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What Is Team Autonomy, Anyway?

Updated: May 15, 2023

Autonomous teams have been touted to bring many benefits that organizations and their managers are eager to reap, such as

  • Motivated, healthy workers, who feel a greater sense of ownership and involvement in their work and experience less stress when they can work at their own pace.

  • Skills development, when learning from each other through self-directed learning and feedback.

  • Culture of teamwork that fosters trust, communication, and collaboration.

  • Innovation, when leveraging the freedom to learn and experiment without fear.

  • Leadership development, by cultivating their leadership potential and prepare to take initiative and responsibility.

Unfortunately, many teams miss out on the benefits of autonomy because they don't have a clear understanding of what it really means. Different people may have different expectations and assumptions about how autonomous teams should work. This can lead to confusion, conflict, and disappointment.


For example, some managers may think that autonomy is just about having regular sprints and check-ins with their teams. But that's not enough to unleash the full potential of autonomy.


That's why it's important to start with an honest and open discussion about what autonomy means for you and your team. You need to agree on the level and type of autonomy that suits your situation and goals.


You need to agree on the level and type of autonomy that suits your situation and goals.

A good way to start exploring team autonomy is to use a tool like the Hackman Authority Matrix. This tool helps you and your stakeholders to see the different types of autonomous teams and what they can do.



For example, most of us think of self-managed teams when we talk about autonomy. These are teams that can decide how to do their daily work, who does what, and how to solve problems. But the team’s autonomy remains bound by short-term management objectives, work processes such as project management, and the responsibilities associated with their official functions.


Some teams may have more autonomy than that. Self-designing teams can choose their own members and move between teams without asking the manager. Self-governing teams can choose their own mission and work on whatever project or product they want, acting literally as a micro-enterprise in the broader organization.


Of course, not every team needs or wants the same level of autonomy. It depends on the nature of the work they must accomplish.


For example, a call center team may be fine with having a manager who tells them what to do. A spin-off start-up may need the significant freedom of self-governing teams to explore new opportunities. A group of soldiers parachuted in unknown territory may need the flexibility of self-designing teams to adapt quickly to changing situations without a supervisor.


Interestingly, Scrum teams, often advertised as very autonomous, are usually only self-managed in most organizations.


 

The Hackman Authority Matrix is a great tool to get a big picture of team autonomy, but it can be too abstract and general. We need to go deeper and see what autonomy looks like in different situations.


That’s where a tool like Management 3.0 Delegation Poker game can help. This game helps you and your team to find the best level of autonomy for specific situations.



The Delegation Poker game has seven levels of delegation, from “Tell” to “Delegate”. “Tell” means that the manager makes all the decisions for the team without asking them. “Delegate” means that the manager lets the team make all the decisions without telling them.



This tool helps teams and managers to talk openly about what level of delegation works best for different tasks or responsibilities such as:

  • Choose the days when to come to work in the office

  • Select a training class for the team

  • Assign daily tasks to the team members

  • Switch roles between the team members

  • Decide to leave or join the team

  • Choose the features of the solution being produced

  • Change the team’s annual performance target

  • Accept a new customer order

Some tasks or responsibilities are more routine and simple, while others are more strategic and complex. It makes sense that the level of delegation varies for each of them.


Some responsibilities are more routine, while others are more strategic. It makes sense that the level of delegation varies for each of them.

One more thing to remember is that not everyone wants the same level of autonomy. To take on more autonomy, people need to trust their manager and themselves, have the right skills, and care about the task. When a team starts to become more autonomous, trust is often the first challenge. But with time and support, the level of autonomy will grow, as will the benefits.



Bruno Collet advises and coaches leaders to develop the individual and organizational capability to anticipate and react to changes better and faster. In one word: Agility. His approach relies on action-learning with concrete practices, skills and behaviors. Bruno Collet executed top-level missions with several organizations internationally. He is also a recognized speaker, author and is accredited ICAgile instructor. Bruno Collet holds an MBA, MSc., as well as several certifications such as PMP, PMI-ACP, ICP-LEA (Leading with Agility), ICP-ORG (Adaptive Organization), ICP-ENT (Enterprise Coaching) and ICP-AHR (Agile Human Resources).

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