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InfoQ Homepage Articles Superior Employee Engagement through Radical Team Autonomy

Superior Employee Engagement through Radical Team Autonomy

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Key Takeaways

  • Radically collaborative organizations have recently doubled in number, and now comprise 8% of corporations around the world
  • Their economic success can be traced back to four cultural imperatives: team autonomy, managerial devolution, deficiency-need gratification, and candid vulnerability
  • Teams within radically collaborative organizations exhibit six dimensions of autonomy: who, what, when, where, how, and role.
  • Team autonomy goes hand in hand with a process of managerial devolution - in which power is devolved out of a static dominator hierarchy and into a self-organizing, self-linking heterarchy

(This is an excerpt adapted from the book, "A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations")

Over the past few decades, a small but growing percentage of corporations around the world have pioneered a new way of working founded on partnership and equality -- where static dominator hierarchies, managers, and bureaucracies are jettisoned in favor of dynamic, self-managing, self-linking networks of teams.

These corporations embrace a radical approach to collaboration, grounded in the intrinsic motivation of the participants and formed through the freely given commitments of peers. For that reason, we’ll refer to these organizations as radically collaborative.

The results of radically collaborative organizations are remarkable. According to the HOW Report -- a groundbreaking organizational study from the Legal Research Network, with support from the University of Southern California and the Boston Research Group -- a jaw-dropping 97% of radically collaborative organizations are high-performing. They out compete their traditional hierarchical competitors on every financial dimension, including year-over-year growth in revenue, market share, and customer satisfaction. As a group, they consistently out innovate the competition and out engage their workforce. They are unburdened by the bureaucratic overhead of their management-bloated peers and their employees are more loyal, more willing to exert effort, and more willing to recommend their organization to others. (Seidman 2016).

Radically collaborative organizations are the fastest growing organizational archetype in the world, more than doubling in number between the 2012 and 2016 HOW Reports and currently comprising around 8% of the world’s businesses. Radical collaboration is being pioneered by a rapidly expanding global cohort of corporations -- some of which, like Haier (the #1 appliance manufacturer in the world), Morning Star (the largest tomato process in the world), and W.L. Gore (the multi-billion dollar innovation organization behind best-selling products like Gore-Tex waterproof fabric and Glide dental floss), have come to rapidly dominate their industries.

By structuring themselves around the principle of linking rather than ranking, radically collaborative organizations favor dynamic and self-managing networks of teams. And by grounding themselves in partnership and equality, they feature a fluid approach to leadership dependent on context and granted by trust. Taken together, these facets of radical collaboration paint a striking alternative to the traditional corporate model -- one that is as compelling for the individuals fortunate enough to belong to them as it is problematic for the traditional corporations unfortunate enough to compete with them.

Traditional, hierarchical organizations can no longer rest on top-down planning or command-and-control directives. In order to survive, they must begin to understand, emulate, and adapt the business theory and practices that radically collaborative organizations are utilizing to not only meet the moment but to leapfrog ahead of it.

Of course, knowing what needs to be done is only half the challenge. A traditional organization that sets its sights on radical collaboration is still left with the question: How does a company become radically collaborative?

The answer lies in four conceptual imperatives: team autonomy, managerial devolution, deficiency gratification, and candid vulnerability. I call them imperatives because they are vital, preempetory, and essential for any business to seize on the opportunity for sustainable and substantial change offered by the disruption we are living in now. In this article, we’ll dive into the first imperative, Team Autonomy. The remaining imperatives can be studied in my book, "A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations."

Team Autonomy

Autonomy is the human need for "control over one’s environment" -- to feel like we "have choice within any given situation," which in turn is strongly linked to individual and organizational success. (Radecki 2018) As Dr. Dan Radecki, the neuroscientist and co-author of Psychological Safety: The Key to Happy, High-Performing People and Teams, states:

"We know from neuroscience research that people are more likely to succeed when they buy into an idea. When people reach their own insights and conclusions, solve their own problems, or come up with their own ideas ... they are far more likely to own and implement solutions." (Radecki 2018).

This helps explain why radically collaborative organizations succeed where traditional hierarchical corporations fail. Through a paradigm of domination and coercion, traditional corporate hierarchies structurally deprive knowledge workers of autonomy, which in turn contributes to organizational woes like disengagement, mistrust, and meaninglessness. Radically collaborative organizations, on the other hand, achieve superior levels of employee engagement and corporate innovation at least in part because they structurally gratify the need for individual and team autonomy across six core dimensions: the how (autonomy of practice), the where and when (autonomy of schedule), the what and who (autonomy of allocation), and the role (autonomy of role).

