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Archive for March, 2011

From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization

I had the opportunity to facilitate a discussion table at the “Déjeuner-Causerie” in Montreal (last week) and in Quebec City (this week) where over 50 people gathered in each city to share their experience with Agile adoption.

From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization

Before I get into the main topic covered during the 3 hour breakfast, the participants shared with the group their topics of interest. Though the participants were at various stages of their Agile transformation and had different experiences with Agile, they shared common interests and as such asked interesting questions:

  • What is self-organization and what does it really mean?
  • Can self-organization really work?
  • How far can you push self-organization?
  • How do you get management on board?
  • Can this work in any culture?
  • How can people be motivated to work together?
  • We are only starting with Agile, what do you recommend I read?
  • and many more!

This post is a quick summary of the various conversations. Since most of these topics require further explanation, I will expand on some of them in upcoming posts (and conferences). For now, I wanted to share some of the discussions.

What is self-organization and what does it really mean?

Self-organization is one of the basic pillars of Scrum and is often misunderstood. People (and in particular managers) assume that letting a team self-organize is the equivalent of complete chaos. To avoid getting into such a situation, self-organization requires some constraints.

Self-organization is the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it through planning. This globally coherent pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel (all the elements act at the same time) and distributed (no element is a coordinator). - Wikipedia

In his book, Jurgen Appelo wrote,

No self-organizing system exists without context. And the context constrains and directs the organization of the system. - Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders

As I already mentioned, Pyxis is an experimental laboratory and as such we have attempted to let people self-organize without (or with very minimal) constraints. In an upcoming post I can share some of the conclusions of that experiment but for the sake of this post, I’ll leave it as a “failed experiment”.

So back to constraints. In our context, the constraints are as follows:

Though we apply it at an organizational level, the concept of constraints can be applied at an Agile project team level where the Vision is the equivalent of the Agile project charter, the Finance is the equivalent of the project budget, the Strategies can be replaced with the project’s objectives or outcomes, while the Culture remains.

Can self-organization really work?

Yes, it can but it isn’t easy. Self-organized teams tend to go through various stages and success isn’t immediately achieved. Unless an organization is willing to invest into building a successful team, self-organization won’t really work.

How far can you push self-organization?

That’s really up to each organization. For instance, we have successfully pushed the concept as far as letting employees determine their own salary. Sounds crazy? Sure does, but that’s only because you haven’t factored in the organizational constraints.

You have probably imagined people getting together and giving each other huge raises. That’s what would happen if there were no organizational constraints. Once the constraints are well determined and understood, the team members can determine who deserves what as long as they fit within their team’s budget.

How do you get management on board?

That’s a difficult one to answer. The first question managers typically ask is “What will my job be?”. People managers are used to controlling what their team does, when they do it and even how they will be delivering the work. As Dan Pink mentioned:

  • People are more motivated when they are self-organized;
  • People take their own commitments more seriously than the commitments made by others on their behalf;
  • Teams and individuals are more productive when they are not interrupted;
  • Teams improve when they can settle their own issues;
  • Changes in the composition of the team affect the productivity of the team members;
  • Face-to-face communication is the most productive way to share information. - Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

That’s the reason why Agile managers need to alter their leadership style in order to success in an Agile context.

Can this work in any culture?

Probably not. Well, not without some organizational commitment. During last year’s Agile Conference, Michael K. Spayd explained that some cultures are more likely to adopt Agile than others. As such, true self-organization is more likely to succeed in a Collaboration culture or in a Cultivation culture. William E. Schneider’s book (The Reengineering Alternative: A Plan for Making Your Current Culture Work) is very useful to help determine the 4 different types of cultures. Fortunately for us, Pyxis is a cultivation / collaboration culture.

How can people be motivated to work together?

Unfortunately, they can’t! Contrary to popular beliefs, people can’t be motivated – only they can motivate themselves.

To improve the team’s performance and the project’s results, we suggest that Agile project teams be staffed by asking people to volunteer for a project. Projects are typically staffed when project managers or people managers select the people who will take part of a specific project. Although that might seem like a good idea, it is much more powerful to seek volunteers. As one of the participant highlighted “I used to be bored to death in my normal job until one day, I asked (begged) to be part of a specific project. I’m so glad they granted my wish. I now work 55 hours a week! I am super motivated and nothing is going to make me want to leave that project”. Still think letting people select their project is a bad idea?

We are only starting with Agile, what do you recommend I read?

There are so many great books and blogs to help you get started with Agile. A while back, I published a getting started guide. I also read the following blogs:

I referred to the following books during my presentation

Upcoming events

If you wish to be notified of upcoming events, send an email to metrempe@pyxis-tech.com.

Is it better to work for a small organization or a large one?

