Boardmember Blog: Org Design and Agile Software. . .sufficiently aware of each other?

Organization Design and Agile Software. . .

At the ODF 2013 conference in Denver, Evan Leonard and I presented a session introducing the philosophy, principles and practices underlying Agile software development. We felt the two fields of practice, organization design and Agile, had much in common and were not sufficiently aware of each other.

This week I have the pleasure of attending the XP2014 conference, a gathering in Europe of nearly 200 practitioners of Agile software development methods. I served on a committee to organize a track to help executives & managers understand the Agile approach and discuss their challenges in transitioning their organizations to Agile. The committee invited Paul Tolchinsky, chair of the European branch of ODF, to speak during the track in order to continue building bridges between our two communities and across continental boundaries. After his talk, Paul and I discussed the resonances we see between an enterprise adopting an Agile approach for its software/IT effort and the field of organization design. We agree that each has implications for the other.

Anders Ivarsson and Kristian Lindwall, a pair of Agile leaders from Spotify (a Swedish music distribution start-up company), also gave a talk about the innovative org design they have developed (described in the article by Ivarsson and Henrik Kniberg, “Scaling Agile @ Spotify with Tribes, Squads, Chapters and Guilds”) and the supporting practices to enable their work. Their design has persisted over several years and serves them well, given the nature of their business.

Since the introduction of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, the software/IT industry has begun to embrace the principles of empowered work, self-managing teams, and customer value focus. It’s very similar to STS and Japanese management/Lean/TQM philosophies the US manufacturing industry flirted with in the 1980’s and ’90’s with one critical difference. Software is knowledge work and heavily dependent on its professionals’ ability to learn and process information.

Companies like Spotify in Sweden, Valve and Zappos in the US, it-Agile in Germany, Statoil in Norway, Nokia.Networks in Finland, Ericsson across Europe, and others worldwide find that moving toward Agile also influences their larger organization system design and implies culture change. And the very smart, capable software engineers involved in startup companies, R&D departments, and IT functions eagerly apply their minds to solving the problem of creating 21st century organizations…largely without the help of experienced organization designers.

Agile Alliance, the international trade association for Agile practitioners, seeks to strengthen and expand these efforts with a program (i.e., volunteer-run initiative), Supporting Agile Adoption. (Full disclosure: I helped to found, and continue to participate in, the program.) Members of SAA meet to exchange ideas for improving the ability of organizations to influence the changes in structure and culture required to fully embrace and get the most benefits from an Agile approach. We also write and publish articles and provide other support materials downloadable from the Agile Alliance website. A few of us have experience with organization design, most don’t.

Back at XP2014, Hendrik Esser, a manager from Ericsson, shared a tool they’ve developed to begin to assess and influence the behavior, capabilities, structure, and culture of the company. (Click here for the slides from his presentation) It sounds a lot like elements of organization design to me.

The communities of Organization Design practitioners and Agile practitioners have much to learn from each other. I look forward to the connections we will build in the future.


Diana Larsen, partner, FutureWorks Consulting LLC

ODF Board Member

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