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New forms of organizing are engaged with to address some of management’s most pressing issues. They promise increased speed, a strengthened sense of purpose, more consequential stakeholder orientation, and adaptability in the face of environmental change. Organizing approaches deviating from the classical, authority-based org chart model have been proposed time and again over the past decades. Many of them, however, remained one-off cases which were quoted more often than adapted and implemented in other organizations (think of Oticon’s spaghetti organization). Over the recent years, models like the Sociocracy-based Holacracy or various forms of agile project management – to name just two – have been more widely adopted. They have given rise to variations, a differentiated debate, and growing ecosystems of practitioners, in turn reducing the risk for managers and entrepreneurs willing to experiment with similar models.

In this post, we address the question of context for new forms of organizing with special regard to the question of self-management and self-organization. Several dimensions of context come into view, each with consequences for how agile organizing must be framed and designed. For example:

The design of an agile organization and the degree of self-management in that organization depends on the nature of value creation

For example, it will make a difference whether you design for routine vs. innovation tasks; line vs. project management; product vs. service contexts; whether you organize for high reliability; whether (professional) standard operating procedures must be adhered to vs. or whether crisis need to be managed.

Regulatory context and external stakeholders need to be considered in the design and the (speed of the) transition to an agile organization

By way of an example, it is notable that Dutch ING bank spared certain functions like legal and finance from its much discussed agile set-up. Regulatory factors have key influence on the state of an organization. Mistakes on regulatory projects can have ruinous consequences; but at the same time institutions like banks need flexibility to respond effectively to regulatory requirements and handle complex compliance projects on time and budget which would speak for agile organizing.

The transition to a new way of working and organizing must consider the steps, the speed and the scope of the change

It is probably less challenging, as an example, to experiment with new forms of organizing in a start-up team vs. transforming a long-standing enterprise. Implementing new forms only within a sub-unit of an otherwise classically structured organization poses special challenges requiring context-specific adaptation and innovation.

Legacy culture and the required un-learning need to be considered in planning the agile transformation

The cultural value and the practical relevance attached to hierarchy will define the change effort required. Un-learning requires not only willingness but also steady encounters with the unfamiliar, and continuous support.

We invite you to join the debate on how to approach, design, and practice agile organizing beyond the team level and explore the relevance of context. Check out the Agile Organizing Kit below.