Team Greatness: Power distance

One of the fundamentals that influence hugely on any team`s ability to improve or even perform well is power distance. Power distance is described as follows:

The extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society “accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”

As it is mainly used in studies of societal management we are also able to apply it in (Agile) team context. There is a nationality “fit” for agile teams, something called PDI index. However, I have experienced that the prevailing culture (both in company, team and community level) has much stronger impact than a nationality based one.

Good example about the strong influence that power distance has on teams is U.S. Navy Seals (which actually is one of the worst Agile team benchmarks and is unfortunatelly used a lot by conventional managers in large corporations). In army the chain of command is carved in stone. There is absolutely no question about “who is in charge”. This also means that power distribution is also given and is not under discussion in any circumstances. Therefore I think that all examples of self-organization and Agility coming from military related teams are pure fiction when tried to be applied towards Agile teams. Different context and fundamentally different power distribution (and distance) leads to non-comparable human behavior and team dynamics.

Non-distributed power means also siloes. Silo means information cut between the borders of it. Silo is often formed around power (nominal or artifical) and people inside the silo make it “stronger” as there is no power unbalance inside a silo (as long as people inside tolerate the existing power distribution). Cross-organizational teams try to break this, but if there is high power distance culture it is impossible for teams to overcome silo problem. It becomes a management problem (they all are). Managers often try answer this by forming cross-silo management teams. Unfortunatelly those teams are more discussion forums than real attempts to change existing system conditions. This leads to a situation that the problem remains as long as managers own their silos (high power distance remains). This is the behavior behind management positions and nominations and fundamentally broken from Agile team perspective.

While observing different organizational structures one can identify two general purposes for which those structures are built for. Escalation structure is built to answer customer escalations and delegate action (no power) to lower levels of hierarchy. Collaboration structure is formed around interactions and individuals. Modern Agile teams embrace the latter one. It is violence towards teams if modern Agile approach is tried in escalation structure and that approach is often bound to fail.

Low power distance is not always perfect, far away from it. Heterogeneous decision making is one of the hardest thing in Agile team work. As everyone has an opinion and it is highly valued we face different challenges (I will talk about this in near future). But lower power distance based culture and more equal power distribution increase the chances of Agile team success. Therefore system needs to be changed towards those before Agile teams can start to flourish.