March 7, 2021


News for Agilists

Make your “Challenge-Driven Organization” More Effective — Use a Bow-Tie! | by Marty de Jonge | Serious Scrum | Oct, 2020

Every organization I work with thinks their issues are unique. In truth, I found out that most have the same questions.

  • How do I maximise visibility to see if my organization is heading in the desired direction?

Successful organisations understand the importance of dividing work between teams in an effective way. Alongside that, it is also important to do this in a way that stable teams can continuously improve themselves. In my research into this topic, I came across the Bow-tie model. (Thanks to Gidion Peters)

It offers an interesting view on both thinkings from a “Problems to be solved” as a “team performance” point of view. Although it has strong roots in governmental and municipal environments, I feel it is also very usable in commercial organisations. In this article, I explain the model and how it can bring value to your organization too.

You read this bow tie from right to left. On the right side are stable teams. Per team, you take care of a broad mix of competencies of the team members. The number of team members is low: no more than 9 people. As soon as a team is composed, it starts to pull. This means that the team indicates to be ready to take up a challenge. This creates pressure on the left side of the bow-tie. This is where the challenges are. In the ‘public domain’ these challenges are based on research and interaction with society, both civil and political. The challenge here is to define challenges and make them small enough to be taken up by one team.

The Bow-Tie Model is a way to visualise the flow of work alongside the stability of teams, and how those two factors interact to deliver results in organisations. It lends itself to scaling issues and agile transformations. In the bow-tie model, the different challenges (projects and assignments) are made so small that one stable team can handle them. Stable Scrum teams are multidisciplinary, small teams that work independently on an issue. They do this full-time and for a longer period of time, and stay together to tackle the next issue.

“Instead of bringing people to work, you bring work to people” -Gidion Peters

In other words: you keep teams stable. When a new project comes up, you bring the work to the most relevant team or you divide it over the work stocks of multiple teams. Because the employees work together for a longer period of time, the team gets better and better. Stable teams are more productive, more predictable and more fun to work in. According to the bow-tie model, these teams complete an assignment and take up a new challenge, which at that moment has the highest priority.


Working from a “Challenge-Driven” perspective

Part of the organizations we know are true “creation” companies. They are the ones who are already working on products and services that we will use tomorrow. Some are more successful in predicting what the needs will be in their industry than others, but they make stuff that they bring to market. (think of organizations such as Samsung, Chevrolet or Fitbit).

Other types of organizations are more dependent on the work and challenges that come their way to tackle. You will find these kinds of organizations more in the (semi) public sector than in the commercial sector. These are the organizations that can work “challenge-driven”

Initially, this model was designed for “challenge-driven” work within governments. But, outside the government, companies face the same kind of questions.

  • How do I make sure that I manage how assignments come into the organization?

Challenge-Driven working: Put the end-customer in the core

There is a nice movement going on at municipalities and other authorities: working in a challenge-driven way. It means that as an organization, you constantly keep an eye on the social challenges. Things that are happening outside and connect or take the initiative where necessary. The challenge becomes the guiding principle in the organization. Not the hierarchical silos and domains.

The pitfall: running projects in a matrix organization

So it’s a good idea to work in a challenge-driven manner because the organization is less concerned with the ‘boxes’ that exist and thinks ‘outside-in’. However, there is a big pitfall for organizations that want to give shape to challenge-driven working. It lies in setting up projects for all these challenges but keeping the old structures in place. This leads to a confusing matrix organization that cannot focus on the challenges.

To become Agile in a challenge-driven environment, a company must not only change the way it thinks but also the way it is structured. — Harry S Long

Organisations don’t dare to tinker with the existing management boards and domains that are neatly arranged.

Those who are in these teams often do it temporarily, or as an add-on. They still have their performance interview with the boss of their silo department. This leads to a charade in which the focus is only partly on addressing the challenges. There is a lot of context switching between projects. And there is a lot of negotiation between the silos about the deployment of people and resources.

Why stable teams work

The secret, but exciting, ingredient of challenge-driven work lies in a completely different way of organizing: setting up stable teams!

This is an important lesson from the world of agile work. like governments, agile organizations have to respond to changes faster than ever before. Setting up new teams on a temporary basis has not proven to be a successful formula. On the other hand, setting up stable teams has given much better results. These stable teams are multidisciplinary, small teams that can work independently on an issue. They do this full-time and for a longer period of time and often stay together to tackle the next issue. In this way, a stable team has many important advantages.

  • Focus: if you are in a challenge-driven, stable team, you can fully focus on achieving your joint ambitions. You no longer have distractions from other projects or your old department. And neither do the other team members: they are better and more available.

The bow-tie: the match between challenges and teams

In order for these stable teams to achieve success after success, you don’t come up with a matrix organization. Instead, you could work with the ‘bow-tie’ organizational model.

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