Modern work: why self-organized teams are just one step short

Developing software, designing new products or building an easier, seamless customer experience are complex undertakings. They are usually tackled by highly qualified and experienced knowledge workers. The working mode of these experts has been under development for quite some time now: Evolving from a top-down hierarchical waterfall mode with a heavy emphasize on upfront detailed planning towards an organic agile/network mode with short cycles. The latter allowing to benefit early from findings and learnings along the way. The term that summarizes it best in my opinion is modern work. In its simplicity it points out, that there is indeed some new way of working vs. some established, former way. And that this new way is in some way superior to the established way(s). The reasoning behind that statement has been debated at large, one of the best summarizing papers is The five trademakrs of agile organizations (01/2018; McKinsey & Company -> check out their picture for organic organizations).

When discussing about that new modern work mode, there seems to be a common sense that baffles me on a regular basis: As (quick) solution for how to putting modern work in place the self organized team dominates the tag lines: Whether you assemble such teams by mere chance (availability…) or carefully crafted and balanced along the lines of needed competencies (maximizing heterogeneity), it somewhat seems key, that such a teams goes through the forming and storming phase by giving themselves a proper setup on how they like to collaborate. This usually includes agreement on when/where/how to meet, what tools to use, whether to chose Scrum, Kanban or any other agile flavored framework and how to settle arguments (consent vs. consensus). While all this (and much more) is providing a valuable base for successfully working together in a modern way, it focuses far too heavy-weight on methodology over purpose: Why would the above described expert knowledge workers strive for better results by putting up with the tedious work of organizing the nitty-gritty of daily work? By itself – I believe – that focus on (self) organization has little effect on them. Knowledge workers as the expertes they are, are usually at least in one (the essential) domain much more knowledgeable/smarter than their superiors (line managers, project managers…). This is the domain they like to focus on, where their sole value proposition is based upon. Shouldn’t we rather free them of such generic tasks as how to organize meetings, team setups and collaboration rules?

The aspect that I believe truly counts is holistic end-to-end responsibility: Everybody on the team takes explicit ownership (accountability, responsibility, …) for the common goal, for achieving the target or even vision that the team itself committed to. That does not mean doing all by yourself. It simply means to take all necessary steps, including asking for help from outside the team when needed. It is emphasizing an entrepreneurial mindset by always raising the questions:

  • What could be done to achieve success?
  • What is success?
  • …and how might the definition of success change along the way?
  • …and if the definition of success changes, what implications does that change bear (including stopping the undertaking)?

With such an overall perspective of modern workself-responsible teams are bearing a much stronger value proposition as self-organization towards knowledge workers. And as an added benefit, self-responsible teams have the tendency to be more stable over time (e.g. when combined with a BizDevOps approach), reducing the overhead of forming and storming, shifting the focus towards digital (team) leadership and simplicity.

Don’t get me wrong, self-organization is not bad, quite the opposite. I just do not believe it is complete (enough) to be the answer for howto modern work. It serves though very well as important enabler for developing teams towards self-responsibility. And after all the concept has been proven successful although quite ancient (at least when taking a digital leadershipperspective): In the core of organizational theory (-> see research from last century), the application of decision rights is proven best when close to those who have the relevant knowledge. In other words it was best-practice long before the raise of modern work and agile principles to enable decisions closely linked to information and knowledge. In a hierarchical organization, the aim to fulfilling that paradigm would be to push the decision right as deep down the org-chart as possible. Looking back, why did so little organizations truly act upon that best practice? The answer lies within company culture and the fear of loosing control among executives, (line) managers and other superiors… and is most likely nursed by the wrong, yet decade long practice to make the „best“ knowledge worker of a team to become the boss at some point.

Let’s start to make modern work a bit more holistic by talking of self-responsible teams. Let’s go the step further, looking at the big picture of value creation and resisting to fragment/taylorize responsibility too soon, resisting the good but faulty feelings of being safe by looking exclusively at the individual piece of the puzzle.

I am looking forward to your points of view – what might be the next level of work/team maturity and how do self-responsible teams make sure to pick the right (i.e. strong enough) ambition when defining/debating goals and visions? How does digital leadership change?

What do you think?