Casumo talks: The pains of autonomy and why we love it

In 2012 we set out to create a great gaming experience. Quickly we understood that it was not only about creating the product, but also about designing the environment in which the product is created. The history of Casumo can be told in many ways. In this talk, we’re focusing on how the growth and number of talent has influenced how we need to deal with autonomy. Our agile coach Jimmy Janlén shares the story of how Casumo went from a small startup in Sweden to an agile organization of 300 employees across 4 offices and remotely, and how it’s shaped the overall working structure.

Transforming into agile

Transformation into agile can happen in different ways depending on the starting point, and the end result will look totally different. There is the traditional, top-down hierarchical structured organisations who decide to adapt to agile, and then there is the flat, startup organisations who adapt to agile principles to get shit done and gain focus. The end result looks totally different, and in this talk we are focusing on the latter. We’ve sliced it up into three phases: The startup phase, the Mission phase, and the Cluster version of our organisation. That’s where we’re at today, and a lot of things has happened during the last year.

Great people will do great things when being trusted to be great

First, let’s get a common understanding of what we mean when we’re talking about autonomous teams. Autonomy does not mean “do whatever you want”. Working in an autonomous team means that you are feeling free to act, with all your capabilities, to contribute towards a collective outcome. You think, decide, and plan together as a team, within your boundaries. You work and learn together. You choose how to conduct work, how to improve, and you are part of shaping your destiny. We always remember that the intent of others are innately good –  if you’re hired, it means you’re awesome and trusted. There are a couple of core beliefs that are guiding us in everything we do, and we believe that hiveminds towards a common goal are unbeatable. Values comes first, then process and structure, and our job as an organization is to nurture our people’s inner drive and motivation. There is more to it of course, but these are a few of the things we value the most.

We’re living in a VUCA world

Sometimes you see really strong allergic reactions in people. Change without context, nay-sayers without good reasons, acts of command and control, not wanting to collaborate or simply being a douchebag. Words like “processes”, “authority” and “manager” are gonna make people cringe. These things together kind of constitutes the mindset, and this mindset is important for the success of Casumo. The reason for that is partly the fact that we are living in a VUCA world:

Vulnerable

The environment demands us to react quickly to unexpected changes that are out of our control

Uncertain

We are required to take action without certainty

Complex

The environment is dynamic with unclear cause-effect relationships

Ambiguous 
The environment has unknown unknowns forcing us to accept that we’re most likely failing to understand what is ”real” and ”true”.

This is very much true for Casumo and the business we’re in. There are tons of fierce competition and new regulations and policies constantly that we need to adapt to. We’re dealing with ever changing technology, and the fact that we’ve grown from 200 to 300 employees in a very short time adds complexity as well.

The startup phase

When we started up as a small tight team years ago, it was easy to rally around on a common goal. There was a big sense of urgency, an exhilarating and energizing time with many sleepless nights.  The lack of structure was great as it allowed for freedom to figure out where and how you can contribute the most. Structure could emerge (and be dissolved) when needed and people worked on what they were passionate about. However, when 5 people became 30, it became stressful and chaotic, with too many people working on the same thing. At this point, total flatness and  autonomy did not scale anymore.

The Mission phase

So in 2014 we introduced the mission phase,  where we had people gathering around missions. You can think of a mission as “an idea we should run after” or “a thing that we should create or do”. Some of the teams had mission facilitators, helping the people working in the missions to move forward. Think of them as product owners, facilitators, or a combination of both.  It worked great in the beginning, and it solved the immediate problems. However, over three years time, we went from 2 missions to 33 missions and 220 people. These 220 people were depending on 5 circle leaders to give feedback and the yearly salary review. Again, this total flatness rallying around missions didn’t work. Had we brought autonomy too far again? Lack of structure lead to never ending discussions due to lack of decision making principles, several competing hidden hiercies of informal leaders occurred, a lack of purpose, ownership and an overall feeling that  “it’s always up to me” became depressing for people. There were no common rules of the game – to get things done you needed connections. This kind of chaotic environment made it impossible to get a sense of progress and capacity. We were all just assuming things were being worked on when in reality no one was taking care of it. Eventually, the pains outwaved the benefits. So in the beginning of 2018, “Clusters” were considered, designed and rolled out.

The Cluster phase

A Cluster is  a collection of teams. Now, everyone belongs to a team with a clearer team boundary, and they have a supporting structure of a Cluster.  The overall feeling today when talking to people is the feeling of finally being back in the driving seat. The ease of decision making is far greater, people have regained a sense of purpose and belonging, we’re shipping like crazy and we feel there is a shared understanding of where we’re going. Gathering people in teams is a great way of mobilizing brain power, get faster and better decisions, continuous learning and adaptation, more innovation, clear ownership and responsibility, higher quality, productivity and efficiency, autonomy, motivation and satisfaction. To mention a few things. Of course, this is a work in progress and asimplification of reality. Some Clusters have made more progress than others, and depending on who you’re asking the answers will vary as there are always different perspectives.

Casumo Pulse – strategic alignment across all teams

Our company believes are manifested in something that we refer to as Company Bets. These are large scale efforts that we need to help us build and ship together as a company. The Company Bets requires the attention, collaboration and effort from every Cluster, and they trickle down to actual work and a roadmap four times a year when the quarterly OKR (objectives and key results) season is on. The objectives describe what we should focus on, whereas the key results are smart, measurable goals. Within the current OKR:s, teams have the autonomy to figure out what to do and how to solve it.  Once the OKR:s are set derived on company bets, there is a final cross Cluster alignment to make sure we’re not creating bottlenecks and dependencies we don’t want to. We call this process Casumo Pulse, and in short, this is how we create an overview and strategic alignment across all the teams.

Decentralizing authority and information

Transparency and communication is vital for us. Decentralising control means decentralizing both authority to make decisions, and the information to make them correctly. Big news and vision is shared to help everyone connect to the bigger picture through our yearly company wide conference and our monthly breakfasts, and we have tons of communication happening daily through Github, Slack, company blog, newsletters and more. We’re training leaders in supporting their teams through active servant leadership, which includes facilitating, coaching, mentoring, teaching, feedbacking and providing  tools for decision making. To be sure our new joiners are set up for success in this challenging environment, we run a company wide onboarding programme every month. Because autonomy doesn’t come for free, we do experience many challenges every day. How can we make cross Cluster alignment smoother? How can we grow a culture that is even stronger to excel in a VUCA world? How can we give comfort and confidence in constant change, evolution in our ways of working and nurture and protect autonomy while scaling even more? These are some major challenges that comes with an autonomous structure, and something we’re working on everyday. But, despite the pains that comes with autonomy, we do love it. Why?  Because it makes us reactable, helps us attract the best talent and creates room for creativity and happiness.

 

Watch the full talk here  (disclaimer: the sound quality is not the best but also not the worst.)

Jimmy Janlén is a renowned Agile expert and teacher, most famous for his contribution to the current Spotify model that has been adapted by a number of leading tech companies.