Episode #131 – Autonomy, autonomy, autonomy.

Featured speakers:

Derek Neighbors Derek Jade Meskill Jade Roy van de Water Roy

Roy van de Water, Jade Meskill, and Derek Neighbors discuss:

  • Autonomy
  • Autonomy
  • Even more autonomy


Jade Meskill:  Hello, and welcome to the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy van de Water:  I’m Roy van de Water.

Derek Neighbors:  I’m Derek Neighbors.

Jade:  We wanted to talk today about the power that autonomy can give to a team. We’ve worked with some teams where their autonomy has been severely restricted and not seen good results. We’ve worked with teams that have been given autonomy and seen some good results.

We wanted to talk about why is autonomy so important to high performing teams and what are some ways that you can get it?

Roy:  Cool.

Jade:  Let’s start with…what are some of the problems that we’ve seen where…or what are some signs that a team is lacking autonomy?

Roy:  First off, the sign where somebody proposes an idea and they get shot down because somebody may not like it or you’d have to ask somebody else, first.

Jade:  Somebody on the team? Somebody in authority?

Roy:  Yeah, just in general, like if I were to propose an idea and they’re response would be, “Oh, I don’t know if we can do that. We should be careful.” Like that tells me…


Derek:  We might upset somebody.

Jade:  So, fear?

Roy:  Right.

Derek:  Yeah, I think a lot of fear. I think a lot of, when you see the like, “It’s not really my problem.” No, not that “That’s not my problem” but the hopelessness like a victim goes…

Roy:  We’d really like to do that but…

Derek:  Yeah, sounds great or just the apathy. When I see low autonomy, I see low motivation, like no passion, no motivation, because it’s like, “Hey”…


Jade:  Which one’s a symptom of which? Is the “no motivation” the symptom of not having autonomy or is having “no autonomy” a result of having no motivation?

Derek:  I think that if you have high autonomy, you tend to be more motivated because you know whatever you put into it, you’re able to reap that, where if you have no autonomy, you’re implementing somebody else’s way to do it.

If I think that your way is not the best way to do it and I think I have a better way, how am I going to get excited about doing a way that I don’t think is a better way?

Jade:  Sure. That’s an important part of motivation, is like owning your outcomes because otherwise, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it, it doesn’t make a difference anyway?

Derek:  Yeah, I think just doing work to be work‑sake is somewhat soul‑sucking, right? If you’re able…


Roy:  In a way Derek.

Derek:  Yes, it is.


Derek:  If you’re able to do work the way that you feel is the best way to do work, that covers a multitude of sins, maybe is the right way to say it. Because you have autonomy, will you have a ton of motivation and be passionate? No. You have to have purpose, too.

You can have purpose, but if you’re not able to do the things you feel are right things to do, that drive is going to drop pretty quick, right? It’s almost like yeah, I’m really excited about why we’re doing this, but then everything you want to do to make it happen, get shot down, or you have to do a different way, like that’s going to erode that passion and that drive pretty quickly.

Roy:  I agree with that. I think some people are good at pretending. If they don’t have the autonomy, they still pretend about the passion. I would almost say that…I will say that if you had people that don’t have autonomy and they still act like good people should be unmotivated unless they have autonomy. You know what I mean?

Jade:  They’re going to lose their motivation quickly if they realize they don’t have that autonomy, you were saying?

Roy:  Right. I would consider the smell if somebody didn’t have autonomy but they were still super passionate about what they’re doing. It may not be an immediate indicator that something is wrong, but I would be concerned.

Derek:  I think for most people, it’s not until they’re not able to get the results. I don’t think it’s not so much like you don’t have autonomy that that’s the problem but the first time that you think that there is a better way to do something or that you have a better idea or that there’s a better way to solve a problem and you get shot down in the answers because I’m the parent and I said so, that is totally will suck the life right out of a team or an individual.

Jade:  That’s the defining moment where you wake up, right? Because a lot of people in a lot of teams don’t have any sort of control over their own destiny, but they’re blissfully ignorant, right? If I’m working solo or if I’m kind of just doing tasks…

Derek:  That’s true.

Roy:  A lot of times I don’t even see that I don’t have that thing.

Derek:  I will revise what I said earlier. Just because somebody may still be able to feign passion from not having autonomy, they may just be ignorant because they don’t know how good they could have it.

Man:  Right.

Man:  Yeah.

Roy:  I see a lot of motivation go away sometimes when those teams wake up and realize that they are being held back.

