It's the Autonomy, Stupid!

Posted by Saul Caganoff on 23 August 2017

We make companies feel young again by helping them move faster, to be more nimble and creative. Many factors go into “feeling young” and all of them lie in that nexus of forces that are changing the way business and technology work together. The scale and the breadth of change can be bewildering but a closer look reveals a common thread that runs throughout—autonomy.

Most mature companies struggle to marshal their resources efficiently. They move slowly because there is resistence to change. Newton defines inertia as resistence to change. Higgs, says that inertia is caused by too many interactions. Particles and people alike can’t move fast when dependencies stand in the way of change. How can we eliminate dependencies and embrace autonomy at all levels in our organizations?

  • Infrastructure: cloud and SaaS broke our dependencies on infrastructure—big bang approaches to buying hardware, waiting on suppliers, constructing data centres have evaporated—replaced by self-service, pay as you go, scale as you grow. Achieving autonomy in our infrastructure is pretty obvious by now.

  • Architecture: a huge source of inertia is the spaghetti architecture of legacy systems, that cause organizations to move cautiously because they don’t know what will break. This is the hard problem that IT departments have struggled with since there were two computers instead of one. APIs round up, corral and control dependencies—eliminating them where possible or making them visible and manageable. Bezo’s Big Mandate was the manifesto for this approach and the herald for microservices architectures that take a zealous approach to eliminating all dependencies.

  • Teams: the Agile Manifesto is all about autonomy—giving our teams the trust and the resources to make local decisions that can deliver rapidly, iteratively and with lower risk. The small, cross-functional, two-pizza team is the exemplar of autonomy.

  • Organization: mature companies already have all the resources they need to be successful—they’re just not using them effectively. Changing the way we organize and leverage our assets can lead to greater autonomy. Platforms are self-contained, autonomous units that can be composed in different ways to support different business needs. Think of a platform as the “operating system” for your bank or insurance company or utility, as the “app store” for your “apps”. Platforms increase autonomy for both the provider of the platform and the users of the platform, enabling them both to optimise independently.

  • Risk: the biggest dependency is the need to ask permission. Building the Lucky Country reveals that we’re drowning in self-imposed red tape. Risk aversion encourages us to avoid change or to outsource it to someone else (yet another form of dependency). Lean enterprise thinking promotes a culture that encourages innovation, that allows us to “learn fast” in a manner that embraces risk but reduces its impact through continuous measurement, lightweight governance and incremental change.

Smart companies use technology better than their competitors. Smart companies also encourage a culture that embraces and supports change at all levels. The common ingredient is autonomy for our systems, for our teams and for our people.

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