Self-organizing companies start to shape the world differently

The book „Reinventing Organizations“ by Frederic Laloux is a very special kind of economy book: it talks about self-organization in modern companies. This is a very hip topic today and one of the mega trends of the current decade.

reinventingOrganizationsInterestingly the author gives first the sociological and historical context of mankind since Stone Age. He relates to each context the types of organizations that have been possible and that have mainly existed in this context: their basic assumptions about the world and about human beings, their ability to plan, to scale, to deal with complexity and to react to unexpected events. During all these ages, it was possible that organizations with totally different value systems and organization level co-exist and compete, and today they do as well. Now in the last couple of decades organizations emerge that are only possible because of the complex experience in the modern world, and that are able to self-organize on team level and organization level and evolve their own organization in very short cycles. He gives all these organizations roughly spectral colors to distinguish them.

In the context of companies, the following colors apply:

  • The amber organization is ordered hierarchically, and the hierarchy level of a person is already clear from the beginning. This is traditional school, army, church, and the start of industrialization.
  • In the orange organization, there is as well hierarchy, but a person can grow if he/she meets the goals that the company has set for him, and can earn more. These companies see mainly selfishness as driver for doing better and receiving a bonus. Both orange and amber companies have a “machine” model of the company.
  • The green organizations give everybody the same, rely on consensus, and want to do good things for the world. These are mainly social organizations, they can also be companies like the famous Berlin newspaper “taz”.Only good people can work in such organizations.

Now the new evolutionary-teal organizations have a fundamentally different view of the world and the human being: they trust in the common sense and the social sensitiveness of the individual, without postulating that everybody needs to be similar or even have similar needs and wishes. They trust people to collaborate across different goals and needs, and to bring all this into a common context that makes sense for all of them. They trust people to make different contributions and they trust the team to evaluate these. Human beings in a teal organization are trusted to be able to learn nearly without limits, going beyond job titles and role names in self-organizing cross-functional teams, learn about their customers and their needs, and improve the ability of their company to fulfill these needs. Seeing the company as a growing, living organism helps them to take much more good decisions than in the machine context.

This is no speculation – the author gives lots of examples from the work life of more than a dozen very different companies, here are four examples:

  • Buurtzong – a social company for elder care in the Netherlands with 7000 people
  • FAVI – a producer of special metal parts in France with 500 people
  • Morning Star – a food processing company from the US with 400-2400 people depending on the season
  • Sun Hydraulics – a global company for hydraulic components with 900 people

All these organizations, however different in location, purpose and size, have solved a couple of fundamental problems in similar ways.

  • Their basic structure is team oriented, with teams that are self-organizing and self-administering.
  • The teams care about hiring, pay and personal feedback
  • There are no middle managers, mainly there are only coaches, or they elect project managers for a certain project for a limited time
  • There is a high transparency of all information for everybody
  • Decision taking is not based on consensus, rather decisions can be driven by an individual after consulting, listening to and considering input from all relevant colleagues
  • A basic principle is trust instead of control – any adult can be trusted to take reasonable decisions
  • Most of the companies have an explicit value system that they have created with the members, and which new members will learn in trainings
  • Important training topics are communication, collaboration and handling conflict

In an earlier blog post I wrote about the Brazilian company Semco SA which started already beginning of the 1980 to transform into a self-organizing company. It does also a lot of things similarly. All of these companies are also very successful compared to competitors in their area, in growth, margin, and customer satisfaction. It also seems that they have a much higher ability to manage crisis and adapt to changing markets and situations than traditional hierarchical companies. So it can happen that these companies will be the most important actors in the 21st century’s markets. It would at least not be a surprise to me, because in the same way as the modern democracies are more able to sense things happening and react to them than it was the Soviet Union with their top-down 5-years-plans, a self-organized company relies on the senses, minds and hearts of many people, not of a few.

HenrikKniberg-CultureOverProcess-OrganicStructureStrangely, no software companies are mentioned in Frederic Laloux’ book. – Looking to the area of software development, the combination of self-organizing company culture with agile methods and lean startup principles seems to be the most successful in the last couple of years. In principle, lean startup and agile companies have the self-organizing company culture in their DNA. However, it can happen that it gets lost when the company grows, or the CEOs do not have a real good value system. An interesting case of a rapidly growing company with a genuine agile culture is Spotify – at least according to their agile coach Henrik Kniberg. In this presentation (video here, and the slides) he is talking about their agile company culture. There are many others said to fall into this category, like Google, Twitter,, Dropbox, Netflix, Streetspotr – at least all of them are using agile and lean startup methods from the beginning, yet it is not guaranteed that all these companies have also a self-organizing company culture in the organization above and around the teams. But there are much more of them than we know, and I am sure that soon there will be much more of these companies around, looking forward to it!

