Key practice: Aligned, autonomous cross-disciplinary teams.

Jason Yip
4 min readApr 27, 2023


Key practice in effective product development culture.

Effective product development teams have clear missions that are aligned with a broader overall product strategy. They are expected to act autonomously and empowered with the capability and support to do so. This typically requires the teams to be cross-disciplinary.

Autonomy is about enabling teams to decide and act more quickly.

Teams that need to constantly ask for direction and permission, are slower.

1. Something happens; 2. Send info to decision-maker; 3. Make decision; 4. Send decision back to front-line; 5. Act
Low autonomy teams are slow.

Teams that have all the information, skills, tools, and authority they need, decide and act more quickly.

1. Something happens; 2. Make decision; 3. Act
High autonomy teams are faster

Autonomy means the team is not just taking orders.

Autonomous teams are expected to not just be order-takers.

L. David Marquet has a concept called the Ladder of Leadership. Effective product development teams operate at the top of this ladder. Not “tell us what to do” but “this is what we’ve been doing”.

Team version of L. David Marquet’s ladder of leadership. Arrow pointing to the top of the ladder “We’ve been doing” and saying “Autonomous teams operate here”.
Autonomous teams operate at the top of the ladder of leadership

“Serve the customers to support the organisation” over “serve the organisation”.

“In most companies, technology teams exist “to serve the business.” That is very often the literal phrase you will hear. But even if they aren’t explicit about it, the different parts of the business end up driving what is actually built by the technology teams.

However, in contrast, in strong product organizations, teams exist for a very different purpose. They exist “to serve the customers, in ways that meet the needs of the business.””

Empowered Product Teams, Marty Cagan

Autonomous teams are trusted by the organisation to “serve the customers to support the organisation” rather than just “serve the organisation”. There is an expectation of judgement by the team. This is another way of saying they are expected to not just be order takers.

Autonomy contributes to intrinsic motivation.

According to Self Determination Theory, there are 3 main factors contributing to intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Competence

Teams feel autonomous and are intrinsically motivated when the following exists:

  • They feel like their perspective has been considered;
  • They are offered meaningful choice;
  • They are provided relevant information;
  • They are given rationale;
  • Their feelings are acknowledged;
  • Controlling language or attitudes are not used.

Aligned autonomy, not “do whatever you feel like”.

For effective product development, the autonomy we want is not “do whatever you feel like” but more an autonomy that enables teams to be free to act, using all of their capabilities to progress toward a collective outcome. This is also known as “aligned autonomy”.

2x2 matrix show low vs high alignment and low vs high autonomy. Aligned Autonomy is high alignment and high autonomy.
Aligned autonomy 2x2 by Henrik Kniberg from Spotify Engineering Culture Part 1

NOTE: The “aligned autonomy” concept is originally from The Art of Action

The mission defines what skills and roles are needed.

The skills and roles that are needed on a team are defined by the problem the team is intended to solve, AKA the team’s mission.

You may notice that there are similarities across what missions need and therefore there might be a default team make-up that works most of the time BUT you should never forget that the mission defines the skills and roles needed.

As an example, there are noticeable differences in the skills, roles, and activities that are relevant at different stages of a product life cycle: developing new markets, growing market share, exploiting a mature product, managing a product in decline.

See BAPO or Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners.

As another example, there are noticeable differences in the skills, roles, and activities that are relevant for Stream Aligned vs Enabling vs Complicated Subsystem vs Platform teams.

Having whatever skills needed to accomplish the mission generally means cross-disciplinary teams.

If the team needs every skill needed to acomplish the mission, this generally means the team will be cross-disciplinary. Typically, this means Tech, Product, Design, Insights but will vary depending on the specific mission.

Autonomy sometimes means taking the initiative to coordinate with other teams.

Although it’s better when most of the work can be done autonomously by a single team, sometimes it’s necessary for teams to take the initiative to coordinate with other teams to align to broader strategy. This typically happens when there are specialist skills that are uncommon and not always needed and/or with more complicated, larger bets.

Also known as:

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Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl