We’re getting our language wrong
The usefulness and precision of jargon seems to decay over time. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen increasing mainstream adoption of adaptive work systems, agile production, DevOps, service design, and even just a growing emphasis on culture and people in companies. All of these movements have radiated far beyond their original sphere of influence, but many of the nuances attached to their ways of describing things have been lost.
Two misunderstandings I’ve seen lately are about the terms “self-organization” and “cross-functional.” I think both are pretty unsurprising, so it provides a chance to examine our jargon and maybe rethink how we speak about the concepts to more effectively harness what makes them valuable in the first place.
Self organization as individual right vs. self-organization as team right
First we should dive into the idea of “self-organization.” Though it hardly originates in the agile manifesto, the 2001 document gives some insight into how the conversation about self-organization in creative, productive environments was oriented.
“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
I think these two axioms should be interpreted together as something like “self-organization produces excellent value when we provide scaffolding and trust for motivated individuals to be effective together.” Critically, in the agile milieu “self-organization” is really happening at the team level. The “self” is the collective self of the team members together, not any one individual (or even all the individuals). This connects to one of my common refrains, “the team is the base unit of value creation.” Ideally, the team is the place for motivated individuals to come together and thrive, pushing and pulling against one another, and leveraging one another’s perspectives to create incredible working structures and designs that no one person could create on their own. In fact, looking through my own notebooks and presentations from over the years, I almost never find mention of “self-organization,” but nearly always the specific “self-organizing teams.”
Given the assumption that results will be iterative & progressive in everything from science to business agility, we can assume that part of the responsibility of the “self-organizing team” is to continue to evolve both its product/service and its ways of working as it learns more, or conditions change.
Unfortunately I think that message has been lost enterprises pursue and hire consultants to achieve agility at scale. On several recent projects I’ve encountered an interpretation of self-organization that is something like, “Within some guardrails, individuals can do whatever they please.” This leads to some strange impacts I’ve observed:
* Individuals get feedback from experienced peers or even the customer and feel comfortable simply ignoring it
* Individuals invent their own standards of success, quality, or done-ness that aren’t coherent with the team’s or organization’s goals
* Individuals begin to understand themselves as the base unit of value creation, and thus adopt a defensive posture toward information rather than a productive one
* Health and safety of the team begins to slip as individuals seek to maximize their own comfort, rather than being willing to adopt some temporary discomfort in service of a team result
* Things that are inconvenient to the individual but important to the team & stakeholders (e.g. working agreements, working outside of your specialty, documentation, updating workflows, delivering external value, etc) don’t get attention, and the team becomes less impactful over time (a type of organization debt)
I think it’s obvious how most of these behaviors are at least counter-productive for the team, and left unmanaged can contribute to toxic environments.
Cross-functionality as an individual practice vs cross-functionality as a mix of roles
Oddly, I think that “cross-functionality” has the opposite problem. It is interpreted in terms of team aesthetics rather than encouraged as individual practice. While cross-functionality may be partially a team bringing all silos to the table, actually breaking those silos means adopting an individual mindset change that resists functional pigeonholing all together. This is reflected in the ideas “it’s never ‘not your job’” and “roles ≠ souls.”
I’ve learned to look carefully when a program or organizational leader claims that they’ve “organized in cross functional teams.” Usually what I find is that the org chart has been shuffled so that there are a mix of functional roles that report into one leader, or some remix of the good old Matrix. I rarely see anything that resembles the eager learning spirit of great cross-functional teams.
A problem with functional silos that exists at both the team and the organization scales is that they leave a lot of gaps for the type of emergent work that most knowledge economy companies face. Functions are essentially a model that best reflects what reliably worked in the past, or often just what someone assumed worked somewhere else. But the emerging problems & opportunities that a business faces often requires different competencies than they had before, so the functional model decays. When we approach cross-functionality only through the aesthetics of the team, we just scale the functional model down to the size of a few people and expect things to work. But it can’t work if the model isn’t capable of taking advantage of the market opportunities. This is why we need both slack, and the discipline at the individual level to operate outside of strict role boundaries when the work calls for it.
If we look back to the earlier quote from the agile manifesto, however, we see an interplay between the team (superstructure) and “motivated individuals.” A quick test I run to pulse the depth of cross functional maturity on teams is to surface problems and see who steps into responsibility for taking it on.
Unfortunately, I hear various forms of “that’s not my job,” more than anything else, which tells me that while the team may have cross-functional aesthetics, the individuals haven’t been guided to embrace cross-functional practice or mindset. Cross functionality is not making sure that everyone is at the table while continuing to run things the same way, it’s actually breaking down barriers between swimlanes and continually learning about values, processes, needs, and ways of working from one another. It is taking your function and learning to evolve it and integrate it with others’. Because cross functionality for the individual means discovering gaps or blocks and jumping into them, on a healthy cross functional team, you’ll never hear “that’s not my job.”
The second problem the aesthetic approach to cross-functionality causes is that it over-indexes on a certain set of obvious functions (usually the ones already established organizationally) and fails to include other critical ones. XP’s “Whole Team” practice specifically pushes us to include customers, analysts, testers, and more throughout a production effort. More often, cross functionality serves a political purpose and makes sure that everyone “has a seat at the table.” I’ve seen the aesthetic approach to cross functionality manifest in the following ways:
* Cross-functional team sizes explode to as the organization tries to throw anyone and everyone at a problem with no operating discipline or consideration about team design
* Cross-functional teams consist of a subset of functions or specializations but don’t include business, sustainment/scale, operations, etc. They almost never include a customer.
* People are sent to meetings representing functions with no training or agreements on how to work together, make decisions, co-design, etc. Cross-function becomes a political feature rather than a productive one.
* Cross functional teams’ effectiveness grinds down as they encounter demands for skills that don’t fall within the existing functional mix and no one steps up to fill the gaps
* Teams stop learning and growing as they retreat to their functions & chapters rather than diving into an uncertain problem domain together (inverted emergence or declension)
Some things we might be able to do
There are a few things that I think “we” can do either as practitioners & guides, or as people who may already be in systems who have adopted the misunderstandings of self-organization and cross functionality I’ve highlighted.
- Use less jargon. Instead of saying “self organization” or “cross-functional teams,” adopt context-sensitive terminology that evokes our intent more richly. Some versions I’ve used among clients:
- Team-defined working agreements
- Team operating model
- Exploratory teaming
- Function-breaking team
- Multi-role teams
- Draw more pictures. The problem with words is that no matter how rich our prescriptive, context-sensitive phrasing is, the moment it starts to bleed out of context it becomes jargon-y. Pictures seem to be less subject to this sort of decay, so I’ve gotten in the habit of both presenting ideas through_through_ pictures and facilitating teams drawing out their assumptions and team designs through a number of methods. This can be as simple as pausing to doodle what we all think we mean when we say “cross-functional” or “self-organized.” Interesting assumptions get played out when we think in pictures.
- Create more experiences. The reason that I have a sense of what both cross-functionality and self organization mean is because I’ve been lucky enough to be on thriving teams that really got those ideas right. Some of those teams have been professional career teams, but a lot of them have just been effective volunteer or extra-curricular groups. In order to move beyond the limits of language and to give teams an intuitive feel for how cross-functionality & self organization should really work, I’ve been relying on simulation and gameplay more and more. Covid-19 has pushed everyone to remote, online work anyway, so getting into an online game together doesn’t feel nearly as goofy as it used to, and it can be a safe, fun place to explore some new teaming approaches.