#95 – Avoiding the Agile Bureaucracy with Rosa and Hjorteland



#95 – Avoiding the Agile Bureaucracy with Rosa and Hjorteland

In today’s episode, we are joined by João Rosa and Trond Hjorteland, two organizational consultants with a unique point of view, who take us through the depth of Open Systems Theory, and what it means to be socio-technical practitioners, passionate about transitioning democratic organizations to fast-flowing operational models. 


With many years of experience in large and complex contexts, they delve into what it means to create a collaborative and democratic organization, and how to balance mission, business outcomes, and cognitive load.


Join us on this episode, as we debate the role of “purpose”, entrepreneurship, and autonomy and learn how to avoid the creation of agile bureaucracies.


Tune in, and get inspired.


Youtube video for this podcast is linked here.

Podcast Notes

In the conversation with Rosa and Hjorteland we started from an original question that Simone threw out at a small conference recently: how do we avoid building Agile Bureaucracies? 


What does it mean to develop a business that achieves agility without having to exert total control on flows and processes?


With increasingly complex and dynamic environments, it becomes pivotal for organizations to recognize and adapt to change, if not stay ahead of it and rigidities are more than dangerous – even the cultural ones.


Emphasizing learnings from different methodologies like Open Systems Theory, Domain Driven Design, and Team Topologies; our guests advocate a team-centered, and democratic approach over industrial and hierarchical practices. 

A unique episode to look out for. 


Key highlights

  • Evolving socio-technical systems to enhance organizational resilience against complexity and unpredictability.
  • Integrating agile practices, Open System Theory, and collaborative sense-making to navigate complex organizational challenges.
  • Participatory culture for enabling team autonomy and fostering ownership practices.
  • Balancing strategic focus with adaptability, by leveraging external technologies for organizational evolution.
  • The role of Team Topologies in creating effective communication and collaboration structures within organizations.
  • Encouraging the shift towards a micro-entrepreneurial mindset within teams to promote innovation and autonomy.

Tune in.


This podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsSoundcloud and other podcast streaming platforms.


Topics (chapters):

00:00 Intro – Avoiding the Agile Bureaucracy with Rosa and Hjorteland

00:59 Guests Introduction

02:37 Status Quo: Socio-Technical Systems

10:38 Aligning organizational design and business outcomes

20:52 Enabling entrepreneurship and building optionality

38:55 Disruptions in Industrial Organization Thinking

49:56 Theory of Organizations for a Complex World

58:09 Breadcrumbs and Suggestions


To find out more about their work:


Other references and mentions:



Breadcrumbs and Suggestions: 


Recorded on 6th February 2024.


Get in touch with Boundaryless:

Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at https://boundaryless.io/resources/podcast



Music from Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here: https://blss.io/Podcast-Music



Simone Cicero 

Hello, hello everybody and welcome back to the Boundaryless Conversations podcast. On this podcast, we meet with pioneers, thinkers, and doers, and we talk about the future of business models, organizations, markets, and society in our rapidly changing world. Today, I’m joined by two exceptional individuals who are united by their profession as kind of organizational consultants, let’s say.


João Rosa and Trond Hjorteland, I hope I pronounced it well. Joao is an experienced organizational coach who works with organizations that want to transition into the so-called fast-flow operating models. He’s also part of the team topology’s valued practitioner team, very close to the core team that, by the way, we already had on the podcast. Listeners, you can check previous episodes we had with Mattew Skelton.


And also one of the co-authors of Software Architecture Metrics, a book from O’Reilly, and one of the curators of the Visual Collaboration Tools book. Trond defines himself as a social technical practitioner with many years of experience with large and complex organizations. And he works, I would say, at the convergence between technology and organizations, coupling techniques and concepts that span from agile practices – whole scale organizational change and collaborative sense-making and design. 


Hello, both of you, Trond and Joao. Fantastic to have you with us today.


Trond Hjorteland 

Thank you very much for having us.


João Rosa

Yeah, it’s a pleasure.


Trond Hjorteland 

Yeah, it’s worth.


Simone Cicero

Thank you so much. So let me tell just a bit of where all these conversations started. I met with Joao at the Avanscoperta retreat, organized by our friends at Avanscoperta. Again, you can check Alberto Brandolini’s episode on the podcast. And it was a moment when we were running an open space technology conference. 


And I proposed a session on the – on what was a kind of a provocative question. And I asked the audience, how do we avoid building “agile bureaucracies”, right? That was the question. And thankfully, Joao and another person, and a common friend, Jacopo, showed up at the session and we had a very interesting initial conversation. 


This led me to know more about Trond’s work as well because Joao shared it with me on open systems theory, which is something that we’re going to discuss more openly during the conversation today. So as a starting point, maybe both of you, can take a few minutes to kind of share with our audience, where are you, and what is your work now as deeply informed practitioners around social-technical systems. So what is your thinking at the moment, let’s say around everything related to how we organize and produce great outcomes in technology, in viewed organizations, and in general on social-technical systems?


Trond Hjorteland 

Yeah, I can go. At the moment, I have been working as an architect for many, few years. Done a fair bit of coding before that, but I haven’t coded for many years. But I’ve been doing architecture. And I often refer to myself as the sort of reluctant architect, because I do not feel like I can architect anything for anyone. I can help. I can assist. I can sort of bring my ideas and, of course, experience and all that. But it’s not my position to do so. I never felt that was there. So I always felt that it was natural for me to bring in the teams and do this together. So that’s probably why I sort of ended up enjoying Domain Driven Design so much, especially the community, about the focus on the collaborative aspects, I think. So at my current client, and also my previous ones, I always intended or worked towards doing that together with the teams and organizations themselves. 


