Autonomy vs Impact

I gave a number of talks at Microsoft, the most popular of which were usually my experiences of working at startups vs large companies and their differences and similarities. One of my observations which developed over the years was the relationship between autonomy and impact and after some prompting from friends, thought it might be useful to share here.

TLDR

If you read no further, this is the punchline — autonomy and impact are inversely correlated and if you don’t optimize for one, you’ll usually get neither. Imagine the relationship to look something like this:

These guys don’t usually go together

BACKGROUND

I’ll explain why I think this matters.

I first consciously learned of autonomy’s role in motivation through this great video from Daniel Pink. In this talk, he explains that autonomy is a key component of motivation, job satisfaction and self reported happiness in creative endeavors (along with mastery and purpose). Given it’s universal nature, we can call this an ‘intrinsic’ motivator.

Through countless career conversations and drawing from my own personal experience, I’ve found this to be completely true. Common themes through those career discussions would always reoccur. Happy people felt as if they had the freedom to apply their unique skills without unreasonable hindrances. Unhappy people would feel frustrated at having to obtain buy in across an unnecessarily high number of stakeholders, work through too many organizational dependencies or deal with unrelenting micromanagement.

However, my industry (tech) is obsessed with another dimension that isn’t mentioned here — impact. We’ll limit our usage of the term to “breadth of impact” (as opposed to depth). From a product or company perspective, this usually means how many people you can improve the lives of, affect, influence, touch, engage or make money from. Whenever we talk about a product’s impact, we often use breath metrics as a measure (e.g. the FB newsfeed hit 1B monthly active users etc).

So from the industry’s perspective, if you work on or “own” a product that has high impact, you’ve basically made it. For many people, this isn’t a driver that’s necessarily intrinsic but is instead a ‘learned motivator’.

What I observed over time, is that our intrinsic motivator for autonomy and our learned desire for impact are often at odds with each Pick a job or career that has a high degree of impact, you’ll usually need to trade off some autonomy. Conversely, decide that autonomy is your thing, and you usually expect to have less impact.

A COUPLE OF EXAMPLES

Lets stay with tech for a bit and look at a couple of examples.

Example of high impact, low autonomy

If you are a senior developer on the inner workings of Microsoft Windows, you have an important job. Hundreds of millions of people interact with your software every day. However, because of that breadth of impact your ability to make those changes is limited. There are stakeholders, cross team dependencies, management buy-off and all sorts of quality gates that all need to be checked off the list. Other examples in this vein might be the Facebook newsfeed, the Google search results page ore the Apple home screen. There are so many people using these experiences and in a well functioning organization these are useful and healthy checks and balances. However, it can also mean that that achieving something as seemingly simple as a font color change can be a big accomplishment.

High autonomy, low impact

At the other end of the spectrum, we have products / teams / companies / individuals who have maximum autonomy. Take an imaginary company “Oregon Design Ventures Inc”. A small. diverse, multi-cultural team of 6 people who do great design work and feel empowered and motivated every day. However, the impact is not measured in the 100M’s of viewers, but in the dozens of people who see their work.

The nice thing about this relationship is that it’s a fractal. It can apply to your career decisions, but also more broadly to the products you work on, and even the companies whom you work for. It is also largely unaffected by seniority. Most VP’s / CEO’s of large companies have a ton of impact, but far less autonomy than they might have imagined when dreaming about the role as a younger man or woman. Conversely. many entrepreneurs break away from the corporate world to do their own thing, only to be surprised at how much they miss large scale external feedback.

WHICH IS THE BEST SPOT ON THE LINE?

This is the most frequently asked question I get on this topic — is there a sweet spot? The answer to this depends entirely on the individual. The good news is that whatever you decide, it’s not forever but a moment in time. For me personally, I’ve spent significant portions of my career with a very different mix. In my self-funded startup days, I consciously traded impact for autonomy. Conversely, in joining Microsoft and leading the Bing experience, my impact was several orders of magnitude greater.

Over my career, I’ve enjoyed almost all my jobs but I’ve found that after several year in a high impact role, I often end up making a stepwise shift towards autonomy at some point. This normally happens when I feel my personal creativity or skills atrophy for too long. What often follows is then I build something interesting and the journey begins down and to the right on that chart. I consider this oscillation to be a good thing and I’ve found this variance and multi-specialization to be a source of great personal happiness.

At the company level, VC funded startups might be somewhere in that middle ground of autonomy and impact. In the early stages, autonomy is high, and the capital enables non-linear growth, hiring and scale. As before, this relationship is a moment in time. As the number of rounds and investors increase, that balance is shifted. Recently, we’ve also seen the reverse with some public companies choosing to walk away from the financial markets and become private again. Dell was an example that springs to mind and whether you agree / disagree with their decision, it’s an interesting example of someone consciously trading some impact upside for greater levels of autonomy and control. There are also some great companies who always stayed private. Patagonia (outdoor clothing) and ESRI (GIS) do amazing work and I consider them to have remarkable autonomy compared to their respective industry peers. Valve (gaming) would be another.

CAN ANYTHING BE DONE ABOUT THE INVERSE RELATIONSHIP?

This is the second most frequent question. The answer is a resounding “yes”. While there’ll always be some degree of trade off, masters in their field largely transcend this relationship. The best pianists, actors, photographers, painters, athletes, software developers and CEO’s are able to exert complete creative freedom while operating on a giant scale. Some of the companies I mentioned previously get close to this too. However, the key is to understand that they built their expertise, career and reputation by operating somewhere along the line first.

The best things to make progress towards a better autonomy / impact mix are to build deeply specialized skills, establish a brand / reputation for high integrity and reliability, invest in a network of relationships built on trust not transactions and developing well rounded softer skills. This is similarly true for teams and companies, except we call ‘softer skills’ by the name of culture.

WRAPPING UP

I hope this has been either stimulating or useful. The key is to not take the relationship too literally, just know that autonomy and impact typically pull in opposite directions and that there is no “right” answer. These decisions are unique to you and your career / life stage. The most important thing is to ensure you’re making conscious decisions about the tradeoffs. The person who refuses to choose one of two opposing forces usually get less of both.

One final closing point is that I covered only breadth of impact here. A different discussion entirely can be had if we talk about depth of impact. A topic for another time.