This is a transcript of episode 214 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

We are once again joined by Matt Parker, author of the new book A Radical Enterprise, this time discussing specific examples of organisations operating as Matt describes (and discover along the way that everything is evolving toward the shape of a crab).

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So once again, we’re joined by the lovely Matt Parker, who’s going to be talking to us more about his book The Radical Enterprise. Hi, Matt.

Matt: Hi, thanks for having me back.

Squirrel: We’re glad to have you. Jeffrey, can you remind us in brief what we talked about last time?

Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely. Matt, described to us the outline of his book, which is looking at these 8% of companies that are more or less in the future, all of which make use of radical collaboration. Matt gave us the four imperatives which were team autonomy, managerial devolution, deficiency gratification, and candid vulnerability. So last week we went over the kind of thumbnail version of those.

Squirrel: I have a question I thought up since the last episode. Matt, you talked about these wonderful, fantastic enterprises. Jeffrey and I have been in one that’s described in the book, as we talked about last time, so we know that there’s kind of an existence proof. But the thing I’ve noticed is that most organizations aren’t like that. Scrum is still taking over the world despite all my efforts to eradicate it, and there’s many other characteristics that organizations have like the dominance hierarchy that you talked about which are not at all collaborative. What’s driving those other characterisitcs and how are these radically collaborative organizations surviving and growing and thriving if there’s so many sociological pressures to operate in a less radical way?

Normalization of the Radical

Listen to this section at 02:11

Matt: Great question. The first thing to know is that over the course of the 2010s, the number of organizations working in a radically collaborative way grew from 3% to 8%, the count more than doubled. I think that’s not going to stop anytime soon. As I highlight in the book, there are a number of economic benefits that these organizations enjoy when compared to their hierarchical competitors. They enjoy greater customer satisfaction, greater growth and market share, much faster growth and market share. If there weren’t these economic outcomes that were nicely correlating with radical collaboration, you probably wouldn’t see it grow, because ultimately they are playing in a free market-ish, and they are ultimately subject to those same market pressures, and they are living or dying on that market. So the fact that they are experiencing very powerful results in the market makes it possible for them to continue to grow. Now the other side of it is, it’s great to have competitive value, but there’s ideas behind this behavior too that have to continue to grow. Those ideas are going to spread the same way any other ideas do, from person to person, by talking to others through podcasts, through books, through stories and experiences, at conferences, all that kind of stuff. Really, it’s just a unit of cultural propagation that we need to continue to see flourish through memes: the ideas behind radical collaboration need to spread throughout the world. I think that’s key.

Squirrel: If only somebody would write a book about it, then everybody could read about it. That would really spread the word.

Matt: Well, here’s here’s to that.

Squirrel: So should we expect Google and Facebook and Amazon to be displaced by these organizations or to become more radical themselves? If we’re going from 3% to 8%, we’re eventually going to get to 80%, aren’t we? That’s when one of these giant organizations will be displaced.

Matt: That’s my hope.

Squirrel: Well, I would be happy about it too.

Jeffrey: I’m glad you brought it up because I did want to cover it in this episode. I didn’t talk about it last time Matt, when you give the full title of the book, A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations, that’s the point you’re making here. You’re leading with ‘Look, these are better-performing organizations.’

Matt: Yeah, that was a really important discovery on my part, reading the research of professional and organizational researchers. To learn that partnership and equality are more competitive than domination and coercion is such an important and powerful message to convey to everyone around the world, because that is the first thing people in business are going to ask like, ‘I’d love to do good for people, but I want my company to survive.’ They’re under the mistaken impression that domination and coercion and dominator hierarchies are going to be more effective on the market and more effective for customers than anything else. They’re absolutely wrong. The reality is the exact opposite. That’s why I start the book with that sort of message because I think you have to start there and then people can then run with it.

Jeffrey: I’m reminded a bit of another book, which is Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. He introduces the concept of a teal organization, and in particular, he introduces it as an innovation. He describes it as a process of evolution, and there’s emerged a new innovation in structured organizations that are better, that bring additional capabilities and additional performance for the people. It seems very compatible with what you’re describing with the birth of this set of means that travel together that actually then build better results. Is that a fair comparison?

