Empowering your team to make product decisions throughout the development cycle is key to building a great company and product long-term. But this idea of team autonomy isn’t embraced by every company, and it certainly isn’t implemented successfully everywhere. In this post, we will cover what team autonomy is, why it’s important, and what it looks like when implemented correctly.
Team autonomy is a style of managing and organizing teams in a way that they are given the autonomy to make decisions. Within the context of product development, this includes deciding what to build, how to build it, and how to deliver it to the market.
But don’t assume that team autonomy simply means letting your team decide — you also need to equip them with the resources and information needed to make the right product decisions that align with your company goals.
Many top tier tech companies including AirBnb, Spotify, and Stripe organize their teams in ways that enable them to make autonomous decisions about their respective product areas. That’s because team autonomy can help you beat out competitors in the market by making better product decisions. As we all know, resources are limited, so if you can make better decisions with the same resources, you can put yourself in a better competitive position.
The following are the main benefits of team autonomy:
Giving your team the autonomy to make decisions results in better product decisions. Your team is working on their given product area day in and day out. They know the user feedback, the pain points, and the nitty gritty details. They hear about potential market opportunities to go after from the customers they work with.
By giving your team autonomy to decide on what to build, you’ll ensure that the people with the most context decide what’s worth building.
Speed is important when it comes to tackling market opportunities. Giving your team the ability to make decisions on what to build and how to build it reduces the amount of time it takes to go after a market opportunity.
Rather than waiting for a manager to approve decisions, teams can go ahead and conduct their own experiments and execute on product areas that look the most promising.
By giving teams the ability to decide for themselves what to work on, you drive a stronger sense of ownership with your team. Most people don’t like to simply do what they are told — they like to have a role in choosing what they work on.
That, in turn, allows them to take more ownership over what they actually do. Teams that actually care about what they are working on will produce better work and better products!
Beyond enabling better product decision making and team morale, allowing teams to make decisions is often necessary in order to scale a company. As a company gets bigger, it simply becomes impossible for the executive team to continue making all decisions about the product.
If you don’t create a culture of autonomous teams, it will become difficult to move forward quickly and build great products, simply because your teams aren’t enabled to make decisions, and you don’t have enough time to make those decisions for them.
Although team autonomy is very powerful in driving better product development, it doesn’t mean you should let your teams run amok! After all, companies need to be aligned internally and teams should work towards a common goal. If each team is prioritizing different things, you’re not really building a company!
It’s a good framework to think about team autonomy in terms of a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid comes strategic decisions that drive the company forward over the next year. This is things like what markets to go after, how to sell the product, who you are selling the product to, and what the product surface area should look like.
Top of pyramid decisions should come from the executive team. Just like how the top of the pyramid relies on the lower parts of the pyramid as a foundation, you’ll want to take feedback from the team as inputs into strategic decisions. But ultimately, defining what that strategic vision is and communicating it to the team is the job of the management team.
The middle of the pyramid is the product roadmap. This is different from strategic decisions as strategic decisions should guide the product roadmap, but they aren’t the product roadmap itself. The product roadmap is like the product page on your company website. It covers the problem you’re trying to solve and how you solve them.
The middle of the pyramid is key to team autonomy. Your team should have a very hands-on role in defining the product roadmap. As executives, you might help guide overall direction and fix what you view are missteps or decisions that aren’t aligned with the strategic top of the pyramid, but the actual product roadmap is built by your autonomous team.
The bottom of the pyramid is the nitty gritty details of user flows, jobs to be done, and user experience. Autonomous teams should be able to manage almost all of the decisions being done at this more granular level. Executives should not be involved in defining what user flows should look like, let alone what colors buttons should be.
Certainly, there are executives who do this! But I would argue that that means that they’ve failed to build competent teams who can autonomously make decisions.
This leads me into a very important aspect of building out team autonomy — the team has to be strong enough and trustworthy enough to make the right decisions in order to be given the power to make those decisions. You might see teams being micromanaged by their managers. Often, it’s because they have bad managers, but sometimes it’s because the teams are not performing in ways that allow the managers to be less hands on.
That’s why taking advantage of team autonomy in product development isn’t just about letting teams own and make product development decisions, it’s also about building the right team and investing in your team so that they can grow.
When you make a team hire, you’ll obviously want to choose team members who can make autonomous decisions. But you’ll also want to invest time in making sure the members of your team are well positioned to make great product decisions. This includes communicating strategic goals, taking time out to engage with team members as needed, being available when situations arise to provide guidance, and investing in long-term career growth as you train new hires on how to become members of an autonomous team on their own.
I’ll close with what I’ve seen work when seeking to encourage team autonomy at your company. Certain companies like to break teams up by layers of the stack (backend, frontend, etc). Others break teams up by product features, still others by strategic goals (growth, self-serve, enterprise). How you break up your teams is unique to your company, but typically I like to break teams up in a way that allows them to make decisions with as few dependencies as possible.
For example, breaking teams up by layers of the stack makes it difficult for the frontend team to autonomously decide what to build as many things in the frontend rely on the backend and vice versa. Alternatively, breaking teams up by product features can work as long as the team owns a large enough area of the product. If you break product features up into small modules, teams may not own enough surface area to make great product decisions.
A good way to strike the right balance is to think about either how you sell the product (different product lines can be different teams) or how you can break things up into “jobs to be done” (different use cases or jobs can be different teams).
After you’ve figured out how you want to break up your teams, I’ve seen pods work well to organize teams. Pods essentially contain all the team members a given team needs in order to execute on the plan they come up with.
So for example, you might have a team that includes one front-end engineer, two backend engineers, a designer, a product manager, and a product marketer. This pod is a unit that can decide what to build and build it without needing to rely on other teams. Of course, everything is interconnected and you often have to work across multiple teams, especially for larger projects, but within your pod, you’re able to execute on many projects on your own.
Ultimately, team autonomy is an important element of your product development process. Team autonomy allows your various product teams to feel stronger ownership over their product areas, make decisions on their own, and execute those decisions quickly. However, team autonomy isn’t just about letting your teams make decisions. It also requires significant time investment from the executive team to build the right culture, the right team, and communicate high level objectives in a way that their teams can run with.
Featured image source: IconScout
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