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Published on June 13, 2018

Consider this if you want more autonomy

I believe in autonomous teams, i.e. organization units that are guided by a shared culture, directed by an internalized strategy, equipped with adequate information to make the right decisions, and structured to self-organize for the task at hand. I believe in autonomous teams because they seem to deliver, empower people, and be highly productive, too.

Majority of today’s organizations are practically incapable of operating as autonomous teams. The few successful ones seem to operate in businesses where an autonomous team does not need to care about the other teams around them. An agile software team is a great example of such super-autonomy. But in almost any normal business, the autonomous teams are not only autonomous but co-dependent, too.

The idea of autonomous teams involves the indivisible triple-A: autonomy-authority-accountability. But it also involves guidance, transparency, and team skills.

A team in a corporation can be autonomous only within the bounds of the strategy and the culture of the corporation. Its autonomy must not jeopardize the autonomy of any other autonomous team in the same corporation. Culture, strategy, and co-dependence comprise the guidance for an autonomous team. A team that fails to understand its guidance or adhere to it, becomes a burden to the corporation.

Accountability and authority derive from the purpose of the team: why it exists and what it is allowed to do. Leaders sometimes give teams less authority than accountability. Teams, on the other hand, may be eager to receive more authority than accountability. When delegating accountability and authority, never think in terms of delegating responsibility of tasks or processes, always think in terms of delegating a part of the business. It helps understand both the boundaries and the balance.

Accountability and authority are of little use without information. If a team is supposed to be autonomous it must have access to all relevant information it needs to operate autonomously.

If I equip a team with autonomy I become highly dependent on the team, too. Making a team accountable does not release me from the same accountability. On the other hand, I may not be able to bear my other accountabilities if I lose sight on the performance of the autonomous team. We become co-dependent in a way that can only be addressed by two-way transparency. If I fail to provide my co-dependents with transparency they are not able to bear the accountability and authority. If they don’t provide me with transparency I may not be capable of bearing my accountability and authority for anything that is somehow related. Being autonomous without being transparent means you operate as a guerilla. It is ok only if you have a guerilla’s job.

Being an autonomous team means being able to work as a team. Great team skills are still rare. Most of us have been educated to succeed alone and compete against the colleagues to achieve success. Today’s winners don’t do it. Any organization that aims at benefitting from autonomy must invest in team skills.