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Liberated company – dream or reality?

And what if agile methods were a stepping stone?

For many years I’ve taken a keen interest in project management based on agile methods. These concepts have become so much part of me that they today define how I operate, in both personal and professional capacities.

The question is now, can the system be taken to the next level and used to make in-depth changes to companies themselves?

Those taking an active interest in the subject have inboxes overflowing with news on novel management concepts such as holacracy, liberated companies and smart working. The vocabulary is rich but the goal is the same: entities must re-adapt to new technologies, the next generation and the world as it is today, a world in which change is occurring at a hitherto unseen rate. In this new paradigm, companies no longer need to micro-manage their employees. They – the employees – can simply manage themselves while having the space to create and carry projects on their own shoulders.

BUT once again, change needs to come from the top. Senior management must be convinced, and that’s often the rub.

A few months ago, I attended a day-long seminar on the subject of agile methods, held by Pyxis in Lausanne. Two talks in particular inspired me. The first was about the self-managing company, by Jonas Vonlanthen, a partner at Lipp. The second concerned capacity-driven management, by Alain Buzzacaro, CTO at L’Occitane.

The ‘Lipp’ experience is based on the concept of holacracy. The holacratic system was developed in successive iterations, between 2001 and 2006, by Brian Robertson from within his software company (Ternary Software). Aiming for more effective corporate governance, it draws on agile methods, lean production and the ‘getting things done’ method. In 2007, Robertson defined the official principles of his methodology, calling it ‘holacracy’.[1]

The key concepts underpinning self-managing companies (or ‘holacracies’) are:

· Clear objectives

· Properly defined roles

· Role-switching according to requirements

· Employees’ freedom of action within the assumed roles

The rules of the game and the targets are defined beforehand, then the employees are let loose. It’s up to them to find the best way to win.

Jonas Vonlanthen told us that his starting point was an agile project system, after which he progressed to the concept of a self-managing company.

Alain Buzzacaro talked about analysis by General Stanley McCrystal, who sought to understand how Al Qaida functions.[2] MyCrystal explains that to be able to fight Al Qaida on an equal footing, he completely changed the way in which anti-terrorist units work, making them as agile as Al Qaida cells. He calls this system ‘team of teams’. It is similar to holacracy in one way because it organises entities into self-managing units. Al Qaida’s advantage is that it is not hindered by chains of command and other rigidities. A parallel would be the use of mobile telephones in Africa, use of which became widespread far more quickly than in the West because there was no restrictive influence from existing infrastructure.

The common link between the ‘team of teams’ concept and holacracy is 1/ agility based on independence and 2/ making teams responsible for attaining clearly defined goals.

So what lessons can we take away from these concepts to apply in real life?

I’d say that we can get going slowly on the road to having a liberated company by raising awareness about agile methods in our teams. Don’t start with an all-out revolution.

So as a stepping stone, start up a project in agile mode. Don’t wait for a terrorist threat to shake you from your slumber! What about you? Do you have similar or different experiences? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I'll be happy to discuss the issue with you!

Artwork: Mélanie Bénard Tremblay, 2020 © Marakoudja.

[2] Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, Book by Chris Fussell, David Silverman, Stanley A. McChrystal, and Tantum Collins

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