Derek:  I think that is Roy, you bring up a really good point. As I think from kindergarten pretty much, we have our autonomy stripped out of us in school.

Roy:  Sure.

Derek:  …and, I think, a lot of parenting styles strip a lot of autonomy away from children.

It’s a heck of a lot easier to deal with a kid that’s compliant rather than a kid that is inquisitive, and doing things. I think a lot of people don’t even know what that reality looks like, any more.

What I see is, on teams that we tend to work with and we give them a taste of that, it gets hard to put them back in the cage. Once you experience a little bit of freedom, it’s really, difficult to go back.

If you’re in a cage all the time and somebody opens the door, you probably won’t leave the cage.

Jade:  It’s like being a tame tiger.

Derek:  Once you’re let out of the cage and you’re able to run freely over a multitude of places and do a bunch of things, and then somebody says, “OK, it’s time to go back in the cage?” That’s demoralizing.

Roy:  Right, but you can have the opposite too. It reminds me of this great picture I saw one time of a guy in a cage and he’s got all the locks on the inside, and he’s got all the keys, but he’s hiding there because it’s safe.

I feel that’s what a lot of these people that are in their cages have. Like, “Yeah, I know I’m not free, and I know I don’t know how good I could have it, but it might also be really scary and difficult and I don’t want to deal with that.”

“I’d much rather stay in here where it’s safe and I’ll just come to work from nine to five, do what I’m told, go home, and I can be my true self the rest of the time.”

Derek:  It’s pretty crazy because if you look at some of the best companies in the world, they switched from trying to hire the brightest people to hiring the most impassioned, autonomous people.

Meaning, good companies learned that one of the easiest ways to scale is to hire people who are capable of knowing the right things to do and doing them, and not needing a whole lot of management. Needing some leadership to push them along.

What you’re seeing is some key areas around the world that are attracting the most people like that, because, again, once you realize that freedom and you see what that looks like and you’re attracted to it, people that are interested in that are flocking to those areas.

You’re starting to see other areas be able to not compete nearly as much. The big Fortune 500 companies are having a harder time getting and keeping good people. They’re losing them to the five person company that’s becoming a 100 person company all the time. I think that that’s hard. A massive culture change has to take place.

What we see in most companies we go into is their middle management and upper management got to where they were at because they were really good at removing autonomy. To come in and say, “Nope, you need to go the other way and let people be autonomous,” that is just not in the nature of the people that are there.

Jade:  What does autonomy look like in an organization, on a team?

Roy:  I think on a team, by definition, if a team is autonomous, the team itself has to be very flat. Having any form of hierarchy within the team kills the autonomy, because then, really, you only have autonomy at the top of the team. The entire team is not autonomous. You know what I mean?

Derek:  Right. I think the more authority structure you have, the more easy it is for people to defer accountability.

Roy:  Hide behind authority figures.

Derek:  I think they can hide behind the accountability. It becomes, if Jade and I need to make this decision and you’re the boss, and we’re not really sure on it…

Roy:  Or you making the decision’s going to hurt Jade’s feelings even though you know it’s the right thing to do.

Derek:  Whatever the case is, there’s contention of some kind around, and is this the right decision? We could be wrong. If there’s a boss, we can go and say, “We’re not really sure, what do you think?”


Derek:  We’ve removed the autonomy away from ourselves and put it into your hands, which would sound bad compared to everything we just said, but what we’re doing is now we’re moving the accountability to you.

Now once the accountability is yours, the problem is, now you’re going to want to control more and more things, because you’re the one that’s going to be held responsible when somebody comes to Jade and I, we go, “It’s not our fault. Roy’s the one who told us…”

Roy:  I’m incentivized to start micromanaging the crap out of you guys, because now I’m on the hook.

Derek:  If you flatten that structure, or eliminate some of that authority chain, it takes away the human nature to try to push the accountability to somebody else.

Jade:  That’s the flip side of the coin for autonomous teams, is, they are highly accountable teams.

Derek:  That is correct.

Roy:  That forces you guys, in the hypothetical scenario, you guys would be forced to make better decisions because you are being held responsible for it. You cannot just…even though you think something is the right, thing like you might chose not to do it. Like characterization.

Derek:  It at least gives us the opportunity to make better decision.

Jade:  You might be still dumb on purpose


Jade:  Well that’s your problem.

Derek:  It’s hard not to care anymore because whatever the result it we are responsible for that so even if we are not super passionate about it whatever it is we are doing we probably care about what the result is because there is something else that we care about, like I do.