So not saying that I’m only facilitating because it’s more of a mix, but I’m not doing it alone. And I know you mentioned earlier, and I’ve read things from you that you were inspired by Haier, right? Actually, I read a paper quite a few years ago, which I didn’t know was Haier back then because I don’t think they were named, but they were talking about all this micro-enterprise thing. Because I’ve been into service-oriented architecture for a long time it’s kind of never felt right with me about the organization because it never seemed to fit all of the technical bits. And then there’s less about the organization or next to nothing about the organization. 


So when I go in now, like for a current client, I try to mix those two. Like you have, you can’t just focus on the technical bits, even if you’re doing service-oriented, you have to also bring on board teams. And if you create services, you have to think about teams as well, right? So they have to be so aligned.


So I guess that’s where I sort of bumped into social technical at some point and like the term, I think it started there. So I started digging into some papers, which turned into loads of papers because this is academia after all. So what I ended up doing, was like combining domain design, social-technical, service orientation, and all that. So just recently I had a workshop now where the company or the client I’m after at the moment, they are going through a merger, where a bigger company was buying, has bought them. So there’s of course a difference between the two, but they try to merge and there’s two very different cultures in those two organizations. So we are looking exactly at this moment into how can we make that organization into one. And then also avoid running into the bureaucracy as we also have to mention, because it’s not like, that’s the default, right?


When people think of the design of an organization, they start at the top and then it trickles down. So the next level, actually in the current organization, they started with L1, L2, L3, L4. So at each level, they have to design sort of their departments, if you like. L2, and then they have to bring in their people and design how they are gonna work, and then the next level is gonna design what they are gonna do. So it’s very top-down. And you get the bureaucracy out of that. And there’s, and you also have, like we do in an industry, we end up trading functional organizations all the time. So there’s like, here’s the UX people, and, here’s the business people. 

And you know, there’s IT over here. IT is lucky if it’s at the top level and usually it’s on a technology somewhere which this organization has decided to do. So it’s like the customer-supplier and delivery between the business and IT. So, you know, that’s the default. And I think we need to rethink that default and replace it with something else.


So that was a long-winded answer to say at the moment.


Simone Cicero 

Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I think you conveyed a lot of key points in your work these days. Joao?


João Rosa

Yeah, I also have a similar background. So I’m, I’m a software engineer by training, rig?t. And then start working at, uh, like that work at different countries, right? I’m Portuguese, but I work in Ireland and currently, we are in the Netherlands. And I always have been attracted to the intersection of technology, right? In this case, software and management, right? 


Always, you know, do a bit of management, get things wrong, get back to coding, you know, always on these yin and yang. About five years ago, I wanted to try consultancy, not the big consultants that are always traveling around the world, but something more niche. I started doing that a, in a company that still exists in the Netherlands. And this is where I start to see more and more of these patterns, right? 


We have new pieces of technology, very similar to what Trond was saying. We try to bring, uh, this technology or these practices to the workplace, but we never account how these gonna change us or, or even simpler all these. You know, back in the day when teams started practicing continuous delivery, that radically changed their workflow, but no one could predict that. So I start seeing these patterns at the team level, but also at the organizational level. 


This is what drew me to social-technical, actually triggered by Nick Tune in the domain-driven design conference. But then started looking to the, then I discovered Tavistock Institute, and then also followed part of Trond’s work. 


Start pulling this thread where there is this amazing body of knowledge that is tested everywhere. But. Not a lot in our field of work in IT. They did these a lot on mines and, you know, factories, manufacturing, you know, bottles, I don’t know, cars and explosives, but they never went to IT. And then what I realized is that in IT, we are always trying to reinvent the wheel, the next big framework and next big thing, rather than just look. Well, we are humans, we have huge bodies of knowledge. What do we know from anthropology? What do we know from sociology? Right, because it’s just humans using this technology to achieve something. And this is where I end up, right? Helping customers, supporting customers that want these more humane operating models, right? Where they, yes, leverage technology to do something.


But respect humans, respect our condition, respect the fact that we get tired very quickly, right? The computer can process and keep processing that. My brain just gets tired. I need to relax and do different stuff. It’s just my nature, right? And probably your nature as well. And this is what I try to bring and explore what others have been doing.


Simone Cicero 

When we discussed first, I think even at the same conference where we met with Joao, to resonated with some things you said.


Look at organizations as social-technical systems, where we have to respect, let’s say, the humans, or we have to understand the human nature that is involved in the organization. So for example, there are a lot of conversations around reducing the cognitive load on teams, encouraging collaborative decision-making, and using more democratic ways of organizing.


I have always been a bit skeptical, I would say, sometimes, of all this talking about democratization and listening to everybody and so on. Because I always, my mental model was, at the end of the day, you have to generate business outcomes. So it’s the market that decides, let’s say, what an organization is for and the meaning of our organization at the end of the day. Right?


And so I found in my experience a little bit of a synthesis, let’s say of these two ideas that I had, I was entertaining my mind. On one side, I was pretty sure that, you know, hierarchical, bureaucratic organizations that are dehumanizing are not effective. But on the other side, I always was skeptical of too much talking about, you know, respecting democracy and so on when there was no business outcome attached to that. And I think another thing that I want to add and throw the ball back to you, I found some of these, I would say inconsistencies. Also in the discussions we have sometimes around agile, we have this talking about relationships at the center. And if you look at the agile manifesto, but if you look at the agile manifesto, for example, there’s almost no mention of markets and business outcomes and so on. 


So what do you think in terms of, how much we can really be disruptive, let’s say in the way we organize to the mainstream narrative of organizations having to produce sustainable business outcomes and people having to be responsibleized, let’s say mainly through market outcomes and business outcomes.


João Rosa 

So it’s, it’s a long, so there are lots of questions that let’s try to unpack that.


