Autonomy vs Alignment, With Jean-Michel Lemieux‍

Ben Smit
May 4, 2022

What if I told you that, when it comes to teams, alignment is more important than autonomy?

I invited Jean-Michel,  former CTO and VP of Engineering at Shopify and Atlassian, to an exclusive interview to learn more about the relationship between alignment and autonomy, and why this is important in all teams.

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Autonomy vs Alignment Full Interview

Autonomy vs Alignment Transcript

Ben Smit

Hello, everyone, and welcome to today's session. For those of you who don't know, my name is Ben Smith. I am the CEO and co-founder here at Teamgage. And today, we're very fortunate to have a special guest with us by the name of Jean-Michel Lemieux.

Jean-Michel has worked in tech for 27 years building software, and then building teams and companies. His soft is a software developer by background and has built and led teams of one to 3000 people.

He was a founding member in the Eclipse platform and open-source team. And then lead engineering at org at Atlassian. And Shopify, Jean-Michel is currently writing and building from the right side a book to help increase technical leadership, creativity and confidence.

Welcome, Jean-Michel.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

It's great to hear be here, Ben, thanks for having me.

Ben Smit

Not a problem at all. So just as a way of an intro for the audience, the way we actually connected was something you'd written on Twitter, in the process of kind of writing your, your current book, and it was around this idea of autonomy versus alignment. And it was one of those moments that, you know, at least for me, it was it was a bit of an eye-opening moment where it's everything you wrote made complete sense.

But up until this point, you know, it took someone like you to write it in such an elegant way for the pieces of the puzzle to fit in. And I guess to summarise what you were talking about, there was really this idea that we've been told, you know, hire great people and just get out of their way. And that's sort of the conventional wisdom of how to build great teams. But really, without that alignment piece, you've got, you know, everyone in that team, they're just pulling in different directions. So this idea that alignment is a critical piece of that puzzle. And, and getting the balance right, was something that resonated with us, and I'm sure with the audience, but maybe you could start off by telling us a little bit about the book that you're writing and the unusual way that you're doing it, and then how this alignment and autonomy piece fits in with that.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Yeah, well, I guess thanks to the internet, we met randomly, which seems to be happening more and more these days, which is meeting cool people on the internet. So I guess that's how I met you, which is, which is cool.

And I think that the backstory or the backstory to that is, you know, I'm a software developer by trade and, you know, realise, you know, halfway through my career that, you know, writing software is hard and challenging. building teams and companies is more challenging. So I, you know, I went on a mission to how can I do both, and, you know, over the years realise that I have zero training in the building companies and teams part and I, you know, I spent all this time and we all did, you know, learning some professional of some sort, which included such a small part of, of actually the hard part of working with people and, and mixing your whatever your craft is technology with, with people.

This is gonna say autonomy is like the magic word. Right? How many times have we heard people go? Just, you know, bottoms up team and let people be creative, right? Isn't that like the fad? Jewel? Right? Yeah, 100%. Yeah. Right. And if you ever, like dis autonomy, you will be burned at the stake. Like, you'll be like, what are you talking about, like autonomy is the thing.

And if you, you know, you've probably all heard about Daniel Pink, who wrote the book called Drive, in which there's a whole section on Atlassian in that book, and he talks about mastery, purpose and autonomy, like the golden three and autonomy, again, is there. And I think over my career was interesting is, is I realised that autonomy came really naturally to me, you know, and then and then, but then all the feedback I was getting from my bosses, was about Jamie, like, Michel, you're really autonomous.

But, you know, I think you've got to align with me a bit more like they talked about communication. And at some point, I was like, I had this realisation that one is they were they were completely correct. It was, it was mostly my problem. But I almost felt like I was fulfilling everything that I've been taught. And then, you know, I, I kind of sat there for a while and over the years realise that the reason why autonomy is so sacred, is we're trained to be autonomous for our entire lives. Like, think about, like, when you go to school, when we've all gone to school, at some point, we're like giving homework, we're like, you're not allowed to cheat, you got to do it yourself.