Slides for ScanDev 2013 DONE: distributed product owner team – strategies

One week to go for this year’s ScanDev conference in Gothenburg, and slides are done.


Topics covered are mainly:
Strategies for growing a distributed product owner team, when the problem space is very different from the normal experience world of a software developer. Strategies for communication and customer collaboration in the distributed setup.

For preparation, I made a lot of personal interviews with product owners on different hierarchy levels and multiple sites. I learned a lot about the reality behind our official agile framework, and how much the real success depends on people and their skills and goals.

To convert my knowledge into an interesting presentation I used a marvellous book, a classic: Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story by Jerry Weissman. What is very helpful in this book is that he tells you a lot of stories to make sure you know what you want to tell, to whom, and how you will bring this across to your audience. So I started to create my presentation on a lonely day at home, using hundreds of sticky notes on my personal whiteboard, instead of bothering with Outlook templates or -beware!- assistants. Then I selected a structure for the slides that would allow me to tell my story, and then I created each single slide on a sheet of paper, put them into the structure, re-ordered and finally bright them to the office.


There, of course, I had to take a corporate template, and also picked a lot of photos, that would this time nicely fit with the topic. As structure I had selected a pyramid. I created it with corporate colors, and let it build up throughout the slides.

At the beginning of this week, it was finished, and I submitted it for review and release. And -wow! -I got it released after considering a few remarks, in less than two days. I can say, the release process got much more agile since I first used it for an external presentation four years ago, when it still took me four weeks, but obviously as well my own professionalism in creating publications has increased a lot since then.

Speaking at ScanDev 2013 about our Distributed Product Owner Team @ Syngo.via

I am speaking at SCANDEV 2013

This week I received the news that my new talk has been accepted for SCANDEV 2013 on March 4th to 5th in Göteborg, Sweden. The title is „Distributed Product Owner Team @ Syngo.via“

What is it all about?

We are developing medical imaging and workflow software in an agile way with development teams distributed to several countries. One of the major challenges is how to set up and communicate within the Product Owner team.

  • There we have to deal with the distribution, e.g., have the Product Owner either onsite with her peers or with her Scrum team, travelling, or with proxy.
  • We need people who are good in two different fields of knowledge: medical and software development.
  • As a third issues, the environment of the customers may be different in different countries.
We have ramped up local Product Owners in different countries, have found local collaboration customers, and have developed  a set of communication channels and workshops how to synchronize Product Owners in the team, share a common vision and backlog with their Scrum teams, and collaborate with customers locally and globally.
While I am putting my presentation together, I would be interested very much in what my customers want to know about. You can ask me questions, and whatever is feasible I will include into my talk. So Product Ownership is being directly applied.

Agile is about the people!

Sometimes I see blog posts or LinkedIn discussions where some agile specialist or special agilist reasons about the exact amount of minutes to spend on each Scrum meeting according to sprint length, or he asks how he can measure and compare the productivity of teams.
Often I have the impression if I asked him now “How is the motivation of your teams? How do they feel, are they happy or frustrated? Do they have all the tools to get their job done? When did you last time clear some organizational obstacles out of the way for them? Have you hired the right people, and given them lots of opportunities to learn?” or anything alike, this kind of specialist would stare at me without getting the issue.
Actually, this is the centre of the universe – is the people, not the final twisting and tuning of an ideal Scrum process. Scrum is about the people!
Even the managers I know, some managers who have done so incredibly many things right, – even they, at rare times, of course, come up with something like “but now if I would like to compare the productivity of two teams, how would I do it?” and they think very hard about it. 
Then I ask them: Have you invested already enough time into how they can learn something new about the product domain, stay up to date with their architecture and programming knowledge, know how to use the latest tools you have bought them? Have you spent a similar amount of time on how to sharpen the product vision with the Product Owner, so that he can really make developers happy working on this marvellous project? If I wake up a Scrum team member in the middle of the night, would he or she be able to tell me the product vision? Have you thought about organizing a FedEx day so they can try out new features of their favourite programming language just for fun, and get fresh motivation for a couple of sprints?

This is what I ask my managers in such cases. Metrics and measurements are fine, but you always need to seed before you harvest.
Hey, it’s about the people!