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Creating Alignment and Autonomy

We know from Dan Pink’s work that high levels of autonomy are a powerful contributor to motivation. For start-ups and small, independent teams this can be straightforward to create. But it presents a problem in larger organisations, particularly those with more traditional structures and management approaches.

If the team is deciding what they do, how do I know they are doing the right thing?

If you are lucky, the team is connected to the high-level vision and well enough informed that all their actions will be completely aligned with it. However, that isn’t always the case, so it is the role of a good leader to provide that alignment.

Alignment is not the opposite of Autonomy

This combination of Alignment and Autonomy is not as contradictory as you may think. Alignment is not the opposite of autonomy. Instead, it is better to think of them as two axes that we can move along in either direction.

Henrick Kniberg describes this well in his YouTube video describing the engineering practices at Spotify using the cartoon below. This approach is based on theories from Stephen Bungay’s “The Art of Action” where he used military examples to show that setting broad direction for teams (the what and the why) still allowed high levels of autonomy (the how) and delivered better results.

Alignment and Autonomy Matrix
Alignment And Autonomy

The role of the leader is to provide sufficient alignment and strategic direction for the team, while also providing sufficient autonomy for them to make their own decisions and set their own direction. Too much direction leads to feelings of micromanagement and requires the leaders to have lots of detailed information to make the right decisions. Too little alignment and the team doesn’t understand why they are doing the work and risk building the wrong thing. Too little alignment and too little autonomy leads to confusion, inaction or irrelevant work being done.

Just enough direction; just enough control

Get both right, however, and the team is clear on its purpose (another of Dan Pink’s drivers of motivation) and clear on what they can do to achieve it. There is just enough control for leaders to be confident that the team is working on the most valuable work; and just enough direction that the team has control and autonomy over what they are doing and how they are doing it.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Alignment isn’t just with the high-level strategic goal or the highest priority user needs. It also applies to technical decisions, style, branding, security, compliance, people, processes and many other aspects. Each of these dimensions may require different levels of alignment and autonomy. The leader’s role is to get the balance right for all of them.

Some decisions may require less autonomy (for instance following branding guidelines for a corporate website or meeting security requirements), and it is okay to apply constraints to teams as long as they understand why.

But other examples are more nuanced. Should a team be forced to reuse a common component that another team has developed? Perhaps; but it would be better for the team to be able to make that decision for themselves. This also promotes challenge and the evolution of standards. For example, perhaps advances in technology mean that now is the right time to create a new version of that component?

Don’t turn decisions into constraints

It is easy for managers (especially those with Theory X tendencies) to want to treat more of these decisions as constraints. But by doing so they are removing autonomy which will affect team motivation. It is far better to keep them as decisions for the team, but for the team to consult more widely as they make that decision. Other teams, leaders or stakeholders may have information or opinions that would cause the team to make a different decision.

The role of an Agile leader is to create an environment where these discussions happen between teams, where decisions are transparent, and where teams retain as much autonomy as they can.

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