Organizations that take a customer-centric approach to deliver products and services, often allow a lot of autonomy for employees to help their customer as best as they can. Sometimes within the boundaries of one’s function, but often we see that employees may cross the boundaries of their role to satisfy their customer. It’s not only the customer that benefits from this. Many employees enjoy the opportunity to go beyond their role and try out something new. It keeps their work interesting which helps them stay happy. As you know, happy employees make happy customers.

This freedom is nice and it allows people to face different challenges, seize opportunities or gain new insights into their talents. On top, it creates new growth paths for senior employees.

There is a downside though. The more freedom, the more opportunities, but how do you pick the right one? When are you successful? When is your effort recognized and valued?

Organizations that switch to self-organizing teams intending to increase autonomy, often forget that this change on how teams are lead also means there isn’t a single leader anymore. There used to be a manager that told employees what he needed and how he wanted it done. In self-organizing teams, that manager is no more. Teams and individuals need to consult their own knowledge and experience to determine how to best direct their talents to help the organization.

It’s often underestimated how important it is to keep communicating about the goals and direction of the organization. It is necessary to have a process that guarantees there are certain moments where someone tells the organizational story where employees can ask questions and where someone communicates the vision. When software development departments apply an agile development framework, there’s typically a product owner that takes this upon him- or herself. The product owner determines the vision for the product and helps development teams understand it. Though, nowadays companies also apply agile to departments that don’t do software development. In those situations, they overlook the need for a process where people can discuss the vision and goals.

Past year, I have been helping an organization transition to an agile mindset and way of working. Our task was to help three separate departments, sales, consultancy and support, reorganize in teams focused on customers in a specific target group. During this transition we focused on creating guidelines, define structures and set a rhythm. 

A core principle of agile is “inspect and adapt”. To make sure teams reflect on their process and results and improve their ways, we implemented a rhythm; an organizational heartbeat. Every month all teams have an evaluation moment planned. During these moments teams do retrospectives or apply liberating structures to reflect on their progress, process and collaborations. The teams also use the sessions to start small experiments to search for improvements. 

Every quarter, there is an extended session where the teams get together to see if they are still on track to reach their goals and re-calibrate. The goals are not only about sales targets. Just as important are the metrics describing customer happiness and satisfaction. 

This rhythm creates an environment that involves everybody in the direction and results of the team. Even employees that are typically on the road have their moments where they meet and collaborate with their peers. There is ample opportunity to provide each other with feedback and everyone stays in touch with corporate vision and goals and how these translate to the team. This allows all team members to understand the challenges for the organization and how to contribute.  

It’s great to notice that more organizations are saying goodbye to old-fashioned hierarchical structures where managers tell employees what to do and how. When employees get the freedom and autonomy to structure their own work, often beautiful things happen. It leverages the potential of employees and customers notice. But don’t forget, in such an environment it becomes increasingly important to share the purpose, the Why, of the organization. Keep broadcasting the vision and goals of the organization. Last, I want to stress that there should be more than enough opportunity for teams and the organization to align their efforts. A clear rhythm that the entire organization sticks to can be an effective means.