Matt: Yeah, totally. If I could add one thing about this way of structuring organizations that we’re seeing emerge now this radically collaborative way, in some ways we could say this is new and emergent. In other ways, when you look at some of these companies underneath the hood and the way they relate to each other within the company, what you’re seeing is a microeconomic expression of a macroeconomic free market principle. In a macroeconomic free market you have a number of agents who are both collaborating and competing, trading with each other as equals and with autonomy and control over their actions, who have freedom of both what they’re doing and freedom of what they’re committing. I think what a number of companies have started to say was actually, if that’s as powerful as it is on the world stage, what if we could do something like that inside our company? When you look at companies like Haier you see the way they’ve devolved management into thousands of micro-enterprises within their company, each of which has a great deal of autonomy and really does in many ways operate as a mini company within a larger company. I think what we’re seeing is just the realization that maybe just as central planning and top-down control didn’t work on the global stage for countries, we’re seeing a number of companies that operate that way fall now. It’s just pointing back to the fact that there is so much synergy between human needs—security, autonomy, fairness, esteem, trust, belongingness—and actual outcomes that we can accomplish when we work together on that basis of partnership and equality.

Jeffrey: So I love that view, because it suddenly subverts what people might be expecting. If you lead with the human needs side, it may sound like you’re going down the fantasy utopia path. So to instead begin with, ‘Do you believe in market economies? And if so, why?’ That feels like it’s cut really against the grain of what people would expect going down this path. So I love that analogy. It’s not one I’ve heard before. So that’s fantastic that you’ve observed this radical collaboration is an internal market economy.

Matt: I think what’s nice about that is, within the space of self-management and radical collaboration, I’ve literally met everyone on every political spectrum. People all the way on the right and very libertarian, all the way on the left and very socialist, they’re all somehow converging within this one space and finding common ground and wanting to really run with these ideas. I think that’s something we very much need right now in the world.

Jeffrey: Well, this is an opportunity for me to quote one of my favorite papers ever, one of the most influential papers on me, written by Alistair Cockburn in the late nineties. It was something along the lines of ‘People are considere a first-order nonlinear component of software development.’ It’s a very non-humanistic title, but its humanistic message is ‘Software is made by people. If you want to know how to make software, you should study people.’ I think that’s the answer to why people with very different political backgrounds, if they all seriously study what works for people, we have convergent evolution coming to similar situations that have similar attributes starting from very different places, a bit like how everything wants to evolve into a crab.

Matt: That’s the most frightening thing.

Jeffrey: We’ll link to that in the show notes. But it sounds like you’re saying this is the future of work because for every organisation, the more seriously they take performance, the more seriously to look at what engages people, engagement being one of the hot topics of the past decade in management literature, the more they’re going to converge on the same answers. Does that sound right to you?

Matt: Absolutely.

Jeffrey: So then we’re left with the people who are saying, ‘That’s great for people who are there now, and in the future, but what do I do for today? What can I do with this insight? How can I begin moving my organisation at the high level or at the small level, my team, my department or everything? How can I start moving to radical collaboration?’ Did you uncover some common paths, some ideas, some memes that would help?

