Pack #2

Distributed Organisations

With a world as complex as the one we live in, it makes very little sense to work in centralised systems. They tend to be slower, more oppressive, less creative, less engaging and less intelligent than the alternative, distributed organisations. Distributed organisations is what we will focus on, in this pack in order to have the background needed to implement truly new ways of working within our organisations.

Episodes

Section Introduction- Pack 2

Introduction

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

So we’ve spoken about various phenomena when it comes to change and to our minds errors in processing that change. Now what of the implications?

Well we’ve looked at how the world not only has a tendency to change exponentially, in compounding multiplication signs, rather than +s, but how we tend to assume linearity and often not even notice change happening over time.

Anyway, this disparity is where I think organisations particularly can tend to suffer. Because whilst we have discussed a huge amount of change and an exponential pace of change, one thing that I believe has changed very little are our organisational structures.

We have a chaotic and interconnected world where there are more smartphones than people, and yet we still organise ourselves like in the 17th century. I often like to show people the image of the house of commons, where britain’s political leaders congregate. I typically show the image in greyscale and ask my audience to guess the year of the picture. You would have to look very closely to realise it’s a recent picture. In fact the only reason you know it’s recent is because it was captured on camera! The setup hasn’t changed for centuries.

Despite the world now being networked and requiring unprecedented collaboration to solve global issues, the Houses of Commons is still ‘ICE’ it is still operating according to a binary mentality with opposition parties. It is still hierarchical and centralised. People still have a say only every half a decade, despite the fact that huge change occurs in that amount of the time.

A simple way of putting this might be that despite the world working in decentralised networks, we still organise ourselves in highly centralised hierarchies. And it shifting our logic, structures and processes that will help us to thrive.

This has drawn me to the conclusion that it’s mathematically impossible to deal with so much complexity from a centralised system.

I find it useful here to use the analogy of a network of servers. A centralised network, with all the info going through one central server is seen as bad practice because that server is slower because it is limited in bandwidth, and it is a single point of failure, if that machine goes wrong, so do all the others.

In contrast, a distributed server network can share all data openly between servers, allowing for a resilient network that can offset any fragility in the system.

And so what does this mean for your organisation?

Or for your team or project?

As we will find out in following episodes and packs. There are many ways to organise ourselves according to a networked logic without relying on central control and planning (which we know from political history is a bad idea). And we’ll explore models, tools, tips and tricks as we do so.

There is no doubt in my mind that the way we work has to be increasingly distributed, at least in spirit, in culture, in the degree that people feel like they have autonomy and ownership over their work. And in the rest of this pack we'll go into what this might look like.

Fictional Org Charts

Perspective

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

Allow me to do some mental unpacking here. What I’d like us to do is to look at reality objectively. This is something that drives me a lot. There are often stories that stop us from seeing reality as it is, and in organisations there is one story that I believe does this to a huge degree and which can do with some unlearning. The story I’m talking about is the organisational chart.

These charts guide a lot of behaviour in organisations. They are taken very seriously. Somebody being above, under, alongside you makes a big difference to your relationships, your rapport, your ways of working. Whether somebody reports with a quote ‘dotted line into you’ or a is a direct report, makes a big difference. The boxes that indicate that you are in this department, not this department, are taken seriously.

Quick search for 'Organisational Chart' gives the traditional model we all know and take for granted as 'the way things are' [Source: Google / NHS]

So I would like us all to pause and see clearly that this image of a chart is a work of pure fiction. It is no more no less than a drawing. It is no more true than the drawing of a dinosaur your child recently drew for you. It is no more no true a story than Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter. There is no level of enquiry which could tell you that this drawing is ’true’. The org chart isn’t something that can withhold much intellectual scrutiny. This isn’t to say org charts aren’t useful, we’ll come onto that in a minute, it’s just to say that they’re not true. It's a mental model.

