Make your “Challenge-Driven Organization” More Effective — Use a Bow-Tie!

Road to Professional Agile Leadership


Marty de Jonge

3 years ago | 9 min read

Every organization I work with thinks their issues are unique. In truth, I found out that most have the same questions.

  • How do I maximise visibility to see if my organization is heading in the desired direction?
  • How do I organize my teams as effectively as possible to do this?

Successful organisations understand the importance of dividing work between teams in an effective way. Alongside that, it is also important to do this in a way that stable teams can continuously improve themselves. In my research into this topic, I came across the Bow-tie model. (Thanks to Gidion Peters)

It offers an interesting view on both thinkings from a “Problems to be solved” as a “team performance” point of view. Although it has strong roots in governmental and municipal environments, I feel it is also very usable in commercial organisations.

In this article, I explain the model and how it can bring value to your organization too.

You read this bow tie from right to left. On the right side are stable teams. Per team, you take care of a broad mix of competencies of the team members.

The number of team members is low: no more than 9 people. As soon as a team is composed, it starts to pull. This means that the team indicates to be ready to take up a challenge.

This creates pressure on the left side of the bow-tie. This is where the challenges are. In the ‘public domain’ these challenges are based on research and interaction with society, both civil and political.

The challenge here is to define challenges and make them small enough to be taken up by one team.

The bow-tie model

The Bow-Tie Model is a way to visualise the flow of work alongside the stability of teams, and how those two factors interact to deliver results in organisations. It lends itself to scaling issues and agile transformations. In the bow-tie model, the different challenges (projects and assignments) are made so small that one stable team can handle them.

Stable Scrum teams are multidisciplinary, small teams that work independently on an issue. They do this full-time and for a longer period of time, and stay together to tackle the next issue.

“Instead of bringing people to work, you bring work to people” -Gidion Peters

In other words: you keep teams stable. When a new project comes up, you bring the work to the most relevant team or you divide it over the work stocks of multiple teams. Because the employees work together for a longer period of time, the team gets better and better.

Stable teams are more productive, more predictable and more fun to work in. According to the bow-tie model, these teams complete an assignment and take up a new challenge, which at that moment has the highest priority.


Working from a “Challenge-Driven” perspective

Part of the organizations we know are true “creation” companies. They are the ones who are already working on products and services that we will use tomorrow.

Some are more successful in predicting what the needs will be in their industry than others, but they make stuff that they bring to market. (think of organizations such as Samsung, Chevrolet or Fitbit).

Other types of organizations are more dependent on the work and challenges that come their way to tackle. You will find these kinds of organizations more in the (semi) public sector than in the commercial sector. These are the organizations that can work “challenge-driven”

Initially, this model was designed for “challenge-driven” work within governments. But, outside the government, companies face the same kind of questions.

  • How do I make sure that I manage how assignments come into the organization?
  • That they are given the right priority and are actually done?
  • How can we organize our organization into multidisciplinary, customer-focused teams that work in a self-organizing way?
  • How do I deal with a large number of employees working together on results?
  • How do I set up my company in the smartest way and how do I manage my people?

Challenge-Driven working: Put the end-customer in the core

There is a nice movement going on at municipalities and other authorities: working in a challenge-driven way. It means that as an organization, you constantly keep an eye on the social challenges. Things that are happening outside and connect or take the initiative where necessary.

The challenge becomes the guiding principle in the organization. Not the hierarchical silos and domains.

The pitfall: running projects in a matrix organization

So it’s a good idea to work in a challenge-driven manner because the organization is less concerned with the ‘boxes’ that exist and thinks ‘outside-in’. However, there is a big pitfall for organizations that want to give shape to challenge-driven working. It lies in setting up projects for all these challenges but keeping the old structures in place. This leads to a confusing matrix organization that cannot focus on the challenges.

To become Agile in a challenge-driven environment, a company must not only change the way it thinks but also the way it is structured. — Harry S Long

Organisations don’t dare to tinker with the existing management boards and domains that are neatly arranged.

Those who are in these teams often do it temporarily, or as an add-on. They still have their performance interview with the boss of their silo department.

This leads to a charade in which the focus is only partly on addressing the challenges. There is a lot of context switching between projects. And there is a lot of negotiation between the silos about the deployment of people and resources.

Why stable teams work

The secret, but exciting, ingredient of challenge-driven work lies in a completely different way of organizing: setting up stable teams!

