The ability to work in agile teams is becoming a key skill not only for entrepreneurs but also for individuals working for companies that embrace innovation.
I recently had the chance to visit Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas. Another successful example of a We Culture where employee's ideas matter and self-organization prevails over the chain of command. Work is organized by autonomous teams, everyone focuses on their job, not their position. Everyone is important, from front-line employees to clients and suppliers. Does it look like something impossible or unthinkable? Maybe, but it is here already. It is not easy but can be done, and it generates great bottom-line results at the same time. The way that Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO put it, chase the dream, the money will eventually follow.
So, is it true that these teams have no managers? Well, they have less layers between employees and customers, as they are organized in teams. There is no clear hierarchy. Teams have leaders, they are called lead links (Zappos uses this title, other companies use different names), as they still need people to facilitate work and hold others accountable. In traditional structures only managers have the authority to make decisions. In their organization, everyone has the authority to make changes to the company and decisions in their work. That is what we call self-organizing or agile teams.
Characteristics of agile teams
• Small teams: less than 12 people including a lead, the magic number is usually six. Jeff Bezos uses the “two-pizza team” philosophy, meaning the than should be small enough to be adequately fed by two pizzas, that is six to ten.
• Transparent: communication is fast and mostly face-to-face or online to ensure no delays or miscommunication.
• Autonomous: people are encouraged to choose how they will work. They are encouraged to experiment and create new ways of adding value to customers. The fact is that the people actually doing knowledge work usually have the best idea of how to do that knowledge work, given they have the proper experience. So, why not let them do it their way? This way you get faster and more creative decisions that improve customer satisfaction because they have taken closer to the gemba, where the customer is or where the action takes place.
• Quick decision making: A self-organizing team sets the limit of how much work they are expected to complete within a certain time frame. This means the team sets the expectations about what they have to complete. Usually, they even have their own budget
• Cross-functional: They consist of a mix of people who have different knowledge so that they have access to all the skills necessary to effectively deliver value to customers.
• Disciplined: even though they make lots of decisions about how they work, they follow through the agreements that were made at the beginning of the team formation, so that’s why is important to set clear goals, values and rules, and follow-up or assist closely when someone is not able to meet them. The team members must be able to work in a self-organized environment. Almost everyone can do it, but people are not usually used to it, so at first, it may be hard. Zappos recommends “Hire slowly for culture and fire quickly for culture.” They have two interviews, one for technical fit and another for culture fit, both need to be a YES. And after the first week, they offer $1000 to the employees that want to leave the company, that way they make sure they only keep the ones that are engaged.
• Value Respect: achieving a diverse workforce and obtaining the potential benefits of diversity is not just about recruiting and hiring a diverse team. To fully experience the benefits of diversity, leaders need to create a workplace wherein members of that diverse team feel appreciated and encouraged to share their perspectives
• Clear company culture: The team members share a company culture or common behaviors and habits that they value and respect, that helps them make decisions and achieve results aligned with the company purpose. I call this "The We Culture". In every company is different, but there are main habits that are practiced by everyone (any employee, no matter the hierarchy) at any time: connect to each other, ask questions (don't simply accept the status quo), respect and empower.
Benefits if this agile cultural change are huge. Employee engagement increases with team agility. They become more aware of safety issues, they are more engaged with the tasks offering more ideas for improvement and bringing up problems faster, they stay longer in the company and they become more customer-focused.
How to choose where to start?
The cultural transformation can start in a pilot group, or with all teams at once. I firmly recommend starting with a pilot agile team. Providing general training to everyone else and follow-up with monthly audits can complement a specific training to the pilot section. Once the first team has started and there are some learnings on what worked and what did not work, then you can continue with the next teams, in waves.
Leaders must consider multiple criteria, including strategic importance, budget limitations, availability of people, return on investment, cost of delays, risk levels, and interdependencies among teams to choose where to start. Some companies choose based on pain points felt by customers, and others start with the more matures teams to make sure the pilot is a success.