Autonomous Work Culture/Teams

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Autonomous Work Culture/Teams

The technology and entertainment industries are two examples of industries that have embraced autonomous culture and teams, as these industries thrive on creativity, which is something autonomous cultures help facilitate. The key principles of autonomous cultures and teams are freedom, capability/resource availability, and communication. Where the future is concerned, industry professionals seem to agree that modern work culture will grow progressively more autonomous in nature as time moves forward, especially has technology advanced which will enable teams to become autonomous in ways they currently can't, such as through the use of robobosses. Zappos, Patagonia, Atlassian, and Netflix are examples of companies that have successfully implemented autonomous cultures at their companies. The results of doing so include things like higher retention rates, high rates of growth, and happier employees. Industry experts suggest that autonomous teams and culture are most successful when they are given proper and sufficient levels of support of management and when the autonomous environment is allowed to remain free to evolve as necessary. A deep dive of these findings has been presented below.

How Distinct Industries Have Embraced Autonomous Culture/Teams

1: Technology Industry

  • Tech industry expert, Maarten Wensveen, stated in a 2019 Forbes article that "autonomous technology teams can help businesses respond rapidly to change, promote innovation and experimentation and drive decision-making closer to customers."
  • Wensveen admits that autonomous culture can have negative impacts on a technology company if/when it is not implemented and carried out properly, however, as a CTO of Cimpess, Wensveed stated that implementing a top-down approach to technology development during the company's initial years of growth was necessary in order for the company to stay ahead in the "increasingly competitive and dynamic" tech industry.
  • Autonomous teams are not something new for the technology industry. In fact, even as far back as 2016, autonomous culture was already being noted as a macro trend within the space. Technology expert Mike Mason writes about the trend of autonomous teams in the technology industry gaining whole stack control: "Over the last few years we’ve seen the rise of 'you build it, you run it' agile teams: the same developers create software, release it, and support it into production. We’re big fans of this approach, not least because doing production support makes you a much better developer. This trend is expanding and we’re seeing teams gain even deeper control, choosing the PaaS on which to deploy and run, their (usually cloud-based) load and performance test tool, monitoring tools, and security tooling."
  • Spotify is an example of a company in the technology space which allows its teams to innovate autonomously. However, the company also balances this with some level of standardization by only moving forward with the best innovations rather than all of them.
  • Additionally, the technology industry even has its own term that it applies to the concept of autonomy: 'Radical Agility.' According to technology journalist, Adrian Bridgwater, "Radical Agility is a described as a software development methodology where the business splits its developers into small autonomous teams that are free to use any programming language or technology to create their code in, as long as they reach the stated goal. "
  • Google is a good example of a company that has implemented the Radical Agility methodology. The company encourages employees to spend 20% of their time at work on personal software development projects.

2: Entertainment Industry

  • According to research published in the Journal of Creativity and Business Innovation, "autonomy [...] is shown to have positive impact on individual creativity." This concept may help explain why autonomous culture is often found in industries where creativity plays a central role. This can easily be said about the technology industry, which has been profiled above, and can also be found in the entertainment industry, as explained below.
  • When seeking to understand the ways in which autonomy is promoted in the entertainment industry, Disney is a primary example. With a revenue of over $69 billion, Disney is an entertainment behemoth and focuses on autonomy when it comes to its development teams while also keeping their teams small. "Jonathan Geibel, Disney's Director of Systems, identified that smaller teams focused on one specialty were more inclined to communicate openly and honesty amongst each other when the teams were small with less than seven participants. [...] Keeping the teams small allows each team to focus and have more decision-making power over the project. This improves flexibility and productivity and makes communication easier."
  • Like the technology industry, the idea of autonomous culture is not new to the entertainment industry. A key example of this is Netflix, a company whose autonomous culture has been touted in the media as far back as 2007. In this case, rather than strictly embracing autonomy from a creative perspective, Netflix was giving their employees autonomy over their lives. According to an article published at the time, employees at Netflix were "allowed to take as much vacation time as they want--on the clock." Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings said at the time that "vacation limits and face-time requirements are a 'relic of the industrial age.'"

Key Principles of Autonomous Culture/Teams

1: Freedom

  • Autonomous teams are given more freedom than is typical in a traditional work environment.
  • Karim Fanous, VP of engineering at Qumulo also resonates with the idea that freedom is a key principle of autonomous culture/teams. In a Forbes article he writes: "When we set out to design our engineering organization at Qumulo, we chose one that enshrined autonomous teams. We were firm believers that providing teams with a purpose, resources and the freedom to figure out how to tackle a problem will always trump a command-and-control approach."
  • In 2019, HBR noted that while many business leaders want to empower their autonomous teams with freedom in order to reap the benefits, the logistics of doing so seems complicated without guardrails in place. As a solution to this, experts on the topic, Donald Sull and Katherine Eisenhardt, suggest companies implement 'simple rules'. Simple rules are "just-in-time structures that help leaders deal with blockages and behavior run amok."

