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Author: Mohan Raut


Agile – Autonomy & Self-Organization

In one of our coaching workshops, we were discussing what makes an Agile coach successful. We had a good discussion on this topic, and we came up with two concepts: autonomy and self-organization, which seem slightly similar, but they are mostly used interchangeably.

So first, let’s see what these terms talk about.

[Note: These are very vast topics for discussion; we cannot conclude this in a few lines of writing; I have only highlighted them briefly here in this article.]


Autonomy: The cultural steps toward empowerment

Agile development relies more on people, their mindset, and their culture than on processes.



Informal communication,

Flexible and participative,

Encouraging, cooperative

Are other characteristics of agile software development.


Many organizations are embracing agile ways of working in an attempt to build faster, more customer-focused organizations. They are redesigning themselves to create a culture where decision-making is transitioned away from middle management towards those working with customers on the front lines, i.e., teams.

Ultimately, they seek engagement in order to create a culture where the team is more empowered to truly delight customers. Autonomy is the critical ingredient for this change.

Autonomy is always implemented through leaders. Leaders should have thought that employees should get well engaged with the organization, and if Leaders really want a high standard of engagement, they have to look for self-direction, empowerment, and a and a little bit of control from employees over what they have to do—their task, over when they have to do—their time, over who they have to do with—their team, and over how they have to do their technique.

If organizations and leaders think about these aspects, then employees will surely do things better.


Autonomy is not where leaders or bosses tell employees exactly what to do and precisely how to do it; Leaders take away all employee choices of any kind and largely control what they should do; and Employees are compliant with leaders and follow their instructions without digging up their own thoughts and experiences. This is very bad, controlling, and hijacking the working relationship between employees and their leaders.

However, autonomy is often misunderstood as power.

Autonomy should not be confused with the need for power, which is entirely a different matter and one that some employees will avoid at all costs. The difference between power and autonomy can be summed up as follows: Power is the desire to control not just one’s own actions but the actions of others, while autonomy is concerned with the ability to operate independently.

(more control and less autonomy)


Self-Organization: The Desire to be self-managed and self-driven

At its simplest level, a self-organizing team is one that does not depend on or wait for a manager to assign work. Instead, these teams find their own work and manage the associated responsibilities and timelines; they do require a mentor who can help grow their skills.


Defining self-organizing teams

A group of motivated individuals who work together toward a goal have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands. Let’s look at some important ingredients for a self-organizing team:

  • They pull work for themselves and don’t wait for their managers to assign work. This ensures a greater sense of ownership and commitment.
  • They manage their work (allocation, reallocation, estimation, delivery, and rework) as a group.
  • They still require mentoring and coaching, but they don’t require “command and control.”
  • They communicate more with each other, and their commitments are more often to project teams than to the Scrum Master.
  • They continuously enhance their own skills and recommend innovative ideas and improvements.


Five essentials of self-organizing teams

  • Competency: Individuals need to be competent for the job at hand. This will result in confidence in their work and eliminate the need for direction from above.
  • Collaboration: They should work as a team rather than as a group of individuals. Teamwork is encouraged.
  • Motivation: Team motivation is the key to success. Team members should be focused and interested in their work.
  • Trust and respect: Team members trust and respect each other. They believe in collective code ownership and are ready to go the extra mile to help each other resolve issues.
  • Continuity: The team should be together for a reasonable duration; changing its composition every now and then doesn’t help. Continuity is essential for the team.


Creating a self-organizing team

A common criticism of self-organizing teams is, “We cannot just put eight random individuals together, tell them to self-organize, and expect anything good to result.”

Creating a self-organizing team can be considered a three-step process.

Training: Proper classroom training can help satisfy many of the principles that self-organizing teams require. Specifically, hard skills training is needed to make each employee competent in a particular domain or technology. Soft skills training is also helpful.

Coaching: Once the team starts working together, adopt a coaching style to see if the members are facing any difficulties. They may require more support and guidance at the beginning. Some indicators of a self-organizing team are: scrum ceremonies, team enjoyment of the work, and teams pulling tasks for themselves.

