Autonomy – What does it mean and how does it work?

Eugene LaiThu, 09/12/2019 - 15:00

Have you ever heard something along the line of: “Our people thrive on autonomy! Don’t tell them what to do! Let them make their own decisions and they will be happier and do better work!”

I’m sure you have come across at least one or two articles that claim that in today’s world of knowledge-work, workers need freedom to make their own judgment on the best way to solve a problem. While this seems like common sense, how does “autonomy” really work? How do we know if things will get done on-time and with the level of quality that we expect?

If you are a “people manager”, you may struggle with this concept of autonomy, especially if you are accustomed to delegating specific tasks and directing exactly what your team works on, as well as how to get that work done. Your experience and domain knowledge is likely superior to most (if not all) of your team members, so how would autonomy help you?

Studies have shown that workers who make decisions about how to get their work done are more accountable for the results because they feel a sense of responsibility and ownership. Assuming you are open to this possibility, I would like to share a few tips that may help you empower your team to think for themselves and come up with solutions that you may not have imagined to be possible.

Tip #1 – Set clear goals

More important than ever, clarity on strategic goals is critical in helping the employees focus their efforts towards the right outcomes. This is not about “how” to solve a problem, but “why” this problem is worth solving.

Tip #2 – Set clear boundaries

Workers need to understand where the boundaries are so that they know what risks are acceptable to take. Calculated, organized experimentation should be encouraged if you wish to challenge status quo and find a creative solution to an old problem. However, the team needs to know that they have your support and that they are allowed to invest time or money, or other resources where appropriate.

Tip #3 – Establish a feedback loop

Giving your team the freedom to innovate requires a light-weight feedback mechanism to ensure that you have visibility to what is happening. This can take the form of regular retrospectives to evaluate progress, discuss successes and explore opportunities to improve. The team will gain valuable insights by reflecting on what they have done and the processes and tools that they have applied.

In closing, in order to achieve success while relinquishing some of the control you are used to having, it is important to make sure the team has just enough room to operate but also sufficient discipline to continuously learn and adapt as needed.