Divide and conquer: Autonomy and other strategies to go fast at scale
Just as it takes longer to steer a large ship than a small boat—it’s tougher to change the course of a large company than a nimble startup.
That’s the nature of inertia. But titanic organizations still go off course the same as lean ones, and those are the problems Alexander Grosse can’t resist tackling.
“I started as an engineer, but very quickly discovered that I couldn’t concentrate on a computer science problem when I saw the whole project, or the whole company, was going into the wrong direction,” Grosse says. “Early on, I must have annoyed people because I would voice my concerns, and say, ‘I think this doesn’t work,’ without knowing how to do it better.”
Over time, he learned that steering an organization through big-picture problems is one of his strengths. He moved increasingly into management, co-founding two startups and building his first big team at Nokia. Then he helped SoundCloud scale from 20 engineers to 100 as VP of Engineering, followed by the VPE role at Issuu. Now he’s the Director of Engineering at BCG Digital Ventures.
At every stop, much of Grosse’s work focus has been dedicated toward scaling teams. Drawing from his experiences, he co-authored the book Scaling Teams: Strategies for Building Successful Teams and Organizations with David Loftesness.
We asked him to share from the philosophies that have helped his teams succeed.
“The first thing that company leaders have to change is their mindset,” he says. “Change from building the product to building the team. Because if you just hire more people without spending time thinking about how these people will work together, you’ll probably see a negative ROI. And if you hire people who don’t work well together, then people will become unhappy or demotivated, and leave. It’s better to stay small than have that happen.”
So let’s take a look at Grosse’s mindset behind scaling successfully, by focusing on ownership.
The roots of autonomy
When we talk about “organizational design,” many of us are trained to think about how every team and each team member is a cog in a larger machine. In Grosse’s approach, the organization isn’t a single machine. Instead, each team is its own autonomous organization in miniature.
“I always try to separate this one big company into several small companies,” he says. “While there’s still overall growth, you should form smallish autonomous teams who still have this feeling of, ‘Hey we’re a small team, we are autonomous and we can move fast.’”
In this way, it’s like each team maintains the same startup mentality that got the company going in the first place. “There wasn’t a front-end department, a back-end department, a design department, a marketing department, and so on,” he explains. Departments create barriers to communication, which many companies try and fix by mandating additional meetings.
“Trust is one of the most important, yet most misunderstood, behaviors that teams need to develop. It’s a delicate balance of putting the right people into the right positions.”
And if your engineers spend their days in meetings, or redoing their work for the umpteenth time because some faceless person from a distant department required them to change everything, they might stop caring. So the sort of autonomy that Grosse designs is one where the teams are empowered to make at least the daily decisions by themselves. They are responsible for their own work – and they feel that responsibility, too.
The key to that ownership is a sense of trust.
“Trust is one of the most important, yet most misunderstood, behaviors that teams need to develop,” Grosse says. “It’s not just that you have an ordinary team, and you trust them, and then magic happens. That’s not true. It’s a delicate balance of putting the right people into the right positions.”
And, he says, trust often starts with the founders. They have to allow the people they hire the freedom and flexibility to do good work — to surprise them — and also set the tone for how the company will grow.
“Input is very good,” Grosse says. “Orders are not.”
One of the points of having autonomous teams doing away with departmental silos. That’s why these autonomous units are designed to be cross-functional. They’re not strictly “an engineering team” or “a product team” – they are literally small organizations with the ability to understand across disciplines.
Whatever you’re designing an organization to be good at – consistency, or speed of delivery, or anything else – you can succeed by having all the disciplines who work on the product together in the same room, Grosse explains. That way, they can talk to each other instead of having to open a ticket to get something done.
“If the communication structure of a team is set up so you can’t just talk to each other but you have to go somewhere or you have to open a ticket, you more or less get a waterfall,” he says. “If you sit closely together, you get more and more into an agile environment. It’s obviously not that simple, but just how people sit has an enormous impact on how teams work.”
How people sit – Grosse means literally in the same room together.
You can think about this in terms of everyday experiences with social psychology. We develop empathy for the people we see on a regular basis and identify with. We find it more challenging to empathize with the other. So if people are breathing the same air, seeing and listening to each other throughout the day, they’re more likely to develop an understanding of one another.
“Just how people sit has an enormous impact on how teams work.”
“Empathy and standing for the needs of other disciplines are key,” Grosse says. “If the product manager doesn’t understand the needs of engineering teams, and engineering teams don’t understand the needs of the product manager, it’s really bad.”
The cross-disciplinary nature of these teams also opens up the team’s objectives to more diverse thought processes.
“Let’s be honest, good ideas can come from all sides of the table, right?” he says. “They can come from design, they can come from marketing, they come from engineering and product. The product’s responsibility in the end is to bring everything together and make maybe the final call, but it’s not like the product manager just magically creates a road map and everybody else follows it.”
If concerns arise about the productivity of this system, you can always rely on value stream mapping to analyze and improve the workflow of your team. But right from the get-go, you’re cutting down on the communication time taken up by separate departments following their own protocols and locking horns over their different goals.
The power of individual impact
The question with autonomous teams is, how do you align your multiple teams within the overarching parent company?
The first answer is pretty straightforward: Identify your organization-wide key performance indicator. What one metric (or two, or max three) is every single person in the company striving to improve?
“At Issuu it was ‘reads’. At SoundCloud, ‘listens’. Same idea,” Grosse says. “So then we would break those down. How can every team contribute so that we get more reads or that we get more listens?”
This way, the goal isn’t on a feature level or a marketing campaign level, where distinct departments have differing goals. There’s a company-wide mandate, and every team’s work plays a factor in that outcome, whatever the particulars of their projects.
Of course, revenue is a goal for many companies – but that’s more of a result. Besides, that’s typically not what really motivates most employees. So, the second answer for aligning your various autonomous teams: ensure that every individual can make an impact.
“Ensuring that individuals have the opportunity to make an impact is essential for a company to scale — and not slow.”
Grosse tells a story about a management training at SoundCloud. “The trainers came in and said, ‘Hey, what do you think is the most important thing for your employees?’ We thought of everything from feedback, to salary, and none of that is true. It’s actually impact.
And part of being able to make an impact as an individual employee is not getting lost in the shuffle of a massive organization or a bloated team. Build trust, support autonomy, and make room for individuals to drive impact. It’s critical to keep things running lean.
To ensure autonomy, Grosse will split a team in two when it grows past a certain point. And when those two grow to be too large, he’ll split them again. “Beyond a certain size, it gets impossible to know everybody and check in with how everybody’s doing,” he explains. “It’s an art to find the right point where to split a team. Each team, in each company, is different.”
“But the key, when your company is scaling — when you’re adding to or otherwise changing your teams — is to always consider autonomy first.”
Ben Thompson is a co-founder at GitPrime where he leads design and customer experience. He is a Y Combinator alumni, with a background in product design, branding, and UX design. Follow @thebent on Twitter.
Get Engineering Impact: the weekly newsletter for managers of software teams
Keep current with trends in engineering leadership, productivity, culture, and scaling development teams.