Small pieces, loosely joined – big org, small change

There’s an approach to technology, software, engineering, product (an approach more prevalent than I realise now listing those out) that calls for lots of little bits of utility to be joined loosely together to make something ‘a better whole’.

A bit like building out a hifi system. You pick your components, each doing one or two things brilliantly, and cobble them together with the right wires to pump out sound that make the audiophiles go wild.

But what happens when you apply that to organisations, as lots of change programmes attempt to? With more and more ‘knowledge’ workers going remote, and the size of a company’s network increasing at scale – how do you tie that all together to remain a high performing, well functioning unit of change?

Most people point to the tribes and guilds model of Spotify fame, or the 2-pizza teams of Amazon-lore as examples of loosely joined, multidisciplinary teams. I don’t think these really cut it though. They don’t feel like models to realise truly 21st-century ways of operating. There’s always been something missing for me.

In the contexts I get to work in, re-forming teams never seems to be enough to create a new reality. To deliver ‘transformation’. Change ends up happening, but only in corners. Organisational silos still persist. The inertia of the place continues.

So I’m trying to figure out what this missing thing is.

Like Hifi, maybe you just need the cables. Something to hold the new reality together, attached to the old in a way that it understands.

No matter how brilliant or highly specialised small teams are – if they’re not connected to the whole in a meaningful way I think they’ll end up drifting into mediocrity. Is that why big business sucks?

So what might the ‘cables’ be for our organisations? I used to think it might be the tools. The types of software that want to define the modern workplace.

Lately, I’ve come to think that the tools aren’t enough. Slack is great, but fatiguing and unruly. Trello is a graveyard of best-laid Kanban intentions gone awry. These things just add another dopamine inducing rush of notifications, that most of us don’t really need. You can’t hold an organisation together on that alone can you?

I know I’m trivialising. There’s more to ‘ways of working’ than software. BUT. It’s usually the stuff that gets sold. What else could we do?

by KJ