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Book Review: Agile People by Pia-Maria Thoren

Book Review: Agile People by Pia-Maria Thoren

Agile People by Pia-Maria Thoren is one of those books that you wonder why it wasn’t written already. It’s a straightforward book in the way it is written, full of easy to grasp concepts, concrete examples and real-life experiences. And while you read it, you really wonder why is HR not working this way already?

This work is high on the experience of the author, a People Management consultant that has turned to Agile (and its various practices) to find concrete answers to the needs that HR has. And the book subtitle doesn’t leave anything out from the fact that what is being proposed is a radical approach.

Agile is a way of moving forward and creating value. It’s a mentality that allows people and groups to meet challenges, learn quickly, and respond to change. It’s a different and new way of managing teams, individuals, projects, and development.

Pia-Maria Thoren Agile People, page 16

Agile above all.

The book talks of Agile, from its principle as a discipline up to its more recent developments. And then addresses several typical “HR topics”, suggesting for each which best Agile tools to use, and what this would mean in terms of paradigm shift. A table summarising this shift from traditional to agile is available at the end of each page.

Paradigm Change From Traditional into Agile HR.
Fig.1 – Paradigm Change From Traditional into Agile HR. Source: Pia-Maria Thoren Agile People, page 41

The first focus is on organisation, with a lot of emphasis on the new organisational models, but particularly around Self-Organising teams. Its the core chapter of the book from my understanding, because it is through the Design of the Organisation that all the system of consistencies is created.

HR has the power to design the structures that either support people to perform or make it difficult to contribute in creative and innovative ways.

Pia-Maria Thoren Agile People, page 68

Agile and HR’s role.

Which is why the author focuses a lot on the role of HR. HR has been sitting in the back seat for too long now. It’s time to step up and take responsibility for change. Not an easy task to achieve as we have seen already. Plus, working with Agile is not a simple task for HR itself because its not a simple tool to be applied.

Agile is not a method or a formula that can be “implemented.” It is a mindset, a way of thinking, and a collection of values around how work should be organized in a complex and ever-changing world. The key to its success lies in an organization’s ability to adapt to change.

Pia-Maria Thoren Agile People, page 82

HR Processes and Tools

The other chapters examine Performance Management (with a strong focus on OKR), Goal Setting, Rewards, Recruitment, Learning and Development and Leadership. A section is dedicated to the Reiss Motivation Profile, an interesting tool that focuses not on personality but on motivation drivers (I will come back on this in a separate post in the future).

Then there is an exciting chapter about Management. The author interrogates herself on the same topics we’ve just seen in my post about the research about eliminating middle management layers and goes on in the analysis of Management 3.0. She answers that there needs to be a precise balance between structure and chaos. And, in Swedish, there is a perfect word for this: lagom which means “just enough”. 

A company can thrive when it has just the right blend of structure and chaos, which is in between over-structured and complete disaster.

Pia-Maria Thoren Agile People, page 248

A chapter is then focused on Agile Tools, giving a good overview of the various methodologies. While the last two focus on Employee Engagement and “The Brain” as a Social Organ, where essentially the author proposes the SCARF model to create the empowering link between employees and managers

Conclusion

The book is concluded with a reflection on what should the aim ultimately be: Doing Agile or Being Agile? For sure, the second is the only way to be.

Definitely a must-read for any HR professional that wants to understand how our profession can evolve and support real agile transformation. Very useful also for any manager that wants to know how an organisation could be based on agile. The only items that you will not find here are “quick fixes” or “how-to recipes” to implement off-the-shelves tools.

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Organise without managers: is it possible at scale?

Organise without managers: is it possible at scale?

Organise without managers. A dream that many seem to nurture. A few months ago, I already wrote a post with what I thought was a thought-provoking title: do we still need managers? The answer I tried to give back then was that we certainly need proper management, but this does not automatically equate to keep the old hierarchy of managers. The debate about organising without managers is not new, is getting more and more inputs. But one of the critical questions has always been, is it possible to scale a manager-less organisation? The issue arises because most of the cases that emerge about companies without managers are often related to small companies or start-ups: BufferMorning Star FarmsValve Software.

