When autonomy improves team performance – and when it doesn’t


From GitHub to Google, companies are increasingly adopting policies that allow teams substantial autonomy over both who they work with and what they work on. It can help employees feel more involved in their work, thereby stimulating creativity and innovation, but recent research suggests it’s easy to go too far in self-reliance. In a new study, the authors found that teams who were allowed to choose both the makeup of their groups and the ideas they worked on actually performed significantly worse than those who were allowed to choose only groups. teammates or ideas (but not both). Based on this surprising result, the authors argue that the question managers should ask themselves is not whether they must give autonomy to the teams, but what kind autonomy that they should give them. Instead of becoming obsessed with autonomy above all else, the authors suggest that managers should take a more nuanced approach and think critically about which areas will benefit from autonomy – and which will not.

How much autonomy is too much autonomy? As some companies take a rigid approach to task assignment, it is increasingly common to allow employees a greater degree of freedom in determining what to work on and with whom. Companies such as Spotify, GitHub and Google have made public their policies allowing employees to self-select the projects and teams they work with, arguing that by stimulating higher levels of ownership and creativity, this strategy leads to better and more innovative ideas.

It may sound intuitive, but our recent research suggests that it is possible to go too far with autonomy. We conducted a field experience with over 900 students as part of an 11-week undergraduate course in lean startup entrepreneurship, where students were grouped into teams of three and tasked with developing a startup idea and a pitch deck. Unbeknownst to the students and teachers, we randomly assigned the students to one of four conditions, varying whether they had autonomy over the ideas they would work on and the makeup of their teams. In the first group, the students were both divided into teams and were informed of the idea to be pursued. In the second group, students could choose their teammates, but were assigned an idea to work on. In the third group, the students were divided into teams, but were given the autonomy to choose their own idea. And in the last group, the students were allowed to choose both their teammates and their ideas.

The teams produced pitch decks that were evaluated by a panel of practitioners, including entrepreneurs, angel investors and venture capitalists. To ensure a fair assessment, names and photos were drafted, judges were not allowed to communicate with each other before submitting their responses, and each pitch deck received three independent reviews. The judges were first asked to rate the performance of the pitch decks in five areas: novelty, feasibility, market potential, likelihood of success, and likelihood of inviting the team to a follow-up meeting. Then, after all the pitch decks had been scored individually, the judges were asked to allocate a fictitious investment budget of $ 1 million to all of the projects they evaluated (they could spend part, all of them). or none of their budget).

So what did we find? Interestingly, our analysis suggested that some autonomy, but not complete, worked the best. Teams that weren’t allowed to choose their ideas or teammates performed the worst, but those with full autonomy performed only slightly better: they were assessed with less than a 1% chance of success more than teams without autonomy.

Conversely, teams that enjoyed some autonomy significantly outperformed both those with full autonomy and those without autonomy: autonomy and 49% more likely to succeed than those with full autonomy. They also received 82% more of the fictitious investment budget than those without autonomy, and 23% more of the budget than those with full autonomy. Overall, the best performing teams were those to which their teammates had been assigned but had autonomy over their ideas, closely followed by those who had been assigned ideas and allowed to choose their teams.

Why could it be? We found that the main factor behind these effects was that teams with some autonomy were best able to match ideas to team members. Teams with assigned teammates and autonomy over ideas could choose ideas based on members’ interests, while those with assigned ideas and autonomy over members could strategically choose the best suited teammates to work on the idea. . Teams without autonomy over their members or ideas had no way of doing this type of correspondence, and it was just as difficult to effectively match teams and ideas when the two were in discussion.

Additionally, a secondary driving factor was that choosing both their teams and their ideas fueled overconfidence, which is known to negatively impact performance. We asked teams to describe how their own performance and abilities compared to that of a comparison group, and we found that fully empowered teams were the most likely to overestimate their own abilities.

With that said, it’s important to note that we identified a constant benefit of autonomy: after the course was over, we asked the students how happy they were and found that the more autonomy the students had, the happier they said they were. Teams that were able to choose their own ideas were more satisfied with their ideas; teams that were able to choose their members were more satisfied with their groups; and those who were able to choose both were the happiest of all. Unfortunately, despite an abundant literature on the link between positive emotions and superior performance, we found that at least in this case, the happiest student entrepreneurs did not come up with the best performing pitch decks.

Take-out for the workplace

Of course, there is a big difference between students in an entrepreneurship course and real-world entrepreneurial practitioners. The classroom offered the kind of large-scale data and controlled experimental environment that’s difficult to access in traditional workplaces, but it’s important to recognize its limitations. Although previous research suggests that it is reasonable to extrapolate how people in the workplace might act based on student behavior in studies similar to ours, managers would be wise to consider how their contexts may differ from that. that we have described, and adapt accordingly. With this caveat (applicable to many research-based advice), we can suggest two strategies to help managers more effectively leverage the empowerment of their teams:

First, the question to ask is not whether you must give autonomy to the teams, but what kind autonomy that you must give them. Autonomy is neither good nor bad. In our research, we explored how a more nuanced understanding of autonomy in the dimensions of team composition and idea generation could improve performance. And those are just two – there are probably many other types of autonomy that managers could consider. While full autonomy rarely pays off, managers can experiment to clarify which types of decisions benefit from more direction, and which are best left to the discretion of employees.

Second, our work illustrates the power of chance. One of the most surprising things about our findings was that when teams chose their own ideas, those whose members were randomly Assignees performed better than teams whose members were deliberately selected from each other. Previous research has shown that people tend to gravitate towards their friends or people who are like them, and we’ve seen the same kind of pattern in teams choosing their own members. This did not directly explain why these teams performed poorly, but indirectly it meant that teams with full autonomy got stuck in echo chambers, which falsely inflated their confidence in their pitch decks and ended up hurting the teams. performance. While we are not suggesting that all teams are formed at random, our results indicate that introducing an element of randomness into how teams are affected can improve performance in some contexts.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for determining exactly how much autonomy to give your team. Instead, managers should take a more nuanced approach to determining how key decisions will be made. It means moving beyond black-and-white philosophies and thinking critically about which areas will benefit from autonomy – and which will not.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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