Autonomous Motivation in Technology Organizations

by Emily Nguyen - 29 Jun 2017

David O'Donoghue, our Head of Engineering at our Dublin Tech Hub, had a talk at this year’s Microservices Day in London on Autonomous Teams.

We wanted to put together a short summary of the key messages of the talk, in order to give you a better idea about how our teams work.

Zalando started building autonomous teams in 2015 to move away from a traditional top-down hierarchy that had emerged over years as the company grew. A lot of people were skeptical about the autonomy concept at first. However, with over 40 years of research and hundreds of papers that strongly suggest autonomy is a system that organizations like ours should adopt, we jumped head-first into the challenge.

According to self-determination theory, there are three types of human motivation: amotivation, controlled, and autonomous. Autonomous motivation is far superior to controlled motivation for complex tasks, problem solving, or tasks that require creativity, innovation or persistence. Therefore, the critical question for technology organizations is how to create an environment that maximises the amount of autonomous motivation people experience.

Our approach to creating autonomous motivation lies within a core unit of the organization: an autonomous team. It typically consists of 4 to 8 people who, based on the maturity of the team, have autonomy over a range of things: choice of technologies, choice of architecture, choice of planning, etc.

With each one of our autonomous teams, we focus on three key principles – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Autonomy is about experiencing a maximum sense of choice. Mastery is about helping individuals develop competence. Purpose is about a meaningful rationale for why our work is important.

Teams are usually accompanied by three leaders. A Delivery Lead will work with the team, coach, mentor and guide that team towards successful delivery of their service or product. A Practice Lead will focus on individual competence, while a Product Owner will provide the bigger picture around requirements and help the team to understand customers and the business impact of their work.

The key take-away here is that autonomy doesn’t mean independence, but freedom of choice. Individual competence of your skillset is necessary, leadership is critical, collaboration matters, and architecture must support autonomy. In fact, the move into microservices had enabled the emergence of our autonomous teams.

We have been living autonomy for 2 years now – have we been able to make it work at Zalando? In our own research, we checked to see which forms of motivation our people are experiencing, how they are experiencing it and what impact it is having. Our data shows:

  • A significant positive relationship between empowering leadership and autonomous motivation
  • A positive relationship between autonomous motivation and individual performance
  • A significant relationship between autonomous motivation and affective commitment
  • A positive relationship between accountability and autonomous motivation when empowering leadership exists

Need more data? Check our David’s presentation at Microservices Day in London below:

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