For over a decade now, I’ve been managing teams in software companies and one thing that always holds true is that there are places to improve. From time to time, things come along that help to reinforce ideas or provide a new way to approach a topic. For me, one of those things is a book I recently read.
A Radical Enterprise by Matt K. Parker
…grounded in the intrinsic motivation of the participants and formed through the freely given commitments of peers
The focus of the book is this idea of Radical Collaboration and how the outcomes of the individuals and organizations that follow it are better for everyone. Matt goes over his four imperatives and the dimensions of team autonomy. I found that these ideas matched closely to how I tried to run my teams and what I wanted to see in the organizations that I join as well as many of the topics covered in Accelerate.
There are many articles about autonomy and how it can make teams more effective. In A Radical Enterprise, there’s an example given of a company that runs as a collective of microenterprises.
Some, like various marketing and manufacturing microenterprises, are internal and exist only to sell their services to other … microenterprises.
This level of ownership and alignment is an amazing thing to strive for and represents what I would consider to be an ideal situation. Each group handles their own Profits and Losses but can leverage their collective knowledge, expertise, and seed funding to grow and improve.
Autonomy of Practice
When describing the How Parker uses the term “Autonomy of Practice”. This section really helped me to better describe my problems with how many places approach Scrum. Many companies simply adopt the ceremonies and terminology without actually embodying the principles. However, when you actually look at what it means to follow Scrum, the teams are actually autonomous and in control of how they work.
Colleagues within these organizations are empowered to make these choices themselves–and to be responsible to themselves and to each other for the choices they make.
Many organizations will abuse the ideas of agile development and simply hold the ceremonies but still assign individual work items to each person. Then they will use a “standup” to make sure everyone is busy without really understanding the value of letting people make their own decisions. More often than not in bad situations, it’s a manager running the standup but also not sharing what they are working on. This is just another way to control the situation in a typical dominator hierarchy.
Autonomy of Schedule
Autonomy of schedule is the When and the Where people work. As of now, in 2023, there’s a very strange mix of approaches to this topic. Many companies switched to a fully remote policy at the peak of the COVID pandemic in 2020. However as time went on, more and more places started their return to office programs. Companies were looking for ways to regain their control over exactly where and when their employees work. However, many companies were facing the reality that once people had a small taste of this “Autonomy of Schedule” it would be very hard for them to give it up.
Autonomy of Allocation
The What and the Who make up the “Autonomy of Allocation”. This topic is a hard one for many managers as it means they aren’t in control of tasks that will be done by the team.
Sounds great–but who cleans the toilets?
As Parker writes, there are numerous studies that show when people are in charge of self-selecting their work, the results are better for everyone. One idea that I really liked was referred to as “the job fair”. This idea may feel very familiar to people at start-ups or small companies, but it’s much less common in larger ones. The general idea is that the business owners presented their ideas and projects to all the developers who were able to ask questions clarify things. Then, the business owners left the room and the developers would discuss among themselves to decide on which projects they would work on and then share the allocation results with the business owners.
This process could produce some uncomfortable situations, but also the necessary conversations. If the organization is built correctly and keeps the right culture, the best options will continue to be selected. The ideas that get people excited will keep people engaged in the work and help everyone feel more invested in what is trying to be accomplished.
Autonomy of Role
So not Why as perhaps you expected, “Autonomy of Role” feels very related to “Autonomy of Allocation” to me. It really just means the power to choose what role you as a person play in the work. This again can become a large challenge for managers, but also presents an amazing opportunity. It means that the person who was hired as a data engineer may become your UX expert for a project. This may prove challenging to make sure all the skills needed are covered, but the change is something they are excited about and there are numerous sources that describe how happy people are more productive.
This idea also presents opportunities for people to practice training others or teaching them their specialties. This type of cross-training can actually help reduce risk overall since individuals spread their knowledge and prevent creating single points of failure in the organization. The risk of people learning new skills is something that you can help compensate for with strong documentation, process, and training that ensure people have what they need to be successful at whatever they want to tackle. This then leverages the collective ability of the organization to help everyone improve.