By the end of this phase, you will know the team is self-organizing. However, keep your eyes open to observe the team’s behavior and provide need-based coaching.


Mentoring: Once a team starts self-organizing, the journey has only just begun. Team members still require mentoring to grow their skills and maintain the balance of the team. This mentoring should also help with continuity by ensuring everyone grows together and remains motivated. As mentioned earlier, a self-organizing team doesn’t need “command and control,” but it does need coaching and mentoring.

Teams are not always static; they change over time, but the frequency matters. Building a self-organizing team is an on-going process. Whenever a team’s composition changes, we need to repeat the whole team-building lifecycle (forming, storming, norming, and performing).


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How can we relate these two concepts?

Autonomy and self-management are two different concepts, but they are starting to be used interchangeably, as I said before.

Okay, to set up the stage, let’s see from 30,000 feet and consider, for now, these terms as

Autonomy is at the top management level, whereas self-organization is at the team level.


In self-organized teams,

  • There are no managers. Everything is self-directed and self-driven.
  • There is no one to set goals; teams decide their own learning path.
  • In self-organizing, a team sets their destination, sets accountability for the tasks, and decides how to reach the destination.
  • How many tasks, how often they have to do them, how many hours they have to do—it’s totally up to the team.

Autonomy, on the other hand, is different.

  • Autonomy means that there is someone who sets strategic direction and the goal for the employee [let’s call that someone a leader or top management], but the employee has the freedom to decide how to achieve the given goal.
  • Managers are there to guide, provide feedback, and advise employees, but they will not watch over the employee’s shoulder every step of the way.
  • There is always someone to review you, give you feedback, and promote you.
  • In autonomy, the team themselves decides and is accountable for how to reach the destination. But the destination is not set by the team; it is set by someone.




1A: Micromanagement Culture: no high-level purpose; just shut up and follow orders. The team is also not mature enough, and the manager takes almost all the decisions. Teams are management-compliant. Management always says we are here to decide what is good for you; you just follow what we are saying. This is leading to poor performance.

1B: In a large organization, autonomy is a tricky balancing act. For example, suppose you have hired a junior developer. First, they will need training, direction, and coaching. Then, over time, they will become more skilled and experienced. And then they will understand the company’s business model. As this happens, you can trust them with larger pieces of work and with less supervision.

Teams are similar in this quadrant. They aren’t all ready for autonomy right away, where team maturity is low, which again leads to poor performance.

2A: This quadrant exactly talks oppositely to 1B. So leaders are good at communicating what problems need to be solved, but they are also good at telling teams how to solve them. However, teams are well mature and self-organized; they know how to approach the given goal; this level of autonomy leads to dissatisfaction and a loss of motivation in teams.


2B: High autonomy with higher team maturity means leaders focus on what problems to solve and let the teams figure out how to solve them. This culture always brings continuous improvement and a healthy working environment.

Autonomy is the biggest factor when people decide to leave their current place of employment. Often, employees will stay in a position even if the salary is low, so long as they maintain some level of control over how they perform their work. Autonomy provides employees with a sense of collective ownership; they have organizational citizenship and, thus, a sense of belonging.

Yes, autonomy plays a critical role in reshaping our workplaces, but don’t forget to balance autonomy with self-organization for better results.

Even if at the organization level, leaders promote autonomy culture, it does not mean at the team level we achieved self-organization immediately. There are certain stages (mentioned above) that lead to self-organizing and performing teams for better results.


Studies found that in many organizations, there is a lack of system for team support, and reduced external autonomy is an important barrier to introducing self-organizing teams. These findings have implications for software development managers and practitioners.

Still, the process of designing, supporting, and coaching agile teams is not adequately addressed and understood in the context of software development organizations.

Further, there is a need for new knowledge on how companies should organize for the right level of autonomy and utilize self-organized agile teams to attain better performance, productivity, innovation, and value creation, and thus increase competitiveness.




-Jacob Morgan

-Daniel Pink