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[Article] The Proxy Organization - five ways to battle a wasteful culture

Jimi Wikman

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As organizations grow it will always increase the number of middle managers to stay organized. If the organization assign the wrong type of managers you may notice that that number start to grow a lot. You may also notice that the level of trust that exist between the different areas drop as well. This is what I call The Proxy Organization, and it is very damaging for your company.

Every organization forms a hierarchy. This is how we make sense of the world around us. We define structures such as responsibilities and mandates to make sure we know our place in the organization. In an organization where these structures start to be confusing or poorly defined you often see the number of people between the leaders and the people that make things happen grow. This is because not only is it very difficult to handle a poorly defined workload, you also start to have meetings for everything. Not to take decisions, but to form consensus since it is not clear who should take the decisions.

The more meetings you have, the less time you have to think about what happen in the meetings and the more help you need to go to more meetings. And so you enter into a running organization. Meetings happen all day and without time to reflect you start to make poor decisions and reduce time to communicate outside the meetings. So you hire more people to handle that, but soon they also get sucked into the meetings, and they need to hire more people.

As these people start to get more and more stressed they feel the need to attend more and more meetings to keep up to date with everything that happens. As stress sets in the need for control grow. We introduce KPI's that are designed, not to make teams work better together, but to make the team accountable if anything goes wrong. We implement restrictions and control points in our systems to "ensure" people work "correct". Morale drops and segregation begin to foster a "we vs them" attitude.

Slowly the organization split into silos, and we have more managers than people actually working. The managers spend all their time forming a biological proxy network with a single purpose to receive and send information in the endless meetings. People start to get sick from stress and start to leave the organization as the distance between the workers and leadership is made up of dozens of proxy positions all focused on control from a top-down perspective.


Sound familiar?

This is a very common thing as companies grow, and it is actually not that hard to turn around. It will require a lot of effort, and it will take time, but you will save a ton of money long term and most importantly you will stop hurting your staff.


Step 1: Define roles.

The first thing you should always do is define the roles in your organization. Make sure all roles are clearly defined, following a standard that is the same in all areas of the company. Don't make up roles like scrum manager or other combined roles. Stick to proper roles that are the same across the globe. You are not unique, so stop making up unicorns because you don't live in an imaginary fantasy world. Define responsibilities and mandates for all roles, so everyone knows what is expected of them.

To avoid a situation where you pretty much play the whisper game and just forward information you define what input and output for each role. Every role should have some value passed in the output that is higher than the value they receive in the input. If the role does not add value, then consider why that role exists in the first place. If it actually reduces the value, then remove that role.

In this step you should also match the role definition with the skill and experience of the manager(s) that hold that role. You will often find that you have the wrong person in certain roles, and you should try to match the roles with the people to get the best result. Never put a manager in a position on the merit of being with the company a long time. That is not the right experience to promote.


Step 2: Define decision processes

Endless meetings often come from poorly defined decision processes. So set clear decision processes that either comes as part of the portfolio process, or inside the teams if the team and product owner are given mandate. If everyone knows what need to be decided and the process to get that decision, the number of meetings are reduced drastically.

Defining the decision processes also prevent "ghost projects" that are driven in isolation without coordination elsewhere in the organization.


Step 3: Define information flows

One of the reasons why proxy organizations exist is because the information flow is poor. By that I do not mean that you don't have information flowing, I mean that it is difficult to get the information you need. This is just as common with an overwhelming information flow as with an underwhelming one.

Make sure that information is properly classified, so it is easy to find the type of information each person need or is interested in. Also make sure you make the information easy to overview with short snippets that I can drill down if I want. Lastly make sure the information is both sent in regular intervals when it is information that affect the whole organization, but also, so I can subscribe to get information of my choosing.

If you do this right, then confusion and uncertainty is reduced. This lead to less stress and better decisions from everyone as they are better informed.


Step 4: Define Meeting guidelines

In a proxy organization meets are used as crutches by managers that are afraid to take decisions. Either because they don't understand what they are supposed to take a decision on, or because they feel unsure on their mandate, so they seek to get as much approval from others as possible.

In Step 1 you make sure that you have the right people in the right position. This alone will help mitigate the endless meeting syndrome. Next you require every meeting to have a set agenda, what outcome should come from the meeting and most importantly a cost for the meeting. This will discourage meetings that are not really necessary, or that people that actually just want to have control join without having any impact on the desired outcome.

The last thing to do in this step is to set  limit on meetings. If all you do is going to meetings, then what do you actually produce in value? Everyone need time between meetings to reflect and take care of the actions undoubtedly coming up in the meetings. Enforce 30 minutes waiting between meetings and 2 periods each week with 2-4 hours of consecutive meeting free time. Sometimes it can be a good idea to have this hard blocked in the calendar for everyone in the company, especially during the change process.


Step 5 : Introduce bottom-up evaluations

In most organization evaluations of people's performance within the organization is done top-down. To best understand the performance of the people in your organization you should also have the opposite represented. As a manager your job is to ensure that those below you in the hierarchy have what they need to be successful. In a Proxy organization this is often forgotten and a blame and punish attitude is used towards those below you in order to look good to those above you. This should be removed and introducing bottom-up evaluations is a good way to do that.

This should be done often as a way to determine where in the organization people are running off to meetings instead of taking care of their people. It will also indicate where you have the wrong people in place or where people have too much responsibility to manage.


Don't think you can change your organization "organically"

While these five steps seem easy to implement they are not. This is not something you can throw into your organization in the form of "read this article and make it happen" kind of activity. This is something you need an organized change management process for, and it will cost money and time. As with all change you must commit to it and pay the price short term to enjoy the benefits long term.

It will hurt, and it will not be an easy journey to stop running in an eternal meetings based proxy organization, but it will be worth it. If not for the financial gain, then for the well-being of the people.

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