About exploration

Sander, please tell us something about yourself?

Hi, I am Sander Hoogendoorn, born 52 years ago in the Netherlands. I am a co-parent to my three kids, aged 23, 19 and 14, which teaches me a lot about autonomy and self-organization.

I started programming at the age of 15 and made money first as a developer when I was 19. After graduating, I started working for large consultancies, and moved slowly from traditional, waterfall projects to iterative and incremental development in the late 1990s. In that era my team and I developed a methodology called Smart, which became a reputed agile approach later. As such, I became a pioneer in the world of agile, later to become a global agile thought leader for Capgemini. In 2014 I went independent, and I help organizations to change, both culturally and technologically.

Exploration is a very important topic in every business today. What is your opinion?

There is an interesting framework called Cynefin. It was developed by Dave Snowdon, now a professor at Bangor University in Wales. It describes different contexts organizations can find themselves in. In obvious and complicated contexts, good practices exist that can be implemented to solve the problem in hand. In complex of chaotic contexts, such practices do not exist (yet), and need to emerge from exploration.

As far as I’m concerned, many of the organizations I work with find themselves in such complex or chaotic contexts. Maybe the market they are in is emerging, such as with my current client, which is a company rooted in the internet-of-things, and operating in the smart energy market. Or maybe their market is changing rapidly, often as a result of new competitors, coming into the market and changing the business models in that market. Especially organizations that operate in tech markets see the possibilities of technology change so fast that they cannot afford themselves not to continuously explore.

As a result, solving problems, or even discovering direction or vision, requires intensive and never-ending exploration. Traditional or linear approaches fail here, as they rely on a predictable path to follow. Hence, continuous exploration is key.

There are a lot of methodologies when it comes to execution. But not so many for exploration. How do you explore?

That is a good observation. I suppose the reason for not many approaches based on exploration is historical. Many organization are lead and populated by people that grew up in a highly predictable world where the predictable models from the industrial era prevailed.

This is highly visible for instance in request-for-proposal processes for government projects. Often, these requests for proposal contain highly detailed and extensive lists of requirements and demands, which can only be implemented in long-running linear projects. However, they do not take into account that in the meantime the world and technology will change fast. Faster and faster even. Many government organizations unfortunately do not really understand how fast the world around them changes, and instead fall back on highly traditional methodologies.

Allowing your organization to explore new possibilities and allowing vision and practices to emerge is just not something leaders and managers are often used to. However, many of them, operating in complex and chaotic contexts, will need to adapt really quickly, or get overhauled by competitors who will be able to lead by exploration.

On the other hand, many agile approaches, when implemented with care and flexibility, offer room for exploration. Or even better, are based on continuous exploration and improvements.

We are talking a lot about innovation. What makes the difference between a company that has succeeded in innovation from the less successful one?

Organizations that are used to doing projects often treat innovation as something you can and should manage as a project. Often highly linear too. Innovation, however, is best when it is ongoing and continuous, and where teams and people in organizations can experiment. Continuously.

Organizations which succeed in innovation are the ones that survive in this complex or chaotic, and often confusing world we live in. But it’s hard to turn a big ship around. It takes cultural change, and a change of attitude, both with leaderships and with people in organizations.

What about people? What kind of leadership do we need?

With the current state of technology, and its speed of change, anyone can come into any market, at any time, from anywhere. For most organizations finding themselves in such markets, and most organizations do, leadership needs to start acting, and quickly.

Exploration is best conducted when a decision can be made at the appropriate level. For most decisions, this means that they are made as low in the organization as possible. When a team wants to use a new tool, acquiring a license to use that tool shouldn’t have to up four levels in an organization, and then sideways to a procurement department. In the end, too many decisions are made at levels in the organization where people are not knowledgeable about most of the work that is done in the teams.

Leadership in organizations that would like to best explore exploration allow for high levels of autonomy and self-organization to optimize making fast decisions at the right level. Teams and people in such organizations are then enabled by leadership, and will need to pick up responsibility for their own work. However, responsibility is only felt with true autonomy. In too many organizations I’ve witnessed pseudo-autonomy, where on the surface teams and people are mandated, but where managers regularly overrule decisions made by the teams.

My new book, currently under review, discusses these topics, and how to organize for exploration. I hope that it will be published before the end of the year – hopefully before I’ve explored even newer ideas, and have to rewrite the manuscript :).

At best, leadership provides strategy and vision that can be used to guide the teams and people exploring new opportunities and possibilities. From there, practices can emerge and lead to great things.

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