TL;DR Organisations’ Culture Part 2: Tight Looseness and how it can help you.
In the previous post, I shared with you two common organisations structures. The first one, tight form, as great for risk management and is most often implemented in companies where predictability and security are prioritised. And the second one, loose structure, promotes creative freedom and flexibility as primary goals. If you missed the Part 1, you can check it out here:
TL;DR Organisations’ Culture Part 1: Tight vs. Loose and what does it mean?
There is a place for both types, and ultimately one is not better than the other. This split also translates into…
Something I haven’t talked about earlier is the balanced approach which sits somewhere between. However, it is up to every company to decide where the centre actually is.
Loose Tightness. The balanced approach.
- It’s a perfect approach for companies that are led by context.
- Focuses on creating guidelines rather than rules and strict processes.
- Promotes strategic direction coming from above and tactical execution from the bottom of the organisation.
- The right amount of process in certain areas and creative freedom in others to make the right decisions fast and pivot as needed.
This is the approach I’m always favouring in organisations I work with and it proves to be powerful within the software engineering space.
I often hear that this is what most companies would actually like to be, but instead, they end up with a very unbalanced approach with tight rules and a facade of creative freedom because they cannot switch from leading by control to leading by context. The more they talk about “freedom”, the more likely they are only words.
The balanced “loose tightness” for organisations and teams.
One crucial aspect of a successfully implemented structure like that is leading by context. Netflix or Patagonia are doing it exceptionally well. It helps them evolve efficiently within the market they occupy, often shaping it rather than following others. People working in such places feel in control and are encouraged to make decisions, sometimes risky, for the company’s good. There are usually specific rules here and there, but the majority is left to common sense. Everybody knows that they are working towards clear, shared goals and deeply understand company values. With that in mind, people are always doing the right thing.
Create guidelines, not rules and processes.
Ensuring that the team or organisation works towards the same standards is essential, but that doesn’t mean creating rules about every tiny thing to keep everybody in control and check. Instead of putting barriers, we must create context, direction, desired outcomes and give people enough freedom to execute it as they please. If they fail, that means there is something we have to learn from it and get better.
There are areas where processes are important, like financial or legal departments, but at the same time, there is no “one fits all” approach. It’s OK to have different areas of the business working in a slightly different way. We are not talking here about massive variations anyway.
Exercise responsible freedom
Once we reach a point where the strategic directions and consistent message is in place and the frame is widely understood, we can move to another step — ownership delegation across the organisations. People need to feel responsible for doing the right thing without abusing their powers. Empowered teams will do more than is expected from them, and since they are closest to the problem, they are much better at making swift tactical decisions than leadership on the top.
“Responsible Freedom organises concepts of workflow execution, but leaving space to pivot easily and not being too obsessed about commitments.”
Trust is a powerful tool, and we must use it more often than we feel comfortable with. It’s a lubricant of high-performing teams, and all they need is faith in their skills.
Adjust accordingly and communicate well
Staying rigid doesn’t help anybody, and the only sure thing in life is change. Our organisations need to be able to flex whenever it’s required to not become obsolete. To know how well we are doing, we must monitor effectiveness and performance and steer the direction based on the feedback. The path to get there is not easy and doesn’t work for 80% of managers, but it works for the remaining 20% (leaders).
Being at pace with changes helps improve the communication style from “can I do this?” to something more like “this is what I will do” — notify vs. ask.
Where do I like to work?
Since I’m more on the creative side (yes, software engineering is highly creative), I value freedom and choice, and I suck at blindly following orders without the WHY. I like to have processes in places where they are crucial to delivering quality and consistency, but at the same time, I love my teams to have the freedom to do what they believe is right. For these reasons, the tight looseness is what I will always opt-in to.
- Tight looseness is what really works and allows flexibility between different teams and business areas.
- We define high-level rules as a team or organisation but always leave space for Doing The Right Thing.
- People should not be punished for doing what they believe is the right thing at a given moment. If they failed, the leadership did not set the expectations right and have more work to do.
- Help people on the battlefield to set the rules themselves.
- Help bring the long-term vision into tactical execution and always consider the impact of significant changes for the next 5–10 years ahead.
- Practising responsible freedom brings the best out of people. Nobody wants to be treated like in adult daycare.
I strongly recommend reading a book by Netflix’s CEO called “No Rules Rules”. Although they are presented as a loose company, they are closer to a tight-looseness setup and what really stands out is how they lead by context.