I’ve recently come to think of my career as a sort of accidental ethnography of large organizations. I certainly didn’t plan it that way — there was no grand design to embed myself in a parade of huge companies so as to better understand them. Regardless, emergence has turned out to be a friend. Each experience has revealed another dimension of the challenge of doing meaningful work at-scale in the 21st century. (Tl;dr — It’s pretty challenging.)
In theory, organizations are meant to enable us — to make us faster, stronger and more effective than we’d be on our own. And yet today, in listening to my clients, it feels as if the exact opposite is true — as if the organization is actually getting in their way. The symptoms of this are many and may sound familiar: Siloed teams with misaligned incentives; bureaucratic processes governed by inflexible policies; paralyzed decision-making strewn across way too many meetings. The list goes on.
Aside from making work a frustrating, stressful and borderline unpleasant experience for most people, there are bigger implications at play. While our world is overwhelmed with challenges that need the attention of high-performing teams, many of our most talented people are struggling just to cope with an operating model designed over a hundred years ago. This isn’t just slowing us down — it’s actually holding back humanity. Which, if you ask me, sucks.
In response to this, my instinct has been to lean into that ethnography; to listen and observe more closely, in an effort to surface the anti-patterns that hinder success in our most essential organizations. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that there are some.
1: “We need a seat at the table.”
Admit it — you’ve heard this before. Perhaps you’ve even said it? When teams don’t control the conditions that shape their work, they rarely generate stunning outcomes. While it’s become popular to rail against organizational silos, the real problem here is the cocktail of misaligned objectives and interdependence. When teams are assembled without all of the ingredients critical to their mission, they’re inevitably left needing to influence others to get things done. This problem has become so institutionalized that learning ‘How To Influence’ has become central to leadership training programs in the Fortune 500. Imagine if all of this time could instead be re-focused on the critical missions at hand?
Today’s leading organizations build multi-disciplinary teams that are optimized for self-sufficiency — with an emphasis on eliminating everything that disrupts a team’s flow, or threatens to block them from pursuing their mission with autonomy.
2: “They’re not incentivized to cooperate.”
How we reward matters. In most workplace conflicts, tug at a loose thread and you’ll inevitably find individuals or teams grappling with misaligned incentives. It’s rarely anyone’s fault — just a case of good people that mean well, operating in a system that rewards self over organization. While there’s nothing wrong with healthy competition between teams, any system that rewards its members for outcomes that are ultimately bad for the organization is in need of repair.
Today’s leading organizations reward teams (even over star players), eliminate incentive conflicts between teams and continuously refine what they reward to serve the organization’s purpose, above all else.
3: “Let’s build a roadmap.”
Former productivity guru Dwight Eisenhower once suggested that “planning is essential, but plans are useless.” Bright guy, but clearly an enemy to anyone with a soft-spot for roadmaps.
While the act of planning helps teams to align, the reality is that any plan that emerges is a fiction. (Or, what my friend Matt Daniels refers to as “a lie committed to paper.”) While every organization has a visible horizon around which they can plan with some degree of certainty, anything beyond that horizon is highly uncertain, because a) we live in a world of constant change and b) we simply can’t know what will work until it does. Despite this, it remains common for business units and functional groups in legacy organizations to craft two to three-year roadmaps. Not only are these efforts an immense time-suck, but they also bias us towards future decisions that reinforce the logic of a plan — even when that logic turns out to be wrong.
Today’s most responsive organizations couple clarity of vision with an ability to steer dynamically — but don’t bother creating long-term plans that are unlikely to materialize.
4: “We’re waiting for the boss to decide.”
As a rule, most legacy organizations are hierarchical in structure, with managers retaining control over most decision-making. This was a fine way to operate in the 20th century, when things moved slowly — but today, it presents challenges. The market we operate in today moves much faster — there’s no longer time to run every important decision ‘up the flagpole.’ (Even if you could, leaders that are removed from day-to-day work typically have poor information, leaving them ill-equipped to make effective decisions on the spot.)
