Fixed vs Fluid Work

Every model for the future of work includes a fancy spectrum like the one above (ours, in fact). Who doesn't love a good x-y axis, after all? Yet, most of the time these frameworks are ... well, judgemental if not hypercritical.

If you aren't "agile" does that make you slow and clumsy? If you aren't "responsive" does that make you unresponsive? If you aren't "organic," are you inorganic? If you aren't enlivened, well you're likely dead. At the least, you're not enjoying life.

Embedded in each of those descriptions is a judgement. The same kind of judgement that paints anything that came before as a dinosaur and anything that comes after as a revolution. 

Of course, that's the zeal of a consultant showing, not an actual understanding of diverse business environments and an empathy for teams in those environments. That's fame seeking, not follow through.

How a company or team behaves shouldn’t be dictated solely by what’s new or popular; it should be driven by the group’s context (what’s happening around it), its strategy (what needs to be done in response), and the profile of its people (who needs to do it). Neither pole is "better" than the other, but one area is likely more "appropriate" given your context.

FIXED teaming puts the consistent delivery of quality ahead of everything else. FIXED is appropriate when there are fewer unknowns in your market or area of practice and when you can win by exploiting efficiencies of scale. You know you need a FIXED approach when work is easily reproducible and yet still successful.

FLUID teaming puts speed and novelty ahead of everything else. FLUID is appropriate when you're operating with mounting uncertainty. You know you need a FLUID approach when the world belies your best predictions and the definition of success keeps changing. 

You know you're using the WRONG approach when work feels unnatural. If you're using a FIXED approach to solve for FLUID needs, work can feel like trying to watch House of Cards using an old school modem. If you're using a FLUID approach for a FIXED need, work can feel like constantly reinventing the wheel for no good reason.

Most organizations need both FIXED and FLUID teams. Amazon Studios follows a very FLUID model of testing and learning from new original series, yet Amazon fulfillment centers are extremely FIXED. Shipping is predictable, cultural and consumer trends not so much. Moreover, teams themselves often need to flex both muscles. Almost every team we work with has some percentage of work that demands a FIXED approach and some percentage that demands a FLUID approach. Yet, all too often, the same approach is given to all work.

As you examine your work as a team to figure out which approach is best, consider these questions:

  1. How much could we benefit from economies of scale here? FLUID approaches tend to struggle to scale.
  2. How fast and how frequently must we innovate to stay competitive? FIXED approaches are best at optimizing past work, not future needs.
  3. Do our people prefer top-down leadership or do they thrive with greater autonomy? Obviously FLUID creates more autonomy, yet be honest about the pool of talent you have.
  4. How much coordination across teams is required to fulfill this work? FIXED teams tend to coordinate better because their processes and structures are more defined.
  5. How valuable is local information and local decision making? Meaning how much could be gained if we gave more authority to people closer to customers or outcomes to redefine the work of the team? FLUID approaches tend to empower local decision making (e.g. do anything to make the customer happy and don't make them wait for you to go up and down the chain of command) and FIXED approaches actually take away that decision making ability (e.g. you might know people want smaller cars, but you don't have the training to take over the assembly line on a Tuesday to try to build one).

On a final note, all spectrums (even ours) connote a false binary even when we use the term 'spectrum' to define them. There is a wide swath of possibilities between both poles. Success isn't defined by following either one of these approaches "perfectly" but in how well you've designed how you work for the work at hand. 


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