I believe we need guidance or something to fall back on, that makes it easier to structure business agility with viable operational teams and appropriate leadership, based on the agile values. It is time to consult the experts on organization, like Mintzberg or the system builders of the Cybernetics like Stafford Beer. Beer introduces management functions to support and facilitate the viable frontline teams. Management then has the task of nurturing the team and the team-of-teams, providing them decisively with resources; to ensure that these teams can be highly successful instead of drying out.
The Viable System Model( VSM ) of Beer describes four management functions that are minimally needed so that a system or operational unit (1) can function 'viable' in a changing and complex environment; these management functions are:
2. Coordination and communication,
3* Audit, information & data,
3. Integration & alignment, management in the moment: a. Accountability, b. Resources,
4. Intelligence & strategic planning,
5. Purpose and values.
Since the (relative) autonomy of the operational team is the starting point, the task of the other four functions is to provide support and services to the team. Beer uses nature as a source of inspiration and in a living system is no hierarchical power model. The communication between the (sub)systems is never one-way traffic but happens via closed information loops. For the tribe or department, you can visualize it as follows:
|Viable system model (Beer, 1979)|
The management function 4: 'strategic planning and intelligence' concerns also the exploration of markets for the future: to develop market-creating innovations. Beer relates intelligence (innovation) mainly to the external environment and to the R & D department of the past. Building up intelligence can now be found at all levels, it is a function and that means that team members also develop activities in the field of management function 4: strategic planning & intelligence. I will return to this in a next article, in which the MT and operational teams build intelligence on business development models. In this article I focus on management functions 3 and 3*. I discussed coordination (2) in my former blog.
Note, a viable system is about functions and not about people. It is common agile practice that a person operates in the operational team as well as in management function 3: Integration and alignment. For example, you can often see this with product owners performing regular team tasks. And since informal leadership is encouraged with all team members, it makes sense for team members to take on management functions from time to time. At Riotgames for example, they separate roles and responsibilities and team members can take on certain responsibilities which belong to the management function.
At team level the picture of Beer looks like this:
The leadership team with their leadership roles, like the product-owner, chapter-lead and agile coach operate in the management functions. The visualization shows that the operational team interacts with its customers and not just the product-owner. The product-owner has the responsibility to record customer (user) stories in the backlog. In the sprint planning meeting the team is in management function 4: planning. The team is responsible for the minimum viable products and in the review and retrospective meeting the team operates in management function 3: integration & alignment. She is accountable to herself and the customer. In addition to the responsibility of having developed a product in accordance with the agreements during the sprint planning meeting, the team checks whether they have developed a product in line with the wishes of the customer and whether they are still working on the right track. In other words, they collect new information for the next sprint planning meeting. The Agile & Learning (A&L) advisor (organization coach) facilitates the smooth cooperation between team members and monitors that individual activities do not interfere negatively with the activities of other team members (coordination 2).
Integration and alignment (3)
System 3 optimizes the internal business environment and the synergy of the (sub)systems. A point of attention in the organizational structure is the vertical alignment between teams and the organization. Teams will have to coordinate their activities, to fit into the bigger picture. And that is not always easy. At the tribe level, the leadership team has an important task to monitor and promote the alignment with the organization through targeted (management) information provision for example in team-of-team meetings. In other words, it creates conditions in such way that teams have the ability to arrange alignment as much as possible themselves (Kniberg, 2015). The teams check whether their products are 'aligned' with the strategy. It is up to every team to anticipate on that information. And sometimes that information from the Management Team will look like an order. It is important that teams digest information about new directions, after all, they are viable systems. It is also possible that the team has crucial information from its customer world, which is important for other teams and for the strategy choice of management. The crux is that teams are involved in the strategy choice of management and management is hopefully aware that frontline teams have to offer a lot to build up new business models and an effective strategy. The entire organization need to have a voice in creating strategy (Hamel), see also the strategic agility case of Sri in book Denning
The team-of-teams must of course have a clear and sharp target (management function 4) and the tribe leadership team ensures that everyone has a clear vision. Since it is a management function, the representatives of the teams, usually the product-owners, participate equally in the determination of tribe goals and strategy. At this higher recursion level, participants analyze whether the result of the sprint is 'aligned' with the products of the other teams. Alignment is not just about goals and strategy; it can also be about the 'architecture' to align the products made in the different teams, see the SAFe approach.
