This is a transcript of episode 213 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
We are joined by Matt Parker, author of the new book A Radical Enterprise, and discuss how many organisations are achieving significant success with astonishing levels of autonomy and devolution.
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.
Squirrel: We have a guest today, would you introduce them?
Jeffrey: I’m really excited to introduce Matt Parker, author of the forthcoming book A Radical Enterprise. This is an episode I’ve been waiting a long time for: as soon as I heard about some of the ideas behind the book, I was immediately intrigued and very excited for it to come out. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matt: Hi, thanks for having me.
Jeffrey: Matt, what was your inspiration for writing the book? For me personally, often I’m inspired by wrongs I want to set right in the world, but as I understand your motive was more mellow. What led to this book?
Matt: I think this book may be generations in the making. My grandfather was among the first programmers, my father was a programer, I became a programmer, and now my oldest daughter has done a little programming too, so there’s this whole line of programming going on. We inherit all these things from our parents, and that includes suffering. I’m sure when I say programming and technology are not industries without faults, that will resonate with your audience. Certainly that was my experience when I got into programming. I knew my dad had had a rough time of it, I knew that he had panic attacks at work. But I was young and I didn’t connect a lot of dots. My first decade in software and the software industry opened my eyes. It was a terrible experience with a lot of stress, and really, a lot of unneeded stress. I became very quickly convinced of three things: this way of working is bad for people. This way of working is bad for business, it doesn’t actually help the business for people to be working like this. And this way of working is a choice. I don’t mean that anybody out there is actively seeking to make software development miserable and to spread suffering to those around them. But there’s nothing required about that experience. We can ‘adult’ any way we want to, and we can have a lot of fun if we want to, and we can build great things together without all that stress. So my second decade of experience was night and day from that. I was very lucky to be approached by Pivotal Labs, which at the time was just a boutique consulting agency doing extreme programming, and teaching clients how to do it. I joined that company, learned the ins and outs of pair programming and test-driven development, really hyper-iterative software development, learned not only how to build things right, but how to build the right things…it was such a wonderful, powerful experience. I had so much fun doing it with the people that I did it with because we were doing great things together, learning from each other every day, having a blast doing it, geeking out all day and building great stuff with and for our clients all at the same time.
Squirrel: I’ll channel some of our listeners who might be saying to themselves, ‘Boy, Matt, that sounds really great. Years ago when the world was better, in a boutique consulting firm that’s building nifty products and has a lot of cash coming in, sounds wonderful. My world is not like that. I’m stuck in a giant corporation and I have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Why is this relevant to me? Why are you saying that it could be better for me?’
Matt: Well, for two reasons. One, I deeply empathize with your experience because I was there. I did that kind of job and lived in that kind of world, and I hated it. And then I became aware that another way was possible. The great thing about working at Pivotal Labs is we weren’t doing this on our own. We were working with some of the largest enterprises on the planet, with government agencies, with the military, all over the place with with organizations that you would never expect to embrace things like extreme programming. Yet they did, and we had a lot of success doing this with clients and helping them figure out how to do it on their own, how to continue to scale it past the engagements with us. That gave me a lot of hope. It gave me enough hope that I became very interested in learning more about the future of work, and that led me to write this book, A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High Performance, because I wanted to understand what’s out there right beyond my own personal experience. Are other companies doing this? How are they doing it? Are they scaling it? Then, if we peel back what’s happening in those organizations and look under the hood, can we understand how and why it works? That’s ultimately what my book is about, and I boiled down the successes of 13 different organizations from very large eighty thousand person organizations to very small organizations, and found four primary imperatives behind their experiences that made their way of working successful.
Jeffrey: That sounds like a natural tee up there. We don’t have time to go as in depth as in your book, but maybe we can give our audience a thumbnail version of what those four imperatives are.
Matt: Yeah. These were things going on in each of these companies and which seem to underlie their success with radical collaboration. All the companies you’ll see in this book, which represent about 8% of organizations around the world, are working in a way that we can describe as radically collaborative. That’s basically an experience in which people are working together on a basis of partnership and equality. They’re not structured as dominator hierarchies, there’s no clear management chains and authority command, and yet there’s still a ton of structure and very powerful and nimble ways of working inside these organizations. They’re working in a way that’s based on freedom of collaboration, freedom of commitment, and freedom of honoring those commitments.
