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Can a large workforce adopt an agile way of working? With Spark, we’ll soon find out

Spark has announced it’s adopting an agile way of working across its business. I applaud them for so tangibly demonstrating their commitment to breaking down silos, improving speed to market, innovation and achieving more customer focused solutions. I’ll follow their progress with great interest, knowing that what they’re proposing challenges almost everything we know about organisational behaviour.

An agile Spark transforms from a traditional hierarchical structure, with large business units, to small self-managing teams (squads), each with clear accountabilities. They collaborate with one another to deliver specific products and service projects for customers and for the good of the organisation. It’s no longer about people working in a particular business unit or function. In this model, senior leaders act as catalysts, setting direction and establishing systems for people to do their jobs effectively. And they assemble the right mix of skills, talent and experience to collectively make decisions about the what, how and when of each project.

I worked in a self-managing operational team 20 plus years ago (an experimental team within a bigger traditional structure) and my experience was mostly positive, especially at the start. Some of us embraced the freedom self-managing teams offered and the opportunity to contribute ideas, to learn, to step up and have a voice beyond our title. For others, the transition from what they knew was a step too far. Eventually, as we settled into BAU, my enthusiasm waned and I got frustrated at the inability to just get on and do stuff without needing a whole team involved. Over a year, people naturally settled into a more specialist division of labour. As far as I can remember, the experiment never ended, it just naturally devolved back to the old way.

Maybe this experience is driving my slight nervousness about how Spark’s tribes approach will work for the people who work there.

“People at work are largely driven by fundamental motivators closely aligned with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

History has taught us that people, and groups, at work are largely driven by fundamental motivators – closely aligned with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – like survival, recognition, reward, progression, belonging and identity. Spark’s new approach delivers a number of challenges on many of these fronts. 

With more emphasis on the team’s deliverables over an individual’s, how do people know they are achieving? Team success is one thing but we all still want to be recognised for our own contribution. And without a clear and recognisable hierarchy how do people plan for progress and feel that their career is going somewhere? No doubt, as you deliver more and more successful outcomes you’ll get to work on more complex and wide reaching projects. Maybe this represents your growth and progress but people may still want the visible symbols of progress that titles, responsibility and hierarchy offer. 

Our jobs are a big part of our identity and therefore more fluidity in what I do has the potential to lead to less clarity in what I stand for. Without a defined work identity there is a danger that people struggle to see themselves in their jobs and this could lead to some dissatisfaction for some.

Traditional functions, teams and divisions also provide a sense of belonging that this team collective may not be able to replicate. I’ve worked with a number of clients who’ve moved to open plan, hot desk approaches only to find that people end up all sitting together in the same place and same desks every day. Apart from the functional benefit, the clear lesson here is that people need to feel that they belong to something. As you move from project to project where do you actually belong? Who are your people?

“As you move from project to project where do you actually belong? Who are your people?”

Organisational behaviour has a strong competitive undertow and this approach plays well to this. Short sprint work allows quick results and satisfies our desire to achieve and win. But without that longer term focus, competitiveness may see the good of the project override the longer term good of the organisation. Clear measures of success are needed to signal what really is important.

Despite my concerns, I love the braveness of what Spark are doing here. I really do want it to succeed. I encourage them to invest in a strong company-wide internal communications programme that builds momentum in the core idea behind this initiative. A programme that reinforces key long-term outcomes as well as immediate success stories, keeping people engaged with the entire organisation and its objectives. Regular communication that promotes aligned interests and behaviours and helps people feel they belong to the bigger Spark team and where the organisation is going.

  • This piece was originally published on Insight Creative’s site

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