Simone Cicero 

Yeah, sorry, that’s typical of our podcast and our listeners already have shared comments like, you know, Simone, you have to talk less, you have to let the guests talk more. So let’s try for the next questions.


João Rosa

Well, it’s perfectly fine. It’s a fire shed, but let’s unpack because I have a few ideas and then we’re going to derail and end up in a different place. But let’s start. I encountered this definition of bureaucracy from Max Weber. Right. So, Max said that can be defined as a system of administration based on rationality, hierarchy, rules, and impersonality.


So it’s thinking about, you know, this is just to make everything homogeneous, which was the thinking running back then, but still is there. So if we don’t want just a big machine running and treat humans like machines or pieces of a big machine, we need to be radical, right? We need to rethink how we are doing that. 


And I will uh, leave, uh, left these, this thread open. So Tron can continue on these now on the agile beats. If I look back and I talk with some people from the agile community, uh, from the beginning, I think that agile was a counter-movement to bad management. So these agile people were feeling that the way to produce software was not the right one, and they just created that little Island to create better software and indeed Agile, I don’t see any trace that had these business outcomes in mind. Right. Was okay. Let’s just create better software.


However, if you listen to some of these people that were involved, so nine months ago, one of the persons that were involved, it was telling a story that they were coding something wrong and he was talking with the customer, and back then sending floppy disks back and forth, installed stuff.


But he was telling that, that back in the day, they had skin in the game. They developed software and picked up the phone, what was wrong, and put new software on floppy disks and sent over the mail. They didn’t ask anyone to send over the mail. And we tend to forget about that. And this thread was good because shows how they interact. 


I think that now we have started to get a grasp of what software can do for us. Things are way more complicated than complex and things are way more interconnected that we need to stop and think if we need this hierarchy of power or not, right? And this is where I draw and go to the past and Agile is not that far away to think about that. Now, in my experience, I see a new wave of C-level that have 40-plus years that don’t believe in this narrative that older generations believe. They saw the cloud, they saw how many financial crises we already have and we are in a good place in the world, right? We are still in Europe. This is a very safe place. Wars. And they don’t take these things that are stable for granted.


And I’m working with these people and these people go, okay, we don’t want to be consultancies. We don’t want the narrative. We know that we need something unique and we need to craft by ourselves. Right. Start to apply more systems thinking. And this is good to see. So I see some seeds popping up that there, people are thinking differently, looking to organizations in a different way, but not I don’t think that we’re going to see a disruption like a big wave. 


For instance, one person who inspires me is a CIO in a Ukrainian bank. I worked with them last year, so during the war. And he said the thing to me that, you know, put things in perspective that the bank is a platform to reveal the Ukrainian society after the war. So this person is already thinking about the bank is not the end goal, the bank is just a small node that is part of a bigger thing. And I see more and more people start thinking like that. So I don’t think that we’re gonna have to have a revolution, but we’re gonna have an evolution, slowly more and more people picking on these concepts and moving forward. And now I’m gonna give to Trond because I left some stuff open that I think that he gonna pick up. I’m gonna be fine.


Trond Hjorteland

Yeah, I might and I might go somewhere completely different as well. Because when you mentioned democracy, because that’s for me, that’s an interesting concept, though, because I don’t know, it could be because I’m from Norway and democracy is really strong here and the social democracy and all that. But I remember I was sort of grout by that. And I saw that when I read about the social technology system design and the experience that was done, like after the war, the Second World War is that there was a lot of focus on not necessarily that they wanted democracy for its own sake, but that democracy worked better for not only the people but the way they produced software. Back then it was called. But I mean, the work that they were doing, the work the output was better when they were allowed to collaborate and sort of invent their work, design their stuff, instead of having somebody outside do it for them.


I suspect we inherently want to be independent in certain ways. So when we go to work and sort of just accept orders, we are not doing the best job that we could have done. Because, okay, if I get creative, like in a very strict bureaucracy, mind you, but still, if you get creative, you’re probably disrupting the system. Because somebody else is not expecting you to do that. And there’s a fact. So


Even if you try to be creative, you’re hitting a ceiling where you’re not necessarily being told not to do it, but you see that it has some negative effects and people are reacting to it. And you get probably not-so-positive feedback all the time. And you end up doing just what you’ve been told. I think it was Peter Drucker who said that.


I believe, that if you have dead wood in your organization, either you hired dead wood or you hired fresh wood and killed it. So I think that’s the effect that I think also Agile was trying back then. So I view it as a little bit of a democratization movement, but I don’t think they were thinking that when they were doing it. They were just doing it because that’s how they got worked on correctly. And they actually can be proud of what they produced.


So they ended up taking control of things that probably they weren’t necessarily allowed to do, but I did it. It’s like sort of revolutionary thinking because they saw that the waterfall thing that they did, five, ten years projects never worked out, so they had to do something. I mean, either that or leave the job and do something else. 


So I guess it was, and that’s the same thing that happened in the coal mines in England. The miners were so frustrated. They were so I’ve read wits about how terrible the situation was in these mines with all this new equipment and shifts and orders have been bust around and you know, getting conflicts between shifts and then fighting, fights, absenteeism, you know, the whole thing. So they had to do something. And I think actually in a certain way, it’s kind of similar. So that’s where the democracy bit comes in because it’s an effect. That’s how we can make the change. It’s not democracy for some sects. It’s just how we can do things our way.


Simone Cicero 

You said something very interesting. You said people show up in organizations that normally they are told what to do. And we have characterized that as a kind of, I don’t wanna say a dystopia, but I don’t wanna say it’s normality for most of the people who may be listening to this podcast, but we feel it a bit of a dystopian thing, right? Going to an organization, being told what to do. It’s the core of industrial organization, I think, right? The core of scientific management and so on. 


