Musings on Autonomy

After facilitating the “Game without Thrones”  – an activity that is intended to introduce participants to a descaling paradigm – several times, I’d like to share some learnings.  The game itself was great fun to facilitate, and who doesn’t like playing with Lego’s?

  1. Autonomy is difficult: One of the main outcomes of the game, and the reason it’s called the Game without thrones, is the notion that there are no masters, no chiefs, no Scrum lords, no Product Owners, just people aligned by a common mission and purpose to build a castle out of Lego’s.  

    While it’s easy to appreciate and get excited about the prospect of “no masters”, it wasn’t as easy to understand and grasp that there is no one there to tell you what to do, or how to do it.  The success of your squad depends on how well you collaborate with your squad mates, how well you embrace your role in chapter meetings which ideally result in learnings, proposals, features, and treaties. How well “Small Council” meetings are run, where feedback loops are short, and decisions are made to prioritize features. And finally, how squads align and deliver on their commitments.

    As a veteran of many agile transformations, I can attest to the difficulty in helping people understand that they have the power to make decisions and share ideas.  Too often, people doing the work have a hard time transitioning to being visionary, realizing that they have an opinion, and that their opinion counts! And too often, managers have a hard time letting go of the decision-making process.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “It just doesn’t work that way around here Kumar, people need to be told what to do”. To which I respond, “what if they don’t?”  

  2. Autonomy is contagious: Once the participants figured out their roles in the simulation and became comfortable with what was expected, new behaviors that would have been foreign an hour prior, became more natural as they went through cycles of learning and understanding required to build their Lego castle .  As one of the participants said in the debrief, “It was chaotic at first, but I’m impressed that people who were complete strangers before the event, could come together and build a castle in less than 2 hours!” So much for Tuckman’s stages of group development!

    Autonomy, while uncomfortable, can thrive and flourish if given the right environment and ecosystem to grow.  And what does that environment look like?  It’s where ideas are encouraged, tested, and validated in short learning cycles.  It’s where you don’t have to have the title of Product Owner to contribute ideas to improve, or create, a product (Scrum of course allows and encourages this, however, it’s often poorly implemented).  It’s also where leaders serve their people, by providing a way to help speed decision-making; not by making the decision themselves, but by recognizing and deciding who the best person is to make the decision.  Isn’t this what leadership is really about?

  3. Autonomy is made possible through Alignment: So, what the heck do I mean by this?  Without alignment, the squads could never have built a Lego castle in 20 hours, much less the little under 2 hours it took them to build.  Without alignment on their vision, learnings, proposals and treaties, they would’ve very likely have failed to build anything resembling a castle.  

    What this also amplifies for me is that the idea that descaling organizations allows for much quicker feedback cycles, much greater opportunity for alignment, and finally, a much better chance for autonomy to become part of a “new way of working”.  What do you think?
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