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10 Principles of Emergent Organizations (And How We Live Them at The Ready)

Sam Spurlin
Dec 15, 2016 · 11 min read

The organizational transformation work we undertake with our clients covers many different types of projects. Not every transformation journey looks the same.

However, regardless of the details of the project at hand, almost all of our work is united by the application of a few key principles. We use these principles as the foundation for talking about the future of organizations and the kinds of mindsets and behaviors that are needed to bring a legacy organization into the 21st century.

Given that we are well into our second year of existence as a company, I thought I’d take a look at these principles and share how we are trying to apply them to our own organization.

1. Purpose​: ensure clear vision, mission, and meaning is present for every team, every cell, at every level; let alignment be the prerequisite for autonomy

Our purpose at The Ready is to change how the world works by making it adaptive, meaningful, and abundant. This doesn’t just live on a piece of paper somewhere. We talk about it — a lot. It’s present in the prospectuses we give to clients. We use it as a lens for company-wide retrospectives. It’s everywhere in what we do.

We ensure each team and role that exists within our organization has a clearly stated purpose that serves our larger organizational purpose. Team members are trusted and given the autonomy to take any action toward the fulfillment of their roles’ purpose.

For example, I hold a role called Editor with the purpose of creating an engaging and trustworthy brand voice. I decided that a good way for me to do a better job at filling this role was to hire outside contractors to help edit our Medium publication (mostly because it would free me up to spend more time and attention on client work). I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission because I knew it would support our organization’s purpose. I just went out and made it happen.

Finally, knowing that our purpose is to make an adaptive, meaningful, and abundant world means we have a powerful filter to evaluate opportunities and decisions we take as an organization.

As we continue to grow, we are facing more and more opportunities that fall outside our day-to-day work (attending/presenting at conferences, giving talks, appearing on podcasts, etc.). One way we’ve used our purpose is to help us make the decision about whether we do pro-bono work (spoiler alert — for the right client, we do).

2. Transparency​: default to open, democratize data, and work in public to create a shared consciousness and enable informed decisions everywhere

Our decision to ban 99 percent of internal email and use Slack as our communication platform was with the principle of transparency in mind. Using public channels whenever possible allows us to bring more of our communication into the open instead of being locked into individual email silos.

There’s no expectation that everyone is supposed to know everything that’s happening within the organization at all times, but by communicating in public channels via Slack, we all know we can find the information we need at any time.

Other ways we’ve tried to build transparency into how we work together include sharing our end of week “ship” (usually an email to the client recapping what a project team did over the past week, what’s coming up in the next week, and any roadblocks they’re facing) with the whole team.

Looking over each weekly ship lets me see what the other project teams are up to and promotes a shared consciousness about what everyone else is doing.

Constantly seeking out ways to be more transparent, The Ready deploys the following two strategies that directly impact our operations:

  • Each project team tracks their work on a public Trello board that we all have access to.
  • We make decisions about the rules and roles that comprise our organization transparently and share one master record of that information.
  • We’re in the final stages of creating a transparent salary formula (in the vein of Stack Overflow or Buffer, but with our own The Ready spin on it) that will take the mystery and intrigue out of compensation.

3. Networks​: replace hierarchy with a network of decentralized teams and cells, loosely coupled but tightly aligned, dynamically coordinating for value creation, a marketplace model, go beyond flat/horizontal, focus on and reward effective teams (not individuals)

As I alluded to in the Purpose section, we are a self-managing organization — which means we are a network of teams and roles that are extremely fluid and always changing as needed.

Nobody “reports to” anyone else. Our organizational chart looks like a series of nested role-based circles, not a hierarchy of titles. Each project team has the authority to do what is necessary for the success of their specific project.

Nobody needs to ask for permission in order to do something they think will make their project more successful. As such, all of the various teams are highly autonomous and decentralized. In order to make sure these autonomous teams are aligned, we use various mechanisms to ensure the right information is being shared and everyone is learning from each other.

Everyone at The Ready looks for opportunities in the market to sell our existing services or propose new services based on market needs. For example, we’re currently exploring a new coaching service based on the initiative of a couple Team Members.

Since everyone is constantly doing work at the edge of the organization, we are always digesting data from the market about what is needed and how we could alter our own offerings to better serve our customers.

