Sunday, September 25, 2011

The myth of autonomy

There's a lot of talk about autonomy these days. And, in my opinion, a lot of misunderstandings. People tend to confuse two terms - autonomy, and self organisation.

I hear managers saying autonomy does not work when they mean that self organisation has led to a culture of low productivity. And I hear developers and coaches saying autonomy is inevitable, when they mean self organisation cannot be avoided.

Teams may or may not be autonomous. Autonomous teams are allowed to make their own decisions and solve their own problems (incidentally teams learn most when allowed to solve their own problems). But even teams that completely lack autonomy are self organising; those with autonomy also have delegated authority to make their own conscious decisions. Self organisation is the unconscious ability of a system to learn and adapt and change. This self organisation is inevitable, you cannot stop it. You cannot even steer it as you are not the organiser; the team is. Even individual members of the team cannot steer this self organisation. All we can do is change the constraints, for example by changing the environment of the team and hope this has a positive effect on the team. An example of this is to provide clear and (by the team) accepted goals and the autonomy to choose the methods used to achieve these goals. Another is to give the team zero autonomy and to dictate how the team should achieve these goals. However, teams with zero autonomy will not solve their own problems and therefore will not grow and learn, at least not in the direction you want them to.

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