I’m a big fan of creating a culture where cross-functional teams are autonomous in their decisions about how to best accomplish goals and, over time, can build mastery of something that matters. These cultures produce high levels of intrinsic motivation, which is critical for high-performance teams. High-performance teams reach their goals faster, with higher quality, and at lower cost. That’s because they take ownership of how to accomplish a goal and are accountable for the results. When something inevitably goes sideways, the team has the motivation and ability to make it right.
But what if your teams aren’t preforming at the desired level? To deliver big results you need solid leadership, great people, an amazing culture, and world-class technology – in that order. If you’re attempting to change the culture without first demonstrating leadership by establishing a compelling technology vision, or if you don’t have the right people, then correct those shortcomings before focusing on the culture.
If technical leadership is solid and you have great people on cross-functional teams but performance isn’t where it should be, then it can be a difficult choice to give teams more autonomy. A strong instinct might be to make decisions for teams and to guide their actions to a successful outcome. However, direct involvement (which might be perceived as micro-management by the teams) doesn’t guarantee success and will certainly reduce intrinsic motivation. Remember, intrinsic motivation is the key factor for high-performance teams.
Another consideration is that teams who are transitioning to a culture of increased autonomy might not yet have the skill to make good decisions. Decision making is like a muscle. The more decisions a team makes, the better they become at decision making. The ability for a team to make decisions can weaken in a culture that tends towards micro-management. Here are two tactics to support teams as they transition to a culture of increased autonomy and to give leaders the confidence that their teams are making the right decisions.
First, introduce the concept of an innovation budget. Teams that are transitioning to greater autonomy can sometimes take on too many changes at once as each team member feels newly empowered to independently fix what they perceive as broken. A per-team innovation budget, which might be measured in person hours per quarter, forces each team to discuss innovations and allocate the budget to a few changes that the team agrees will have the biggest impact. If the changes take too long and the budget is spent, then the team will need wait until a new innovation budget is allocated. The team strengthens their decision making skills and changes are gradually introduced. As teams become more skilled at decision making and show progress, the innovation budget can be expanded.
Second, help teams hold themselves accountable for the results of their decisions over time. Agile teams typically have a mechanism to improve over time. In Scrum, it’s the retrospective. Each sprint, the team looks at what went well, what can be improved, and which one thing to change in the following sprint. Choosing a meaningful improvement, usually called a “kaizen”, based on the last sprint can have dramatic effects over time. The downside to always focusing on the last sprint is that the team might loose sight of larger trends. In particular, teams might not see the impact of their innovation choices until much later.
To hold teams accountable, ask the Scrum Master to prepare an overview of the last several sprints. The overview should include notable events for each sprint (meetings, decisions, team members away), sprint commitments, sprint velocities, kaizens, and an accounting of the innovation budget. Similar to a retrospective, create a safe, blameless space where team members can share honest insights about the trends over the last several sprints.
Together these tactics are a great way to gradually begin to create the culture where autonomous teams can thrive. If the goal is word-class technology, then that outcome is much more likely with solid leadership, great people and an amazing culture than without.