Moving to More Autonomous Organizations

The days of hierarchical structure are nearing the end for top performing companies. According to Deloitte’s Predictions for 2017, smaller, empowered teams are more effective in developing solutions tailored to customers, markets, and geographies. Instead of a top down model where all decisions, projects, and power resides in the hands of one “leader”, the report explains how small teams with transparent values, goals, and projects actually empower companies to be more nimble and address customer needs. Teamwork in organizations is nothing new, of course, but how they are being structured has been changing:

Before the rise of the internet, companies that operated most efficiently owned the marketplace, which led to organizational hierarchies. However, the 21st century belongs to companies can adapt and innovate to markets that are changing rapidly through technology. Successful companies have become more agile in their organizational design.

This modern organizational design allows for ‘scalable learning’: the idea that all members of an organization can contribute to developing new ideas. As John Hagel, Director of Deloitte LLP’s Center for the Edge, describes it:

[Scalable learning] means your whole organization has to focus on customer-centric learning, experimentation, and time to market.”

In this new model, employees should be given more responsibility to make decisions, innovate, and quickly form teams to prototype and experiment. Employees who are closer to customers and the market should take more responsibility in collaborating and developing solutions, rather than waiting for decisions and approvals from managers. But this cannot be done well through employees acting individually. This autonomy is most powerful when harnessed through the power of teams.

Autonomy Through Teams of Teams

Decorated four-star General Stanley McChrystal introduced the concept of ‘team of teams’, based on his book of the same name (see this summary of the book). General McChrystal applies what he learned while commanding UN and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a complex environment that mirrors the complexities of the modern world. General McChrystal’s view is that the traditional ways of organizing hierarchically no longer work, and that we must address modern challenges in new ways. The best way to do so, he says, is to form a network of teams.

This approach is discussed in the context of military strategy, where teams were better able to handle threats that couldn’t have been foreseen by a single manager. Every member of the team contributed to solutions in by collaborating with each other rather than from pre-defined orders coming from the top. This allowed for the flexibility to adapt to the local situation. When linked together, “team of teams” openly shared information, trust, and purpose. Instead of silos, lateral ties established an interdependent organization more representative of how the world operates.

Team-Based Learning with NovoEd

This trend of deeper decentralization is exciting for us at NovoEd. We have been developing a platform that empowers small team learning experiences and encourages participants to develop innovative solutions. In courses built on the NovoEd platform, information flows freely not only within teams but also between teams. Progress on projects is shared among the participants, allowing learners to learn from each other. Here is an example of a project gallery in a course:

Placing people in small teams also allows course participants to showcase leadership skills that would otherwise be stifled by an organization’s hierarchical structure. Learners improve their collaborative skills by working together to submit team assignments. Teams operating independently feel trusted and are fully accountable for the work that they do. And for instructors or administrators, powerful analytics provide a full view of participants activity and course progress.

Instead of utilizing “top-down” tactics for implementing ideas, a greater number of employees are given leadership opportunities in their smaller teams. As more participants feel empowered, a greater number of innovative ideas are created. Employees feel more empowered and motivated to implement the solutions that they their colleagues have created.

Required Cultural Shifts

While many employees would happily embrace a more responsibility, this trend towards greater autonomy is starting to become a wave that is overtaking even traditional, staid industries, such as media, insurance, financial services, and telecommunications. Employees who may have been operating in a traditional hierarchy for decades may need guidance and coaching to embrace the freedom and responsibility offered by this new model.

But there are organizations that are demonstrating readiness for this new idea by incorporating key ideas in their culture. Modern organizations must establish a culture of:

  1. Purpose (where employees are aligned in their actions and goals)
  2. Trust (so employees are willing and empowered to make impactful decisions)
  3. Transparency (so all employees have the information needed to make decisions)
  4. Learning (so all employees are continually pushing not only for their own development, but for the development of the organization)

While the first three of these (purpose, trust, and transparency) are vital, a culture of learning is what connects these ideas and build the skills required for agile, team-based organizations. Organizations that embrace continual development of their employees, goals, and culture are more likely to continually adapt and succeed as circumstances shift.

It may be that these teamwork skills are the critical skill for helping organizations thrive in this new business environment. The NovoEd Learning Platform helps not only people learn specific content areas, but it helps people develop these teamwork skills through peer feedback and group projects. Fill out the form below to learn more.