Autonomous Team Development

Elite sports teams such as NFL and NCAA football are great models and metaphors for business teams. On the football field audibles are called on the Offense and Defense. While there is an overall team strategy, during the field of play, the team members on the field adapt, improvise and adjust based on one another’s and the opposite teams respective positioning.

An autonomous team is necessary in technical and subject matter driven fields. This is difficult to achieve in an organizational structure that is bureaucratic, command and control, institutionalized with other beliefs and behaviors or hierarchical.

In this article I will introduce a theoretical model for startups to corporate structures. In a future article I will share the story and applied systems of how I set up systems to cultivate a culture of autonomous teams.

Before I begin, I want to express that models are simply imperfect and incomplete observations of reality, to paraphrase J.W. Forrester. Additionally, the present landscape of business is VUCA–Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Therefore, as I present a theoretical model, it is important to understand that certain terms I will use require this context for proper understanding.

I use the word cultivate an autonomous team, because, like a garden, the weeds of beliefs, behaviors and bureaucracy must be weeded out first. After preparing the soil, seeds must be planted. And, a seed planting system must be put in place. Eventually, a self sustaining system of irrigation, harvesting and reproduction must be established within the technical teams structures.

In Tommy Mello’s Home Service Millionaire book, he stories the journey of developing a business with debt to a multi million dollar enterprise. This is an important book for how technical work can transition and transform to systems that support autonomous teams.

My professional experience includes startups, small business and large corporate enterprise growth and maturity. It also includes close observations of a startup that was acquired by a large multinational corporation. And, it also includes merge and acquisition experience of large technical services delivery corporations.

This diverse professional experience is combined with personal, professional study of the subject matter and I will share some of those resources and thought leaders at the end of the article.

Startup to Critical Situation Leadership

When I first began working as a lead consultant of critical situations I was the primary technician. This also meant that I was the primary customer facing escalation point. I had the highest level support available, which was a team that developed the product.

Obviously this was not sustainable or the most stable for me or the systems that I was responsible for managing. A decentralized, shared and distributed model is much more desirable.

It is difficult, and in many cases impossible for technicians to develop the management chops to cultivate a system of autonomous teams. In my case, I was never purely a technician. With respect to purely technicians, this is because the technician must let go of their ego and self importance of being “the go to person”. Now, this is not to suggest that it is not important to have confidence. On the contrary, confidence is critical. This confidence, however, must spread across the team and not be isolated to an individual.

Mayhem

In a system where there are technical “heroes” there is mayhem. The heroes can be management or non-management, it does not matter. If there is one person who is ultimately responsible all the time, it perpetuates mayhem.

In this phase of organizational-structural and organizational-behavioral dysfunction the person at the top has a love hate relationship with the situation and everyone else has a love-hate relationship with the “go to person”.

This “go to person” is the only one who seems to have all the answers, the only one who can make a decision (or the right decision) and everyone else is perpetually uncertain of their role, their responsibilities and they can not make any independent, much less interdependent decisions. Forget collective intelligence and insight, it all perceptibly rests within “the go to person”.

The first thing you have to address is the over inflated ego of the go to person, the misconception of reality of the lack of proper beliefs and behaviors that create the systems that cultivate autonomous teams.

This person has to transform from the self important role to shared responsibility. In the mayhem phase the consequences are a team that is uncertain, unstructured and unclear on expectations and/or how to meet shifting expectations.

In fairness, some initial mayhem is a result of disruptive technology, radical innovation and a new market. However, it does not mean that it has to persist. This is where startups can and often institutionalize behaviors. I know of a startup founded by a technician that was subsequently acquired by other corporations. In this case the mayhem and micromanagement that I will expand on next was rolled up into a bureaucracy.

I have observed by listening to a friend in the industry that this is a combination of mayhem, micromanagement and bureaucracy. It is the organizational and behaviorial dysfunction of two spectrums of dysfunction. This may be the worst of all phases of dysfunction because there is mayhem at one layer, micromanagement response at another and bureaucracy at another. And the bureaucracy blocks progress toward maturity as equally as the institutionalized beliefs and behaviors of micromanagement.

In most real world scenarios there is a combination of the phases because of mergers and acquisitions, management departments and connections that extend into the cultures, contexts and organizational structures and behaviors of clients, industries and institutions.