Funny 'real' org chart, comically presenting organisations as they really work [Source: Integration Training]

And yet we live our lives by them. So what to do with them?
• Well one thing to do is to ask ourselves what is true? What is really going on here? The reality is that an organisation is a series of relationships. The more relationships the more complex. The number of relationships increases exponentially with the number of people. For instance, 3 people have 3 relationships. 4 people have 6 relationships. 5 people have 10, a team of 14 people have 91 relationships. These relationships include power dynamics, influence, friendships…etc. Some people spend time together outside of the office. Some people get on. Some don’t. These are the real dynamics affecting the world we’re working in. The org chart affects how we lead these relationships, but that needn’t be the case as much as it is.
• With that as the story for what is really going on, we can decide to treat org charts lightly, as things that can be changed. A new and better dinosaur can be drawn. This needn’t be 'how this is done round here'. It can be done otherwise.
• And finally I think it’s important to understand the real needs that an org chart can or is resolving. An org chart at it’s best probably fulfils a need for clarity. It makes clear who is responsible for what. And so any subsequent org chart that is created should also fulfil this need. An organisational chart should be treated as something that is liquid and subject to change, always updating to create clarity and requisite structure. Not too much, not too little. Fundamentally, the purpose is to create clarity.

And so ask yourself: how seriously do you take the org chart? Have you questioned whether it is real or not? Do you perhaps take it too seriously? Does it give you clarity? Does it meet the needs of a changing world? Does it update? Does it help you know where you are accountable? If you were to draw a new one, perhaps one that you update more often, what would it look like and how would it make clear who is accountable for what?

Understanding that these things are up for grabs and can be re-engineered for today’s needs is a really liberating insight. I suggest doing some thinking into what this could be...

Customer Centric Organisations

Perspective

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

I want to introduce a concept through sharing two real customer experiences I’ve had. See this episode as a kind of semi-reflection process.

The first is Vodafone. I had just moved to Vodafone as a mobile provider with a special traveller package which meant that I could use my phone cheaply abroad. A week later I went on a work trip to Silicon Valley and found within one day I’d racked up almost £900 of data charges. I called, live chatted, email, to complain but no luck. They eventually said I had to go back to the UK store to solve the problem. I complained and complained. I must have spoken to about 50 people over the course of 6 months, which is when I got my money back. Then I had to wait another 18months before I could leave because of the contract length. I spoke to dozens of people going from person to person and had a very frustrating experience being passed around and passed around.

The second story is with Barclays Bank. I was buying a flat in France and they had promised to transfer the money within 48hours. There was a delay though and it took a week. In that time the UK voted to leave the EU, the exchange rate changed and I lost £2,000. I called customer service and a lady on the phone apologised, offered to call me back the following morning after some researching. She called me the next morning and said the money had already been refunded and they apologised for the error. Needless to say I am still a Barclays customer. But not a vodafone one.

Now what was happening behind the scenes in these companies?

Well for Vodafone I can do some guessing that:

  • Their IT systems meant each person I spoke to didn’t have access to the previous call agents data and notes
  • They had very unclear accountability which is why they kept passing me around to the wrong people
  • The people speaking rarely had any authority and so couldn’t actually do much for me
  • Their pricing and contract system incentivised laziness because they know I’m locked in for 24 months no matter how unhappy I am.

In contrast, I can tell you how the system worked at Barclays because the person I spoke to on the phone let me interview her on her day off to explain! She explained that:

  • After a period of research she formulated her own opinion which was to refund me
  • She then asked a few colleagues for two things. Advice as to what they would do (which she didn’t have to follow, but did have to consider) and for their consent. Consent means that she asks her colleagues if they have any huge disagreement. If not, and therefore her proposal is safe, she can pursue it.

They deemed it safe to give me £2,000 and here I am still a customer.

I divide my takeouts from these contrasting stories into two areas: the structure and the process.

The process
This consent or advisory layer is rare in such big traditional and corporate companies but is very common in self-managed teams. Where people are empowered to take responsibility but are asked to ask for advice, and to check there is consent. This way they benefit from the collective’s intelligence and they check for risk. The fact that information is transparent between colleagues makes it easier to work faster and learn from each other.

