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Autonomy and Accountability: Randy Shoup’s Advice for Moving Fast at Scale

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Randy Shoup, VP of engineering at WeWork, presented "Moving Fast at Scale" at CraftCon 2019, and discussed how he has organized teams for speed at scale without sacrificing innovation, business value, quality or team autonomy.

Based on decades of experience working with engineering teams at Google, eBay and, today at WeWork, Shoup stated that the best approach to scaling starts with small, focused teams. He recommended keeping small cross-functional teams that possess all the skill-set required within that team boundaries, across development, quality, and operations, because the smaller the teams, the faster they can inspect, adapt and act on feedback.

Teams also need to be directly aligned to business objectives, and capable of delivering incremental software traced directly to business objectives and customer value. Teams are required to measure not only their engineering and development performance, but business metrics that matter to the end users.

As teams and features grow, and as organizations need to scale, Shoup recommended scaling following the biological analogy of cellular mitosis. This consists of not simply expanding teams and their inherent complexity, but rather splitting these teams to allow them to perform independently and remain focused on solving business problems.

Shoup shared that a team is better set up for success when approximately 80 percent of their backlog is capable of being delivered within the team boundary. About 20 percent of their work may cross team boundaries, and may be composed of large enterprise strategic initiatives. The main reason why we must avoid projects and deployments cutting across multiple teams within the organization is because this impedes the speed of feedback and delivery of value to customers. High-performing teams should be organized around defined areas of responsibilities, and should focus on producing a single application or a single set of related applications, or maybe a single service or set of related services.

Another important organizational practice Shoup fosters among his teams is "autonomy combined with accountability". He gives his teams very clear business goals, measured by clear metrics that matter to customers, but he does not specify a solution. Instead, he states what the business problem is, and provide his teams with full autonomy within the team boundaries to self-organize and explore technological solutions that best meet business expectations, while holding them accountable for the results.

The question of autonomy in how to solve the problem is, according to Shoup, the most important, because it is directly related to what problems organizations are trying to solve. In order to ensure that teams work on the right solution and therefore avoid wasteful activities or increment of product, they need to work closely with the business to help define what the problem is and what the best solution would be, even if it means asking the business to rephrase their business problem and reducing scope to most valuable and timely solution. This is, according to Shoup, the most important practice that he calls disciplined problem-solving, because it supports innovation and speed at scale.

The video recording of Shoup's "Moving Fast at Scale" talk can be found on the CraftConf YouTube channel.

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