Purpose of the TOP Structure
Many organizations are stuck in short-term cycles, sacrificing long-term sustainability in favor
of speed and quantity in delivery. Although the delivery of value funds operations,
an over-emphasis on short-term value depletes an organization's capability to produce future value.
Appropriately balancing delivery, maintaining and optimizing current capability,
as well as shaping future capabilites is a systemic challenge that requires collaboration across
technology, organizational and product functions.
The TOP Structure addresses this challenge by making visible that which was always there,
bringing together the different perspectives, and iteratively improving both current capabilites
and the ability to shape future capability.
The TOP Structure provides a model-neutral, scale-free approach that everyone can immediately apply.
It guides the process of setting up a successful foundation for continuous adaptation
and sheds light on areas for immediate action.
It therefore synergizes with any operating model or organizational framework. The TOP structure doesn't require a "transformation," although it could trigger or guide change initiatives.
Purpose of the TOP Guide
The TOP Guide is a simplified "Getting Started" guide for the TOP Structure.
It provides an easy-to-use overview with practical instructions that allow users to get value from the TOP Structure within a short time and without delving into theory.
After getting started, the TOP Structure can be enhanced by combining the instructions in the Guide with the theory of the TOP Patterns.
The instructions provided in the TOP Guide support an easy launch and quick results.
The Guide doesn't propose a "final state," as the only constant in a TOP Structure is constant change.
While core principles remain applicable, specific rules presented in the Guide itself are open to inspection and adaptation as an organization advances
in their ability to collaboratively build capabilities.
The TOP Structure is a simple, effective way to run a modern company.
It has three core aspects:
- The Network runs the daily business.
- The Spectrum as a means of setting up an effective network.
- The Cycle runs the TOP Improvement Structure.
The perfect TOP Structure is symbiotic with existing structures, modifying what is already there rather than adding.
To support an understanding how this can be done, the TOP Guide provides definitions of minimum necessary responsibilities and events.
The theory behind the TOP Structure is a network of organizational patterns, most of which are hinted rather than explicity described in the TOP Guide.
To learn about these patterns, visit the TOP Pattern library.
In every company, there are always many networks. Most form automatically and exist subconsciously.
Communication and collaboration depend on these networks, and therefore, the TOP Structure makes
these networks visible and actively manages them.
The TOP Structure primarily recognizes the following four types of network:
- The Reporting network, traditionally called "the Line."
- The Expert network, formed by people with similar specialization.
- The Execution network where people collaborate to generate value for the company.
- The Social network of informal relationships of members of the organization.
In traditional management, these four networks are designed to be almost identical.
Matrix organizations separate reporting and execution network to some extent.
In contrast, a TOP Structure diversifies these networks on purpose to foster better collaboration and
information flow. As, for example, there are many types of expertise, there will be a multitude of
different expert networks with different purpose.
As Expert and Social Networks gain more predominance within the company, the inward focus of management
shifts towards building, sustaining and growing networks.
In the initial stages of adopting a TOP Structure, the flow of work is often fragmented across multiple
separate networks with hard "handovers." These are often the places where information is lost, defects are
introduced into the process and "us versus them" mechanics surface.
The TOP Structure will reform these into "minimum viable systems" around a shared purpose.
That is, the TOP Structure will form subgroups within the organization serving a single,
overarching purpose that could be an autonomous economic unit with all the means to achieve their purpose.
Minimum Viable Systems
Larger organizations must answer the question, "How do we organize our teams?"
Inadequate answers will make the organization slow, ineffective and expensive.
Classical organizations are often structured into specialist departments interacting by defined
tools and processes. To realize value within such an organization, many departments need to
contribute to any single endeavour.
Agile approaches often start out restructuring "from project to product," bringing together different
people from different departments into single teams, thus aligning the value stream.
Although this approach is fundamentally promising, as it reduces handovers and delays as well
as overburden and planning efforts - it begs the question:
"Is such a product structure viable?"
The TOP Structure will not force major reorganizations on a vague promise.
Instead, the TOP Structure incrementally forms
able to act as autonomous economic entities aligned with the overall goals
and mission of the company.
