A million years ago, our ancestors the Hominins, executed ambush hunts against large, fierce animals, using effective communication, coordination, tools, and other skills (Bournesmouth University). They could be the earliest known teams, and their hunts could be considered the earliest projects. Teams and projects have certainly evolved since, from small bands and groups using manual tools, to monolithic, hierarchical bureaucracies using complex systems. Throughout this evolution, one thing has remained constant: the fundamental need for survival. To survive in today’s VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous), it demands that our organizations adapt faster, and evolve more quickly, than any other period over the last million years – or face corporate extinction.
To better understand modern-day challenges, and identify solutions to address the need for rapid change, I’ll use the “Anatomy of the Organization” graphic above. Through a five-part blog series, I will address the core elements (Work, Projects, Programs, BI/Analytics, and Connections), include specific challenges, and bring to light the importance of an “all-in-one” solution when it comes to delivering value, and in some instances survival. Let’s start with “Teams/Work.”
Teams, and the outcomes they produce through work, are best represented by the hands and feet in our business anatomy. Teams, especially small ones, are the nimble parts within the organization, and are the most capable of working in unison, pivoting and adapting to change, and producing needed results. Expressions like “Feet on the Ground” reflect team characteristics such as realism, stability, and pragmatism. Similarly, “Hands On,” represents the direct contact, and understanding, teams have with organizational operations and a closeness to customer’s wants and needs. When we are forced to change and adapt quickly, it’s no wonder we look to teams as the primary driver of that change. However, the organizational evolution from small, autonomous teams to large, hierarchical bureaucracies has hobbled teams’ effectiveness.
Over the last several decades, the management of teams and their work has relied on a top down, command and control style approach, with goals and directives defined at the top and then pushed down for execution among the teams. The failure of that approach has been broadly examined over the last several years. One article that I found impactful was from the Human Capital Institute (HCI) entitled “Two Things You Must Do to Align Employees with Your Strategic Goals.” In the article, David Lee sites a study of 23,000 employees where “only 2 out of 10 employees report having a clear line of sight between their tasks and the goals of their team and employer as a whole… They don’t know which behaviors, actions or activities generate the most value. When an employee can’t see the big picture, it becomes easy to ‘major in the minors’—to spend time on tasks that provide little economic value while neglecting high value-generating activities.”
When we see challenges like those in the HCI article, we often look to technology to solve the problem. Better task management or work management solutions for instance might be a fix to provide greater transparency and control over work and goals. However there have been millions and millions of dollars poured into a slew of SaaS based, work management solutions that are on the market today to make them faster, cheaper, prettier, and easier to use- but have they solved the real problems? Are the tasks in those systems just “work” within the team, and simply a better way to manage the “minors?” Are they delivering the right outcomes and value?
What if we took goals from the top, and pushed them down to the tasks with a Goal Management solution? That would be a start, but in most cases the approach has proven to be impractical because of the time it takes for management to define the goals, push them down, and translate them into the activities within the teams; often takes many months. Furthermore, what happens when goals change?
What is becoming clearer to teams and entire organizations is that “re-skinning” old methods with new technology isn’t the solution. We must take a fundamental look at the way we define and manage goals and strategic intent, how teams are organized and managed, and how leadership gets the necessary insights for better understanding, decisions and actions to effectively manage the organization. The increasing momentum of business agility, and the mindset change it represents, is part of this “fundamental look” and action many organizations are taking today.
Through business agility, the autonomy of self-directed, smaller teams leverages the true power of teams to move more quickly, make decisions, and take actions based on their proximity to the customer and the operations. However, it’s not enough to simply empower the teams, as that has brought about its own set of challenges for leadership to drive enterprise level initiatives and goals. A recent Atlassian study of 2000 U.S. worker discovered that “50% are more motivated by team success than company,” which suggests there needs to be a balance between team autonomy and enterprise goals.
The four blogs to follow will address the remaining pieces of the whole “Anatomy of the Organization,” and the importance of bringing these elements together.
We’ll have the complete infographic displayed at booth 621, October 6-9 at the PMI Global Conference in Los Angeles, CA. Stop by if you’re there, we’d love to chat and learn from you. If not, please provide a blog comment.