What the laws of nature tell us about agile teams and what that means for your workplace
The agile process is not meant to be perfect or pristine—it’s meant to be iterative. It looks messy when you’re close to it, but from a grander vantage point, companies and leadership are seeing a pattern of success from the meandering trail forged by agile teams.
TO THE LAYMAN, QUANTUM PHYSICS IS A GREAT WAY TO KILL A GOOD CONVERSATION AT A COCKTAIL PARTY.
Or to encourage another page turn or scroll over in search of a less intimidating subject. Yet most of us would unknowingly recognize the characteristics of quantum physics. We see it every day, concepts reflecting the theories of the laws of nature, played out right in front of us. We just call it something different. We call it agile.
What agile teams may not realize is that their free-flowing process mimics what happens on the molecular level: connections and interactions occur without a formalized structure, allowing teams to find the best idea or solution at that moment in time. The agile process is not meant to be perfect or pristine—it’s meant to be iterative. It looks messy when you’re close to it, but from a grander vantage point, companies and leadership are seeing a pattern of success from the meandering trail forged by agile teams.
Quantum physics is essentially a description of how things behave on a very small scale. Think smaller than a cell. Here, the laws of nature act differently than they do for, say, humans and how we respond to gravity. Small, seemingly insignificant particles perform magic tricks that could never happen on a larger scale. Invisible fields move faster than the speed of light. Protons teleport themselves through the equivalent of solid walls to connect with other protons. We humans cannot accomplish this. But through new approaches to process and value creation, people within organizations mirror the magical theory of quantum physics every day.
Back in 1992, Margaret Wheatley identified the connection between human behavior and molecular behavior, describing what we know today as agile teams. In her book Leadership and the New Science, Wheatley suggests companies should promote self-organization and a bit of chaos to get the best results.1 Twenty-six years later, her theory still holds weight—as evidenced by this month’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) feature, “Agile at Scale.”2
Written by two Bain & Company consulting partners and the CEO of Scrum Inc., the article supports the idea that agile teams moving freely with a strong focus on customer-centric initiatives accomplish more in less time. The authors suggest leadership, too, should be agile to keep the focus on bringing customer value, funding initiatives with the most potential like venture capitalists. But, perhaps, have they underestimated the necessary balance of agile and traditional hierarchical structures required to succeed?
Here’s the thing about science: the same equations don’t work for multiple scales. The rules of gravity we experience don’t affect molecules the same way. Essentially, the bigger we get, the more structure we see. The magic of quantum fades away, and we follow more rules. So were we to let new science influence the way we organize (as done for hundreds of years), we would see agility and self-organization below with slightly more structured leadership at the top.
Perhaps the reason the HBR article lists a multitude of companies— such as Netflix, Google, and SalesForce—as maintaining both agile teams and traditional structures is because organizations succeed when they follow a similar design: a bit of quantum magic below with organized hierarchy above.
SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR ORGANIZATIONS AND THEIR LEADERS?
Don’t over-engineer your organization. Remember, the magic only works at the local team level when you allow team members to connect and collide in search of solutions without bogging them down with a prescriptive process. Chaos and failure are imperative for growth, so trust that teams will fail faster and learn from their missteps to improve the overall outcome. Cultures that don’t value and reflect trust will struggle to succeed.
Avoid having to over-engineer processes by ensuring company vision and goals are clearly communicated. Steve Jobs made sure his team understood the value portable music would bring to their customers, but supporting teams designed the iPod. Don’t spend too much time drawing out what the destination looks like. We hire people to think, so share the direction and allow your people to determine the means to get there.
Author Whitney Johnson explains in her book, Disrupt Yourself, that people gain valuable experience by forging their own path and moving up the learning curve.3 She goes on in her latest book, Build an A-Team, to support the idea that teams should be developed like a diversified portfolio. This way, they create more potential value by allowing for a greater variety of connections.4
Your people are your greatest assets, so keep this in mind with each new hire and consider it part of attracting and retaining the right people.
AND WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AGILE TEAMS AND USERS?
Success is all about the connections. Be empowered to utilize the freedom and resources you need to bring value. Ask for training or helpful software. Connect with an isolated team that might have guidance. Connections and diversity make for better thinking.
Team players are in high demand in today’s workforce. As explained in Allsteel’s Six Factors, measuring productivity can really only happen at the team level. Organizations that give agile teams the freedom to succeed are creating a safe space for leadership behaviors outside of traditional leadership roles. As an individual, your team’s success hinges on no one abusing that power.
AGILE WORKS BEST WHEN TEAMS FAIL WITHOUT SHAME.
Teammates reduce stress brought on by the iterative process by giving understanding to others. And what if your team is perhaps not so agile? Give understanding to those who are. Don’t cut off connections or close doors to try to structure what looks like chaos. We need the chaos.
FINALLY, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE WORKPLACE?
The role of facility manager matters more than ever. Utilization data and planning based on real activities of teams can go a long way in helping to align your space to the needs of a variety of teams. Users should be considered clients, and facilities’ goal is to bring value to their clients. Successful leadership and facilities teams understand that a successful user experience aligns with the goals of the company. Space is a resource, and it should facilitate the right connections between teams and users without hindering other supporting functions. This is why various teams should be included in design programming phases. There is no perfect formula to determine the appropriate ratio of collaborative or private spaces, but it doesn’t have to be a guess.
1. Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. 3rd ed. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2006.
2. Rigby, Darrell K., Jeff Sutherland, and Andy Noble. “Agile at Scale.” Harvard Business Review, May/June 2018, 88-96.
3. Johnson, Whitney. Disrupt Yourself. New York City, NY: Bibliomotion, 2015.
4. Johnson, Whitney. Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2018.