Can manager-less models scale?

Joost Minnaar, from Corporate Rebels, has published a long but fascinating post on the topic, analysing how large organisations can survive (or rather succeed) without multiple layers of middle management. This study is part of his PhD study, so it is still work in progress, but the article is very detailed and well supported with research and information. He has looked at cases such as HaierW.L. Gore and Buurtzorg, all large organisations.

The first conclusions seem to point in the following directions:

  1. The strategy is the domain of small top-management teams who define, promote and guard long-term organisational-wide objectives and internal cultural norms.
  2. The organisational structure seems to be based on a “network of teams“, around self-organising teams with end-to-end responsibility.
  3. Employees allocate tasks and roles based on voluntary and self-selected commitments and consensus decision-making, often supported by natural leaders.
  4. There are clear rules of the game to coordinate work, and employees do so either via personal contacts or through digital tools.
  5. Beyond intrinsic motivation, employees are motivated by profit-sharing and shared ownership programs.

Interestingly enough, these initial findings seem to point to a system thinking/cybernetic model developed in the 1950s by Stafford Beer and called the Viable System Model (more on the model here).

How to Organize without Middle Management. Summary of the findings by Corporate Rebels
Fig. 1 How to Organize without Middle Management. Via CorporateRebels

Organise without managers seems therefore possible also at scale. And the ingredients seem not to be extremely complicated. Above all, it appears that there is a strong sense of intentionality in not creating useless management levels. There is also a strong focus on creating consistency across all of the levels in the organisation.

Organise without managers: not everybody agrees.

So what is that the detractors of this approach seem not to get? For example, in an article from Gallup on the Zappos case, the author links the absence of management with lower employee engagement.

Employees require more than a self-established job description; they want someone to talk with them regularly about their responsibilities and progress. The most basic of employee needs, clarity of expectations, is vital to performance.

Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson, The No-Managers Organizational Approach Doesn’t Work

Another issue that needs to be brought in focus on is structurelessness, an element already identified in the 1960s by Jo Freemen, who was analysing women’s liberation movements. Although egalitarian and democratic structures have many benefits, she pointed out, structurelessness easily “becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others”. An element that emerged, for example, in some of the issues that arose at Valve

The question is that all the five elements identified by the research of Joost are prone to become a negative burden for an organisation if not aligned properly. Here some examples collected from the many critiques available.

  1. The strategy often can become the domain of a single leader with a strong personality and “dictatorial” style. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk are perfect examples of this…
  2. A network of Teams exists in many organisations anyway. Most projects get done this way. But these are generally on top of the traditional work.
  3. Self-organisation can work where teams share similar skills (for example, in Buurtzorg team components are all nurses), where instead there is the need to have knowledge-specific roles, issues can arise.
  4. It takes time for people to learn how to coordinate work with others. Without people dedicated to coordinate to some degrees, the organisation will be prone to duplicate efforts…
  5. Motivation needs constant feedback and recognition; profit-sharing and peer-support are not enough…

But are these all valid? I think more research is required.

Some level of leadership is needed. The question is how much?

The one last aspect I’m very interested in is how many managers do we need then. Organise without managers doesn’t mean eliminating all levels of managers. 

Someone needs to be held accountable for the firm’s actions – the buck has to stop somewhere

Nicolai Foss and Peter Klein, No boss? No thanks

The question is: how many levels are “optimal”? I think this is where the big battle will continue in terms of research. Systems Thinking can probably support in terms of modelling, and holistic approaches to change as well can facilitate the transition. However, we need to remember that this is not a venture to remove all managers: in too many organisations these roles also hold critical skills required for the value delivery of the organisation.

And you? What do you think about the sustainability of less middle managers in your organisation?