Yeah, right. Your parents are like, I can't wait to leave the house. And your autonomy is like autonomy is possibly one of like, the Western, at least the western values that are that that's entrenched in us, and we never talked about it. And then we have all these scientists that go study humans, and they know what humans really like autonomy. And I'm like, No shit. We've been trained to be autonomous beings for entire lives. And then you're asking humans what they like, and they go autonomy. And then I go build companies. And I'm like, you know what, before autonomy happens, we're gonna have to, we're gonna have to, like mind, meld our minds together and figure out what we're doing.

So it's amazing. I think that was the realisation for me. It's actually the hardest thing about building companies is actually alignment, which is deciding what are you going to do? How are you going to do it? And then how do you adjust that in real time? Because what we're doing is really hard. And once you have once you have alignment as a foundation, because one is we've never practised it. So how do you like we're actually really suck at it, because we never practice. Remember, I told you, we spent our whole-time practising autonomy. So we never practice, it's what we need. And it's what I had to learn to do the most in, you know, in the two companies that I built almost from the ground up was alignment was the hardest thing for us to get. And autonomy came naturally. And we always spent so much time.

So I think that that's the background around, you know, what I'm trying to explain that story about alignment. And also, I mean, a whole other discussion around, people don't know what to align on. So I think that that's why that that that chapter came to me it was, I think, possibly one of the most overlooked things that people are ignoring, I guess, when they're building companies, and a lot of it is environmental and around us people have been pointing at autonomy, and we should be looking in alignment.

Ben Smit

Yeah, it's amazing that even the example you gave there of the education piece, you know, it's a wonder why then you get together and do a group project in university. And that seems to be the absolute worst experience you can have. As I try and get people working together, it's, it doesn't come naturally.

So look, I think there's yeah, there's obviously a really deep topic that we could talk about forever. But let's talk a little bit about the balance between autonomy and alignment, then because I think, you know, some people were being autonomous as a badge of honour, and I think you even refer to that in in chapter. And then this idea of, you know, what we align on.

So, you know, the conventional wisdom has always been well, we just get synched up on the y, and then, you know, let everyone be autonomous on the how, but that's, that's something that you've seen a little bit differently as well.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Yeah. And I think that's, that's kind of the follow up. So once you recognise that, you need high alignment, before you're allowed to have autonomy, then the next question is, what does high alignment even look like? You know, and I think it's fascinating because alignment can't be measured, it can only be discovered. And I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is they align too superficially. And in some ways, you can think of alignment, like a synonym of alignment is strategy, you know, and I'm like, hey, what's our strategy? Like, let's decide what that is. And to give you maybe an example of how, how broad people can interpret what strategy and alignment looks like.

I'll give you a simple example. Right? So imagine, our mission is to sail a sailboat from Portugal to the Caribbean or North America, whatever, right? And so one part one CEO of that sailing trips, vision of alignment is the following our strategy and alignment is listen, our vision is I want to sail across the ocean, I want to have fun. And I want to do it fast. Who's on board? Let's go. Right? Yeah, that's and that's literally, that's all I have to tell my team. And I'm out of here. And let me know when you show up, right? Like, they're like, I've got high alignment, everyone's high fiving each other. We're like, if you give me an engagement survey, I'm going high, highly, highly aligned.

And there's another CEO is going to go have a different conversation with their team, and they're gonna go listen, you know, we do want we want to sail across the ocean. Absolutely. But let's talk about how we're going to do that. Because there's a lot of options, you know, and I think, you know, like, when are we going to leave? What kind of boat? Do we want a big boat, a small boat? How many people on it? What kind of sail do they do? How fast you want to go? Like, do we want to make a stop? Like, there's just a lot of conversations? And then once you realise, and you start asking yourself questions about some of the house and not just the why but the how, what you realise is some really important decisions there.

