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When teams practise autonomy: agile working

Swift and self-organised teamwork does not just apply to start-ups. With the right environment, every organisation can do it – and should do it.

Each era brings forth its own ways of working. The eighties was the era of the open-plan office, enabling the workforce to work together in the most communicative way possible. The nineties was all about Toyota-style 'lean management', which measured everything by efficiency and quality in development and production processes. The move into the new millennium saw a new generation move into the workplace and with it, a different idea of 'progress' in the professional world. Rigid hierarchies, in which advancement relied on time served, was not a concept shared by this younger generation. They also wanted to take responsibility for their projects themselves. The 2001 'Agile Manifesto' is generally regarded as the birth of the agile movement. Software developers were looking for new ways to respond faster to changes needed in large projects rather than just responding to problems when the project had already consumed a lot of time and resources.

'Persist or perish' – change as a guarantor of survival

Even though agile methods originate from software development, rigid, inflexible organisations that only respond slowly to changes in their market are reducing in number. And this is true across all sectors. The digital transformation, that is to say, the proliferation of digital technologies in all sectors, is further accelerating change — and becoming integral to all areas of an organisation. In production, where the buzzword Industry 4.0 prevails, the production line is no more. Today's production is networked in coordinated processes using cutting-edge information and communication technology throughout the entire value chain. The idea is that this should also function largely on a self-organised basis, ensuring the ideal interplay between man and machine. Marketing and IT departments have moved closer to each other, since an online shop's ordering processes need to be harmonised with warehouse and supply logistics. And for back-office activities, it doesn't really matter where the employees are – these days, people can work online from almost anywhere.

Self-organised teams through agile working

It soon becomes clear that rigid hierarchies with a high degree of bureaucracy are unable to respond quickly or flexibly to cross-departmental issues. This is where the concept of agile working comes into its own: teams take responsibility for their projects; they organise their own work. They set the tasks and determine when and how they should be completed. And what of the managers? In agile work processes, teams manage themselves, thus eliminating the management role of control. Instead, managers are called upon to support their teams, guide them and, where necessary, encourage them to take ownership. Managers are thus closer to the organisation's strategy by formulating their visions and setting objectives to steer the way forward. But they do not specify how the team will achieve the objective within a given time and resource framework.

Anyone who is worried that teamwork might be bordering on anarchy can have confidence in the social control within the team. Once the team has jointly planned the necessary work steps, jointly monitored work progress and jointly decided on how to overcome any obstacles, every single person in the team is aware of their own responsibility within it. Fixed, regular, but brief, meetings are then held to remind team members of the objectives and the steps required to achieve them. So there are no excuses, everyone just needs to follow the instructions. Creative freedom for individuals also entails individual responsibility.

Preparing the ground and the structures

Not all organisations are made up of young hot-shots from Silicon Valley, many have their own history and experience. The transition to an agile organisational culture needs to be prepared well: it needs appropriate structures and processes, the organisation needs to grow into these and take its employees with it. Agile or not, every change in organisational culture takes time and a lot of communication.

If you want to find out more about the topic of agility in the world of work, there is plenty of literature on the subject. The German book 'Agilität neu denken' (Rethinking Agile) is currently on our reading list.