Image by LegozillaThere obviously isn’t a clear and straight forward answer to this question. The answer depends on the perspective of the person you ask and what they value. After working 10 years in corporate America, I came back almost 3 years ago to work for a smaller organization (less than 100 employees). Two of my colleagues (Yves and Ida) also recently made the switch. We got together to exchange our thoughts on why we believe working for a smaller organization is better for us.

Martin: You have spent a large part of your career working for large organizations, what struck you when you joined Pyxis?

Yves: One first obvious observation goes along something I experienced before in a young publicly traded technology startup (less than 100 employees). For a given amount of effort you invest towards an initiative, whether on a individual scale, with a group or at the enterprise-wide level, your ROI (Return on Investment) is quite higher in a small organization than in a large one. The outcome on the initiative may end up being very successful in both environments, but in the small organization context:

  • The decision-making process will be faster and will involve less people;
  • The frequency at which you will be able to challenge and refine a set of actions on your initiative will be higher. Furthermore, your chances for celebrating at the end increases accordingly;
  • The whole initiative will execute at a faster pace and will complete sooner most of the time. Hence, a key variable inducing a positive impact is the reduced number of hand-offs between departments or people.

Ida: The first blatant differences I noticed were the lack of anonymity (you don’t feel like a number) and the lack of rules and regulations. The lack of anonymity puts you out there right away and is an enabler to allowing you to contribute and make a difference right off the bat. The fact that there aren’t many rules and regulations can also help in allowing you to make that difference faster, with no red tape to slow you down in your tracks.

Martin: Changing organization is an important decision that is usually done without having all the information. In hindsight, what information would have allowed you to make a better decision?

Yves: Organizational culture; without a doubt! Although I usually spend as much time being interviewed as making my very own due diligence on the organization, culture remains the number one factor for which you never get enough insights.

In an interview process, I do take extra care at being very transparent and straightforward on my value proposition. I do expect the same in return from the organization; and it is usually the case. However, the organizational part of the equation is far more complex than one individual being interviewed; putting everything he or she has on the table.

In hindsight, I do realize that most of my career changes would not have been different with more organizational culture intelligence at hand, so, same decision at the end. But gathering more info on that side of the story allows you to prepare yourself much better for the ‘culture tango’ coming at you.

Ida: From my perspective, I don’t feel that any additional information would have helped me make a better decision. The decision was a good one because of my mind set. I was ready for a change. I knew that a change in company or industry wouldn’t cut it, it had to be a bigger change of sorts, and ironically the BIG change translated into moving to a SMALL, privately owned company.

Martin: Many people who join smaller organizations feel more appreciated and a stronger sense of contribution toward the organizational goals. What are your thoughts on these?

Yves: Most of your actions in an smaller organization are very visible; for the better or for the worst… This allows you to have a positive impact towards your colleagues and the enterprise itself, without seeing all your efforts being diluted inside complex chains of commands, large hierarchies and impractical politics.

So, the visibility factor brings more appreciation and a stronger sense of contribution most of the time. It is actually a key attribute of smaller organizations, from my own point of view. This stimulates people at performing towards excellence, knowing their chances of being recognized for their hard work are quite high.

Ida: In a smaller organization, the impact is immediate. A decision can be made and an action is put in place. The lack of heavy hierarchies means that each individual is much more empowered to get things done and not necessarily have to wait for various levels of approvals as in large organizations. This empowerment is motivating, energizing and stimulating.

Likewise in a smaller organization, the breadth and depth of one’s responsibilitiesis usually much wider than in larger companies. This in itself provides additional satisfaction since people are not «boxed in» to a role that is strictly defined, allowing them the latitude to spread their wings.

Martin: What do you miss about working in a larger organization?

Yves: Sometimes, smaller organizations are facing challenges less prevalent in larger ones. For instance, financial stability may be a focus discussed over a monthly, or even over a weekly basis in a small company. Whereas in a larger organization, these matters will be discussed less often and more upon large-scale changes like restructuring plans and/or financial results being bellow expectations.

Furthermore, larger companies are having less of a hard time raising capital for their growing needs; in comparison with smaller organizations which are struggling a good deal in order to maintain an attractive balance sheet for banks and venture caps.

I still remember those funny days about 12 years ago; when it was so easy for startups to raise literally millions of venture cap out of PowerPoints or based on theoretical MBA classroom business cases. Hopefully these days are gone and we all now raise money based on common sense and sound financial practices. This however, illustrates how difficult it can be for a smaller organization to secure its financial future in 2011.

Ida: My answer to what I miss about a large organization is a two part answer, and each part contradicts the other, let me explain. Similar to Yves reply, financial stability is the most noticeable aspect that I miss. The luxury of knowing that there are enough funds to pay all expenses when they come in, invest in projects, expansions, acquisitions, etc. and be around in the long run, fosters an environment of growth, possibilities and positive reflections, in theory.

