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Leadership How to: Applying the Lesson of Autonomy

Many people from the web industry have read and loved the recent classic Drive by Daniel Pink (or at least watched the fun and inventive video below). Not as many people, however, are familiar with exactly how to put the lessons from the book into practice within their enterprise. Fear not traveller; My aim in this article is to help provide a simple model where you can transfer a crucial piece of abstract understanding from Drive into concrete action in your daily work life.

The Breakdown

One of the core components in Drive is a motivational operating system Pink refers to as "Motivation 3.0". Motivation 3.0 is made up of 3 components. Mastery, Purpose and Autonomy. In my experience, the concepts of "Mastery" and "Purpose" are not too mysterious and can be acted upon pretty easily without too much confusion.

Autonomy, however, can be another story. Per Pink, creative knowledge workers whose work is more heuristic than algorithm find autonomy more motivating than tangible reward. Figuring out how to attach to, approach and execute against this concept has been a challenge for leaders at all different levels of the enterprise.

Autonomy can be tricky for leaders, because:

  • Autonomy is very easy to see as an all or nothing concept; "You are either autonomous and self directed or you are not"
  • Leaders sometimes struggle to see their own role and value proposition once a team is autonomous and self directed; "If I delegate that stuff, what is my job?"

The assumptions buried in the concerns related above are the root of the problem. First, delivering autonomy through delegation does not limit the value proposition of leaders, it unlocks it by allowing the leader to reflect on how to create the optimal conditions that allow teams to be successful. Second, autonomy is not an all or nothing thing. Autonomy can be broken down in a very discrete and easy to apply model that has three parts; how, what and why.

Autonomy of the How

For individual contributors at the junior levels in your organization autonomy can be given in the form of "how". Managers and leaders can deliver the "why" and the "what" and leave the individual team members to work out the "how".

For example, you can tell your content developers that "employee engagement is at an all time low" and that their task is to create a series of content items designed to "elicit employee feedback in the form of surveys, polls, reviews, ratings, questions, answers, etc.". How they decide to develop this content and what mix of content types they choose in what ratio is up to them as long as it drives the intended goal (the why) and is aligned with the current accepted modes of content distribution (the what).

Autonomy of the What

For individual contributors at the senior levels and first level managers in your organization autonomy can be given in the form of "what". Senior Managers and Directors can deliver the "why" and leave the teams members to work out both the "what" and the "how".

For example, you can tell your UX Lead that online conversions are dropping and "we need you to plan and execute a grounded response". What methods they choose to pick, deciding if research and testing are needed and at what levels, what changes to the online property need to be made are up to them as long as they are aligned with the stated "why".

Autonomy of the Why

For Senior Managers and directors in your organization autonomy can be given in the form of "why". Executive leadership can wax philosophic about vague instinct of something not working right without knowing exactly what the problem is and leave the management team to work out the "why", "what" and the "how".

For example, you can tell your IT department leads "I don't feel that the teams are effectively collaborating with each other or the business" and leave it at that. Understanding the problem in detail, separating symptom from cause and developing short and long term responses (i.e., figuring out why the problem is occurring, what to do about it if anything, and how to execute the response) is up to the team.

Coming Out the Other Side

At the uppermost levels of the enterprise, this model for delegation completely aligns with another great work; The Strategy Paradox by Michael Raynor. Raynor's prime recommendation in the book is for enterprises to separate the making of commitments from the execution against those commitments. This idea starts the whole process over again. C-level officers of the company decide on what commitments to make (i.e., "The What") and allow the organization the freedom and autonomy to fulfill those commitments as they see fit (i.e., "The How").

Hopefully, this model doesn't come across as too prescriptive. I would not want to rob you of your autonomy. ;-)

Editor's Note: Read more from Stephen, including The 2 Hardest Things to Do in Corporate America and The Biggest IT/Business Problem Unmasked.

 
 
 
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