What it is to develop an autonomous team

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John Masse
John Masse

Thinking about developing myself out of my role used to sound crazy to me, but it has been a strategy that has paid me back more than I can express here. As a leader positioned to give responsibilities away, it frees me up to invest my time in other areas, expanding my learning while challenging my communication skills. But this is not as simple as pushing responsibilities off onto others; no, this is about developing those around me preparing them for the duties I may will one day yield to them. Developing autonomous teams has profound developmental effects and requires that the leader is pushing the limits of their listening and communication skills and their ability to teach the domain expertise they promote.

Avoid stalling out by promoting autonomy in your life.

The benefits of developing autonomous teams

Imagine all of the capabilities and strategic perspectives you have and then imagine your entire team imbued with the same position. Imagine how much more effective your team could be if you could help them realize or engage their full potential. Good, sustainable productivity comes from a genuinely autonomous team. When new projects and opportunities come your way, you have a team ready to tackle the challenge. Autonomous teams are having fun with their work. The business objectives have meaning to the team; the autonomous team improves how they work together and care for customers. Autonomous teams shine with minimal direction from the outside.

Autonomous teams get more quality and meaningful work done. They are exploratory, making them mostly self-sufficient for navigating a complex organization chart to chase down their answers. These teams break intricate work down and develop their plans. They push back to protect their time, and they maintain their schedules, including production support and even - vacations.

Most of all, the leader may break away from the daily execution and continue to look more broadly at the environment around them. They can spend time considering their team's position and how best to develop each of them. They may spend time exploring technologies and introduce new ideas to their teams. They can design workshops, run guilds, build programs at their company, build influence, and, ideally, culture.

A starting point for developing autonomy

Tackling autonomy requires we set goals for what type of independence we are seeking to establish. For instance, if we are building a team of Software Engineers, how do you expect them to behave? What principals drive your decision-making as a leader? Good culture posture, grounded with healthy and well-mannered principles, is a great place to establish the bedrock of behavior to encourage.

After this initial gut check, what software engineering practices that create the best outcomes for the product? Most programmers may say they need several qualities:

  • We need to write unit tests.
  • We scope pull-requests well enough to not gorge on our teammates' time to complete a code review.
  • We will provide meaningful feedback and be open-minded to those around us.
  • We need firm SDLC principles, ensuring our development organization is considerate of the operations.

These are standards for how we build things together. We agree upon how we practice, and from here, we may identify detractions from what we understand as "correct for us." (different from correct overall).

Implementing autonomy

Developing an autonomous team requires you to be willing to remove yourself from the center. You have to prepare yourself to trust those around you, that everyone is present to do the best they can. The majority of us will struggle with this step and may never realize our full potential as leaders.

Prepared for selflessness, we may now embark freely to prepare those around us to become accountable for the progress. In contrast, the leader becomes responsible for the well-being and continued development of their team. Prioritize one on one, listen for opportunities to help them understand the problems they are solving, and practice as a team and treat each other fairly. To uphold the best working standards possible and to take ownership of the company objectives.

The trap


Like many others before me, I started my technology career either by creating art for the sake of becoming a piece of software or by programming. The individual contributor's track is laced with dopamine shots each time we see the program working correctly. As our careers progress, we become more confident, and we begin to gain the courage to share our opinions with those around us.

And then we begin to own things.

As makers of software, we can become attached to our work. We have spent time taking care of the programming; we have advanced on its issues, we have added features and capabilities - and yes, even managed the tech debt. But now a team has grown around us and our software. Now, new ideas are emerging, and new perspectives challenge the decisions we were so confident in initially. We can decide what the priority is for our application's future - either I motivate those around me to adopt the principles I believe the product needs to thrive or become the center point of the outcome ensuring all decisions and advancements come through me.

The trap in this story is if we become the source of the application's future, we end up tying our destinies to the software.

Learn to let go

I remember the first time I realized I had the choice to either have my hands in everything or rely on my colleagues to help me get a considerable amount of work done. It was frightening. Thinking back, it was a very selfish position because I reflected on how I wanted people to think of my team's efforts as direct qualities of myself - I was thinking of me. This "me" being the center poisoned my ambitions, and I can see now how it would have sabotaged my career and taken the opportunities before me away.

"By me" style of leadership puts the individual at the center of what is possible. Still, for sustainable scaling, we require our principles to be distributed amongst those we rely on to continue to advance our initial efforts. This individual will begin to fade into the background of daily events and milestone rewards to those that earn them.

But where did we go?

Don't worry about taking credit for closing a ticket or catching a defect on your own. Reward those around you. Create a safe environment for exploration and learning. Hold those around you accountable to accomplish goals and strive for new expansive thinking.

Our presence as leaders is in the lining of the successes we promote in others.

The leader is present in the 1:1's. In the stakeholder meetings, they are keeping expectations in line with reality. Is clearing a path and seeking ways to shape the organization around them to fit the needs of those they rely on each day. They are reminding people of the promises they made for themselves and their stakeholders and connecting their colleagues' efforts with their impact on their community.

There is nothing wrong with chewing on the same application.

Plenty of healthy careers are established and carried on a handful of projects. That is nothing to take lightly. These applications solve real problems, and if you find joy in working on a schedule, continue to enjoy it. But if you are someone looking to expand their influence, develop organizations, traverse stories, professionals, events, and ideas - then this stop cannot be your last.

Begin from within

The first place to start exploring the joys of autonomous teams is within ourselves. Look around the current landscape; what have you been spending your time doing? Who could use more of your time to get them connected with the rest of the team and the objectives? If you move away from your organization, how well would they operate? Would people fight for authority or stop altogether? If you are nervous about any of these questions, it is an excellent opportunity to take a step back and consider spending your time thinking deeply about letting go.

Get advice

For a deeper and more specific conversation around autonomy, its benefits and how to bring more autonomy to your organization, please reach out to us and schedule time for a chat.