noun: autonomy – freedom from external control or influence; independence.

Management in the age of Agile requires more than renaming traditional roles and shuffling personnel around on an organizational chart. It’s about creating the right dynamics for teams to quickly inspect, adapt and make rapid-fire decisions while being transparent. Middle management can forget about telling employees directly what tasks to work on and how to execute them. Individuals in an agile organization require a high level of autonomy. The Scrum Team is a collection of those individuals who live by the Agile methodology, scrum values, and work within the scrum framework. Those individuals of course include the Product Owner, Scrum Master and Development team.

For scrum to be truly successful, the C-suite must be the integral part in driving adoption of agility across the enterprise by embracing the core principles of agile and remaining flexible in the midst of the organization’s massive foundational changes. It is no small undertaking to instill autonomy and executives have to take these steps forward simultaneously with all employees. If not, middle management will feel like they are on the outside looking in and will pose a great risk to the successful adoption. The roots of the change that is needed have most likely been embedded longer than any single one leader or employee in the organization.

“To promote enterprise agility, more companies are choosing to make small teams their basic organizational unit. Problems occur, however, when companies don’t give their small teams enough autonomy to work at the speed required by the digital economy.” McKinsey

Most management principles took root from Taylorism, which was born in the early 1900’s to manage people doing work in simple domains such as manufacturing. Most industries in the 21st century live in an ever increasingly complex domain. Technology for sure is a complex domain without question, maybe even sometimes chaotic. A great example of the stark contrast of Taylorism and Scrum is described beautifully in the book, which I highly recommend, “Fixing Your Scrum” by Ryan Ripley and Todd Miller. They provide this direct comparison in Chapter 2: Why Scrum Goes Bad;

 

Taylorism Scrum
Management tries to make the work as predictable as possible by precisely managing resource utilization with exact estimates. Scrum teams manage their time and focus as they plan their work. The development team is responsible for resource utilization. They use estimates to trigger conversations within the Scrum team and with management-not to make the work as predictable as possible.

 

So many times organizational leaders and middle managers feel as though they need to know where every minute of their “resources” (their word, not mine) are spent. When learning the foundations of the scrum framework they often wonder, how will I know each team member’s percentage of allocation for each project they are on, how will we know the exact estimate of the entire project, or how do we know the team will be working at 110% capacity or will my senior developer be able to keep his 10 different project assignments while on one scrum team. They often spend painstaking hours pouring over spreadsheets of hours that project managers and middle managers bicker over. Fighting for 20% of this resource or 15% of that resource.

Doing this creates a reactionary response environment where resources report false numbers to match expectations, it creates projects that display as green up until the final week before release, and/or it blows past the budget unexpectedly because the estimates that were given 10 months ago didn’t expect x,y,z to occur. The teams manage for results, instead of creating them. Leadership and management must create an environment where the team can create results and does not need to manage towards them. An environment where people can learn, teams can actually improve, and scrum teams have the autonomy to take ownership of their own work.

“Higher levels of autonomy in a team can significantly improve their ability to build awesome products and solve complex problems for the organization.” – Drive, Dan Pink

It takes a lot of courage by leadership and management to break the stigma that, when individuals and teams are left to their own devices they just simply won’t deliver what is expected or deliver at all. That employees will not take action on their own, that they will not allow the organization to achieve its goals or they will reflect negatively on the middle manager. This old school, traditional management way of thinking needs to be knocked down and removed from organizations when in complex domains. Granting autonomy to the team and its individuals will prove much more widely effective than micromanaging with standardized processes and employee compliance rules.

“A good team will do what is required for them to deliver. A great team will reorganize to optimize delivery.” Team Mastery, Geoff Watts

In Scrum, the Development teams are meant to be self-organizing. To promote teams self-organization, all levels of leadership need to constantly make efforts towards increasing their level of autonomy. In the original Harvard Business Review paper that inspired the creation of Scrum, “The New New Product Development Game”. Professors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka had observed that great teams were autonomous. They describe autonomous teams as teams that are self-organizing and self-managing, have the power to make their own decisions on how they carry out their daily tasks, and are empowered to make decisions that make real changes.

Philosopher Iain King developed an ‘Autonomy Principle’, which he defines as “Let people choose for themselves, unless we know their interests better than they can.” King argues it is not enough to know someone else’s interests better than that person; their autonomy should only be infringed if that person is unable to know their own interests on a particular matter.

Autonomy needs to be provided from the top-down and it should start with the C-suite involvement. Executives need to be deeply involved but also limit themselves to providing guidance, echoing the principles of agile, and displaying the scrum values. On a day-to-day basis, top management should seldom intervene allowing the team to be free to set its own direction. The product owner on the scrum team should interact with the C-suite in a way where top management are almost considered venture capitalists. Where the product owner and team truly own the work and are trying to make it the best thing not only for the customer but for the organization as well.