Every viable system exhibits the following characteristics:
- The system itself has sufficient capacity to function.
- External dependencies can't break the system.
- Efforts to manage across system boundaries are minimal.
- The above three principles are continuously maintained
Viable Systems are self-similar and recursive,
relying on the same principles and patterns regardless of company size
and the amount of viable systems present.
The TOP Structure discovers Minimum Viable Systems within
the company that can realistically progress towards meaningful
organizational goals, then reforms existing networks around these goals.
Minimum Viable Systems are kept minimal, federating and networking with
one another, keeping both internal and external complexity low.
The Competence Spectrum
At the heart of a TOP Structure is the Competence Spectrum.
Every TOP Structure will have some competencies supporting the TOP Goal, some that are not relevant,
and others that are incompatible with the TOP Goal.
"Competencies" in a TOP Structure, refers to skills, knowledge, practices and processes
existing within the organization. People develop and utilize these competencies.
The removal of incompatible competencies frees people to adopt more helpful competencies.
The TOP Structure needs to adequately consider all facets of the competence spectrum.
Hence, the first step on using the Competence spectrum is examining which competences are mission critical
for the TOP Goal.
The competence spectrum has two circles:
The outer circle
represents the foundation - human factors. It determines "What" any "Why" things are done.
Every company has its own ways of what is deemed professional, and which behaviours people exhibit.
- People are central to every TOP Structure, as the TOP Structure serves people to achieve their goals.
- Relationships connect people, both inside and across competencies.
- Practices are specific ways of working used in and around the TOP Structure.
- Culture is the intangible shape of the organizational system.
- Habits are practices and behaviours regularly, and often subconsciously, applied in the organization.
- Beliefs are concepts held about why or why not things apply.
The inner circle
represents functional factors, focusing on "How" things are done.
In many organizations, skills are mapped to roles, which are in turn mapped to departments.
The TOP Structure discourages this approach, as it leads to hard boundaries and handovers which affect performance.
Each competency is a focus area, and as the content of the work changes, other focus areas become important.
The colors on the spectrum are chosen deliberately to indicate that competencies blend.
There are three core competencies that also form the name of the TOP acronym:
- Technology focuses on building, simplifying and operating technical systems,
both those used within the organization and those sold to customers.
- Organization focuses on the people, collaboration, knowledge
and the shape of the organizational system itself.
- Product focuses on how the company produces value on the market.
These core competencies are the basis for the combined competencies:
- Architecture looks at the organizational aspect of technology
by providing appropriate structure, processes and standards.
- Design combines product and technology, generating solutions
by examining intent, purpose and form of ideas and requests.
- Business combines organizational and product aspects by providing
the economic foundation for the TOP Structure - marketing and selling the product,
making it available to the users and supporting them throughout their use,
finance and legal to ensure that the TOP Structure is funded, profitable and
steers clear of regulatory hazards.
- Quality combines all of the domains, ensuring that
information, processes and products are all fit for purpose.
Forming a complete TOP Structure in a larger organization appears to be a daunting task,
yet the competence spectrum already indicates that even in large, siloed organizations,
only a maximum of 7 people are required to cover all aspects of a TOP Structure.
If a significantly larger group of people are required, then a TOP Structure at higher levels of
abstraction needs to reduce complexity and handovers first.
Operative TOP Structures require all competencies to reach their TOP Goal autonomously.
In small companies, a handful of people cover all competencies.
A TOP Structure doesn't require introducing additional roles.
Instead, a TOP Structure would provide clarity on how the competencies are covered, and whether
there are critical gaps that require learning or refocussing.
Roles in a TOP Structure
A TOP Structure requires no additional roles, and since the TOP Structure integrates
into strategy and daily operations, no additional people should be required to adopt
a TOP Structure. However, organizations may initially find it helpful to adopt some
specific roles in order to get started with the TOP Structure.
The TOP Coalition
The roles and responsibilities described in this section can kickstart a TOP Structure.
They should be considered transient and under ideal circumstances are held by members
of the organization working in suitable existing roles.
Together, the roles form a TOP Coalition.