  • Through autonomy of practice radical collaborators control the how of their work. They decide how to work together as teams and what practices to collectively and individually deploy.
  • Through autonomy of schedule radical collaborators control the where and the when of their work. They decide whether they’re collocated or distributed. Whether they sit in an office, on a couch at home, or on the beach. They decide whether to synchronize schedules to enable real-time collaboration practices like pair programming (in which two engineers program together on the same computer, at the same time) or whether to maximize individual autonomy by making asynchronous communication patterns the primary method of coordination and collaboration.
  • Through autonomy of allocation radical collaborators control the what and the who. Instead of being allocated to teams by a managerial hierarchy, radical collaborators self-manage allocations by freely joining teams aligned to their own interests and intrinsic motivations.
  • Through autonomy of role radical collaborators self-manage their own role within the organization. They decide what type of work they’re interested in, what kind of career they want to have, and what they need from the organization in order to develop any and all necessary skills.

Autonomy of Practice: The "How"

The most universal dimension of autonomy among radically collaborative pioneers is autonomy of practice -- i.e., the "how." Radical collaborators within these companies are free to decide among themselves, both as individuals and as teams, how to do their work. Should developers program individually, in pairs, or in "mobs," as is increasingly the practice today? Individuals and teams decide. Should designers validate user experiences with prototypes before developers build it out in code? Individuals and teams decide. Should product managers engage in competitive analysis and business viability studies before charting out a product roadmap? Again, individuals and teams decide. There’s no one sitting on high in these organizations telling others how to do their jobs. Colleagues within these organizations are empowered to make these choices themselves -- and to be responsible to themselves and to each other for the choices they make.

To see "Autonomy of ‘How’" in action, take TIM Group, a London-based fintech organization that provides trade ideas and investment recommendations through their online platform. During the 2010s, TIM Group underwent a gradual transformation toward radical collaboration and self-management. (We’ll detail the full transformation in the next chapter). They organized as a self-managing network of autonomous teams, without managers or hierarchy, and they instituted a series of agreed-upon technology constraints that balanced the need for team autonomy with cross-team fluidity.

As their former CTO, Jeffrey Fredrick explained to me,

"Before our transformation, we had relatively fixed teams. But as we began to transform, we said, basically, we’re one department. Some decisions a team makes will impact other people. The choice of practice, like whether you pair program or not, was entirely in the team. And so some teams paired daily, others would pair occasionally. But bringing in new technologies like MongoDB, or new languages like Scala, impacted everyone, especially as teams began to focus on delivering outcomes and user value irrespective of the codebases involved."

This led to the emergence of a meme among the developers, as former TIM Group developer Graham Allan told me,

"The idea of reducing the technology surface area really became a meme within the group. How do we simplify this? How do we keep it streamlined?"

The theme of team autonomy through liberating constraints is also visible at Haufe-Umantis, a radically collaborative software company focused on talent management and collaboration. They have implemented autonomy of practice by adapting a popular Agile methodology called Scrum to their radically collaborative organization. Although many software teams within the organization are united around a shared purpose and goal, they are individually empowered through Scrum to decide how to best go about achieving that goal.

As Sergi Rodriguez, a front-end developer at Haufe-Umantis, explained to me,

"I feel like we are independent as a team because no one is going to come and say, ‘Hey, you have to do it this way or that way.’ At the same time, we have shared goals and agreed-upon guidelines. But these limitations make sense. It’s not something that we feel is being forced on us. It’s better for everyone to have some shared constraints—because those constraints liberate us to be autonomous and self-organizing."

Autonomy of Schedule: The "When" and the "Where"

The majority of the radically collaborative organizations featured in this book practice autonomy of schedule, in which colleagues decide when they work and where they work. There’s no nine-to-five schedule, no time clocks, no office managers monitoring butts in seats or hands on keyboards. Early birds can get started before the rooster crows. Night owls can warm themselves at the glow of their terminals long after others have gone to bed. If someone wants to spend Sunday afternoon programming and Monday morning rock climbing, they’re free to do so. And if someone wants to take that conference call while sunning themselves on the beach, have at it.

