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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Give us autonomy - but first you've gotta tell us what to do

The ultimate state for any team is self-determination: they lead their own discovery of work, self-prioritize that work, self-organize their roles and self-direct the delivery.

Self-determination requires meta awareness. The team knows the problem space - the motivations of different actors (buyers, users, influencers), the guiding policies (regulatory and commercial preference), the tech in place, and so forth. Conversely, they are not whipsawed by external forces. They do not operate at the whim of customers because they evolve their products across the body of need and opportunity. They do not operate at the mercy of regulation because they know the applicable regulation and how it applies to them. They know their integrated technology’s features and foibles and know what to code with and code around. They know where the bodies are buried in their own code. And the members of the team might not be friends or even friendly to one another, but they know that no member of the team will let them down.

In the early 1990s, a Chief Technology officer I knew once replied to a member of his customer community during the Q&A at their annual tech meetup thusly: “there is nothing you can suggest that we’ve not already thought of.” Arrogance incarnate. But he and his entire team knew the product they were trying to build and they product they were not trying to build. They were comfortable with the tech trends they were latching onto and those they were not. They had not only customer intimacy but intimacy with prospective customers. They sold what they made; they did not make what they sold. Best of all, they’re still in business today, over 30 years later. They achieved a state of sustainable economic autonomy.

Freedom is most often associated with financial independence. There is a certain amount of truth to this. Financial independence means you can reach as far as “esteem” in Maslow’s hierarchy without doing much more than lavish spending. Unfortunately, money only buys autonomy for as long as the money lasts. History is littered with case studies where it did not. Sustained economic performance - through business cycles and tech cycles - yields the cash flow that makes self-determination possible. That requires evolution and adaptability, and those are functions of meta awareness.

Which brings us to the software development team that insists on autonomy. The team wants the freedom to tell their paymasters how a problem or opportunity space is defined, what to prioritize, how to staff, how much funding they need, and when to expect solution delivery will begin. That’s a great way to work. And, for decades now, management consultants have advised devolving authority to the people closest to the need or opportunity. But that proximity is only as valuable as the team’s comprehension of the problem space, familiarity with the domain, experience with similar engineering challenges, and the ability to think abstractly and concretely. When a team lacks in these things, devolving authority will simply yield a long and expensive path of discovery while the team acquires this knowledge. The less a priori knowledge the team has, the less structured and more haphazard the learning journey; so when the problem space is complex, this becomes a very long and very expensive discovery path indeed - and one that sometimes never actually succeeds.

Autonomy increasingly became the norm in tech as a result of the shortage of capable tech people, driven by the combination of cheap capital and COVID fueling tech investments. Under those conditions, a long learning journey was the price of admission; meta awareness was no longer a requirement for autonomy. With capital a lot more expensive today, tech spending has cooled and returns on tech investments are under much tighter scrutiny, and the longer the learning journey the less viable the tech investment. This is having the effect of exposing friction between how tech expects to operate and how business buyers expect for it to operate. Business buyers financing tech investments want tighter business cases that define returns and provide controls for capital spend. Tech employees want the space to figure out the domain, increasing expense spend and lengthening the time (and therefore cost) to deliver. With capital now having the upper hand, it is not uncommon for tech to be dichotomously demanding both autonomy and to be told exactly what to do.

While autonomy is the ultimate state of evolution for any team, the prerequisites to achieve it are extraordinarily high. It doesn’t require omnipotence, but it does require sufficient fluency with the tech and the domain to know the question to ask, to make appropriate assumptions, to anticipate the likely risks, and to know the sensible defaults to make in design. Devolved authority is a fantastic way to work, but autonomy must be earned, never granted.