The Formation of Teams and Communities

Someone told me that he had formed an informal agile improvement community in the company, without asking for permission from management.

Great!

I call that pink group formation:

The creation of this team, unit or group is fully self-organized and not initiated or controlled by a higher management layer.

Self-organized group formation can be great. But it’s not the only option. How do your teams, business units, departments, and guilds get formed? Who takes the initiative for group creation? Who is in control of this formation process and knows when it is finished?

Twenty years ago, I worked as a freelancer for a computer training company. It was a good job. I had great pay, friendly colleagues, and enjoyable work. The only thing that bothered me a bit was the quality of the courseware materials. Let’s say, they were in a state that called for some improvement. Without permission from management, I asked a friend to join me in a total makeover of the company’s courseware. We created some prototypes first and showed these to the business owners. It was a great success. Within 24 hours, they gave us a 6-figure contract to recreate all courseware. Looking back, I recognize this kind of team formation with my friend as purple on my agility scale:

The formation of this team, unit or group is self-organized, taking into account the existence and needs of a higher management layer.

While I’m writing this article, the world is watching the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of teams from 206 countries are participating in competing for gold, silver, and bronze medals in 42 sports disciplines. But how did those teams get formed? Well, it turns out that all 206 National Olympic Committees have their own qualification systems, which means they all have rules for building sports teams, and sending those athletes to the Games (often in close collaboration with various national sports federations). This means that team formation for the Olympic Games is red on the agility scale:

The creation of this team, unit or group is fully initiated and controlled by a higher management layer.

It is easy to imagine other kinds of group formation in companies. For example, I have recently suggested to my Happy Melly One teammates that we could organize a weekly Happy Melly Challenge, with the idea to dedicate each week to one important topic and to engage our readers and followers in various activities. I simply offered the suggestion to our enthusiastic team members, and I left all details to them. On the agility scale, this would be an excellent example of blue:

The formation of this team, unit or group is self-organized, based on the initiative or suggestions of a higher management layer.

Group formation is a complex affair. There is no One Best Way to form groups, whether they are teams, departments, business units, squads, or guilds. Sometimes, a group is formed to quickly exploit an opportunity and some amount of direction and control may be beneficial to achieve efficiency. Other times, a unit assembles to explore an uncertain future and it may benefit from a higher level of self-organization to achieve effectivity.

However, I do believe that group formation deserves careful consideration. The optimal choice for your team is always context-dependent. Self-formation (pink) can be a waste of time when efficiency is needed. But command-and-control is an equal waste when the environment calls for effectivity. Don’t waste your time on solutions that don’t fit the context!

There are many ways to form teams, units, and communities. We can plot them all on a scale from pure “dictatorship” (red) to pure “anarchy” (pink), with various options in between. On the left side, we find hierarchies, exploitation, centralization, and efficiency. On the right side, we find networks, exploration, decentralization, and effectivity. Agility is not about being either left-sided or right-sided. Agility means sliding on the scale, whenever needed, to adapt to a changing environment.

Are you preparing to form a team, business unit, department or community? Which color on the agility scale suits your current context best?

What Are Agility Scales?

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