Autonomy is more than a car or truck driving itself. According to dictionary.com it’s
independence or freedom, as of the will or one's actions
But what does it really mean? Especially to a team, working with other teams?
Autonomy is power. The power to decide, for yourself or your team, what the right answer is. The power to decide how to achieve that result, The power to decide how to present and share that result,
By that definition the difference between autonomy and anarchy isn’t that big. It could be argued that they’re the same thing. Certainly if you have anarchy then you have autonomy, But I’m pretty sure that anarchy isn’t the best way for a group of developers to get something done.
While autonomy can mean the freedom to choose to do whatever you want, in this context it doesn’t. It means understanding the end goals and constraints and having the freedom, the autonomy to act within those constraints to achieve the goals.
It also means that you have a bunch of responsibilities. Of course you’re responsible for meeting the agreements you’ve made. But you’re also responsible to communicate. To communicate status. To communicate when expectations change. To communicate when your needs change. Again, autonomy doesn’t mean do what you want when you want and don’t think about the consequences.
The key is to balance the power and the responsibility. To maintain alignment between your autonomous decisions and everyone else’s autonomous decisions and the shared goals. To understand that while you have the power to do what you want, you’re working towards a shared vision and what’s best for you isn’t necessarily best for the vision. It’s easy to confuse a personal maximum for a team maximum. Especially if all you look at is speed. Just because you’re moving as fast as you can doesn’t mean you’re adding the most value.
Or, as Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”