Team 22 - Atlassian brings out Atlas to lighten the load of team co-ordination

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 6, 2022 Audio mode
New Atlassian products announced at Team 22 today share the common theme of connecting disparate tools and information sources. We drill into Atlas and its unique take on digital teamwork.

Atlas feed of projects you follow - Atlassian screenshot
Atlas feed of projects you follow (Atlassian screenshot)

At the opening of its Team '22 annual conference today, Atlassian launches four new products to co-ordinate and track teamwork across the enterprise. A common theme is to connect disparate tools and information sources, recognizing that different teams across most organizations are using their own tools of choice. As connected digital technology extends its reach, the number of applications businesses use, Atlassian points out, continues to grow — an average of 187 in organizations with more than 2,000 employees, according to Okta's Businesses at Work 2022 report, and 24% up on five years ago across organizations of all sizes. Asking everyone to shoehorn their work into fewer standardized applications is no longer an approach that makes sense, says Erika Trautman, Head of Product, Work Management for Atlassian:

We think that this idea of having one tool to rule them all is unrealistic, it's just not how work gets done. People are going to choose the right tool for the right thing ... Forcing everyone into a small set of tools isn't going to work. So that's why we really are focusing on working differently together.

In brief, the new products are:

  • Compass — a portal for developers to bring together information from the disparate tools and sources they work with. It provides a single reference point for all the components and documentation they use to assemble their software, as well as mapping the teams that own them and engage with them over time. It includes a DevOps health tool that lets them continuously measure and evaluate their architecture against baseline targets for operational, security and compliance requirements. The portal is extensible to bring in information across the various SaaS tools developers use, such as code, CI/CD, observability, incident management, APM, and security.
  • Atlas — a smart team directory designed to help people track what’s being worked on, why, who’s doing it, and how it’s all going, across all the different teamwork tools they use across the enterprise. The teamwork alignment tool is designed to be simple to use, and keeps communications succinct, limiting status updates to 280 characters. We dig further into this intriguing new tool below.
  • Atlassian Data Lake and Atlassian Analytics — these two new tools bring together data for analysis from across the Atlassian product suite and other sources. Initially, the data lake is connected to Jira Software and Jira Service Management data, with other Atlassian products due to be added later. A cloud-based visualization and analytics tool, based on technology from last year's acquisition of Chartio, provides out-of-the-box interactive dashboards and custom charts for analyzing work data held in the data lake and comparing it to other data sources. For example, a flow metrics dashboard provides end-to-end visibility into time to market, bottlenecks, blockers and team load across various workflows, or a custom report might map revenue growth against engineering output to visualize how new features impact growth goals.

Co-ordinating digital teamwork

Atlas deserves a more in-depth look. We've often written on diginomica about the need to co-ordinate digital teamwork across the enterprise, and recommend that organizations construct a collaborative canvas to connect the various tools they use, as a foundation for more productive, effective digital teamwork. One of our conclusions is that different types of work require different tools, and therefore it's unlikely that all those tools will come from a single source. Atlassian has come to the same conclusion, arguing that the instinct to consolidate on a set of standardized tools is a natural reaction, but wrong. Trautman explains:

What we've learned is that that instinct actually cuts your team off at the knees. Standardization solves some problems, but it introduces new ones, and bigger ones. When you force your teams to stop using the tools that let them be their best, most productive versions of themselves, what you wind up doing is taking your highest performing teams who are innovative, and taking away their secret sauce. So you need to be really careful when you feel that impulse [to consolidate] that you don't wind up with a very compliant, but decidedly average, workforce.

In contrast, Atlassian's argument is that teams work best when they have autonomy, and that the key to managing this successfully is transparency — ensuring that everyone has the contextual information they need to stay aligned. Trautman adds:

When you can empower people to be autonomous, you can really fuel great outcomes. To do that, though, you have to have strong alignments. And the stronger the alignment that you have in your org, the more autonomy you can afford to grant.

How Atlas aligns teamwork

Atlas aims to create that alignment, by communicating simple context and providing transparency about the teams people are in, what they're doing, how those tasks fit into broader goals, and what their current progress is. Its simple, focused approach distinguishes it from other work management tools or collaboration platforms that may claim to do the same. Atlassian describes it as a 'teamwork directory' and the label is carefully chosen. Its sole purpose is to map teamwork, and it coexists with and connects to all the various tools that still map and progress the work and the people doing it. The main components and features are as follows:

  • A homepage for each project, providing a summary of all the key context, including a short project description, team participants, linked projects and goals, and links to applications where the work is being tracked.
  • Goal definitions that projects can link to and provide context on how each project contributes to broader outcomes.
  • Participant profiles that show a snapshot of who each person is, what projects they work on, and their company role, integrated with identity sources such as Okta.
  • Team profiles, showing all the projects a team of participants is working on. Coming soon, there will also be topic pages where users can look up all the updates, projects, goals, knowledge and people related to a topic, such as marketing, finance or a product area.
  • Users can sign up to follow any project or goal for status updates. All status updates are tweet-sized, limited to 280 characters, but can include embedded videos, images and gifs.
  • A personalized weekly update for every user summarizes the status of projects and goals they follow, delivered to email, Slack or Teams. Any project and goal can also be connected to a Slack channel.
  • Smart Links connect projects to work in progress in a range of other teamwork tools, such Loom, Figma, Asana, Google Workspace, Docs, Sheets and Slides, and Atlassian's own Confluence, Jira Software and Trello. Smart Links can also embed views of Atlas projects and goals in any Confluence page, Jira issue, or Trello board, with epics inside Jira Software coming soon.

