If you want to understand scaling… (part 1 of 2)

If you want to understand scaling:

  1. Start with what must be true at each scale of organisation (this post)
  2. Then with what happens between scales (part 2)

Let’s begin with teams, or more specifically with its members, people. Even allowing for diversity, there are a number of near-universal things you can say about the members of any well-established team:

  • They each know who they are; many will also have a sense of who they’d like to be
  • They each know what they want to contribute; many will also have identified capabilities they’d like to develop
  • They each have a sense of what they can manage on their own and what should be managed more collectively

There are some boundaries there. They may be fuzzy and there may be room for negotiation in the short term and for development in the longer term, but cross them – insist that people do things that “aren’t them”, aren’t what they signed up for, or take away their ability to self-manage to the level they expect – and you have unhappy people in an unhappy team. For example, most people don’t like to be micro-managed; neither do they want to see important things left unattended.

Now to the team itself. You’d be hard-pressed to find a high-performing team for which these aren’t true:

  • There are collective senses of identity, purpose, and of what it aspires to
  • It knows what it’s there to do, what it is capable of, and ways in which those capabilities might be developed
  • It knows what it can manage for itself as a team, and (conversely) what needs to be managed more collectively, ie with (and perhaps by) other teams – potentially even with others outside the organisation

Again, there are some boundaries there. Fuzzy and negotiable no doubt, but only a fool would think they could cross them without negative consequences.

Jump now to the organisation as a whole. I almost don’t need to write these points down, but I will:

  • It has a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, and a sense of what it aspires to
  • It knows what it’s there to do, what it is capable of, and ways in which those capabilities might be developed
  • It knows what it can manage for itself as an organisation, and (conversely) what needs to be managed with others – suppliers, customers, industry groups, and so on

You can be pretty sure that if there are significant issues with any of those points, you’re looking at an organisation that has problems – big problems. At the extreme: identity crises, or working catastrophically beyond its capabilities or its remit.

Starting again at the level of the individual, on the topic of what makes the work meaningful, the answers may vary hugely. Moreover, you never know until you ask, and perhaps not even then until you get to know them well enough. At higher levels, diversity of purpose and capability is essential to meeting the complexities of the business environment. The successful organisation has them distributed effectively whilst maintaining some coherence of its own, not an easy balance to maintain when the environment is changing.

What does all that mean for teams-of-teams? Does this repeating pattern – a pattern that already works at three levels – the levels of individuals, teams, and the whole organisation – apply at other scales? Pretty much!

If your team-of-teams doesn’t have its own sense of identity and purpose – meaningful to the people in it, not just its designers – it is unlikely to amount to anything more than an aggregation of its parts. What is it for? What is it capable of? What does it add, other than overhead? If this problem is widespread, you have a structure that is hard to navigate, a direct cost to the organisation and potentially a problem for customers too.

What if it has those senses of identity and purpose but not a sense of where it would like to get to, what it would like to become, and so on? In that case, what holds it all together as its component parts continue to develop?

And what does it manage? If it’s trying to manage what its constituent parts are capable of managing on their own – interfering, in other words – it does both them and itself a serious disservice.

All that said, what does good look like?

  • A structure that makes sense – not just tidy on paper, but purposeful at every scale – allowing each unit at every scale to self-manage effectively (structuring itself to minimise dependencies, for example)
  • Each unit at every scale able to express its own strategy in its own words, in terms appropriate to its domain and its customers, aligning it with other units and other scales according to both structure and opportunity
  • Each unit at every scale able to identify what it must manage at that scale – no more and no less – with protocols to deal with what should be managed elsewhere

Any problems here I would characterise as organisational problems first (the organisation getting in the way of doing the right thing), problems of the strategy process second, and problems of the delivery process third – a distant third if the first two are in any way significant. And as leadership problems? It is hard work for leaders when these problems aren’t dealt with, so let’s be careful not to personalise problems that may not be of their own making. Neither should we underestimate the power of participation, self-management, and self-organisation. But if as a leader you’re getting in the way of the organisation fixing its problems or are complacent about them, well that’s on you.

Neither should you expect your problems of organisation, strategy, and leadership to go away by rolling out a process framework. Why would they? I don’t know if we have got to “peak process framework” yet – I don’t suppose we can know until some time afterwards and I’m not ready to call it – but in the meantime let’s be realistic about what they can and can’t do. And while we’re at it, let’s not pretend that a framework rollout is an easy and risk-free thing.

Much as I detest the rollout, this is not an anti-framework rant. If you find the opportunity to borrow from a framework as you address those more fundamental problems, that’s totally sensible – there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. You are still are in control of your own destiny, free to pursue what really matters.

Before part 2, more on the topic of maintaining healthy relationships with frameworks in these two articles:

On some of the leading frameworks themselves:

And to those bigger themes:

Watch those last two come together in the coming months. At the Agendashift Academy, the final Leading with Outcomes module, Adaptive Organisation: Business agility at every scale is due in the autumn. You can get ready meanwhile with the first three modules:

  1. Leading with Outcomes: Foundation
  2. Inside-out strategy: Fit for maximum impact
  3. Outside-in strategy: Positioned for success

If you want to understand scaling:

  1. Start with what must be true at each scale of organisation (this post)
  2. Then with what happens between scales (part 2)

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