How to get more autonomy

I had the delightful opportunity to speak at Automacon, doing a version of my Chef Style Devops Kungfu talk. One of the things I talk about is the importance of creating high functioning teams, that understand the bigger reason why they are doing what they do, and share a set of beliefs about what will bring about good outcomes. Hiding inside that message is one about what it takes for human beings to be happy — one of which is feeling like you have some control over your work. We often talk about that as “autonomy”. I was asked this question:

“What can I do to gain more autonomy?” (not quite this exactly, but close enough for blog work.)

To understand autonomy in teams, you need to first understand how most (all?) organizations actually work. Essentially, you need:

  1. A shared sense of direction — where are we going?
  2. A shared understanding of why you are going there
  3. A shared understanding of *how* you are going to get there; what is an acceptable path? What does “good” work actually look like?
  4. An understanding of how your work attaches to that direction

Lets call these four things requirements for “alignment” in the organization. It’s like you’re in a big boat, but it’s sadly a rowboat — and we want everyone rowing in the same direction.

When we struggle to have enough autonomy, or we feel like others are trampling on/micromanaging us, the first question to ask is:

Are we actually aligned?

This process starts with you, and heads up the organization — do we actually understand _why_ we are doing any of this? Do we agree on what the fundamental beliefs about what “good” work looks like? Do we understand the stakes? The timing?

It’s these questions that can lead you to having a productive conversation about how much autonomy you need. As a leader, when you feel yourself worried about the specifics of how people are going to behave, it’s usually because you feel that lack of alignment. As a team member, when you feel yourself starting to fight against the work, or feel like it’s not the right thing to be doing — that’s the time to ask more questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing.

This leads to another important concept — that of “disagree and commit”. If you ask those questions, and you don’t like the answers, but through talking about it a decision is made you don’t agree with — you have to ask yourself the following:

Is this something I’m going to quit my job over?

If it’s not (and most things aren’t) — then your next step is to disagree and commit. Say that you disagree, but that you understand that we are making a different decision. Then shift the conversation over to how you’re going to help make that decision as successful as you can make it. Ask for help explaining the decision to others. Put a plan together that has specific, actionable things you can do to move the needle. Put your energy into making that choice the right choice.

We choose where we work. We choose who we work with. We choose to spend the precious hours of our lives together, engaged in this work. It’s a team sport. So if you want to have more control over your own work, the first step is being a better team member — and that starts with alignment, and leads to autonomy.

This approach means you will have conflict in your work. You have to be honest, open, and vulnerable. That conflict should be about the work, not about each other. Not everyone you work with will be able to engage in it easily. But that’s why we get to choose where and how we work: every company will have it’s foibles and struggles. The question is: do you want to have *these* foibles and struggles, with *these* people?