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Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

Book Cover of The Dark Side of Empathy by Fritz Breithaupt

Book Review: The Dark Sides of Empathy by Fritz Breithaupt

This book, for sure challenges a lot of common assumptions around Empathy and what pushes some of Human Behaviors. First thing first, this book is not against Empathy. The title is probably a bit “sensationalist” and written to drive curiosity. The author is clear from the introduction of the book that he wants to ensure that we understand why people also do “negative” things because of Empathy. Thus simply disconnecting the concept of Empathy linked to moral standards.

Empathy makes us human and it would be naive to imagine we should just get rid of empathy, even if we could.

Fritz Breithaupt, The Dark Sides of Empathy.

A big part of the book is focused on some questions linked to the darkest sides of human history, where the author interrogates himself how it was possible that millions of people did not “empathize” with the victims of the Holocaust (just as an example). “Empathy is a riddle,” Breithaupt says. While it can enrich our lives, Breithaupt says our ability to identify with others’ feelings can also fuel polarization, spark violence and motivate dysfunctional behaviour in relationships, like helicopter parenting.

Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy

Fritz Breithaupt, The Dark Sides of Empathy.

The underlying assumption of this book is that very often Empathy does more good to the empathizer than to the subject of Empathy. Usually this is not a problem, but sometimes this can become so if we face what Breithaupt define “Vampirisitc Empathy”. An example is the already mentioned helicopter parenting: “In a sense, extreme helicopter parents are robbing their kids of a selfhood so that they can basically project their own self into these kids.”.

There has been some sharp criticism of this book, primarily focused on the multifaceted definition of Empathy itself. Elizabeth A. Segal, for example, states that “There’s no dark side for Empathy, just people with dark sides“. I think it’s often down to the question of definitions. For example, we can argue that what Breithaup describes is not genuine Mature Empathy, and I’d tend to agree. 

I found the book of Breithaupt useful, especially in the context of a business relationship. For example, it can help explain the “Hero” behaviour that some people at work tend to display. Are they caring for others because they want to help others, or for their personal satisfaction? Sometimes we don’t care, as long as the results are positive for both people in the relationship. But we all know that heroes at work can take a pretty negative turn

In a moment where Empathy is being characterized as a critical skill for the Future of Work, I think that this awareness can be essential to do a check simply, and especially make sure we examine all behaviours that only seem altruistic but are not.

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Corporate Rebels: driving disrupting culture change

Yesterday I joined the Corporate Rebel event in Milan, organized by Primate. The story of Pim and Joost, the two founders of this “movement” is interesting: “Back in January 2016, we quit our corporate jobs. Like most people, we worked in outdated workplaces characterized by inertia, bureaucracy and a lack of motivation. We simply couldn’t accept that the world of work – for far too many – is a place full of misery and despair.”

A feeling shared by too many, considering the data that they have been using as the basis of their work: Gallup’s ‘State of the Global Workplace’ from 2017. If only 15% of people at work is genuinely engaged, what are the others thinking?

Their motto “to make work more fun” actually hides something more than just fun. They compiled a “Bucket List” of engaging workplaces to visit and thinker to interview. And went on a road trip around the world to discover what’s making these places unique. Without a background in management or HR, they have been able to bring an “outside-in” perspective on observing the world of work, that is precious.

Through these visits, they have assembled their observation and distilled what they defined as the “8 trends” that help to form successful and innovative workplaces. 

Fig.1: The Eight Trends. Source: Corporate Rebels

Individually speaking, these are not entirely new observation, and you can track a lot of these in the work of many writers and management thinkers. What’s good is the observation of these together, in their interrelation. They do create an aggregated level of consistency that can drive together real transformation.

The conference itself was exciting also because of the exchange of views with the other participants (about 50 from all over Italy). Not just from HR, from different industries, showing there’s an appetite for workplace transformation beyond pure make-ups.

The idea of building a grassroots movement that can be the change has been appealing to me from the first time I met the blog of Corporate Rebels. And I think their mission to drive a new thought process is essential. Also, their recent review of their website, which is now more focused on driving engagement of the “rebels” around the world, is in a right direction.

