Autonomy is a key ingredient in motivation.

Organizations often talk about empowerment rather than autonomy; however, they are not the same thing. Simply, empowerment is given whereas autonomy is taken. This distinction has an effect on moral responsibility in terms of decision making.

Because an empowered individual or team is given its mandate for action from a higher power (i.e. management), the moral responsibility for its actions is, at best, derived from the high power but normally resides with the higher power. Empowered teams will often go and check with their senior management. Over time that degrades to only doing what they’re told.

An autonomous individual or team, however, assumes their own moral responsibility. An autonomous team has the right to do what it wants (within ethical constraints) without asking permission, without external limitation to the scope of that right. This is in contrast to an empowered team who are empowered to “do something” and therefore by implication anything that falls outside of that defined “something” is contentious.

Some organizations struggle with implementing this idea because there isn’t full trust between teams and the Business Leaders. However, if teams are truly trusted to act in the best interests of a transparent Strategic Direction they can be autonomous in selecting their working practices.

Autonomy doesn’t preclude fitting in with stakeholder’s requirements, only choosing the tactical details without constraint.

For a software team this means that the autonomous team can decide to take whatever action necessary to achieve its goals (as aligned to Strategic Direction and therefore Requiremements) only when the customer is part of the team making those decisions.