That when you dig into them, you realise they're fundamentally you're going to change how you're going to do something. They're fundamentally like, you know, if you take a catamaran, or I'm going to row across like, that's, you have a different purpose. And I think that that conversation about the how ends up helping you discover what kind what things you have to be aligned on. And most of the leadership teams, most of the teams that I work with, feel that it's a taboo to talk about the how they feel that's, I'm not supposed to, I'm supposed to let my team do that.

But just like sailing, we can discuss the how, but I don't have to go on the trip with you. Right? Yeah, I can let you go sail. But you know, what, as, as partners, and as working on the same team, I think there's some very important decisions that can make or break your sailing trip, that would change how much things you're going to cost, like etc. Like, let's have that conversation, I think what I was trying to get at with the, you know, maybe a bit of the sensationalism I put around alignment being important and shining a light is going is not having those alignment conversations are actually getting in the way of the speed that you have on your team of your team actually making good decisions. Because at the end of the day, as a leader, your job is to maximise good decision making. And if you're not kind of working on those things together, and I think you're gonna make bad decisions.

So in that sailing example, there's, you know, two examples of different kinds of alignment. And I think society as a whole, and most business books tell you, like, let your team do the house, like get out of their way. And I think my, my ask of leaders is, there's a way to engage with your teams, get them in, on the house, so that you can develop some understanding of what alignment is. Because what happens is, is the teams go off, and then the bosses or the CEOs are like, that's not what I told you to do. Yeah, I'm like, well, shame on you for not having the conversations in the first place. Like don't blame your team.

And again, people are afraid of having those chats of being labelled as a micromanager, when what they actually have to do is let the team go on the trip. But it's okay to have those conversations. And it's okay to have them deeply. Because that's where again, you're going to discover some lack of alignment, and you're actually going to finesse what you actually care about. And as you work through that process, so I think that's, so if anything, go deep on alignment, and then that gives you permission to have autonomy.

And I talked about, you know, highly aligned continually on the why, and the how, and then autonomous on the implementation would Yeah, you know, let your, let your leaders go, go do it. But get, you know, don't, don't be afraid of some of the hard, deep conversations in the how it's gonna save you down the road, when some surprises come up, etc. And you're going to learn how your team thinks, you know, you're going to learn about, hey, we have three options here, which like, what let's discuss which one is best. And I think you get to learn a lot about how people think and, and, you know, we're, all our companies work in a very complex environment. And I think understanding how your leaders see that complex environment, helps you understand, you know, how to help them and maybe what biases they're bringing into every decision you're not in the room with. So anyway, that's maybe a long story short about how superficially aligning is almost as bad as not aligning. Now,

Ben Smit

I think a lot of what you just said there is actually shining a light on major issues that leaders all over the world are having. And maybe it's actually this, you know, this this idea of, oh, I can't get involved in the how that's causing some of this. I mean, you think about a lot of what you said there around alignment is really thinking about context, you know, something that that senior leaders in particular struggle with is context of their direction setting so they can say, Look, you know, this is the experience that we want the customer to have, and at a high level that makes sense, but if you don't have the context of what the interaction with the customer actually looks like you don't have the how of that information? How can you possibly set a good direction? So I think that's, that's something that that, you know, things just keep falling out of this idea as we go through them.

The other the other thing that struck me is, in this idea that almost no decision is, you know, wholly wrapped up in its own unique context, right? Every decision into connects with other decisions and other designs and other processes. So this idea of, you know, get together, get alignment on the why, and the how, and then, you know, almost what I heard you say, there is like, then there's no surprises down the track, we don't sort of pop up the other end and go, Oh, well, such and such did this, and this other team has gone in this direction. And, you know, how did that happen? Well, is because you didn't really understand the alignment in the first place.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Yeah, and I'd say a lot of teams, as you're right, like, are afraid of the mess of the problems that we're in, right. Like, we're, you know, you build a company, or like, I want a team A is gonna do this team B's gonna do this team C's gonna do this, and they're gonna be in the swim lane, and everything's, you know, everything's gonna be fine.