So, let’s all follow and be more rebel also at work. What do you think?

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Movember - Change the Face of men's health

#Movember

I’m joining the Movember movement this year, growing a moustache in support for raising awareness on some of the biggest health issues faced by men: prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health and suicide prevention.

Started by the Movember Foundation in 2003, it quickly has grown to a large scale movement, with more than 5 million people supporting it every year.

How can you also get engaged?

  1. Donate: Reach out to my Donation Page and do your best for a donation.
  2. Grow a Moustache and join the movement.
  3. Talk about the issues of Health.

So, sorry, you’ll have to cope seeing me with a pair of moustaches for some time this year:-)

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Book Cover of Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Book Review: Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

Some books leave a mark when you read them, and I genuinely believe this is one of them. In this book, Matthew Syed is able to thoroughly revert a big part of Diversity Thinking moving away from being “a politically correct distraction, an issue of morality and social justice” and transforming it in a central notion for performance and Innovation. Not just in teams and organisations, but for the entire humankind.

The book title: Rebel Ideas have immediately attracted me. Since the appearance of Gary Hamel’s book Leading the Revolution, I’ve found a way to reconcile my “rebel mindset” with the work within a large corporation. This book has given me once more a confirmation that I’m on the right path!

Through compelling prose, well-sustained scientific research and many examples of really appropriate storytelling, the books examine how Diversity adds value in all of the human contexts, and especially in organisations. The way it demolishes the perception of “individual intelligence” and instead builds that of “collective intelligence” is staggering, and somewhat unsettling.

The book moves by examining the concept of homophily, the tendency for people (and unfortunately especially managers) to select people similar to them as well as with the idea that a trade-off exists between excellence and Diversity. Mixing people who have the same way of thinking delivers what is called Perspective Blindness, which refers to the fact that we are oblivious of our own blind spots. Adding different perspectives helps us gain a broader view of the world, and thus a better perception of problems, and higher chances of finding solutions.

Understanding the power of differences gives room to the exploitation of Group Wisdom, which is formed when different participants in a group add different perspectives and rich experiences.

The deepest problem of homogeneity is not the data that clone-like teams fail to understand, the answers they get wrong, the opportunities they don’t fully exploit. No, it is the questions they are not even asking, the data they haven’t thought to look for, the opportunities they haven’t realised are out there.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

Building on the concept of Diversity of wisdom means moving away from purely looking at the external, “physical” aspects of Diversity. Often these aspects can influence a lot the Diversity of points of view, but there’s not a mathematical correspondence between the two elements. This is also one of the reasons why Critical Dissent needs to be built as a critical skill in the organisation. This, unfortunately, goes often against our innate desire to respect hierarchies. We need to ensure this aspect is built in the way we manage our teams if we want to profit from true enriching Diversity (which also means that we need to continue enriching our Listening Skills).

Fig.1: A Viusal Synopsis of Rebel Ideas by Dani Saveker

Developing Diversity is strictly connected to Innovation, and the author links a lot of fascinating findings on this relationship. A vital component of this is recombination, the cross-pollination of different perspectives.

The growth of the future will be catalysed by those who can transcend the categories we impose on the world; who have the mental flexibility to bridge between domains; who see the walls that we construct between disciplines and thought silos and regard them not as immutable but movable, even breakable.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

I guess you can immediately see the powerful combination with Systems Thinking, which has been the subject of a recent post I wrote

Chapter 5 goes in-depth in analysing one of the most significant risks of not working on Diversity: Echo Chambers. The basic idea is that when people are part of broader communities, they are likely to construct networks that are more narrows. These networks, however, are not entirely isolated from the outside world. On the contrary, people get constant inputs from the outside but tend to be heavily polarised. There are many examples in the book, primarily rooted in the recent political polarisation. And this calls even more for the power of Diversity as a way to disentangle excessive polarisation because it can be dangerous for organisations as well.