In the 2009 book, “Drive”, Dan Pink points out that one of the essential features that drives intrinsic motivation in people is Autonomy. He also states that Autonomy motivates us to think creatively and that by rethinking traditional ideas of control organizations can increase autonomy. According to the scrum guide, “Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional” meaning that Autonomy needs to exist for an actual scrum team to function. These self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined autonomy by three themes regarding contemporary ethics. “Firstly, autonomy as the right for one to make their own decisions excluding any interference from others. Secondly, autonomy as the capacity to make such decisions through one’s own independence of mind and after personal reflection. Thirdly, as an ideal way of living life autonomously. In summary, autonomy is the moral right one possesses, or the capacity we have in order to think and make decisions for oneself providing some degree of control or power over the events that unfold within one’s everyday life.”

As a member of a scrum team, there are a lot of ways you can help your organization evolve to be more agile right now. One way is to practice and discuss how your team can be more self-directed and establish that your team does not need to just follow managers directions. Increasing your team’s level of autonomy will increase the motivation within its individuals and collaboration towards a singular goal. Asking questions, owning the work, and being able to make and act on decisions will be powerful and motivating. This will allow a team to go beyond just executing deliverables, it will make them able to readily adapt to changes and solve tough complex problems.

“Changing an organization can be slow and frustrating, but the whole point of adopting Scrum is to switch to a more efficient and empowering way of creating products, so change is a must” – Fixing Your Scrum, Todd Miller & Ryan Ripley

As a member of a scrum team, ensure focus is shifted away from individuals just getting their piece of the sprint done to having the entire team focus on the team’s sprint goal as a whole. Then, take personal ownership of the team achieving those results. On a daily basis, collaborate not only with your entire team, but also directly with the business and/or end users. In addition, take ownership of what is needed for a great scrum team. Push relentlessly to continue moving yourself, your team, and your organization towards that goal through sprint retrospectives and, most importantly, impactful action.

By embracing the scrum values and autonomy, individuals across the organization can better support an Agile organization while making a more meaningful impact on business outcomes. Organizations who struggle to adopt agile don’t need to just rethink old and outdated practices. They need to eliminate the established hierarchy and restructure it so that individuals are empowered and can maximize business value at every level. Autonomous scrum teams across an organization will allow an organization to flourish in agile and will make a more meaningful impact on business outcomes.

“Having a dedicated product owner who is fully empowered to make all decisions about a product can feel foreign to many organizations, but having someone in that role is crucial to the success of any Scrum team.” – Fixing Your Scrum, Todd Miller & Ryan Ripley

As a scrum master, you can help the team achieve autonomy by taking a coaching stance and educating not only the folks on the team but those around the team as well so there is a good understanding broadly of the true agile principles & practices.

Lastly, Autonomy and trust goes hand in hand, autonomy in organizations new to scrum is normally difficult to establish. It takes a long time to establish trust that the team is able to self organize and manage itself and its work. Unfortunately, it also can be lost in an instant with one mishap. It’s why organizations have so many processes and stage gates in the first place. One person deploys a really bad defect into production and before you know what even happened, new oversight boards are stood up and endless approval processes are created so such an event never occurs again. Because if we have a group of folks all signing off on something, nothing bad can ever happen again, right. Even worse, years or even decades go by and the same rules have stayed in place and no one even remembers why. Teams and projects eventually take on the additional burdens of these wasteful impediments without really questioning or having the ability to act with autonomy for the greater good of the organization and customers. I strongly recommend reading the Unicorn Project by Gene Kim, as this example is strongly set and broken in that book.

Think about one thing you or your team can do to increase its level of autonomy in your organization right now. Bring this up in your team’s next retrospective and take action. Even if it is a small step forward, it is still moving the team forward.

 

References

Bossert, O., Kretzberg, A., & Laartz, J. (2019, May 11). Unleashing the power of small, independent teams. Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/unleashing-the-power-of-small-independent-teams

Ripley, R. (2020). Fixing Your Scrum: Practical Solutions to Common Scrum Problems. Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://www.amazon.com/Fixing-Your-Scrum-Practical-Solutions/dp/1680506978

Sensen, Oliver (2013). Kant on Moral Autonomy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107004863.

Chapter 17, ‘Letting People Choose for Themselves’, of How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Iain King, Continuum, 2008, ISBN 978-1847-063-472.

How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Iain King, Continuum, 2008, ISBN 978-1847-063-472. p. 100.

The Scrum Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2020, from https://www.scrum.org/resources/scrum-guide?gclid=Cj0KCQjw-O35BRDVARIsAJU5mQWGr8KwFuaqnPlz8EUo4xBl-XZ7JnQCKhx3UwDFAvsTnnd0Zr2s_28aAvLyEALw_wcB