The gong went off with a humming twang.
Around the table, 20 people sat staring. Our agile web team had kicked off many sprint planning meetings, but none like this. As the sound of the Tibetan meditation bowl receded into silence, nervous impulse rushed to fill the space – fidgeting, murmuring, exchanging glances. After 30 seconds or so, this noise died down too, settling into a deeper silence still. Once another half-minute had passed, I rang the gong again.
We then proceeded to have one of our most efficient sprint planning sessions in weeks. We even finished 15 minutes early. Not a bad return on investment for one minute of silence.
This practice was an experiment in management, one of many we’ve tried within Trainline’s web team. Now looking back at our journey, I’d like to share why we risked breaking with the orthodox agile formula and what we’ve learned from 15 months of testing.
Seeking a Simpler Way
As a product manager, I started experimenting with unconventional management methods out of a longing for a simpler, more soulful way to work.
When I first discovered Scrum from gurus like Jeff Sutherland and Roman Pichler, I thought I’d found the answer to all the ills of traditional management. Scrum offered a complete solution to so many of the frustrations I had with waterfall-style planning, and I bought into the new system wholeheartedly. I prioritised backlogs, estimated work, and produced nice burndown charts which made me feel like our team was making progress.
However, I soon found that Scrum’s playbook was missing some pages. Its ceremonies and techniques created lots of velocity but not a lot of meaning. I’d fallen into the trap of getting fixated on accelerating output, which ultimately distracted from the real work — solving problems for people. Working this way ultimately made me feel I was running a Fordian feature factory — productive yet somehow empty.
When I joined Trainline in October 2015 as the product manager for the web, I was looking for a more soulful way to manage a team. This led me to discovering with what I like to call evolutionary management.
Discovering Evolutionary Management
In his 2014 book, Reinventing Organisations, author Frederick Laloux documents 12 organisations around the world operating from radically new management principles – and what makes these teams’ practices an evolutionary leap beyond inherited management philosophies.
As detailed in his research, most modern corporations operate from what Laloux calls Achievement-Orange, a worldview which sees organisations (and people) as machines designed to maximise economic output. This mechanical metaphor permeates everyday business language through phrases like “pulling levers,” “resourcing initiatives,” and “optimising productivity.” Words like these define the relationship between people and their work as mechanical parts with functions to be predicted and controlled.
While Achievement-Orange practices succeed at getting results, these results often come at the expense of the individual, who can often feel like a replaceable cog in an impersonal machine.
Beyond Achievement-Orange, there is Pluralistic-Green, a worldview which builds on Orange’s foundations but adds three breakthroughs – employee empowerment, a values-driven culture, and stakeholder value. Pluralistic-Green organisations feel less like a machine and more like a family. These organisations include industry leaders like Southwest Airlines and Ben and Jerry’s, companies characterised by extraordinary employee engagement and customer satisfaction.
While Pluralistic-Green organisations are among the most successful in the world, they retain a pyramidal management hierarchy at odds with their “empowered” culture. This contradiction creates tension which limits individuals from bringing their full intelligence and initiative to work.
What lies beyond Pluralistic-Green?
Laloux discovered many companies operating in a way which integrates and expands on the previous stages, a model he calls Evolutionary-Teal. These organisations see themselves not as machines or families but as living systems, organisms which are internally integrated yet always growing with respect to their environment. Three breakthroughs characterise this stage of development:
1) Self-management. Teams operate with fluid systems of distributed authority in which each person has the power to make meaningful decisions. Rather than concentrating power and control at the top of a pyramid, self-managed teams have agreements in place which make everyone powerful.
2) Wholeness. Teams have practices in place which allow each person to drop the masks they wear at work and be completely themselves. Letting go of the ego not only releases enormous energy for individuals; it also creates a safe space which leaves room for extraordinary innovation. When people feel free to say what they truly feel, they bring their full intelligence to work and generate the best ideas.
3) Evolutionary Purpose. Teams tend not to work from rigid strategy or planning documents, artefacts symptomatic of an Achievement-Orange predict and control management philosophy. Instead, they align to a shared purpose and adjust every day to move toward that purpose, a sense and respond way of operating.
The promises of Evolutionary-Teal seemed to address many of my problems with conventional agile methodologies. So with that hope, the web team and I stepped into the unknown and tried installing practices from this new model.
In next week’s blog, discover what we found…
About the author
Ian is a senior product owner at Trainline passionate about building great products, teams, and organisations. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he has been working and learning proper English in London for the past six years. Ian has an MSc in Decision Sciences from the London School of Economics and a BA in Cognitive Science from Yale University.