What does it mean to be a self-organized empowered team?

Sharlene McKinnon
Sep 28, 2019 · 3 min read
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Photo by Brodie Vissers from Burst

In 2013, I joined one of Google’s largest product teams. It consisted of an amalgamation of 90-developers that would later grow even larger as we absorbed people from product, design and quality. The investment in this particular piece of work was massive and the stakes were high.

On my first day, I met the Engineering Director responsible for this team: let’s call him Mark. And, for the next while, I couldn’t figure out exactly what he did. He was involved in the day-to-day as the team “manager” but he never told people what to do. He never directed or ran meetings. He never tried to influence product direction. He never openly had an opinion.

I was confused because I was expecting Mark to be a “boss.”

I began to notice that whenever he walked into a room, people sat up straighter and they were suddenly focused. He never had to say anything… but simply being there made people jump into action.

Was I missing some piece of information? Was I missing an incident where he yelled or berated people (like Steve Jobs)? Was Mark one of those brilliant people who only had to speak once and it spoke volumes for the rest of eternity (like Martin Fowler)?

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how Mark managed the team without lifting a finger.

From what I could tell, Mark was a goofy guy with a goofy grin who showed up every day with dishevelled hair, in a pair of surf shorts, with a bike helmet in one hand… and sandals (that he never wore) in the other. He LOVED to walk around the office in his bare feet. That’s all he ever seemed to ever do! It was the California way.

What I didn’t understand was that Mark built one of the largest self-organized empowered teams at Google. He found smart people who had an idea… who knew how to start… he gave them what they needed… and he stood out of the way.

He empowered his people to find direction, find value, make decisions, evolve, and adapt… and when they failed, he supported them and trusted that they would pivot to find a new direction. This was a well-oiled machine that didn’t rely on him. When appropriate, he asked the right questions.

Mark was not a boss. He was a servant leader. He built a trust relationship with his team and they would follow him unconditionally to the end. I know this because I felt the same thing after a while; it took time but I eventually understood.

We use buzzwords and talk a lot about building self-organizing, empowered teams. But, many of us come from companies where there is a managerial hierarchy. And, in a managerial hierarchy people are told what to do. This clashes culturally with a world of empowered teams and servant leadership. It can also make people feel confused and uncomfortable.

Good leadership gives direction and empowers teams to make decisions. In an empowered team, people don’t wait to be told what to do.

Waiting holds us back from our true potential.

This is one story from a series called The Humans in IT.

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Sharlene McKinnon

Written by

Geek. Multiplier. Leader & Mentor. Digital Humanities. I work at the intersection between humans + technology.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +668K people. Follow to join our community.

Sharlene McKinnon

Written by

Geek. Multiplier. Leader & Mentor. Digital Humanities. I work at the intersection between humans + technology.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +668K people. Follow to join our community.

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