2: Capability/Resources

  • Autonomous culture is focused on providing employees with "stronger capabilities to be innovative and entrepreneurial."
  • In an article titled, 'Empowering Autonomous Teams' published in the Ivey Business Journal, the findings from a 2013 study were analyzed which found that organizations with successful autonomous teams maintain an "upfront and unwavering commitment to allocating organizational resources for team use."
  • Resources are highly important for autonomous teams because having these resources available boosts the team's morale, gives the team credibility, and influences their accountability.

3: Communication

  • According to findings published in the Ivey Business Journal, frequent and face-to-face communication and feedback from leaders in the organization was a distinct characteristic being employed by successful autonomous teams.
  • Feedback from upper management helps autonomous teams better adapt to changes, and more frequent feedback helps keep management and the team aligned. This is important because it ensures that the team will say focused on organizational strategy.
  • One important thing that should be considered on the topic of communication is that the communication should be balanced; it shouldn't come too frequently and it shouldn't offer inconsistent advice. It's important that the feedback doesn't diminish the autonomy of the team.

Insights From Industry Professionals Regarding Their Predictions for the Future of Autonomous Teams

1. RJ Cheremond

  • RJ Cheremond is a communications expert who, until recently, was working as a Senior Public Relations Specialist at Gartner and also served as a Communications Specialist for the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • In an article published in Smarter With Gartner, Cheremond makes the following predictions regarding the future of autonomous teams: "Currently, teams comprise a group of people pulled together by reporting structure or in an ad hoc fashion. Teamwork is therefore considered more of a behavioral necessity — to foster team spirit and collaboration — than a legitimate organizational principle. However, in 2028, the complexity and scale of business objectives will demand the involvement of brain power and expertise across boundaries in more intricate ways. Organizations will therefore gravitate toward a new work philosophy called We Working. This philosophy involves designing small and flexible teams in response to fluctuating workloads, shrinking time frames, and intense flurries of information exchange and coordination. We Working will encourage businesses to create small, autonomous and high-performing teams that form, converge, act and dismantle as assignments change. Fueled by autonomy and trust among teammates, We Working reduces the need for human managers to assemble teams and monitor performance."

2. Paul Drucker

  • Paul Drucker earned his education in business from the MIT Sloan Business School and previously worked as a researcher for McKinsey. Today, Drucker operates a freelance consulting business and is the founder of a small business media empire.
  • On his media site, Boundless, Drucker writes his predictions for how autonomy will play a role in the workforce in 2025: "As the working world continues to become more complex, being able to deploy the right team in the right situation will become more important than ever. It is also imperative not only to attract the best people, but to have the best people working on transformative new ventures that will drive growth. For example, MasterCard tapped into the power of FinTech startups by launching an internal startup accelerator. Google is going one step further and letting employees craft their own roles (in my mind, this helps overcome some of the obstacles of top-down org design). Not being limited by traditional roles and hierarchy and creating more agile teams will be an imperative for high-performance teams in 2025."

3. Harshit Srivastava

  • Harshit Srivastava is a senior specialist analyst and researcher at Gartner with over 6 years of experience in the field of automation software technologies. Prior to this role, he was a field researcher for Frost & Sullivan. He has a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science.
  • In his predictions regarding the future of work, Srivastava talks about how he believes autonomous teams will eventually blend with autonomous robotics in profound and innovative ways not currently being done: "In 2030, a large number of teams will be autonomous with robobosses responsible for functions currently performed by team managers. Robobosses will manage project allocation, deadlines, delivery, and communication. Smart machines will be responsible for ensuring coordination among different teams, such as sales, marketing, and finance. They will also monitor employee performance and assess the need for upscaling or downsizing based on predicted project workloads."

4. Matt Oneill

  • Matt Oneill (aka: Futurist Matt) has 15 years of experience in the field of marketing and communications business development. Today he operates a media out focused on the future of business and provides workshop and consulting services to help companies better manager their future.
  • In an article titled '2025: Holacracy - Rise of Autonomous Teams', Matt writes: "Faster change requires new ways of working. Step forward the growth of Self Organizing teams. ‘Holacractic’ teams have greater autonomy over how they govern themselves, including distributed decision-making amongst members. The major advantage being to 'increase agility, efficiency, transparency, innovation and accountability within an organization.' Holacracy is a method of decentralized management and organizational governance trademarked by HolacracyOne, in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy. Holacracy has been adopted by for-profit and non-profit organizations in several countries."