'Accountability' is also part of the management 3 function: the tribe holds the teams to account for their results, for the teams themselves, for the customer and for the other teams. Operational teams are held to account about their contribution to the company. However what can you expect when accountability is an attenuation of high variety happenings (Beer, 1985) ? Also, it is said that the team holds management to account, the purpose of management in any agile organization would be to accept accountability for results. This would help to assure that the focus of management remains on the support, care and feeding(resources) of their frontline teams. In other words how can a team be hold accountable when she depends on resources provided by management and when she has no control or influence all the environmental variables that influence a set of OKR’s? Also I ask myself how to understand accountability with agile values like trust and empowerment. Below I will elaborate on the allocation of resources and accountability.
|Figure: Accountability loop (Beer, 1985)|
Allocation of scarce resources
A viable system needs food and that comes from outside. By purpose Haier and McCrystal speak about “watering plants” by management as a metaphor. The operational team needs time, money and sometimes extra manpower with specific expertise. For a viable frontline team, it is crucial that she has the time to carry out activities and experiments in coordination with her customers. This means, for example, that the team members' agenda is not completely sealed and there is room for flexibility and experimentation. In the sphere of agility there is a lot of experimenting and then the team sometimes need extra funds which is not budgeted. Sometimes the team needs specific expertise from 'outside' to make activities a success and often it is about people who are being questioned by many teams.
There is a shortage of mental healthcare nurses in the neighborhood teams. In consultation between the district teams, it will be discussed how these nurses can be useful in the various neighborhood teams. The district team manager mainly has the task of helping the team representatives to come to a workable decision-making process.The hierarchy has the power over the distribution of scarce resources. The resource bargain is the deal by which some degree of autonomy is agreed between senior management and operational teams. Management provides negotiated resources for certain objectives. The bargain itself constitutes a variety attenuator. When the management handles requests for additional resources from operational teams in slow procedures, the viable system quickly dries out with all its consequences. This will have to be done differently, otherwise there will be no results of the micro-battles together with the customer. The management positioned in the management unit has to take care about feeding the frontline teams. The challenge is to use resources mainly in those teams that (might) generate most value.
But, who assesses which potential product would generate most value? The strategy analysts at C-level? With regard to allocating extra resources for a team, the temptation is to lay down decision-making in the hierarchy. You can read the degree of autonomy on the freedom levels of the agile teams in terms of access to scarce resources. In practice, teams often have little room for maneuver and management limits the resources in its limited wisdom, since it does not oversee the variety in the team's business environment. For example; when a team comes to the conclusion that certain expertise must join the team, to what extent can they recruit a new team member themselves or receive extra money avoiding time consuming procedures? It is obvious that the team justifies the application; this is also important in the negotiation with the management. But the management must also have confidence, otherwise there is a risk that the team is busy for weeks to write a bulky document and then you put the cart before the horse.
It becomes even more delicate when a frontline team creates new business.
In the 'founders mentality' approach of the Bain & Company, teams with their 'franchise player' as lead, implement micro-battles in the market. The management will think up three times to refuse a request for more resources, such as money, expertise or time. James Allen argues that the application of extra resources for micro-battles is often of small order (Bain & Company, 2017). In a 'founder’s' organization you often see that the 'franchise player' has short lines of communication with the CEO.The open dialogue between frontline teams (the franchise-players) and top management is key to decide about the allocation of scarce resources. And a bit of friction between the actors is OK, acknowledge it openly and deal with it.
A tribe leadership team or the company must have the resources to be able to anticipate the requests from the frontline teams. For such situations, McGrath (2017) argues that there should be a separate group in the organization that falls directly under the CEO that can make small amounts of resources in short time available for experimentation and that may open doors to future opportunities, even if they can’t be assessed in conventional financial terms. In this way the resource channel will also amplify the variety absorb capacity of the team and not only attenuate it.
What do we mean with accountability when we talk about viable systems and business agility? Agility opinion leader Ahmed Sidky from Riotgames spoke several times about accountability at conferences. I agree with Ahmed that accountability is a key factor in business agility but remarkably at the moment it seems not to be a hot topic. Ahmed argues that in the scrum design or agile framework no one is authorized to hold teams to account: not the team itself, not the product owner, not the scrum master, not the chapter-lead. You cannot say that the product-owner is accountable for the performance of the team.
Ahmed Sidky (Riotgames) distinguishes between responsibility and accountability:
- Accountability To hold someone to account and question their fulfillment of the duties and tasks assigned to them. Accountability acquires answers and entails consequences.
- Responsibility A strong feeling driving someone to willingly perform their duties with total ownership (no excuses, no blame). Do whatever it takes to make it happen attitude. Ownership is a collective responsibility and the team is responsible for its results. .