Micromanagement

In the next phase of maturing micromanagement replaces the mayhem. This is a necessary step when mayhem perpetuates catastrophe after catastrophe. In this phase the chaos is simply too much for one party to address. So, some command and control is put into place.

However, this still leads to a team culture that is highly critical, chaotic and confused. The constant chaos fills the team with uncertainty about their worth and competency. This is reinforced by other departments and management that is highly critical and stuck in command and control. Everyone on the team and every situation is micromanaged by management whether directly or indirectly. Over time this behavior becomes ingrained into belief about the team members. This belief is that the team itself is flawed and incompetent, when in reality, it is a dysfunctional organizational structure and behavior that becomes normalized.

Major

In the next phase of maturing seeds are being planted. These seeds are immature systems. Immature systems are both developed and managed by an immature manager. A true, but immature manager is at least required to achieve this phase. The immature manager at least trusts their own ability develop and manage systems and structures. This is still not a leader, but a manager and an immature management system.

Team members are still in a state of uncertainty about their own capabilities, are often confused about direction and are highly criticized by either the manager and/or other departments. Everything in this phase is still mostly reactive.

Maturing

During the maturing phase an immature manager and immature systems are beginning to shift layers and levels of responsibility. This requires a major shift in the beliefs and behaviors of both the manager and the team members. It has to begin with the manager. The manager must let go of the long held beliefs about their role and responsibilities and begin to entrust the team members with the role and responsibilities they have assumed.

In this phase it can still be uncertain and critical because things are shifting, but have not yet shifted and settled. The maturing manager is still back and forth between beliefs and behaviors. This back and forth perpetuates the uncertainty within the team.

Mature

The mature team is one where the manager has become self, systems and other aware. Notice in the model that I replaced “certainty” with “clarity”. In this rare and mature state, there is a tolerance for VUCA. In fact, it is embraced as opportunity. This opportunity leads the way to a culture of continuous improvement and the potential for continuous innovation.

Another essential is the manager who speaks less, listens more and has cultivated a coaching culture. This is difficult to achieve and requires trust, transparency and discipline.

This is where continuous growth replaces goal attainment. You can check out this article on growth versus goals.

The Autonomous Team

Autonomous teams are rare. They are most often found in research and development, think tanks, some startups and high elite technical teams. If and when they emerge they are often shut down, stifled and snuffed out by poor management and bureaucracy. Sometimes they simply are not resourced to sustain longevity.

The Real World

Most large organizations do not have one homogeneous culture. Most are pockets of heterogeneous, hybrid models. And, the larger and older the organization, the more heterogeneous and hybrid it is.

In fairness, some initial mayhem is a result of disruptive technology, radical innovation and a new market. However, it does not mean that it has to persist. This is where startups can and often institutionalize behaviors. I know of a startup founded by a technician that was subsequently acquired by other corporations. In this case the mayhem and micromanagement that I will expand on next was rolled up into a bureaucracy.

I have observed by listening to a friend in the industry that this is a combination of mayhem, micromanagement and bureaucracy. It is the organizational and behaviorial dysfunction of two spectrum of dysfunction. This may be the worst of all phases of dysfunction because there is mayhem at one layer, micromanagement response at another and bureaucracy at another. And the bureaucracy blocks progress toward maturity as equally as the institutionalized beliefs and behaviors of micromanagement.

In most real world scenarios there is a combination of the phases because of mergers and acquisitions, management departments and connections that extend into the cultures, contexts and organizational structures and behaviors of clients, industries and institutions.

No person or organization is perfect or immune to slipping or backsliding into any of the organizational behaviors. What is important is to have a model and leadership and management systems in place to cultivate autonomous teams. In today’s highly competitive VUCA this can lead to continuous innovation and incubation of new venture. I will post a future article on innovation and incubation. And I will post another article on how I came very close to cultivating an autonomous team.

Recommended Resources

  1. https://www.humanocracy.com/
  2. https://www.kumarmehta.com/innovation-biome-book/
  3. https://london.ac.uk/courses/company-future-management
  4. https://simonsinek.com/the-infinite-game
  5. https://www.harpercollinsleadership.com/9781400214662/the-insiders-guide-to-culture-change/
  6. https://www.iftf.org/newleadershipliteracies
  7. The Coaching Habit