Yesterday I attended my fourth year of the Peter Drucker Forum conference in Vienna, again via the live stream. The most interesting of the morning’s sessions for me was from John Hagel at Delotte’s Centre for the Edge, talking about the need to redefine work. If jobs are just about processing tasks then this can be done better my machines. Instead, work should be about identifying and addressing unseen opportunities to create more value.
Hagel mentioned one consequence of this needs to be a focus from business process reengineering to business practice design, and I’ve been reviewing some of their recent articles on this.
Their suggestion is that this offers more opportunity than business process design because much of the most important work of many organizations today is no longer routine or even predictable. When conditions and requirements shift constantly, processes fail. So we need to move beyond process.
In this environment, frontline workers could have to work together in order to address them, since an individual alone will be less likely to effectively solve an issue or develop an opportunity: “Any one individual will typically be less effective at developing and delivering creative solutions to address them than a small group working together in deep, trust-based relationships. And while informal collaboration can still be valuable, the imperative to learn faster will likely drive workers toward more sustained collaboration over time.”
Therefore, instead of processes, Deloitte recommend focusing on the work practices of frontline workgroups:
“A practice is the way work actually gets done, the activity involved in accomplishing a particular job. Practices are not typically codified. They are mostly tacit and emerge through action—for instance, there’s no learning to ride a bike except through the act of trying. Practices tend to be context-specific and are constantly evolving—much like today’s business opportunities. They can be difficult to articulate; they don’t translate into a practice manual.”
“A workgroup pulls together three to 15 people working interdependently to deliver a shared outcome that could not be achieved without all members working on it together. The members spend the significant majority of their time interacting with each other, formally and informally, on tasks that cannot be highly specified or sequenced in advance.”
Deloitte also suggest nine workgroup practices which accelerate performance improvement:
These groups aren’t the same groups as high performing teams: “The organizations that learn how to get on an accelerating performance trajectory—where they continuously develop new and better ways to deliver new value rather than becoming more efficient at delivering the same value—could be the ones that thrive in an increasingly unpredictable world, one in which a strength can rapidly turn into a vulnerability. The practices that aim to generate high performance as typically defined within an organization—delivering the results that leaders expect—are unlikely to generate accelerating performance improvement and may actually hinder it.”
Deloitte describes them as ‘edge workgroups': “frontline workgroups that are pushing the boundaries and limits of performance improvement to accelerate performance improvement while addressing unanticipated challenges or opportunities. Edge workgroups focus on their performance over time and might sacrifice short-term efficiency to achieve higher performance over time. They attract people who are committed to learning how to make more and more of an impact. Edge workgroups are characterized by deep, trust-based relationships and mutual accountability. While few are today, all frontline workgroups could eventually become edge workgroups.”
I’d also suggest that they are decreasingly likely not to be teams, and increasingly are going to be networks or communities of performance. Deloitte note the need to move from silos to networks but suggest “this may require organizations to support practices that let individuals be much more networked across workgroups and across organizations so that workgroups can engage with each other to help accelerate performance improvement.” I think the workgroups will increasingly act as communities and networks too.
In fact, this is played out in Deloitte’s case studies:
The Performance Network
Royal Caribbean Cruises Newbuilding & Innovation workgroup focuses on structural design elements of new ships. The activities of the workgroup members are interdependent and the ship / its experience is an output of the entire group. However the group’s work is not about proposing all the designs or implementing them but ensuring the coordination of everything that is agreed, challenging each other and collectively pushing boundaries: “The group uses the shared outcome to define ambitious ends but not the means. Members don’t micromanage or focus much on key performance indicators in the day-to-day work.”
In terms of membership, the workgroup consists of 12 employees, including architectural designers, architects, naval architects, technical experts, financial specialists, and program and project managers, but also 5 design consultants, 12 members of other firms (providing 60-75% of their time) and executives, so over 30 people in total. This is a large team (double the maximum for a true work team according to Deloitte) though I think it could be considered to be a small network too, with the small size allowing all network members to know each other and behave almost as a team.
The group works across many tight deadlines, global operations, multiple time zones, cultural differences, and vacation schedules, with people working mainly remotely except for during their ‘charrettes’—“intense periods of collaborative design rooted in the culture of architecture. In a charrette, all workgroup members gather in a conference room at headquarters until they’ve made sufficient progress.” I think that outside of these times, group members are working mainly independently, co-ordinating their work, but probably collaborating mainly with others within their own functions. Work also spans multiple ship building projects so if this is a team it is a process based team not a project based on. But the case study is supposed to be demonstrating practices not processes, so I don’t think it is a process based team either.
Another reason I think the group is a network is that its key objective is to bring people together to steer the work, not get a set piece of work done by certain people: “The group attracts, and actively recruits, a particular type of RCL employee: dreamers who are also drivers. Passion and a growth mind-set are qualities they seek because members need to challenge each other and collectively push boundaries to achieve innovation in ship design. We’re looking for candidates who want to grow and develop with us. To work in an environment where they’ll be challenged to take things to the next level, where there’s an opportunity for their voices to be heard.”