As long as they, you know, they do what they said they're going to do, but, like, the worlds way messier than that, right? So in some way, alignment is a forcing conversation between, you know, these teams or groups, where we're kind of all working in the same kind of problem area. And, and, and, like, understanding where those boundaries are understanding where the gaps are, is, I think, like, a big job of leadership.

You know, and, and I think that's, again, there's a taboo of not getting involved. But as you said, understanding where the dependencies are, what the overlap is, and actually just having those chats and building a culture of having them being okay. And I think that's where you go fast, right? A lot of times in the lamb alignment chats, I'd have we eliminate work, like, like, and that's something that actually I forgot to mention in the book. But you know, if you want to go fast, often, the best way to do that is removes things.

But humans hate removing, it's harder, right? Like, try removing a meeting from your calendar, like, I can't remove things, but you can add stuff all the time. So yeah, like all of our teams are adding stuff all the time. And it's really hard to remove things. And I think alignment forces us to really focus. And what I've seen teams is they realise, man, I really might not have to do that, right. So you get a lot of velocity by really focusing. And I think making decisions to remove things is a risky thing. And when you do it kind of as a team, and I do that a lot with my teams, you can normalise, you know, removing things to focus, but it removes something you kind of you have to understand, you know, second order effects, that kind of, as you mentioned, right in this messy world, things are complex, you have to understand kind of second order effects, and then like what the impact is, and then and then move on from that.

So, as you said, I think that's really important to kind of build-up and build a culture of doing that all the time, you know, that it's syncing? You know, it's not like you align and you're done. I think what they say is, the minute you've had a meeting about alignment, and you're out of that meeting, you're misaligned again. So again, building a culture of doing that often is important.

Ben Smit

Yeah, I think that what you've just said there resonates really strongly as well, as you know, obviously, we're all unique. And we'll soon as we leave that meeting, we're going to have our own interpretation of what happens next, or the next problem that crops up.

So let's talk a little bit about then this idea of the autonomy complex, because I know that there will be team members who if their team leader just walks in and says, hey, guys, you know, I've heard this amazing talk by Jean-Michel. And I think, you know, we've got to get aligned. And you know that we, as you said, we naturally are sort of educated that autonomy is this holy grail, I think some people will tie autonomy to their self-worth. And then I think that on the flip side, there will be team leaders who will take this the wrong way and assume that this means they can literally go in and micromanage.

So tell us a little bit about how you would implement this idea into the culture of a team in a way that everyone kind of understands, you know, what the balance is and why it's important.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Yeah, it's, I mean, you're on a good point, which is it's a bit of a we're kind of living on the edge of the knife, right? Where, where you can be very bad at alignment, you can completely over align, or you can completely micromanage. And that's, that's why it's hard to do it right. I'd say there's a couple of questions that I think teams should be asking themselves continuously.

And I think these questions help not measure but discover alignment. And I'd say for team leads instead of, you know, again, like your job is not to do your team's work, right. But your job is to is to ask the right questions. So here's I actually just wrote a couple down because I again, I hadn't.

So question number one for a team is like, where are we going and why? You know, and you know, just the Do you guys know that right and have again, like, has something written down? Do you have new team members who know this right? What other directions could we be taking? And how would we know? Right? So this is okay, here's what we're going like what? You know, and directions going? What are the first five steps that we should be taking? Right? Get the team together? What are they? What other options do we have? Right?

So I think this is a lot like a lot of this is brainstorming around credit trying to, like solve this complex problem. So again, where we're going and why what are the directions we take? Should we be eliminating any of them? And then the questions are, how do we get there? Right? What's known, okay, let's move fast, like, what are we really sure of? Okay, let's go like, that's where we get autonomy. We're sure about that. But let's just go build it right, then it's like, you know, what, what do we not know that we should move more slowly about who's going to go help us discover something new and come back and help us kind of shine a light on this? And then the next one is, are we looking far enough ahead? Or not? Right? So those, for me, those are like the alignment discovery questions that I think the team should be like, and ask themselves, I think if you use that as a basis of where of, of those discussions and also I mean, the other one is like, how do we know if we're moving in the right direction?

