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Opinionated autonomy

· 6 min read

“Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.” — Paulo Coelho

For a fast-paced tech organization, autonomy is often celebrated as a cornerstone for innovation and job satisfaction. But what does true autonomy mean?

For knowledge workers like product managers and software engineers, the freedom to find new solutions to and ways of tackling problems is key, playing a pivotal role in shaping strategies, defining success, and determining processes. However, this doesn't mean a free-for-all environment. True autonomy means freedom within a system that sets them up for success.

Examples of the risks of unopinionated autonomy can be seen in some of the biases observed in software engineers' behavior. In the absence of a defined process, engineers often prioritize tasks they find more interesting or familiar, focus on quantity (lines of code) over quality, or perpetually tend towards novel approaches over tried practices for purely academic reasons.

Where individuals are fully autonomous, the ability to improve as a team is compromised. In The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done, the shortcomings of personal-productivity are made clear - it doesn't directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects. A highly optimized personal productivity approach might help an individual organize the hundreds of tasks that arrive haphazardly in their in-box daily, but it does nothing to reduce the quantity of these requests.

Constraints, paradoxically, can be freeing. The key is providing a clear framework in which teams can innovate, without getting derailed. These constraints might be in the form of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), a popular tool used by industry giants like Google. OKRs have their limitations, but can provide clarity on what success looks like without being prescriptive about the path to get there, ensuring alignment on mission and vision while allowing teams the liberty to decide the 'how' of execution.

Excessive autonomy can be counterproductive, compelling teams to repeatedly start from scratch when established best practices already exist. Instead of fostering innovation, we’re reinventing the wheel. More importantly, a team really engaged with solving a specific problem may not naturally come up for air enough to engage with the processes by which they operate without the prompting of a leader. Here, constraints allow teams to focus on the problems they uniquely face.

Focusing on accountability empowers individuals and teams with the freedom to make decisions, innovate, and act on their initiatives, while also holding them accountable for the outcomes of those decisions. With greater freedom should come greater responsibility.

Autonomy superficially might seem to undermine the concept of leadership, so what’s the role of a leader?

At its core, leadership involves providing a clear sense of purpose and direction. Whether through tools like OKRs or broader mission statements, leaders articulate where the organization or team is headed, what success looks like, and why that direction is valuable.

Achieving autonomy means a leader fosters an environment where teams feel safe to express ideas, take risks, and learn from failures. This includes encouraging open communication, ensuring psychological safety, and promoting a culture of continuous learning and growth.

Actions often speak louder than words. Leaders demonstrate commitment, work ethic, integrity, and resilience, setting a standard for their teams. They are often the embodiment of the values and principles they wish to instill in their organization.

But leadership can be more specific than this, without compromising autonomy. Having the opinion that OKRs are, as a default, a reasonable framework for measuring success, or that Shape Up offers a reasonable process for product development, means that it’s clear that you expect the team to have ways of measuring success and a well considered process for developing products, and they should weigh up the pros and cons of these tried methods against anything they wish to explore.

The magic of true leadership lies in striking a balance between guidance and deference. Leaders can (and should) suggest strategies, define processes, or share their experience, but they should also be open to feedback and alternative viewpoints from their teams. If a team has a different perspective and can back it up, leaders should be flexible enough to consider and, if appropriate, adopt it.

Merely giving teams freedom without direction can lead to an aimless drift. Instead, teams should be actively encouraged to ideate, develop their own processes, and even challenge established norms. Engaging teams around vision, mission, and expectations is crucial. Ignoring this can result in teams not thinking about these aspects at all, which isn’t really autonomy.

In practice, this means expecting a team to have a mission and defined values, because you have conviction in the value of it for internal and external alignment, but it’s up to them what they are and the process by which they’re set. It means expecting a team to define success and measure it, but being flexible on whether that’s a framework like OKRs or something more high level or ad-hoc. It means expecting them to report against that success, and for the team to hold themselves accountable for that, but also define the best method and cadence for doing that.

Opinionated autonomy hinges on the idea that while individuals and teams are granted significant autonomy in their roles, this freedom operates within a framework informed by strong, well-articulated opinions or principles. In essence, it's about providing direction without dictation, setting boundaries based on informed viewpoints, and then granting teams the freedom to navigate within those boundaries.

To instill opinionated autonomy within an organization:

  • Leaders must first articulate success with clear, well-informed missions, values, and guiding principles.
  • Teams should be educated about these principles and trained to incorporate them into their autonomous decision-making processes.
  • Feedback mechanisms should be established to continuously refine both the guiding opinions and the way autonomy is practiced.

Further reading