A TEAL Organisation Built on Agile Foundations
Mindera - Global Software Engineering Company
2023 Dec 18 - 1min. Read
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AgileBeyondTech: Applying Agile Philosophies.
Introducing Mindera’s AgileBeyondTech series
We open this blog series with an honest truth: agile is not new.
“We’re way beyond those youthful early years when the movement first started and then quickly took hold, to great promise and excitement of a ‘better way’ of building software - an antidote to waterfall” - Richard Hilsley, Managing Director.
With the launch of Agile came new ways of planning, team empowerment, servant leadership, a whole new lexicon (sprints, stand-ups, DOD, planning poker, etc.) and then a slew of books and frameworks to help guide us all. Undoubtedly, we’re better off for it. However, despite the simplicity of it all, enshrined in the agile manifesto, it remains somewhat beguiling. Organisations often struggle and are invariably on a ‘maturity journey’: two steps forward, one step back, go again. It’s certainly not easy, or at least, there’s much more to it than first meets the eye.
We’ve wanted to unpack and explore this topic for a while now, but conscious of there being so many academic references and so many opinions and ‘experts’ out there, we really weren’t sure that another voice would be very welcome. In fact, we’d forgive anyone for glazing over at the prospect of yet another guide to scrum! But then we thought differently. We have a bunch of insights that are worth sharing because they’re real, lived experiences and a little different to the usual fodder.
It all starts with exposure on ourselves, Mindera, an organisation that is proudly different and rooted in agile philosophy. Simply shining a light on how our business operates gets to the heart of several crucial factors behind any successful agile team, so let’s begin there.
A TEAL Company with an Agile Philosophy
Fundamentally, Mindera is an agile organisation. We’re not talking about the mechanics of scrum or kanban or other frameworks and tools in software delivery; we’re talking about mindset, culture and ethos. We subscribe to an organisational theory known as TEAL.
As conceptualised by Frederic Laloux in “Reinventing Organisations”, the TEAL paradigm sees the organisation as an independent force; self-organisation and self-management are vital characteristics. Hierarchical control is replaced with small teams, each taking responsibility for their own governance and interaction with the broader organisation.
Unlike the static nature of other organisational models, TEAL organisations subscribe to an evolutionary purpose, which is more about sensing the way forward and how to change and adapt. It’s a very refreshing and liberating concept and relatively novel.
Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and accessories business, is well known for its commitment to environmental and social responsibility, but it is also famously a TEAL organisation. The John Lewis Partnership, although not strictly speaking an organisation that would call itself TEAL, is proudly owned by its employees with a formal constitution and is an excellent example of an industrial democracy which has certain similarities. There are others, of course, but rather than look outwardly, let us explain more about how Mindera operates, practically what being a TEAL organisation means to us, and in doing so, draw parallels with agile ways of working.
This is one of three core tenets of TEAL, and Mindera wholly embraces it. We have no ‘managers’ in our organisation. Being well over 1,000 people, this is quite a statement which is often met with puzzlement and many questions like “How do you know things are getting done?” and “What about performance management?” or “How do you deal with pay reviews?”.
Self-management is about encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves, to actively contribute and have a voice. It promotes creativity and personal growth, often in ways that someone might not have anticipated or certainly might not have been possible in a more traditional organisation built around clear functional boundaries and a hierarchical structure. Employees at Mindera have more flexibility in their work and the opportunity to get involved in things that interest them. There’s really no limit to this, provided people act responsibly, which, of course, means always thinking first about commitments to our clients.
Employee pay is reviewed multiple times a year by each region, and most adopt a process of self-nomination and calibrated peer review, which is all coordinated through our home-grown ERP system. The system provides a democratic process for fair remuneration based on an individual’s skills and experience in comparison to colleagues - ‘relative benchmarking’ you could say - and fully anonymised.
Performance is handled through feedback rather than formal objective setting and annual performance review meetings. High levels of communication and collaboration are extremely important at Mindera, and it’s something we emphasise during our cultural interview stage and onboarding of new joiners. Giving and receiving feedback is a critical muscle that develops quickly.
As a concept, Self-management could present as something that leaves people feeling a bit unsupported, lonely even, but that’s where collaboration and connectedness come into play. Slack is the lifeblood of our business, with channels for everything and very few restrictions, so people can reach out to anyone at any time or create new channels to rapidly bring attention to new topics. Other tools like Google Drive and Miro (to name just a few) help our teams across the globe connect and collaborate on things quickly. We have various ‘communities’ (e.g. QA, Agile, Mobile, etc.) and a knowledge management platform to promote discussion and sharing of information, and Udemy makes learning accessible to everyone. There are weekly company-wide Q&A calls to share the latest news, detailed ‘business updates’ are distributed every few months, and we’re launching Mindera summits next year to bring everyone together to share and learn in a more structured fashion.