Every self-employed person is accountable to him/herself in his/her own time. I mean that he/she will occasionally reflect about whether he/she is still busy with the right things and whether the products are in accordance with the expectations and wishes of customers. The self-employed person does this at the higher recursion level: management function 3 Integration & alignment.A key element of accountability is that a team presents its minimum viable products to someone external: to avoid groupthink and to reveal the blind spots. In presenting a product to someone external the team will feel an obligation to present a well-founded argument of their story. This means that teams are not held accountable, they make themselves accountable to other people in the management function 3. And since you know that the external party will ask questions, the team can also prepare for this. A team reflects on the sprint results and in the review meeting the team presents and discusses the minimum viable products with their customers. And since the frontline team is the best informed about the variety in the customer’s environment, the review with customers is of great value. In agile terms this sounds so obvious: the customer holds the team to account. The team answers questions from customers and entails the consequences in their backlog. However, in many so-called agile work environments customers or end-users are not invited to the review meeting. I ask myself if representatives of customer service or management are good replacements for customers. Large companies sometimes use the argument that hundreds of teams cannot all consult with the customer. And before you know it, the customer or end-user is not invited to any team.
In the review meeting the team presents its minimum viable products to the product-owner operating in management function 3. The product-owner checks if the minimum viable product meets the expectations set in the planning meeting and collects information for the next sprint. Accountability starts with clear and visualized expectations and commitments. It is not self-evident that expectations are clear and, in that case, to hold the team to account is tricky. The team also holds the product-owner to account. However, you cannot say that the productowner is an external person, he/she is part of the team system.
The team, often represented by the product-owner, presents its minimum viable products and the feedback of customers also in the team-of-teams. The team is held to account. It is important to inform the higher recursion levels to facilitate horizontal and vertical alignment. The participants in the team-of-teams consultations are also 'accountable' to each other (McCrystal). Also, tribe leadership is empowered to get the job done; a team-of-teams needs rituals and triggers to hold tribe-leads to account.
Accountability is the ultimate learning tool, argues Ahmed Sidky, if structured properly. indeed.Accountability means questioning for learning; it gives the product-owner the role to ask questions in the review meeting, it gives tribe leadership the right to ask critical questions in the team-of-teams meetings, it invites all participants in team meetings at all levels to ask critical questions to each other. Asking critical questions in a psychologically safe work environment is key in excellent teams. Next to safety Daniel Coyle (2018) distinguishes openness & vulnerability as a key pillar for team excellence. Vulnerability appears to be key for tough and seasoned navy-seals, with openness in the after-action-review in which all is said what has to be said, for learning and to perform better next time. You do not need a leader for excellence; after action reviews for navy-seals are not led by commanders but by enlisted men (Coyle, 2018). You need an appropriate culture, working methods, rituals & triggers to build up excellence. A smart team asks external smart people for help, they are open and show vulnerability and they apply the hierarchy of 'competences'. The A&L-advisor (organization coach) has a major role to strengthen a team’s culture (safety and vulnerability) and learning climate for excellency.
Management in the founder’s mentality holds franchise-players to account, not to leave management’s mark but to listen, learn, ask many questions and try to understand the variety of customer’s environment, the dilemma’s and the reality of frontline teams. They try to assess patterns as input for broader organization issues, together with franchise-players (team leader frontline team). The franchise-player recognizes that he/she should invest time and energy in management; to give them the opportunity to fulfill their management role. In this way, the word accountability gets a different meaning.
At the Business Agility Congress 2018 in New York, I asked Ahmed Sidky (Riotgames) about accountability and I interpreted his answer also as follows: someone should be authorized to act when a team does not perform or when a team does not come to an agreement or decision. How to act as leadership when a team is not functioning properly and the results are not in line with expectations? And when this is the case, poor results do not mean automatically that a team performs badly; maybe the team is confronted with a complicated persistent problem. or the team decided in sonsultation with the product-owner to spend a considerable amount of time on a promising experiment and postpose delivery of the minimum viable product. So first ask questions and explore the subject matter.
