Autonomous teams, meaning work groups granted the organizational latitude to establish their own internal goals and work practices, appear all the rage these days. Indeed, a proliferation of autonomous teams has surfaced across industries and many organizational leaders now prefer them over other team types. There is no question that empowering teams of employees to independently shape group tasks and processes, generate knowledge and explore innovation can be an effective way to achieve desired outcomes. Yet, as more and more scholars examine autonomous teams, intrigue has been building over what really makes them effective. This article discusses findings from a recent study that revealed a unique set of organizational dynamics that can be nurtured to fuel powerful autonomous teams.
Members from six autonomous teams at separate community colleges in the Midwest United States were recruited to share their work-related experiences. Each team had been charged with designing and implementing a continuous-improvement initiative. As such, each team was a formal part of the organizational structure in which it worked and each team member understood and accepted the direct organizational leadership responsibilities through the self-managed practices required of participating on autonomous teams. Ultimately, only half of the participating teams experienced a successful outcome implementation.
Interviews with three participants from each team resulted in a rich discussion of specific organizational dynamics that play vital roles in determining whether autonomous teams succeed or fail. Given that teams in the study were empowered to carry out their work and implement their own outcomes similar to other autonomous teams, an assumption can be made that the findings of our study are relevant and applicable to other autonomous team situations. Based on participant feedback, three distinct dynamics were found to prevail in the organizations with successful autonomous teams: (a) organization-wide commitment to using autonomous teams, (b) upfront and unwavering commitment to allocating organizational resources for team use and (c) frequent, face-to-face feedback from organizational leaders. These organizational dynamics form the framework for further discussion in this article.
Just as successful autonomous teams praised support from top managers for their accomplishments, participants on failed autonomous teams blamed weak support from management for their failure. In other words, an organization-wide commitment to autonomous teams is one of the most powerful factors behind team success. In particular, top administrators can create an environment conducive to successful autonomous teams by fostering team orientation, building employee desire to participate on autonomous teams and optimizing appropriate levels of autonomy.
In order for autonomous teams to be effective, however, an entrepreneurial tone within the organization must also be cultivated. With flatter, more adaptive structures, a tremendous transition occurs in which the power of autonomous teams replaces traditional leadership and decision-making hierarchies. Contemporary organizations find such structural change to be especially advantageous when inspiring employee innovation in reaction to volatile change.
When autonomous teams are deployed, dispersed leadership roles ultimately become a norm within an organization’s culture and an accepted way of life for employees. Commitment to autonomous teams strengthens over time as organizational members begin to experience first-hand the benefits of all-employee involvement in bottom-up decision making across functional areas. However, this way of working must start at the top and trickle down if organizational commitment to the process is expected to endure.
Organization-wide commitment to autonomous teams is also strengthened when employees are motivated to participate. Our study found that selecting the same employees to participate time after time tarnishes efforts made toward an organization-wide commitment to autonomous teams. The desire of employees to participate (along with their ability to develop buy-in to changes in organizational processes resulting from using autonomous teams) appears to be much stronger in organizations in which everyone has an equal chance of being selected to participate. Whatever the motivators for employees to participate, however, the redistribution of any organizational processes must become an ingrained part of the organizational culture.
Furthermore, an organization-wide commitment to autonomous teams is critically dependent on having appropriate and consistent levels of autonomy bestowed on team members. There is a link between employee desire to participate on autonomous teams and having a significant sense of ownership in team outcomes. Simply put, members of autonomous teams desire the ability to make decisions in an entrepreneurial climate without too much managerial interference.
Optimal levels of autonomy allow team members to work without constantly consulting organizational leaders, who often have conflicting ideas or personal agendas that can cause disruption. High levels of autonomy stimulate innovation as team members personally contribute to the design of team processes and watch their ideas being implemented.
Appropriate levels of autonomy also condition team members to take on many of their supervisors’ responsibilities. In fact, some traditional leadership roles may become redundant when team autonomy is effectively managed. As a result, organizational leaders must be willing to assume the role of coach or mentor and work to optimize levels of autonomy within teams to allow team members to work with wider latitude of discretion to generate variety when creating decision alternatives.
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