Scaling a Product & Technology Organisation

A couple of years ago I faced the need to scale a Product & Technology organisation while maintaining its agility and improving its velocity. A feat that is not easy. After some research I stumbled on the great videos about the Spotify engineering culture: Part 1 and Part 2. These were a great inspiration and we decided to give them a go.

It was a tremendous learning. Our organisation was growing and it needed an organisational structure that would allow it to absorb that growth, and Spotify’s vision seemed reasonable.

Alignment and Autonomy

The principle behind Spotify’s model is: Alignment enabled Autonomy. Meaning that we want to distribute decision making into the organisation, but do it in a way that is not chaotic and that achieves the goals of the business.

Figure 1: Autonomy vs Alignment

This is a great point: Alignment is one of the basic requirements for the success of an organisation. But there are two things that this model doesn’t tell you:

  • How to reach alignment, and
  • What else is necessary

Reaching alignment

There are different frameworks to think about alignment. One I quite liked was the one shown in Figure 2

Figure 2: Alignment framework

This framework highlights that the employee needs to first be aligned with her Role, that means she needs to know what is her decision making “sphere” and what is expected of her. Then she needs to be aligned with her team and understand how she ads value and fits in the team. And finally, she needs to be aligned with the Culture, Mission, Vision and goals of the organisation as a whole.

This point on alignment sounds a bit obvious and unnecessary, but especially in growing organisations it’s of great importance. Normally on small organisations “everybody does everything”, there’s way more things to do than people, so the boundaries of roles are very fuzzy. This helps small orgs move faster and is a desirable trait, but as the organisation grows specialisation is necessary, and with this it’s important that everybody knows how do they fit in the bigger picture. I’ve seen teams move sluggishly because of the lack of alignment with the team and with the role.

Another aspect of this Role alignment, especially on growth scenarios is that roles are not a static thing. And acknowledging this and giving the organisational structure it’s required importance is critical.

How to manage the dynamic nature of the roles in your organisation is outside the scope of this post, but you might want to have a look at Holacracy which is a system for self-organisation. Please take with a grain of salt as it is an unproven system, but I think that the aspects of continuous evolution of the roles and governance meetings is a step in the right direction (though I’m not too sure about abolishing hierarchy all-together)

Reaching Autonomy

The issue I’ve experienced with the simplified model where we are presented Autonomy and Alignment not as competing priorities, but as different dimensions, is that some teams have come to understand that only through full autonomy can they feel ownership and deliver successfully. I’ve seen it create a sort of sense of entitlement where any questioning is perceived as trespassing on their Autonomy.

This is because that matrix is missing another dimension: competence.

Competence is simply “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently” and is not a single dimension, your level of competence exists only referring to a specific task or skill. So, for example, you might be very competent on planning, but just competent in communication and incompetent in stakeholder management.

When thinking about competence, I think it’s good to keep in mind the 4 stages of competence, and the required management involvement in each one of them. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: Competence levels and Management Involvement

This model of the different levels of competence calls out a couple of interesting points:

  • That you might be unconsciously incompetent in something (“What am I doing wrong?… isn’t that the only way?”), or unconsciously competent (“What am I doing really well?… isn’t that the only way?).
  • That to progress in becoming more and more competent there’s a path that goes through gaining awareness, consciously practicing the skill, and finally just gaining experience.
  • That the management style needs to adapt to the different level of competence. A good manager should know what skills someone is competent on and give just some guidance, and what skills that same person might be incompetent on and provide detailed directions.

That last bullet point on what good management looks like depending on the level of competence has been the missing piece in my experience, and I’d like to capture it on another 2x2 matrix:

Figure 4: Autonomy vs Competence

What I want to show with Figure 4 is that Autonomy is not always the best approach. If the team needs to build competence on some critical skills for achieving the business goals, a more directive style is appropriate and necessary.

Joy at work

The last thing that I’d like to mention is that my perspective of what is desirable or not stems from the definition of Joy I normally use, and which I took from the great book Joy Inc:

Joy is designing and building something that actually sees the light of day and is enjoyably used and widely adopted by the people for whom it was intended.

I strongly believe that everybody will enjoy achieving the business outcome, delivering value to their customers, producing high quality work. That is a defining characteristic of the organisational cultures I seek.

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