The TOP Coalition should cover as much breadth of the immediate networks as possible
without increasing in size, and should overlap all TOP Competencies.
The TOP Cycle is executed by a
Existing relationships determine which people within the coalition can best represent
and influence the surrounding organization.
It is possible for a single individual to hold multiple roles within a coalition,
this is the preferred state. All members of a TOP Coalition must actively
participate in and contribute towards actions necessary to achieve the TOP Goal.
Coalition members always need to collaborate, and the different roles serve to
ensure that all perspectives are considered.
Actions can be undertaken by any member of the TOP Coalition.
Multiple TOP Coalitions can coexist, each working to achieve a TOP Goal. TOP Coalitions
are temporary and dedicated to a purpose. Aligning TOP Goals across coalitions is important
so that coalitions collaborate in the same direction.
The TOP Facilitator supports the organization as they apply TOP principles
and practices, identifying core patterns and antipatterns,
and navigating the organization throughout the TOP Cycle.
Organizational Members contribute to foster the TOP Organizational Principles:
collaboration, learning and adaptivity of the people and the organizational system itself.
Technical Members contribute to foster the TOP Technical Principles:
Engineering, Automation and Monitoring of technology.
Product Members contribute to foster the TOP Product Principles:
Direction, Positioning and Discovery of the Products.
The core domain members are responsible for integrating, and collaborating with,
the intersection domains (such as architecture or business.)
If both a TOP goal is so specific and the organization so fragmented that a
TOP Coalition requires additional members from a special domain, who can not
be associated to a core domain, then the TOP Coalition includes these members.
The TOP Coalition should then address the impact of the organization's
current structure on the TOP Goal.
The engine running the TOP Structure is the TOP Cycle, that is, the Continuous Improvement Cycle.
It consists of six core patterns that are continuously applied:
- Set a TOP Goal for the TOP Structure.
- Bring people together to collaborate on reaching the TOP Goal.
- Optimize energy usage to achieve the TOP Goal easier.
- Agree on signals to communicate more effectively.
- Inspect and Adapt based on learnings from actions.
- Using similarity to propagate optimization impact.
Although the patterns of the TOP Cycle intertwine and could occur simultaneously,
when starting with the TOP Structure, they should be applied in sequential order to optimize the
While many change models include a designated 'change' step in their process,
the TOP Cycle emphasizes the importance of continuous action.
Each activity of the cycle needs to be turned into immediate action.
Setting a TOP Goal
The first step of the TOP Cycle is to identify the overarching goals for which the TOP Structure will be used. Typically, TOP goals focus on quality, quantity, speed or value. Within these, either increase or reduce something, or deal with a risk. Other goals are possible.
The TOP goal quadrants provide minimum guidance to conduct goal-finding sessions. Different methods of defining TOP goals may be appropriate in context.
TOP Goals should be: Significant, Independent, Solution-neutral. While numerical goals enable data-driven decision-making, TOP Goals always focus on intent, not numbers.
Typical examples of TOP goals might be:
- Reduce customer complaints by 80%.
- Reduce the average time between development and release from 6 weeks to 1 day.
- Developers and users should be satisfied.
Since TOP goals may conflict with one another or generate invisible guardrails,
naming them explicitly and ordering them is essential to applying the TOP Structure successfully.
In the pursuit of a TOP Structure, the highest ranked goal is the "TOP Goal."
Success of the TOP Structure is measured in terms of progress towards the TOP Goal.
Other goals should balance this TOP goal.
Often, progress towards multiple TOP goals can be achieved simultaneously
by making the right changes.
Three TOP Goals
Each core domain has critical goals which all serve to build better companies:
There should be at least one of each:
- Technology Goal for the future state of technology
- Product Goal to set a direction for the product
- Organizational Goal to define the future capability of the organization
Each of these domain goals should be linked to one or more TOP Goal quadrants.
there could be a technical goal of, "reduce technical issues by 10%" (Quality -> Issue Prevention),
a product goal of "increase sales by 25%" (Money -> Boost ROI) and
an organizational goal of "Reduce meeting overhead by 50%." (Scope -> Eliminate Waste)
Domain goals can't be prioritized against each other: they all need to be
achieved. Since each goal requires an investment of capacity, the TOP
Coalition must agree on capacity allocation between each.
