Organizations must intentionally determine how opinionated their collaboration tools (business systems) should be, to align with their culture and business model. Opinionated tools align well with top-down organizational cultures, while non-opinionated tools align well with decentralized, self-organizing cultures.
Organizations struggle at each extreme:
- Top-down organizations struggle to scale effectively, creating bottlenecks and issues when decisions constantly require senior leader approvals. People talk about how our world is more volatile and faster moving (see Half of S&P 500 Companies will be Replaced in next 10 years), and that companies need to be more Agile. Agility is hard when you need 3 approval signatures to make any changes.
- Self-organized teams struggle to stay coordinated, as each team can “wander off” from any centralized approach to things like enterprise priorities, technology architecture, processes. They struggle to stay aligned with each other, which is why we see so many Scaled Agile frameworks (see icon mosaic to the right) trying to figure out how to keep self-organizing teams aligned with each other. Self-organizing teams also struggle to stay aligned across an organization related to things like Enterprise Architecture (consistent technologies) and Business Architecture (consistent processes).
Organizations need to find the right balance between these two extremes for their entire organizational culture, and how they select, configure, and maintain tools to align with this approach. The figure below shows the spectrum I envision, where a company moves the triangle to find the spot they want their organization to be, and then aligns tools with that spot on the spectrum.
Technologies can come out of the box very opinionated (think about a tool like the TurboTax wizard interface, that walks users through a workflow it decides without asking how you want to use the tool) or it can be very flexible (think about Microsoft Word — you can write your letter first, and then format it; or you can setup the page size, orientation, and header before you write your letter).
Technologies can also be configured to be very opinionated — JIRA as an example is an issue/ticket tracking system that has a variety of Agile planning/management capabilities. Out of the box, the tool comes with a few standard ticket types and workflows, but you could let each team in your organization configure their own ticket types, workflows; leaving all the permissions wide open for the organization. However, most organizations make JIRA “more opinionated” before they deploy it, only letting a few select leaders/administrators make changes to the system.
On the opinionated this spectrum, I see organizations selecting and configuring tools with a heavy focus on ensuring employees use a tool exactly the way the organization’s senior leaders want them to be used (highly opinionated). Allan Kelly recently write a great post about how dangerous this power centralization can become for organizations.
On the non-opinionated side, organizations struggle to stay cohesive. They can become organizations of individual teams or almost a group of consultants who are trying to accomplish things; but can’t leverage the scale of their organization to accomplish great things. This can devolve into anarchy, where teams don’t help each other. Think about a team who can’t share talent with other teams, because they’re using different processes or technologies. Or a leader who isn’t able to report on progress because each of her teams is using their project tracking tool completely differently.
Organizations, and the Office of the CIO organizations that should be enabling them, need find the balance, like a train station where the rules of engagement are clear (Where do I get a ticket? Where do I get on the train? Where do I get food?), but different people can get to their trains in different ways. Organizations don’t have to be the wild west with teams doing whatever they want (think about a SharePoint site with no governance where you can’t find anything) and organizations don’t need to be top-down culture where no work gets done because everyone has given up on requesting approvals and resigns themselves to the slow-moving status-quo.