One person can make a difference. It takes a village. Small teams. Crowdsourcing. Grassroots movements. Effective institutions. Strong leadership.
From enterprises to international politics, humans have been searching for the right balance of supporting individuals and the collective to solve problems and create value at scale.
The next few posts will explore some thoughts around the concepts of autonomy and alignment, and the dynamic between them. Specifically, how we can use them to continuously transform complex systems and enterprises.
A lot has been written about both topics. But I want to look at them from the viewpoint of tackling transformation in highly-constrained environments. Not just product-based start-ups or companies with large recruiting budgets.
I’m talking about systems that involve a diverse set of stakeholders, technologies, and processes. Ones that are underperforming, but have the potential to positively impact many lives. Where there’s motivation to change, but past efforts haven’t translated to current traction. Where it would be great to start from scratch, with the ideal culture, a large budget, or a handpicked team, but you need to move forward with what you have right now.
Since large-scale enterprise transformations require the actions of individuals, let’s start by exploring the role of autonomy.
What is autonomy?
Definitions of autonomy mention the ability to self-govern or self-direct. To make your own laws. Some synonyms are freedom, independence, free will, choice, and self-determination. Practically it translates to the work place as the ability to make choices about how to manage our own resources, design our space, or execute our projects. An autonomous unit is able to adapt and change by itself, independent of the whole. An autonomous team is able to decide how they will operate internally.
Having work life autonomy has been found to make us happier and smarter. We’re more likely to be engaged, responsible, and creative. Studies have also suggested that the more in control we feel, the healthier we are.
When people lack autonomy, choices are made that impact their lives without their consent. Through the use of law, force, or fear, others make the decisions for them. The rules or processes to follow were created by someone else.
In the political space, autonomy tends to refer to sovereign states. They say that nation-states are autonomous because they can govern themselves, setting their own rules.
In the medical ethics space, they talk about patient autonomy. Doctors can provide information and make recommendations but it’s ultimately up to the patient to decide which course to take.
Autonomous doesn’t necessarily mean isolated. Many autonomous actors are influenced by information or recommendations provided by outsiders.
Another interesting theme is the idea of perceived autonomy. Our sense of control and influence can shift. Managers can relax certain rules to increase a sense of autonomy or add rules to reduce it. They can encourage teams to make decisions around details unrelated to the core work at hand, like their workspace or the meeting agenda, which increases their overall sense of control, even if the project details didn’t change. The final result could be the same, but people are less happy and productive if managers promise control and take it away, than if they never provided that freedom in the first place.
The benefits of autonomy for transformation
The agile and lean mindset highly values autonomy and the power of individuals to make decisions that shape the future of an enterprise. The idea is that people closest to the problem will be able to make faster and better choices than others. Since they feel ownership over the choices, they can take action, observe the results, and shift their resources to a new direction quickly.
Having autonomous teams is attractive in a transformation setting when you want all hands on deck. We can set a team loose on one problem while we fix another, without requiring a lot of hand-holding. It frees up energy. If micromanagement isn’t required to keep improvements coming, managers can spend their time working on other tasks.
Autonomy can also help the overall system be more resilient if diversity is encouraged and everyone can test out their own changes. If one team tries something out and it works, we can scale it across the rest of the teams. If it doesn’t work, the impact was minimized compared to a full rollout.
Digging into the concept further, it seems like the notion of autonomy is independent of how constrained the decisions are. Just that the individual has the power to make decisions for themselves. A resource-poor nation isn’t described as less autonomous than a resource-rich one. So how do constraints and autonomy influence each other?
Autonomy in a highly-constrained environment
Creating an autonomous team
One of the first points to consider when trying to encourage autonomy in a highly-constrained environment is that people may feel beaten down. They’ve lived with the current system for a while, they’ve gotten used to the process, tools, and people involved. Just saying “you’re empowered to fix this, get to work” is not likely to help. They’ve probably already tried multiple times and ran into roadblocks. They might not see any other options or just be too burnt out to try again. It will take listening to what people have tried, what they’re considering, the blockers they see, and perhaps some coaching to build up the confidence to try again.
