Agile, Business Performance Consulting, Leadership, People, Project Management, Teams

Agile Knowledge Work: the Spirit of Ubuntu

This post represents the point in our journey when we prepare to jump across the divide from conventional management practices to self-organizing teams and alignment.

Executives and managers might like the theory, but a common fear is a disconnect between self-organizing staff and the fundamental purpose of a team as it relates to a business or coordinated organizational strategy.

Ultimately, managers and executives are responsible for delivering a product or service and often a profit.

If the hierarchy is loosened and employees are empowered to be responsible and to do what they think is best, will it result in a spike of Facebook status checking? And what will happen to those few top performers? Will they turn to spending their time on pet projects or passionately chase an idea that’s creative but not supporting the whole organization’s direction?

If a team is in the metaphorical boat with paddles, how do they get across the river together and in sync if no one is there to set the pace and lead? If the team’s been shackled to their seats in the boat, why should they care where they’re going at all?

Who’s in charge? Who cares?

No wonder managers are reluctant to relinquish control. Managers may be convinced that if they make others responsible, a loss of control and power will occur. Executives delegate many decisions but it is often out of necessity and often not for the empowerment of others to create a flat working team. Surely, someone must remain in charge!

The catch-22 posed in Addleson’s book for managers is how to get cohesion towards a single purpose. Rigid structures that get in the way of people doing work and self-organizing are simply not compatible. Knowledge workers operating under strict rules, requirements and long-term plans rarely pay attention to what is going on around them. It is almost as if they don’t need to. It is as if they really don’t care.

While there is also no way to make workers care, managers can create the conditions for them to care if they choose to. Workers will be accountable when they have the authority to be responsible and have collective power over their situation.

At this point in the book Addleson approaches the great divide. He describes how to shift power to employees and away from high control and compliance. He starts by exploring communities of practice which we’ll talk more about here. In a later post we’ll talk more about how the boat actually gets across the river.

Are communities of practice (CoP) an oversold management tool?

Groups that qualify as a CoP according to Addleson meet three conditions:

  • members are actively engaged in the same kind of practices,
  • they work together to accomplish something with a mutual interest in the results,
  • they have shared routines, stories and actions.

The changes required to allow CoPs to emerge are fundamental and can be overwhelming for many organizations. The Literature shows they are more effective and naturally occurring in startup companies. CoP will fail if they are not allowed the radically different environment they need to thrive in.

How do CoPs work?

While CoPs work inside an organizational structure, much of their work is done around and across structural elements. The secret to a CoPs success is community. They create their own social space different from hierarchy and superior-subordinate relationships common in most workplaces. If members of a CoP are allowed to be responsible for the outcomes, their motivation comes from the CoP members who encourage and assist each other in doing good work. This brings us to the spirit of Ubuntu.

What is the spirit of Ubuntu?

To many, Ubuntu is just another IT term that has something to do with the Linux operating system. Ubuntu is an African word that means that we are human because we live our lives showing charity, keeping commitments, caring for and being accountable to one another. It is the idea that people achieve their humanity through other people and we fulfill our potential in cooperating to achieve things together.

The practices that support good knowledge work (networking, cooperating, sharing and aligning) come down to values and relationships that are not self-centered but focus on the group’s success.

This approach requires significant maturity and individual growth out of how we’ve been conditioned to work and personally succeed in our fiercely competitive world.

When CoPs organize themselves on the basis of consideration, mutual goals and respect, the sense of commitment and responsibility amongst that team increases. If their practices reflect these values, their potential can be limitless.

In the next post we’ll talk about how to start putting this all into practice. In the meantime, a few questions for you:

  • As a manager, what are the steps you would take to shed the old values of being in charge or being the expert?
  • As a team member, how do you get permission to network with others outside of your department or silo?

This post is part of a series based on the ideas in the book, Beyond Management, Taking Charge at Work, by Mark Addleson.


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