How Can This Be Done

Listen to this section at 12:17

Matt: Yeah, there there are three primary ways organisations transform from a dominator hierarchy to a radically collaborative structure. The first, you’ll find companies who have gone through a very bottom-up transformation strategy. Not one that was dictated from the top or even necessarily supported from the top, but nonetheless transformed the whole company. The second is one in which you have participation from the bottom and the top, in the book you’ll find some companies that went through that process including TIM Group. There, you had this guy named Jeff Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel and their awesome team in the technology department at Tim Group. They went through a very powerful process because nothing about it was really dictated. It was very much, ‘Let’s come together and learn and let’s see what we think and what we want to do.’ You can read in the book that what they started with was a management study group. Now, if that term sounds like you’re immediately excluding people who aren’t managers, no. Because this Jeffrey Fredrick will tell you management is too important to be left to managers. Management isn’t synonymous with managers. There are two different concepts. Management is the administration of resources within a company, and you can do that in a very centralized top-down control way, you can do that in a very decentralized, devolved way, and everything in between. So they created a study group to see ‘How are companies out there in the world doing this now and how does that differ from how we’re doing it here?’ They ended up uncovering a lot of stories that really resonated with people, and they began to take some small baby steps. They said, ‘Well, could we begin to devolve certain things within our organization? What’s something easy we could do? Ok, time off. All right. Let’s start with time off. Who thinks that we can actually just self manage time off instead of having it go up the chain and be approved somehow? Could teams just take over this responsibility themselves?’ It turns out they could, and they can really run with it. You can also see how at TIM Group, they looked at their line manager role, which really took a team lead role and people manager role and a product lead role and merged a number of different responsibilities into a single person and then had everyone else on the team reporting up into that person. They said, ‘Why do we have all that concentrated here? How could we devolve that? How could we share that responsibility? Because we’re really talking about a things that everyone has a vested interest in, right? And so what are the ways we could go about sharing and self managing some of those tasks?’ You can read their story about how they did that, too. That’s the second type of transformation strategy. The third type I’ll just briefly mention, it’s a very radical and abrupt approach that you can see pioneered by for instance, K2K, which is a great consulting agency out there helping a number of companies do some very radical transformations. Everyone in the company votes and if 80% of people want to move forward with the transformation, and if the top people like CEOs, sign their name and say, ‘If I stand in the way I’m fired immediately.’ That’s another approach that’s actually happening in the world right now. You won’t read a lot about it in my book, but there’s tons of stuff out there you can read about it, it is also actually proven to be working quite well. So, you know, there’s not just one way to do it. The message I want to get across is that anybody and everybody can start. No matter how draconian you think your organization is, you can start, because radical collaboration begins with you. It begins with challenging your own ideas about what’s possible in your relationships with the other people that you work with, and beginning to operate in a way that exudes a paradigm of partnership and equality with the people around you. One very simple way you can begin to practice radical collaboration is by adopting radically collaborative meeting techniques. You can construct meetings in such a way in which it’s not some kind of status report to a manager, but actually a shared collaboration that begins with everyone starting at Point A and everyone getting to Point B. You can use a number of very simple, radically collaborative meeting techniques like silent generation, dump and sort, affinity grouping, two by two analysis, that actually allows everybody to participate as equals and to explore ideas collectively, powerfully, and actually arrive at some very innovative places. Any team out there can do that. You might step out of that meeting and be right back in your dominator hierarchy. But within the space of a meeting, you’ll be amazed by how far you can go with it.

Jeffrey: And my experience is those things have a tendency to spread, because they’re successful. People look around and say, ‘Well, this team is getting different results. Why is that?’ The other thing I’ll say is in my experience when people have experienced these ways of working, they don’t want to give them up. So one thing I’ll say is we’ve been talking about TIM Group, and actually TIM Group doesn’t really exist today, through series of acquisitions. But the people within who had been part of TIM, who are still in the same successor company, we had a discussion about it and we said, ‘look, we won’t be in the same walled garden we had before, this thing we built. But as we all go out and work in different areas of this larger company, we can all be gardeners. We can all begin wherever we are to start introducing these ideas and look to make a change wherever we end up.’ There’s a lot of interest in that because once you’ve experienced this, why would you want to go back to some way that’s not as good, that’s slower, that is less fun, that is less effective? It’s worth saying, the effectiveness and fun often go hand-in-hand for a lot of people. It can be very frustrating to feel like the company isn’t making the best use of your ability and talent, compared to an organization where you’re actually able to contribute according to the level of their abilities. That appetite to succeed is so exciting and so powerful. Why would you ever want to go back and just take your position of being told what to do and accepting the limitations of what other people have envisioned for you? Why would you want to do that?

Squirrel: Have we told listeners exactly how they can make their enterprises radical?

Jeffrey: Well, Matt, you mentioned a lot of things for people who are inspired and want to learn more. Obviously, there’s your book. There’s also your site in the show notes. You mentioned some other resources in particular. I think for anyone who is curious, it would be fair to say your Slack community would be a good place for them to go. What kind of discussions and resources might people find on your site or in the Slack community, of ideas they could apply?

Matt: The Slack community is new, it’s young, it’s growing. If you join, you’ll find a smallish group of people who are actively inspired by these ideas, maybe practicing some of these ideas, sharing their stories of what’s working and what’s not, and are also there to support others that are embarking on a new venture. We have an entrepreneur in there who’s starting a new company and trying to build it in a radically collaborative way. It’s a journey that we can all take together. No matter where we are on that journey within our respective organizations, we can be a community going on this journey together and supporting each other, and that’s what this Slack workspace is about.

Jeffrey: Fantastic.

Squirrel: Ok, well, I can really see why Jeffrey said we have to get Matt on because so much of what he said is so much in line with what we advocate for. So thank you, Jeffrey, and thanks, Matt.

Jeffrey: Thanks! And thanks, Matt.

Matt: Thank you.