"The TOP Goal" for the TOP Coalition becomes achieving all three TOP domain goals.
When there's an apparent conflict between TOP Goals, the TOP Coalition determines how to
turn this Wicked Problem into a win-win scenario.
While allocating no capacity to either of these is possible, the tradeoff will be some form of debt
which later needs to be dealt with, usually incurring a "cost of neglect" as well.
The amount of capacity required during a period of time for each goal varies
depending on the goal's importance and complexity. The TOP Coalition determines for which period
of time which share of capacity is deemed adequate, keeping some flex buffer to deal with unexpected
Bringing people together
When the TOP Goal is defined, the TOP Structure forms a
TOP coalition to contribute towards their goal.
This coalition should include the necessary means to achieve their goal:
- representation of critical perspectives,
- the ability to influence relevant stakeholders,
- the power to make decisions and necessary changes, as well as
- the expertise to do the right things.
A Top coalition should be as small as possible in order to remain effective.
If more than 8 people are necessary for a TOP coalition, the level of abstraction may be inappropriate.
At proper abstraction, no more than 7 people (one for each TOP competency) should be required.
The TOP coalition decides how and where actions are taken to reach the TOP Goal.
Coalition members share responsibility based on their role within the TOP coalition,
how they distribute work and how to determine the effectiveness of their actions.
TOP coalitions should consider themselves temporally restricted to the achievement of the TOP Goal,
and actively work to minimize that period of time.
Multiple TOP coalitions could work in parallel at different levels of abstraction - for example
one working across multiple operative teams, another working in management, and yet
another working at the overall organizational system.
All such coalitions should share the same TOP Goal, potentially refined to a sub-goal derived
at a level of abstraction. When multiple coalitions exist, they need to synchronize.
Ideal coalitions span all levels of abstraction.
The TOP Coalition will work to achieve the TOP Goal, and for this,
they need to use some of their energy.
They will seek improvements in a three-step process.
- Free capacity for by reducing the contributor's workload.
Typical targets to look out for include:
This process could take some cycles and may already lead to short-term improvements in line with the TOP Goal.
- Low-Value efforts, i.e. stopping uncritical work.
- Rework, i.e. work that was caused by flowback
- Delegation, i.e. moving some work to less burdened people
- Making organizational energy visible within the coalition.
Eliminating sources of negative energy is "free", i.e. has no price on outcomes or performance
of the system. Typical sources of negative energy include:
The released energy can then be rechanneled towards positive energy.
- Overburden, e.g. stress caused by work piling up.
- Cognitive load, e.g. multitasking, context-switches and "unfinished" leftovers.
- Lingering conflict e.g. known, unaddressed process or interpersonal problems.
- Improve energy usage by grasping opportunities that are most promising in line with the TOP Goal.
Where organizational energy is lost in the networks, the TOP Coalition uses the expertise of the people
who are closest to the issue. The TOP Coalition should try to keep the amount of required experts small.
Proposed improvements should have clear goals, scope and investments,
as well as observable pass/fail conditions to determine whether energy distribution has improved.
- Change the system
Since TOP Coalition are specifically set up to make changes, they should be able to
act autonomously, or collaborate with supporting experts and their network in doing so.
If an unproportional amount of support is required, or the change takes too long,
the change is possibly too big and should be refined.
Improving the means of communication can save a lot of time and energy -
and the most efficient form of communication is an agreed signal that all recipients immediately
understand. Effective signaling can eliminate both meetings and documentation efforts.
The TOP Coalition agrees on simple signals to minimize the need for coordination events.
Optimal signals are obtained automatically from the process itself.
Agreed signals should have good Information CRAFT. They should be:
- Current and integrate the latest information on the topic.
- Relevant to meet the information needs of the recipient.
- Available when and where it needs to be.
- Followed in decisions and actions.
- True based on facts and intent.
Success signals are useful in the short term to trace the effectivenes of changes,
and can be abolished later to avoid noise.
Exception signals should indicate when action is required.
