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Role of Autonomy in Agility

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Autonomy is one of the core guiding principles at Spotify. It enables employees to make decisions as close to the work that is being done as possible. At the Agile Greece Summit 2015 Kristian Lindwall and Cliff Hazell from Spotify explained why autonomy is at the heart of agility.

People are self motivated and want to do great work. If that is not happening then something is blocking them. You have to find out what it is and get it out of the way.

You need a culture where people feel safe to fail and try new things. If you have a culture of fear and blame, people will not take the risk. To get to a state of high innovation, you need to make mistakes, having a culture of no fear. We obviously don’t want people to make the same mistakes over and over again said Lindwall and Hazell. You can say Spotify aims to make mistakes faster than anyone else and also to learn from them. We do tons and tons of retrospectives and post mortems at Spotify.

Autonomy has a Greek origin, it means having the freedom to choose. Autonomy is always within boundaries. Boundaries come in forms of clarity and constraints, something that you should aim to make as explicit as you can (often together with the teams themselves). Overall, Spotify aims to have a culture of highly autonomous, well aligned teams. You can have both, but you need to work for it said Lindwall and Hazell. Always make sure teams have access to their stakeholders and know their purpose.

At the Agile Summit Lindwall and Hazell talked about a reorganization that they were involved in at Spotify. The interesting thing about it was that all persons (150 people) where involved in defining the organization and to decide where they would work in it. A series of workshops with all leads (40 people) was held with conversations with everyone else in between. A Google doc was then used to write down ideas regarding the changes that were needed and everybody was invited to join the on-line discussion by adding or changing things in the document. When they had come to an agreement on the structure of the new organization, they drew it up on a huge whiteboard. Over the following week, people where asked to put there name in the team that they wanted to work in. Basically staffing 15 teams with 150 people in a self organized way.

There were some teams which had too many people, and some with too few. And also even some teams where nobody wanted to work. There were constraints on the sizes of the teams and people where then asked to figure out a way to solve it together. All leaders had the reorganization as their main priority this week and spent a lot of time talking to people. Some were poked to look into the option of swapping teams, but no one was forced. For teams where nobody signed up people were asked why they decided not to join this team, this information was then used to actually take one team out and to split its mission over some other teams.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate how you can scale agile while making sure that teams remain sufficiently autonomous?

Lindwall: I’d say the way you slice the organization is very important here. Strong teams with clear missions and a good understanding of how they fit into the rest of the organization, and how they contribute to the overall mission is key. Aim to reduce dependencies, and where there are dependencies, help make those clear to everyone. If people know how they relate to the organization and what is expected of them, they will generally figure things out together.

Hazell: I agree with Kristian. Building software involves working together which requires the right communication. Feedback loops that are smooth and fast will help here.

InfoQ: Can you describe how town hall meetings are used at Spotify to support collaboration between people and increase autonomy?

Lindwall: We do company wide meetings on a monthly cadence. This means the lead team updates the organization on what’s new, but more importantly, they make themselves available to answer all sorts of questions. The level of transparency is high and people are encouraged to ask tough questions which they typically do. The idea of having these types of meetings is also widespread in the organization on smaller scale as well. Transparency is key for having a high degree of autonomy, and this is one tool for transparency.

Hazell: This pattern repeats its self across the organization at multiple levels. We do this Company wide, within Tech and within each Tribe. Repeating the message and taking time to respond to questions is so valuable.

InfoQ: Can you give some example what managers at Spotify are doing when their teams are self organized? How do they support their teams?

Hazell: Being available. You won’t be very useful if your team has to schedule a meeting next week each time they need you. Slack time, where you block time and don’t schedule anything specific gives you the ability to jump on anything that comes along. I typical allocate at least 1-2 hours/day for this. If nothing urgent comes up, read a book, grab coffee with someone, or take a break.

Lindwall: "Self organization" is an interesting topic. Self organization always happens, no matter what. However, it will be affected by what boundaries you set up, and you will want to support that self organization to go in a good direction. I think a very common misconception is that having self organized, autonomous teams means that all managers needs to simply get out of their way. Doing that would be a big mistake.

As a leader, you need to help the teams by providing clarity, by defining the constraints in the org and by providing the right conditions for the people to do their best work. All of this needs to be aligned with the maturity of the team and the people in it. An experienced team will need very different support than a more junior one. In practice, managers will need to invest quite a lot of time with people and the teams they work in. To be able to provide the right type of support, they need a clear view of the state of things and how they can support the people and teams to improve and to deliver as much value as possible. I believe most managers at Spotify do weekly 1:1s with all their directs. They also tend to spend time with the teams to understand what happens there. Generally speaking, managers are seen as people who are there to support rather than control people. Support can come in all sorts of forms such as: staffing, providing clarity, pushing people to grow, working with the whole team to improve dynamics, helping the team to better communicate with its stakeholders etc.

InfoQ: Do you have some suggestions what organizations can do to create a collaborative culture?

Hazell: Get leadership to go first. Collaboration requires trust, and trust is built over time, and through demonstrating it. Asking for help and offering help, including people and sharing what’s going in your world. All of these go a long way.

Lindwall: Be transparent. Let people know what you are thinking and encourage them to challenge you. I personally have open weekly leadership meetings where everyone is invited to talk about matters that perhaps elsewhere could be seen as "managers business". Be clear about your intentions and get people involved. Stay congruent - make sure to walk the talk. Especially when you are working with engineers. They have the most fine tuned bullshit radars of all, so be honest.

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