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Re-think authority and responsibility in the agile company

February 22, 2021

For many companies striving to be agile, redefining authority and responsibility is a difficult topic that comes with many cons and pros. In this article, I will focus at redefining decision-making authority and responsibility.

Re-evaluate authority

Re-evaluating responsibility is a difficult topic. It is not without reason that sharing responsibility scores high on both key success factor and challenge of agile transformations (Capgemini Consulting, 2017, Agile Organizations). Within a business context, I think of authority as “a group of people with official responsibility for a particular area of activity” (Cambridge Dictionary). So, these often concern line-management officials who are responsible for a particular area of the business, department or service.

I notice that people drop terms related trust very fast when they are re-thinking authority. Line managers are scared of losing control and communication, afraid that everything will fall to pieces. But it comes as no surprise that in order to apply a customer-centered end-to-end process at team level, team members cannot check every detail with someone who is higher up in the hierarchy. For example, asking for approval via email or a especially designed request system just makes it longer to reach a decision and respond. If a request comes in on Monday, for example, you are lucky if you get an answer by Friday. In the meantime, the customer isn’t being helped and is just waiting in the dark.

Decision-making teams

Re-evaluating team authority and responsibility means giving teams the authority to make relevant decisions that affect the implementation of their day-to-day activities. In other words, treat grown-ups like grown-ups. Give team members the power to decide without having to ask someone higher up for permission. In practice, this means that the teams have the authority to prioritize feature changes in products. Alternatively, the developers talk directly with architects and product owners to understand the customer’s needs.

Giving team members authority also fosters freedom and autonomy – and this is one factor that, according to Pink (2009: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), motivates people. Pink argues that people are intrinsically motivated by three factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The first factor, autonomy, refers to the ability to direct your own life and work. You can control what you do and how you do it. Traditional ideas of control, such as regular work hours and dress codes, can be retaught, improving staff autonomy (Pink, 2009).

Focus on signature customer moments

Re-thinking responsibility involves moving away from traditional top-down authority patterns and putting the authority at the place closest to the customer in the value chain. Move away from traditional top-down hierarchy. Set teamwork up in non-traditional ways in which fast reaction times and feedback loops are priorities that enhance the customer experience (Capgemini Consulting, 2017, Agile Organizations).

To elevate the customer experience, it is also necessary to distinguish your organization from others during signature moments. Capgemini Consulting (2020, One Happy Customer) discusses these signature moments. H&M Kik chatbot, which presents users with different outfit photos to help styling, is one example. The signature moments are different than “regular” processes in online retail, such as online checkout. As a result, these moments make or break interactions with customers. They have the power to build deeper and longer relationships between people and the business. Especially during the signature moments, should the customer experience a speedy and flexible process. Most importantly, this requires teams that are able to make fast decisions and are not stuck on long decision-making paths.

New communication and responsibility for agile teams

Just like all other things in life, rethinking authorization has two sides. By distributing authority to teams, you give them the power to make relevant decisions. However, this also means that you give them new communication lines and responsibilities to align with the agile organization. These are responsibilities they probably did not have to think about before. Guide teams towards becoming responsible for sharing knowledge, rethinking ways of working, and making information accessible for others. Before, the line-manager took care of this. Now teams themselves need to break silos and start thinking as a holistically. However, learning to take care of new responsibilities is unlikely to happen overnight. Teams will reflect and improve this process along the way. Give teams time to learn and adapt to the agile organization.


Nick van Zuijlen

Senior Consultant Transformation