5. Jacob Morgan

  • "Jacob is an author, speaker and futurist. His latest book, The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization, explores how the workplace is changing and was endorsed by business leaders such as the Chairman of KPMG, CEO of Whirlpool, CEO of Intuit, CEO of SAP, CEO of Schneider Electric, Gary Hamel, and many others. Jacob also co-founded the FOW Community which is a network of the world’s most forward thinking organizations who come together to explore the future of work."
  • In a Forbes article titled 'Working in the Year 2040,' Jacob Morgan analyzes predictions from a Johnson Controls report that hypothesizes some interesting things about autonomous working. First, that radical working patterns (i.e. flexible work) will be the norm. Second, that projects will be carried out by a team of carefully selected subject matter experts. And third, that commuting to work will be optional unless in-person communication is necessary. Lastly, and perhaps most interesting of all, is the prediction that the entire workday is shrouded in autonomy.

6. Nicholas Skytland

  • Nicholas Skytland is the Deputy Chief of Exploration Technology at NASA.
  • In an article for the NASA blog, Skytland notes the following regarding the evolution of autonomy in the workplace: "As technological advances erode traditional boundaries, more work can be completed by teams empowered to discern when and where is best suited for the people involved and the needs of the project at hand. The modern workplace is evolving to meet new demands and is consequently being designed to allow for greater flexibility and autonomy. The office today is at the nexus of the social, technological, and physical worlds. Rethinking the way we manage workspaces, virtually and physically, is giving rise to modern workplaces and an entire industry that offers office-as-a-service to an increasingly mobile workforce. As the migration toward a global and connected world continues, historical workplace models that offer cubicles and stationary space resonate less with an emerging workforce. [...] As the work and workforce continually evolve, the workplace must likewise transform to reflect the change or it becomes a barrier. The physical facilities of all organizations—including NASA—must be maintained, upgraded, and modernized, as should the tools and processes employed to facilitate collaboration across increasingly distributed workforces."

7. MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future (Professors David Autor and David Mindell, along with Dr. Elisabeth Reynolds)

  • "MIT President Rafael Reif convened the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future in the spring of 2018. Its goals are to understand the relationships between emerging technologies and work, and to explore strategies to enable a future of shared prosperity."
  • In a report about the future of work, the MIT Task Force discusses how autonomous practices are becoming increasingly adopted within the educational system: "One of the core strengths of the U.S. education system is its flexibility: People can move in and out of the system at different points in life or change their course of study to pursue new career paths. The system also allows for the development of new education and training programs and partnerships where there is perceived demand or opportunity. Recent years have seen significant experimentation within higher education."

Examples of Companies that Have Been Successful in Using the Autonomous Culture/Teams Approach

1: Zappos

  • A link to the company's website can be found here.
  • Zappos relies on an organizational system based around self-management (Holacracy). This system is designed to empower Zappos employees with autonomy when it comes to their work while also helping to make organizational structures flatter. Managerial roles have been transformed to be those that assign roles to other employees and provide support. The system also allows employees room to employ their own creativity and use their discretion when it comes to completing tasks.
  • Employees working under the Holacratic system at Zappos are responding positively, noting how the system has empowered them to take charge of their goals and problems in the workplace. While the system hasn't been executed flawlessly (the company first implemented it around 2013 and as of 2020 had walked back some of the changes), company executive, John Bunch, said that the company has become famous for their customer service and has since adopted a more balanced system where in "teams operate like small businesses and manage their own profit-and-loss statements, rather than focusing on the scope of their holacratic authority to manage the company’s full P&L."

2: Patagonia

  • A link to the company's website can be found here.
  • Patagonia encourages their employees to leave the office to enjoy nearby surfing and other outdoor activities during office hours. The company even publishes daily surf reports and has a stock pile of towels available for use. Patagonia also takes an interesting approach to leadership, wherein leadership can come from anyone at any level. The company has stated that anyone can speak up and challenge what is happening. When asked about the company's 'flat structure' VP of HR, Dean Carter stated: "It’s a lot more like a network rather than a pyramid or triangle. Communication can happen directly from the CEO or Yvon Chouinard as chairman to an entry level role, depending on who needs to get the work done. There’s just no reverence for reporting relationships or traditional hierarchies. As a matter of fact, we like breaking them because, often, the best ideas aren't from the manager; they're from the person whose hands are dirty doing the real work. If one person's doing the work, you don't need their manager, their manager's manager, and so on, to get things done; you just need the right person."
  • With regard to how this system has affected the company's success, Carter notes the following achievements: "The company's widely successful. We're experiencing double digit growth, despite our desire to control growth, at a time when most retailers and wholesalers are reeling, and even though one per cent of our top line sales are going to the environment. Our turnover is freakishly low for the industry at 4 to 4.5 per cent in corporate. 100 per cent of our moms taking maternity leave have returned in the recorded history of Patagonia, which I think is a ridiculous statistic. So the business is successful, the people are highly engaged and they're staying, and we have a long list of people who'd like to get in."

