Balancing Autonomy and Alignment with Accountability
Autonomy — the freedom to act independently of others— as a property of any highly effective agile team is clearly essential, particularly when leading multiple teams, squads or tribes at scale. As we continue to move forward at pace, that means delegating as many decisions to our teams of smart, rational colleagues as possible, freeing them to Move Fast, and, yes, occasionally Break Things.
For success, the autonomous team requires Alignment with our wider objectives. Alignment ensures that we are pushing towards the same goal and are sharing a common purpose. Just one or two degrees of unchecked misalignment early in a project and 6 months down the line the delivered outcomes vs expected results are miles apart.
Alignment to outcomes are the primary concern, however, to be truly aligned our teams also need to recognise and work within the set of non-functional constraints that exist in the wider ecosystem. These create safe boundaries that may be pushed when necessary but facilitate pragmatic scaling.
As Henrik Kniberg’s introduction to Spotify’s Aligned Autonomy  suggests, any imbalance across the two dimensions ultimately produces some degree of failure at scale. Striking the balance to constantly operate with High Autonomy and High Alignment requires significant and continual attention from both teams and leaders. In teams that I have led, I encourage active consideration of a third dimension that maximises both Autonomy and Alignment — Accountability.
By instilling a high degree of accountability into the team and their relationship with the wider organisation, we create a high degree of trust and the strongest positioning force to balance alignment and autonomy.
Being Explicit on Accountability
We would all recognise that Accountability is positive attribute of all high functioning teams. However, it is often considered an implicit quality rather than explicitly embedded in the team’s operations. As teams and leaders we should be proactive in defining how we will be accountable. We should be clear on defining what the specific mechanisms will be and how we measure ourselves against those. This level of explicitness moves the into conscious decision making.
I often perceive that teams consider accountability as outward looking — an expectation to report progress (and therefore an erosion of Autonomy). The most powerful teams I have worked with recognise it’s importance within the team first — being accountable to themselves. Thus they maximise the safety within the team and take control of their ownership and autonomy levels. The outward aspect simply takes care of itself as an extension of what is already happening within the team.
In beginning to work with a team, and at regular intervals, I will engage in an explicit discussion on “Managing Expectations”. The outcome of this is that we will form a contract of what our mutual expectations of each other (and our specific roles) are. This contract is collated from the team and written down within the team’s operating manual. By writing it down and revisiting it as part of retrospectives regularly we are making active and conscious choice about how we choose to operate.
As part of this I ask that we are explicit about how the team will be accountable using the following simplification:
Accountability = Transparency + Commitments
While it is hard to measure the impact of transparency itself, its easy to see the impact a lack of it has. It erodes trust which in turn reduces autonomy. As teams are radically transparent with each other, and with the wider organisation, we become accountable for our successes and learnings. This fosters a cycle of trust.
While transparency is a significant step towards being accountable, it cannot act alone. Commitments may have many semantic interpretations and are often abused by leaders as ways to apportion blame. However the intent of a commitment is to express the dedication of the team to achieving a specific outcome, in a timescale they feel is appropriate. A commitment is not something that can be pushed onto someone, it is something given to others by the committer — therefore puts control in the hands of the teams, to decide what they are able to commit to.
Some commitments are inherent in our actions — by taking ownership of a task, I am committing to its completion in the expected timeframe, seeking support as needed. At the team level, outcomes commitments again need to be more explicit. For example I encourage the use of a format such as ‘This week. we intend to deliver outcome N’. Coupled with transparency then we create clarity for what everyone should expect from the team.
While important to support progress, we do not expect teams to achieve every commitment — you simply cannot account for the unknown, unknowns [1,2]. In fact 70–80% accuracy for me should be considered a very high performing team. Anything higher and I would consider whether we were taking enough risks. By making a commitment we are able to actively measure over smaller time periods our effectiveness at achieving our objectives — where we were successful as well as where we weren’t. Using them as a tool for continuous improvement our operating model to maximise that effectiveness.
Autonomous teams that are highly Aligned to purpose, are also explicitly Accountable. By having concrete mechanisms maximising Transparency and improving Commitments you can foster and drive accountability with your teams. The greater the level accountability the team has, the easier it becomes to operate with greater aligned autonomy. The team then empowers itself to create its own conditions and take full ownership of their outcomes be it success or failure.