The Secret To Agile Teams: Three Hacks To Use Hierarchy To Accelerate Team Agility

A clear hierarchy -with a strong leader- allows teams to know when to flatten out to ideate or fall into rank to get things done quickly- and that starts to look like true agility!

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Companies around the world are jumping on the agility bandwagon and revamping their structures and processes to support agility. However, I've noticed through my research and consulting that sometimes companies throw the baby out with the bathwater- dumping traditional organizational structures and formal hierarchies in their quest for the enhanced agility needed to survive and thrive in the increasingly turbulent business environment.


However, in the absence of hierarchy, team agility is often unattainable. Team velocity can even be dramatically slowed down when decision-making becomes unclear, the responsibility for holding the team accountable for execution becomes diffused, and teams grind to a halt. In the absence of a clear guiding team structure, members resort to micro-managing behaviors and politics, and resentments rise.

In my research, I show that agility can be enabled through a clear (and importantly, well-designed) team hierarchy. At the end of the day, there is no substitute in a team for a good leader. A clear hierarchy -with a strong leader- allows teams to know when to flatten out to ideate or fall into rank to get things done quickly- and that starts to look like true agility!

Agility -in the most classic sense- is the ability of a team to adapt its structures and processes to meet shifting customer and environment needs. Truly agile teams can adapt their ways of working -even within a short meeting- to meet performance goals. Indeed, while agility is often associated with certain process fads, the most basic definition of organization agility is "the ability to gather and act on information, make decisions quickly, and implement change to meet rapidly evolving requirements of customers and the business environment."

This inherent paradox -that hierarchical structure enables flatness and fluidity- has captured the interest of management researchers. Because of its inherent paradox, this tension between hierarchy and fluidity is an area of management that requires special intentionality and forethought from managers. Here are three hacks for how you can skillfully use organizational hierarchy to create agile teams, which can flex into flat, innovative ways of working when needed:

1. Make sure teams are clear about the task at hand, and that they know how to flex in and out of more hierarchical ways of interacting to match the given task

One of my favorite examples on how to create agile teams, which flex their hierarchical structures and processes from task to task involves a story from an MBA student who came from the United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams, more commonly known as the Navy SEALS. He mentioned how the team had a clear chain of command while in action, and flattened out (as initiated and guided by the hierarchical leader) to a very egalitarian atmosphere to brainstorm in post-mission reviews (a "burst of flatness," initially guided by the leader and possible because of the hierarchy), and then fell back into hierarchy again afterwards. Matching team structures and ways of interacting to match the task has been shown in empirical research to positively predict team effectiveness, and it is only possible when there is a hierarchy with a clear leader to guide the team in its flexes between different tasks and modes of work!

Related: Six Tactics To Improve Collaboration For Remote Teams

2. Train leaders on how to match their power (and the surrounding perceived hierarchy) to team needs

In my own research and consulting, I've watched 1000+ team meetings, and have often noted the role of the leader in being the key "conductor" to orchestrate these agile flexes in modes of team collaboration. I've seen a general manager in a health club move to the back of the room, and hunch over to make himself physically small to encourage his team to step up into their power and brainstorm. I've also seen a CEO of a healthcare company deepen his voice and truncate his sentences to step into and resolve a team conflict, using verbal cues to show power, and enforce a hierarchy to keep a team agilely moving through its paces.

Helping leaders to be self-aware of and intentional about the power they show to match the level of power and hierarchy the team needs in any given moment is a key to team agility. I've seen vocal and theatrical coaches do wonders in helping with these skills.

3. Use cultural rituals to signal task transitions

One of the interesting details from the U.S. Navy SEALS example was the cultural rituals the SEALS used to ritualistically mark their shifts from hierarchy to bursts of flatness. For example, when shifting from a mission into postmission brainstorm review mode, the SEALS teams literally remove their stripes and leave them outside the door to the meeting room to symbolically "leave the hierarchy at the door." In startups, I've also seen such artifacts be also ritualistically used to cue agile team flexes into bursts of flatness, such as teams where post-its come out whenever it's time to brainstorm.

Through embracing these tools (and by not throwing out the hierarchy with the bathwater) when embracing agile processes, organizations can help enable their teams to flexibly and fluidly adapt to changing task and market demands. That's true agility!

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