The Role of Autonomy and Purpose in Supporting Organisational Change

By | AgileBusiness, Digital Disruption, Leadership | No Comments

In our book on agile business we talk about the need to bring together a dual focus on both customer experience and employee experience to support digital transformation and change. We frame the latter by drawing on Dan Pink’s excellent work from his book Drive, in which he describes the limitations of extrinsic motivators (like money) in the workplace and instead distills three key intrinsic elements (supported by extensive and relevant research, studies and examples) that really motivate people at work:

  1. Autonomy:- the ability to make a difference in the area that we are responsible for
  2. Mastery:- learning, progress and getting better at our work over time
  3. Purpose:- the feeling that what we’re doing is worthwhile

Intuitively that just makes a whole bunch of sense but what was striking for me when I first read that book was just how much these qualities characterise the cultures, practices and environment that I observe in the businesses that are making a success of introducing new ways of working that are more fit-for-purpose for a digital world.

Bruce Daisley interviews Dan in the latest episode of his excellent eatsleepworkrepeat podcast. Dan talks about the foundational principles expounded in the book but he also gives some great examples of organisations applying them, and discusses how his thinking has developed. In particular, he describes how we should think about purpose not only in terms of the grand, visionary purpose that a business might set out to establish a compelling direction (Purpose with a capital ‘P’) but also the importance of purpose (with a small ‘p’) in the sense of employees knowing and feeling that they are making a valuable daily contribution. He mentions how frequent, iterative feedback is essential in supporting this and how inadequate annual performance review processes are (I’ve written about this exact subject before now). It always surprises me just how poor and often demotivating many performance management processes can be in supporting change and momentum and how this can be a critical potential barrier to agility that really needs to be reinvented from the ground up. As Professor Paul Dolan talks about here, one of the key lessons from Behavioural Science research is that small things can create big change (and at very little cost)

Dan also talks a lot about autonomy (something that I spend a fair amount of focus on in consulting gigs), and how a key part of this is the space that leaders can create within teams to originate new value and nurture experimentation. In reality this is never easy given the pressure most people are under in teams to deliver against short-term priorities but there is a real role that leaders can play in setting the right expectations and wherever possible giving their people the cover and freedom they need to carve out time and space. It may not be 20% time, but just a bit of space can bring exceptional benefits.

Dan gives a lovely example of the value of doing this. Scientists Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the Nobel prize for Physics in 2010 for their creation of Graphene which has been described as the scientific find of the century. Graphene is the ‘wonder material’ comprised of a single layer of carbon atoms, and is the thinnest and strongest substance known to science (about 200 times stronger than the strongest Steel) that already has an almost limitless number of applications.

But the creation of Graphene didn’t come from a structured long-term research programme. It came from mucking about in the lab. Geim and Novoselov ran ‘Friday Night Experiments’, a small amount of free time on Friday afternoons when lab staff could work on scientific experiments not related to their day job. In one such session they were playing around with sticky Scotch tape, using it to peel off layers of graphite flakes until they were only a few atoms thick. They realised that they could actually use this method to get down to the thinnest possible layer, just one atom thick, and create a material with completely unique properties.

When they won their nobel prize, the Nobel committee noted the way in which the scientists used playfulness in the way that they work together. We need to create more space for playfulness in business. Without it, we might never come up with the breakthrough ideas and concepts that can not only enable creative leaps forwards, but can quite possibly save our business.

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

Small Teams Drive Big Change

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Greater organisational agility comes from empowered teams that perform well in solving the challenges that really matter to the business. But those teams don’t need to be big. In our book on agile business we delve into the key role that small, multidisciplinary teams can play in generating a disproportionate amount of change and value in a digital transformation programme and beyond.

There is a temptation in large businesses to throw resource at problems in the assumption that more brains and bodies means better solutions. Internal politics results in people being included in the process who don’t really need to be there and don’t contribute much value. Representatives of functions that may only be needed at key points get included in the project team from the beginning and have to attend every update meeting. The result is 20+ people sat in a room trying to move a project forwards. Everything slows down.

The reality is that more is not better for team effectiveness. Harvard professor (and specialist in team dynamics) Richard Hackman has shown that one of the key challenges with large teams is in the growing burden of communication. Put simply, as group size increases the number of unique links between people also increases, but exponentially.

This exponential increase means that coordination and communication costs are soon growing at the expense of productivity.

Hackman defined four key features that are critical to create an effective team in an organisation:

  1. Common team tasks that work towards fulfilling a compelling vision
  2. Clear boundaries in terms of who is in the team, information flow, and alignment with other resources, priorities, policies and teams. 
  3. Autonomy to work within these boundaries
  4. Stability

It’s therefore critical that we understand the difference between a real team and a looser ‘co-acting’ group, and how a (surprisingly common) lack of clarity, direction and autonomy impairs the ability to move fast.

Jeff Bezos, focused on retaining agility as Amazon scales, has famously described how teams in the company should get no larger than the number of people it takes to feed with two large pizzas (6-8 people). An effective small-multidisciplinary team is comprised of the people and skills areas needed to achieve key outcomes and no more (in the book we outline an effective way of managing dependencies across multiple small teams to ensure that the core team is kept small). This is important since it avoids not only communication problems, but also team scaling fallacy (the tendency for people to over-estimate team capability and underestimate task completion time as team size grows), and relational loss (the feeling that it is difficult to get support in large teams).