Instead, when I look into, for example, open systems theory, that is maybe the good moment to bring it up, I’ve seen a lot…Let’s take a step back first, and also maybe our editor would cut this, but essentially, when you say doing what you’re being told to do, and we think about something different that we want to achieve, my question is, what is this different thing that we want to build? Normally, people maybe picture the alternative of being told what to do with more like collaborative consent systems, like sociocracy or deciding together or whatever. But for me, there is a massive piece lacking, which is entrepreneurship. Okay, so this idea of having skin in the game of what you do, not just having the right to collaborate in a decision-making process, but rather building your own space where you can be taking decisions you can do what you decide to do, and not what somebody tells you to do. So I would like, if possible, if you can maybe double click into this, into why, for example, in open systems theory, there is this massively important role of clear agreements that cannot be overthrown by a leader, for example, which makes me connect a lot with what we have in Rendanheyi and our 3EO practice. So the idea is that organizations must be governed by very clear contracts. So for example, if the organization decides to invest in a new idea that you want to build as an employee, there needs to be a contract that it’s kind of unbreakable that gives you both the freedom to manage, for example, your budgets, but also maybe your salary depends on it or something like that. And there is no way that somebody can come and say, you know, let’s close the contract. Let’s forget what we agreed. And you’re no longer able to manage your resources. 


So maybe if you can double-click both of you on how we push this idea of entrepreneurship and in general, skin in the game, which also in a world that is much more complex as Joao was talking about, it’s maybe something that goes even beyond entrepreneurship and goes into building resilience and optionality for yourself as a person or as a community or as a team. That would be fantastic. So if you can maybe just try to riff with this idea.


Trond Hjorteland

You want me to go first, Joe? Yeah, jump in all the time. Because I mean, it’s more fun if we throw ideas around. But I just want to grab something that you said initially, Simone. You said when you go into a job when you go into an organization, you are being told what to do. And I guess most of us today, don’t feel like we have been like we were slaves. We have detailed how we do this. But it starts the day that you see the ad because that discusses what your role is and what you’re gonna do. 


Even like in tech, you even say what sort of technology you’re gonna use. So when you apply for a job, you’re already given a strict narrow area where what is expected of you. And that’s where we come back to what I said earlier that you’re gonna feel like you have to do that for a long time. And then at some point you might try to experiment, say, oh, maybe I can try something else. Okay, I’m gonna try .net stuff. Well, that’s a bit crazy. Like you try to mix things up. It’s not like you’re gonna suddenly do a finger painting and you just, a little bit, but already there you’re gonna meet like resistance, right? So you are put in a very tiny narrow box. And that is what bureaucracy is all about because you are part of a hierarchy and you’re expected to do something that the one above expects you to deliver on, your reports, right? So you have to do that.


And it’s not like an evil hierarchy necessarily, but I mean, people are put in a situation where they are reporting up and there are expectancies on them and even measurements and KPIs and whatnot, right? So they have to, you can’t wear out of that because then you break the system as I mentioned earlier. So that hierarchy is what the open system theory called DP1. That’s a bureaucracy, right? The alternative.


Instead of saying that you’re applying for an ad and you have to do this and this and this and that, you’re applying for a job for solving a problem, say, right? So you’re moving into an organization, you know what you’re good at, and you’re moving into a team in DPE, in sort of the Open System Theory, and a team has a set of tasks that they need to be done. Ideally, you should be able to do everything in that team. 


But I mean, we are so specialized that would probably not be feasible. I could do some UX,, some UI UX things, but I’m not an expert at all. So I stick to my bits, but, but that’s the thing you’re, you’re signing up for an, for a purpose, for an assignment, for sort of a task assignment, a goal, if you like. So that’s how you enter your own station. So you, you free within those, within the purpose of that team, you’re free to do whatever you want. And of course, the team needs you.


So they are probably going to say, oh, we lack some expertise on this and that. So it could be something like that, but you’re not put in a position. And that’s the thing. That team, and that’s a huge difference, and I want to pick up on that later on, is that the huge difference between DP1 and what the second one is called, DP2, is that the responsibility for goal setting, coordination, and control resides at least one step above where the actual work is happening. That’s DP1. So it’s management, right? It’s either management, supervision, or whatever. In the other model, there is no management, and nobody controls anyone. So that belongs within the team. So the team decides what their goals are, the team decides on how to control things and the team decides how they coordinate within themselves and to other things. That’s the difference between the two. And of course you could say, well, that could go off in a different direction. And as you said, there are business goals and all that. How do you manage that? Well, there is…


You have to collaborate with a restaurant station. And the restaurant station has a purpose. When you sign up for a job for a telco, you are not selling paintings. You’re not refurbishing houses. There is a purpose to that organization. So you have signed up for that purpose. And that is selling telco products to customers. And you have to do that in a good manner. That brings in money for the owners. So you.


You sort of sign up for that and not for doing that specific task. I’m going to do Java coding. Sorry, bit of a rant.


Simone Cicero 

No, no, again, lots of notes. So Joao, please jump in, and then I will pick it up.


João Rosa 

Yeah, but this is the point, right? So what I want to add here is to put these two beautiful words, right? That is bureaucracy tries to go for efficiency. That’s why try to dehumanize. We just need to be very efficient, but you can be very efficient doing the wrong stuff. You are just doing that wrong stuff faster. So, right. And this is the thing. If we…


If we think, this is the structural part, but if we think about open systems and as open systems, the three of us are a team and are exposed to our environment, right? Let’s say that we are consultants, we are exposed to our area of consultancy. So we learn from this environment, we learn that, you know, with COVID there was more working from home and working remotely. We can take these signals out of the environment.


