Autonomy versus user needs in agile product teams

On October 2, 2023, Morteza gave a short presentation of our preliminary results related to agile team autonomy to NAV. The presentation highlights the tension between team autonomy and the required organizational boundary work. Here is a short summary and link to download the slides.

“Agile methods often lead to increased autonomy and flexibility at the team level while increasing organizational requirements for agility and efficiency (Tendedez et al., 2018).”

 In this presentation, we look at our findings from a paper presented at the ECSCW 2023 conference (Moalagh et al., 2023) and the findings from a Master’s thesis by Vegard Svesengen (Svesengen, 2022) about agile transformation in the Norwegian Labor and Welfare Administration (called NAV). NAV is the Norwegian public welfare agency responsible for providing unemployment benefits, pensions, child benefits, and more (NAV, 2022). NAV has had agile transformation as its primary strategy for digitalization since 2015. Until then, digitalization processes in NAV used to follow a planning-based packaged software acquisition strategy. Now, the organization has set up several autonomous product teams in charge of maintaining digital product families that implement various public services related to, e.g., unemployment, sick leave, and parental leave.

In NAV, the teams had the advantage of being able to reuse modern solutions or quickly deliver newly developed solutions without downtime or a complex test regime. The teams had the competence and capacity to work continuously, also from home. From that perspective, the identified changes have significantly affected the organization’s ability to change. However, autonomy seems one-sided, and users complain about the need for smoother transformation in some areas. Some users believe, for example, that the systems are developed and deployed too quickly. Certain offices must catch up on new functionality or knowledge of using the systems. So the question is, to what extent has the development of new systems created added value? Are users getting enough training to use these new facilities? While digital transformation is often about rapid change in response to market changes, the public sector is about stability and robustness. When counselors prefer to use old practices and IT systems, it does not necessarily mean opposing digital transformation. It could also mean that they want to protect such stability. For example, a counselor at NAV said: “Sometimes [the product team] will release a new feature, as they often do with the agile methods. And then, we see this mass hysteria in the office, and many people are unhappy with the change. And then they change something quickly without thinking about who is behind the hysteria.” While some structures are implemented to improve collaboration between product teams and users, we still see the need for more optimal collaboration patterns between developers and users. 

In conclusion, these preliminary findings show problems in democratic participation and boundary work between development teams and end users. A key issue here is expanding from focusing on only the development side and developer autonomy and flexibility to embracing the complexity of the boundary work involving the users/business side of the organization. In future research, we want to focus on how business units, end users, and citizens who have used the services become actively involved in the agile transformation design process in the public sector. Investigating what changes and solutions can be implemented in software development practices to improve user collaboration and satisfaction is also essential.

The presentation slides can be downloaded here.


Moalagh, M., Mikalsen, & Farshchian, B. A. (2023). Are Team Autonomy and Flexibility Enough for Agile Transformation? A Review of Transformed Practices in a Public Sector Organization. ECSCW 2023: Proceedings of the 21st European Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work

NAV. (2022). What is NAV?

Svengsen, V. (2022). Co-creating with employees in the public sector. Master’s thesis, NTNU. NTNU open.

Tendedez, H., Ferrario, M. A. M. A. F., & Whittle, J. (2018). Software Development and CSCW: Standardization and Flexibility in Large-Scale Agile Development. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(CSCW), pp. 1–23.