If the point of a team is to achieve something greater than the individuals could do on their own, then the autonomy of the team members is the intelligence of the team.
Now right off the bat, let's dispel the idea that Autonomy means Anarchy... It does not. Autonomy doesn't mean doing whatever you feel like. This way of living is psychologically shallow, not useful, and even harmful to the people living in such a way.
Autonomy in a team context is where a member can achieve a valuable outcome by acting freely within a set of appropriate constraints.
So let's look at that statement to make sense of it. There are 3 parts:
So what makes a Valuable Outcome?
For someone to be able to achieve a valuable outcome, Value must be clearly defined to them. In Lean, we talk about value as something we produce (goods or services) that someone would be willing to give something up to have. This means that value is defined by the people we serve, and that requires that we know who it is that we serve, what they want/need and how to give it to them. Therefore, to enable autonomy for our team members, we must ensure that they have this information readily available.
Now, why am I putting the word outcome there? Let's take the example of John; he runs a manufacturing line that produces 2m steel girders. His bosses told him to make 10,000, and he did. Everyone celebrates because John hit his targets, but it turns out that the market has shifted to needing 10m girders and so only a handful of 2m girders sold.
'Outcome' is focused on making what is needed to succeed rather than 'Output' which is focused on making/doing more things.
Autonomy is aimed at Outcome, not Output. Output-orientated teams focus on doing the thing right.
The more right you do the wrong things, the more wrong you become. – Dr. Russell Ackoff
Outcome-orientated teams can accomplish more with less.
What about Acting freely?
As leaders and organizations, the emphasis is there for us to ensure that our vision is clear to our people, that we are crystal clear on who we are serving and how we want to serve them, and how that specifically relates to the given team someone is in. Here is a way to think about it. The company vision is a big circle; inside of that, we have many teams, each having their own vision derived from the company vision, therefore existing as smaller circles inside the big circle. As long as the team acts within the company circle, they are doing good. The same applies to the team circles, the individuals are smaller circles inside of the team circle, with their own vision, and as long as they keep their vision within the circle of the team, that is serving the greater good. So the team member serves the team, the team serves the company, and they all serve the customer.
Why act freely? Why can't people just do what they are told? If people only do what they are told or have to seek approval for every action, you end up with a slow, cumbersome structure that fails to serve their customer's needs. Imagine the striker in a football team had to seek permission from the captain whenever he wanted to fall back to defend the goal. This would result in many delays that would completely negate the value of the striker helping, even if there were no better options available. When you equip your team members with the situational awareness they need to act, they can change roles temporarily or respond to a need they see swiftly, allowing you to reap the benefits.
And finally, Appropriate Constraints.
The appropriate constraint is a big topic that we will cover with the help of Dave Snowden and the Cynefin framework later on. Different situations call for different types of constraints. For now, what I will say is that in some situations it is appropriate to have governing constraints like laws that define the specific bounds of a situation, like do not drive faster than X on a given road, while other situations might call for enabling constraints like to move forward with your experiment you must have a clear and falsifiable hypothesis.
Appropriate constraints give team members a framework to take accountability and responsibility for their actions. Appropriate constraints are what enable them to act freely. With great freedom comes great responsibility and accountability.
We will look at this more later.