turning autonomy into chaos

don't accidentally turn autonomy into punishment

What’s a common thread in operating models that permeates the various soap boxes of management theorists and pundits? Autonomy. A leader trying to craft their dynamically adaptive organisation faces into the cost of decision-making vs the risk of autonomy. There are leaders who impose autonomy on people just prior to being confused why nothing changes, or worse, sporadic unhealthy chaos emerges. Let's look at why that is.

In my years working across organisations large and small, I’ve noticed the same pattern repeat itself where leaders decide to experiment with autonomy and fail. Typical high waste organisations rely on transactional commands to achieve outcomes - e.g. “hi Nova, go buy some milk from the shop before 3pm.”

In this example Nova doesn’t know why we need milk and might even need to clarify if we need soy milk, light milk, chocolate milk or pea milk. Please note I do not know what pea milk tastes like, but I’m very interested to hear from someone that does.

Decisions, often finalised through every third meeting in your calendar (if I’m being optimistic), are costly. An operating model that costs more in time or meetings isn’t what we want, is it? Even highly contextual commands where people understand the ‘why’ still centralise the organising part of your organisation to a terrifyingly limited population. So leaders turn to autonomy.

Autonomy is fantastic, because if a leader has the bravado to just make that first initial leap into freeing their people up from dreaded decision driven wait times - then everything will happen faster. Let’s look at some traps on why that might not be the case.

Affording sh*t behaviour. This is the first crime against autonomy; for some people the liberation from commands and clear rules become a licence to do whatever they’d like. Humans typically like to avoid conflict so, rather than moderating the behaviour, it’s allowed to slide until it becomes untenable. If you wouldn’t tolerate someone ignoring a command prior to freeing up your team with autonomy then intervene when autonomy is being misused.

Principles are great but insufficient. Well-defined principles to inform decision-making and direction are divine. However, because humans have room for different levels of intuition and neurodivergent traits are commonplace, it can be useful to have some structure or rules. This doesn’t mean inventing a new rule every time something negative happens - but clear boundaries only further refine principles. When designing the operating model you’ll be far more likely to build a dynamically adaptive organisation by having some flagship rules. This will prevent you from accidentally building a gaggle of rigidly static cliques.

Providing advice in isolation. Stories are the oldest method of education known to language. Where possible, capturing the instances where people have vetted reasoning around decisions for the wider group to learn from is a good way to systematise growth in autonomy.

Forgetting freedom can be scary. Setting autonomy as an expected state, often sounding like something along the lines of “I want you to make that decision” before walking away can be a powerful moment. The challenge is that without support mechanisms in place the power of that moment could be the total shutdown of a newly hyper-autonomous human. This kind of shut-down state is most common where learned helplessness is prolific.

Here is the trick, autonomy is actually quite fantastic but it requires balance. Not every person you lead has the same motivations to work at your business - this fact is abundantly obvious to most reasonable people. The same logic applies when considering the level of nuance required to lead people to act with greater autonomy. A deliberate power vacuum can be a good method to stimulate action but in the absolute absence of boundaries and the occasional command it might just leave you feeling disappointed.