Autonomous teams are anarchists at heart

There might be two types of autonomous teams.

The kind that is autonomous because they are the only team. Picture a small startup with one team of people working together. Let’s call this team autonomous-by-default.

And then there is the kind that is autonomous because they have broken free of the governance structures of the organisation they work in. We’ll call these types of team autonomous-by-design. These are the types of autonomous teams we’re interested in.

And there are many types of anarchist.

From the extreme individualist to the complete collectivist, but what anarchists have in common is wanting to be free of governing authority and coercive hierarchy. Anarchists propose replacing existing governing bodies with voluntary institutions. Perhaps replacing what Follet called ‘power-over’ with ‘power-with‘.

Anarchy doesn’t mean chaos. It does not mean no structure, or rule. It means placing power in the hands of those whom the power would be exercised upon.

Autonomous teams are anarchist at heart.

Should we be surprised that software development teams want to be autonomous? Did we think that the hacker mindset would be packed away neatly in the office drawer when programmers and developers accepted pay cheques? Of course not.

Autonomous teams may be an efficient way for teams to achieve goals for sure, but they are so much more. They are the corporate representation of the rebellious streak that runs through so many who work in tech. They are the embodiment of anarchy dressed up in appropriate office attire.

Some research shows that successful autonomous teams require significant support and commitment from the organisation in order to be autonomous. They require that the organisation give them the power to make their own decisions rather than autonomous teams taking power of their own accord. But having been given that power, autonomous teams take it and run with it. They want the freedom to work in the way they think best and do the work they think needs to be done.

Perhaps autonomy comes in degrees rather than absolutes. Perhaps a team can achieve autonomy with centralised governance. But can a team be autonomous without being anarchistic at heart?