Communities are Communication Bridges

Most management experts nowadays agree that the management practice of command & control is not appropriate for organizations were the employees are knowledge workers that need significant cognitive skills and a creative spirit to do their jobs. I wholeheartedly agree with them. We know about different styles of management that foster creativity and productive cognitive work. Unfortunately, this new type of management is not yet very widespread and I believe we need to find out why this is so and what we can do to change it.

Of course, I am not the first one to come to this conclusion. Check out the Stoos Network for people, blogs and discussions about changing the way of command & control management to an agile leadership. One of my thoughts on how to start breaking command & control is to start describing organizational structures no longer in hierarchical Org-Charts. Every organization of more than 10 people feels the need to create an Org-Chart. And we all know how an Org-Chart usually looks like:

Looking at this picture, it seems inevitable that the CEO will command his managers and they will do the same to the people in their organizational branch. That’s what the boss does, right? And thats what the lines from top to bottom imply, right? We even call the upper level nodes line managers.
I am not sure if we can abandon this idea completely, as one of the top management thinkers of our time, Peter Drucker, might imply when he says “The modern organization cannot be an organization of ‘boss’ and ‘subordinate’, it must be organized as a team of ‘associates’.”  But I sure am convinced that the hierarchical boss – subordinate structure is not the best way to describe how an organization should be structured! So what is a better way, then? Communication me thinks.  Knowledge workers must be able to easily communicate with each other to exchange ideas and experiences and knowledge and information and emotions and and and…  So, when an organization or a system of individuals needs structure, it will hopefully align along communication channels so that the individuals that are in need of close and frequent communication will join together in an organizational unit.
Note that I have intentionally not spoken about creating an organizational structure, because I think ideally the structure will develop or grow with much self-organization involved. The agile leader helps an organization to grow the required structure to enable the best possible communication. See also Management 3.0 (the book and / or the course) to learn how to grow structure.  In many cases the structural growth will be a mixture of design and evolution.  Which sounds a bit like an entirely different discussion about what to teach in biology class in some states in the US…  I have a very clear opinion on this as well, but I will save it for another blog at another time.
In the end, you will need to visualize the organization’s structure, whether it grew or was intentionally created by someone. Put the people that (need to) communicate intensively into a cluster:

Such a cluster is often called a team. There is, however, more to a team than close communication. So be careful to make sure that your clusters also have a common goal and the willingness to help each other to reach that goal if you want them to be a team. The lines between the people are communication paths. I suggest to leave them out of the picture and to imply that all members of a cluster will have sufficient paths to most of the other members so that information can flow easily between all members.  The picture will be a lot easier on the eyes.
Examples of such clusters in software development organizations are teams of developers or a scrum team (developers with scrum master and product owner) but also a team of product owners that work on a joint product backlog.  So, no matter if the members of such a cluster have the same line manager or not, do put them into the same cluster in your organizational picture.

If one member of a cluster has a communication path to a member of another cluster then they are linked by a bridge.  Bridges are particularly important when they connect distant clusters, making them near.

A sample subset of a development organization could then look like this:

These teams look like they can self-organize and are allowed to do so. No manager to be seen (yet).
Of course, this is a first example. We need to make it possible for the teams to also have bridges to one-another so that communication is not moving through the Product Owners. And what about the managers? I believe they are still needed. So where are they in such a picture?
Persons that are interacting much with each other should be in one cluster within the organization. Bridges between clusters are needed and are created by communication paths between at least one member of each cluster.  By crossing multiple bridges everyone will be connected to most other people in the organization.

Let’s imagine in the situation above the organization is distributed across different locations and the teams each develop software based on a shared data base but with different purpose. Due to some performance issues, Team 1 needs to change the DB schema for some of the data. They communicate this to their PO who in turn lets the PO team know about the need to change the schema. One of the POs realizes the impact it will probably have on his team and informs them about.  This is the red path in the picture above.
However, such communication paths are not a good idea if they become too long. Too much noise on the way will distort the message and even if the message arrives intact, it will arrive with a delay.
To remedy this, shortcuts must be introduced to get more direct communication going.

In other words, the teams should talk directly to one another. But simply drawing such a shortcut in an organizational chart is not going to make the communication happen. Since the teams in our example have little common ground save for the underlying data base, which has been stable for long, they do not know much about each other. Team 1 does not know which team will be impacted by their changes.
It is necessary to identify what the content of the communication is that needs to take place in a more direct form. Does it happen frequently that such messages have to take a long way to reach the proper recipient?  In our example the question would be, how often the organization has data base issues that need to be coordinated across teams.

In many cases the people involved notice the need for more direct communication and self-organize into virtual teams with the same special interest.  In other cases it needs a good leader to identify the missing communication link and help the members of the organization to establish such special interest groups.  The very appropriate nom-du-jour for these groups is communities of practice. Maybe a community of practice (CoP) for DB administration would be appropriate in the example. Such a CoP should have a member from each team that uses the data base in question. They organize themselves, meet on demand or regularly, face-to-face or virtually, set standards pertaining to their topic, make decisions about changes, etc. They communicate directly and do not have to rely on messaging through other persons, particularly not their line managers…

And yet again – there are no managers in the organizational chart. Do we need them at all?  If so, where do they fit into the picture? Watch this space for answers to this and other world shattering questions.
Christof Braun, Trainer Management 3.0 & Management Consultant

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