The multi-disciplinary composition of the team is important not only in achieving outputs, but in encouraging diversity. As Richard Hackman points out, homogeneity of team membership can often be a real problem in project teams since we tend to pick like-minded people to work with. Yet performance and creativity improves with greater diversity (including cognitive diversity, and having a substantive range in views about how the work should be structured and executed): ‘It is task-related conflict, not interpersonal harmony, that spurs team excellence’.

Digital technologies have transformed the dynamics of team contribution. Small, empowered teams can originate transformational ideas and successfully apply their capability to build and execute those ideas well. It’s time we re-imagined how we resource value creation in business.

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

Systems Thinking in Modern Business

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This post from Leyla Acaroglu on the six fundamental concepts of systems thinking does a great job at defining and summarising some of the key ideas that I would argue have become far more important and more broadly applicable in the complex adaptive  environment that businesses of all types now operate in. In the book we talk about how emergent strategies are increasingly needed to navigate effectively through complex scenarios and shifting contexts. So the basic principles of systems thinking have never been more relevant.

I’m writing this up for my own benefit but, as always, it’s worth reading the original.

One of the core concepts of systems thinking is interconnectedness. A system is ‘a set of inter-related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective’ (Donella Meadows). All elements in a system are therefore reliant on something else (and often a complex array of things) for survival:

‘…when we say “everything is interconnected” from a systems thinking perspective, we are defining a fundamental principle of life. From this, we can shift the way we see the world, from a linear, structured “mechanical worldview” to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops.’

The shift in mindset is therefore from linear to circular, and systems thinking seeks to untangle the relationships between these interconnected things.

If analysis is about breaking complexity down into manageable components and is therefore more reductionist and appropriate for the mechanical, linear view of the world, the goal in systems thinking is synthesis, or how the elements combine to create something new. So this requires an appreciation of not only the individual components, but the relationships and dynamics between those individual components, and how they combine to create the whole: ‘synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness’.

Emergence is the result of things interacting and coming together to produce something different (I liked this quote from R Buckminster Fuller that Leyla used: ‘There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it will be a butterfly’). When elements interact in a system they create constant feedback loops between the components. These feedback loops can either be reinforcing or balancing. A reinforcing feedback loop can happen when elements in a system encourage more of the same thing, which is often not a good thing since ‘an abundance of one element can continually refine itself, which often leads to it taking over’. This reminded me of John Willshire’s ‘pattern problem’, which he expounded at the last Firestarters:

Conversely, balancing feedback loops are self-correcting and produce stability rather than bolstering more of the same (like a predator/prey situation in natural ecosystems). But dramatic changes in the ecosystem can turn balancing feedback loops into reinforcing ones.

In a dynamic constantly evolving system, understanding feedback loops and causality, or how elements influence each other, becomes important. When we map systems, we need to take account of not only the elements, but the connections, relationships and feedback loops between them. We can then develop insights around interventions or strategies that can shape the system in the most effective way.

It strikes me that this way of thinking is far more important now in business. Not least because value generation is less about rigid, linear processes and more about networked relationships. If businesses increasingly operate as part of more complex ecosystems we need to be able to map the component parts, to appreciate the relationship, feedback loops and causality between them, and how we can establish and orchestrate successful networks that work for everyone involved. We need to understand how intervening in one area impacts the dynamics in other areas.

Strategy is a loop, or a circle, not a linear process. Being agile and adaptive is not about replacing one rigid process with another. It’s about being responsive to shifting dynamics in increasingly complex environments.

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

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Digital Transformation: We Need Missionaries, Not Mercenaries

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When it comes to transformation programmes, employee experience and engagement can often seem like something of an afterthought.

If digital transformation is 10% technology and 90% people (despite many thinking of it as the other way round) we need to pay far more attention to bringing people on the journey with us, and how we are changing the organisational culture in which change and agility can thrive, and the way in which we work. As this Paul Taylor piece adeptly puts it:

‘Digital transformation isn’t really anything to do with digital tools…It’s about redefining the concept of work itself.’

But we should also pay attention to the people that can actually champion change and make it happen. Irrespective of the level of seniority, this is the difference between leadership and management. There was a relevant metaphor that I particularly liked, used by the former Director of Product at Airbnb Jonathan Golden in his post on how they scaled Airbnb in the early days: Missionaries, not Mercenaries. He talks about how, when they were scaling and hiring rapidly in response to a new competitive threat, Brian Chesky (founder) was passionate about hiring people who really cared about what they were doing, and understood the need to build community around the burgeoning service.

In our book, we talk about but how bruising it can be to be the one/s that are asking the big questions, forging a new path and challenging the norms. More than anything you need determination and you need resilience to be the one at the forefront of change within a culture that does not want change to happen. Digital Transformation is as much a personal challenge and journey as it is a corporate one. That’s why you need missionaries. People who can see the change that’s needed and have the passion and enthusiasm to advocate it and bring it to life. People who believe in a compelling vision of what the company will be in the future and have the will and the energy to actualise it. People who are not afraid to challenge entrenched ways of thinking and doing and have the persistence to go against the flow.

Missionaries, not mercenaries.

For more like this, order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, or you can join our community to access exclusive content related to the book.

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