We are even experimenting with what it means to be “part of an organization.” We have a network of practitioners who partner with us on projects.

You don’t need to be a full-time employee to be “part of” The Ready. Our vision is to create a truly worldwide network of org design consultants who identify as The Ready even if they aren’t an employee.

We’re still in the early days of this experiment, but our experiences thus far have been promising!

4. Empowerment​: enable individuals and teams to make local decisions and, thereby, push authority closer to the customer/market, trust, self-manage, self-organize, use an advice process, focus on consent not consensus, and promote autonomy

I touched on this a bit already in the last section, but working at The Ready is a master’s course in empowerment. From day one, you are expected to figure out what you need to do to provide value and move us closer to our overall purpose.

We use an advice process rather than a permission-seeking process. Because we all hold distinct roles with clear purposes and accountabilities, it’s relatively rare for one role to require the permission of another role to do something. Instead, because we respect each other and we are all supremely capable professionals, we ask each other for advice.

The key difference between permission and advice is that asking for advice means you still have the ultimate authority to make the decision. Seeking advice from the relevant people gives you the information to make a better decision, but it doesn’t mean you have to accept all the advice you are given. You’re empowered to do what you think is right.

Another aspect of how we lean into empowerment at The Ready is evidenced through our very limited policies. We don’t have any rules about being at the office at a specific time in the morning or staying until a specific time in the evening. There’s no dress code. Our travel policy is essentially, “Don’t be an idiot,” (that may be slightly paraphrased).

We are all adults, so we stay away from creating policies that treat us like children and instead focus on creating policies that steer us away from catastrophic risk.

5. Learning​: experiment, learn by doing, start by starting, validate assumptions, be data-driven, celebrate failure that creates learning, perform retrospectives and postmortems

Every project team at The Ready conducts an internal retrospective at the end of every cycle (month) and we all gather together for an hour every month to share those retrospectives and ask each other questions.

We do this with learning as our main goal. This learning may come from increased self-awareness or insight into what another team is doing.

It can be easy to get so focused on your specific project that you don’t look around long enough to see the connection between someone else’s work and your own. This monthly retrospective and sharing process helps us make sure that doesn’t happen.

The other way we really focus on learning as a principle is by treating failure as an opportunity.

I’ve failed numerous times since I started here. Nobody has ever criticized or chastised me for failing. Instead, the operative question is always, “What did you learn? What will you do differently next time?”

We’re all helping each other learn all the time because we know that’s the only way we move forward as an organization. Dwelling on failure is a waste of time and attention. Dissecting failure in order to learn is what we obsess over.

6. Lean​: put simple rules in place that encourage limited scale (at a team level and an org level), reduce layers, reduce time, reduce pages in the presentation, focus on the balance between simplicity and clarity

We don’t have organizational layers and while hierarchy in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, we are very conscious of keeping our structure as simple as possible.

While we aim to stay lean in our organizational structure, we also try to stay lean in how we actually work with each other.

When we want to share ideas or get feedback from each other we create the bare minimum needed to communicate our ideas so we can iterate on whatever we’re working on. If I want feedback from my colleagues I’m not expected to “give a presentation” — in fact, if I presented an extremely polished deck early in a project I’d probably get some pointed questions about why I’m spending my time there instead of iterating on the key ideas.

Another way we try to make sure we’re living our lean principle is by being extremely circumspect about meetings. We love great meetings — but we hate unnecessary or unproductive meetings. Just because you’re invited to a meeting doesn’t mean you’re expected to be there. It’s up to each of us to know our priorities and manage our time such that we attend whatever is useful.

7. Talent Density​: make hiring everyone’s first priority, trust every hire to run the company, raise the bar with every new employee, never ever compromise

As it’s one of our top priorities to find excellent colleagues, everyone who works at The Ready is constantly recruiting. While we do have a role specifically focused on hiring, it’s primarily focused on shepherding people through our process (we actually call it the Hiring Sherpa role).

Getting hired at The Ready is not easy. In addition to our interview process (which involves talking to two to three people before doing a Lead Link interview), we also ask full time employee candidates to prepare a one-hour presentation in response to a specific prompt we provide.

With every new hire I end up feeling less and less qualified to work here. I consider this a good sign we’re constantly raising the bar with each new person who joins the company.

