Upgrading the Team Operating System — Part 1
To enable the next generation workforce we need to think differently. Instead of iterating on new ways to engage and connect employees as if they are settings to be controlled, we need to poke a different box. We need to enable teams to succeed in a future where work is no longer defined by hierarchy and centralized control — but a world where autonomy, purpose, and belonging are distributed to the team-level, empowering a new generation of work that is aligned, engaged, and meaningful, by default.
The next era of highly successful organizations will be defined by those that embrace team-level autonomy as a guiding principle
Many great companies have already implemented models that embrace this concept. Spotify famously introduced their adaptation of the Agile methodology to fit the needs of their distributed engineering team culture. And more broadly, for anyone thinking about the future of work, I’d encourage you to pick up Aaron Dignan’s, “Brave New Work”. It’s a great prompt to pause, step back, and reflect on the very institutional norms that we take for granted every day. Spoiler Alert: these are the same norms that hold our teams back from doing their best work.
To implement this new model, it’s imperative to set the foundation for the team environment where every member understands their role, relationships, and purpose. Earlier we introduced the six pillars that define the next generation of great teams. The first three we’ll talk about are Team Structure, Team Identity, and Team Rituals.
Provide Structure and Context
Every team has an organizational structure, but it’s not always clear or obvious. Team Structure should be transparent, front and center, and always accessible. The context for a team member for how they fit into the team, their position and role, and the team’s hierarchy shouldn’t be obscure or left up to interpretation. And taking this a step further, when teams can map to more than just reporting structure, but to the actual work taking place, the added context provides connection to the bigger picture, reinforcing broader purpose and understanding.
In Spotify’s case, they broke structure down from squads into tribes, chapters, and guilds. It’s not important what a team calls these, but creating a structure that works for the reality of daily cross-functional work is critical. If you’re thinking “Isn’t that an org chart?”, ask yourself whether your company org chart helps you understand what your coworkers are actually working on. I bet it comes up short.
Nurture Team-Level Identity
Quick story on why Team Identity matters. I started my career 16 years ago at Boeing — think big, legacy, organizational engineering culture. Leaders would joke about the company as “the machine”, and regularly remind teams of the core values. But these weren’t our values — they were the machine’s. And one year the machine came up with a corporate initiative called “go for zero”. Not joking. To be fair, this was in reference to production line safety, and zero injuries is for sure a good thing. But once the phrase made its way to the engineering and marketing teams, team discussions and meetings would wrap up with the friendly reminder, “go for zero!”
This wasn’t the intention of course, but the playful misinterpretation was a direct symptom of a culture programmed for compliance. Leaders often fall into the trap of trying to enforce a single, unifying culture as a thing to be defined and handed to someone when they onboard. But culture is complex, which means it can’t simply be programmed and controlled — it’s not deterministic.
Still, it is important to define a team’s identity so members can better associate with and belong to it. This starts with a charter, hosted by the team members themselves, to define their purpose, how they work together, how they make decisions, what they value as a group of individuals, and ultimately curate a sense of belonging.
Whether the organization knows it or not, every team has its own micro-culture. And these micro-cultures are what attract and retain talent, maintain stability through change, and keep people showing up every day to do their best work. Let teams be a team, encourage self discovery, and when people unite around a purpose and identity that they can truly connect with, great things happen.
Embrace Team Rituals
Successful teams have operating rhythms, or what we call Team Rituals. These are the weekly routines that establish the localized culture and pulse. Rituals codify expectations, create structure, and enable the communication required to stay in sync. Things like 1:1’s and team syncs work best when teams are given the flexibility to establish the setup that works for them.
The important thing is for each team to have rituals that they follow — not that every team follows the same ones. We think of these as defaults (not standards). A team can continue on as they always have, but can also change the defaults as needed. The choice is up to the team.
When teams are intentional about the basics of being a great team, everyone benefits. The team itself becomes stronger, more aligned, and more empowered to tackle challenges and seize opportunities as they arise. Individual team members gain a greater sense of purpose and clarity on how their efforts connect to team objectives and values. And organizations, a collection of teams, each cultivating their own rhythms and rituals, can depend on resilient, high-performing, committed teams able to act effectively and autonomously.
Next up, we’ll unpack Feedback, Performance, and Autonomy.