Hierarchy

I recently posted a quote from a conference saying that “Removing hierarchy and cross-team dependencies made space for strong collaborative teams.” Interestingly, I got many comments and questions about it. So let’s talk about hierarchy and why we don’t need it in Agile space.

But before we dive deeper… What is the hierarchy? – using dictionary definition: “Noun – a system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority.”

Traditional Organizations Need Hierarchy

Organizations where employees are ‘ranked according to relative status or authority’ is what we inherited from the traditional organizational paradigm which is built on top of the belief that hierarchy is the key – every organization needs to have an org chart, we have to have a clear line of reporting and decision making. And I’m not saying it’s wrong, you can keep all the traditional practices like a career path, positions, performance reviews, KPIs, etc. however such organizational design is not what I’m interested in and has nothing to do with ‘being agile’. Traditional organizations might be still well functioning, applying some frameworks and ‘do agile’, but the mindset at the organizational level is just not there yet.

Agile Organizations Are Flat

What I’m interested in is applying an agile mindset at the organizational level. Help not only individuals to ‘be agile’, but the organization as well. Agile is fundamentally changing the way organizations operate. Agile organizations are built on a new paradigm. They have a team as the key building block and are forming collaborative, creative, and adaptive networks from them. In a team, we don’t have status, and we have no ranking either. All team members are peers, with no positional hierarchy and power. Indeed, you can gain respect from the other team members in a team, but you can also lose it if you don’t bring value to the people around you anymore. It’s flexible and dynamic. All you need is radical transparency, peer feedback, and honest culture with implicit trust. You might say it’s a lot, and I’m far from saying it’s easy. However, once you experience it, you never want back to the traditional world.

Who decides on the process? Teams. In a flat organization, they are not only self-organized, but self-managed (so they are responsible for the processes), self-designing (so they are designing teams), and self-governing (so they are setting overall direction). To get more insights on those terms, see how LeSS defines them. All over, you don’t need much more than what I already mentioned – transparency, feedback, and trust. If that’s too abstract, you can get inspired by Sociocracy 3.0. It will give you more ideas on how to get there.

Who set’s the goals and objectives? No one. They are co-created by the teams, reviewed through radical transparency, and inspected and adapted via frequent feedback to flexibly address the business challenges. At the end of the day, fixed goals are useless in the VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In other words, we speak about the world which is not predictable anymore. The cascading goals neither unify nor motivate. The more decentralized and autonomous the organizations are, the higher need is there for a strong evolutionary purpose. Co-created and owned by all. Transparent. You can get inspired by Frederic Laloux’s work.

What about budgets? Who says we need to have a budget in the first place. Again, you don’t need much more than what I already mentioned – transparency, feedback, and trust. Make all the finances transparent, and use instant peer feedback to review it. If that is too radical, you can get inspired by Beyond Budgeting.

All over, I guess you got the pattern. In an agile flat organization, we don’t need most of the traditional practices. All we need is radical transparency, peer feedback, and honest culture with implicit trust. No one is saying that you have to turn your organization into a flat structure and an agile mindset. But if you want to do that, be ready to redesign the way you work entirely.

From Good to Great: Radical Transparency

I started the series From Good to Great by advising you to find your own way of being Agile. The next blog focuses on radical transparency. Let’s be truthful for a moment, how many organizations you worked for have real transparency, and how many are hiding information behind the teams or department walls, encourage by processes and claimed necessity of being compliant. Lack of transparency is a strong weapon which eventually can kill any Agile transformation as it makes collaboration and self-organization almost impossible. Lack of transparency is a great friend of hierarchical structures supported by fear and politics. “If I’m the only one who has the information, no one can jeopardize my position, and I’m safe being manager… All I need to do to be promoted is wait and make sure that no big mistake happens.”  Sound familiar?

Once you really mean it with your Agile journey, radical transparency is the key enabler. Together with the empowerment raising from the self-organization, it brings the energy and people start to take over the responsibility and ownership. They don’t wait until someone promote them to any function, they don’t wait for any orders. They take it over and collaborate on the solution.

Radical transparency is the key enabler of agility

Understand the Purpose

To understand the organizational vision and have a clear evolutionary purpose is crucial to successful collaboration and self-organization. In order to take over any initiative, people have to understand where are we heading, who are we, and who we don’t want to be. There is a very simple test. All you need to do is to take a random employee and ask him/her what is the vision/purpose/uniqueness of this organization. For simplicity, you can start with the executive leadership team to see if they didn’t lose the track of why they are there. 🙂 The good news is they usually know exactly what is the vision and can explain it in a very clear and engaging way. But when you do a cross-check across the organization, very likely there is a disconnect (usually several or even too many) which results in a very disruptive chaotic way of working. To fix it, storytelling is your best friend. Nothing can set up the stage better. Using serious of collaborative workshops like worldcafe, openspace, etc. involve people in co-creating the vision and help them to be part of it. Storytelling will set the directions. They need to own it, they need to believe it, they need to feel a need to be part of it. That’s the energy you need to begin. It brings innovative thinking, creativity, and empowerment, when people start offering help, ideas, and are ready to sacrifice personal goals in exchange for being part of something bigger.

Experiment, Inspect, Adapt

The next step is run experiments. At every level, you need to be transparent and openly share experiments at the early stage, and last but not least be ready to adapt through feedback. The downside is that before you learn how to collaborate and pass a test that you have the same understanding of the vision, it’s going to be very inefficient, and frustrating. “If we can just do it our way”, “they don’t understand it”, and “we know what to do so why shall we ask for feedback” people often say. But if you are strong enough and sustain the need for shortcut pre-baked solutions, very soon you see the results in higher collaboration, better understanding and some kind of harmony, which all over results in a high-performing environment.

Together with that, you need to run regular retrospectives and be transparent about the action steps. Share the backlog internally and externally. Simply there is no or very few information which needs to be hidden. If you believe you find any, try to double-check it by playing the “Five Why” and make sure you have a plan on what needs to be done so you can make it fully transparent.

Be Inclusive

The last necessary step on the radical transparency journey is to be inclusive. There is no such thing as a closed meeting. They shall be publicly visible with an open invitation so people can join if they are interested and have something to say. If there are many people, the facilitator can use some diverge and merge facilitation techniques, but no restriction shall be applied for the sake of efficiency.

It’s not about being fast without alignment, it’s about building alignment so you can be even faster.

Radical transparency is hard. You first need to have the courage to say things how they are, don’t be afraid to hear difficult feedback, have trust people will help you, and be ready to help others because after all, you all have the same vision, the same evolutionary purpose to achieve. It’s not easy but is a great investment and it will pay back in forming a highly adaptive (agile) high-performing organizations – the organizations which are formed to crack the challenges of the nowadays complex world.