In this organization, the hierarchy enables speed and agility
Learning from race marshals: a team of teams
I have been focusing on Formula 1 racing teams as inspiration, a metaphor for businesses that are trying to accelerate and be more agile. So far, I have been focusing mostly on the race teams and how they organize and innovate. But recently I was invited by Stéphane Tartière, a race marshal who has read our book (Formula X), to take a look at what happens trackside.
What does a race marshal do?
Race marshals are stationed at various points around the race track to ensure safety. Marshals use flags and signs to tell drivers what is going on. And in case of an accident or collision, they enter the track as first responders. They put out fires and prepare for medical assistance. They will also help remove vehicles or debris to make sure the race can continue safely. Without marshals, there is no race.
The flag posts work closely together with race control, led by the Race Director. They function as a central hub of communication as they have a birds-eye view of what is happening on every part of the race track. They make decisions about deploying the safety car, medical car, firefighters and potentially suspending a race. And they instruct marshals to display a certain flag and provide permission to enter the track.
I visited the Belgian circuit of Spa Francorchamps. It is a 7 km circuit with 19 marshal posts. Each post has six people. So before a race can start, we already need over a hundred people to ensure the safety of the track.
What I thought was interesting is that most of these people are volunteers. and most of them have done this job for many many years. I asked: why would someone give up 15 weekends per year to be alongside the race track, a dangerous place, for almost no pay? Their answer: because it is fun, it is our passion, because we can be with our friends and buddies and because we are valued and respected for our contribution.
In this lies an interesting lesson for organizations trying to compete for talent. A thought experiment:
What if your people would be volunteers? What kind of environment would you need to provide so people want to show up and play intrinsically?
In the video, a car hits the barrier and stops on track. Using the radio, the Flag Marshal Post quickly reports the incident to Race control. Race control responds by instructing preceding Flag posts to show a yellow flag to warn and slow down upcoming traffic.
After assessing the situation, the Race Director decides to deploy the Safety car (to slow down all cars on track), Medical car (to provide medical assistance to the driver) and a Tow truck (to remove the vehicle). In the meantime, the trackside marshals are stand-by to run towards the car on track with fire extinguishers and do so after they get the go-ahead from the Race Director.
Here is a (simplified) model of the race marshal organization.
As you can see, several teams are dependent on each other to create a bigger outcome. This pattern of a ‘team of teams’, was beautifully explained in the similarly named book by Stanley McChrystal.
A teams of teams organizational design has the advantage of being very fast and adaptable in complex situations. Here are some of the things that will help you operate successfully as a team of teams, that are visible if you look closely at the race marshals:
- have rituals that allow the team to connect as a bigger team
- ensure the organization and each team has a clear purpose, so everyone can work towards the collective outcome
- create shared consciousness, so that everyone knows what is going on in the whole
- strive for empowered execution, where each team can act autonomously within their predefined decision rights
Is hierarchy always bad?
In my work as an organizational change agent at The Ready, I help organizations move towards a more adaptable and human way of working. In many cases, it is the top-down style of management that gets in the way. The traditional hierarchical pyramid is no longer fit for purpose. However, if you want to get something done at scale, you still need multiple teams that get the job done together.
“Hierarchy is logical, it makes perfect sense. It simply means the ‘order of things’” — interview with Gerard Endenburg (founding father of Sociocracy)
At one of the briefings, the Race Director told the flag marshal post chiefs: “You are my eyes and my hands”
This reminded me of how Holacracy was named. It based on the term holon: something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. In the human body, an organ is both self-contained and at the same time part of the bigger organism. Organs are self-reliant, autonomous units that have a degree of interdependence on the whole. This is the kind of hierarchy that nature uses to scale autonomy and collaboration.
To go back to the example: even though the Race Director instructs the medical car to go on track, he doesn’t tell the doctor HOW to assist the driver.
The race marshal organization is designed to create a collective outcome. It allows for alignment AND autonomy, and this is key to get speed agility at scale in any organization.
So when reinventing your organization, let go of old assumptions and the notion of a ‘reporting structure’. Instead think in a ‘team of teams’, and define the decision rights of each team to enable the outcome that needs to be created.
Want to learn more?
Take a look at my book: Formula X “How to reach extreme acceleration in your organization”. A business fable about speed, leadership and organizational change.
Order at: www.formula-x.co
Ready to change how you work? As a partner at The Ready, I help leaders free their organization from the rules, habits and mindsets that cause delays, making work faster, more agile, more human and fun. Contact me to find out more, sign up to my newsletter Change how the world works or book me as a speaker.