Autonomy – Taking the wheel

I remember when the Product Owner stepped into our room with a new user story. He asked if we could make a minor change to one of our web pages. What he did not know is that nobody understood the code, nor the ancient documentation that was written for this webpage.  After running a few tests we even discovered that half of the features did not even work. We made a proposition: we implement this user story if we get three extra weeks to rebuild this page and rewrite the documentation. Luckily our awesome Product Owner understood our situation and we managed to get these extra weeks.

This type of motivation is called autonomy and is the subject of this blog post.  Autonomy is the need to be self-directing, to have the freedom to decide how we live our life. At work, this could be understood as doing what’s right, instead of what’s expected of you.

Autonomy is highly dependent on the other two motivational factors: Mastery and Purpose. Because as we grow more competent in our skills (mastery) and discover what our environment wants to achieve (purpose), we can determine for ourselves what the biggest problems are in our environment, and how we can solve them. And that’s what autonomy is all about: the need to be able to do the right thing, the right way.

Don’t forget responsibility

Autonomy is not just about having the freedom to do things the right way. Because with this freedom, we become empowered to change our environment. But we must never forget the words of uncle Ben: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. And with empowerment, comes responsibility as well.

This is a common problem in IT organizations. With the rise of Agile, many organizations have given their teams more freedom to deliver great software. When these teams don’t make responsible decisions or fail to live up to expectations, they will lose the trust of their stakeholders, and the company.

How to motivate based on autonomy

Autonomy is the most complicated factor in creating a motivational environment. Especially because based on your employees’ mastery and purpose levels, they will require more or less autonomy. The need for autonomy is different per person, but also different over time. And to make matters worse, the person who wants autonomy is never the person who can give it. In most cases, managers are the ones who must provide the right amount of autonomy for their employees.

As you can imagine, this isn’t easy for managers either. To understand how to effectively motivate employees based on autonomy, keep the autonomy slider in mind:

The Autonomy Slider

an example of the autonomy slider with 3 autonomy levels filled in.
Autonomy Slider with example content in levels 1, 2, 4, and the slider set on level 2.

The idea behind the autonomy slider is:

  1. You don’t just give people full autonomy, you gradually increase their level of autonomy, based on how much responsibility they can handle. Every time your employees prove they can handle this and want more, you can increase their level of autonomy, by adjusting the slider.
  2. You specify which responsibilities come with a certain freedom. Make sure employees understand how to fulfill these responsibilities (make sure the team understands what you mean with terms like predictable). There is no fixed amount of levels of autonomy, just add new levels as your employees grow.
  3. As an employee, you can also initiate the discussion to get more autonomy. As long as you accept the responsibility that comes with it. That’s exactly what we did as a team, in the example I started this blog post with.

Rules of thumb:

  • Make it visible. Whether you use this slider on employees or for entire teams, make sure the freedom and responsibilities are visible to them at all times.
  • Management facilitates. With employees gaining autonomy, the role of management becomes more facilitating and less directing. The time of you telling people what to do will be over. Facilitating is about creating a common understanding of what we want to accomplish and letting teams find their own way to get there.
  • People make mistakes. Whenever people try new things, they will make mistakes. Whenever employees take on new responsibilities, expect them to make mistakes. Don’t try to correct these mistakes beforehand, or else they won’t learn from them. Encourage them to make these mistakes and learn from them.

Always remember that autonomy is something that you scale up or down, based on the needs of your employees. And remember that autonomy doesn’t come cheaply, it consists of both freedom and responsibility.

After all, autonomy is the need to be able to do the right thing, the right way. The need to be self-determined.

As to what happened with the story of the webpage that we rebuild? Two months later, our Product Owner told us how rebuilding this page has reduced the number of calls to the complaints department with 90%! Normal user stories can’t tweak those kinds of numbers, but standing up for what’s right clearly can. So next time you see an opportunity like this, stand up and fight for what’s right!

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