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Autonomous teams work quicker, are more productive, and are happier in their roles – but organizational legacy, ill-defined processes, and a lack of clarity can all leave teams feeling dependent.

October 19 – December 14 Leadership course
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Change doesn't happen alone – inspire your team today

Join the new five-part course on engineering leadership’s most fundamental challenges

So, how can you create autonomy for engineers? This series considers how to empower engineers through cultures, practices, and vision. 

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Episode 1: Creating and sustaining motivation in engineering teams

This conversation centered around what it takes to build engaged and motivated teams so engineering leaders can deliver better business results and create healthier environments at work. Our panelists – Erika Chestnut (Head of QA at Calendly), Usman Ismail (Senior Engineering Manager at Bolt), Ian Nowland (SVP Core Engineering at DataDog), and Chris Gent (Senior Engineering Manager at Skyscanner) – and moderator – Maria Gutierrez (Head of Engineering at Intercom) – discussed their own experiences of doing so.

During this discussion, our panelists explored:

  • What a highly motivated organization looks like
  • How to recognize motivation-related problems
  • The relationship between compensation and motivation
  • Individual motivation: what managers should consider when it comes to individual needs and preferences 
  • Team motivation: the roles peers play in keeping individuals motivated
  • Communicating to motivate: when to clarify the purpose and mission of a team, and how to personally invest in improving your leadership presence.

Episode 2: Becoming an engineering manager: autonomy equals responsibility

‘You are responsible for the team's results, but you should minimize your direct influence on them.’

This article, written by José Caldeira, is primarily targeted towards engineering leaders who are fresh into management. He discusses the traps new managers can fall into, including paternalistic leadership and being overprotective. José then advises on how to build trust with a team, tactics for effective communication, and the importance of information. To round off the article, José reminds readers that autonomy is a mindset and that their job as an engineering leader is to ‘make the team feel empowered yet responsible for their actions.’

Episode 3: The art of self-organizing teams 

‘Purpose, mastery, and autonomy…allow us to guide and create alignment, set up effective processes and workflows, and provide the ability to adjust and change as needed.’

Tom Sommer states that the key to high-performing teams is collective intelligence, and that ‘self-organization is collective intelligence at its best.’ Through the frameworks of purpose, mastery, and autonomy, Tom highlights techniques to achieve self-organizing teams, the level of leadership they require, and what it takes to build the necessary foundations. Giving purpose achieves motivation; achieving mastery delivers value; providing autonomy empowers and enables. 

Episode 4: Using engineering principles to create autonomous teams at scale 

‘...principles work because we collectively agree on what good looks like as an engineering team.’

In this article, Wayne Bell shares the engineering principles that his team at Skyscanner created to align hundreds of teammates and avoid chaos. Wayne guides the reader on how to form their own principles, highlighting the ‘ingredients’ needed: collaboration, consultation, accountability, and understanding success. Wayne is also careful to state that the implementation of engineering principles doesn’t mean that teams and projects become error-free, but it does mark ‘a journey of reminding, measuring, learning, adapting, debating, and ultimately continually collaborating to commit to our shared beliefs.’ His colleague, Graham Martin, follows on from this, saying, ‘...mistakes happen, but the principles give us a lens to look through when examining incidents and help to inform actions and key learnings.’ 

A final takeaway

Building autonomous teams takes trust and time, but by focusing on alignment and implementing the practices demonstrated in these content pieces, engineering leaders can successfully let their teammates become the decision-makers and increase velocity.

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Using engineering principles to create autonomous teams at scale
Episode 04 Using engineering principles to create autonomous teams at scale
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