And based on these, we create strategies, right? How do we tackle these, right? How do we tackle that? How do we tackle what, what people don’t understand, or what I think that happens is that the word strategy got, you know, got very dirty words because it’s like, Oh, strategy is what C level does? No strategy is bonded to a timeline. If we are in a software development team, right?


Our strategies for the next two weeks, next week, next month, right? How do we make the software more resilient? Therefore we increase our uptime, right? So we have more transactions going. But the strategy of C-level might thinking about the next three to five years. Well, if we leave Europe and we go to Australia, what does it take? Do we need the same structures?


What are the legal options? Can we buy a company? There are things that take more time. And this is the thing thinking about the timeline. And now I get back to the efficiency part is that if we are mindful about the timelines that we are playing, then we can think about being effective. Right. And that is where, and this is based on the work of your company, right? The organization is a network of –s. And different agents are focused on different timelines, right? It’s not management telling me what to do, but the people that work in management, actually they are better to play, you know, in the timeline of one year to three years or in the timeline of three years to five years. And maybe these coders, are good at solving this problem for tomorrow and the next three months, right? But let these units be independent. And as Trond said,


There is a purpose, right? The company is a telco company. The company is not building Formula One cars, right? If you want to build Formula One cars, join a Formula One company. They also have awesome software, right? Which is a different business. And I think that this is the, I will not say the revolution part, but actually this is getting back to what it was before the industry revolution. Because pre-industry revolution, people just worked in marketplaces. We collaborate together to do something and then we go and do something else. There wasn’t this idea of big enterprises with prescribed jobs. There was, we’re gonna do something, and three of us got together and we did something. And then…


We split and go do something else, job done. So, and this is the stuff. And because we are humans, we live less than 100 years, right? 82 or 83, whatever is the average expectation of life. The industrial revolution looks like ages ago. But if we look at the history of humans, it’s thousands and thousands of years. Actually, we have operated as networks for a long time, then we operate with this hierarchy of power, which is right when we start studying this type of thing. So to circle back, because I’m throwing lots of ideas, is this idea of do we just want to be efficient or do organizations want to be effective? If organizations want to be effective, they need this space built in for people to discover these boundaries and keep realigning with the goals.


Trond Hjorteland 

Yeah, just a little add-on because what you’re alluding to is that many organizations today are viewed as machines? Efficiency is about making the machine go along as efficiently as possible. There shouldn’t be any energy loss, there shouldn’t be any failures and all that stuff. And even like the DP-1, they actually call that for redundant parts. You can replace parts and the machine will still work as before. And that means that the machine is tailored to doing one thing out.


That’s a bit reductionist, but just imagine that it’s specifically tailored to do one thing and you can do that really, really well. But that assumes that the machine does what is expected of it. But at some point, for example, when we now are turning to electric cars, the diesel cars, are not something we want anymore. So the environment changes. And if you have an organization that is drilled to do one thing well, it’s very brittle. It doesn’t adapt to change that well. So that’s why you have to rethink, I mean, the whole idea of sort of efficiency, you have to be effective as I said, and if you’re gonna be effective, you need the whole organization. You can’t have just one at the top or some sort of designing the whole thing. Everybody has to be sort of involved in it. You need all the brain power in the organization to make changes, not just some, of a few ones.


Trond Hjorteland 

Especially not management consulting. Consultancy.


João Rosa 

And this is interesting stuff, right? So we come from IT. I don’t know how is the audience first on IT, but Google has set up a set of practices called Site Reliability Engineering, right? I even talked with testers who work at Google and they came from a more traditional testing that they know where the system starts and where the system ends. And this means that you know the full system. But when they arrive at Google, you don’t know where the system starts and the system ends, because Google is messy. So Google has a set of practices alluding to what Trond was saying, that is, for teams to have this flexibility is called budget errors. So they have service level agreements and service level objectives. And let’s say that is 98% of uptime.


So the team knows that they have these 2% to do experiments and try to innovate, because they know that at that level they do money and the rest is for them to play. In the book of SRE are even stories of teams that were consistent above that, that they provoked outages to be with budget error. If not the system was just too perfect. They want people to understand that these systems break.


And what you see at Google now looking back is that this culture of Google came out from the garage culture that they have, that you have one day per week that you could work on your projects. But a couple of years back, Google started to be really attracted to efficiency. So they cut all of this type of stuff. They saw the innovation going down and now they are bringing these practices back because they see the organization, for instance, with the race for artificial intelligence, they are not able to compete. 


And they are not able to compete because they try to be more efficient. It’s as simple as that. Let’s hope this time, why people are spending one day per week innovating? No, do their job. And now they need to innovate. No one knows how to innovate because no one has space to think. So it’s very, very interesting how this happened at the scale of Google, And if this happens at the scale of Google, if the other companies are just blindly focused on this efficiency, they are brittle, they are not resilient.


Trond Hjorteland

And actually, another idea, sorry.


Simone Cicero 

No, no, go ahead. I’m happy to listen to more and then jump in. Because as I said, my listeners always teach me that I need to be quieter.


Trond Hjorteland

You don’t know who you brought in today. Sorry. But yeah, I’m actually picking up on something you said at the tail end of your question, was that how you secured this thing? I mean, say if your association decided you wouldn’t be on enough of this bureaucracy, we want to let people do whatever they want. We don’t have something higher of sort or whatever. We want to do that. Sure, you can redesign the organization, but you probably do that.


If you are practicing because there are some heroes higher up that say, yes, we’re going to do this. And they have to fight for it, most likely, because there is so much bureaucracy and so much management. And some so many people are probably going to lose their job because they are probably there. Some of them are there, actually, we have to admit. They have to control or manage other people. They are not necessarily doing productive work, which is what you want out of an open systems DP2 organization. There shouldn’t be any fluff. Everybody should do productive work in all parts of the organization be it in any time span or whatever. 