The Four Imperatives
Matt: So the four imperatives start with team autonomy just right off the gate. Teams within these organizations were immediately and visibly autonomous in a number of different ways. They had autonomy of backlog; they were owning what they were doing day-to-day. They had autonomy of schedule, deciding when to work and when not to work, whether to co-locate or whether to be distributed. There were a variety of approaches to team autonomy, covering every aspect of the how, the when, and the where. There were even things like autonomy of allocation, what teams to join. Another imperative that I found within these organizations was a process of managerial devolution. This is a technical term for the decentralization of power out of the hands of a static dominator hierarchy and into the hands of a heterarchy, which is another fancy word for self-organizing self-linking networks of teams. Managerial devolution encompasses things like governance, how we go about doing our business. What the rules and processes that we’re all agreeing upon and playing by. That process wasn’t decided by people from on high, by fiat, but was actually developed in very decentralized, very powerful ways that you can read about in the book. The other aspect of managerial devolution that I go into is the way they devolve compensation in a number of these organizations. Many of them use the fractal compensation model or the Deming pay system. I’m sure your listeners have heard of W. Edwards Deming, many of these organizations subscribe to a pay system called the Deming Pay System, among others, including self-managed pay. The third imperative that I discovered is deficiency need gratification. If you step back and you look at the actual human beings inside these organizations, what you can find almost across the board is that they derive a much greater sense of security, autonomy, fairness, esteem, trust, and belonging from their work relationships than people do in more traditional hierarchical organizations. That’s not an accident, because most of these companies have prioritized basic human needs. Those are called deficiency needs in the field of positive psychology. The last imperative I call candid vulnerability, and that’s me trying to create a more relatable term for something that you can read about in sociology called model two reasoning, or productive reasoning, or model two productive reasoning. Ultimately, it’s about the people in these organizations not only feeling safe to say what they think, but also why they think it. What are the hidden chain of inferences, assumptions, beliefs, and biases behind this idea that they have about what they believe? That’s a more vulnerable position than simply stating what you think the right thing to do is. This greater trust is actually a way to supercharge collective innovation within an organization, because it makes it safe for people to say the things that they want to say. It also keeps them from turning that into a fight about who’s right and who’s wrong, by making it an exploration that in many cases seems to separate the idea from the ego. So at a high level, those are the four imperatives: team autonomy, managerial devolution, deficiency gratification, and candid vulnerability.
Jeffrey: I’d like to ask about a phrase that you used there, and in my advance copy of the book it stood out to me. This term ‘dominator hierarchy’ doesn’t seem like a value-neutral term. I have an emotional response when I hear that term. Can you describe what a dominator hierarchy is and how you’re relating that to the normal workplace?
Matt: Certainly. A dominator hierarchy is a social structure in which power, resources, and privileges are distributed unequally and concentrated at the top. So in a hierarchy in which people are stacked and ranked, the farther up you go, the more of these things that you have. The higher up you are, the more statically privileged your judgments are over the people beneath you. This is what in the field of positive psychology is known as a growth-inhibiting structure because by design, this type of structure deprives you of basic human needs such as security, autonomy, fairness, esteem, trust, and belonging. This is a structure that actively undermines all of those basic human needs, especially the lower you are. But really, it hurts everyone. Even the person at the very top can feel so lonely, so overburdened. I’ve played a number of roles within dominator hierarchies, and I have found none of them to be awesome or pleasant or gratifying experiences, but instead really draining. That’s something I explore in the book as well. I juxtapose dominator hierarchies—which you can find in most traditional organizations—with heterarchies: self-managing, self-linking networks of teams that you can find in many of these radically collaborative organizations.
Jeffrey: It sounds like you have empathy for people in dominator hierarchies, even at the top. They’re not necessarily enjoying that, and maybe they didn’t even choose it. If if this is all you’ve ever seen, you didn’t really have a choice. Part of the motivation for you book is to help bring the fact that this is a choice to light, right? I remember you saying just a moment ago that this is a choice that we’re making, but it often doesn’t feel that way. Am I on the right path here?