Take CivicActions, a radically distributed consulting company that focuses on creating open-source and open-data solutions for governments. Created by two early open source community advocates, Henry Poole and Aaraon Pava, and founded with an emphasis on self-organizing, distributed networks of people and teams, CivicActions has built the company from the ground up on the idea that colleagues can figure out for themselves when and where to work. There’s no offices, and no nine-five schedule. If someone wants to sleep in everyday and start working after lunch, that’s up to them. If someone wants to spread their work out throughout the day in order to better balance the needs of work and the needs of home life, then more power to them.

As Aaron Pava, co-founder of CivicActions explained to me,

"With the exception of the couple of mandatory calls that you’re expected to be on, like your team standup and the all hands, you have complete autonomy of schedule. Some stick to a nine to five sort of schedule; others don’t. We have early birds on the East coast that have little to no synchronous overlap with night owls on the West coast."

This approach has helped CivicActions leverage the talents of geographically dispersed colleagues as it has grown. It has also made it possible for them to more easily weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Their company was already entirely distributed before the pandemic and it’s subsequent lockdowns hit. And colleagues already made up their own hours. Although some had to adjust their individual schedules to deal with the reality of quarantining with their children, the company itself never had any assumptions about when people did their work in the first place. If someone needed to work in the mornings or evenings and take care of their children during the day, they could do so without impacting the organization.

The only significant change in the culture that Aaron Pava has seen is that colleagues have begun to record most synchronous interactions for anyone who can’t be there:

"We’ve basically created a culture of recording every single full-team call and most group calls and posting the recording afterward in the Slack channel. So if anyone, for whatever reason, wasn’t able to be there, they could catch up asynchronously. Although we all want to have a world where it’s like, ‘This could have just been an email,’ sometimes you really do need to hear and see the interactions to truly understand the outcomes and decisions."

Haufe-Umantis, the Swiss-based radically collaborative company building talent management and team collaboration tools, has implemented autonomy of schedule as well. Their teams set out goals at the beginning of a two-week sprint, but the decision about how and when to achieve those goals is entirely up to them.

As one of their developers, Sergi Rodriguez pointed out to me,

"Teams are free to work when they want, where they want. The goal is to achieve the sprint, not work a certain number of hours at a certain time."

If developers like to spend their nights programming and days enjoying the outdoors, they’re free to do so. And if they complete their sprint a week early, they’re also free to spend the remaining time however they please. This is the agile equivalent of what is more broadly known today as a ROWE’ or a results-only work environment.

In a ROWE, people are accountable not for how they work or when they work but for what they achieve, and some large organizations, like Best Buy and GAP, have begun to experiment with it. But to be clear, most ROWE workplaces in existence today are still hierarchical organizations. Accountability in these workplaces means being assigned work by a manager and being at the whim of that manager’s judgements when they evaluate your results.

But our pioneers prove that a ROWE is also possible in the absence of a dominator hierarchy. Nearsoft colleagues, for example, are accountable not to a boss but to their colleagues directly, who can band together and fire a teammate if they believe that person is intentionally and persistently shirking their duties.

So far, we’ve looked at dimensions of autonomy that fall squarely within the sphere of self-management. When we decide when to do something and how to do something, we are self-managing our work tasks. But self-management still leaves open the possibility that the work tasks themselves are assigned by a manager. So, what if individuals controlled not only the how and the when, but the what and the who?

Autonomy of Allocation: The "What" and the "Who"

What would happen if instead of being assigned to projects by managers, employees chose for themselves what projects to work on and what teams to join? The idea, known as autonomy of allocation, isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Within the domain of knowledge work -- in which workers solve novel problems through an iterative process that combines specialized skills with ongoing discovery and learning -- the self-selection of projects and tasks can be more efficient than the managerial control of allocations.

As a 2021 study of allocation methods from researchers at the University of California, the University of Venice, and the Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires reported,

"We find that letting employees pick the tasks they are most skilled at is advantageous in...project-based organizations with strong specialization and low interdependence ... Two important benefits of self-selection that arise from individual level attributes are a higher level of motivation and greater alignment between skills and tasks than what would be obtained under authority-based allocation." (Reveendran 2021)

To see autonomy of allocation in action, let's turn our spotlight again on TIM Group. When a developer-led reading and discussion group within TIM Group learned about the theory of autonomy of allocation, as well as the practical experience of it in radically collaborative organizations like GE/Durham, they were keen to try the idea out for themselves. And when a gaggle of business owners came to them with new application and feature ideas, they decided this was just the moment to run an experiment. They called it the “job fair."

