Agility Through Independence

Agile networks of American militia overcame legendary British training and discipline.

The buzzword in modern business these days is agility. What does agility mean? It means networks of teams working independently but in unity to accomplish common goals. The hierarchical organization is sometimes a necessary way to structure a company or military unit, but there are very few organizations that can respond rapidly to changing environments if they operate that way.

Wiring Diagram vs Network of Teams

Since the advent of the industrial revolution, hierarchies have been the norm for organizing large organizations. These days the hierarchy is a hindrance rather than a help. Hierarchies are generally slow to change, slow to innovate, and slow to respond when the environment changes. Notwithstanding the ability of a “Great Captain” to inspire large bodies of people to unified effort in a hierarchy, the necessarily fixed lines of communication and authority in a “stack of blocks” make agility difficult.

On the other hand, networks of small teams who support each other and operate semi- or even fully autonomously are extremely agile. They can quickly share information and get to those in authority quickly for decisions they can’t make on their own. Networks with leaders vested with sufficient resource or approval authority can make decisions on behalf of the network and quickly respond to changing conditions.

How to Build a Network of Teams

To build an effective Network of Teams, we need two things: authority to make decisions and a shared purpose.

First, authority must be decentralized to the maximum extent possible. Individual team leaders or team members don’t necessarily need unlimited authority, but each “node” in the network needs sufficient authority to make decisions or commit resources to accomplish their team or organizational mission. It does no good to form a network of teams then vest all the decision-making authority at the C-suite. Each “node” in the Network of Teams is a contact point with customers, suppliers, and other internal nodes. They have to have the ability to respond to the “demand signal” of those they work with, and can’t be in a position of constantly referring to others to satisfy the demands of their customers.

Second, teams must have a shared purpose so they’re aligned with the senior leaders and organizational strategy. To operate as a network, the nodes need to have as much of a defined “lane” as possible but still have enough “freedom of maneuver” to innovate. Multiple complementary nodes operating independently but towards a shared purpose is powerful indeed. The power of thirty people all thinking, applying their unique skills and perspectives, and working toward a shared purpose is demonstrated–believe it or not–in the way military units operate. Modern military operations are networks of small units all working toward a common end, often over long distances. In some cases, they never even see each other, but they share information and provide mutual support–innovating as they go–based on a common mission and commander’s intent.

Networks of Teams are Agile

The net result of using these networks is an organization that can rapidly respond to change, has “crowd-sourced intelligence,” and learns as it goes. That’s the very definition of agility, and that’s what the 21st-century demands of leaders.

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and blogs.

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