Autonomy and Control in Agile Projects – the balancing act

 Some Agile teams, especially those in their early days of the agile journey face the classic conflict of autonomy and control. They might resist the typical command and control measures that are inherent in many classical organizations. But agility requires a delicate balance of autonomy and control. Delivery of quality end products to customer satisfaction is not the only result we want to achieve. This is indeed needed, but at the same time, projects have objectives of schedule and costs as well, which are as important. Control measures for these are definitely required. But the level of control can be debated. Essentially I would say that two types of control – extrinsic and intrinsic – are necessary in a any project – agile or otherwise.

Extrinsic control measures are those parameterized metrics that are employed by someone external to the project team to predict project health. Intrinsic measures on the other hand are those that must be employed by the project team to guide their actions and decisions. Now in a typical command and control structure, there might be little difference between these extrinsic and intrinsic controls, or there could be a big overlap.

My 2 cents on it would be you need both – results based management as well as control based management. The intrinsic measures that the project teams use need to drive the direction towards better results – frequent demonstration of working software, retrospectives, ensuring flow etc. The extrinsic measures need to focus on the bigger parameters of project budget, overall schedule, SLA adherence etc.

At a superficial level, this may feel obvious and simplistic. In execution however there are challenges. The extrinsic metrics more often get devised in such a way, that they become an overhead and impediment to the team’s agility. e.g In a weak matrix organization, where the project team could have members from several functional groups, metrics that measure results of individual groups can drive incorrect behavior. This could bring challenges in building the team culture as everyone though part of a team, still have their own loyalties. So the extrinsic measures need to be defined sensitively. They must not compromise and impact the team dynamics and agility in a negative way – this in turn has an impact on their ability to deliver results.

At the same time, the intrinsic measures must lead to predictable results. Management’s ultimate goal for having control is to have results, so there is not much conflict here conceptually. But the balance of autonomy and control is the real key issue. For teams that are just starting with agile, this transition might be painful. For management that is used to holding all the reigns, letting go is not going to be easy, not just because they want to hold on. But also because they need to see the results. So the shift of balance between autonomy and control need to happen in an “agile” way, in small increments, iteratively.

Its like driving a Formula 1 car. You want the speed – the agility yet you want to be fully in control.

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