3 fears that stop companies from adopting a Responsive org structure

Every workplace has a culture. You can be intentional about culture and how it’s nurtured and shaped, or leave culture to evolve naturally. It’s one of those situations where doing nothing is a decision - one with significant consequences.

"You can be intentional about culture and how it’s nurtured and shaped, or leave culture to evolve naturally." - Click to tweet

At Culture Amp, we made the decision to be intentional about our culture. We've invested in an organizational structure that allows us to be a more responsive company. We’ve been working at this for as long as we’ve existed and we’re constantly collecting feedback, listening to our CAmpers (what we call people who work at Culture Amp) and acting accordingly.

Two years ago, we decided that to stay true to our mission and values, we needed to keep pushing in this direction and adopt a new model of organising ourselves that furthered our ability to be responsive to the market, our customers and our CAmpers. To achieve this we’ve principally focused on adopting the Team of Teams model, inspired by the book of the same name by Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell.

By all measures, we’re a successful start-up, especially over the two years in which we’ve adopted the model. We've closed Series B and Series C rounds, grown our customer base and continued to see our community of customers grow. Whilst from the outside our success may have seemed natural, we have struggled internally with some parts of the Team of Teams implementation.

At the upcoming Responsive Conference in NYC, I'll be sharing some of the fears we had to overcome to successfully transition to this more responsive, Team of Teams organizational structure.

Today, here's a sample of what those struggles have been - three fears we've identified that can block the continued change of your organization and its progress in adopting a responsive operating model. 

The personal fear of being inadequate

The truth is, most individuals experience some level of personal fear or uncertainty in their work everyday. We all experience that awful sinking feeling you get when you doubt yourself, even in highly engaged environments.

When we consider this very human trait - these things that we all feel - it’s no wonder we struggle to make a transition to a new operating model. We look at a hierarchy or strong command structure and find it relieving on an individual level. In those moments of fear, we find relief in concreteness. We think, “Oh, I just need to impress or be admired by this one person to advance my career? Easy. I’ve been doing that all my life. That person in the corner office, that’s who I need to be one day? Easy, I’ve been striving for that kind of power all my life. Ok, I'll get on with it.”

Fear of a team consumed by confusion

After you consider that we may be working in an environment in which people are fearing their own inadequacies more and more, changings a team’s dynamic can compound the fear of each individual. Mix those people into a team, change the way that team needs to operate, and you’ll create a lot of confusion - even when you do it well. Typically, people quickly lose confidence in each other and their team’s capability when these sorts of things are changed.

People will come to you saying, “All this confusion isn’t worth it!” “We spend so much time talking about how we’re supposed to be working, that we don’t ever get any work done. We shouldn’t be doing this. It's not going to work." Ultimately, this is what people become fearful of in moving to a more responsive mode. People feel they spend so much time speaking about this new operating model, making sense of their new operating environment, that looking back at a traditional hierarchy as a blueprint for running a successful company is highly alluring and comforting.

At Culture Amp, we realised only fairly recently that there were a lot of virtues of a traditional hierarchy that we had missed out on. As a result, we’ve readopted some of those traits, whilst keeping our cross-functional team structure. Many of our customers have noticed this fear, too. Even Silicon Valley hasn’t really disrupted this hierarchical model. It’s certainly changed a lot of things with regards to how those hierarchies perform, but not necessarily how they’re structured.

"Even Silicon Valley hasn’t really disrupted the hierarchical model." - Click to tweet

We often don't realise it, but everyone has tacitly made sense of how to work well within a hierarchy during their many years in preparing for and then working in the Western economy. The fear people experience when they’re presented with needing to figure out how to get their work done, and not waste time in the process, can be all consuming as you transition to a structure that puts more control in the hands of cross-functional teams.

Anxiety of Poor Alignment

Once you’re seeing individual fear and team confusion amongst your employee base, the next thing that can get in the way of adopting a responsive organizational structure is a feeling of everything being misaligned. In a hierarchical structure, this anxiety is reduced because it’s clearer from top-to-bottom what everyone should be prioritizing at any given time. When I was at Microsoft, I was amazed by how quickly they could align everyone around a very small set of priorities. Executive orders, cascading goals and messages make alignment feel easy, especially for the people traditionally seen as the most powerful in an organization: its executives. If you’re in a highly centralized function, like finance, likely you’ve felt this power too.

So...what if you took that away?

What if instead of people having this kind of power to calmly direct resources, you instead forced them to provide and ‘sell’ alignment to each team individually. It creates a highly anxious state of mind. It connects closely to the sense of individual failure I mentioned earlier, only on a much broader level. You can’t just put something on a list and expect that people will do it. You have to provide people the context they need to understand it, before they get their jobs done. You need to let them see what goes into the melting pot as the company's objectives and key results are set. And then trust that through the communication of those very top-line things that teams will achieve those results. That’s a very big jump for an executive to make. 

It's all connected 

These, like everything, are interlinked. Individuals fear not being successful and being found out as a fraud. If there’s not enough clarity in a team of individuals about their roles and goals then a distinct lack of safety and confusion abounds. And, when you put on top of that a collective of executives charged with bringing in results, who are in teams wracked with confusion and individuals striving to not be revealed as failures, then you have a perfect environment for high levels of anxiety.

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So...why bother? Why are we trying to be more responsive organizations?

Why adopt a model that, almost certainly, will be harder to implement and maintain with a high probability of being done poorly? Why will we invest much more than the next company to realise that change?  

The model will be hard to adopt no matter what, but it's worth it. The fears above are the ones that we ran into at Culture Amp, but every business will face their own challenges. Given that you know this transition to a more responsive operating model will remain challenging, you'll need to maintain open and honest communication with your people. This feedback will inform your decision making and how you learn about the unique fears that will inevitably come up in your organization. 

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I spoke more about this topic at the 2017 Responsive Conference, and we'll share the recording when it becomes available.  


 Steve Hopkins 2.pngSteve Hopkins enjoys learning about how the shape of our organizations are changing to become more human and more connected. He’s the Director of Customer Success at Culture Amp, where he’s helped lead and implement the team of teams approach across four global locations. He was a founding member and signatory of the Responsive.Org manifesto.

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