The untold truth about Empowered Teams

Why companies filled with top talent and brilliant ideas struggle to innovate or simply move faster? Why does amazing talent leave?

Simple: Lack of alignment and lack of autonomy.

Without full alignment and team empowerment, a company will not be able to make good decisions and execute quickly.

According to Harvard Review Business “One-third of all products are delivered late or incomplete due to an inability or delay in decision-making, according to research from Forrester Consulting and Jama Software. Others at Gartner cite “speed of decision making” as the primary obstacle impacting internal communication. No doubt you’ve been part of a team that waited… and waited… for a higher-up to make a decision before you could resume your work.

For every 1 hour of work done by product teams, 48 minutes is spent waiting for a decision to be made. That means in one 8-hour day, 3.5 hours is dedicated to waiting. This is crazy.

This article is mostly based on the autonomy constrain.

What is an empowered team?

Empowered teams are groups of people working together with specific goals, accountable for their decisions and outcomes.

Mary Cagan states it beautifully: In most organizations, tech teams exist to “serve the business”, But in strong product organizations, teams are empowered “to serve the customers, in ways that meet the needs of the business”

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In order for true teams to be fully implemented and successful, four key characteristics must exist:

Skills – They need to have people of different traits to be autonomous in the discovery and execution process. Not having this will cause to move resources within organization with all the issues that come along: lack of previsibility of resources, low motivation and commitment, and the knowledge is spread out. Product Teams become project-oriented.

Constraints – They must have a need, purpose or objective referred as Product Vision to head to, shared with every other product team. A Product Strategy that will tell them the milestones to guide the path to fulfill their purpose. Product Principles that reflect the values of the organization and to be used to take hard decisions with trade offs.

Not having a proper Product Vision with business metrics to access progress is perhaps the most exponential issue faced by product teams. Without a compelling vision, they  cannot set business metrics to measure progress. Teams become independent feature factory without a shared high-level vision which causes a huge inefficiency with many back and forth’s to have alignment between managers and others teams.

Trust – Sometimes is not enough to have top talent if management does not give them space to take decisions. Without a proper delegation in place, most of the decisions are awaiting an approval to move forward.

Trust means leaving to the team the power of taking decisions they feel fit under the constraints they are working.

Trust means to let them to self-organize with a streamlined support of managers or coaches.

Trust they will decide at best of their knowledge and that will escalate up in case they need help or advice.

Outcome-oriented – Teams should be given problems and not disguised solutions. “Find the most relevant problem within this vision, that could most benefit ours customers” instead of “do this”. This is very hard for many reasons as we, human beings, tend to jump very quickly into solutions, as we are not wired to halt and checkout the unknown-knowns and unknown-unknowns that may bite us further.

With valuable goals and problems at their hands, they feel like their really own it, exploding their motivation and creativity in giving to the customer what he really wants – or to even surprising him with something he was not expecting.

Leaders and Managers

Although they are different, most of the cases this roles are present in the same person.

Leaders should create a compelling Product Vision (AKA North Star) to guide all the product teams under a shared common goal. They define the principles and the milestones (e.g. quarterly) to steer progress.

Managers are there to support and guide them in difficult situations they may be facing, To coach them in skills and competences they lack yet.

Most of the times teams have a lack of perception on what’s happening with the others teams too and managers play an important role to maintain coherence across the organization.

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Leaders and Managers play a very important role not only in defining constraints but also in evangelizing it through out the organization. Ensure everyone understands the big picture and are convinced about the reasons for the decisions. With everyone’s buy-in the organizations become truly one and totally aligned on a common journey.

Summary

Great teams are comprised of ordinary people that are empowered.

They need great Leaders that give them a north pole to head to. They need Managers that will support and coach in what they need.

They should be asked to solve problems, but they demand guard-rails that ensure alignment with the organization.

I leave with a quick  diagnosis created by Marty Cagan to know if a team is truly empowered:

  • Are you staffed with competent people with character, that are skilled across the range of competencies you need (typically, product manager, product designer and engineers)?
  • Are you assigned problems to solve, rather than given lists of features to build?
  • Are you accountable to deliver business results (outcomes) rather than shipping features (output)?