Have you ever watched a flock of birds work together? Thousands of animals, flying in perfect synchrony: Isn't it fascinating? What I find remarkable is that these birds would not be able to do that if they all would have to follow one leader. Their reaction speed would simply be too low. Instead, scientists believe that these birds are aligned on a few simple rules, allowing every single bird to make autonomous decisions while still flying in perfect synchrony. Their alignment enables their autonomy, and their autonomy makes them fast and flexible.
Now, what does this have to do with any one of us? Well, it's one way of illustrating what I believe to be the most important change that is needed in ways of working today. The world is getting faster and more complex, so we need a new way of working, a way that creates alignment around purpose, that takes out bureaucracy and that truly empowers people to make decisions faster. But the question is: In order to get there, what are we willing to give up?
A few years ago, I was working with a bank that wanted to embark on a digital transformation. They wanted their offering to be simpler, more intuitive, more relevant. Now, I'm not sure how many of you have seen a bank from the inside, so let me try to illustrate what many traditional banks look like. You see lots of people in suits taking elevators to go to their department, marketers sitting with marketers, engineers with engineers, etc. You see meetings with 20 people where nothing gets decided. Great ideas? They end up in PowerPoint parking lots. And there are endless handovers between departments. Getting anything done can take forever. So this bank knew that in order to transform, they would have to improve their time to market by drastically changing their ways of working as well. But how?
To get some inspiration, we decided to go and have a look at companies that seem to be more innovative, like Google, Netflix, Spotify, Zappos. And I remember how we were walking the halls at one of these companies in December 2014, a management consultant and a team of bankers. We felt like strangers in a strange land, surrounded by beanbags and hoodies and lots of smart, creative employees. So then we asked, "How is your company organized?" And we expected to get an org chart. But instead, they used strange drawings with funny names like "squads" and "chapters" and "tribes" to explain how they were organized.
So then we tried to translate that to our own world. We asked, "How many people are working for you?"
"Who do you report to?"
"Who decides on your priorities?"
You can imagine our surprise. We were asking for what we thought were some of the basic principles of organizations, and their answer was, "It depends."
Now, over the course of that day, we gained a better understanding of their model. They believed in the power of small, autonomous teams. Their teams were like mini-start-ups. They had product people and IT engineers in the same team so they could design, build and test ideas with customers independently of others in the company. They did not need handovers between departments. They had all the skills needed right there in the team.
Now, at the end of that day, we had a session to reflect on what we had learned. And we had started to like their model, so we were already thinking of how to apply some of these ideas to a bank. But then, one of the hosts, a guy who had not said a word all day, he suddenly said, "So I see you like our model. But I have one question for you: What are you willing to give up?"
What were we willing to give up? We did not have an answer immediately, but we knew he was right. Change is not only about embracing the new; it's about giving up on some of the old as well. Now, over the past five years, I have worked with companies all over the world to change their ways of working. And clearly, every company has their own skeptics about why this is not going to work for them. "Our product is more complex," or "They don't have the legacy IT like we do," or "Regulators just won't allow this in our industry."
But for this bank and also for the other companies that I have worked with afterwards, change was possible. Within a year, we completely blew up the old silos between marketing, product, channels and IT. Three thousand employees were reorganized into 350 multidisciplinary teams. So instead of product people sitting just with product people and engineers with engineers, a product person and an engineer were now members of the same team. You could be a member of a team responsible for account opening or for the mobile banking app, etc. At the go-live date of that new organization, some people were shaking hands for the very first time, only to find out that they had been sitting two minutes away from each other but they were sending each other emails and status reports for the last 10 years. You would hear someone saying, "Ah, so you're the guy that I was always chasing for answers."
But now, they're having coffee together every day. If the product guy has an idea, he can just raise it to get input from the engineer who is sitting right next to him. They can decide to test with customers immediately — no handovers, no PowerPoints, no red tape, just getting stuff done.
Now, getting there is not easy. And as it turns out, "What are you willing to give up?" is exactly the right question to ask. Autonomous decision-making requires multidisciplinary teams. Instead of decisions going up and down the organization, we want the team to decide. But to do so, we need all the skills and expertise for that decision in the team. And this brings difficult trade-offs. Can we physically co-locate our people who are working in different buildings, different cities or even different countries today? Or should we invest in better videoconferencing? And how do we ensure consistency in the way we do things across these teams? We still need some kind of management matrix.
Now, all these changes to structure and process and procedure — they are not easy. But in the end, I found that the most difficult thing to change is our own behavior. Let me try to illustrate.
If we want these teams to be fast, flexible, creative, like a mini-start-up, they have to be empowered and autonomous. But this means we cannot have leaders commanding their people what to do, when to do, how to do. No micromanagers. But it also means that each employee needs to become a leader, regardless of their formal title. It's about all of us stepping up to take initiative.
Now obviously, we also cannot afford to have all these teams running in different directions, because that would certainly lead to chaos. So we need alignment and autonomy at the same time, just like a flock of birds. In an organizational setting, this requires new behaviors, and with each new behavior, there is giving up on something old as well. Leaders have to make sure that everyone in the organization is aligned around the overall purpose — the why — and the overall priorities — the what. But then they have to let go and trust their teams to make the right decisions on how to get there.
Now, creating alignment requires open and transparent communication. But you know how they say that information is a source of power? Well, for some managers, sharing information may feel as if they're giving up that source of power. And it's not just managers. The teams need to communicate openly and transparently as well. In these companies, the teams typically work in short sprints, and at the end of every sprint, they organize a demo session to share the output of what they've done, transparently. And every day, each member of the team gives an update of what they are working on individually. Now, all this transparency can be uncomfortable for people, because suddenly, there is no place to hide anymore. Everything we do is transparent for everyone. So, alignment is not easy, and providing autonomy is not so obvious, either.
One executive at another company likes to explain how he used to be a master of milestone-tracking. Now, today, to know how things are going, instead of looking at status reports, he needs to walk down to the team floors to attend one of their sessions. And instead of telling people what to do, he looks for ways to help them. That is radical change for someone who used to be a master of milestone-tracking. But in the old world, this executive said, "I only had the illusion of control. In reality, many projects would run over time and over budget, anyway. Now I have much more transparency, and I can course-correct much earlier if needed."
And middle managers need to change as well. First of all, without the handovers and the PowerPoint, there's less of a need for middle managers. And in the old world, there was this idea of thinkers and doers. Employees would just follow orders. But now, instead of only managing other people, middle managers were expected to become player-coaches. So imagine, for the last 10 years, you have just been telling other people what to do, but now you're expected to do things yourself again.
Clearly, this model is not for everyone, and some great people leave the company. But the result is a new culture with less hierarchy. And all of this is hard work. But it's worth it. The companies that I worked with, they were used to deploying new product features a few times per year. Now they have releases every few weeks, and without the handovers and the red tape, the whole organization becomes more efficient. And finally, if you walk the halls of these companies today, you just feel a new energy. It feels as if you're walking the halls of a very large start-up.
Now, to be fair, these companies, they cannot claim victory yet. But at least with this new model, they are much better prepared to respond to change. The world is getting faster and more complex, so we need to reboot our way of working. And the hardest part of that change is not in structure or process or procedure, and it's also not just senior executives taking charge. Leaders will be all of those in the organization who embrace the change. We all have to lead the change.
So the question is: What are you willing to give up?