Mar 252013
 
Simplified scheme of an organization

Simplified scheme of an organization (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the more misused terms in business is “team” (with “disruption” and “culture” being close).  Every business talks about their teams or describes themselves as a team, but I’ve worked with many organizations both inside and outside the Kansas City area, and I’ve seen few teams even on a small scale, much less an entire organization that worked as a team.  I see groups of people with common job functions.  I see people employed by the same company.  I don’t see a lot of teams.

I wrote The Five Second Team Test to smoke this out for teams within an organization, but what about the organization itself?  Is there a way for an entire company to work as one team?  That’s probably a book unto itself, but here’s my Slightly Longer Than Five Seconds Test To See If Your Organization Works As A Team.

Org Level Examples Deliverable Examples
Captains CEOs, Partners, Engaged Owners Strategic Goals 200 new subscribers by the end of next quarter
Lieutenants Other C-Levels, Department Heads Projects that will best achieve strategic goals Print marketing campaign, new feature launch
NCOs Managers Prioritized items that need to be done to achieve project Redo photography for ads, make 3d holographic interface for website
Enlisted Developers, Janitors, Implementers of any kind Actualized project New print ads, new website features

Now, obviously, you can’t reduce the complexity of organizational interactions to a five row HTML table, so let’s remember this is a quick and dirty smoke test and not a doctoral thesis on the many aspects of organizational dysfunction.  You could have the most streamlined corporate structure in the world, but people are people after all, for better and worse.

But what I want to highlight is that the chart above describes an organization that at least has the infrastructure in place to behave as a unified team.  Each responsibility is ultimately tied to a company’s strategic goal and can be traced there.  Each level has to make decisions about priorities, using input from the levels below, but ultimately is responsible for giving the next level the “what,” while leaving each level to determine the “how.”

The main point is this: everything everyone is doing is traceable to and subservient to the company’s currently prioritized strategic goal or goals, whether you are the CEO or the janitor.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Don’t most companies already operate that way?”

You’d think so, but they don’t.  In fact, I’ve only seen one that comes close.  Here’s what usually happens:

Captains: Serve as authority figures and public relations. Do not decide on any strategic goals, sometimes because of the possibility of failure.  That responsibility is delegated to…

Lieutenants: Interested in their own bailiwick and view the welfare of the company primarily through that lens.  Come up with projects they think are good ideas and lobby them to the Captains and other Lieutenants, hoping they will be more persuasive, powerful, or political.  Reluctant to take a perceived “hit” for the welfare of another Lieutenant or even share information with them.  The Captain serves no particular purpose in this process except to say, “Ok, sounds good.”

NCOs: Victims. The latest round of Project Proposal Shark Tank has dropped something into their laps that may or may not be realistic, a good idea, or may uproot priorities and direction, but it needs to be done and it needs to be done, yesterday.  The justification for the project involves some loose understanding of vaguely defined benefits along with, “Bob really wants this.”  Failure is not an option, leading to some high control practices.

Enlisted: Micromanaged, highly controlled group of people responsible for creating realized chaos.  They don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing except maybe they know who’s yelling for it.  They don’t understand why their manager changes their workload and priorities every week.

As you can see, the process and the cultural issues are tightly coupled.  I hope you can also see the bad position this puts everyone in.  Nobody knows why they should be doing what they’re doing, but everyone knows they’ll be crucified if it doesn’t happen.  A lot of developer teams I work with remind me more of my time in SERE than anything else.

Now, your organization may not be as bad as what I described.  It might be worse; it might be better.  But sometime, waltz on down to your software developers, find a developer, ask her about the feature she’s working on and say, “Which of our company’s goals is this feature meant to help accomplish?”  If they don’t know, it might be your company isn’t a team at all.

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  2 Responses to “How to Make a Team Out of Your Company”

    • Yeah, the SAFe guys are all over the place these days, seems like.

      I have never actually used SAFe on a project, so keep in mind that my comments are coming from a lack of direct experience. From what I can see on the outside, I like what SAFe is trying to accomplish, and I think they have some good ideas. I do feel like it’s too much overhead and instrumentation and, at some points, trying to accommodate some of the existing issues in corporate culture rather than challenging them (which I guess is part of what makes it SAFe).

      I do very much appreciate some of that camp’s insights and contributions to the discussion, though. Some of the things they pick up on and emphasize are sorely needed.

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