Are we aligned and do we have autonomy?
For the past years, I have been working in a self-steering development team. For the past months, due to team setup changes, I have noticed that we are less and less aligned about certain cases and I feel like we are not really working autonomously. I have captured that feeling on one of our last retrospectives by adding a post-it: “Are we ALIGNED, and do we still have AUTONOMY?". This started an interesting conversation which I want to try to capture in this brain dump.
What is aligned autonomy?
Aligned autonomy is a management approach that empowers individuals or teams to make decisions independently while aligning them with the broader goals and objectives of the organization. Aligned autonomy seeks to strike a balance between granting autonomy to teams or individuals and maintaining alignment with the organization's overall strategy.
In aligned autonomy, teams or individuals are given the freedom to make decisions and take actions within a defined scope, without constant supervision or micromanagement. However, these decisions and actions are aligned with the broader objectives and goals of the organization.
Aligned autonomy can help organizations to foster innovation, creativity, and ownership among teams or individuals while still maintaining a clear line of sight to the organization's objectives. It can also help to improve employee engagement and job satisfaction, as individuals or teams are given more autonomy to make decisions and take ownership of their work.
However, aligned autonomy requires a high degree of trust and communication between the organization and the teams and between the team members aswel. It is important for the organization to provide clear guidelines, goals, and feedback to ensure that the autonomy is used effectively and aligned with the overall objectives of the organization.
How to reach alignment in a team
I do believe alignment enables autonomy. That’s why I want to list up things that I think are key to reach better alignment:
To achieve this level of alignment, effective communication among team members is very important.
Communication feels like the backbone of a team. It helps team members to exchange ideas, clarify expectations, and share feedback. When team members communicate effectively, they can build stronger relationships and develop a deeper understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses. This understanding leads to better collaboration, increased trust, and a greater sense of cohesion.
However, effective communication does not come naturally to everyone. It takes practice, patience, and the willingness to listen and understand other team member’s perspectives. Therefore, it is crucial for organizations to provide opportunities for team members to practice their communication skills regularly.
It is important to foster a culture of open communication and providing proper communication training.
I have noticed that the inability to listen to what others have to say is something that occurs a lot. The devaluation of the other’s opinion while he or she is explaining it, because you value the opinion you have in your mind higher is very destructive for conversations. A proper training technique for this is the ‘Active listening training’. This training focuses on teaching participants how to listen actively, paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues, and asking for clarification to ensure that they understand the message well.
A consequence of not being ‘fully present’ in the conversation and valuing your opinion higher than the other’s, is that those conversations often escalate into tense situations and mostly end up in a conflict. A proper technique for this, is something that I often use in practice. Even if I think my opinion or solution is better than the other, I actively suppress that feeling and even devaluate my own opinion. This way I am able to have a clearer view on the solution and remove friction from the conversation. This way the conversation can continue everyone is able to properly explain what they have in mind.
There’s so many aspects in communication that can be helpful, but I feel like that could be a post on itself.
Goals are an essential component of team alignment and cohesion. When teams have clearly defined goals, it helps to create a shared sense of purpose and direction among team members. This shared sense of purpose can help to build trust, improve communication, and increase motivation within the team.
Having well-defined goals also helps team members to understand their individual roles and responsibilities within the team. This clarity can help to prevent confusion and conflicts that can arise when team members are uncertain about their roles.
Goals can also provide a basis for measuring progress and success. When teams have specific, measurable goals, they can track their progress and celebrate their achievements along the way. This sense of progress and accomplishment can help to increase morale and motivation within the team.
They can also help to provide focus and direction for the team. This focus can help to prevent distractions and ensure that the team is working towards a common objective.
Giving feedback is essential for improving team cohesion and team performance. When team members provide feedback to one another, they can identify areas for improvement, celebrate successes, and build trust.
Constructive feedback helps team members learn from mistakes, correct errors, and adjust their behaviors or actions. By receiving feedback, individuals can also better understand their strengths and weaknesses, leading to greater self-awareness and personal growth.
Ultimately, giving and receiving feedback creates a culture of continuous improvement and accountability, leading to better team cohesion and higher performance. By embracing feedback as a tool for growth and development, teams can become more cohesive and achieve their goals more effectively.
While giving and receiving feedback is essential for team cohesion and performance, it can be difficult for some individuals. Many people are hesitant to provide feedback for fear of being perceived as critical or confrontational. Similarly, receiving feedback can be challenging, as it requires individuals to be open and receptive to constructive criticism.
Another reason why people may struggle with giving and receiving feedback is due to the emotional impact it can have. Criticism or negative feedback can be difficult to hear and can sometimes be perceived as a personal attack. As a result, individuals may become defensive or resistant to feedback, hindering the growth and development of the team.
In conclusion, while giving and receiving feedback can be challenging, it's essential for team cohesion and performance. By recognizing the importance of feedback, approaching it with a growth mindset, and providing training and support, individuals and teams can overcome these challenges and create a culture of continuous improvement and accountability.
As I said before, our team operates as a self-steering or self-organizing team, with decisions made collectively rather than by a technical lead. This allows us to achieve consensus on solutions and encourages team members to take ownership of their work. Our organization provides clear guidelines and constraints that set boundaries for our decision-making, which is documented in our handbook of best practices. This handbook is an open-source document that any team member can contribute to, making it a valuable resource for the entire organization.
Our technical guidance is provided through a tech radar that outlines tools and technologies that can be used, adopted, and those that are off-limits. Additionally, our security department works to protect us from potential threats to our software company.
However, it's important to note that some of these guidelines are more flexible than others. Over the past year, we've noticed that some of our guidelines have become more restrictive, shrinking the boundaries of our playground.
So are we?
Aligned? No, I don’t think so. I feel like our individual goals are not really contributing to our team goals. I think our communication skills need some practice and as a result of that, giving (and receiving) feedback is something that needs some polishing.
But can we become more aligned? Certainly, yes! We’ve been doing 360 feedback moments where we practice how to give and receive feedback. We’ve been having very open retrospectives, that sometimes even end up in almost shouting at each other. But that’s good, it’s feedback.
And do we still have?
Autonomy? I think less and less. With the shrinking playground we get due to more constraints and less guidelines, I feel like we’ve become less autonomous. But at the same time, I do think the organization is giving us the room to provide feedback and try out new and exciting stuff. It’s just that we as a team, don’t really embrace that opportunity. Maybe because we are not really aligned yet.