I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Organizing for Innovation, Part I

Innovation happens through people, not assets. Assets can be an impediment to innovation: software that is brittle, monolithic, poorly encapsulated, or high-maintenance inhibits creative new uses of it. But assets don't innovate by themselves. Innovation happens through the people you have.

We saw last month that innovation is stifled where management's prevailing goal is control. If we want innovation borne of individual creativity, the reasonable thing to do is to look at organizational structures of autonomy and devolved decision-making. Unfortunately, as we saw two months ago, there are no formulas for devolving decision rights. We also saw there are few reference implementations, and no objective measures that show autonomous structures outperform command-and-control styles. Deciding to devolve requires unflinching conviction that it is the right thing to do, and the intestinal fortitude to muddle through what doesn't work to figure out what does. Because there are no half-measures of devolution, the stakes are high: by choosing to do this, you are betting your career and possibly the entire business on its success.

To better understand devolved decision making, it helps to understand the classes of decisions that define autonomy. According to Susman, there are three:

Scope Nature Environment Artifact Hierarchy
Institutional What should be done? Accommodate or defend against what it cannot understand or cope with Appreciations Board
Managerial What can be done? Decisions are uncertain and highly reactive Strategic plans Senior management
Technical How will it be done? "Supervisors of risk": decision making is fluid and creative Implementation plans Middle management

Source: Susman, Gerald. Autonomy at Work: A Sociotechnical Analysis of Participative Management

It is conceptually easy to understand how devolution works in small companies because the distance between decision makers and decision executors isn't very great. Start-ups don’t have large boards and employees take direction directly from the founder, who is less concerned with precision execution than finding things that drive usage and growth. Senior technology leaders who decide on the “how” are also the people who implement the “how”. There isn't much distance between the Chief Executive and the Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.

The larger the organization, the more polarized the control over each decision class. Appreciations - why should we do something - are the provenance of the board, who are few in number and very far removed from the insides of the company and the ecosystem in which it functions day-to-day. Questions of “what” are held tightly by management, providing a means of co-opting the board in assessing how well management executed, not necessarily on the success it achieved in exploiting the appreciations the board set forth. Held to performance targets from management, and saddled with lowest-common-denominator rented labor (thank you procurement departments everywhere for dehumanizing the secondary labor force for nearly two decades now), questions of “how” are similarly held tightly by technical managers.

The more disenfranchised the line - as in, the greater the extent to which individual employees are only permitted to do exactly what they're told to do - the harder it is for anyone to fathom a devolved model, let alone function within one.

The gulf between "stay in your lane" and "chart your own course" makes clear that there is much more to devolving authority than investing small teams with the responsibility of figuring out what they should do, can do, and will do. In part II, we'll look at the organizational characteristics of a self-directed team, one that functions in a genuinely autonomous manner. After that, we'll look at autonomy at scale: what needs to be in place for autonomous teams to function cohesively in a complex corporate ecosystem.