Agility and self-organisation were beaten to a stalemate by hierarchy and command & control. We must fight back but can’t do that while continuing to frame complex red practices in a complicated blue context.
Why am I writing this: I see people suffering in an oppressive toxic Alpha model org, and I know it would be better in a Beta model org. I want to help people change.
TLDR; Waterfall won the war with agile
While markets have radically changed in the last 50 years the way that businesses are run has not. Businesses want to be able to adapt dynamically to changing markets and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Changing the way delivery teams work is only part of the story and businesses need to rethink how they organise their entire business radically to cope with modern markets.
Agile did not win the war with waterfall. Hierarchy still prevails.
Most organisational transformational activities fail because they are unable to address the cause of the organisational dysfunction and instead focus only on the low-hanging fruit, and not rocking the boat; we have allowed command & control to win.
Continued organisational change activities that mostly fail have created desensitization and apathy towards change in organisations which will further exacerbate future change efforts.
Why get your hopes up and invest effort if it will fail?
The Industrial Age created a massive momentum of fast-growing stable markets within which companies could grow with limited competition. There was very little change in the market, which drove and sustained the companies created within it.
During the industrial revolution, Frederik Winslow Taylor developed a business model based on the world as he understood it at the time. The markets were new, largely stable, and based on textile, steel, and large-scale goods production.
To try and make things simpler I’ll refer to sluggish low dynamic markets as “Blue” and the dynamic fast markets as “Red”.
Alpha Organisations – Taylorism for blue complicated markets
This Tayloristic Alpha model for the organisational structure was developed to operate in the blue complicated markets of the industrial revolution. The increase in competition and variance of products started to move the markets from the complicated blue toward the complex red over the early part of the 20th century.
In the 1940’s the speed of change accelerated as television and the advent of software in the 1960s started to spread ideas much faster than before. The rise of the middle class and the increase in disposable income fuelled the higher demand for more interesting products, and the fickle nature of the abundance of cash was like adding an accelerant.
In the 1970s the world shifted again as computing started to drive everything with the advent of the microprocessor and the euphoria of the moon landings drove the economy to even more speed. This finally sealed the fate of the Alpha model as almost all markets turned full red. While there were still blue markets of coal, steel, and textiles they were dwarfed and ultimately swallowed by the complex red markets of new technologies and faster customer demand; in these new red markets, the Alpha organisations started to struggle and fail as a command and control model allowed for an inadequate speed of change. Opportunity after opportunity floated by, just out of reach, as people in the organisations struggled with the bureaucracy that has served them well in the sluggish low dynamics of the blue markets.
Most organisations failed to realise the change and even today are zombie organisations. While they are already market dead they have enough funds in the coffers, goodwill from customers, and maybe sheer scale to continue to stagger forward into the 21st century. If they don’t breathe life back into their gaunt and shattered bodies, they will stumble and fall.
The Alpha model is no longer a viable and adaptive solution for any organisation operating in modern complex markets.
I have also realised that even companies that move away from Alpha structures and practices can fall back on the old ways as they grow.
An even bigger realisation for me is that all start-ups are Beta organisations! Unless the organisation conducts regular “organisational hygiene” (or refactoring) then it will eventually atrophy from Beta into an Alpha organisation steeped in steering, hierarchies and departments.
Beta Organisations – Follettism for red complex markets
Mary Parker Follett developed a decentralised organisational structure over 100 years ago. Her experience as a social worker and passion for organisational physics have her focus on social organisation. Every Alpha organisation secretly has a Beta organisation contained within it that is how work gets done. This is the communication and collaboration that results in success and does not rely on steering and escalation which is the perceived workhorse of Alpha. I will refer to this social organisation as Beta.
It was initially developed as a matrix organisation philosophy first implemented in the 1920’s and later rediscovered in the 1960s where it was developed further. Matrix organisations were an attempt to increase the time to respond by adding more steering directions.
Adding more and more additional directions in the ’60s developed into the idea of the Line manager coupled with many dotted-line managers, which served to increase the complexity of the doing while not responding any faster to the new changing markets. Later other attempts to do this in more interesting ways resulted in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), the so-called Spotify Model, and UnFix. All layering more mechanisms of control over the top of the existing Alpha model of steering from the top.
Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett’s writings and lectures.
Instead of steering from the top the Beta model focuses on a cell-based structure, that thing that all organisations have but suppress with steering. In this model there is a periphery that focuses on responding to the changes in the market, and the centre that provides services to the periphery. Each cell maintains its own P&L and the cash is held on the periphery. If the centre wants to build something new it must solicit funding from the periphery.
