Just asking people to self-organize is not enough

In my company we are actively trying to move towards a decentralized, self-organizing way of working. In my previous blog post I explained some of the reasons for that. I feel a need to write something about a thought I have been having lately.

Just asking people to self-organize is often not enough

I have experienced this first hand from both sides.

In our company I have been wondering at times why people at times won’t seem to self-organize to solve our problems. What are they waiting for? Is it because people are not used to work in such a way? Is it because of habits? Is it a mindset thing?

But then…

This year I volunteered as one of the organizers for the Scan Agile 2015 conference in Helsinki. Scan Agile is the largest annual Agile Software Development conference in the Nordic countries, organized by volunteers from the Agile Finland community. Many of us are seasoned consultants and professionals with lots of experience in Agile methodologies. Surely these people know how to self-organize, right?

While the conference was a success, I actually found it hard at times to self-organize within our team of self-organizing veterans. And in our closing retrospective it became clear I was not the only one.

Why?

One of our issues was that it was at times unclear who can and who should make which decisions. It is hard to self-organize without a solid understanding of all that is involved. Some of us had previous experience with organizing large conferences, but others –like me- were first-timers.

I suspect that the same issues easily pop up when moving as an organization towards self-organizing on a company level. It can become unclear who can and who should make which decisions. Also, people will likely find it hard to self-organize around things in which they have yet little experience.

Communication

I believe it is very important to establish common ground rules of self-organizing and make sure that everyone understands who can make what decisions. The experience issue however can probably only be fixed through learning by doing. I therefore believe that we need -above all- an effective mentoring/coaching network, so that someone facing trouble in an unfamiliar area can easily find a mentor to work with.

Retrospectives are probably the best starting point. We should have more of them. On all levels.

What makes a good software company?

I truly believe that a good software company is really mostly about people. It’s about creativity, communication, experimentation and learning. It’s also much about beliefs and feelings. Of course technical and practical skills matter a lot too, but in the end technology and market trends come and go faster than ever before. A lot of today’s skills will be obsolete in the near future. The ability to learn and adapt on an organizational level is what makes all the difference.

A good software company is about continuously improving on how to learn and adapt on all levels

When skilled people are solving every days challenges creatively together in a safe, informed and enabling environment, the organization as a whole will likely be able to adapt to its ever changing surroundings. Changes in the surroundings might help such an organization to become actually even better, making the organization antifragile. I also believe that such an environment is a great foundation for creating a happy and inspiring place to work.

However, when looking at the organization that I work for, we started to understand that most of our organization structures made it actually somewhat difficult to provide and sustain such a work environment.

We have a flat organization, right?

We always liked to think that we have a flat and non-bureaucratic, flexible organization. After all, we had very few managers.

However, we did used to have 2-3 levels of hierarchy with an albeit informal command-and-control way of decision-making.

Because of the hierarchical decision making the environment felt not very enabling. Everybody within the organization could see lots of room for improvement, but instead of acting upon that, people rather just brought things up and hoped for management to fix them.

This does not scale very well. We had on average one manager per 8-9 employees and each manager had also other responsibilities, such as sales and HR. That created a huge bottleneck, which caused many improvements to be slow and painful. Lots of good ideas were lost in the process. There were also other reasons for that.

Silos

We used to have three separate departments that were responsible for meeting their own individual targets.

Because of that, we were lacking a true shared goal and people were not truely working together. In fact, at times the individual goals were even competing with eachother. Improvement ideas that would improve the company as a whole often would harm the department’s short term goals. Partly for this reason we never seemed to have any time to improve as a company.

I must say, our organization has existed in this way for 15 years, so it clearly has not been all that bad. However, the world is changing ever faster. The need to adapt faster is becoming urgent.

Minimum Viable Organization

In a recent Systems Thinking community event, someone defined the essence of an organization as nothing more than a collection of rules.

Rules are the only thing that stands between an organization and chaos.

The more rules an organization has to follow, the less flexible it becomes. The opposite is also true up until a certain point. This point is called the edge of chaos. A company that is on the edge of chaos could be called a Minimum Viable Organization; A minimum set of rules that keep the company from falling into chaos.

Our organization is currently experimenting with this concept. We intend to remove as much rules as we can in order to be able to learn and adapt faster. We have removed our silos and we are experimenting with different ways of self-organizing on a company level.

Does it work?

Trying to create a self-organizing organization does in itself not fix any real problems. However, it has helped us to make the existing problems much more visible. It also created some interesting new problems. In order to keep a self-organizing organization away from chaos, it becomes critically important to make all aspects of the work as transparent as possible.

Some problems will be harder to fix than others. We have only just started. It really is in a way a journey into the unknown. I’ll try to sent blog postcards along the way to tell you how we are doing:)

However, Solving our problems is now a shared interest and responsibility. Many hands make light work! It is always amazing to see people spontaneously self-organize and work together to get something done.

What do you think?

Hello world!

This is my very first blog post, finally!:)

My Name is Daniel Wellner. I am a Dutch guy, living in Finland.
I am passionate about Software Development and Systems Thinking.

On this blog I will share some of my experiences and thoughts on those subjects. I thought it would be nice to introduce myself before doing so.

I have been working as a professional Software Developer and Consultant for about 16 years now. My main passion has always been good quality software. While I still love to code, I have came to notice through the years that many of the major problems in software development are found outside the code itself.

Around 2006 I discovered Agile Software development and I quickly became an “Agile Evangelist”, when I learned how Agile principles provided the toolset that can be used to fix a lot of the problems that I and my teams were facing. I have been an active member of the Agile Community ever since. Short feedback loops, self-organizing teams and continuous improvement have been amazing tools for creating better software and a happier, more energetic work environment.

The last few years I have become ever more involved in the software business itself. With agile teams capable of producing quality code reliably, the bigger challenges come from the organization and the business itself. I have seen all too often how the efforts of a good team goes to waste within a bad organizational or business structure.

I am burning with passion to change the software business for the better, starting with the company that I work for and my clients.

I do not claim to be an expert. I try to learn and improve as much as I can trough keeping an open mind and by asking, listening, experimenting and learning from my mistakes.

Giving me feedback will help me to learn even more, so please do so. But please, be constructive.:)