Autonomous, self-organizing teams are often understood as a core aspect of Agile. They hold the promise of unlocking people and giving them an environment where they can show up at their best and achieve the extraordinary. Yet, they don’t work. Or more accurately, it is very very difficult to get them working well.

There’s actually nothing in the Agile Manifesto that says teams should be autonomous and self-organizing. There is an observation in the manifesto: The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. This is very far from a prescription to make all your teams self-organizing on day one. In fact, doing so can have disastrous consequences.

The Problem With Autonomous, Self-Organizing Teams

Why are autonomous self-organizing teams damaging for creating a high-performance organization? Let’s go through the list.

Business people discussing autonomous self organizing team in board room

Full Autonomy Is a Myth

It turns out that virtually no team on planet earth is fully, 100% autonomous. Some teams have higher levels of autonomy, yet it doesn’t even make sense for teams to be autonomous. There are a few problems with full autonomy.

Number one, when you tell a team that they’re autonomous, they’ll believe you. They’ll think they’re autonomous and they’ll make decision after decision after decision – eventually, they’ll hit what we call the “invisible electric fence.” That is, they’ll discover that they actually weren’t allowed to make the decision. 

This is setting teams up for failure and creates resistance. What happens is, lack of trust in management and or fear sets in. “Well, we don’t know which decisions we can make. We don’t know when we’re going to get into trouble for being autonomous.” Their level of psychological safety will drop, the blood supply to their brain will shut down, and their ability to function will actually decrease. A rise in resistance and anger also will emerge subtly as empowerment decreases.

Leading Beyond Change

Optimizing Locally Hurts Performance

The second challenge with telling teams they’re autonomous is optimizing product backlogs per team without regard to the organization as a whole. That’s the job of a Scrum team – to focus only on their work. Unfortunately, when all your teams are optimizing locally, the global optimum will actually fall. 

There’s a well-known lesson from Lean that when we optimize locally, the global optimum falls. By telling teams they’re autonomous, we’re actually hurting organizational performance. 

Stressed out man holding his head

Self-Organizing: Too Much Too Soon

When you have highly responsible, resourceful, and creative people who don’t need very much direction, self-organizing teams can create an amazing outcome. However, this is exceedingly rare. For most teams where people are at mixed or low levels of responsibility, self-organizing teams turn out to be a complete disaster.

What’s wrong with self-organizing? Most people and most teams aren’t ready to be fully self-organizing. Jumping from a low level to a really high level of autonomy and self-organization can be damaging. Most people aren’t able to make such a big change all at once. Self-organization can be seen as the star on the horizon, something to work towards gradually.

How Did Autonomous, Self-Organizing Teams Get So Popular?

If it’s such a disaster, how did the idea of autonomous, self-organizing teams become intertwined with Agile? 

Scrum is the most popular version of Agile. In Scrum, the whole principle is that you have self-organizing teams, yet this is not mentioned in the current Scrum Guide. However, there’s a caveat. If you look carefully at what Scrum says, it says to set up teams so that they have all the support they need to be independent and self managing within the team. 

“Scrum Teams are cross-functional, meaning the members have all the skills necessary to create value each Sprint. They are also self-managing, meaning they internally decide who does what, when, and how.” Scrum Guide 2020

Man holding sticky note saying scrum

A key requirement for having self- organizing teams with a high level of autonomy is that you have very responsible people with a shared vision, the maturity of purpose and engagement. Unfortunately, this kind of responsibility and organizational context is rare.

The reason the idea of self-organizing has become so popular is simple. Most of the people who are in the Agile movement see the oppression that’s in most workplaces, the command and control type of leadership and management. They believe, somewhat naively, that if we make self-organizing teams, the oppression will end. 

While it’s true that this switch can create a temporary suspension of oppression, at the end of the day, the level of oppression in the culture is going to dominate what happens. Any attempts to set up autonomous teams will ultimately falter and fail. It’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t really work in practice. 

What to Do Instead

Agile is actually about being iterative and incremental. Instead of making massive, damaging changes, why don’t we start moving towards self-organization iteratively and incrementally? 

That sounds great, right? But what does that actually look like? The first step is abandoning the phrase “autonomous self-organizing teams” and replacing it with the term “interrelated, responsible teams.”

Autonomous → Interrelated

We want teams that, instead of optimizing locally, optimize for the whole organization. They understand they’re part of the larger fabric of the organization. They understand that they need to get their own work done and play nicely with others to make sure that the organization is successful.

Don’t make the mistake of falling into the local optimization trap. That’s the key intention of using the term “interrelated.” In an organization guided by the concept of interrelatedness, when another team comes and asks for help, we say “Yes,” because we’re working for the same organization. Whereas the default answer in Scrum is, “No, put it in our backlog.” 

Business team in a good mood at the office

Self-Organizing → Responsible

Instead of self-organizing (or self-managing) teams, what we actually want are responsible teams. Responsible teams make good decisions and function in a healthy way within the larger organizational ecosystem. The question is, “How do we get responsible teams?” Well, it turns out responsible teams come from responsible people. Really, the whole journey to self-managing is about helping people become more responsible for their behavior and their choices, or in our version of “Teal”: acting like an adult.

It turns out most people in the workplace do not always act like adults. They do not take full responsibility for their behavior. This is kind of a tall requirement and there’s a lot of growth needed for people to be able to take that level of responsibility. As they grow in their individual levels of responsibility, the team’s level of responsibility will raise.

Moving Towards Autonomy & Self-Organization

Sure, higher levels of autonomy and self-organization or even self-management are correlated with high performance – when executed correctly. A very powerful way to initiate a shift towards inter-related responsible teams is to focus on how power is shared through decisions.

Instead of sharing all the power all at once (with autonomy), we want to share power iteratively and incrementally. How do we share power and autonomy? How do we share decision-making? There are other articles we’ve written about this, things like using the advice process and decision cards

Coworkers congratulating each other over finished job

In practice it is to eliminate ambiguity and to clarify what is an appropriate level of decision-making for people. Guiding teams to understand the boundaries within the organization and the terms and level of self management that fits the context. What can they decide on their own? What is a better decision for them to make in cooperation with others? Where are they not able to make certain decisions? Where does it make more sense for decisions to be made by others outside the team, the manager, architects or other people that are involved with this team’s ecosystem.

For managers and coaches, the place to focus is helping people learn how to show up more responsibly. It is important for leaders of an organization to have the capabilities and skill to grow their people and teams to support the self-managing organization, so everyone can be successful. Of course, we can only help others to the extent that we can help ourselves.

Thus, our number one job as a manager or a coach is to make sure we’re an exemplar of taking responsibility for our behavior and modeling highly responsible (self-managing) behavior. Showing up as a full adult. Now, this is a very challenging thing to do, and it actually implies an evolutionary shift in how we show up. 

Shifting Consciousness

Living up to the spirit and intention of Agile requires a shift in the consciousness and behaviors of the people involved. This is what we speak about as Evolutionary Leadership – a committed, ongoing choice to evolve ourselves. Anything less than that will not really lead to evolution. We start with evolving ourselves to inspire evolution in others, to have people who show with higher levels of interrelatedness and responsibility. Change starts with you.

Leading Beyond Change