The structure
At vodafone it seemed that they were constantly going up a hierarchy to get much done. They would eventually get to somebody who knows me and my case very little and would decide. In constrast at barclays there were many customer facing people, who had all the information and were empowered to make the decision.

This means that in one story there are very few, very poorly informed decision makers. And in the other there are very many very well informed decision makers. This is far more likely to lead to many fast good decisions!

Customer Centric Organisational Logic

Conclusion
These stories give us some insights into what it would mean to be truly organised around the customer. It would mean having many people empowered to really truly listen and to act, with support and advice from their colleagues. Organising ourselves like this formally, leads to speed, quality, care, and innovation.

Reflection:
So ask yourselves these questions:

  • Are you vodafone or barclays?
  • Are the people closest to the customers empowered or not? Or are people far away from the customer making the decisions?
  • The people who speak most to the customer, is their knowledge and information open for all to access? Are we learning from what they know about the customer? Is their digital information transparent so we can all learn?
  • And then what of the processes? What processes such as consent decisions, or advice processes, could be implemented to help us make faster, more informed, less risky decisions?
  • And what about incentives? Are you like vodafone where long contracts lock customers into situations they don’t want, preventing you from feeling any pain from bad service you provide? Or are you incentivised to simply do a good job by them?

What would it look like to organise yourselves around the customer?

Distribution x Diversity = Resilience

Perspective

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

Today I want to talk about resilience. It’s something I’m trying to build into my life more and more and which I’m trying to help organisations build into what they do more and more.

First of all, what does resilience mean. I think it more or less refers to our ability to either stay strong or even better, get stronger, in the face of adversity. You may have heard the term ‘emotional resilience’ as one type of resilience, and there are others, such as resilient systems. Here, I want to talk about organisational resilience which like many things, I see as a simple equation.

As the result of a simple multiplication: diversity x distribution.

Let me first use an analogy to make my point. When creating a server infrastructure, there are two types of systems: centralised systems and distributed systems. It is common knowledge that centralised systems have many pitfalls, the main one is fragility and volatility due to the fact they have a single point of failure. If that central server fails, the whole system fails. In a distributed system however, information is constantly being copied from server to server, meaning that if one server is attacked or fails, the whole system will spread that load across the other servers. The system is resilient. This way of designing the system is called distribution.

But what if all these distributed servers are the same? What if they all run on the same software and hardware? Well, that would mean that whilst the system is distributed, if a virus manages to damage one server, it will find it equally easy to damage the others. It’s the same key for all the doors. This is where our second principle, diversity comes in. In a distributed system, each server or node must be different or at least diverse, then it is unlikely an attack could damage the whole system. This is why diversity is important.

In society, and indeed in organisations, diversity is the thing that enables us to be resilient particularly from narrow ideologies or perspectives. It helps counter extremes, acting like a natural thermostat: when the system gets too hot, some parts of the system will work to cool it down. In an organisation, when some parts of the system believe perhaps too strongly in one thing, the other parts can counter it.

So diversity is something not just of trivial human significance, it isn’t just a left leaning, progressive value. It is of pragmatic significance, and when building modern organisations, whether for human and/or commercial benefit, diversity is a key ingredient.

So what does this mean in practice?
• Well it means distribution is needed in terms of ownership, governance, process and culture
• And it means diversity must be baked in always, that we must get random voices in the room, that we must check we’re not in an echo-chamber, that we must welcome perspectives that have nothing to do with what we normally know.
• Perhaps leaving an empty chair in the board room. Or inviting people from non-related roles in. Or ensuring gender, racial or socio-economic diversity in our groups.

The reason for this is pragmatic. It's because diversity keeps us real. It keeps us intellectually honest. It shows us there's another perspective. And when we make decisions with diversity in group, we're able to average out and not go too far towards any extremes. Without it we risk working in the realm of fantasy.

These are some of the reasons diversity is something to really bake into our work, groups, teams, online communities, so that we can make better, more pragmatic decisions as a whole.

