I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Organizing for Innovation, Part V: The Leadership Challenge

Organizations of autonomous teams require a different set of behaviors than organizations that are run like a machine. People in a self-directed team form their own appreciations for what should be done, prioritize what will be done, and self-determine how it will be done. They are unencumbered by hierarchy, expected to communicate with anybody in the organization they need. They are unencumbered by role definition, as people simply do whatever work is required even when that means acquiring new skills or knowledge. They are unencumbered by organization, as teams form task-forces to solve for problems that are beyond the scope of any single defined team.

This all sounds great. Who wouldn't want to work this way?

The majority of people working in enterprise IT today, that's who.

Enterprise tech labor is highly codified (bounded responsibilities) and stratified (seniority). Aside from the fact that this serves the interests of a multitude of non-tech corporate functions such as human resources, vendor management and finance, it also provides a great deal of comfort to the individual. The employee knows very precisely what is expected of them to earn a salary increase or advance their career, while the contractor knows what they are obliged to do to satisfy the terms of their contract. Over time, jobs become working annuities that require little servicing (such as skill acquisition or excessively long working hours) for comfortable levels of compensation with job security (by e.g., being the only ones familiar with a technology, service or function).

The autonomous team environment is anathema to this. For starters, the autonomous team operates with a lot of ambiguity. New appreciations change the team's priority constantly, meaning there is no deterministic plan. Plus, people adapt themselves to the work that needs to be done as opposed to working in strict swim-lanes. An autonomous team environment implicitly subordinates the traditional goals of the individual: the success of the team is success for the individual. An autonomous team breaks down when its members put individual achievement over team accomplishment.

Of course, working this way is a question of both skill and will. Whether labor can re-orient itself from machine to autonomy is a debate well beyond the scope of any blog post, but suffice to say that some - few, several or most - will not be able to make the transition from doing what they are told to do by management, to figuring out for themselves what needs to be done and doing it. In addition, whether labor willingly chooses to re-orient itself is another matter entirely. Over-exposure to enterprise change programs - or more likely, over-exposure to failed enterprise change programs - won't inspire enthusiasm for yet another one. There is also the suspension of disbelief people need to make to give devolved authority and autonomous team structures a try.

This brings us to the leadership challenge that creating an organization of autonomous teams poses. Obviously, there are institutional barriers that have to be overcome. HR has to be comfortable with ambiguous roles and titles. Vendor contracts for supply of specialist labor have to be replaced with contracts tied to business outcomes. Finance needs an alternative to predictive planning and financial budgeting.

However, the challenge to leadership goes beyond mechanical processes and structural changes. In an organization of autonomous teams the nature of leadership changes from giving commands to guiding actions. The leader does not direct people's performance to achieve a goal (organization-as-machine), but instead projects a goal that people direct themselves toward achieving (organization-as-brain). The leader in the autonomous organization makes use of:

  • Concrete statements of expectations: leaders have to make expectations crystal clear. Saying "all enterprise software is deployed into production every other week" is a clear expectation. Saying "we will be a continuous deployment organization" is a woolly statement: "continuous" will be interpreted relative to the current skills and learned helplessness of the people responsible for enterprise software today. The latter statement also misses the point: how the organization functions (continuous deployment) is less important than describing what it achieves (new software released across the board every other week.) The prescriptive implications of that statement deny the people in the organization the opportunity to figure out for themselves how best to achieve the goal. The leader communicates the expectation; it is up to the people in the organization to figure out how to achieve it.
  • Rewards and recognition: obviously, what gets measured is what gets managed. If the goal is to increase frequency of deployments, reward the teams that find ways to make reliable production releases weekly, then twice weekly, then daily, then multiple times per day. Story-telling is important as well, especially as an organization adopts new behavioral norms and its business partners develop new expectations of it. For example, in its early days, FedEx executives were fond of repeating the story of the junior employee who rented a helicopter on his personal American Express card to fly him to a mountain location to repair snow-damaged phone lines so that they could service remote customers. When you're building a reputation for absolutely, positively getting packages delivered overnight, stories like this go a very long way.
  • Acknowledging and solving constraints: every team, not to mention the organization as a whole, will be short of the capacity, capability and capital to achieve every organizational goal. While constraints force institutional responses such as prioritization and innovation, they are also opportunities for a systemic change. It is the leader's obligation to work with constrained teams to identify the actions they can take today so that they will be less constrained in the future. For example, if there is a capability constraint, what can the team do now to develop skills and knowledge so that it can do more for itself? If a financial constraint, how can the team build a stronger business case or define a set of experiments to explore potential value? In the face of constraints, the leader's responsibility is to develop an organization's ability to learn how to learn.

At the foundation of the organization of autonomous teams is Theory Y. The aspirational leader of an organization of autonomous teams has to believe that people are motivated, responsible, and do not need close supervision. If you do not fundamentally believe this, do not bother pursuing an organization of autonomous teams. Once you revert to command-and-control (Theory X), you have lost the mantle of leadership in a devolved organization.

In the next installment in this series, we will put all of these concepts together to visualize what the autonomous organization looks like at scale.