Self-Balanced, Not Self-Organized

Agility doesn’t mean that a team makes all decisions in a self-organized way. Agility means that a team can easily balance itself between execution and innovation, depending on context.

Control and Self-Control

On June 26, 2016, a slight majority of the people of Great-Britain decided that they didn’t want to be part of the European Union anymore. They didn’t trust the EU to make good decisions on behalf of all 28 member states, and they thought that they would be better able to decide things for themselves. By invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of the EU, Great-Britain will take back the control it had previously given to the EU.

The world’s economic experts almost unanimously agree that it is a silly decision. It is smarter to negotiate trade agreements when you do that together, centralized, as one block of 28 countries. And it is more efficient for the people and businesses in member states when complicated issues concerning air traffic, the energy market, immigration, and other topics are addressed in one place, and not in 28 distinct territories.

However, the British politicians in favor of Brexit argued that Britain had to “take back its autonomy”. This was a strange argument because, if you are single-handedly able to “take back autonomy”, then you’ve never really lost it, have you? When you decide that you don’t want someone else to make decisions for you, then you are still in control over who makes the decisions, right?. It was a curious argument to use for a country that has always resisted giving self-control back to India, Scotland, and the Falklands.

Like Less-than-Great Britain, there are some types of decisions that I prefer to make myself. They include which books to read, which devices to buy, and which events to attend. But there are other types of decisions that I happily leave to other people. My doctor tells me which pills I should take; my spouse tells me which furniture we will buy, and my personal assistant decides which hotels I will stay in. I accept their decisions because:

  • I trust they make better decisions than I do;
  • I have no capacity to make all decisions myself;
  • I have the power to change any arrangement;
  • I make sure I can give and take control fast.

It turns out that two of these four principles do not apply to Great-Britain. The country does not trust others to make good decisions. And, although Britain can act on its own and the power to take control back from the EU, handing back control will be a painfully difficult process.

Team Decisions

Let’s consider one of the most important decisions you can make for your team: the team’s Purpose or Mission. Maybe the team’s purpose is “to create the most successful trading app on the planet”. Maybe it is “to help parents capture their favorite baby moments”. Maybe your team’s goal is “keeping our building safe for everyone”. The details don’t matter for now. My question to you is:

Where did that purpose come from?
Who made this decision?

Did a manager hand the purpose to your team and did you all agree to this form of control? (I would call that level 1: Red.) Or did the team define their purpose and was the process completely self-organized? (I would call that level 7: Pink.) Maybe the decision happened somewhere in between, with a manager asking for input and then crafting a mission statement for the team. (That would be level 3: Yellow.) Maybe the manager only offered some suggestions and then let the team figure it out for themselves. (That would be level 5: Blue.) It could also be that the purpose was discussed and defined collaboratively between the team and the manager. (In that case, it would be level 4: Green.)

In many organizations, it is a problem that most important decisions are made on the left side of the scale. Management controls the decisions, and they give commands to the employees. Therefore, we associate the term command-and-control with organizations leaning toward the left side.

Many people believe the term Agile leans toward the right side of the scale. They say things such as, “You should have self-organizing teams; they are fully autonomous, and the team members make all decisions together.” But how much do you delegate this control? If all teams had to do their own recruitment, their marketing, their finances, their infrastructure, it would be rather exhausting! People would suffer from decision fatigue. The team might end up being fragile, not agile.

Agility for a team does not imply self-organization on all topics. Real agility means:

Real agility means sliding across the scale to find a position that best fits your current context.

Variation of Decision-Making

Scaling agility is a complex topic. There are many possible variations.

In your organization, there are probably other teams similar to yours. Each team requires a purpose. In some environments, it might be smart if every team is self-organized and defined its own purpose. The teams would be very targeted on their clients, but there might be some waste because of conflicting goals between the teams. In other environments, it could be best if all teams pursued the same purpose, either negotiated among each other or assigned by a manager. The teams could then focus on their role within the whole picture, but they would give up some control in favor of efficiency.

And that’s not all. We can imagine many variations.

Different Topics

Not all decisions should be made at the same level. Maybe Purpose is yellow while Group Name should be blue. Maybe Information-Sharing Meetings could be pink while Problem-Solving Meetings could be green.

People don’t want to spend their time making decisions about everything. Too many topics and too many options would lead to decision fatigue and decision paralysis. I delegate decisions about furniture to my spouse so that I can focus on decisions about computers and devices. If teams want to be productive, it is best that they delegate a good amount of decisions to others.

Different Teams

Just because some teams have self-organized and defined their own purpose, doesn’t mean that all teams should do the same. We are different people, with different talents, working in different contexts, with different interests. I like discussing purpose with my team, but other teams are perfectly happy to delegate this topic to a manager or business unit.

Delegating more decisions to another person or team does not mean you are less empowered. It could simply mean that you are more focused on architecture, design, development, or operations, and more interested in the kinds of decisions that you can make best.

Different Times

There may come a time when you choose to take back control. Maybe you take more interest or build up more experience, in an area where you felt less comfortable to make decisions before. Or maybe you are not satisfied with the quality of someone else’s decisions, as I was when I fired a travel agent. Twice.

