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May 26, 2022

Getting Started with Radical Collaboration

By IT Revolution
A quote from Matt K. Parker: "Radical collaboration is grounded in the intrinsic motivation of the participants and formed through the freely given commitments of peers. It is always voluntary, never coerced."

In his book A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations, Matt K. Parker profiles successful companies that have changed their structure from hierarchical to self-managing. Maybe you’ve read the book or maybe you’ve heard conversations about it on Twitter or at conferences, and you’re left wondering: How do I make this happen in my own organization?

In his presentation from DevOps Enterprise Summit Virtual – Europe 2022, Matt tackles this exact question, and we’re going to break it down for you here.

But first, some background on the book. In A Radical Enterprise, Matt profiles companies from around the world like Haier, Morning Star, W. L. Gore, and Buurtzorg, that all follow his ethos for the book:

The fastest growing and most competitive organizations in the world have no bureaucracies, no bosses, and no bullshit.

All of these organizations are out-competing other organizations on all kinds of different financial metrics: increase in market share, business results and customer satisfaction, systemic innovation, employee loyalty, business model, sustainability, willingness to recommend, and so forth. And they are doing it within a radically collaborative framework. 

There are other terms for this type of structure, like “self-managing,” but Matt uses “radically collaborative” because it speaks to the experience of the workers in these companies. It is grounded in intrinsic motivation. People in these organizations are doing what they actually enjoy doing, day in and day out, with the freedom to make commitments to their peers. There’s a total lack of coercion in these environments, which feels fundamentally different from more traditional organizations. In other words: radical.

In his book, Matt outlines the four imperatives that seem to underlie the success of these organizations:

  • Team Autonomy – ability to decide what you work on and how you do it
  • Managerial Devolution – management as a shared responsibility between peers
  • Deficiency Need Gratification – allow for human needs and satisfaction
  • Candid Vulnerability –  make space for honesty about motivation, stressors, and personal matters

Once you understand these imperatives and you are ready to start applying them to your company, Matt recommends four ways to get started with radical collaboration.

1. Management Study Groups

This technique comes straight from the experience of one of the companies profiled in the book, Tim Group. They began their journey to radical collaboration not with an announcement from on high, but with research. They formed a group to research other organizations that were pioneering the future of work. They were careful to emphasize that this “management” group was not just for managers, and was focused on “management” in the sense of how an organization is governed—something everyone had a vested interest in learning about.

The group functioned a bit like a book club. At first, they would read case studies and guidance papers on their own and then come together to discuss the things they’d learned and observed. However, as things developed, they decided to make small experiments to see if these theories could work in practice within their own organization.

They began small: What if they gave individuals the power to decide when they can take vacations? If everyone is on a team together, and they care about their teams, they won’t let their teams fail, and they will naturally be able to work vacation time out together. They were able to implement this small change very easily, and it inspired them to go bigger, eventually transforming the whole organization. And it all started with a little study group.

2. Collaborative Meetings

Even if your organization as a whole is very non-collaborative, very top-down, and bureaucratic, there are still usually opportunities where you can run a collaborative meeting as opposed to an “adjudicated” meeting.

In a traditional meeting, you often have someone assigning tasks, others pushing back, and the final decision ultimately being made by whoever is the loudest in the room. In a collaborative meeting, you create an atmosphere where anyone can propose an idea, and that idea has equal weight with any other and can be discussed and analyzed. The focus shifts from whatever goals individuals bring into the meeting, to a shared goal of coming up with ideas and insights based on shared perspectives.

In order to run a collaborative meeting, Matt offers three easy steps:

  1. Generation – individuals come up with ideas and edit down to the most important ones
  2. Dimensionality – start thinking together as a group
  3. Prioritization – determining, as a group, the rank and importance of tasks

You can read more about this process in Matt’s blog post on the subject!

Just going through these steps can change the atmosphere in the room, and inspire change and growth. They are simple steps, but they can feel like a breath of fresh air, especially if your previous environment was very non-collaborative.

3. Role Clarity

In large enterprises, it can be easy to lose sight of what your role actually is, aside from just your job title. What does it mean for your role to succeed, what can you make decisions about, and what should you be held accountable for?

These may seem like obvious questions with easy answers, but they can be more complicated than they seem. Without role clarity, it’s very easy for people to have conflicting ideas of their responsibilities or their authority in relation to each other. When you dig into role clarity, you can ease these tensions and make sure people are working in complementary roles, instead of conflicting ones.

4. Liberating Constraints

This last one flows pretty naturally from role clarity. Once you know what you are responsible for, and what you have authority over, it’s time for implementation. In order to achieve outcomes, groups have to be united in their goals and have ownership over their process.

To understand this, imagine a medium to large size software development organization. It’s important for a group of product managers, designers, and engineers to know what it is they’re trying to achieve and to have a domain of authority around how they’re going to achieve it. They can be given a goal, say, to increase shopping cart conversion by 5%, and then they get to figure out how to make that happen. They get to own the backlog for how they get there; they get to design how it looks and how users experience it; they get to own the code for how it works under the hood. That is their domain of authority. 

In this size company, there could be an infinite number of possible outcomes at any given time, so you also have to decide which ones are the most important. There are many ways to do this, but one way is with portfolio managers, who are responsible for owning a backlog of outcomes. They may be responsible for increasing shopping cart conversion, reducing manual production attribution toil, and increasing product recommendation usage. You may have a number of portfolio managers in an organization that each own a backlog of high-level outcomes, each of which is mapped out to an outcome team. In this way, you create liberating constraints that allow for complementary, instead of overlapping, domains of authority.

In this scenario, portfolio managers are prioritizing the most important outcomes, but the teams get to decide how the actual work is handled on a day-to-day basis. 

As this concept goes higher and higher up the organization, you create a structure that is concentric, instead of hierarchical. Spheres of support within an organization. A CTO might set annual objectives, which will influence how portfolio managers think about their own prioritization. And so on and so forth.

Of course, these steps may help you on your transformation journey, but there is no one “right way” to create a radically collaborative organization. There is no silver bullet that will bring down a traditional, hierarchical structure and leave a collaborative one in its wake. All the companies that Matt profiled shared one thing: they knew that there was no substitute for critical thinking. They knew they had to work things out themselves, resolve tensions themselves, and come up with radically collaborative ways of working together, using their own prior knowledge and preexisting culture. 

A lot of thought has to go into radical collaboration, but hopefully, this post (and Matt’s book) will help set you on the right path.

- About The Authors
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IT Revolution

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