Many people are familiar with Dan Pink’s work in Drive that to be the most productive, happy at work, etc., you need to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose. While a lot has been written about how to create purpose inside companies and crafting compelling missions, I would like to spend some time to dig into the details on autonomy. As founders and senior leaders of companies, it can be tough to understand how to give autonomy to employees and also drive toward a singular vision and commit to things that need to happen for other components of the business to work. I have found creating a spectrum of autonomy is helpful, and discussing with senior leadership and your team where you are on that spectrum.
How do you create an autonomy spectrum for your team or company? It’s helpful to start at the extremes. On one end of the spectrum, you would tell your team exactly what to do and how to do it. This is a complete lack of autonomy. On another end of the spectrum, employees have free reign to work on whatever they would like to work on. These projects may have nothing to do with the business, or could be completely aligned. That represents 100% autonomy.
Usually, people agree that neither extreme is particularly helpful. So how do you decide where in between your company or team should be? I like to work backward from 0% autonomy, and see where leaders start to get less comfortable. Let’s take an example recently from my time working with one of the companies I advise. The CEO asked me to come in and help the leadership team think through an expansion of their product. So that is step 1 of the autonomy spectrum, handing a business opportunity to the team from the CEO.
CEO: We have this opportunity for expansion (Business Opportunity)
Working down from that requirement, one executive volunteered to lead this initiative and did a bunch of research on the expansion opportunity. She talked to potential customers of the expansion, validated the pain points of this segment, and discovered a need the company could solve. So, she started settling around a vision of a new product experience leveraging the company’s existing strengths and identifying what new strengths needed to be built.
Executive: The way to attack this opportunity is to solve this specific problem for this segment (Persona and Product Vision)
The team she managed built an MVP attempting to solve this problem, and measured a lot of early usage and did qualitative research on what they had built. At this point, I stepped in to temporarily lead the product team and saw specific issues from the data and the research around the breadth of the solution, the quality of the options we provided, and the value of our solution vs. existing competitors in the market.
VP Product: Solve these four problems with the event discovery app (Problem Scope)
I also saw a team whose operating cadence matched a mature product with clear requirements rather than a fast moving team that uses research and experiments to find product-market fit. So, I created a new process that would structure them better for the problems they were facing and give them more autonomy.
At this point, we worked as a team to organize all of the product teams to work on these problems. As a leadership team, we chose not to identify solutions to these problems, but to put the product teams in charge of determining their own potential solutions. We created a weekly time where our persona would be in the building to provide feedback to our work. We also created a weekly meeting to review research feedback and experiment results.
VP Product: Test ideas with our target persona and run experiments targeting these problems (Process)
This is where we chose to sit on the autonomy spectrum. Prioritize business opportunity, vision, scope, and some process. Create autonomy for the team to define solutions and deeper process on how they want to get there. There are of course other options here. We could have chosen to prioritize ideas the teams invent to solve these problems, even come up with the solutions or how they would validate with research and experiments. There is no clear cut place to draw the line where you start thinking this way.
What is more important is to try to move the line to the left over time. When I advise leadership teams, I tell them that their goal should be to push decision-making as far down the org chart as possible. For leaders that have historically erred on the side of low autonomy, they need to understand how far they can start to push decision-making down without creating chaos. After all, Pink says that mastery is about providing stretch assignments, but not assignments employees cannot possibly be successful in. This process usually starts by moving to one additional layer of autonomy than normal and measuring results. If that is successful, leaders can be confident moving to another additional layer of autonomy. If this is not successful, then leadership needs to think about what type of training it needs to build so that this is possible in the future. I foresee a future at this company where the teams are in charge of prioritizing the problems as well as the solutions because they will be the experts from talking to our persona every week.
This is how Pinterest operated. Product teams created their own missions and problems they wanted to solve, and they were approved by the leadership team. Every six months, teams updated their OKRs to define the new problems they wanted to target and how they would measure success. No company starts there. Especially with startups, founders are used to setting the vision as well as coming up with product ideas. But as companies scale, leaders have to defer decision-making more so they can continue to move fast. The founders cannot be in every meeting nor can they be the experts on every topic.
Autonomy is a difficult topic to grasp inside a company. No CEO or senior leader wants to hand over the reigns to every decision to a team of varying levels of experience and confidence, but trying to make every decision stifles creativity and limits execution pace. Use the autonomy spectrum to build a honest understanding of where the company or teams you manage are and where you would like it to be over time. When you’re confident you are in the right place, communicate this spectrum and why you have made the decisions you’ve made on the level of autonomy you’re comfortable with. Employees will have a much clearer understanding of their role and can build better mastery and purpose as a result.