A board of decision-making directors and corporate headquarters are not the same as the centre. Workers a plants, employees at branches or offices are not to be equated with the periphery. This distinction is about roles or activities not about individual people places, or locations. – Organise for Complexity, Niels Pflaeging
The periphery is organised into cross-functional teams that operate like mini-enterprises responsible for the individual businesses holistically. They interact directly with the market and hold decision-making power.
The centre is made up of the same cross-functional cells, but they are considered internal supply units. They don’t have any decision-making powers and they don’t work directly with the market, instead, their market is the periphery. Services like systems administrators, legal, security, architecture, personnel, and finance, are organised would work for the periphery and have no decision-making power of their own. They need to convince the periphery that they serve of changes that they want to make.
Where did agility fit?
In the 1980’s it was XP then into Scrum in the 90s and the Agile Manifesto in 2001; agile became the focus of the latest attempt to reorganise our work for the complexity of the new markets that companies found themselves in. We focused only on the teams doing the work and pretended that the Alpha organisation would change when they saw how awesome we were.
How naïve were we!
Instead of helping organisations make the change from Alpha to Beta we just created more matrices on top of matrices. SAFe and the Spotify Model are examples of organisations clinging to the past because it’s comfortable. They are both still Alpha processes with steering from the top. Oh, there may be additional steering lines, like Guilds, but it is still command-and-control top-down steering focused.
“Highly discouraging from using rigid, prescriptive frameworks such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)” – NICOLAS M. CHAILLAN, HQE, USAF – Chief Software Officer
The dirty secret of Alpha is that no one likes to be there. Management hates it, workers hate it! It’s not a happy fun place to work and to get things done within an Alpha organisation we need more than a sustainable pace, we need an unsustainable one to make it work. And Alpha organisations have to put so much effort into the smallest value that the margins are smaller, and shrinking.
The result is overworked and underpaid people that are burned out and pissed off!
Alpha (Waterfall) ate Beta (Agile) for breakfast!
We need a renewed insurgency
The dream of a decentralised democratic organisation with low atrophy that can swiftly respond to the needs of our markets is not a pipe dream. To do so we need to shift from an Alpha model for business to a Beta model. However, we continuously allow Alpha to prevail.
The focus of agile on the decentralised dream failed because we allowed it to. We, and by we I mean agile practitioners, allowed and continue to allow organisations to believe that they don’t have to really change, that this is just a team thing, and to keep the departments and the steering committees and yearly budgets. We are complicit in these continued malformed practices.
“Rigor is required in morphing towards an Agile way of working. The real challenge is not even to just sense whether our words are reminders of the industrial paradigm and don’t apply anymore. We need to remain conscious of the continual evolution of insights within the new paradigm, and how this is or is not expressed in our language. Unknowingly we grind and grow complacent. The Agile space, in which we operate, keeps evolving. We discover better ways to express our intents than blindly repeating what others are saying.”
— Gunther Verheyen, The transparency of language in an environment of Scrum.
We need to stop accepting the reframing of practices built for Beta in the context of Alpha. We need to stop accepting that organisational change will take years.
Timeboxing is our superpower; leverage it!
We need to reshape our focus from sustaining the Alpha models to keep people complacent and happy to challenging them and actively promoting Beta models and practices that work in those models. We already have the building blocks to do this in the Agile Manifesto, the Scrum Guide, the Kanban Guide, the Nexus Guide, LESS, Scrum@Scale, and many more. What we need to add is the tools that we need to change the organisation; changing teams is easy.
The ideas around OpenSpace Agile and the implementation of OpenSpace Beta seem to me to be the missing piece of the puzzle of how we change organisations from the traditional tayloristic Alpha model to the modern adaptive Beta organisations that we need!
If you are interested in finding out how to start moving your organisation from a Tayloristic hierarchical Alpha organisational model to a decentralised Beta model let’s have a chat https://nkdagility.com/book-online.
Book: Organise for Complexity, Niels Pflaeging | Organise for Complexity: Start working the system together!
Book: Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage in Human Consciousness, Federic Laloux | Reinventing Organizations – YouTube
Book: Beyond Budgeting, Better Budgeting | Niels Pflaeging talks about “Essays on Beta Vol. 1” – YouTube
Turn this Ship around, David Marquet | MindSpring Presents: “Greatness” by David Marquet – YouTube
Drive, Daniel Pink | Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us – YouTube
2021-06-27 BetaCodex-OrgPhysics in Folletts words
A “Touch of the Brians”?. Something isn’t quite right! | by Sjoerd Nijland | Serious Scrum | Medium