How to Move Fast at Scale, part 3: Autonomy

Introduction

Speed and the challenges of scaling

The inevitable challenge that all successful start-ups face is the need to scale effectively. There are many elements to this, one of which is how to stay agile at scale. In a small company of 10, 20, 30 people, agility comes naturally. It gets much harder to maintain this speed as your company grows.

But, why does speed matter?

  1. Speed enables you to realise value sooner
  2. Speed reduces the time it takes to learn how to meet your customers’ needs; this reduces investment in products and services your customers don’t want. This means you can maximise the time and effort spent on delivering the products and services your customers do want, thereby increasing your ROI.

So how do you maintain speed as your business grows? There are 3 key elements to remaining agile at scale:

  • Alignment
  • Focus
  • Autonomy

In this short series of articles I’ll cover each of these areas separately. This instalment looks at how autonomy increases speed. You can find part 1 on Alignment here, and part 2 on Focus here.

How does autonomy affect speed?

Quite simply, autonomy reduces bottlenecks. When every decision has to be escalated to leadership, leaders become bottlenecks. These bottlenecks create delays which slow you down.

What is “autonomy”?

Check the dictionary definition of autonomy and you’ll see it described as self-directing freedom or self-government. Within a business, autonomy is more nuanced. Jason Yip of Spotify, defines autonomy as “feeling free to act, with all your capabilities, to contribute toward a collective outcome”.

In a business, autonomy is the freedom to act within a set of constraints. Spotify is a music streaming app so Spotify’s employees are probably not free to create an e-commerce platform selling craft beer!

Constraints come in various forms. Business goals and outcomes operate as constraints, brand guidelines and coding standards are another example. Constraints act as guard rails, defining the space within which teams and individuals have the “freedom to act”.

A nice analogy for this is a football pitch — the pitch defines the space in which the players are free to play.

Think of guardrails like a football pitch — they define the space in which to play freely

Leading autonomously

Autonomy starts with leadership devolving authority to teams and individuals. Dan North describes this perfectly as “Bringing the authority to the information, not the information to the authority”.

However, achieving autonomy is not straightforward. To successfully lead autonomously requires three things:

  1. Clarity
  2. Capability
  3. Accountability

1. Clarity

Clarity involves providing the full set of information that will enable people to work with minimal supervision. This means defining:

  • Outcomes and constraints
  • Context

Outcomes and Constraints

Make it clear what needs to be achieved by defining outcomes — the goals to be achieved and the measures of success to validate them. Ensure the destination is clear, but let teams figure out the journey to get there.

The constraints are any limitations or restrictions in achieving the outcome. For example, an outcome might be to increase average order value, the constraint might be to do so without reducing customer satisfaction.

Context

In order to ensure teams make the best decisions, they need full context. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of leading autonomously, because as Kim Scott puts it “When you know something deeply, it’s hard to remember that others don’t”.

In his book, No Rules Rules, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings describes how one of his managers made what he considered a poor decision. When Hastings sought to understand the thinking behind the decision, he discovered that the manager had actually made a perfectly reasonable decision based on the information he had. The poor decision had been made because Hastings and his leadership team had not shared the context that would have enabled the manager to make a good decision.

Leaders typically carry huge amounts of information and context; when you are possessed of the context yourself, it’s hard to remember what you know that everyone else doesn’t know! But as the Netflix example illustrates, lack of vital information will lead to poor decisions, so it’s crucial to build the habit of constantly communicating context.

Constantly communicate the big picture to your teams

2. Capability

Empowering people to work autonomously requires them to have the right level of skills and experience. Ask a bright and hardworking graduate to be CEO of a company and, despite their best efforts, they will likely struggle.

The level of autonomy needs to be proportionate to the level of capability. Consider the following:

Autonomy needs to be proportionate to capability

Ideally you want to be on the trajectory illustrated by the red arrow. It doesn’t matter where your journey begins so long as you continue to move towards the top right hand corner. The areas you want to avoid are the top left and bottom right corner.

In the top left corner you have frustration — you have high levels of capability but low levels of autonomy. At this point you are failing to make full use of your team’s abilities (and this will eventually lead to your best people leaving).

In the bottom right hand corner you have chaos. You have empowered people that don’t yet have the capability to be able to act independently. In this case you need to decrease the level of autonomy while the level of capability is improved.

3. Accountability

Providing autonomy empowers people. With this power must come responsibility. When people are given greater power it must be accompanied by greater accountability. If you’re not going to tell people exactly what to do, you need to be confident they will figure it out themselves.

The agile world talks frequently about autonomy, but much less frequently about autonomy, but these must come as a pair — autonomy fails without accountability. The well-known Netflix Culture document talks of “freedom and responsibility”, but it treats them as a pair: with freedom, comes responsibility. With autonomy comes accountability.

As with capability, the level of autonomy needs to be proportionate to the level of accountability.

Autonomy needs to be proportionate to accountability

We can map autonomy to accountability in the same way as we did with capability — you want to be on the trajectory illustrated by the red arrow, avoiding the top right and bottom left corners.

In the top left corner you have frustration — you have high levels of responsibility but not enough freedom. At this point you are constraining your teams and you need to empower them.

In the bottom right hand corner you have chaos. You have empowered people but they are not taking responsibility. In this case you either need to increase the level of responsibility or reduce the autonomy.

Improving Capability and Accountability

While low capability and accountability are barriers to autonomy, they are not fixed. They can — and should — be improved in order to enable greater autonomy. In some cases this might be achieved through formal training, but very often through coaching.

There are plenty of great coaching models, the one that I find particularly useful is David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership”.

David Marquet’s Ladder of Leadership is a helpful model to understand where teams and individuals currently are, and how you can move up the ladder in order to increase autonomy

In his book Turn the Ship Around, Marquet describes his experiences of creating greater autonomy on a nuclear submarine. He describes this as changing from a “leader follower” culture to a “leader leader” culture.

His ladder of leadership nicely illustrates how accountability and capability can be improved through coaching. As individuals grow and develop, they can become more and more empowered.

Conclusion

Alignment and focus are reasonably easy to introduce, autonomy much less so because it relies on skills and behaviours that you may not yet have. Autonomy is critical to enabling speed, so it’s a crucial investment, but be prepared for the long game.

Also worth noting that enabling autonomy creates a more challenging and engaging environment which in turn will help you attract and retain high calibre talent. After all, smart people like to figure things out for themselves, rather than being told what to do…

Are you looking to scale your business? I am a Business Agility Coach & Consultant helping organisations to grow, scale and deliver value fast.

Find out more at betterfasterhappier.com.

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