Chapter 6 examines once more the big issue we have with “avegarianism”, as also defined in a book The End of Average by Todd Rose that I’ve recently reviewed.  Seen in the perspective of this book, if further strengthen the concept that also a lot of the “scientific method” has been flawed by reasoning in terms of averages, instead of looking at individuals.

In the conclusion, the book approaches still two broad subjects: the risk implicit in pure linear thinking, and the issue with Unconscious Bias

Dismantling unconscious bias, then, is not just a powerful first step in creating a fairer system; it is also a first step in creating a more collectively intelligent society.

Again, a concept we have seen in the recently reviewed book by Iris Bohnet What Works

We begin to see intelligence as not merely built upon the intellectual brilliance of individuals but upon their collective Diversity. We understand that Innovation is not only about the insights of particular people, but the networks that permit their recombination. And we see that the success of humanity is less about individual brains than the emergent properties of the collective brain.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas. (Bold is mine)

This new awareness has significant consequences in the way we should think of our organisations. If Diversity becomes a foundational value not because of the already mentioned “political correctness”, but rather because its implicit contribution to Innovation and performance, the entire organisational construct becomes something new.

In this new type of organisation, “Honest dissent is not disruptive, but imperative”, because, without it, progress cannot be achieved. In this new context:

people are considered loyal not when they agree, parrot and validate, but when they honestly disagree, challenge and diverge.

Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

A truly Rebel Idea. Truly of World that I want to live in.

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Herbie Hancock Concert in Milan (Nov 1st. 2019)

Jazz and Leadership: 6 big lessons from Herbie Hancock’s Concert.

Yesterday I attended the Herbie Hancock concert at the Conservatorio of Milan, opening act of the JazzMi Festival. It was a genuinely great experience, to see such a master of jazz play. We had perfect placing (third row). Not more than 10 meters separated us from this real master. But am not here to comment on the (exceptional) music. Instead, as the concert rolled, I could observe a few behaviours that should resonate in an organisational context. Jazz can become a powerful metaphor of (proper) management, particularly in a moment where technologies are causing disruptions, and Digital Maturity is becoming a “must-have”.

Jazz and management: a metaphor through time

The association of Leadership and Management to music is not new. The metaphor of the Orchestra Director as a true Leader is known. But what is striking about a jass ensemble is that there is nothing like a visible director that stands on a podium and directs the music. So the idea that Jazz can teach Management Lessons diffused itself already some time ago. Grant Ackerman from Columbia Business School wrote an interesting article about this in 2018, identifying four leadership lessons from Jazz. Previously before this in 2012 Frank J. Barrett jazz pianist and professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey published the book: Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. In an interview later given to Harvard Business Review, he speaks primarily of the concept of an Improvisational Mindset, which is the Yes part to the Mess.

You say yes to the mess by surrendering control-by opening yourself up to the capriciousness of the crowd, with no guarantee of success for your efforts. Ultimately, that takes one quality above all others: courage.

Frank J. Barrett, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz

Barrett has identified 7 Improvisation Principles in his research, and solidly put in place a real rational concept for Jazz as a metaphor of management. But already in 1990, the BCG CEO John Clarkeson wrote an article titled Jazz vs Symphony.

The winning organization of the future will look more like a collection of jazz ensembles. Leaders will be in the flow, not remote; they will not be able to rely on exclusive decision-making authority; they will use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights. The distinctions between composer/conductor/performer are eroding.

John Clarkeson, Jazz vs. Symphony.

This was recently explored even more in detail by Fang Ruan, Partner at BCG, in a post titled What business leaders can learn from Jazz. In it, he identifies five characteristics of the Jazz Leadership, that he defines as “Magic”.

Fig.1: The MAGIC of Jazz Leadership. Source: World Economic Forum

What is really important?

