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All of the Responsibility, None of the Authority

Here are some of the key structures that are absolutely necessary when converting to a more team-based organization.

29 November 2007
In an email one of my readers asked, “If we were interested in moving to a more team-based organization, what are the key things that would need to be in place to support the changes?” It’s a great question, but one that entire books are written about, not blogs. However, there are a couple of support structures that must be in place to support the needs of a team-based (henceforth referred to as flexible) organization, and I’ll mention them briefly here.
1. Fluid and clear communication systems. The communication in a hierarchical organization tends to go lateral in very small groups, and otherwise, up and down a chain of command. Communication is clear in hierarchies, which is one of the reasons that structure is appealing - because communication is the lifeblood of any effective organization. In a flexible organization communication moves out in webs, and it can be extremely confusing to people to know who to talk to about what, and how. By communication systems I mean technology for communication, clear understanding of the best methods of communication, and permission (empowerment) to communicate with the individuals with whom you must communicate.
2. Training training training. Moving into a flexible organization can be daunting for people.  They will need training to understand their expanded roles, to understand the inputs and outputs of their roles (in most hierarchical organizations, the individual work units understand little about where the work came from or what happens to it next), how to work in teams, how to communicate effectively, and how to deal with conflict. They also need a much better understanding of business dynamics (a'la Open Book Management), because decision-making can't happen in a vacuum of business understanding.
3. Metrics. In a hierarchical organization control is generally practiced by some form of management oversight. While management oversight is important in any structure, it becomes a bit wild and wooly in a flexible organization. Many organizations lose sight of their control systems in the conversion. By implementing good metric systems for productivity and performance monitoring, an organization can mitigate loss of management oversight from the earliest stages.
4. Change management. Most individuals don't like change because it scares them. A strong change management support system made up of senior management and HR can provide the necessary psychological and interpersonal support necessary for the workers to get through the change successfully.
These are some of the key structures that are absolutely necessary when converting an organization. But the most important characteristic that must be present is the commitment of an organization’s leadership. Management in a flexible organization has been referred to most eloquently by my friend Mark Shipman as “all of the responsibility and none of the authority.” Unless leadership is utterly committed to learning how to lead and manage in entirely new ways, none of the support structures identified here will matter.

(c) 2007, Andrea M. Hill

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