The TOP Coalition improves on existing signals that don't meet Information CRAFT standards
before introducing new signals.
The final step of the TOP Cycle addresses learnings, active and external changes and their
effect on the TOP Goal:
The initial TOP Goal can thus either be reached, have progress, no progress or even a setback.
The TOP Coalition determines the condition in respect to the TOP Goal:
- Achieving the goal indicates that the coalition has accomplished their mission.
- Progress in line with the TOP Goal indicates that further action is necessary.
Small, sustainable progress is preferable to planning for huge achievements that might or might not work out.
When TOP Goals are big topics, new sub-goal might surface as progress is achieved.
- No progress requires the coalition to reconsider the effectiveness of their actions.
- Setbacks require the coalition to examine and surface the root cause.
In either case, the TOP coalition has to determine which next course of action to take:
- Continuing pursuit of the TOP Goal if learnings indicate that the coalition's TOP Goal remains valid and critical.
- Modifying the TOP Goal based on learnings and continuing pursuit of the modified TOP Goal.
- Choosing a new TOP Goal if learnings indicate that another TOP Goal is more valuable now.
- Disbanding when the TOP Goal is superseded. This frees coalition members to join a different coalition in pursuit of a new TOP Goal.
Taking advantage of similarity
In order to keep the initial scope of change small yet relevant, the TOP Structure relies on pattern similarity.
To reuse a change in a bigger context, the pattern must be understood as follows:
- Find the similarities in other places.
- Discover how to translate the learnings so that they can be applied.
- Some patterns apply at "lower" levels.
- Some patterns repeat at the same level in other areas.
- Some patterns repeat at "higher" levels of the organization.
- Acknowledge the limitations: When there's no similarity - don't force one!
- Clarify the pattern's encompassing and limiting characteristics.
- Reapply the pattern in the coalition's network.
- Make the pattern available for others.
TOP Structure Events
The TOP Structure itself is minimal, and keeps specific events at a minimum.
Ideally, existing meetings can be utilized or reorganized to achieve the purpose of TOP events.
Only where no comparable event exists, should a TOP Event be added. In general, TOP events
should reduce the need for meetings. Where this isn't the case, this should lead to reflection
and adaptation: Some meetings may be superfluous or ineffective.
This chapter provides specific guidance for setting up and running TOP Events aligned with the TOP Cycle,
although specific adoptions could vary in nature.
All TOP Events should be attended by all members of the TOP Coalition and initially,
start with an orientation to clarify intent, agenda and expected outcomes.
The TOP Events should align sequentially with the TOP Cycle.
Multiple events could be combined into a single session, as long as there
are sufficient breaks inbetween.
Goal Setting Event
The key outcome is to have a common understanding of possible
improvement goals, their relationship towards one another,
and agreement on their priority order.
The event is successful when a TOP Goal is agreed.
It recurs as required.
Using the TOP Goal Setting pattern, participants itemize
the potential they see within each area.
A few minutes of consideration should be given to each area.
People explain their points and similar and related items
are clustered to improve clarity.
Based on the clusters, items are grouped and reframed to
surface the underlying potential.
Identify the top few items, for example by voting on perceived importance.
The short list of items is ranked and ordered.
The highest ranked item is rephrased into a SMART Goal:
- Specific - what do we want to achieve?
- Measurable - how do we know we're making progress?
- Ambitious - what's the difference we will make?
- Realistic - how can we act on this goal?
- Timebound - by when should we have achieved it?
||Check whether the goal would:
The goal description is adjusted accordingly.
- be blocked by other items that would need to achieved first,
- offer synergetic benefits that can be achieved as well.
- have side effects that need to be considered
||Participants agree to take the defined goal as their TOP Goal.
To achieve the TOP Goal, one or more TOP Coalitions
are formed. They plan, conduct and validate their mission.
The event is successful when the coalition is clear on their way of working.
It recurs when members of a coalition change.
Introducing the TOP Goal and the intent behind it.
If members have not met each other yet, they should get to know each other
a little better. Icebreakers may help.
Skip this step in small organizations where people already know each other.
Participants clarify their role within the
coalition, addressing gaps and overlaps.
