What's the fuss about autonomy?

Gino Marckx
November 23, 2022
Reading time: 3 min

It’s one of those words that come back over and over again in context of modern delivery approaches and organizational structures. The word seems common enough to mean approximately the same in people’s minds, however I have found that it is often confused for something else. According to Merriamm-Webster, autonomy is the quality or state of being self-governing. This distinguishes it from the term empowerment, which is the state of being empowered to do something. In other words, autonomy is an internal property - it comes from within -, while empowerment comes from someone’s approval.

Autonomous teams make their own decisions, they do it based on their objectives and all the relevant information they have available about the world around them. Empowered teams also are told to do exactly that. However, the scope of their decision making power - sometimes explicit, more often implicit - limits their autonomy significantly and can even shrink should a decision be made that does not align with the empowering entity. After all, those who can empower can equally quickly reign that power back in.

This subtle distinction might at first appear merely cosmetic, but actually impacts the team’s sense of ownership, accountability, their motivation and their willingness to take initiative.

The autonomous unit

I call any entity making decisions autonomously an autonomous unit (AU), regardless of its size. That of course does not mean that there is no limit to the decisions being make, or at least no consequences. As described above, those decisions are made in context of the outside world, and the outside world exerts some influence over what’s expected.

Every AU interacts with its container autonomous unit and usually with multiple adjacent units. The container unit takes a supportive stance, rather than a restrictive one. The AU negotiates its goals with its container unit and regularly demonstrates progress. The container unit provides support to achieve those objectives. With its adjacent units, the autonomous unit aligns on dependencies, provides transparency of what their focus is and share progress.

This is hypothetical, right?

In most organizations that truly apply agile principles, this pattern emerges over and over again, but it is more common than the - for many elusive - ideal of an agile team. Every company is an AU, it is entirely autonomous in what it decides to work on and how it decides to do that. Its container autonomous unit is the industry or government, defining the boundaries within which to play, the rules to follow. Progress is demonstrated by customer base, brand recognition, growth and tax documentation. Partners and suppliers are examples of a company’s adjacent autonomous units. Families are AUs too, also interacting with the government and relying on other families and service providers to succeed. Autonomous units are everywhere.

Why should I care?

I have seen the success of any agile transformation to be closely related to how deep in the organization the AU pattern is visible. I have seen it appear in two forms:

  • The executive leadership engages with its departments as AUs and some of those do the same with their teams

  • Someone in the hierarchy is capable of shielding their part of the organization in such a way they enable true autonomy to emerge

With true autonomy comes ownership, commitment, motivation and responsibility... all ingredients to a successful modern delivery organization.


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