Not all things will be perfect, but similar to discussions of outcomes over outputs, managers should be focused on the outcomes of their employees not the details of where and when they are working. Now this does require trust and collaboration from both sides to make things work. It means that employees need to communicate their plans and approaches while managers need to handle the range of employees’ needs as well as finding where compromises may need to be made for the greater good of the team.
A Radical Enterprise also describes the relationship to Human-centered design. This concept does depend on, to a degree, everyone in the company fully understanding their users and that is no short order. Doing this well would really show the ability of the company to embody all of the above qualities in how they let people gravitate toward the work they believe in. Being able to operate in small groups who believe in their mission and fully understand what they are trying to accomplish will provide the necessary environment for the idea to work.
Devolution refers to decentralization and so managerial devolution describes the process of distributing the power typically held by managers to the teams they employ. This relates nicely to the previous items of autonomy where one very straightforward way to give people autonomy is to also give them authority. Hiring, firing, deciding pay, setting priorities, changing policies, and changing organizational structure are all topics that can be distributed to the teams themselves.
Parts of this seem hard to grasp for traditional organizations. It goes against what they have relied on for ages of performance reviews and levels for everyone that are always below the manager. Even unconscious bias creeps its way into how these evaluations go and contribute to the myth of objectivity. On top of that, the myth of necessity (it is seen as necessary to extrinsically motivate people through compensation) is described and how several papers have proven Theory X is flawed, often becoming self-fulfilling. Once you start using the carrot and stick method of managing, employees will be less and less intrinsically motivated to perform their best. This is especially true in makers or thought workers who have a higher need to feel connected to their work, like we see in the software disciplines.
After all of the above items, this topic may seem very straightforward. At its core, “Deficiency Gratification” relates to Positive Psychology and the internal needs of humans. While work cannot necessarily satisfy a deficiency like love (unless you also find that at work), the other major ones of autonomy, fairness, security, esteem, trust, and meaning are all major parts of producing a Radically Collaborative environment. Working at a small company or start-up, you hopefully will have experienced gratification to all of these as it is the key to making things work when it’s a small group of people with ambitious goals. As a company scales, this can become harder and harder to maintain as traditional structures can remove many of the human elements of employment. You go from being part of a team and vision to being a resource that is yet another number in a spreadsheet. Acknowledging and accepting that people are people and not just a number will already put you leaps and bounds ahead of many companies.
In line with understanding that people are people, sometimes you have to remember that you too are a person. You’re allowed to have feelings, you’re allowed to say “I don’t know”, you’re allowed to be vulnerable. How you handle these topics and present yourself to the team is key to everyone’s success. Parker elaborates quite a bit on this space but I really like the part that highlights Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams by Roger Schwarz.
- State views and ask genuine questions
- Share all relevant information
- Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
- Explain reasoning and intent
- Focus on interests, not positions
- Test assumptions and inferences
- Jointly design next steps
- Discuss undiscussable issues
These behaviors are so simple, but amazing reminders of how we all work through things and more importantly, how we can all work together in a better way. The book also goes over some ways to apply these and some counterexamples to help understand what can happen when you don’t.
Radically Collaborative Organizations
There have been many works related to productivity and metrics, but another recent paper by Nicole Forsgren (also one author of Accelerate) et.al. called The SPACE of Developer Productivity also highlights the satisfaction and mental health of employees beyond just their output.
Additionally, people often talk about DORA metrics and focus on:
- Deployment Frequency—How often an organization successfully releases to production
- Lead Time for Changes—The amount of time it takes a commit to get into production
- Change Failure Rate—The percentage of deployments causing a failure in production
- Time to Restore Service—How long it takes an organization to recover from a failure in production
However, DORA actually publishes quite a bit of research and there’s a whole section on “Culture and Work Environment” which includes:
- Generative Organizational Culture
- How to Transform
- Job Satisfaction
- Learning Culture
- Transformational Leadership
Which they even call out the impacts across the delivery metrics:
For me, A Radical Enterprise by Matt K. Parker joins the ranks of an amazing reminder and reference point for how we can all do a better job of making work, work.