If I need to bring a pay check home to pay my mortgage I care about that I get a pay check so maybe I am not super passionate about this particular thing but I am passionate about pay check. I can no longer just say “I don’t really care”.

The day if it goes wrong Roy is going to get fired not me and know if it goes wrong I have got to start to care about this thing at a different level.

Jade:  So the simple definition of autonomy is self‑governance within a limit. What does it look like in an organization made up of autonomous teams? How does that even function?

Derek:  How does it scale?

Jade:  Yeah. I didn’t say that how does it function?

Roy:  When you have more than one autonomous team

Derek:  Some of it depends on how much of these teams need to interact with each other right I mean I think where we have seen it go fairly well is when they are able to break them down kind of by product so you have got some product and it’s you know something where you can get a result available.

If I am going to go bring on this product I can kind of own the resorts for whether this product is well or not and so I should be given a fairly high level of autonomy on things that pertain directly to the product I am working on, right, because I should own that resort as much as possible.

Jade:  Sure

Derek:  But then there are other parts systems other parts of the organization that I probably don’t have a ton of autonomy on because I don’t really own the resources but I should probably have influence or have some ability to interact with that.

Roy:  So in the past we have talked about the importance of members of the team being aligned with each other, I think in this case you refer two teams to work effectively, they must also have some form of alignment where they are headed in the same direction.

If were to compete products it going to be pretty difficult to get us to cooperate but if we are trying to make both each other better it will be a lot easier.

Derek:  Yeah. I tend to say to me the answer is probably leadership and culture. If you have got strong leadership in an organization and they can set the vision and the direction and the alignment and get all of the teams to align to them and have influence to them, which is not the same as control, or micromanaging everything teams do.

Instead, say we are team for this goal so everything you should be doing you should be moving that ball forward in some way. Should be helping us achieve that vision and I think from a culture perspective that kind of sets tone for behavior.

Right, if we say our culture is kind of manifestation of behaviors within an organization good leadership should be trying to model the culture that they want to have exist. Right, people have an aligned culture and aligned vision and it should be pretty easy to talk to each other.

[Background noises]

Jade:  What we recommend for a team that finds itself in this challenge they have realized that there lack of autonomy is preventing them from being as successful as they could be what do they do?

Roy:  The first thing that the team starts doing is as a team start taking responsibility for their behavior as a team. As soon as you start taking responsibility that’s when you start building trust and more trust you gain the more autonomy you are going to be given.

Derek:  Yeah definitely. You get results by doing what you say you are going to do. I think the second thing I would really encourage is look at the vision of the company and look at the culture of the company is trying to put forward and see if you can start to align to that.

The other big one is find somebody to give you support or to help you write so whether that be the direct boss of the current team or whether that be the boss’s boss or whether that be lateral boss.

Somebody who can help camp you in, when you run on the things you know. If you do the things you are going to do you can probably do some of that without necessarily a ton of autonomy.

Jade Sure

Derek:  Somebody else said what I am going to do actually to get it done, I build some good reporteir…

Roy:  Earn autonomy that way

Derek:  So I earn the ability to say “Will you take a risk on me on this on this next thing I have idea and I know it is really hard for you to support it but I have done everything that I said I am going to do and I have been getting results with it. Would you entertain letting me do this giving me an hour, two hours a week?”

Jade:  Sure

Derek:  …Something to do that. Then, it’s also building that relationship little bit up the food chain say like “Hey, this is what I am trying to do and I think this is really getting some of that support.” So when you start to hit those road blocks, you have somebody can say “Hey, you should give them a try, you really should.” You know maybe let this happen. “Hey I have done that.”

So its building those relationships too.

Roy:  I don’t want to say be careful, but I was going to say something along the lines of beware that there are tons of companies that are that have a stated company culture that nobody in the company lives and if you truly try to live by the companies stated culture you’re going to rub almost everybody the wrong way, even all the way to the top and have a huge amount of problems.

If you feel like that’s the right thing to do you should absolutely do it but there might be consequences.

Derek:  If you are trying to hit those things the nice thing is that you can ask, “Hey I am just trying and do what the value said. ” Or “Hey, I am just trying to achieve this vision.”

If that cascades up usually middle man does not like that very much but the higher you get those people really do want those values. It might be hard for them to do them as well but they do want to see them.

Jade:  It would be hard for them to digest your tactics.


Derek:  You might be willing to take it further than they imagine possible.

Jade:  Well that’s all the time we have for today. We will catch you next time on agility podcast.


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