How Much Autonomy Should Teams Get From Their Agile Leader?

The agile movement really has changed the way we lead our people. Giving them more freedom and autonomy to do their job often improves the quality, productivity and happiness of the people. Because knowledge workers (or highly educated people) don’t need a boss to tell them what to do, they only need a healthy context or environment in which they can do their job.

Over the past decade I’ve been an agile leader myself and I’ve coached a lot of other agile leaders. One very big pitfall of the agile movement is around the autonomy. The pitfall is to just give a lot of freedom. This sometimes works, but even so often results in chaos and demotivated teams. Why? And how to overcome? Lets have a closer look, but first I have to introduce the reason behind autonomy and that is: Ownership.

Huh, Ownership?

When the work is complex, when teams have to grow continuously, and when employees have to find creative solutions every day to really help customers, something special is needed to be successful. When every situation, challenge, and customer is too unique, people need to be empowered to think and decide for themselves. Ownership ensures that they think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions that really help customers. In case of unexpected problems, difficult challenges, or when things go wrong, ownership ensures that teams feel responsible to solve this. They don’t have to wait for others to come up with solutions. When they feel ownership, they don’t blame others for their challenges. Even when it gets tough, these teams continue to look for solutions and find opportunities. This is crucial because in complex environments, solutions can only be found by exploring and experimenting, learning from failures, and continuously growing as a team. Ownership gives them momentum to overcome unexpected challenges and obstacles.

As a leader, it’s wonderful to see teams take ownership. Not only is this often the only way to be successful, but it also gives a deep sense of satisfaction to leaders. It’s the agile leader’s job to create an environment in which people and teams grow, work together, laugh, build trust, and do beyond-exceptional things for the customers. Micromanaging—telling people which tasks they have to do and making all kinds of small decisions—is not only too slow in this rapid world, but it also doesn’t bring out the best in people. It often kills their brainpower, their creativity, and the synergy within the teams. Again: agile leaders create a working environment in which employees thrive and let them be proud on their work.

It’s the agile leader’s job to create an environment in which people and teams grow, work together, laugh, build trust, and feel proud on the things they do for their customers.

But what is Ownership?

Ownership is the mental state of a team when they feel accountable for their results. Teams that pick-up ownership voluntarily are teams that take responsibility for the results of the product or service. These teams are proactive and have the passion and energy to really make an impact for the users of their product. They work together, give each other feedback, continue, are open minded, and learn continuously. They seek solutions and collaboration and are not searching for excuses. They also help other teams to grow. As entrepreneurs, they take ownership of both the strategy and the way it is implemented. In addition, they realize that they own their own challenges, solutions, and customers. The product or service feels like their own child in a beautiful way. This gives teams pride, creativity, energy, passion, and satisfaction in their work.

And how much Autonomy should a team get?

When should a specific team get more autonomy? Or when should the leader intervene? This depends on the maturity of the team. A highly mature team can independently organize their work and achieve great results, but a team just starting still needs a lot of help, guidance, and support. If the team is very mature and the agile leader gives little freedom and often intervenes, the team will become frustrated and passive; they will no longer come up with solutions themselves. Good people will leave, and if they don’t they will just passively do what they are told to do. Low quality and high risk will result. The team actually needs more space, and the manager should let go a lot more.

On the other hand, it also does not work if a team that is just starting out gets too much freedom from the manager. The team feels lost; they do not know exactly what they have to do, and they can’t assess the risks themselves. The team itself cannot come up with solutions on their own because they lack sufficient knowledge. This, too, results in good people leaving. The people who stay experience frustration from the lack of clarity, and they slip into passivity, also resulting in low quality and high risk. Although the results are the same, the team needs less space, and the manager must intervene by increasing the borders and offering concrete help.

How Much Autonomy Should Teams Get From Their Agile Leader?

To know when to let go and when to step in is a daunting challenge. Based purely on signals of passivity, low quality, employees who leave, and lack of improvement, the agile leader can’t know whether intervention or letting go is best; he must first know the maturity of the team to know how much freedom they need in order to take ownership. But the big question is: how do you know the maturity of the team? Can the team members decide that for themselves? How can the manager know for certain? Experience has shown that the answer can only be found by talking about it together. The Ownership Model helps to facilitate this discussion, making it clear whether intervention is necessary or whether to let go is the better option.

Two Red Zones

The two red zones occur when freedom and maturity are not in balance.

  • Too much freedom: Chaos. If the team is given more freedom than matches their maturity, they won’t take ownership. They feel lost, and with too many opportunities and uncertainties, they lack the perspective to make effective choices. Because they can’t adequately anticipate the consequences of their choices, it ends up in chaos. As a consequence, they will experience frustration and demotivation. The rest of the company may be exposed to harmful consequences.
  • Too little freedom: Captive. If the team is given less freedom than matches their maturity, they will feel captive or imprisoned by their environment. They lack the room for initiative; they will just follow orders and they will be unable to grow as a team and develop their own working methods. As a consequence, they will also experience frustration and demotivation, which may affect the quality of the product or service they deliver and the satisfaction of the customers of those products or services.

Nice, and How to Apply in Daily Live?

The first thing the leader can do is have a workshop (preferably facilitated by an agile coach) and just have an open conversation with the team on where they feel they are and how the leader perceives it. This workshop often takes an hour. If you want tips for this workshop, please feel free to email me!

Another way is to have aligned tangible expectations on the maturity and on the freedom. For the freedom you can use the ‘Delegation poker from Management 3.0’ or use tool 6 in my book (Toolkit for Agile Leaders – Amazon.com).

The third way is create a committee or working-group that adapts this tool to the specific department.

Final tip for this blog: Resilience

Often, when leaders start using the Ownership Model, there is initially a lot of attention and focus on it. But too often this focus diminishes over time. Effective agile leaders show resilience and maintain this focus for several years in a row. It can take a lot of time to grow and nurture the teams and continuously improve the environment; this isn’t achieved in a few months. For agile leaders, it should be the most important focus toward their teams. They continuously ask, “What can I do to improve your environment?” And this should not occur for the first months; rather, agile leaders keep bringing that resilience.

Nutshell movie

This is also briefly explained in the Nutshell movie, starting at 2 min 7:

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