They also “bring in designers across a range of design backgrounds, as well as futurists and trend forecasters, who challenge members to rethink their assumptions and expand their sense of the possible. For inspiration on assembly practices, for example, group members have turned to engineers in the auto industry. For cabin design inspiration, they’ve tapped the work of airline designers who deal with even more confined spaces.”
So their focus is outside of the group, bringing in new ideas from outside of the organisation, combining them creatively across disciplines, and providing the basis for work in the rest of the organisation. “Workgroup members are constantly expanding their influences to gather inspiration for new ship designs. They spend a significant amount of time in new and stimulating environments, both within and outside the cruise industry.”
And “To help push members’ thinking, the workgroup also looks outside, aiming to bring in outside perspectives from others along the value chain as well as others at the forefront of fields not directly connected to the cruise industry. Engaging with external perspectives tends to help the entire workgroup learn faster. Partnering with industry leaders, designers, and consultants in various geographical locations and time zones across the world can pose challenges, but the group credits combining these talents and skills as core to their evolution and success.”
So for me, this is either a network, or a team at the centre of / pulling together a network that spans across the company’s mainly functional organisation structure.
The Performance Community
Southwest Airlines Network Operations Control (NOC) Field Tech workgroup is a specialized unit of aircraft mechanics. Members try to fix what no one else can—repairing planes after mechanics in maintenance units have failed to fix them after three attempts.
The Field Tech workgroup comprises 14 employees working at 10 airports, or nodes, in Southwest’s network and who are assigned to the workgroup full time. “They spend their days fixing issues on aircraft and leveraging the resources of local maintenance crews, as well as working with other Field Techs to help troubleshoot and resolve issues on planes at other sites. Thanks in part to members’ distribution across time zones, the workgroup operates 24/7. In an eight-hour shift, a single technician might work on 12 different planes, both at his node and remotely.”
“Although its members are geographically distributed and there may be only one Field Tech physically with any given plane, they are often in contact with each other throughout the day. Around 25 percent of the aircraft the workgroup touches each day require the Field Techs to work collaboratively, and often interdependently, to develop solutions to new and challenging problems. Much of this is done using audio and video chat, as well as logs, allowing members to build upon each other’s skills, insights, and ideas to get planes back in service.”
So this group does do some teaming, but in the main they’re not working with each other, they’re sharing their insights about different planes, so that the most locally based group member can fix a particular plane most effectively. In fact, they’re a community. But they’re not just a community of practice. They’re not there just to learn, though this is certainly part of what they need to do. They’re there to make a real business contribution. They’re a community of performance.
As with Royal Caribbean, the key objective is to allocate work to the people, not the people to the work, and on learning not efficiency. “Over time, workgroup members have learned to play to each other’s strengths, creating an environment in which each can give his best in service of a shared outcome, and finding opportunities for others to succeed. For example, when members saw that a technician in Chicago enjoyed working on pneumatic problems, they sent him planes with such problems.”
And “The workgroup doesn’t look for technicians who fit a set mold or profile—quite the opposite. If you had a cookie cutter, it certainly wouldn’t apply. No two technicians are the same: Workgroup members vary in working styles, personality, professional background and more. So what do they look for? Hard work, creativity, stubbornness. A love of challenges. A commitment to getting the job done, by any means necessary.
The community also sits within a broader functional network, transferring learning outside the community: “The group’s ‘Teach me, watch me, watch me teach someone else’ approach takes a long-term view, placing group and maintenance crew capabilities and effectiveness over the short-term efficiency of just getting a task done. As members pick up new skills, they share those capabilities and lessons learned with other members and, in parallel, the line maintenance crews. observations, and possibly tinkering with how the task is completed or the problem is solved. This accelerates the workgroup’s learning even as the regular opportunities to teach each other, and the line maintenance crews themselves, also accelerate individual Field Tech members’ learning. Members value what they see as an opportunity to learn and gain experience faster: ‘Working as a Field Tech for two years can produce an experience level that it might take 10 years to attain otherwise.’ ”
Note also that “relationships are paramount; you have to trust the person working next to you. Field Tech tends to promote people who have built up trusted relationships at a given airport.”
Most of the other case studies are fairly straight forward team based examples. There is one other interesting example though. SWA’s Baker workgroup, which aims to improve decision-making around unanticipated operational and weather-related events, is described in networking terms - making network based decisions - which I think applies more broadly than just the air route network. However this isn’t a network based workgroup as it’s a group of people responding to task requirements, rather than a group of people who then generate the work. Instead it is a new functional grouping which spans across existing departments and locations in a 3d matrix.
Finally, I also like Deloite’s suggestion that we’ve tended to overlook the opportunity to create these edge workgroups because whilst we may recognise their importance, few companies track performance at the workgroup level, much less track how these workgroups are doing over time.
I just wouldn’t call this business practice design - it isn’t the practices which are important, it’s the use of the various groups - teams plus communities and networks, and the practices used by the groups are part of the group design. And, as suggested above, I’d broaden out Deloitte’s definition of group to include communities and networks too.
And as I suggest in The Social Organization, we need to pay more attention to all the various groups and networks that contribute to performance in today’s business world.