At Haier the team has to deal with poor results; it is their concern to deal with less sales or less profit and subsequently less income for each team member. In this way you immediately solve the issue of accountability.Poor results may have to do with the market (there is less demand for the product or the team does not really understand the needs of the customer), with problems in the team (process) and with problems in the management functions and especially at higher recursion (management) levels. A smart team in trouble asks external smart people for help, they are open and show vulnerability and they apply the hierarchy of 'competences'. And in line with the ING orange culture code; other people jump in to make teams asking for help successful. When a company labels this culture code as a guiding principle and a team does not ask for external help while struggling with a huge problem, then the team risks its viability. She should be aware that she is breaking basic principles of agility, with all that this implies. The A&L advisor will also be alerted when this takes place and will address it in the team. In case of friction or conflicts between teams or between team members, people who mainly operate in the higher recursion level will have to resist the temptation to seize the hierarchy of authority. They have a supporting role so that both teams can reach an agreement. To this end, they will check, among other things, whether all arguments are on the table and whether the balance between these arguments is correct. And last but not least, it might be possible that certain impediments cannot be solved and then together with the tribe-lead in all openness an action plan will be made.
Also tribe leadership might call for help and show vulnerability. People from operational teams might jump in to make tribe leadership successful (executives need reports in 24 hours, because …..). Practice what you preach! In former times these requests would have sounded like an order, in agile times with a hierarchy of competences operational teams will feel pleased to help. Hopefully it is experienced as fun and people will tease tribe leadership: “is the manager back?” and then it is OK. Please note: these requests should not be daily practice, because requests from hierarchy are a sensitive topic and asking for help can be experienced as quite compelling.
But what to do when the team does not call for help or is not aware of a problem? First of all, tribe leadership needs information to become aware of poor performance; she has to be mindful with regard to significant weak signals of poor performance. Then she will have to be able to collect information in the team to get a good insight into the team problems; she enhances her capacity to absorb variety. People in the management function 3* at tribe level will perform an audit in the viable team concerned. All teams know that tribe leadership may decide to undertake an audit. It is not obvious that the tribe-lead should conduct the audit; consider if some people from other teams perform the audit. In that case they operate in the management 3* function. Subsequently the audit team discusses the collected information with the team concerned; also, to understand all the variety and complexity in relation to its environment. Together they will develop an action plan.
If the team with all the support and extra information does not change or even worse is not willing to recognize that there is a problem or if the team is not able to anticipate strategic choices, then a decision has to be made. Of course, as tribe leadership you will not let a team struggle with a known expert but dysfunctional team member, even if that person is of great value. The tribe leadership team, team leader, captain lead (Riotgames), franchise-player (Founder’s mentality) then takes the decision: the hierarchy of competence then makes room for the hierarchy of authority. Team memebers know that management can use this authority sporadically. I suspect that teams in such cases are often relieved that a decision has been taken. The tribe leadership team can ultimately decide to withdraw the resources. Be aware that this leadership behavior should occur only rarely in an agile organization, if not all the all alarm bells have to go off! Than the agile culture is in danger.
Information and data (3*)
There must also be a transcendent function that monitors the greater good. The whole must be optimized and not the individual parts. Organizations collect information to know whether the system as a whole is capable of absorbing the variety; municipalities check whether all their activities are still in line with the intention and companies check whether customers are still optimally served. Data is collected in the teams and is intended to gain more insight and to learn from. Tribe leadership has also access to these data, without interference of the team. Due to good coordination and communication there is less need for monitoring and control, but there is still some need. After all, self-interest and groupthink can consciously or unconsciously ensure that communication is not free of biased information. A team may have a blind spot for certain issues.
In management function three*, information also flows to the operational teams; it mainly concerns information from management and from other tribes. It may also include information about possible new market-creating innovations, which teams will try to connect with their own customers or market segment. Of course, Artificial Intelligence and smart profiling might help to send relevant information.
The viable system model from Beer provides a framework to position the viable operational team supported by management functions. More and more, I come to the conclusion that an appropriate organization and consultation structure with a sharp view of the roles of people, resulting from the agile core values, plays a major role for successful teams and team-of-teams. The five functions of Beer provide a helpful framework to support viable systems. I plea for a more open constructive dialogue with regard to the vertical alignment between operational teams and management function 3: integration & alignment. Operational systems can only be viable when we are clear what we mean with accountability and when resources like talent, time and money can be allocated quickly on request. With regard to accountability I distinguish between external consultation in line with the hierarchy of competences and decision making by leadership in case of huge problems in teams. Build up a culture based on safety and vulnerability where ownership, questioning, learning and asking for help is normal work practice. In the learning approach of business agility, the hierarchy of competences is leading but you need an escape in case of huge problems in a team or team-of-teams. Top management and in fact everyone should be alerted when this escape is applied regularly; in that case it is not an escape anymore but common practice and then all alarm bells have to go off. Than the culture build on safety and vulnerability vanishes like smoke in the wind. Be mindful about these weak signals for the cause of excellence and success.