Work Systems - The Why

Jul 09, 2020

There’s a lot of talk about what frameworks or scaled frameworks within agile work the best. It is nearly as popular to talk about how the scaled frameworks conversation misses the point. Agile is based on principles and values, and is not about any particular implementation. I do agree with that, and I also think we have a knowledge gap when we consider scaled frameworks and think about what I’ll call ‘pragmatic ideas’ that help the frameworks be effective.

I’m going to use the language I’m most familiar with so I’m not second-guessing myself and confusing everyone throughout this article. I’m going to call the combination of processes and groups that exist in organizations ‘work systems’. When you think of ‘framework’ or ‘scaled framework’, it’s not quite the same, but let’s say it’s a synonym to 'work system'.

First, I want to talk about why I believe work systems exist, and the pragmatic ideas (for some reason I’m hesitating to say ‘principles', but they may be) that we can derive from that reason.

In a (nearly) perfect working environment, everyone would know exactly what to do and how to do it. This perfect place would have individuals in touch with the customer's needs, fully aware of the ramifications of any and all changes, and flawlessly and rapidly creating value. In this perfect world, there is no need for managers or meetings or any sort of overhead. You just need the perfect people, as they would know exactly what to do and when and would work together without conflict or confusion.

Outside of the fact that I would be entirely out of a job, that sounds pretty awesome. A customer has a need, and the team just KNOWS it, recognizes it, and works immediately to get it done without any of the 'trying to figure out how to work together'. Wouldn't it be wonderful! Customers would get exactly what they wanted as rapidly as it could be produced.

Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t work this way, and because of that if we attempt this approach (and it has been attempted), it can actually be incredibly slow and difficult. Human beings are (at best) imperfect communicators. The customer probably doesn’t know exactly what they need, what they communicate may not be right and is unlikely to be interpreted properly, the team doing the work can interpret any particular desired outcome (assuming they receive it as a vision rather than as a solution) in a myriad of ways many of which may not be compatible, etc. etc. 

This leads us to the idea of a work system, and it’s fundamental purpose. A work system consists of a few elements and it creates alignment across everyone who is working within that system. We don’t live in a perfect world, so we need to invest effort building and maintaining alignment. Work systems are the way we do this. We need to talk to the customer, we need to understand the outcomes desired, we need to know how to work together, we need to pick a solution and understand how each person contributes. All of this is alignment. Our imperfect world requires alignment constantly, because not only do we start unaligned, but even after we choose something, over time alignment will naturally drift as people experience different things and choose subtly different paths. So, I would argue that the primary purpose of a work system is the creation and maintenance of alignment among a group of people. This is also why individuals or very small groups need very lightweight or nearly non-existent ‘work systems’; I am perfectly aligned if I am the only person working on a project for myself. It is almost possible for me to just ‘do the work’ (almost!). 

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The secondary purpose of a work system is to develop relationships. You could argue this is a sub-bullet of alignment, but I think it is worth calling out separately. People have different styles of working, interacting, walking, eating, thinking, etc. A work system creates space for people to get to know each other, team member to team member, customer to stakeholder, and everything in between.

So, we have these two fundamental things that work systems do: build alignment and develop relationships. How does a work system do it? Well, I see there being four(-ish) different parts of a work system: groups (of people), interaction points (meetings, etc.), artifacts, and the actual content (subdivided into the description of the work and the actual work). I’ll probably talk more about these (and the 'how') in a different article. For now, just know that those are the distinct parts of work systems that help build alignment and develop relationships.

Now, when I talk about alignment above, most people think about product alignment. There’s a customer who has a need or want, and we aim to meet that, so we need some way to align on what product could meet it with the group of people involved with ultimately meeting the need. But there are a ton of other things that the average person needs to align around. How do we work? What roles do we have? What types of systems does our work reside in and how do they function? What are our cultural and behavioral expectations? Who makes the decisions? There’s an almost infinite number of things you could invest time aligning on.

And that leads to a huge problem: in a world where there are tons of things to align around, and alignment is unstable and therefore constantly drifting, it would be easy to spend all your time aligning on everything, and never end up getting any work done. You may have experienced this a time or two. 

So then, as it relates to work systems, their primary purpose is alignment, the secondary purpose is relationships, and the reality is that we will never achieve (and even if we did, would not maintain) perfect alignment. We are led to an important question to consider when building a work system, and perhaps the first one or two ‘pragmatic ideas’ I’ll put forth:

1. A work system should focus on building alignment around those things that are most important within that particular environment, and developing relationships with the right people, to create the outcomes the organization intends.

2. A work system should not aim for perfect alignment, but should instead focus on having most of the people mostly aligned most of the time, with the organization being the arbiter of what ‘most’ or ‘mostly’ means - could be 60% or 99%. To reiterate: do not attempt to attain perfect alignment. You won’t get anything done.

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OK, that’s a good place to stop with my early thoughts on work systems. Next up, I’ll be talking about who a work system is for and a related and common pitfall organizations run into when building them.


Benjamin Carcich