If critical aspects (such as skills or reach) are missing,
the coalition setup needs to be adjusted.
The TOP Coalition determines how they will
collaborate in order to achieve their TOP Goals.
This includes agreeing on mutual expectations
and rules of engagement.
Working Agreements can always be revisited to reduce friction.
The coalition determines how long they plan to collaborate,
when and how frequently they will meet and exchange
information, and how long the first cycle should take.
Fewer meetings are better, but some will be essential.
Mission Launch Event
Every TOP Coalition needs to be formed in order to effectively conduct changes
within a TOP Structure.
The event is successful when the coalition stands, has an agreed mission and
clear first actions. It recurs whenever the coalition changes.
Introducing the TOP Goal and the intent behind it.
Participants explain how they interpret the mission, receive feedback
from one another, and agree on a common interpretation of the mission.
The TOP Goal is decomposed into sub-goals by backtracking
from the desired future state to readily achievable goals.
The coalition defines action items for the most promising,
achievable sub-goals. Coalition members take ownership of their
When action items take a significant amount of time,
coalition members and potentially their teams must have
free capacity to complete these items.
The coalition agrees to free a sufficient amount of capacity
to achieve this.
||The Coalition agrees to take first steps and collaborate as agreed.
At frequent intervals, the entire coalition gathers to exchange information.
The event is successful when the coalition stands, has an agreed mission and
clear first actions.
Synchronization should happen at least weekly - initially, synchronizing
daily may be helpful until the coalition is sufficiently bonded in their
relationships and mutual understanding.
What has happened that other coalition members should know about?
Need for Action
Which agreed actions are no longer valid, or have been newly discovered?
What do we do with the newly discovered actions?
||Is the TOP Goal still valid and achievable? Is support needed?
When the TOP Coalition has completed their planned actions,
they will recap whether in their environment:
- the actions have provided the intended progress towards the goal,
- a change of plan is necessary to make progress
- side effects occurred that need to be addressed
The event is successful when the coalition understands how to proceed in the next cycle.
What was the TOP goal?
Did it change, were there progress or setbacks?
How can learnings be utilized to be more successful in the next steps?
Pivot or Persevere
The coalition determines whether to persevere in further steps
towards the same TOP Goal or to pursue a new TOP Goal - or to call
their mission a success and adjourn.
If the coalition determines that they will
persevere on the current TOP Goal,
they will proceed with the Mission Launch event.
discover new goals,
they will proceed with the Goal Setting event.
pivot the next goal from the list of known goals,
they SMART their goal and proceed with the Mission Launch event.
complete their mission and adjourn,
they will have a closing event and the responsibility
for the TOP Goals moves to the TOP Sponsor, who will
then organize a Formation event with a new coalition.
Scale Across Event
When the TOP Coalition has achieved relevant progress,
they invite others within their network to share their learnings so that
others can also benefit.
What is the current TOP Goal?
Outcomes & Patterns
Which outcomes relevant for others did the coalition generate,
both successes and failures? Which patterns were discovered,
and how can others reproduce the successes, and avoid the failures?
The TOP Coalition offers support for others in the adoption
of changes to scale out achievements towards the TOP Goal.
Takers, type and amount of support are agreed.
A TOP Structure is built up by TOP Coalitions, and the pace at which TOP Coalitions
act and generate results determines how adaptive a TOP Structure will be.
There is no "blueprint" for a TOP Structure, as the goals and patterns discovered
by TOP Coalitions determine the optimal state for the organization.
The effectiveness of a TOP Structure depends on how well TOP Coalitions are formed,
the network they can cover, and the effectiveness at which they can make critical
The minimum amount of TOP Coalitions required for a TOP Structure is one,
although any number of coalitions can work in parallel in different areas
of the organization to achieve the TOP Goal. It's critical, though, that
the goals of different coalitions are congruent and all contribute to one
overall TOP Goal.
The work of TOP Coalitions should result in reformed networks with enhanced
flow and better energy allocation. The ultimate outcome of the TOP Structure
is an organization that can achieve better outcomes, faster and with less effort.
Michael Küsters (2023)
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