Our operating model assumes value is created as a function of beliefs.

At Northern.tech we strongly believe in autonomy and the goodness in people. Humans are born free and happy. These are states naturally pursued throughout life. Work and private life should be one and the same. At Northern.tech we encourage everyone to remain the same person whether they are at home with their family, with friends or at work. People who feel free and happy breed productivity and spread contagious positive vibes. This is what we believe.

Operating autonomously can be challenging, especially for people with years of experience suppressed with hierarchical micro management. This blog post is meant to clarify important aspects of our autonomous way of working, illustrate some fundamental interdependencies in the model and outline pitfalls we must seek to avoid. Like Yin doesn’t make much sense without Yang, the same would apply for beliefs like autonomy and transparency, or autonomy and trust. Our beliefs are not like an à la carte menu where one can choose and pick according to personal preference. We offer set menus. Everything depends on everything.

Autonomy depends on transparency

For autonomy to work, everyone needs to be transparent in their work. The main reason lies in access to relevant information so decisions can be based on the maximum amount of relevant data and information.

This is why all newly created documents by default are searchable by anyone, why we have daily standups, why PTO (personal-time-off) are instantly shared, why sprint demos are so important, why we every month share a ton of data, why we have live data available on the intranet, why we have a very long meeting minutes and agenda document, why, unless it is personal and HR-related, any information shall be available upon request if not already available.

Pitfall: People not sharing enough of their work
If people reduce sharing their data and work, the model deteriorates accordingly. We have found a strong inverse correlation between trust and sharing. If you don’t fully trust your colleagues, it becomes natural to hide weak sides. For instance if you are not competent enough to do what you have set out for, and you don’t trust that your colleagues are there to help you out, reducing sharing becomes easy. From an organizational point of view this tells us two things:

  • We must look into the team collaboration issues
  • The employee might not be fit for their role

Either way, when this pitfall is identified, it must result in action to fix the root problem (often one of the two mentioned above). This cannot be done quickly enough.

Pitfall: Too high overhead costs
For people to share their data and work, the overhead costs of doing so much must be at a minimum. The more extra work required, like adding meta data, and inserting data into a system for reporting, the less sharing there will be. The solution to this is to focus on automation and keep the need for extra work at an absolute minimum. Further, it helps to keep reminding everyone about the value of sharing - you are not doing this for yourself (you already know this), but view it as your gift to enable others to stay autonomous and successful in their role.

Autonomy depends on trust

No trust, no sharing. No sharing means less transparency which leads to operating model failure. Transparency means sharing everything, regardless of its negative or positive nature. Especially perceived negative data and information grow hard to share if distrust exists. This is normal human psychological behavior, and cannot be fixed by either the stick or the carrot. The fix lies in restoring trust, and this understanding outlines the importance of trust. Our Learning from Failure (LFF) process is the institutional way to show that failures are acceptable, and should not be hidden, but considered a source of new learning. The rest depends on interpersonal work.

Pitfall: I am afraid of how this information will be perceived, so I won’t share it
In sales, reps sandbag to ensure they always come out on top. In engineering, engineers overestimate a tasks estimated story-points (SPs) to buy time, in management, executives undersell current situation and forecasts to investors to increase the likelihood of overachieving and keeping their job. Who are we really cheating here? Yes, correct. Ourselves. The solution is to create an atmosphere of complete trust. This can only be done through actions and explicit communication on expectations and consequences. Trust is not binary, and its self-fulfilling ability to increase or decrease moves fast in either direction so this topic needs to be worked on at all times. If distrust surfaces, it must be addressed quickly. Systems to detect distrust and encourage people who dare to speak up are needed.

Autonomy depends on clear roles and responsibility

At Northern.tech, we keep a Decision Log (DL) for all significant decisions, and every decision shall only have one person responsible. In order to be autonomous, the borders defining roles and responsibility must be clear. This is why we have a “Roles and Responsibility” document outlining roles. This is why the CEO is responsible for anything not outlined here. This is why we seek clearly defined people, customer and engineering processes.

Pitfall: Yeaah!! I am my own boss. Stay away from me! I am king!
This is a complete misunderstanding of our autonomous way of working, and people with such attitude do not belong at Northern.tech. When we do peer reviews, one of the attributes we look for is the “extent one person is helpful to another”. The ability to be a team player and enable others to succeed is considered much more important than individual achievements. This is why we don’t have personal KPIs or individual bonuses, but take a collective approach to problem solving. We believe the autonomous way of working is the most fulfilling and natural way of working in order to operate fast and at scale. We assume everyone utilizes the collective wisdom and common sense, and shows up with solid reasons for not following either of them. Employees who score high at Northern.tech do so due to their merits not seniority.

Pitfall: Autonomous is not synonymous with individual
If people confuse autonomy with individualism, the path to chaos and anarchy is short. We do not want to create a situation beautifully illustrated by Monty Python in their The Philosophers' Football Match. Our way of working can better be compared with autonomous driving. Cars make autonomous decisions on the fly, but operate within well-defined constraints and rules (our roles and responsibilities). Since the border between autonomous and individualism can be hard to spot, a critical responsibility of everyone is to ensure people remain team players. If anyone starts to feel someone is not being a teamplayer, it must be addressed quickly.

Autonomy depends on common sense

As opposed to autonomous cars, humans possess a conscious mind with cognitive abilities that allow us to be creative and solve problems in unique ways. The more rules and restrictions we put into the system, the less likely it will be that we create new genuine ways to improve our internal and external process and products. Therefore, our model relies heavily on common sense. This is why we don’t have 1000-page manuals. This is why we are very cognizant when formalizing processes.

Pitfall: Lack of common sense
People coming from all walks of life naturally bring with them a disperse set of common sense. At Northern.tech common sense should be a function of the whole team’s belief. If in doubt about something, ask your colleagues for advice. When the instilled trust feels broken due to lack of common sense, we must act fast and decisively. People should always, within reason, be given a chance to explain and correct, but only once.

Conclusions

Working autonomously in a culture based on trust, transparency and team mentality can unleash tremendous creativity and efficiency. However, such a model stands on several critical pillars that if not present can jeopardize it all. In this blogpost we have outlined some of the commons pitfalls and suggested ways to avoid or fix them. Good luck in creating your own autonomous organization.

Thomas Ryd

Co-founder and leader, California

thomas.ryd@northern.tech

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