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Increase Learning with 10% Autonomy Time

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Giving teams autonomy to spend 10% of their time for learning reduces delivery time, increases quality, and increases motivation, claimed Giuseppe de Simone, Lead Agile Coach & Trainer at Ericsson. He presented Managing in the Century of the Networked Society at the Agile Greece Summit 2016 in which he explored how they experimented with a "10% rule" to increase autonomy in teams.

Teams are allowed to spend 10% of their time on a topic of their choice. This rule gives teams full autonomy to work on things they consider important. According to De Simone, it results in freeing up people’s creativity and allowing teams to grow their potential.

The InfoQ summary on Pros and Cons of "10% time" from Elizabeth Pope describes how Holiday Extras has applied "10% time":

"10% time" is essentially allocated hours in the working week that are not focused on "business as usual (BAU)" work, and can instead be used for research and development, and learning and professional skills development. In a typical UK-based working week, this means that 4 hours (half a day) per week are available for these activities.

According to the summary devoting 10% of work time to R&D and learning has been beneficial for both individuals and the organization. Some of the results are:

  • Individual development
  • Experimental work that can drive innovation for the company
  • Increased efficiency
  • Increased collaboration
  • Increasing engagement and developing "self organisation" skills
  • Bug fixing and removing tech debt

InfoQ spoke with Giuseppe De Simone after his talk at the Agile Greece Summit about the things that employees do in the 10% autonomy time, the benefits that 10% autonomy time has brought, and activities that organizations can support to increase learning.

InfoQ: Can you give examples of things that employees do in the 10% autonomy time?

Giuseppe De Simone: Each team which is given this opportunity chooses. The most successful teams I have been working with invested their time in things like improving their CI system, speeding up their value stream or simply reading books, spending time in Communities of Practice, coding dojos, or prototyping ideas around subjects of their choice. Other teams just used the time to implement actions coming from their retrospectives.

InfoQ: What have been the benefits that 10% autonomy time has brought?

De Simone: In one of the organizations I coached we managed to reduce the average lead time of developing a feature (from concept to being ready for deployment) by 25% and reduce defects at customer site by 42% in 18 months. At the same time, we increased the motivation index by 10%.

We reached these two results basically thanks to Scrum and a new leadership style, built on the behaviors, skills and tools I presented in my talk, which are inspired by the wave of thinking which is re-inventing management in the 21st century.

Many of the things, which turned out to be fundamental to achieve those results, could not have been done without freeing up people's creativity, and letting teams go and grow to their full potential. The 10% full autonomy time counted for a big share in this game and the business return on this time invested is hard to quantify; whatever I could estimate would be undervalued.

InfoQ: Which activities have been done to support learning? Which benefits did this bring?

De Simone: Building learning platforms has been one of the key factors in many endeavors I worked with and is one of the pillars if a company wants to implement 21st management principles in their daily work and adopt the kind of leadership which current business challenges deserve.

My session at Agile Greece was rooted in my experience from supporting a handful of organizations with the Agile transformation journey. In this context I shared multiple concrete examples of activities different leaders have been instituting or supporting to nurture learning in many ways:

  • Hackatons: 24-hours non-stop activity where anyone can launch a challenge and gather a team with people from different parts of the world who are passionate to transform that idea in a prototype to demo.
  • Book clubs: small groups of people who collectively decide a book to read, decide amount of homework and share a lunch once a week to share reflections and learning out of what they read.
  • Video clubs: small groups of people gathering at lunch time for one hour a week, watching a 30-minutes video and have a fruitful conversation sharing their insights.
  • Gatherings: one-day conferences focusing on the challenges of a specific role or profession. For instance, last April we organized an Open Scrum Master Gathering in Stockholm: around 130 people participated from 11 different companies to a full-day Open Space. Almost 30 different topics were discussed and shared. An opening and a closing keynote enriched the event.
  • Communities of Practice: gathering developers, managers, coaches.

While traditional organizations setup and deploy detailed processes for semi-skilled employees to follow, truly Lean and Agile organizations grow people and professionals to be the best they can be in their job and let them decide the most appropriate processes for their own work.

Which one do you believe will be the most responsive to fast changes and have more chances to delight their customers?

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