Here’s how it worked. The business owners took turns presenting their requests for new applications or new features in existing applications. Developers asked questions and sought clarifications but refrained from openly stating a preference. After the presentations and Q&As were over, the business owners left. The developers then discussed the projects among themselves and flagged projects they wanted to personally work on. After everyone chose their desired projects, they reassembled the business owners and presented them with the allocation results.

The subsequent results conversation could get awkward at times, since sometimes developers wouldn’t sign up for some of the projects that the business owner requested. Developers turned them down for a number of reasons. For example, the project as presented might have been vague or confusing. Or the developers might have deemed it unimportant relative to their other projects or to their existing work.

A project might even have been passed over because of the business owner behind it. For example, on one occasion a developer had to inform a business owner that no one chose his project because no one likes working with him.

In other words, autonomy of allocation through job fairs not only gave developers the chance to work with people they liked and on projects that appealed to their intrinsic motivation, it also surfaced valuable feedback on the business ideas as well as the personalities behind them.

In a dominator hierarchy, poorly conceived projects and domineering personalities can simply be forced onto makers. But autonomy of allocation eliminates this dysfunction. When people are free to follow their intrinsic motivation, their choices shine a light on troubled projects and troubling personalities. Over time, problems like these tend to self-correct. Vague or unconvincing projects get reformulated while troubling personalities either learn how to collaborate or leave.

Let’s now take another look at cLabs, the radically collaborative crypto-currency company we met earlier in this chapter. Pranay Mohan, a software engineer at cLabs, told me about how his experience with autonomy of allocation helped him discover what it was that he was truly passionate about. A few months into his tenure at cLabs, he pursued an opportunity to work on a proof-of-concept blockchain application for the World Bank Group, a world-renowned NGO. Although he had no prior experience working with NGOs, he felt inspired by the World Bank Group’s mission and track record of results. However, after joining the effort, he discovered that he had little interest in the slow-moving realities of NGO work, which, of necessity, require one to navigate an immensity of political and bureaucratic complexities.

After spending a few months working with the World Bank Group, he returned to his former work on crypto protocols. As Pranay notes,

"From a purely economic standpoint, it’s inefficient for an organization to let someone like me pursue an area of work only to drop it once I discover that it’s not aligned to my own interests and sense of purpose in the world. But in the long term, it allows that self-selection process to be more efficient. By tolerating that initial inefficiency of exploration, people end up settling and finding a home and things that are much more germane and amenable to what they see themselves doing long term."

By reassuming a role focused on the core crypto technology itself, Pranay could better serve the organization. But had he never been given the chance to explore, he might not have discovered where his real passions lie.

This is the power of autonomy of allocation. By giving people the chance to find the work that truly inspires them and ignites their passion, radically collaborative organizations can leverage the power of intrinsic motivation to achieve superior economic results. As researchers at the Legal Research Network summarized,

"Self-Governing organizations create both more freedom from control, hierarchy, and micromanagement, and more freedom to disrupt, speak out, and pursue one’s aspirations ... They attract people who are inspired to contribute their full character and creativity in pursuit of a shared purpose, and give them the freedom to actualize their full potential. As a result, these organizations outperform by all meaningful measures, with 94% achieving higher levels of market share, business results, and customer satisfaction as compared to their hierarchical competitors." (Seidman 2016)

We’ve now arrived at a state of autonomy in which people can choose what they work on, who they work with, when they work, where they work, and how they work. But we’ve still left open the possibility for managers to decide what role people play. What would happen if people were free to choose roles for themselves?

Autonomy of Role

What if you’re a backend developer who’s bored with programming but has a budding passion for user research? Or what if you’re a manual tester that secretly wants to get into product management? At most organizations, you’d likely have little choice but to quit your job, take out a student loan, and go back to school. But radically collaborative organizations are not like most organizations. In addition to all of the other forms of autonomy we’ve already seen, many of them also feature autonomy of role -- i.e., the power to choose, for yourself, what role to play.

To see how this works in practice, consider Nearsoft (now an Encora company) -- a "nearshore" consulting organization based in Mexico with American clientele. At Nearsoft, no one has any formal titles or manager-provided roles. Although people are originally hired into the organization because their skill set corresponds with a project need, they are free to decide for themselves what role they would like to play within the organization and what career transitions make sense for them.