I say, in theory, because the existing reality in most large corporations, even though highly profitable, is the continual squeeze to do more with less. Hence the pressure is such that you are never profitable enough. It becomes an endless race. Factor into this internal pressure, pressures from the market and shareholders, legislation, the economy, and so on, and it becomes the endless race with umpteen hurdles. This is the part that I don’t miss, but it is very much tied to that financial stability I spoke of above.

Martin: Thank you Yves and Ida for sharing your thoughts on this topic. This was an interesting exercise. We may do this again in the near future.

Self-organization and independence aren’t the same thing

Picture by Frédéric EsplandiuAgile relies and promotes the concept of self-organized teams but the concept is still misunderstood – except maybe for Jurgen who explains it very well in his book.

Even within Pyxis where we push the concept of self-organization to the entire organization, people often mistake independence and self-organization.

Here’s an attempt at distinguishing the two perspectives.

Independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usually sovereignty, over its territory. – wikipedia

Independence is strongly tied to self-governance which is defined as:

(…) an abstract concept that refers to several scales of organization. (…) It can be used to describe a people or group being able to exercise all of the necessary functions of power without intervention from any authority which they cannot themselves alter. – wikipedia

On the other hand, self-organization is defined as:

the process where a structure or pattern appears in a system without a central authority or external element imposing it through planning. This globally coherent pattern appears from the local interaction of the elements that make up the system, thus the organization is achieved in a way that is parallel (all the elements act at the same time) and distributed (no element is a coordinator). – wikipedia

Although in both cases, no authority interferes with the organization of the people, self-organization emerges when there is no planning of how people will work together. In addition, the notion of imposed constraints appears when discussing self-organization.

As such, while independence could mean “We can do what we want, how and when we want”, self-organization means “We are free to operate how we wish within the defined constraints in order to achieve the established objectives”.

As I recently described, immature self-organized teams are often selfish and irresponsible:

Team members are happy to take advantage of being self-organized but only as long as it benefits them and that there are no increased responsibilities. Once a situation negatively impacts them (while benefiting the team), they aren’t willing to cooperate and when they are asked to take accountability for something, they shy away from the responsibility. In a nutshell, these individuals want the best of both worlds. To successfully transition to self-organization, it is critical to explain that they will need to make a decision and pick self-organization with responsibility or freedom outside the self-organized team.

Consequently, true self-organization means that people take full accountability for their actions and do what ever it takes to get organized as a group in order to operate within the imposed constraints.

Once presented with self-organization, people and teams quickly assume that they now fully control their destiny – which is incorrect. The additional detail that needs to be added is “within the imposed constraints” which means resources are limited and an objective has been established. So unless you are in control of the resources or have officially been delegated authority for the resources, you have the option of self-organizing, not becoming independent.

Software developers as commodities

Demand for software developers is unlikely to drop over coming years. I suspect the contrary is more likely to happen as demand for technology workers will continue to increase while North American universities produce less graduate developers.

That’s good news if you are a software developer as the demand is likely to continue exceeding the supply for many years. If you are on the market for a new job, your chances of finding another job are pretty good.

That’s also good news if you are an organization who offers software development services to customers. The trend showing that organizations are not staffing up to their full need and prefer to hire external temporary help (consultants) to complete their projects.

So all is well in this perfect world, right?

Well, it depends. If your goal is simply to get “a job” things are OK for you – send your resume to an organization that is recruiting and if you successfully go through the various steps of the recruiting process, you’re in. Congratulations! If at first you don’t succeed, try again a few more times and chances are you will get into one of the hiring organization.

If you are looking for interesting projects or projects inline with your personal goals and aspirations things might be more complicated. How do you ensure you are the one selected for that special project?

If you haven’t realized it yet, software developers are commodities. There simply isn’t much differentiation between software developers. I don’t mean to be disrespectful and as such, I won’t attempt to compare software developers to other commodities but the fact remains that there are very few ways to distinguish software developers.

In marketing, product differentiation is the process of distinguishing a product or offering from others, to make it more attractive to a particular target market. This involves differentiating it from competitors’ products as well as a firm’s own product offerings – Wikipedia.

The question that comes to mind is “What are you doing to stand out of the crowd?” and “What are your differentiating factors?”.

One differentiating factor that is slowly appearing in job descriptions is the requirement for “Agile software developers”. Although a step in the right direction, this is likely to mean very little in the near future as the definition of an agile software developer still needs to be agreed upon.

If you are part of an organization that offers software development services, what are your differentiating factors? Ours is simple, we offer immersion and highly performing software development teams that are ready to make a substantial impact from day 1.

What are your differentiating factors?

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