But how can you make sure that doesn’t break, break, and fall back as you mentioned, Joe, about Google? And that’s where you actually have to think bigger than the organization. You have to go wider to the end of the management. In Australia, I think actually one of the heroes of Open System Theory, Fred Emery, was part of introducing this. On the country level, they introduced, they replaced a sort of a work contract approach that they had and introduced something they called enterprise bargaining agreements, which means that in OWA we have something similar where the unions represent the employees and the employers, they go into an agreement and then they sign and all that stuff. Mostly about pay and all free time and all that stuff here, but in Australia, they’re actually per company. So if the company decides to reorganize towards another structure, say, deeper to like, they can put it in a contract, which means that you can’t break it easily.


 You can always go back and renegotiate the contract, but then you have to get an agreement that you want to go back to DP2. No, sorry, DP1, like Google did. So, and unfortunately, for some of us saying this, the bureaucracy is so ingrained in us and it’s so easy to break the DP2 by having some authoritarian person coming in, especially at the top.


No, no, we can’t have all that free time. We need to be efficient. They did that at Google. So then it falls back. So you have to. Unfortunately, that’s how the world is today. It’s so ingrained that we have to enforce the new version. And we have to do that with little demons, literally.


Simone Cicero 

Trond, you said, solving a problem, right? Versus executing what I’m being told, which is the biggest difference that you have, and you have indicated us essentially in really, you know, different organizations. 


So if you are working to solve a problem as a team, you have a whole capability to deliver this kind of value proposition that solves a problem, for me, this resonates a lot with the idea of having a customer. So having someone that has a problem, you are solving. In larger organizations, I tend to see that some of the teams that we work with are more market-facing. They’re actually solving a problem for an end user, for a customer.


Some others are having internal customers, which still makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot of talk in organizations about platform engineering and exporting services outside of the organization and letting the market enter inside the organization. So you’re still responding to a customer. And in some other cases, there are some functions or structures inside the organization that tend to receive budgets. 


More like the customer is the is the shareholder, let’s say, or the boss, the management, that allocates budgets for certain work that these teams can do. And I kind of connect this with the idea of purpose that you spoke about. So if I have a purpose as an organization, it kind of naturally generates this capital or resources-based hierarchy or a relationship, where someone is going to provide me with the resources to do the job they want me to do, because it’s maybe, you know, it’s not a traditional problem I’m solving, but somebody is giving me money to do a work that they suspect it’s important for the organization. 


So what I wanted to say with this is that, imagine an organization where everybody solves a customer problem, and there are little or no internal budgets, this is a very market-oriented organization. And such an organization is likely less purposeful. So it’s more like adaptive. Like, you know, there is an opportunity, I’m going to do that. And when I talked to Zhang Rumin a few years ago, he said, the future of Haier, I pictured it as a company like water, where there is no purpose. It’s much more adaptive as a company. Instead, when I think about purpose, I tend to connect these with hierarchy, bureaucracy, replicability, and productivity. 


And to some extent, it makes me think that purpose is very much an industrial concept. And it’s, I would say, a category of an industrial society together with productivity. And also when we talk about innovation, for example, what is innovation? It’s still very much an industrial category.


My question is, when we start to think about teams and real democracy, it kind of entails that you have to reduce the reach of purpose inside the organization, and push a bit the internal locus of control into teams. So teams need to be much more autonomous and say, we want to do this, we decide what to do, we have, we bear the consequences, for example, we create a lot of relationships with external or other partners so that we rely less on a single source of income or capital or purpose, and we tend to generate many more options that we can rely on as a team. So in pushing this kind of responsibility of defining their own strategy, future vision, and inside teams, isn’t this conversation really disruptive to the very idea of an industrial organization? So are we ready to engage with an organizational theory that puts teams and people back into the complexity of survival, let’s say, and resilience and functionality, and removes all these kinds of secure systems of control that are embedded in how we think about organizations in the industrial society?


Trond Hjorteland 

It’s an interesting perspective because I actually want to go back to what is core to open system theory first here, because that’s the individual, not that the individual is just there because it’s part of something bigger, but an individual is there defined as an open purpose system, just to use the system theory thinking again.


This means that you are exposed to the environment, but there is a purpose to you. There you have a purpose. There’s something that you want out of life. It could be anything in every context obviously, but when you sign up for a job, you actually, want to align your purpose with that company’s purpose. I mean, I wouldn’t be a slave owner, for example, even though that was just an extreme example of it. Or I wouldn’t want to build cars that ruin the environment, for example.


Trond Hjorteland 

I want to be something where I can feel proud of what I do at work. I want to, but not only that, and I also want to fit in. I want to be part of something bigger. And that is what, and so an organization, it’s just, it’s not just a random selection of parts or people. It has to be, there is something that joins you. There’s something that you want to do together. That’s what creates an organization out of you, of a, set number of people, for example, there, there is something that you want to build together. There’s something that you want to create.


And that goes for the teams as well, and it goes for the company as a whole. 


So I think purposefulness has not, at least from my perspective, anything to do with industrial thinking necessarily, even though there is obviously a purpose there. But the difference is that the purpose there is control from the top in the proxy. The whole thing is designed, and the purpose is set on top. And then you just have to do your part to fit into that purpose.


But that doesn’t mean that you agree on any purpose. It doesn’t mean that you like what you’re doing, but you’re just doing it because it’s a job and you get the money and you get to do whatever you want to do outside of the office door. So actually your life becomes everything but the work. Work is just a way to get money, right? But if you enjoy your work, you get some purposefulness out of it. That’s why you’re in it. That’s when you sort of, you’ve probably been in a situation where you feel like, oh, you’re so energized.