Like these are like, give us a demo of what's happening? How do we see this and that, like? So progress is the fuel of a team as well. So I think that's for me, though, that's what alignment conversations are. It's not, hey, can I see what you're building? I want to do it for you, or it's not a where things at right. It's, it's a lot around? How do we know what we're doing is good? How do we know that we've explored it enough?

And how do we know we're making progress towards that, as a team, you know, and I think if you if you stick to that, I think that you can have autonomy in that because when you have like, let's say you have this discussion, once a week, for an hour, there's just one hour a week with those questions. And then you're going to come up with a bunch of unknowns, you need to give that to a couple people who go to explore and come back next week, you're gonna, there's a couple of things gonna be extremely well defined. You go and you build, and you come back. Right?

And then and then you refine that process, you know. And I think the other tip that I have, is, there's some managers and some leaders who are who micromanage because they don't have those conversations, and they are micromanaging at the wrong level. They're like, when's that gonna be done? Is it done? Is it good? What's right, because they haven't had they, they don't know how to have these, these strategic conversation with their team.

And then they manage in JIRA, or they manage at the issue, or they, you know, manage at midnight on a Tuesday panicking, right. And I think, you know, I always think in every manager, if you have that one hour a week with your team brainstorming, and your boss asks you about something, you don't have to bug your team, because you know, what, you kind of know what's going, you know, directionality, and that's usually what matters.

And again, autonomy. You know, I think there's also too much alignment that can happen, which is, if you're having six hours, a week of alignment meetings, you probably don't have a crisp definition of where you want to go. Like, and I have seen that happen. What I've seen with, I'd say too much alignment is like a lack of vision, you know, like, you know, like, I'd say, asking too many people where to go, but having no kind of idea, like whether using your gut or like, and I think a boss's job is to see when there's too much alignment happening and make a decision, right to too much alignment, usually, we can do five things we don't know is like, just like help pick one and help get momentum going.

So I see Junior managers overlining a lot because they lack a bit of confidence of picking something. Right, when they're when their teams may be afraid of and giving them permission to go actually, what do you guys think, let's move, you know, and I think alignment sometimes actually is about moving. It's really not just about conversation all the time, it's about aligning and moving and being able to understand when you see stagnation, because of a lack of decision making. You have to step in and help your team, you know, de risk and just move.

Ben Smit

Yeah, I think that's, that's really good advice, particularly for new leaders. Because, you know, I think we can, we can at times overwhelm new leaders with these concepts of Yep, empower your team. And, you know, you come in with this idea of like, okay, all I can do is kind of help them stay together and let them make all the calls and be autonomous and empowered and, you know, using them as synonyms almost as opposed to sort of say, No, it's okay. You have permission as the leader when things you know, aren't aligned or aren't on course, to bring them back on course. You know that that, to me is a permission that every leader needs to have. You know, there'll be people that unfortunately, don't make good leaders, and that's all they'll do. But it seems to me almost this missing element like it's okay to lead. But that doesn't mean that your team isn't involved in that process.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Would you agree with that? Yeah, I'd say, teams yearn for clarity more than autonomy. And I think, you know, as a leader, you don't bring clarity, but you create a culture of yearning for clarity. And I think that's what your job is.

