Many articles and Agile experts suggest that autonomous teams are the next and maybe final level of team development in an Agile organization structure. Fair enough, but have you ever seen a truly autonomous team in the wild? Most probably not. Why is that?
I did a lot of reading on this subject and got the feeling that there is kind of a common understanding that the more autonomous a team is, the better. So I tried to map the principles, ideas and definitions I read about to reality and found that it might not be that easy. For me autonomy of a team is not per se a guarantee for success, or boost in creativity and employee satisfaction. There have to be some surrounding factors that need to be met in order to make autonomous teams even possible and advantageous. So with this post I try to map my observations in daily working life to theory and roughly outline what this topic is about for me.
Well, let’s have a look at the autonomy aspect first. Wikipedia defines autonomy as ‘…the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility and accountability for one’s actions. … Autonomy is also used to refer to the self-government of the people.’ Transferring these statements to a team structure, would mean that an autonomous team is not only responsible for its decisions and actions, but also free and empowered enough to make these decisions. For me that translates into three characteristics, every autonomous team should show. They are:
An autonomous team can not only decide how to implement their tasks (self-organizing) and what to work on with which priority, using a process chosen by the team (self-managing). It is also in charge of the team set-up and parts of the organizational context it is affected by (self-structuring). In practice, an autonomous team will be self-designed to fulfill a purpose which contributes to the organizational strategy. It will consist of team members that bring along every skill needed to deliver the features or products needed. Each team member is fully aware of the organizational strategy in order to be able to make well-informed decisions on e.g. prioritizing features. This team will create its own policies, procedures and processes. It has full responsibility for success or failure of a project.
To grant teams autonomy, there are some conditions that need to be met. I like to think of it as the three interconnected basic components of team autonomy in an organizational context.
- Access to all information and resources necessary
- Distributed leadership
If you want your company to use autonomous teams, you or team members can call for it but it won’t work from bottom to top. It can only be achieved if the management of an organization makes the commitment to go with truly autonomous teams. This commitment might involve very serious decisions.