I always feel that when you have workshops or something like that, because we collaborate and we create something new and you go out from the workshop buzzing, literally buzzing. And that’s where when your purpose is aligned with the rest of the people that you’re working with. So I think this is sort of the core to make teams that actually function well is to measure our people actually feeling that their purposes or their needs are met. In open systems theory, they have something they call the SIS criteria, which is set out of measurements that you do three of them for personal measurements and three of them for the team and collaboration. So the goal of having a good team is having good scores on those. That’s it. So it is, even though it’s not the individual on its own, it’s the measure of the individual’s feeling of being at work that matters. And then you get the most out of other people. Then you get creativity. You get commitment. You get responsibility, you get honor, you get pride, you know, all those things. You wouldn’t get that in that proxy necessarily.


João Rosa 

And I think that’s it, right? It’s also, it’s also this whole definition of purpose, right? And I think that this gets back, right? And this is a very personal story. So in Portugal, when you go to school and we talk about this, Simone, in Italy, when you go to school, since young age to sit down and look to the teacher and learn.


So all of the creativity is removed from you from a very young age. This happened to me, right? And now we are in the Netherlands and we have a daughter and we are in the Netherlands and stay in the Netherlands because the education system is open. They want to try different stuff and touch, right? To learn from that, and this is a big difference. 


I think that we are being so conditioned, especially around these ideas of purpose. I agree with you that purpose is this industrial purpose that we forget that also there are different levels of purpose and your purpose changes. My purpose is not the same one that was 15 years ago or 10 years ago or after being a father, my purpose has changed. The problem is that we don’t allow ourselves or we are conditioned not to allow ourselves to realign and talk about these things.


Right? Just run for the money. And I think that the problem lies in that I understand the metaphor of, um, organization is just water is super adopted, adaptive, which means for me. That people change their minds and change their purpose and keep just flowing left and right. And now we are in that top position. And in two months we are a Western society, we don’t like that. We just want people to conform to whatever box society produces today, and that’s it. Right? In the end, I think that you have a purpose, a personal purpose, and that changes as well. It’s these, are we talking and realigning with a bigger group? Because we are also, we are a group animal. As an animal, we are a group animal. We need a group. We are nothing alone, right? We are a group animal. We are a social animal.


And we achieve things together. Do we allow ourselves to have these conversations?


Trond Hjorteland 

Just a little add-on to that is that there is a girl called Andreas Anguial, which a central character in the early development of what became open system theory as a psychologist. 


I think he introduced the concept of what’s called not the bio niche, but biosphere or something like that. But anyway, he was very open, he was thinking in open systems. So he’s saying that you as a person, have a need for autonomy. We often talk about autonomy conversation, right? We don’t want autonomous teams and all that stuff. And especially on across the pond, there’s a lot of focus on the individual like you have to be autonomous, you have to make your own man, you’ve been your own hero and all that stuff. 


But the idea here is that humans, yes, need autonomy, but they also need something that he called homonymy. They need to belong. They need to fit in. That’s what Joe said. We are group animals. I think Merrelyn Emery, which is something which is one of the trailblazers and who’s actually also still alive at least in Australia, she that in an interview, that if a person gets isolated, the person is gonna wither away and die. 


And that’s – I think that’s a thought to bear in mind. Yes, you can choose to isolate yourself, but if you’re forced out, different story. So it’s all about the books. Yeah.


Simone Cicero

I feel it’s very interesting, this idea that purpose doesn’t need to be seen necessarily as an industrial idea that you as a leader, are going to impose the purpose and then hierarchically organize and bureaucratize organization to produce the purpose, but rather that purpose is a kind of dynamic thing and people look for purpose alignment and there’s a little bit also of memetics and leadership in it because we cannot negate that purpose is often a product of sources in organization and leaders that can influence the purpose and use their gentle ways to influence the purpose to make democratic organization a bit more scalable. Because otherwise, if anybody decides whatever they want to do, you cannot have any replicability. You don’t really generate any efficiency in the organization and you have to create some kind of efficiency in the organization.


And if you can do it through this kind of gentle purpose alignment, facilitated by leadership and source capabilities, this is how these types of organizations work. But one thing that I wanted to use as a bridge for a last reflection, you spoke about complexity changes, the war, and the markets transforming. And the world is becoming more multilateral.


And for sure, the Washington consensus is gone, and the predictability of the industrial age is gone. It’s no more about planning. It’s much more about adapting. Things are changing all the time. So I see that when, Trond, you spoke about belonging, for example, right? And maybe isn’t it time that we build a theory of organizations for a real complex world, right? And is it possible that belonging that we have used mostly as employees to belong to brands and organizations that play a role in a much more predictable and planned society may have to shift more into belonging to something that is much more, a little bit more antagonistic or embedded, maybe in place or in community, much more in something like more diverse and individualistic, I would say, atomistic kind of this kind of fake belonging that we have used in the industrial age to feel ourselves, you know, attached to a brand or an organization that at the end of the day was just making money.


Trond Hjorteland 

Yeah, I can start there because one of the early introductions, or not an invention but a description of open systems theory was around the environment. So conceptualizing the environment that an organization or a group is sort of part of. Like in the industrial era, we assumed that things were predictable. There was competition.


But it was all about winning, winning the round, like becoming the king of the hill or whatever it was like. You have to win the market. So it’s all about strategy and all that stuff, and getting the right people, and cost cutting, and all that stuff. But the thing is that works in one certain environment where things are fairly predictable. Like if your company does something, you’re going to bet your ass that somebody else is going to do the same thing, and they’re going to do this, and this, and that. So it’s all about just maneuvering.


But the thing is that the environment that we are in now is highly unpredictable. And that’s where complexity comes in. In the open system here, people don’t use complexity as a term, but I use unpredictability. And it’s been highly unpredictable, they actually say after the war. And it’s not because the world in itself has changed so much, but because we have changed so much after that. We stopped believing in our governments. 