Ben Smit

Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, the other thing that strikes me and what you said there, you know, talking about the autonomy complex, I think it's also something where culturally we have glorified, the individual, you know, coming to some victorious moment all by themselves, you know, we think about sporting stars, and when they get to the top of their game, and it was sort of all them. But the reality is that if you're working in a team environment, it is the team that achieves the objective in the end of the day. So you know, this, this idea that, I'm just going to go over and achieve this all myself and get all the glory, that doesn't make sense in a team environment, because there's just too many factors that go into making the whole thing successful. And a lot of that is the feedback loops. You know, it's the same thing, when you see a start-up that goes, I've got this great idea for a product, I'm going to go away in the garage and build it, and then I'm going to put it online and it's going to, you know, people are gonna buy it in in hordes and droves. And then nobody does. And it's because they haven't spoken to the customer in that process. But I see this, you know, there's, there's a real parallel there, and the teams themselves needing to have that continuous feedback to get their jobs done as well.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Yeah, they like, so I'll just be super odd. I'm an introvert. Like, if I spend eight hours a day with other humans, I will self-destruct so, so naturally, I'm actually you know, autonomy. I like actually love autonomy. I love my, you know, my quiet time. But I think the difference with sports and is that, like, the companies we're building is actually 100 times more complex in a sports game, like a sports game is like a finite game that you know how to win, we've micro optimise all the, you know, all the strategies, but I think real, life's a lot more complex. So I think, as an introvert, I've also recognised that the problem that I'm trying to solve, and the people I'm trying to solve it with is so complex that I've got to come out of my shell, at least enough, you know, and I get a lot of value out of that. But I, you know, what, what I loved about being crisp about what alignment means for you is that meant that the time I spent with my peers, and my, you know, my teammates, was really productive. And then I could go away, and I could write or programme or I could read and like, it just it almost it gave me the time that I had alone, that I needed to be a lot more productive. Because it felt like the time that I was with my team, we're actually talking about things that mattered, you know, and I think that's, again, like I don't want to come out

And I think it's important to say that, you know, companies and teams are places that introverts can thrive in as well. Because, like a lot of us are like, it's not like we all have to be extroverts and talk with people all the time. But I think we have to be very, you know, clear about, like what it takes to bring people together and what to do. And for me, at least, it's given me a lot of it means my autonomous time is actually more productive. Because I know that we're like, I kind of know what I'm doing. Like there's clarity, even in my own time that I find that I find really good. So yeah, get again, if you're listening to this, and you're like, holy, like Israel, Michel telling me to be in meetings all day, I'm not at all. I'm saying reduce the amount of meetings you have, make the matter. Talk about things that matter. And then I think we can spend the time when we're alone, doing things that are, you know, that are pushing us all in the right direction.

Really well. So autonomy actually becomes a higher fidelity level of autonomy.

Ben Smit

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, in, in this area of conversation, one of the things that team leaders struggle with a lot is this idea of what do I deal with disagreement? Obviously, that's a big part of making decisions and moving in certain directions. But what is your advice around dealing with disagreement in the alignment process?

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Yeah, that's a good point. I didn't, I didn't write about that. But that's actually a very common question. Because although clarity is great to have clarity is hard to get. Because you don't know I'm like, how clear does this have to be before we, we move and I think what you're saying is clarity is a there's a range and nuances and what clarity means and often there's disagreement and what that is like, where do you go? I'd say, teams who have a good alignment process. Remember, one of my questions are, what other directions can we take? And have we explored them? I think the exploration process actually helps you, like as a team decide how to explore other directions, because conflict is usually about direction, right? I think we shouldn't do that we should do this. Right?

So it's like, have a culture of exploring what those things are and sometimes conflict will happen, because teams or team members, you know, haven't explored enough. You know, like, well, actually, if we did that, let's imagine we did this and then step b would be step A, is that is that getting us where we're supposed to do and if that fails, right, so as a team, if you haven't, you're not open about exploring options, and you haven't maybe looked at them, then I think, as a leader, sometimes it's like a 5050, corn, you know, coin toss, and I think there it's, it's, you know, about having enough determination to go actually, we're gonna, I'll just, I'll pick, pick one until the team, this is what success looks like, we'll know as a team, if this was successful. If it's not, then we'll, we'll pick, you know, plan B.

But again, I think junior leaders find it really, really hard to do that. And I think there's a, there's a really good saying, which is disagreeing commit. And I think asking your team going, listen, you might disagree with this, but let's commit, we're gonna have to commit to it, and then explain to your team, what success of picking that option looks like. And let's keep ourselves accountable for is it doing what we think it's doing? And, and use that as a, I think, a tool for helping with disagreement?

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