Assuming you have energized individuals, just assembling a group of people, calling them a cross-functional team and telling them to collaborate doesn’t always work either. When we talk about autonomy there are multiple pieces. There’s gathering and synthesizing information to be informed about the choices that are available. There’s the decision making process itself and any negotiation involved. And there’s the execution phase which requires both resources and the will to act. What happens in reality, is that those skills are rarely evenly distributed across the team. Some people will naturally fall into certain roles. There may be gaps in the team. Those roles may not align to seniority, the previous chain of command, or past habits. Creating an operating agreement in this case requires confronting internal real or perceived constraints. And some of those challenges occur at the intersection of team and individual autonomy.
Personal identity can play a role in how an autonomous team functions. People may be unwilling to step over expertise boundaries. Alternatively, they might be resentful that someone did, if they felt like their identity or individual autonomy was threatened. Fold in outside “fixers” with a mandate and the dynamic can get tense. In the American culture, we often base our identity and worth on the title on our business card, so telling people to collaborate, share what they know, take feedback from everyone, and change your job and identity can be a threatening shift. Especially if internal incentives and the external job market aren’t designed to encourage it.
It’s also possible for certain individuals to apply creativity to find alternative solutions, expanding the set of options. Effectively seeing more options on the table than others on the team do. So you can have different levels of perceived autonomy within a team. That difference can lead to conflicts or burnout. Frequent facilitation and support groups for entrepreneurial team members can help you get through the early stages until the team figures out how to use those differences productively.
So asking teams to self-organize and stepping back might not lead to an optimal solution, unless there’s also openness, trust, and continuous improvement. In environments that are underperforming, trust is likely to be low to start. So don’t expect everyone to be crowding around a whiteboard on day one and making sure everyone’s perspective is heard. They might need some outside facilitation to address any elephants in the room and help them define how they want to work together.
If autonomy is driven by intrinsic motivation, what if people on an autonomous team aren’t motivated by the same things? I think we overlook the impact of having a team of people who all think the same. They’ve had similar experiences, read the same books, or preach the same product development gospel. They function well autonomously because they agree on 80% of their worldview. There’s no need to articulate or debate as many details. That can work fine for many applications. But the biggest problems we’re facing now are issues that involve a variety of stakeholders with different viewpoints, backgrounds, incentives, and vocabularies. Autonomy by itself doesn’t give you to tools to handle the challenges around just figuring out what problem to work on, much less solving it.
Let’s say the team is energized and has figured out how to operate internally to make decisions. But what if those teams are heavily embedded in a broader system and dependent on the work of other teams? They can make decisions, but they’re limited by the schedules set by others. They can make any change they would like, as long as it doesn’t go outside of their budget, require other teams or negatively impact the existing business. You’re autonomous, but operating on a crowded peninsula with many other autonomous nations.
To expand the range of autonomous choices they can make, teams then need to spend more time negotiating with partners. And if each group is autonomously prioritizing their backlog based on their own values, alignment isn’t likely to happen organically without a lot of persuasion or bartering. You’ve built an enterprise of micro-enterprises selling to each other.
Autonomy isn’t always enough
In a highly-constrained environment, there are often multiple factors limiting the value created by autonomy. Sometimes you need outside facilitation for autonomy to flourish. You might need to balance autonomy with outside controls to achieve a broader goal or better distribute shared resources. As we talked about before, one of the worst scenarios for engagement is when managers promise autonomy, individuals apply their ability to exert control, and then their decisions are overturned. Unfortunately, this scenario is frequent in highly-connected environments, if organizational leaders decide to overturn an autonomous decision in order to address an alignment problem. We’ll explore the role of alignment in transformation more in the next post.
What does autonomy look like for your organization? Where does it work well? Where do you run into challenges?