2013-07-25: Self-Sufficiency vs Autonomy

This InfoQ article inspired this post.

In some ways Self-Sufficiency and Autonomy are synonyms: self-direction and self-governance; however, in the context of business, specifically fostering innovation in small teams, there is a profound distinction.

Self-Sufficiency is a quality of the team itself: the team members compose a whole that is capable of delivering innovation. Does the team have the technical skill to accomplish its goals? Self-Sufficiency is bottom-up.

Autonomy is a quality of the organization: the culture creates an atmosphere that allows for innovation. Does management give the team the trust to succeed or fail on its own. Autonomy is top-down.

This is a paradox for many enterprises (I'm not speaking directly to the software-engineering crowd): the team believes it is self-sufficient but the architect does not allow for its autonomy. This brings to mind the Russian proverb and #16 of the 42 Rules to Lead by Google's Jonathan Rosenberg: Doveryai no proveryai (Trust but Verify).

Good advice that most architect's get wrong; for this proverb can be see at least two ways:

  1. Don't ever trust anyone: you will just need to verify the work for yourself.
  2. Trust everyone: you will just need to verify the work.
... and most architect's choose (1) because trust is hard and they're smarter than everyone else.