Hacking The Matrix

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Neo wanted out of the Matrix. So do I.

After that red pill, Neo knew the Matrix was only a simulation of what life could be, should be. A simulation built by the evil super-computers who had taken over the earth.

After working in a small, consistent agile team, I know the agency model of assigning work using a matrix view of employees and projects is a simulation of what my work life at an agency could be, should be. A simulation built by some well-meaning business folks back in the 70s.

People living happily in the Matrix thought Neo was nuts.

Likewise, it's really, really hard to explain to prospective Aha Method clients and even to my own team exactly why a matrix management style is so painful for me.

Most of them believe that because agencies deal with an ever shifting volume of work and that the type of work fluctuates just as wildly that then, in order to be successful, "we need to manage in multiple dimensions: horizontally where we align and optimize business processes and projects that serve the customer, and vertically, where we manage the resources that are then deployed to the horizontal arena." (Definition of Matrix Management from a 2012 Human Resources Management Report.)

But I've had the opportunity to work on brands like Audi and The North Face using an agile management approach. We eventually managed these accounts from the perspective of a small, cross-functional, agile team (not just dev, but everybody) that was built to adeptly handle the fluctuations and the variation in the work.

Yep, Bree and I have lived in a third dimension if you will...and it was ah-mah-zing.

But don't take my word for it, Dave Aron, wrote a Harvard Business Review article where he predicts that by 2020, 30% of work will be performed by permanently employed, self-managed clusters.

While his definition of a Cluster (an external team hired by the company as a unit) is slightly different from the Aha Method definition (a self-organizing internal team of the company), the four main benefits he outlines apply to both:

• Higher levels of business performance through higher motivation. The cluster model, when executed well, addresses known performance drivers such as purpose, autonomy, and mastery (see Daniel Pink's book Drive for more on these).

• Higher levels of business performance through a custom work environment. Clusters can create and sustain leading-edge electronic work environments since they are less burdened by bureaucratic decision-making and the need to serve the diverse needs of many types of teams and individuals.

• Talent management in the right place. The cluster model removes the burden of team and individual performance management from the business — where it typically sits uncomfortably and ineffectually today — to the cluster. The cluster knows its own members, contributions and development needs much better.

• Higher levels of personal happiness. Clusters are sufficiently small for members to genuinely know and care about each other, and they are stable and autonomous enough for members to support each other's long-term personal development.

I know most of the agency folks threw their hands up about 6 paragraphs ago, rolled their eyes and muttered something about "well, lucky you miss fancy pants to be on big fat retainers where you can dedicate a team...but few of us are that fortunate." Yes, I first lived in the agile cluster utopia on a retainer. BUT, I've run the numbers with the director of PMO at my current gig and using the right approach we can work the work like we're on a retainer, even if we aren't. It just takes some smart resource forecasting (potentially across multiple accounts), a dedication to incremental growth on existing accounts and a willingness to take a risk.

I say risk because it will require your internal teams to be willing to try something new. But the truth is, it's actually an investment because, guess what - clients don't want to get stuck in the matrix either. They know when you are simulating talent. Meaning, when you pitched it one way but end up staffing it another due to your best players being drawn and quartered every day in the Matrix.

There was a great headline in a January issue of AdAge: Kao USA to Agencies: We Want Your 'A-Team' on Our Account. They went on to quote directly from Kao's Request for Proposal:

"Kao wants to be an important priority for your agency and does not want to get lost or relegated to the 'B' team."

The headline I hope to read sometime in the near future reads:
"Kao USA Discovers that 'A-Team' Stood for 'Agile-Team.'"

Until then. I hope at least a few of you will consider hacking the system along with us.

This piece is cross-posted from The BRAT Blog from The Aha Method — a company that coaches teams around a better working dynamic.

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