I do relate a lot personally on this concept and can still recall one of the first management programmes that I designed when I was working ad Diesel, which was titled “Get Into the Groove”. The programme, focused on Store Managers, was precisely looking at the concept of “being in the groove” as a leadership metaphor. The Store Manager cannot be in store all the time, so how do you ensure that excellent customer service is anyway performed all the time? Plus the Store Manager is also working on the shop floor. The metaphor of the orchestra director simply could not apply.

Fig. 2: Jazz Band on the Streets. Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

As I watched the concert yesterday, I could distil two sets of elements that are important for an organisation today. Some are behaviours, both of the leader and the components of the jazz band. Some others are instead part of the Organizational Tissue of the band.

Behaving like a Jazz Band

  1. Active Listening: I could observe Herbie Hancock during most of the concert, in the moments when he was less “engaged” in the act of playing, carefully listening to the rest of the band. Smiling, keeping the rhythm, supporting the others. It was a clear example of active listening in practice, something that is not always visible. And when he presented the artists, he mentioned how much he learns from them all the time!
  2. Taking turns Leading. The leader allows all the members of the band to take their turn at leading. This is not only through the solos of each member of the brand, but by letting each team member adding their contribution, and creating “rest moments” during a concert that others can fill.
  3. Humility. Whenever I think of the concept of a Jam Session, I conceptually don’t get it. How can skilled people, risk of not “arguing” during a session about the best way to proceed with the melody? It works because all artists follow the guiding principle of serving the music. They leave their Egos at the door and help and support each other to create something bigger and better. I wish customer service would work the same way in most organisations!

Organising like a Jazz Band

  1. Not having a plan. Miles Davis once said: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” In Jazz, a note is neither right nor wrong. It’s the note that follows that will make the difference. By focusing on the framework rather than on the execution of always the same melody, you can better adapt the results to the situation. If the public needs more energy, you can put it in. If you need to be more relaxed, you can do that. You can adapt to locations, to equipment limitations, to different types of audiences. Results will always vary a little, but will still be extraordinary. Which means creating and mastering the art of real flexibility
  2. Living in the Groove. The music written on paper is only a framework for artists to work and continuously evolve. This requires that individual mastery is steadily pursued (continuous learning) and that each individual supports the other. That’s why roles, although existing, are not “mandated”. In a jazz band, all parts have the same impact on the result. Their importance can vary depending on the moment, on the groove. Look at the drums or the bass: in other music arts these are often accompanying instruments only, here they can have a much more critical role. But always in relationship to the whole. This also means that people enjoy guided autonomy into these plays.
  3. Built for Unlearning: what strikes me the most about a Jazz Ensemble is that the most successful ones are continually innovating. And they do so by continually rethinking what worked in the past. They can apply a new rhythm, introduce a new instrument, often starting from the initiative of one of the members. The fact that each performance is different from the one before means that a continuous unlearning-learning loop becomes a fundamental design principle for the organisation.

Jazzing the New Organisation

The concert yesterday was concluded with a big moment, in which most of the audience left its seat and went down under the stage. Waving hands, dancing, recording with their phones. All very near to the band creating a genuine atmosphere of celebration. And the energy of the group was just incredible.

Fig.3: Final Moments of the Concert (the photo is mine).

For sure the set up of the auditorium allowed this. Still, it made me think of yet again another essential aspect, the vicinity that jass bands usually create with their public (as opposed to the rigid division that happens with a classical orchestra). This aspect, often more visible in a Jazz Club, is yet another element that makes me reflect on the analogy between Jazz and what is needed for management and leadership today in organisations.

To recap, I think we need to take these examples both in the competencies but also principles for Designing our organisations. It becomes an excellent illustrative framework for a lot of the ideas that I’ve already been sharing, both in terms of competences (read here about the Key Skills to compete in the Future of Work) and organisational design (for example with the strong parallel with design thinking principles). 

And you? What do you think of Jazz as a metaphor for management and leadership?

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Cover Photo: Herbie Hancok playing in Milan. Photo by Giulio Giacconi/RollingStone.it