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Last Updated Apr 19, 2021 —

Build trust in autonomous teams by building trust in data

Autonomous teams deliver results with minimal monitoring, even in a remote setting. Data will help build the critical trust these teams need to function.

Value Stream Management

Over the past year, more teams than ever are working remotely. While the current situation is due in large part to COVID disruptions in the workplace, remote work is not a new development. Even before the pandemic, many teams operated with a high degree of trust placed upon them. Teams operating like this are expected to deliver results with minimal monitoring and interference — inside or outside the office setting. With most people working from home now, trust in these teams is even more critical.

Though it can be challenging, empowered autonomous teams actually set the ideal state for a business that has undergone an agile transformation. As the authors state in a McKinsey Quarterly article, "Small, independent teams are the lifeblood of the agile organization." 

But autonomous teams still need support in order to work. Senior executives must respect their autonomy while providing them with the people, tools, and opportunities they need for success. Yet, some leaders in various departments feel nervous about delivering this autonomy. That, or their bosses pressure them to feel nervous about it. Either way, they crave more control to manage risk.

Risk is scariest when it’s not visible. You can mitigate some of the fear involved in autonomy by making opportunities and risks visible through the use of quality data represented in an actionable dashboard.

In this sense, building trust in teams can come from building trust in the numbers. To do this, you’ll need accurate data that is:

  • Sourced from all relevant systems of record
  • Converted into a canonical data model
  • Available to reference at a glance or enable greater exploration

Product teams can foster trust by demonstrating this data to organizational leaders. Like Chris Condo of Forrester says, "people don't have to be looking over their shoulders every 5 seconds because there's a dashboard showing what everybody's doing and whether they're trending towards success or failure."

Agile transformation means teams are supposed to be autonomous, not micromanaged

Micromanaging is a risk in any team setting, and teams transitioning to agile methods are no exception. Managers who are resistant to change may have a particularly difficult time transitioning to autonomous teams. In truth, if leaders are truly micromanaging, they’re doing agile, scrum, and DevOps wrong.

But even autonomous teams still have constant meetings and reviews of results. This leads some team members to the impression that they are being micromanaged. Are they? Yes, but only in the sense that teams are micromanaging themselves. With a true autonomous team, product owners and stakeholders may make suggestions and have discussions with the team, but ultimately the team itself owns the Sprint Backlog

Defining goals through value delivery, rather than set output, can help keep teams focused. Overmanaging can frustrate experienced teams and may cause good people to leave. If frustrated team members stay, they will just passively do what they are told to do. The end result of this cycle is low quality and high risk.

On the other hand, inexperienced teams may need some guidance at first to avoid feeling lost. Without knowledge and experience, inexperienced teams can’t assess risks themselves, which can also lead to lower quality and higher risk. In this situation, leaders have to be careful to act as support, not taskmasters. Access to data can give teams self-service guidance, as well.

Reduce the need for direct supervision by aligning teams to common success metrics

Access to data can help leaders understand the value a team is producing. Data can also help the team understand its own successes and failures, as well as provide information to guide their decisions. The goal should be to address trending KPI performance, not specific daily actions. In the event that individuals or individual practices should be addressed, couch these concerns within relevant metrics.

For example: Use a KPI that measures production risk based on past performance for deployment or development teams. You can assign a "change risk credit score" for top leaders to view, and enable them to drill down to specific teams or individuals. This allows for targeted action based on objectivity, not subjectivity. The data must be trustworthy, though. It should be sourced from all systems of record, such as the agile planning or development environment tools. You can use service desk tools or CMDB for the operations side. 

The data must utilize a canonical model for apples-to-apples comparisons across teams or departments. You need to agree on a definition of metrics, so there's not something lost in translation. Have priority metrics in mind, or let the team determine their own. This allows teams to work more efficiently together, and they can avoid Zoom calls scheduled just to decipher what's going on in terms of work, progress, or goals.

Take a product-focused, value stream approach to ensure consistent success

Going a step beyond agile, the Value Stream Management (VSM) approach can ensure that teams aren't just measuring outputs but seeking positive outcomes. 

Instead of asking, "are we doing X deployments?" teams can concentrate on, "are we improving customer daily use with each new deployment, and are we reaching our targets for this?" Product focus gives teams ownership over the product's (or feature's) performance as a whole, not just completing specific work orders. It allows for more autonomy, creativity, and engagement.

The use of value metrics allows you to clearly demonstrate success to leaders while speaking in terms key customer and internal stakeholders will understand. It reduces the perception of risk as well as risk itself, thanks to iterative feedback cycles and a wealth of contextualized information. 

These practices not only promote better work among teams, which may be highly distributed but also greater satisfaction from that work. As Johanna Rothman, President of Rothman Consulting Group, Inc., says, "people don't work to be agile. People work for their satisfaction. Often, autonomy, mastery, and purpose will satisfy them. Keep people satisfied at the personal level and they will provide the results you want in their team.”  

Agile teams are likely to continue to work from home for some time to come. It’s more important than ever to promote autonomy and build trust, to achieve the best results.

Learn how COVID-19 has changed the game, and what you need to know about beginning the value stream management journey in your organization with our webinar: “Why organizations should consider value stream management now”.

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