Alignment Enables Autonomy: How to Build Empowered Product Teams

Andrew B
Andrew B
Apr 22 · 7 min read

“Once employees feel challenged, invigorated, and productive, their efforts will naturally translate into profit and growth for the organization.”

– Ricardo Semler

Your workplace is a diverse group with differing motivations, skills, worldviews, interests and hobbies. Throughout all this, there is one thing each individual and group shares: a strong passion for the product. Over time, a deep connection is formed with the product and the mission and values of the company. If you are fortunate, this will extend not just to the staff but also to your customers.

Making the decision to change is important. 86.8% of respondents in a recent survey report that their work environment is in constant flux or lacking clear correct decisions, and 40% say that they’re motivated to change their decision-making process because of changing market conditions.

The key to a positive and successful organizational change, is in harnessing this passion and transferring those values into the products your teams create and deliver. Making the decision to change based on a clear vision, research, qualified data and input from customers, stakeholders and your teams will make the changes more incontrovertible to the organization.

Creating autonomy

As your team grows, changes, moves and operates, you will want tools to align each state of workflow. If you are an enterprise adopting Agile methodologies, you will want Agile tools to support this objective. It stands to reason then, that if you wish to use Agile tools, you will need to first consider supporting alignment through team autonomy. Across the enterprise, cross-functional teams need to be efficient and enterprises need to align those teams so the organization as a whole, remains efficient.

When it works, it works very well. Recently, McKinsey reported that 81% of respondents in agile units report a moderate or significant increase in overall performance since their transformations began.

Balance is the only solution to achieving true alignment in autonomy. Great alignment with little autonomy will curtail your team’s innovation and agility to get stuff done. Conversely, too little alignment will result in teams working far too independently and you will lose insight and coordination required to meet business goals. The right level will result in individuals empowered and inspired to innovate and collaborate to meet business objectives.

“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game…it is the game.”

— Lou Gerstner

Autonomy can only work with culture as its lead

Autonomy needs culture. Culture does not need autonomy. Agile as a holier-than-thou plug-and-play solution will only make a surface impact, and without addressing culture, you will fail.

You will need to create the conditions for transformation, provide motivation, and manage each step carefully in advance.

The cultural steps toward autonomy and empowerment

It is not enough to simply have a plan.

While it is quite helpful that your organizational culture is on board as you introduce autonomy to the teams, it will not be a necessity. If you are in a position where the organization’s culture does not align with autonomy, you will need to create autonomy within your team(s) and with time, your efforts will in-turn, create a ‘pull’ affect.

Rather than feeling as if the change is being pushed, by observing your team functioning happier, enjoying their work and creating better output, the other teams will take notice. There will be interest in seeing the stronger collaboration, ownership/autonomy of tasks and sharing an equal voice in your team. This is the ‘secret sauce’ that will ignite the spark to share your methodology of autonomy with the other teams If your organization’s culture is on-board, the changes made will impact in the short-term. If your culture is hesitant to support or acknowledge change, this will be more of a long-term change before you see results in other areas.

Fostering cultural change involves understanding of where your teams are with respect to their roles, their level of trust, and what contribution each individual can bring to the team to effect change.

Checking your team’s pulse is a good start. Get your people thinking about what an ideal future looks like. Eye-level discussions are far more effective. Team leaders need to show they walk-the-walk. Use surveys only as a last resort to initiate dialogue.

Trust is important and building a base for trust is just as critical to ensure your team members can have a free and open conversation. Your team wants the company to succeed. Knowing that they will contribute positive dialogue as long as you show authentic interest in listening will go a long way.

Building a vision of where the team will be and what the team looks like will help start the discussion. It is important to co-create this vision with the team. This will build both commitment and accountability in team.

Lastly, it is crucial that the team celebrates the short wins along the way. As you move toward autonomy and empowerment, keep the teams motivated with authentic recognition of hitting small milestones at the beginning.

It is always helpful to celebrate through constructive and meaningful feedback. The goal is to create and maintain the momentum from here on.

By being authentic in everything you do, your team will remain the gold standard as an example of what a successful operation will look like.

“Again, all it takes is confidence that employees are responsible adults, not ignorant newcomers who know next to nothing about what their jobs require. This system would also reveal an individual’s real interests, which in turn could make business far more efficient.”

— Ricardo Semler

Building empowerment through autonomy

Ideally, autonomy can be defined as allowing an individual team member, or team group, the power to shape their work environment in ways one would be allowed to perform at one’s best.

As a baseline understanding, autonomy is very much about accountability and aligned purpose. Granted, there are boundaries involved with conveying autonomy, including the ability for a team to assume greater or lesser autonomy depending on internal and external forces. Autonomous organizations do not leave employees working without support. A clear vision from leadership aligns teams on the problem, and empowers them to co-create solutions. Letting loose your employees to fend for themselves is not autonomy, that is a clear lack of leadership.

By encouraging autonomy, we empower our teams and team members to govern themselves in alignment to their peers and on a greater picture, the organizations mission and values standing behind great products.

Fully autonomous organizations concern themselves with ‘what gets done’ more-so than ‘how it gets done’. The benefit to this rationale rests with the employees and the organization. Everyday decisions are not filtered through management, but instead are aligned within the team. This in turn results in a greater commitment to the job, increased productivity and less churn overall per area. In short, accountability + autonomy + a shared vision all contribute to an empowered work environment.

While each organization is unique, there are a few suggested ways to encourage autonomy in order to grow empowerment.

Limitless choice, within a specified perimeter

The key to autonomy and empowerment is the freedom of choice. Contrary to autonomous being perceived as boundless, there are in fact, firm boundaries, followed by a system of accountability for results. Given the clear boundaries set, teams can determine how they will be accomplishing the tasks assigned.

Give the tools needed

Teams will need resources, whether it is technology, training, people, etc.. This involves a level of trust as well. It is the organization saying that they trust the team leader and that any investment made in resources will pay back in kind related to production, efficiency and product success.

Teams take time to mature. Expect the process to see as many failures as successes in the short term. Think of autonomy more as a journey and less as a destination. For example, giving full autonomy to your new junior developer fresh out of school may not be the most welcome onboarding experience. Yet over time, with engagement, displaying empathy, and observing the team’s level of trust for one another, they will eventually reach the point where autonomy and empowerment is achieved.

Truly autonomous teams are a shining example of “what good looks like” and for good reason. Study after study shows how autonomous teams are more engaged and more productive. Innovation and creativity are the outputs of this change.

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Andrew B

Written by

Andrew B

Building the Data Economy for AI • Product Manager at DEX • Founding Team Member at Ocean Protocol https://www.linkedin.com/in/ab4b4b

Product Management Insider

The exclusive data and insights that enable 12,000+ product managers to win. Subscribe via email at productmanagementinsider.com. We are powered by Alpha.

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