Organisation design for agilityBlog

An article by Lars de Laat, interactive session speaker at EODF 17.

The annual conference of the EODF – the European Organisation Design Forum – took place in Dortmund on October 20 and 21. One of the main themes of this conference was agility – what does this mean from the perspective of organisation design, how do you design for agility, what makes organisations more or less agile?

For us this conference presented a great opportunity to look critically at the Agile movement (note the capital A) that takes place in many of our customers’ organisations. Unfortunately, we find that methods, roles and procedures are often emphasized and insufficient attention is paid to principles that are really key to achieving agility. We find people are talking about great examples at companies like Spotify or Google without discussing the relevance to their particular case. A lot of time is spent talking about Scrum, user stories, Jira, about roles like the PO and scrum master. We have found that this is not the way to achieve agility.
Nevertheless, Agile (with capital A) in its core does provide key elements for the organisation designer to help move an organisation to greater agility. So, with two members of the USI (Ulbo de Sitter Institute) – Benny Corvers and Jesper Hanssen – we took on the challenge to connect Agile (with capital A) with organisation design principles that lead to greater agility. The EODF seemed a good platform for sharing this: on to Dortmund!

“Agile (with capital A) in its core does provide key elements for the organisation designer to help move an organisation to greater agility.”

The challenge: Chinese lanterns

To really experience the message we were trying to convey, we let the participants work in a Chinese lantern factory. This is a simulation in which a number of simple and more complex tasks need to be performed to deliver a product (a paper lantern). Unlike many agile / lean simulations, that focus on flow, this simulation focuses on different ways of organising work. How do you design logical work stream, how do you design your teams?
The first round of the simulation was highly frustrating for the participants. Even though you know that you are in a simulation, you cannot help but be demotivated when you find it is impossible to achieve acceptable results. At the end of the first round – where the teams were functionally organised and a lot of coordination tasks were performed by managers and other staff outside the teams – no products were delivered to the customers. It had not been possible to make even one simple paper lantern with the effort of a total working day of man hours.
In the second round the work was organised differently: in multidisciplinary teams that were expected to take on the required coordination tasks themselves. As a result the number of central roles outside the teams decreased sharply. Working this way, the teams were able to produce several customer orders adding up to some 50 lanterns, even delivering flow disturbing high priority orders on time.

“When the teams were functionally structured with managers performing the coordination tasks, not a single lantern was produced.”

Even when you understand the theory, it’s impressive to see how big the difference is and what impact it has on the “employees”.

When is Agile agile?
In essence our session was about how to organise work. This is not a topic that is specific to the popular “Agile” transitions. The theory behind what happened in our Chinese lantern factory was already developed decades ago in a field known as Socio-Technical Systems Theory. Striving for adaptability in an ever changing environment STS describes a strategy of creating simple organisations with complex jobs instead of simple jobs in a complex organisation. This leads to greater agility with an added benefit of creating more meaningful work.

“The strategy for achieving agility is to design complex jobs in a simple organisation.”

You can find this principle of organisation design in the 12 Principles of the Agile Manifesto. Unfortunately, not everybody that eagerly jumps on the Agile train is aware of these principles and what they really mean. As a consequence, Agile transitions too quickly jump to the level of a detailed design for the organisation. The basic conditions for agility are not present and Agile becomes the next fad that will eventually be followed by something else.

The combination of the Chinese lantern simulation and the explicit connections we made between Agile and sociotechnical design principles worked out well judging the feedback we received. Our mission in Dortmund was successful. Now onto the next audience – of organisation designers and agilists.

Lars de Laat is an Organisational Change professional of Garansys, a company based in the Netherlands. Always looking for ways to create conditions of flow in social systems, he is especially interested in surfacing and breaking organisational patterns that prohibit effective co-operation and flow. For the last ten years Lars has been working with large organisations adopting agile based ways of working to increase responsiveness, productivity and reliability in delivering products and services.

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