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How to Become Customer-Focused with Autonomous Teams

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Traditional organizations are often suffering from ineffective ways of working and structures not allowing the people to collaborate in a structured way. Organizations need to find ways to enable brain power in cross-functional and autonomous teams that are able to deliver products and services with expected business impact faster, said Mia Kolmodin, founder of Dandy People.

In her talk at the ACE Conference 2019, Kolmodin mentioned symptoms of ineffective organizations:

It might be that you are working a lot but never really seem to reach the goal, or that you rather stick to the plan and deliver on what was promised rather than changing the plan after feedback, or the feeling that comes with spending most of the time in meetings - who will do the necessary work?

Kolmodin mentioned that traditional IT organizations have an inside out perspective that they are structured around. She said that we need to understand who our customers are, and structure ourselves around their needs and meet them as effectively as possible. Kolmodin stated that self-organized organizations who focus and organize around the customer are much more likely to outperform their competitors.

One way to lead in a customer-focused way is to define the customer journey, and find a structured way for teams to take responsibility end-to-end for that part of the customer journey or for a specific product. In this way, customer focus permeates everything we do; it even sets our organization, argued Kolmodin.

It might seem difficult to lead an organization without detailed plans and projects. But in a fast-paced and complex world, the organization needs autonomous teams that can make quick decisions and solve difficult problems, said Kolmodin. Alignment is also needed to understand how teams contribute to the big picture and who they should collaborate with to succeed, she said.

Kolmodin suggested using strategic team missions of 6-12 months connected to the customer journey. This approach gives teams the space to work in a hypothesis-driven and long-term way, which brings a lot of value to both the business and the customer, she argued.

Kolmodin presented the Customer Focus Stairs, a visualization of the different levels of customer focus, heavily inspired by Nielsen Norman Group.

At the bottom of the stairs, you have the mindset that you know better than the customer, and that they should learn how to use your products. At the top of the stairs, customer experience permeates everything in the organization.

The Norman Nielsen Group claims it takes on average 10 years for an organization to climb the stairs from 1-8, said Kolmodin. But we have seen it go much faster in Agile organizations that set their mind to it and start to work cross-functionally, and organize themselves around the customer, pulling key competencies into the team and building a strong customer-centric Agile culture.

InfoQ spoke with Mia Kolmodin after her talk at the ACE Conference 2019 about business agility, the role that leadership can play, and enabling and sustaining innovation in organizations.

InfoQ: How do you define business agility?

Mia Kolmodin: The way I look at Business Agility it is defined by how quickly your organization can adapt to new customer needs - and even before the customers have the need.

To be able to do this, you need to trust your employees to be capable, and have smart people who understand and can solve the customer’s needs. This is often a big shift for most organizations, where old management models such as budgeting and HR need to be changed. In budgeting, you need to separate the different parts of the traditional budgeting process, goal setting, forecasting, and resource allocation to enable business agility.

Within HR you need to separate feedback and coaching, performance, learning, development and compensation to enable business Agility. By doing this, you create a situation where strategy can be easily shifted and your employees can focus on what’s most valuable working together with the right people in the organization, without unnecessary bureaucracy and politics.

InfoQ: What role can leadership play when it comes to increasing agility?

Kolmodin: Good leadership is the key to the success of any organization. And the more complex and fast-paced the organization needs to be, the more agility is needed - and to be Agile, not just do Agile, is not possible without great leadership.

When being Agile and innovating, people first of all need to feel safe to be themselves to dare to make their voice heard. Secondly, transparency of what is happening and where we are going is needed for people to make good and quick decisions. None of this will be possible without good leadership.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for enabling and sustaining innovation in organizations?

Kolmodin: Support the growth of your employees and teams, and enable them to understand the strategies of your organization and give them the mandate to make tactical decisions. If you do that, you will create a learning organization and you will mobilize the brainpower of your employees to solve your customers and business problems. Your business and your employees will thrive now, as well as in the future.

There are some infographic posters on the topics discussed in this interview that InfoQ readers can download for free:

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