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Are teams *really* that autonomous?

Cat Hicks: “A thing I wrote in a recent dr…” - Mastodon:

A thing I wrote in a recent draft:

“…on the team side, the reality of team practices that claim to be autonomous at large organizations is that supposed independence of action is frequently sustained by senior members or managers “protecting” their teams from external dependencies and taking on the work of advocacy as individual responsibility (Moe et al., 2019; Hicks, et al 2023).”

I tend to be a pretty firm believer that any decisions about how work should be done that can be pushed to the teams doing the work should be pushed to the teams the work.

Since the team is closest to the work and knows the most about it, they are the people best placed to make those decisions. If there is a broader context or external factors that need to be considered, it is the responsibility of leaders to make sure the team has all of that relevant information when they make their decisions.

But the point that Cat raises in this thread—and you should definitely click through and read the whole thing—is that in an organization, it is often an individual that is protecting the team, and that leads to all sorts of burnout and dysfunction.

So much of the advice around the team being the core unit, while good, is premised on the assumption that the technical and organizational architecture of whatever they’re working on is structured such that it can operated independently from all the stuff around it. Or at least that’s the goal we should all be aiming for.

I believe that is the right goal, but I think that the dynamic Cat is pointing to is generally underacknowledged and its impact on people and organizations is probably underestimated.

Every tech platform that any of the teams in my org deal with is pretty heavily integrated with a bunch of other systems. This sort of architecture is not great, but it is hard to unpick once it has been built up over a number of years, and so it is what we have to deal with. Nothing has ended up this way because anyone is dumb or has bad intentions, but it still sucks.

As such, the amount of autonomy any given team can have for themselves can get quite limited if we’re not careful. And so team leads and various members of engineering leadership, technical project management, and program management effectively end up having to serve as a sort of a clutch mechanism, trying to manage all the organizational interfaces so that we don’t end up grinding the gears of the teams.

I don’t mean to say these folks are under more pressure or are somehow more important than the teams doing the work, but rather to note that if you’re not paying attention to how you’re driving and not being mindful of how you’re shifting gears, you’re going to burn out your clutch. I think a lot of companies—my own included—rely upon these sorts of unacknowledged organizational connections and assume that it is the process and methodology keeping things running rather than the individual humans carrying the load.

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