Esau Batencourt, for example, joined Nearsoft because his skills as a backend Java developer were needed on a client project. But over time, he grew bored with Java development. Instead of building backends for business applications, he wanted to focus on building out platforms and server infrastructure for DevOps organizations -- something he’d never done professionally and yet felt motivated to pursue personally.

The organization responded -- first connecting him with others already doing that type of work and then helping him find a client that wanted that kind of consulting help. As he explained to me,

"It’s the organization’s job to help you get to where you want to be, not to tell you whether or not you can do it."

Another Nearsoft colleague, Nyx Zamora, told me that when you want to transition from one role to another, "you can either wait until a client opportunity opens up that would support the transition or you can just say, ‘You know what, I just want to stop right now. I have a three-month plan to start studying this and change my role.’"

At first she found this level of autonomy frightening. "It’s a big decision to make. But the founders remind us, ‘We hired you because you’re a responsible adult. You can do what you want.’"

At Nearsoft, colleagues are trusted to exercise their autonomy responsibly and to learn from any mistakes that they make along the way.

Another take on autonomy of role comes to us from cLabs, a radically collaborative crypto-currency company focused on giving everyone access to the conditions for prosperity. That’s because cLabs chose to seed their organization with a ready-made framework for radical collaboration known as "holacracy."

If you’ve never heard of holacracy, you can basically think of it as a radically collaborative starter kit for organizations, providing organizations with an opinionated set of rigorously defined rules for how to structure and collectively govern radical collaboration, all of which is spelled out in the forty-one–page holacratic constitution. (Robertson 2021)

These rules enable colleagues to get work done. But they also enable them to set aside personal agendas and egos so that they may collectively evolve the organization’s roles and structures. As holacracy’s founder Brian Robertson notes,

"Holacracy’s systems and processes are about continually helping the organization find its own unique identity and structure to do its work in the world, while protecting it from human agendas, egos, and politics. Holacracy allows the organization to be more driven by its own unique purpose in life, like a child developing its own identity and goals beyond those of its parents." (Robertson 2015)

Within a holacracy, roles consist of a purpose, a set of domains or properties that the role has exclusive authority to control, as well as a set of accountabilities that explicitly state what the role does. To borrow an example from the holacracy book, a marketing role might be given the purpose "Increase positive buzz about the company." Its domains might include the company’s mailing lists and social media accounts. And it’s accountabilities might include "promoting and highlighting the organization’s services to potential customers via the mailing list and social media channels." (Robertson 2015)

Anyone in the organization that accepts the marketing role would be duty-bound to fulfill the purpose, steward the domains, and honor the accountabilities spelled out in the role’s definition. But here’s where it gets interesting: no one in the organization can be forced to accept a role by anyone else. In a holacracy, individuals are responsible for accepting, rejecting, or resigning roles. And although a specific holacratic role, called the "lead link," is responsible for aligning roles to people, they don’t have the power to force someone to accept a role.

In practice, this means that people pursue roles that they are actually motivated to take, regardless of whether or not they are qualified for that role on paper. As Brian Robertson explains,

"Because holacracy is all about organizing the work, not the people, it leaves quite a bit of freedom for the people to self-organize around what roles they fill. Instead of getting organized as single nodes in the corporate hierarchy, people are left to act more like free agents, able to shop around and accept role assignments anywhere in the organizational structure, including filling several roles in many different parts of the organization at once." (Robertson 2015)

Conclusion

Radically collaborative organizations are radically autonomous. Collaborators within these organizations decide how to work, when to work, and where to work. They decide what they work on, who they work with, and what role they play.     

Hand in hand with team autonomy is the devolution of management. As organizations increase individual and team autonomy, managerial responsibilities and powers devolve from a static dominator hierarchy into a dynamic heterarchy -- a self-organizing network of autonomous individuals and teams.

In fact, team autonomy is inseparable from all of the other imperatives (Managerial Devolution, Deficiency-Need Gratification, and Candid Vulnerability). Although it may be tempting to cherry pick the imperatives for your organization, it’s important to remember that for an organization to enjoy long-term success with radical collaboration, it must embrace all four imperatives. Team autonomy would end in chaos or frustration without simultaneously embracing managerial devolution. Candid vulnerability will never take root in an organization that does not first establish a community of trust and safety through a paradigm of interpersonal deficiency-need gratification. Engagement, growth, innovation, and performance are not the result of any particular imperative but rather the complex interplay between all of the imperatives. Radical collaboration is a holistic journey -- and I invite you to begin that journey by reading my book, "A Radical Enterprise".

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