8. Continuous Steering​: reduce the cycle time, on everything (work, feedback, budgeting, planning, org change), fail fast, learn fast, break things down, smaller moves, smaller decisions, iterate, create rituals and rhythms

Project teams work in one-week sprints that consist of a kick-off and a recap (or what we generally call a weekly ship). This requires us to be extremely focused and work very closely with our clients.

The nice thing about an intense operating rhythm like this is that it allows us to change course very quickly. At most, the longest a project will be “off course” is six days.

We don’t have an annual budgeting process. We allocate resources on the fly; while we are undoubtedly assisted by our small size, we are careful not to introduce financial processes that are antithetical to continuous steering.

The feedback process happens officially every trimester where we all receive one-on-one feedback from everybody else and then make sense of it as publicly or privately as we want. We also have mechanisms for asking for feedback more frequently (via a Slack bot that we co-created with our friends at Planetary).

Finally, we have an explicit operating rhythm that encourages good organizational habits — among other things, a weekly tactical/planning meeting, a weekly “full circle” meeting where we share wins/learnings/general announcements, trimesterly strategy meetings, trimesterly feedback meetings, monthly retrospective and sharing sessions, etc.

We are constantly experimenting with this suite of meetings in order to find the ideal alignment without becoming an overwhelming meeting culture.

9. Market Driven​: let the market (not leaders) steer the organization, through market pull, focus on value creation and relentlessly remove org debt that is preventing customer outcomes

I’ve referenced the fact in several places already that all of the Team Members at The Ready inhabit roles that are squarely on the edge of the organization. We all spend a ton of time face-to-face with clients and we use that data to steer our company.

Luckily, we don’t have a ton of org debt that prevents us from meeting the needs of our customers. The accumulation of org debt takes time and being so young means we haven’t been around long enough to let a bunch of it accumulate.

However, that’s not to say that we aren’t constantly asking ourselves if our habits and routines are still serving their original purposes. We have no compunction with eliminating things that used to be useful, but no longer are.

For example, we tried to introduce a little bit more structure by creating a sub circle where we had multiple ongoing projects related to one client. We tried this for awhile, but eventually realized that it was actually introducing bureaucracy and process that we weren’t willing to accept.

So, even though it took some work to set up and “made sense” from a rational perspective, we decided to roll it back and return to each project team living in the Core circle of the organization, for now.

10. Take Risks​: adopt a bimodal strategy (sure things and wild swings strategy, commit to taking market risks, reward market making behavior, ensure variation, double down on winners

Our strategy of creating a network of individual practitioners who aren’t full-time employees of The Ready yet still practice under our brand is a somewhat risky one.

We could take all the time, effort, and resources we’ve spent on exploring this possibility and use it in the creation of a more traditional consulting firm. However, we’re committed to the idea of exploring risk as an organization.

In a complex world, it’s much more difficult to be precise with your predictions. In place of specific predictions, you have to have many bets spread out across a large field of play and be ready to bear down on the ones that appear to be winning.

On an individual level, each member of The Ready has some serious stretch goals while also focusing on constant small improvements (a frequent topic of conversation at The Ready is around our own personal productivity habits/preferred tools, etc.). The wild swings are the goals that seem completely out of reach and the sure things are the more traditional improvement opportunities.

Adaptive, Meaningful, and Abundant

We certainly aren’t perfect, and these are not the only principles that matter when it comes to designing great organizations. In the spirit of transparency and continuous steering, though, this represents our best thinking so far. We challenge and guide our clients in adopting the same principles we live because our experience has shown us that organizations who dedicate themselves to these principles experience greater success than those who don’t. While we hold these principles strongly we have only just begun to scratch the surface of possible ways to manifest these principles in the real world.

In the spirit of learning — what principles aren’t on this list that you would include? What does your organization do to bring these principles to life? Leave your thoughts in the comments — we’d love to hear them!

Ready to change how you work? The Ready helps complex organizations move faster, make better decisions, and master the art of dynamic teaming. Contact us to find out more. While you’re at it, sign up to get our newsletter, Brave New Work Weekly, delivered to your inbox every week.

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The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works. Topics include org design, self-organization, and dynamic teaming.

Sam Spurlin

Written by

Organization design guy at The Ready.

The Ready

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works. Topics include org design, self-organization, and dynamic teaming.