Invisible and Unquestioned
Matt: Yes! I think it’s important to recognize that it is a choice, and yet it is also something that we do tacitly. You could say buying a home or renting an apartment is also a choice, but no one stops to ask themselves, ‘Should I not have shelter?’ This is the same kind of tacit, unconscious choice that we make, and we perpetuate these dominator hierarchies unthinkingly by and large. It’s just something we accept and we often don’t realize we’re even doing it. It’s an unquestioned assumption that things have to be that way.
Jeffrey: What makes that more natural to people than heterarchy? What makes the dominator hierarchy feel like a safe choice, even if people have heard of other options? I imagine most people in management read Harvard Business Review, so they’ve heard of holacracy and other alternatives, but something about that seems very unsafe. Why are we making this choice the way we are?
Matt: Well, one of the human needs I mentioned earlier is security, and security is essentially a resistance to change. Security is waking up every day and knowing that the rug isn’t being pulled out from under you, that what you expect to be there is there. We are born into dominator hierarchies. It’s often the way our families are structured. It’s the way our governments are structured. It’s the way our companies are structured. Schools are structured as them! It’s all we’ve ever really known by and large for most of us, myself included. So anything that’s not that is going to just instinctively threaten the sort of inborn human need of security. So there’s that aspect of it. I think the other thing about it, too, is it’s really showcasing the power of memes in the sense that Richard Dawkins originally proposed: as a unit of cultural propagation. The most powerful memes in our societies are those we don’t even know we have. The ones we don’t even think about, which we don’t stop to question. Those have the most power over us because they’re hidden in plain sight. They’re in our face every day and so we are largely blind to them.
Jeffrey: This is a good time to have the disclaimer, you actually interviewed me as part of the research for the book, and TIM Group—which we’ve mentioned in the past as where Squirrel and I both worked at one time—is one of your case studies in the book. I was very pleased, reviewing the book. You’ve done the work to bring together a lot of different pieces of what we’ve learned about the ways that people could do things, and you emphasize that by learning about these it becomes more possible to choose. This would have been a great asset coming into TIM Group and will be in the future going forward with my clients. It serves as an existence proof that other people have done this and and not just survived, but thrived. That was very exciting for me because it addresses exactly that resistance to change you mentioned. To heal from this resistance first you have to understand there even is a choice, and then you need to have some sense of safety of what might happen and what might appeal to you with an approach. It seems to me that this would be a fantastic resource for people who want to be able to introduce examples of other options into their existing environment. Is that what you’re hoping? What would Matt have done with this in his first decade if he’d come across this?
Matt: Oh, there’s no telling. It would have blown me away. Largely in my first decade I was suffering but unaware of even the cause of it in many ways. I love the TIM Group story, the process that you and others went through, really exploring through a study group different patterns and ways of working together, organizing together in ways that not only improve business outcomes, but also human outcomes. There are essentially 13 primary case studies in the book, including Haier, which is an eighty thousand person company. I tell that story too, but personally I don’t think it’s as powerful as the story of TIM Group. I think that story is much more relatable for the primary audience for this book, which are technology professionals. People who maybe have a sense that something is wrong but aren’t sure if it could ever change, and need to see and hear those experiences and stories and lessons learned along the way. I’m very thankful that the TIM Group story is in there to unfold throughout the book all the way up through the last chapter, and that I got to interview you and others at TIM Group to learn about that story.
Jeffrey: I was pleased that other people were interested and that you found it so compelling. For today’s episode, we have given an overview here of A Radical Enterprise, talked about the four imperatives of team autonomy, managerial devolution, deficiency gratification, and candid vulnerability. I think what might be good is to come back next week and get into the next part: if you have this book in hand, how you could start applying this.
Squirrel: Matt, do you mind coming back next week? Would that be OK? Let’s give some autonomy.
Matt: Yes, I will gladly make that choice.
Squirrel: Excellent. Thanks, Matt, for being with us. Do you want to give any particular places people should find you?
Matt: My website has links to my email address, my Twitter, everything about the book, and a Slack workspace as well for anyone and everyone who’s excited by the ideas in this book and wants to meet other people.
Squirrel: Fantastic. We’ll be back next week with more from Matt. Thanks, Matt and Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.
Matt: Thank you.