3: Atlassian

  • A link to the company's website can be found here.
  • Atlassian provides paid-time-off for their employees which the employee can dedicate to fun, charity, and personal development. New hires are given funding to take a vacation before they even begin their first day of work. Additionally, four days a year, employees are encouraged to drop their usual work and focus on any creative project they wish. Further, the company prides itself on creating an environment where its employees feel supported and recognized, including receiving handwritten cards and gifts from the HR department for a job well done.
  • For two years in a row, Atlassian was voted as the best place to work in Australia by Business Review Weekly. These autonomous policies have also produced a range of innovative results that have led to both new product features and exciting additions to the office, including a mini arcade. Giving employees more autonomy has boosted creativity at the company.

4: Netflix

  • A link to the company's website can be found here.
  • Netflix leaders believe that "the traditional logic for rules and the short-term benefits of reducing mistakes but [...] over time a process-focused culture drives out the high-performing employees that companies aim to keep." To combat this, Netflix adopted the principles of freedom and responsibility into their company culture. Rather than creating a system of rules and processes as the company was rapidly growing, Netflix instead focused on investing in high-performance employees and built a company culture designed to reward high-performers while weeding out low performers. This is based on Netflix's belief that "responsible people—the people that every company wants to hire—are not only worthy of freedom, they thrive on it. Creating an environment where these individuals are not inhibited by myriads of rules allow them to become the best version of themselves." These perspectives have lead to the company developing radical HR policies including unlimited vacation for salaried employees. The core tenant of the company culture is to encourage employees to act in Netflix's best interests.
  • Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, published his ideas for the company's culture a decade ago and the slide presentation has received over 19 million views so far. According to insights published by Harvard Business Review, "people find the Netflix approach to talent and culture compelling for a few reasons. The most obvious one is that Netflix has been really successful: During 2013 alone its stock more than tripled, it won three Emmy awards, and its U.S. subscriber base grew to nearly 29 million. All that aside, the approach is compelling because it derives from common sense."

Insights from Industry Experts About How Autonomous Culture/Teams Can Be Successfully Used in the Work Place

1: Support is Critical for Team Success

  • Jim Hess is an associate professor of business at Goshen College.
  • In the Ivey Business Journal, Hess analyzes the results of interviews conducted with participants of autonomous teams. The study concluded that "three distinct dynamics were found to prevail in the organizations with successful autonomous teams: (a) organization-wide commitment to using autonomous teams, (b) upfront and unwavering commitment to allocating organizational resources for team use and (c) frequent, face-to-face feedback from organizational leaders."
  • Hess also notes how participants from failed autonomous who were interviewed cited weak managerial support for the team's failure, which further supports the concepts that company-wide support is crucial for team success.
  • Company administrators can meet these support standards, according to Hess, by creating environments that foster team orientation, and build desire among employees to participate in autonomous endeavors.
  • In alignment with this, Hess explains that in order for autonomous to succeed, they should cultivate an entrepreneurial tone within the company. He notes that "contemporary organizations find such structural change to be especially advantageous when inspiring employee innovation in reaction to volatile change."

2: Successful Autonomous Work Environments Need to Remain Free to Evolve as Needed

  • Boris Groysberg is a tenured professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Jeremiah Lee is the head of innovation and advisory at Spencer Stuart. Jesse Price is head of organizational culture at Spencer Stuart. And J. Yo-Jud Cheng is an assistant profession of business administration at Darden. This team co-authored 'The Leader's Guide to Corporate Culture' which was published in the Harvard Business Review. Some of their recommendations and suggestions as they relate to autonomous work culture have been presented below.
  • This guide suggests a company's culture is one that should be free to evolve in a flexible and autonomous way as it needs to respond to evolving demands and opportunities. The guide notes how culture is separate from strategy in that strategy is delegated to the C-suite.
  • The guide also suggests that while many companies attempt to define their culture using opposing principles, such as results and caring, these opposing principles can result in confusion and frustration among employees who have a hard time maintaining focus and balance on both caring and driving results. However, the team noted via case analysis that when a company adds the principles of autonomy to this culture model, such as flexibility, learning, and purpose, the company was able to better align its culture with its strategy and the model produced better results, as doing so gave the company the ability to differentiate itself by providing outstanding customer service by allowing their reps to solve customer problems using autonomy and inventiveness.
  • Lastly, the guide recommends that for any company considering a change to their existing culture, that leaders encourage conversation about the culture framework itself, as doing so helps to naturally encourage employees in that direction. The article states: "As employees start to recognize that their leaders are talking about new business outcomes—innovation instead of quarterly earnings, for example—they will begin to behave differently themselves, creating a positive feedback loop. Various kinds of organizational conversations, such as road shows, listening tours, and structured group discussion, can support change. Social media platforms encourage conversations between senior managers and front line employees. Influential change champions can advocate for a culture shift through their language and actions."

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