Give Way! Rules and structures in agile organizations

We talked about the great potential of agile structures in the most recent blog post in our series about the development of the Haufe-Quadrant. The conclusion: give as many people as possible the opportunity to shape the organization. However, the culture has to be appropriate, we have to implement the right playing rules and, thus, empower the best players in order to turn this potential into reality. This article is about how to unleash the potential and whether we managed to make it work in our own start-up.


Let’s compare a well performing agile network with traffic on the road: Each and every one is allowed to jump into the car or onto a bicycle and ride wherever he or she wants and whenever he/she wants it. We decide the destination, the mode of transport, the time when we want to travel. However, we have a clear set of rules and structures guiding our actions in street traffic in order to make the whole system work. We stop at a red stoplight, drive on the right (at least in the majority of countries in the world) and give way to cars coming from the right-hand side (most countries, at least). If we would not abide by these generally applicable rules, chaos would ensue. And, that’s the same principle for agility in organizations, too.


Individual structures: Agility back then, and now

Today, Haufe-umantis is widely known for having our staff democratically elect our managers. Now that is only ONE format for channeling agile structures. Democracy however also means taking decisions without consulting all individuals. Nevertheless: in the founding phase, it is important to have the support of every single member of the organization in big decisions. So back then, we reached our decisions by consensus, even if that meant arguments/discussions until late into the night. Looking back, we lacked clear decision-making structures which we would have needed in the beginning. It would have made sense, for example, to weight votes against a made proposal: If only a single person is against a certain proposal, it makes a difference if that person rates his or her “no” as not so important or as absolutely critical. In the first case, the majority could reach a decision in their favor, against the reservation. In the latter case, however, the justified doubt would certainly have to be taken into consideration.


And, back then, our team recruiting processes also looked very different. Today, our teams now define their vacancies on their own, advertise them and autonomously select the most suitable candidate to appoint to the post. In our start-up period, though, we practiced a rather informal style of recruiting: A candidate was always introduced to every team member, then we as founder team asked for the opinions of our colleagues in passing (perhaps in the corridor, over lunch etc.). On the basis of that spontaneous feedback, we decided to either appoint a candidate or reject him or her. That is, of course, significantly less explicit ‒ but suited our structures back then.


And they lived happily ever after…or are still arguing to this very day

For a while, our organization ran smoothly and performed. In the course of our growth, however, changes began to creep in. Informal structures take valuable time; and arguments are only good if you achieve something with them. Haufe-umantis grew very fast. In the blink of an eye, we increased our headcount from four to fifteen. And as we grew, the structures and interfaces became too complex, and conversely, the effort to coordinate it all increased tremendously.


At this point I should say that we are here talking about gradual developments and, thus, it took time for us to notice just how much the company has changed. Then, we realized that the processes that had emerged were not efficient for us any longer. Until new, appropriate structures were decided on and were implemented, more valuable time was lost. Sometimes we wasted too much time: We discovered later that we had kept our employees in the dark regarding a lot of things. As a result, we had made working life difficult for our employees. Where initially one or two employees start to suffer because of that, it could soon be most of the workforce and then the company starts heading closer and closer towards an organizational overstrain. Read the next blog post to find out what happened to us.


Photo Credit: Pixabay

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