Many organizations are hesitant to launch themselves into needed organizational transformation. Not only is it disruptive and uncomfortable, but experience taught them that change is never really over. Thus, they prefer to avoid it until they have absolutely no choice anymore.
Let’s be honest here. The world (and your niche market) is changing whether you adapt to it or not. Refusing change just because more of it will come later is akin to not paying your taxes because you paid them last year. By avoiding or delaying adaptation, you only make it harder on yourself.
You can alleviate the discomfort of change. The trick isn’t to delay it, but to make it easier to happen naturally and gradually. This way, you avoid disruptive and downright frightening organizational transformation events. Make flexibility and adaptation part of your organizational structure.
The power of a sandbox-driven decentralized model
If the term sandbox-driven decentralized model is new to you, don’t worry. I wrote a piece on the decentralization scale that explains everything. But here’s the kicker:
- A sandbox-driven decentralized model has a central authority who set the organization’s goal and intent,
- it uses sandboxes to manage work, combining a specific mission with a clear purpose, resources, expectations, and constraints in one neat package.
- it uses autonomous teams who are dependent on one of the sandboxes, and who must figure how to deliver the mission goals within the boundaries set by the sandbox while maintaining profitability and still minding the organization’s goal and intent.
- Each teams build and maintain relationships with other teams as needed, without any red tape.
- The whole system measure success through the ROI of the delivered value. Not process. Not management. If the results are there and everybody’s happy, what more is there to ask for?
For those who have read Dave Gray’s The Connected Company, the link with the model he described, podularity, should be obvious. After a few years of implementing this approach, I tend to put a bit more focus on the sandboxes, though, as they are key for the system to work.
The power of the model lays in its flexibility. While the steering of the company (so to speak) is centralized, neither the work nor the teams are.
Large, centralized models are hard and slow to change. But in this lighter model, this is perfect for overarching organizational goals and intent that should stay stable for at least a year. While goals and intents benefit from slow changes, the missions driving the sandboxes can still move much faster.
The central authority has a different relationship toward decision power than traditional management. Their goal is to manage the system rather than the people or the work. They confine their power to strategy: They own the overall objectives and intent of the company. All they have to do then is to set up the sandboxes needed to reach those goals.
Sandboxes are temporary in nature to allow the organization to adapt quickly to an ever-evolving context. Their scope is more medium-term (usually, at least), with the possibility of change or cancellation at each milestone. Sandboxes manage work, not people.
Sandboxes are great to deal with subject matters that concern the organization right now. Any given sandbox isn’t meant to last long into the future. When context changes, close the sandbox and open a new one with a more relevant budget, and constraints. Always set short milestones, and task each to deliver value that can be used right away. By doing this, you get immediately consumable value at each step. You can close a sandbox at any time before its mission is completed without losing your investment.
Sandboxes are living things. Both the central authority and the teams keep a dialog open to tweak and evolve the sandbox as needed. The goal is to keep it relevant and makes it a platform for delivering the expected value.
Autonomous teams are where people belong. Those teams are stable (with maybe some specialists temporarily required for their unique expertise), usually composed of a mixture of expertise, and have the authority to make their own decisions as long as they stay within the boundaries set by the sandbox they are currently attached to and as long as they deliver a positive ROI.
Autonomous teams are trained and organized so they can easily be switched between sandboxes as needed. The team thus have to focus on one mission at a time only but expect to move on to a new mission eventually. The event won’t be a surprise either: teams are always very aware of the ROI delivered through the sandbox and the milestone-based progress, and if those aren’t satisfactory, the teams will know it well before central authority make a decision. In fact, teams themselves might make the case to end a mission because it doesn’t bring the expected value.
Autonomous teams also have the authority to deal with what we call local challenges, or context challenges that affect them but not necessarily other teams within the organization. Those could be related to specific clients, local laws, quirks in their niche, and such. The dealing with those issues is part of the team’s continuous improvement efforts, and shouldn’t concern the rest of the organization.
Making uncertainty irrelevant
Traditional organizations rely on predictability. They must predict context and outcome a long time in advance to assign proper resources, plan long-term strategy, and measure success. If you’ve been working in those companies in the past decade or so, then you know how well this approach turns out.
Between market shifts, rapid technological advances, emerging competitors, and disruptive innovations, prediction start to sounds more and more like divination, only using Gantt charts instead of tarot cards. Plans go awry all the time. However, since they are usually locked in because of budget and resources allocation cycles, doomed projects can trudge on for a long time before the organization reacts.
With a sandbox-driven decentralized model, a change of plan, of context or need can be addressed quickly at a low cost. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter if the change is the result of upheaval in markets, a disruptive competitor, or a realignment of the entire organization. Employees expect change, regardless of the cause. They don’t have to face it since it’s part of their daily lives.
With such a model, change becomes an opportunity to explore new things, experiment, and find innovative solutions. Since engaged employees thrive on those challenges, you end up transforming fear of the unknown into excitement. Now that’s a change!