Environments, experiences, and preferences change. What you prefer to do yourself now may be less relevant for you tomorrow. And vice versa. Just because you delegate a decision now doesn’t mean that you delegate it forever.

Different Leaders

My home country, The Netherlands, is (and hopefully remains) a member of the EU. It is also a member of NATO, the United Nations, and several other international institutions. Our country delegates different matters to various authorities. Trade agreements are delegated to the EU. Military security is delegated to NATO. And human rights are a matter for the UN.

For teams, it is no different. Some decisions, you delegate to a manager. Other decisions you delegate to Product Owners or Scrum Masters. There are things that teams delegate to each other or to the business unit that all teams are part of. And other decisions are made by a Community of Practice or by just one expert who happens to be the best in that area.

The Variety of Scaling

When all teams delegate work to each other, the result is a complex adaptive system with properties of both hierarchies and networks. The organization is a dynamic system with both control and freedom distributed over different areas.

When multiple teams delegate the marketing and sales of their products and services to a single unit, this unit will enjoy the benefits of centralization. And when all teams decide to keep architectural decisions for themselves, in that case, they enjoy the benefits of decentralization in each of the teams.

When one team takes care of training programs for all employees, this team can do that work efficiently. But when multiple teams decide to manage their own hack days and innovation days, the self-development of teams can be done more effectively.

When one expert controls all employee contracts and handles compliance with all labor laws, we call this person a specialist. At the same time, when employees have the freedom to book and manage their own business travels without a travel agent, we treat each employee as a generalist.

When decisions are optimally delegated into the hands of a few, you are in a good position for optimal execution and exploitation of a business model. But when you randomly distribute thought processes among a crowd, you have their collective intelligence available for innovation and exploration of new opportunities.

As you can see, the same scale appears again and again. Each organization is a decision-making factory, and this factory is full of hierarchical and networked decision-making patterns. To make this work well, it is important that each team keeps in mind these four principles:

  • You trust others to make better decisions than you;
  • You have no capacity to make all decisions yourself;
  • You have the power to change any arrangement;
  • You make sure you can give and take control fast.

Freedom and Consequences

I once spoke at a company that signed ten-year exclusive agreements with their vendors. When the time came for a renewal of an agreement, various suppliers showered this company with lovely gifts, fancy dinners, and great discounts on their services. But once a contract was signed, the vendors went back to their regular mode of non-cooperation and bad service. They complained about the suppliers, but the real problem was the contracts.

For agile teams and organizations, it is crucial that delegation levels are easy to change. It may be true that you intend to have a long-term relationship with a manager, team, or supplier to whom you have delegated control. But when the situation or environment changes, your response needs to be swift.

I prefer not to sign any agreements with either customers or suppliers. This helps me and my business partners to stay agile. At any time, I can change my accountant, my web designer, my copy editor, or my personal assistant. I can also cancel most memberships and subscriptions as quickly as I want to. There’s nothing worse than being stuck with an arrangement that doesn’t work anymore.

Obviously, a change of arrangement may come with certain consequences. When I cancel my membership of the Dutch Professional Speaker’s Association, I should expect that I won’t have access to their network of clients anymore. When a development team wants to pick and install its own source control technology, the operations team may tell them they should go and look for their own hosting solution. And when an employee says she wants a customized training program, Human Resources may very well answer that she will have to pay for the customizations herself.

Great-Britains chooses to cut free movement of people. Fine. But that means the EU cuts free movement of products.

It All Depends

We talked about purpose. The purpose of a team can be on the left side or the right side of the scale: centralized or decentralized, efficient or effective, specialized or generalized, hierarchical or networked.

Great execution (or efficiency) of a team or correlates with a clarity of purpose: everyone moves in the same direction. But innovative capability (or effectiveness) of a team correlates with emergent purpose: everyone explores new places to go. What does your team need? Execution or innovation? A bit of both? Everything depends on context.

None of the seven positions on the scale are intrinsically good or bad. The only thing that’s bad is that, when you don’t make a deliberate choice, you end up somewhere in a position on the scale that is unsuitable for your context.

Now imagine that this is just one topic. There are hundreds more!

Self-Balanced

Do you know Foodora, Deliveroo, or Uber Eats? In just two or three years, food delivery services have been growing like wildfire. Would you like to have a successful product like that? Do you know what they did to grow so fast? They make deliberate choices.

Centralized: platform, dress code, bags, payments, …

Decentralized: bikes, helmets, working hours, routes, …

Food delivery services are successful, not only because it’s a good idea at the right time, but also because they have a balanced approach to execution and innovation.

Now imagine that your organization is confronted with a new competitor. The competitor offers a similar product or service as you but at one fifth of the price that you charge your clients. (For example, you are British Airways. And Norwegian Air starts to offer transatlantic flights under EUR 100.) How will your business respond? In some ways, you need to be much more efficient and centralized. In other ways, your company needs to become more effective and innovative. More hierarchical in one direction; more networked in another. This is only possible when your teams have these characteristics of agility:

  1. They trust others to make better decisions than them;
  2. They know they cannot make all decisions themselves;
  3. They have the power to change any arrangement;
  4. They make sure they can give and take control fast.
Agility doesn’t mean self-organized.
Agility means self-balanced.

Do you want to learn more about Agility Scales? START HERE!