, Groovy, JRuby, Jython and Clojure. All these are JVM based languages. Polyglot teams map each sub domain of a problem to a tool and decide on a set of tools that they need to use. Many of these tools are new to the team. In their search for tools they underrate their current skills. The right tools are selected keeping in mind that tools are good only in certain contexts. The rotation of developers in the team helps one overcome resistance in the team – this balances the comfort zone and new learning equally in all members.

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