AoAD2 Chapter: Autonomy

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Revised: July 19, 2021

Autonomy

Optimizing requires a level of autonomy most organizations aren’t ready to support.

Optimizing fluency is fairly rare, but it’s not because the Optimizing zone represents a big change in Agile practices. On the contrary: Optimizing is mostly an application of the practices found throughout the rest of this book. Optimizing fluency isn’t rare because it’s hard; it’s rare because it requires a level of team autonomy most organizations aren’t ready to support.

Everybody knows Agile teams are supposed to be autonomous, but organizations with Optimizing teams really mean it. For them, autonomy is more than just enabling teams to work independently. They give their teams full responsibility for their finances and product plans, too.

Business Expertise

Allies
Whole Team
Team Dynamics
Stakeholder Trust

Of course, in order for your team to own its financial and product decisions, the team needs to have the ability to make good decisions. A whole team consisting of both business and development expertise has always been the goal, but many organizations short-change the business side of their teams. They assign a product manager who can only participate a few hours a week, or assign product “owners” who have no real decision-making authority. Some teams get the worst of both worlds: product owners who are spread too thin and have no decision-making authority.

Optimizing teams have real business authority and expertise. It’s not siloed behind a single person, either. Everybody on the team takes an interest in producing value. Some more than others, of course, but there’s no jealous hoarding of responsibility. You’ll get the best results when your entire team sees their job as learning how to better serve customers, users, and stakeholders.

Business Decisions

One of the most striking thing about Optimizing teams is their lack of emphasis on user stories. They have stories, of course, as a planning mechanism, but they’re not the topic of their conversations with stakeholders. Instead, they’re all about business results and value. They’re not trying to deliver a set of stories; that’s a detail. They’re trying to make a meaningful difference to their organization.

This is particularly true of their relationship with management. Optimizing teams have the trust of their organization. Executives and managers know they can give the team funding and a mission, then stand back. The team will work out how to achieve their mission on their own. They’ll let their executives know how the funding is being spent, what results they’re achieving, and what support they need to be more successful.

Ally
Adaptive Planning

One of the consequences of this approach is that Optimizing teams rarely follow a predetermined plan. In general, their valuable increments are small, their plans highly adaptive, and their planning horizons are short. Rather than working a big, static plan, they’re constantly testing ideas and making incremental progress. (At least from the perspective of internal stakeholders. They can still choose to save up work for a big splashy release.)

Ally
Forecasting

As a result, Optimizing teams tend not to have traditional deadlines or roadmaps. When they do set a deadline, it’s a choice they make for themselves. They do so because there’s a compelling business reason, such as coordinating with a marketing effort, not because it satisfies a bureaucratic requirement. If they realize they won’t be able to achieve a deadline, they decide for themselves how and when to change their plans.

Accountability and Oversight

Optimizing teams aren’t without oversight. They may have control over their budget and plans, but that doesn’t mean they get to do whatever they want. They still have to show their work and justify their big-picture decisions. They just don’t have to get advance approval for their decisions, so long as they relate to the team’s purpose and don’t require additional resources from the organization.

Ally
Purpose

The organization uses the team’s purpose to put guide rails around the team’s work. The team’s purpose sets out the big-picture direction for the team (the vision), their current near-term goal (the mission), and the signposts that lead to success (the indicators). Management provides the general direction, and the team collaborates with them and other stakeholders to work out the details. When the team sees an opportunity to change their purpose to be more valuable, they talk it over with management.

The team demonstrates its accountability by focusing on business results.

The team demonstrates its accountability, not by showing the stories it’s delivered, but by focusing on business results: both what they’ve achieved so far, and what they hope to achieve in the future. These results may be straightforward, such as revenue numbers, or more subtle, such as employee satisfaction scores. Either way, the emphasis is on outcomes, not deliverables and dates.

Allies
Stakeholder Demos
Roadmaps

Optimizing teams aren’t just trying to achieve short-term outcomes, though. They’re also constantly learning how to better serve their users and their market. So they also talk about what they’ve learned, what they want to learn next, and how they plan to do so. All this information is shared through the team’s internal demos, their internal roadmaps, and private conversations with management.

Funding

The team’s funding is another of the organization’s oversight mechanisms. Optimizing teams are typically funded on an ongoing “business as usual” basis (see “Agile Governance” on page XX). The organization allocates those funds based on the outcomes they expect from the team. The team can also procure one-off funds and resources by going to management with their justification.

Ally
Context

If the team doesn’t think they can achieve their purpose with the funds and other resources they have, they can ask their sponsor for more. If the sponsor doesn’t agree, the team and their sponsor collaborate to find a balance that can be achieved, or the team pivots to a new, more valuable purpose. This discussion typically happens during context chartering.

As the team’s work progresses, the organization’s predictions about value will come true... or not. This is an opportunity to adjust the team’s purpose. If the team is producing more value than expected, the funding can be increased, and the team can double down on their successes. If it’s producing less, the funding can be decreased, or the team can pivot to a more valuable purpose.

Experiments and Further Reading

I’ve only touched on the possibilities for autonomy in Optimizing teams. The Agile community is full of interesting ideas and experiments. Many of these experiments push into the Strengthening zone of fluency, which I touch upon in chapter “Into the Future”.

In the realm of Optimizing teams, though, one of the most interesting ideas is “Beyond Budgeting.” It has an emphasis on disseminating decision-making to customer-focused teams, similar to what I’ve described here, but it goes into much more depth on the management side of things. To learn more, see Jeremy Hope and Robin Fraser’s book, Beyond Budgeting. [Hope and Fraser 2003]

XXX Pat Reed? Johanna Rothman?

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