I mean, you had the cultural revolution and people are the hippie age and all that stuff. So people just don’t trust as much as they do. So the whole environment, and the social aspects changed. And so if a company today say, oh, we are going to go full in, like a few years ago, we are going to fall in on diesel engines, right? Yeah, that’s brilliant because they are low cost, they are low cost and they’re efficient, and so on.


And then suddenly you have this environmental movement and then nobody wants diesel cars anymore. So, I mean, that’s the unpredictability that the companies find themselves in. And that’s where the open system theory really shines, because they take that in fully. You can’t predict anything. Everything is unpredictable. So you have to create an organization that can adapt to anything.


Trond Hjorteland

And that’s when you need the full brain power of the whole organization. You can’t just rely on some brilliant person at the top. Apple had that for some time, right? So there are some examples of that, but that’s for the majority of companies, that doesn’t anymore. Simply doesn’t work. You need all the antennas that you can have.


João Rosa

And that is the thing when you have this question about, do we need a new organizational theory. I think that we already have. But because even if we pull the thread of open systems theory, there are open systems theory is two things. And this is also what happened with social-technical systems. It’s a body of knowledge, but also it’s a framework and a set of practices, which makes things really confusing.


Beca Open Systems Theory, also offers to scan departments, realign and reorganize if the organization wishes. And I think that is there. What also is very important is that they touch a bit about seeing the world as a big machine. With Open Systems Theory, they…


It is rooted in everything that is contextual. Of course, we are consultants and we can put the joke, it depends, but it’s really, the context for that company is different, right? It can be two banks here in the Netherlands, but the bank has a budget that is 50% higher than the other. So the context is totally different, right? And this is just one variable. And this is the thing, we are, I get back to what I said.


We are not trained since kids to understand this. We are trained that everything is equal, ever and anything is standard, and this gets to our brains, I understand that if now we are radical, or at least if we start transforming the workplace, I think that we’re gonna affect next the generation of kids rather than trying to go and change the educational system.


And this was a realization that I had. I told you that I jumped between software engineering and management and lots of this stuff. This was a realization that I had because after I had this realization, I went, ha, now I know how to be a parent. It’s really hard to allow my daughter to be an open system, but it really pays off because now the autonomy of other decisions and understanding the world is higher. And I see, now I understand our new generation of people can come up. And I think that this is what can unlock, you know, what Trond  was saying, that after the war we don’t trust governments and stuff like that, to start to increase the trust between each other, humans. And I think that this is very, it’s important. Probably will not happen in our lifetime. But at least I make my point.


Simone Cicero

I hope so, honestly, because I feel like our future depends on this, but…


João Rosa

Yeah, but at least I make my purpose to do this and to preach and to have on my consultancy practices to get a bit closer, right? Doing my bit. So.


Trond Hjorteland 

We have found a new purpose, haven’t we, Joao?


João Rosa 



Simone Cicero 

Thank you so much. I mean, let’s use just a few minutes more for you to point our listeners to something very important. They need to check, read, watch, and maybe do something easy that can also onboard them into open systems theory or other things that you believe are essential. That may change your perception as well.


João Rosa

So I can give one that I like. It’s this red book on the back that is Good Services. So it’s a person that for a long time worked in the UK government. It’s in the area of user research and user interaction. But if people want to start getting into system thinking, have this service centricity and what a service means it’s a great book because although it’s a big book it’s thick it’s well made, and has amazing stories about how things go wrong when people don’t think about the system i really like that one because doesn’t go crazy on theory and you go oh because lots of these stories are on new newspapers in UK, you go oh okay now I understand these systems thinking view. 


So I highly recommend that book as, um, you know, as a starter. And then if you want to pull the thread, I will leave that to Trond’s to offer more resources.


Trond Hjorteland 

No, because of course I could say, yeah, you should get Merrelyn Emery’s research book. It’s actually available still. But you know, if you really want to learn office notary, that’s a decent book, but it’s really hard to read. It’s an academic book and it’s not approachable for anyone unless you’ve read a lot of it. You actually have to know a bit about it before you read the book to understand it. So I sort of can’t recommend it.


And that’s also which have been our conundrum, because I read, as I said, numerous papers and even like that book and others. And it has taken me like since before COVID, I think I started in 2019 reading this stuff. So I spent years reading papers and papers and papers. So of course I can recommend a few of them that I have done on my blog. But the thing is that there isn’t really a book I can hand you and say, start here. I mean, the one that Joao mentioned, it’s not like that specific thing, but it has the elements in it, of course. 


So that’s why we decided to write it ourselves. We wanted to have an easy introduction to the whole way of thinking. I mean, we started this because we had to, because people ask us all, oh, you have a book you can recommend. Not really. So maybe we can condense all the learning we had on reading all the papers and make it like a dummy’s introduction to Open System Theory.


Kind of. But also based in IT, which is also, as Joao said, it’s not something that Open System Theory had spent too much time on.


Simone Cicero

I think we will put in the notes, by the way, your blog, where you point at least the people to some interesting reads, and we’re looking forward to reading your book coming up. So, I mean, it was a crazy, interesting conversation for me, very much into the white-hot core of the discussion I wanted to have. Thank you so much for your time. I hope you also enjoyed the conversation.


Trond Hjorteland 

Absolutely. 100%.


João Rosa 

Yes, full of energy.


Simone Cicero

Thank you so much. Thank you so much again. Even to do this at the end of a long day of work, so it’s a bonus. And yeah, for our listeners, of course, as always, you will find all the notes and all the information about Trond’s and Joao’s work on our website. If you go to boundaryless.io/ resources/podcast, that will be this episode in first. You can check first and then you can read the notes and the links. Until we speak again, remember to think Boundaryless.