Ask any leader if they’re interested in attracting A-player talent and they’ll nod vigorously. Yet, many struggle with the reality that this talent thrives only when granted the freedom to operate with relative autonomy.
Responsive organizations let those closest to the work decide how to do the work. They make explicit a team’s decision-making authority — with a bias towards increased autonomy. This makes them much faster than traditional organizations and also leads to higher engagement in the work.
5: “Once everyone agrees, we can move forward.”
Consensus sounds like such a good thing. We want our people to agree.
In reality, this almost never happens. Talented people come with strong opinions. That’s actually a great thing — difference in perspective can be a powerfully generative force for any organization.
In an era where speed is the new intellectual property, there just isn’t time to build consensus among all stakeholders. (It’s also unclear if such time will be well spent. If you’ve yet to even try anything, you in fact have zero data on what will actually work.)
Responsive organizations value consent, even over consensus. Rather than aim for total agreement, they ask each other “is this idea safe to try?” Given their tendency to work in iterative sprints, the cost of a decision being wrong is typically low. This makes it easier for those who might not completely agree to move forward anyway, so that everyone can get better data on the true potential of an idea.
6: “I want to see that before it ships.”
Old habits die hard and few will be harder than this. Over the last fifty years, we’ve trained generations of managers to believe that the primary way they generate value is by holding on to control and, in the process, implicating themselves in every key decision made by their team.
Simply put, today we have neither the time nor luxury for this. It stunts talent development and utterly repels coveted high-performers.
Responsive organizations are obsessed with talent density. They understand that today’s pace of work requires that authority be distributed. They prioritize talent that can be trusted with it. They also tend to ‘work in public’, so stakeholders always have clear visibility into project status. If you need to see everything before it ships, it means that you don’t trust your team — and should shift focus to finding talent that you do trust. Literally nothing is more essential.
7: “If I don’t spend my budget, I’ll lose it.”
Budgeting is a smart and very necessary activity — obviously, it makes sense to allocate funds thoughtfully. The challenge comes when we ask teams to commit to how they’ll allocate those funds far in advance. Effectively, these teams are asked to play the role of Nostradamus — to predict what’s going to work, and how much they’ll need when it does. This makes little sense in an age where our ability to predict has effectively disappeared.
Equally problematic is the tendency for large organizations to de-fund teams that end their fiscal year with unallocated budget. This creates a rather perverse dilemma for teams: spend it or lose it. Suffice to say that I’ve received my share of November phone calls, with well-intentioned clients scrambling to get cash off of their books (or suffer the consequences).
Responsive organizations allocate budget incrementally — taking many small bets, and doubling-down on those that work. They don’t punish teams for under-spending —rather, teams that do more with less tend to be revered (not to mention well-rewarded). This approach minimizes risk, and results in much smarter investments over time.
8: “I’ll share it when it’s finished.”
‘I can’t let them see this — it’s a draft. It’s not ready yet. They’ll judge me.’
Large organizations tend to have highly-competitive cultures, so it’s understandable when their members present trust issues. That said, a strong counter-argument goes as follows: If you can’t trust your team members, perhaps you should reconsider the team that you’re on?
Today’s leading organizations work in public, valuing team achievement over individual achievement. They downplay heroism — instead celebrating team efforts that result in stunning work. They share documents from the outset, and engage trusted team members in their evolution over time. They leverage open collaboration tools like Google Drive and Slack to make status and progress visible, creating more opportunities for team expertise to be leveraged at the right time.
While this evolution in my career may have been an accident, I consider it a happy one. It’s a privilege to spend my days unpacking how to best organize for meaningful work. I literally spring out of bed each morning.
On that note, some news: As it’s always more fun to solve riddles with friends, I’ve recently co-founded a new company (technically, a public benefit corporation) called August. We’re convinced that the single greatest lever to effect change in the world is to improve the ways that teams organize and work. We see a future where every meaningful mission is pursued by a truly high-performing team — one that embraces uncertainty and keeps shipping, no matter what.
To those among you who spend your days working inside large, complex organizations — do these statements resonate? Is your organization on the cusp of change?