Layers of Distribution

Perspective

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

An organisation can be distributed to different extents depending on the situation. I see these layers of distribution as follows:
• Distributed ownership
• Distributed governance structure
• Distributed group processes
• Participative culture & open technology

Layers of distribution

Let me explain them in reverse order because an organisation can be distributed to different extents.

Starting with participative culture & open technology
These are two elements that can be the case in any company of all shapes and sizes. A good example are big tech companies such as facebook, google, airbnb. Even these companies that have multi-billion pound companies operating by centralised principles of ownership and governance structures are able to a decent degree to have participative cultures. In fact, it could be argued that they have perhaps even promoted the idea successfully and had a good impact on global work culture as a result. They are famed for empowering employees more than most traditional corporations, their software teams often have some self-managed characteristics, their internal IT systems permit superior levels of transparency than old fashioned organisations. So these companies are far from distributed in almost any other way but their cultures involve some level of participation.

Distributed group processes
Then you have participative or distributed group processes. This is possible in any company. If you are a leader who is choosing to lead by facilitating a group to make their own decisions, you are doing this. If you are choosing to use tools like consent based decision making, you are doing this. If you're in a group that is able to speak openly and freely, to take initiative, to contribute to the groups rules then the group process is distributed to some degree. I actually think, as I will explain in subsequent episodes, that this is possible and encouraged no matter what team you are in. These are the smaller processes that are involved in running meetings...etc.

Distributed governance structure
Zooming out one layer further, from the group to the organisation, an organisation can structure itself according to distributed principles. Models like Sociocracy allow for this. This means that the whole organisation can choose to operate according to an always updating, networked logic, rather than a fixed hierarchical logic. This is perhaps more difficult in some organisations. I would say from experience, that typically big centrally owned companies will struggle to do this. But it is possible. Certainly at the level of a sub team.

Distributed ownership
Where very few companies succeed in being fully distributed is in the ownership model. Despite distributed business models from the sharing economy, open cultures from tech companies, self-managed team or even organisational structures, typically for all the amount of freedom and democratic values in an organisation, the organisation is owned centrally. Even if a years profits are shared with employees, the assets, typically the worth of the company is centrally owned. Everybody is working to the long term benefit of a smaller group of people who aren’t working in the day to day. I hope that we see more organisations adopt cooperative models and indeed adopt all layers of the distributed package I’ve just described.

Conclusion
So where is the level you can influence? Not everybody can help their organisation be owned by the workers. But I’m sure there is something you can do. Can you make communication more distributed perhaps? Working in open channels rather than closed. Or perhaps you can make information more distributed by working in transparent servers and collaborative documents instead of hoarding intelligence on your hard drive. Or what about your meetings? Could the conversation be more distributed, allowing everybody time to have a voice? Or using a facilitator to help the group’s collective intelligence to come to the front? Or perhaps you can simply be a great role model for distribution, always asking others for input, always working in the open. Perhaps you can even do this through social events. Or by using open technology.

However big or small your influence is, ask yourself, what can you to make your organisation or sub team or even yourself, more distributed? The results will come forward not only in terms of engagement & energy, but also in terms of efficiency & effectiveness.

Work Sheet
Layers of Distribution Canvas

Rather than just assume organisations must look the way they always have. It's useful to think through alternatives that are perhaps wiser or at least make sense for you. This canvas should help with that. Whether you're doing the exercise theoretically, to change an organisation, or just to apply to a small team where you know you are able to create change, this canvas should help your group think through the different bits.

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Holacracy

Model

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

One of the most popular distributed organisational structures, is a model called Holacracy.

Holacracy was developed by a software engineer called Brian Robertson, who combined the learnings he’d gleamed from being taught about Sociocracy, with the agile methodology popular amongst software developers.

The result is a model called Holacracy. I recommend reading the book Holacracy if you’re interested in knowing more detail and using the Holacracy website which is full of resources including finding specialist consultants, guides for running certain meeting types and more.