Driving adoption

The big challenge for a tool like Atlas is adoption — it's only really useful if lots of people are using it, so how do you get the initial wave of users to invest time in coming onboard? The key, says Trautman, is to start with the people who are already spending time giving status updates on the projects they're involved in. She explains:

The number of times you're asked to repackage a status update is a big tax for a lot of people who are accountable for disseminating information. So I think the people who are using Atlas to share information feel that benefit. What that winds up doing is pulling in others who are trying to seek out what's happening and why, either because a project is related to their project, or perhaps they want to find someone who's working on something similar to ask for advice. The more you start to get people who then are engaging with this platform for a number of different reasons, that creates stickiness.

Tammy Lam, Communications Lead for Work Management Products at Atlassian bears out Trautman's contention, based on her own experience of how the product has been used internally — it has been in beta for the past year. She recounts:

When I would ask somebody, 'Hey, what's the status on this project?' they would just send me an Atlas link. I looked at it, and I was like, 'Whoa, this has so much more information than I would have gotten from the one Slack ping from somebody. All of a sudden, I have the videos, I have all of the documents that are linked to it. I'm discovering all these other projects that are related to it that I didn't even know about that I should probably also be following.'

Then I actually went and created my own Atlas project so that I could do the same thing if somebody came and asked me, 'How are things going on the PR side for these products that I manage?'

Atlassian has also paid a lot of attention to making Atlas engaging for users, by giving status updates the feel of a social media post, and allowing people to create a curated feed of the projects and goals that matter to them. Trautman adds:

What you actually do wind up driving is a self-sustaining, organic system of alignment where people are self-organizing, and yet have visibility to the goals, who's doing what and why, how's it going, etcetera.

Co-ordinating around goals

The inclusion of goals is unusual in a tool that's designed for widespread use. This has a different purpose than the existing Atlassian product Jira Align, which tracks work across an organization to give an executive view of teamwork investments and ROI. Goals in Atlas help teams see how their work relates to broader business outcomes. Trautman explains:

The bigger an organization gets, the harder it is for individual teams to understand why what they're working on matters, and how it ties to the overall objective. Especially in the modern work environment, where we have longer work days — 9-5 is not so much a thing anymore, and people are very distributed — that connection to 'What am I doing?' and 'Why does it matter?' is harder to maintain. Projects that roll up to goals make it very easy for teams to see, 'Okay, I'm doing this because it ladders up to a company goal. And I can understand how what I'm working on contributes to that goal.'

Transparency around goals also gives teams and team members more insight into the context of their work, so that they can make more informed judgements about what they should prioritize. Trautman adds:

I think that visibility also enables greater autonomy. When teams just have this narrow sense of the project I'm working on, without a connection to the why, they're less able to adjust their work as data comes in. You can get the sort of myopic, 'Well, I'm supposed to do XYZ.' But why are you doing XYZ? If the why, if data changes that, then you need to know how to modify your project.

So while Jira Align is really about rolling up for the executive, your entire team needs to understand projects and goals and how they relate to what the company is trying to achieve.

Who's doing what

The teamwork directory function is designed to map who's doing what in the cross-functional teams that are typical of today's distributed teamwork patterns, rather than the hierarchical company directories of old. Trautman elaborates:

Legacy directories are great for mapping org structures ... But that doesn't tell you who's actually working on what, because almost always, teams that get stuff done are across departments, they're across different job functions. They're much more organic looking than this top-down org chart ... These projects are often cross-department and cross-functional. You've got design, marketing, engineering, product sales, all working on a given project.

This provides a resource for finding out project status or who's working on what without having to interrupt people's work. The asynchronous nature of information look-up in Atlas is one of the core benefits. Trautman elaborates:

Maybe there's a project, you want to know how it's going, normally you ping them or email them, interrupt their flow. In this case, you can go check the project, get an update, you don't have to go bother them. Or you are looking for expertise and you want to engage with them.

As someone who joined Atlassian only a few months ago from a previous role at Google, Trautman has personally experienced the advantages of this asynchronous contact in a distributed work environment, where it wasn't possible to just walk up to people in the office and ask for help. She says:

The last company I onboarded was Google, and it was in person. I just went and bothered my boss face-to-face for all the information, which was harder to do. Atlas made it much easier — 'Oh, these people are connected. And I understand how and I see there's a dependency here' — and was actually really useful.

My take

Atlas is an innovative answer to the issue of how to co-ordinate work across distributed teams in the digital enterprise, and potentially a key component in the connective tissue of the collaborative canvas. Many of the products out there that allow you to signal project status to colleagues are far too complex, and require you to bring your work into the product itself. What Atlassian has done, characteristically, is to actually look at how teams work and build an intuitive, viral product that helps them work better. The reaction from early adopting customers has been very positive, and I'm tempted to give it a try myself. This could be a real step forward in how to co-ordinate digital teamwork across the enterprise.

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