Giving project teams more autonomy boosts productivity and customer satisfaction

January 23, 2022

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Giving project teams more autonomy boosts productivity and customer satisfaction

Software development teams given the freedom to tackle their projects in whatever ways they choose are more productive and have more satisfied customers than teams that follow a central corporate standard, according to new research.

The research suggests that organizations that take a hands-off approach to the structure and governance of project teams create an environment of creative flexibility. This built-in flexibility makes teams more responsive to needed changes in the software they’re building, boosting performance and customer satisfaction.

What the researchers say: “By giving greater autonomy to your teams, you allow them to exercise greater judgment about what would actually work based on their project requirements,” said the study’s co-author. “We show there’s no one right way of achieving superior project performance, no one-size-fits-all.”

The researchers tested the performance of both agile and traditional project teams over 50 months in a real-world policy experiment at a major software company. The company had 125,000 software developers around the world working on projects that adhered to an ideal operations profile closely monitored through a central unit.

Senior company directors wanted to learn whether greater autonomy for software development teams would hurt or help performance. For the study, they implemented a policy change granting greater autonomy to certain teams and agreeing to provide data on key performance measures — for both autonomous and nonautonomous teams — before and after the policy change.

From 2013 to 2018, the researchers tracked productivity and customer satisfaction on 461 projects. Managers on 146 projects were granted autonomy to design their projects the way they wanted using three main controls: location and time differences among team members, level of process diversity (such as lean or structured), and level of managerial control.

“Managers of autonomous teams could each choose what type of structure worked well for them and their project team, versus having something dictated to them by a central point of contact,” the researchers said.

Software developers measure productivity in function points — a useful proxy for the software’s functionality. The more function points a product has, the more value it adds to the software. Value added increased 39% for teams that switched to an autonomous structure compared with projects that did not.

Customer satisfaction also increased. The agile teams’ ratings increased 2.95% as a result of the policy change, “which was pretty substantial,” the lead researcher noted.

So, what? This research ties in neatly with evolutionary theory and my own observation of hunter-gatherer groups.

H-Gs hunted and gathered in small, wholly autonomous groups for literally millions of years before the advent of farming. This way of working was therefore, over time, embedded in our DNA. Because of this, the more that work teams resemble these ancient bands in terms of size (max 7 individuals) and autonomy, the more they will be working in line with human design specs rather than against them. As much research has shown, these teams will be more efficient and productive than others.

Many researchers have noted that hunter-gatherer teams were the most productive the world has known. From my own observation I can also say that they had the most fun in their work.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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