This is an important lesson from the world of agile work. like governments, agile organizations have to respond to changes faster than ever before. Setting up new teams on a temporary basis has not proven to be a successful formula. On the other hand, setting up stable teams has given much better results.

These stable teams are multidisciplinary, small teams that can work independently on an issue.

They do this full-time and for a longer period of time and often stay together to tackle the next issue. In this way, a stable team has many important advantages.

  • Focus: if you are in a challenge-driven, stable team, you can fully focus on achieving your joint ambitions. You no longer have distractions from other projects or your old department. And neither do the other team members: they are better and more available.
  • Continuously improving as a team: teams that work together for longer periods of time are becoming more ‘mature’ as a team. In the team a safe environment is created; team members learn from and about each other and work faster and more effectively. Well-oiled teams are the capital of a modern organization, more than individual employees. (Read more about this in one of my previous articles on this topic.)
  • Flexibility: a stable team knows the challenges and its target groups well and can react quickly if something changes. The team does not have to wait until the next project meeting but can take immediate action. It no longer needs a project manager because it can organize itself using a method such as Kanban, Scrum or Agile Portfolio Management. This creates new roles such as ‘challenge owner’ and ‘team facilitator’.

The bow-tie: the match between challenges and teams

In order for these stable teams to achieve success after success, you don’t come up with a matrix organization. Instead, you could work with the ‘bow-tie’ organizational model.

Like mentioned before, the challenge here is to define challenges and make them small enough to be taken up by one team.

For example, ‘Participation’ is too broad. ‘Increasing the financial independence of one-parent families’ is manageable.

Finding, reinventing, formulating and reformulating challenges is a continuous game. A game which you play together with partners, administrators and residents.

The constant cutting of big challenges into challenges that are manageable for teams creates push in the left part of the bow (push). One by one the prioritized challenges move through the narrow middle part of the bow to the right, towards the teams. Essential here is that the ‘release’ of a team on the right side comes first and only then the push of a new challenge.

This is the opposite of a panting organization. These are organisations where new challenges are constantly being thrown over the fence and into the organization, for which teams have to be scraped together each time. Teams pull the challenges, not the other way around.

Stable is not that easy

Making the switch to an organization of stable teams is tough. Especially if you are used to bumbling from project to project. The following three factors make or break the success of a team-based challenge-driven organization.

  • Leadership & Autonomy: Teams that work with a challenge need the space to look for solutions in and with society and to experiment. A high degree of autonomy in the teams helps in this. This makes it challenging for the management in an organization that is used to managing content, process and people at the same time. Instead, agile leadership is needed, with leaders who stand next to the teams instead of above and who give space and clear frameworks. A leader should trust the team to accomplish its mission.
  • Learning to build stable teams: Composing a good team is not about finding the star players. It’s more about finding diverse and complementary competencies, knowledge and personalities. The challenge is not to be strongly influenced by challenges that are in the back of your mind. Before you know it, another temporary project team will emerge. When the team is there, it is important to build up the security and trust in the team that makes it possible to excel. You can also help the team to gain insight into their own progress and to manage their dependencies with other teams.
  • Learning to cut and slice challenges: A political coalition agreement once every four years is not enough to fill the left side of the bow-tie. They are large and can age along the way. Challenges are nourished by constantly following developments in society and finding (new) connections based on data. And by the dialogue and feedback, you get when working with and in society. When you look at the challenge board together, it’s important that the loudest voice not always wins. Instead, make an assessment together of the challenges that deliver the most value.

Getting started: the bow-tie in action

To recap: we are used to cutting people up and spread them across the work. This means that we are always looking for new people to fit the new issues.

If challenge-focused work is tackled in this way as well, we are left with cut-up people in a matrix organization. This divides the work in an inaccurate and confusing manner, setting people up to fail. An agile, effective organization knows how to cut work across teams. That makes teams happier and challenges better tackled.

Turning the organization into sustainable teams that can fully focus on challenges is a big challenge in itself. It requires a critical look at both the way in which challenges are made clear and shared with society. Also, we have to take a good look at the environment that is given to multi-disciplinary teams.

A first step doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul of the current organizational model. However, a first ‘set’ of teams can be unlocked, which are allowed to work outside existing structures and systems for a period of at least six months.

With five teams you have a good start.

For them, you look for five challenges, in dialogue with management and society. And the foundation of the first challenge-focused ‘bow-tie’ has been laid. If these teams deliver good work and don’t want to return to the matrix, you can continue to build a sustainable, challenge-driven organization. step by step, team by team.


Created by

Marty de Jonge

As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.







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