Fundamentally, the principle of self-management promotes autonomy, which is a crucial quality of successful agile teams. As Dan Pink reminds us, autonomy appeals to intrinsic motivation in us all, strengthening employee engagement and giving way to the servant leadership style of management which practically we see embodied in the role of scrum master, for example. But what about ‘management’ at Mindera? How do we do that? Let’s explore that next.
An Organisation Without Managers
TEAL organisations reject the conventional view of an organisation with power concentrated at the top and control that trickles down through a hierarchical line management structure. This stifles creativity and, in the worst cases, instils a climate of fear and distrust. To truly empower employees, one must think very differently, and in Mindera’s case, we’ve done precisely that.
Absence of Hierarchy
You won’t find a traditional organisation chart at Mindera. No one has a line manager, and we don’t talk about job titles. Job titles are not set or determined to encourage a self-organised way of working and for people to grow and develop around new challenges. If opportunities arise in other projects or departments, people can volunteer their time and expertise to fit the needs. This absence of structure makes Mindera incredibly dynamic and adaptable; it means we can pivot quickly. In the last 12 months, we’ve established operational hubs in 4 new locations from Morocco to Australia, and we assemble new teams for clients in weeks, not months. This ability to quickly adapt is central to agile. As Margaret Heffernan highlights in her brilliant TED talk about human skills in an unpredictable world, loosely structured organisations that emphasise human relationships and can very quickly adapt are crucial for survival, yet, so often, this is an anathema to corporates that seek to optimise people-processes in the quest for efficiency. Repeatability and efficiency of process have a place, but only in a very stable and predictable environment.
A Networked Organisation
We operate much more like a network, a distributed workforce, with authority and leadership tending to come from those with the most experience and who are closest to the problem at hand. Command and control behaviour is replaced with guidance, coaching and mentoring at all levels, a much softer style of ‘management’. There are parallels with biological neural networks: intelligence forms from strengthening connections between neurons, just as our strength as a technology services organisation stems from the relationships and collaboration we promote between ourselves and our clients.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of a TEAL organisation is its evolutionary purpose. In a nutshell, this is about being driven to do work that has meaning and purpose rather than being obsessed with profit, growth and beating the competition, which is typical in an egocentric capitalist frame.
Mindera’s purpose is “to craft technologies and solutions that help organisations and people flourish”, and in this sentence, the word ‘flourish’ is the most dear to us. We form strong partnerships with our clients and care deeply about their success while at the same time caring that our employees, our Minders, are working on projects and in teams that help them grow and develop in ways that are fulfilling.
A Balancing Act
By balancing commercial and client commitments with employee happiness and growth, we respect people’s preferences on what they want to work on and look to move people around when possible. Maybe they want to work on a new client project in a different sector; maybe they want to try their hand at helping out with operations or marketing; whatever the reason for a desired change in responsibilities, we look into it and endeavour to make it work for everyone concerned. There is no corporate ladder to climb at Mindera, only a plethora of opportunities and a strong, supportive network.
Just Enough Planning
We invest ‘just enough’ time in forming strategy, plans and governance of how we run the business. Of course, we have Board meetings and formal reporting and take our responsibilities seriously in how the business operates. Still, we keep our planning light to allow our business to evolve or more radically pivot where we see the need to, for example, in response to emerging market demands or pressures. When there is less commitment on paper, there are fewer egos and less politics associated with loss aversion or confirmation bias. As the famous physicist Richard Feynman once said, “To progress, we must recognise the ignorance and leave room for doubt” which is to say, detailed plans are fraught with inaccuracy. This is analogous to backlogs in agile and just enough sprint planning that is needed for teams to start while allowing some room for manoeuvre.
It’s Crazy Out There
“We live in a world faced with increasing uncertainty, constant change, increasingly interconnected and digital. Having an evolutionary purpose gives us half a chance to meet these challenges, much like agile aims to de-risk complexity that emerges with software engineering (rather than complexity being predictable) and to deliver products that are genuinely useful by iterating on customer feedback (rather than believing we know what customers want from the get-go)” - Richard Hilsley, Managing Director.
The parallels between the evolutionary purpose of TEAL organisations and the iterative and incremental practices of agile are clear to see.
In this article, we’ve lifted the lid on what being a TEAL organisation means for Mindera. By bringing to life some of the inner workings of our organisation, we’ve shown how much we have in common with agile philosophy - the primacy of people (over process), autonomy, collaboration, decentralised decision-making, and adaptation. Agile lies at the core of Mindera’s DNA - ‘being’ agile, which is so much more important than the practice of ‘doing’ agile. Unfortunately, it’s the latter where most teams and organisations expend too much energy trying to improve.
Up next: Agile Transformation Journeys
In the next edition, we take a look into the topic of Agile Transformation. Much lauded but typically far more challenging than most people realise, we share our perspective on the best way of tackling agile adoption at the Enterprise level.
Want to work with an organisation with a unique angle on Agile Philosophy that we can impart onto your business? Get in touch.
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