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Did Atlassian just crack the code on digital teamwork?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 1, 2016
Effective collaboration is foundation for digital transformation but where's the playbook for digital teamwork? Atlassian just moved us closer to finding it

Atlassian team healthcheck
As digital technologies allow us to become increasingly connected in our work, effective teamwork becomes more and more important. But as I've written in the past, these emergent patterns of digitally enabled collaboration require skills and structures that don't exist in many enterprises. There's been no definitive playbook for digital teamwork — at least, not until now.

Last month, Atlassian, which provides tools to help developers manage software projects, launched the latest iteration of its Team Playbook. This is an online, free-to-use guide developed internally by Atlassian over the past few years, which teams use to overcome barriers to success and to improve performance. The crucial new ingredient is the open-sourcing of the Team Health Monitor, a diagnostic tool that teams can use to identify strengths and weaknesses, which they can then work on using the Team Playbook.

These tools have a ton of credibility for three reasons — Atlassian is a collaboration software vendor, it specializes in agile development and devops, and it's a young business that has grown up digital. That pedigree helps make its health monitor and playbook a major step forward in defining successful patterns for digital teamwork that all enterprise teams can learn from — especially in organizations that aspire to the ideal of frictionless enterprise. In reverse order, let me explain why I believe these three attributes are so significant.

1. Built for a network enterprise

One of the emerging themes as enterprises become more digital is the search for a flatter organization — where the word 'flatter' is used in contrast to the multi-layered hierarchical organization of old. More access to automation and more immediate communication channels makes it possible to compress layers of management. The problem with calling this flat is that we're still visualizing a hierarchical or matrix organization chart, albeit with fewer management layers — whereas really we should be thinking of the enterprise as a network, with no layers at all, just connections.

A network enterprise is slightly different from other non-hierarchical models such as holacracy, which has been adopted by some digital enterprises. Zappos is probably the best known practitioner of holacracy; another is Medium, which decided earlier this year that making holacracy work was too much work.

In a network enterprise, work is divided between several different types of atomic teams that contract with each other to deliver outcomes. Atlassian's 2,000 staff are split into around 400 teams, its head of research and development Dom Price told me last week when we met at HR Tech World Congress in Paris. Speaking at the same event, business author Professor Gary Hamel cited the example of Chinese electrical goods maker Haier, which has divided its 60,000 workforce into 4,000 micro-enterprises of 15-20 people.

Both Haier and Atlassian — independently of each other — have identified three core types of team that collectively make this network model work as a cohesive whole. In his blog post introducing the health monitor last month, Price describes them as:

  • Leadership teams — influencers and decision-makers who work on the longer-term vision and high-level initiatives. While you might not be executing day-to-day projects, you lead the people who are.
  • Project teams — act on the mission to deliver awesome work to their customers, such as shipping new product features, delivering tactical projects or even launching a new service.
  • Service teams — whether technical or non-technical, are about high-volume and quality response. Your work is queue-based and you’re likely working toward daily or weekly quotas.

Service teams are typically where you'll find back-office functions such as HR, IT and finance. The connected digital infrastructure is a crucial factor in making their resource available where and when it's needed, rather than being cordoned off in the functional silos of the traditional hierarchical or matrix model. In Haier's case, teams aren't obliged to contract for services internally, so these functions have to make sure what they offer is competitive with third-party alternatives.

Empowering these teams to give them and their constituents autonomy is a crucial factor in the success of the model, as Price explained on stage at last week's event in conversation with enterprise collaboration guru (and occasional diginomica contributor) Euan Semple.

We decided to create a playbook that essentially takes out managers. It says that the team own their destiny, the team is autonomous, the team is empowered, and how can we give them the right tools and exercises to work autonomously ...

I think the role of managers is still important. I just don't think it's a singular person that sits behind a mahogany desk and says, 'Thou shalt.' I think it's something that we should all be doing. What I think about managers, really, is we should all be leaders not managers.

2. Agile/devops pedigree

Atlassian gets a head start on innovating this organizational model because it's a modern software company that is at the center of the move towards agile development and devops-inspired continuous deployment. This is an environment in which atomic, cross-functional teams have become the norm, and participants are investing huge amounts of energy and brainpower into making these models work.

The classic definition of how to organize a digital development team is the 2012 white paper Scaling Agile @ Spotify with Tribes, Squads, Chapters & Guilds (PDF) by Henrik Kniberg and Anders Ivarsson. Any modern digital business has its developers working as a network of autonomous teams, each responsible for the health of a specific part of the operational or software infrastructure.

Atlassian's team playbook has been forged in that environment, but it's applicable in any modern enterprise that wants to remain agile and responsive to its customers and its competitive environment. Whatever technology foundation the development or IT team is building is merely an enabler for the ongoing transformation of the enterprise itself. The ultimate aim is to make transformation a continuous process — as it always has been at Atlassian, says Price:

In my four years at Atlassian, and in our 14 years of existence, we've never had a transformation program and we've never had a transformation team — because we've never been so slow that we've needed to 'transform'.

3. A collaboration focus

Of course Atlassian wants to position itself as an expert on enterprise collaboration as that will drive traffic to its website and ultimately raise awareness of its products — Confluence, Jira, HipChat and the rest. But it also means it has a vested interest in making sure that its customers are successful with its tools. That mission helps drive the effectiveness of its library of online guides to better collaboration.

One of its findings is that enterprises can undermine the effectiveness of the tools Atlassian sells them by perpetuating a culture that goes against the collaborative grain of the tools themselves. As Price explains:

I think about the workplace — work, technology and people — if those three things aren't congruent, that's when organizations get really confusing. When you have a collaboration tool that says, let's share, collaborate, comment and innovate, when you have work practices that punish that, you're not going to get that result ...

I think the tools enable an awful lot, but without those practices to complement, across the whole spectrum, I think it can get very confusing.

My take

For any organization struggling to make better use of digital collaboration tools, the Atlassian Team Playbook is an invaluable source of best practice guidance for enterprise teams, whatever vendor's tools they use. And many organizations do struggle, because there's a tendency to implement the technology and then hope that people will just start using it without any further guidance.

The trouble with that approach is that tools in themselves have no value if the people don't know how to make use of them. Price tells me that at Atlassian's recent user conference, a newly introduced session track on 'team and culture' proved hugely popular — an acknowledgement that even the company's most avid fans of its products are still eager for advice and learning on how to use them well.

But unless you're coming to this from an organization that has already adopted at least some of these working practices, there's a lot to digest here. A conventional enterprise has to unlearn many deeply ingrained behaviors before it can successfully embrace all of the guidance in the Team Playbook.

Examples do exist, especially in the case of new software development projects, where this kind of teamwork can be successfully implanted into an enterprise and then begin to spread outwards. We also see cases where adoption of cloud applications, in particular Salesforce and Google Apps, leads to business teams starting to work in more agile, digitally connected ways.

There's a lot of potential therefore to use the Team Playbook to reinforce successful working patterns in these pockets of change within an enterprise. That will work best where there's top-down support for what these teams are achieving, but being able to demonstrate results sends a powerful message even when that 'air cover' from enterprise leaders doesn't exist.

There's no doubt in my mind that better collaboration and teamwork is a prerequisite for success in any digital transformation project and is one of the foundations of frictionless enterprise. The success patterns for these new ways of working are still evolving, but it feels like a significant milestone on that journey has been reached with the availability of the Team Playbook as a shared resource.

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