Leadership and Teams are Evolving in the Digitalization Era

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By Liz Slocum Jensen March 19, 2019

In the early days of IT, product was built with the idea that there was a finish line – a big bang release – in which there was one epic product release. After an epic release, QA and technical support teams would brace themselves for an onslaught of customer feedback. This approach isolated us from what was truly innovative and relevant: creating value for the customer. As we develop within the current digitalization era, IT has experienced a transformation across the entire organization. Product and engineering teams are adapting to delivery continuous, undisrupted value to the customer while leaders are evolving their methods to work with more autonomous teams.

Autonomous Squads Keep Teams Current

Agile methodologies have been around for years. The elegance of it is that has constantly evolved to improve. One of the more compelling approaches of  small, agile teams is the concept of Squads at Spotify. This is Spotify’s home-grown flavor of teams that they based on Agile and Scrum methodologies. Squads are small, self-organizing teams of less than 8 people, consisting, for example, of a product owner, front end developer, back-end developer, QA, and Scrum master. The Squad members decide which methods and technologies best help them align with the Squad’s short-term goals, product strategy, and long-term mission. Some teams use Scrum sprints, some use Kanban, some use a mix of these approaches. They work like a mini-startup and are encouraged to apply Lean Startup principles such as Minimum Viable Product (MVP), design-led engineering, and validated learning with metrics and A/B testing. From Squads, organizations expand to more flexible groups that are designed to generate shared interests as follows:

  • Tribes are a collection of squads that work in related areas such as back-end infrastructure
  • Chapters are cross sections of squads that have similar functions, like testing.
  • Guilds are free-form, wide-reaching communities of interest. It is an organic group of people that want to share knowledge, tools, code, and practices such as web technologies or agile coaching.

These are simplified descriptions of how this model works. If you are interested in learning more, the Spotify’s engineering blog is a good starting point. However, this is like a snapshot in time of how things have been done at Spotify. After all, the method is modular. This means that is is likely to have since been adjusted to fit the changing needs of the team and corporate objectives.

Still, one key takeaway is how to create multi-disciplines teams that cross-collaborate. This ensures that teams are aligned and that employees stay current on best practices and technologies. As a result, the teams tend to be small in order to be nimble. This environment facilitates a more innovative environment. In fact, in a study published in the science journal Nature, researchers found that smaller teams of scientists consistently found completely new ideas, while larger teams more often added information to existing ideas. Today’s IT teams are looking to be innovative, not additive.

Leadership is Adapting

It’s not just teams that have had to develop with the agile approach, leadership has had to evolve with the times. The old corporate authoritarian leadership style is not compatible with agile autonomously-run teams. To adapt, executive leadership style is undergoing a shift from authoritarian to visionary. In the 2015 CIO Survey and CEO Survey, Gartner found that CIOs are flipping their leadership from commanding to visionary. The survey also found that 65% of leaders are reducing their commanding style. Meanwhile 47% of leaders are using a visionary, mentoring style.  

According to Gartner, 84% of CEOs expect digital initiatives to increase profit margins. Senior leadership finally believes in digital transformation as a compelling channel in which to grow the business. This means that IT must chart a path to keep be responsive to customer needs and offer continuous value. The challenge will lie in how to adapt teams, processes, and products to optimize customer value and stay relevant.