But here’s a brief version.
First of all visually, Holacracy uses a fractal logic and therefore asks you to visualise an organisation not as a traditional org chart with layers of boxes leading up to the box. But rather to see it as a series of concentric circles. Circles inside circles inside circles.

Now these circles have one unique feature which is that they update and move as the organisation does. The idea being that the organisation updates as needed.

Each circle and sub circle has a purpose attached the organisations overall purpose and in order to achieve that purpose, a circle is comprised of a series of roles, not titles. This idea of having roles not titles is I think one of the best features from holacracy and I believe (counter to their advice) can be applied and implemented without implemented Holacracy wholesale. Basically instead of each person having a title which puts them in a box. Each circle has a series of roles and each person has a few roles.These roles may be from different circles. This allows people to grow and for the organisation to adapt as needed.
These roles always include a facilitator for meetings and what they call ‘link roles’ to help coordinate between circles.
Then there are meeting rhythms, which I’ll simplify by saying that there are tactical meetings where the circle team concentrate on moving the work forward, through a meeting structure which focuses on fixing bugs and solving problems. And then there are governance meetings where the team focuses on optimising how they’re working as a team and making amendments to the team guidelines on an iterative basis. Kind of like a wiki constitution.

The result is an organisation that can evolve in what roles are needed to get the job done, that can evolve it’s ways of working, and which can resolve tensions on an ongoing basis.

A word of warning, Holacracy is an incredibly structured approach, and sometimes is seen as over-structured, but this needn’t be the case. I think there’s room for softening it and adopting certain parts. Again this is counter to some advice given. I think moving from titles to roles, having facilitators in teams, and having work meetings and team meetings are processes that can be implemented by any group.

Work Sheet

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The Spotify Model

Model

Read Transcript

This pack is designed to help people consider a shifting global context which requires us to build different types of organisation and see to reconsider traditional organisations, work and our own mindsets. It includes "perspective" episodes designed to provoke new thoughts, "reflection" episodes to make sense of new insights and a "mini-workshop" to share insights related to change management in a group.

  • Section Introduction
  • The Straight Line Instinct
  • The Destiny Instinct
  • Losing Control
  • Ice or Liquid
  • The Implications Map
  • [BONUS] Daily Anchor Canvas

The story of spotify ’Scaling Agile’ is I think a useful model to share simply because it is somehow close at least visually to a matrix organisation which is what most traditional organisations have. And so some tweaks to that existing structure can lead to lots of great changes without necessarily change things in a big way.

I’ll explain what Spotify does broadly. And then some tips for small parts to implement which certainly can’t do much harm.

First the Spotify model. The engineering part of spotify works with autonomous teams. Each team is self-managed and is in charge of a specific area within spotify. They call them squads.

Some squads work on very related area and so they are also grouped in to what is called a tribe.

Across the company some people have the same skillset, they get together in what they call chapters.

And then some people have the same interests, and they get together in what are called guilds.

Now there are three things that we can take from this and I think apply anywhere.
1. Small autonomous teams: that’s simply to say that those small teams are self-managed and use facilitation for the group to guide itself. There's no boss in each team. They coach.
2. Checking dependencies: because different teams are dependent on each other, there is a process and some spreadsheets to check where things are blocking to help them unblock, this forces collaboration between groups.
3. Sharing forums: perhaps the easiest thing to implement is to create forums for different combinations of people to meet and work together. So whilst everybody spends most of their time in their own team, they also have forums to learn with people with the same skills, or interests and this can break down silos in a very organic way. At it’s lightest this could impact your organisation simply by getting different combinations of people together, giving them pizza and doing some facilitation.

So the Spotify model is good inspiration for putting some tweaks into an existing matrix organisation and help them to become more autonomous and collbaborative with one another.

The biggest question I'd ask you is: What sharing forums can you put in place? This I think can have a big impact.

Work Sheet
Spotify Scaling Agile Original PDF 2012

For your further reading, here is the original PDF by Henrik Kniberg & AndersIvarsson in 2012 about Scaling Agile at Spotify

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