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De-emphasising organisational boundaries unfortunately not a silver bullet

Many smart people have written many smart things about new ways of organising work that have become feasible in the last few years. Some of these smart people are Tom Graves and Dave Gray. A key aspect of many of these new ways of organising is de-emphasising traditional organisational boundaries, i.e. in effect doing work across organisational boundaries that would have been done within organisational boundaries just a few years ago.

The opportunities this brings have been discussed thoroughly before as actually have been the risks. So the following really is old news…but I feel strangely compelled to get it out of my system:

When you depend on others for critical parts of your performance, then critical parts of your performance actually depend on others.

When operating in a network of nimble and effective organisations this might be not much of a problem—assuming you can reorganise your value stream or value network in a swift and flexible way. Traditional corporate outsourcing can produce scenarios in which several large organisations are tied together by rigid contractual frameworks and complicated operating models over a fairly long time.

In these situations, the partners may feel they cannot obtain and, respectively, provide optimal value, but tragically feel they are unable to do much about it. Sooner or later, organising essential work strictly within the boundaries of the organisation looks preferable.

That sounds like rewinding a couple of decades and starting over. I think we can do better than this.

Going with the flow

A few weeks ago I joined an up-and-running software development (and service operations) project together with a few other people. The team had already launched the first version of the product successfully. We had heard that huge effort had been put in to achieve this success and we had a hunch that the team would likely benefit from a renewed emphasis on certain lean & agile practices. We also had a hunch that the team wouldn’t benefit from us showing up and starting to lecture from the latest Scrum book or so.

I consider us extremely lucky to work in an environment in which we are free to choose our working practices (obviously within reason). I also consider us extremely lucky to work in a great team willing to own their work — and to put themselves on the line every day trying to improve our performance while at same time having to deliver against high expectations.

Listening to the team and the people around us, and establishing a shared understanding of our goals (including trade-off priorities; hat-tip to Alistair Cockburn) and the forces acting on us seems to be the essential foundation for our learning. After that, getting out of the way seems to be the best thing us management types can do. Every so often, we can provide some support and advice, or offer some re-assurance and confirmation. But mostly, it seems to be about getting out of the way and keeping the way clear of other obstacles as best as we can (we have way to go on that one).

Our work practices seem to become more lean & agile by the day, and I think our performance is improving. This post makes reality probably sound easier than it is, but I feel things are going so much better than whenever I’ve seen project teams being instructed to “be agile”.