Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The relationship between self-organization, autonomy and trust

Agility encourages self-organization. Self-organization is the only way to fully harness the maximum thinking potential of everyone on the team(s), but you can't just tell the team "Ok, now you're self-organized" and expect things to work out. In this guide, we will discuss how management attitude and practice affects self-organization.

Autonomy and Trust

Self-organization has two basic requirements: The team must be able to work autonomously, and there must be a high level of trust.
Let us examine how the levels of autonomy and trust affect the team:

Command + Control

When autonomy and trust are low, we speak of a "Command and Control" structure. In this setting, management tells people what to do and checks that they do it. When people do not do as told, additional controls are instituted, because that gives management more confidence that the desired result is obtained: Trust is not necessary. Most traditional organizations are built this way - that actually works to get things done in the way management wants. The only drawback is: The innovation power is limited to management brains. The rest of the team are just busybees.
C+C Structures are stable and sustainable.


When autonomy and trust are high, we have a "Self-Organization" structure. In this setting, management enables people to do what they think is right. Managers admit that they are not the experts and when the experts are stuck, managers will support. This requires trust on both sides: Management must trust the team to do the right things, the team must trust managers to be a reliable source of help.
This is a massive paradigm shift - and this frees everyone to fully focus on moving forward rather than on the status quo: New solutions emerge that management could never have imagined.
Self-Organizing Structures are stable and sustainable.


High autonomy coupled with mutual distrust will be anarchic: Everyone will try to protect themselves first, even when this is detrimental to others. Managers want to control people, but people do not want to be controlled. Teams will consider other teams as impediments and constantly try to force their own view on others. This reinforces mutual distrust.
Anarchic organizations are inherently counterproductive, as people will invest the majority of their effort on protecting their own turf and conquering others' turf.
Anarchic Structures are unstable, and typically unsustainable.


Giving people trust, without letting them decide what to do will result in apathy. Managers will constantly restrict people in doing what they think is right, but then let people run free on what they think is not. People learn through reinforcement that their ideas, expertise and skill are actually perceived as irrelevant.
Apathic organizations are inherently unproductive, as people realize that their potential is discounted and unvaluable.
Anarchic Structures are unstable. As apathic workers tend to leave, they are unsustainable.


Based on this model, managers have only two choices: Provide high autonomy and trust - or remove both. Other states are undesirable. Self-Organization only happens when a high level of autonomy and trust exist. This does not happen merely by decree, but must be reinforced by actions.

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