Autonomy doesn’t work for everyone

It’s sometimes hard to remember that not everyone likes your way of working.

In our team there is a very flat structure. No one is the “boss”, no one says anyone else is right or wrong. Individuals have the autonomy to do their work in the way that they want, and are trusted to get the job done.

We also avoid deadlines. I find deadlines are often made up (no one ever dies when they are missed) and so they generally either create unnecessary stress (if they are too short), or make people work slower if they are too far away (work naturally expands to fill time). I’ve gone into more detail about these pitfalls when discussing the merits of SMART goals. So instead of making up fake deadlines, we just make sure we are working on the most important thing at any one time. As long as we keep prioritising and checking in with each other, this works pretty well. We then just trust that everyone works at a good pace, one that would hopefully be sustainable.

To me, it seems blindingly obvious that this is a great way to work. You have minimal stress, and you get control over your own work. But I forget that not everyone is used to this way of working, and so doesn’t necessarily understand it, or indeed may not actually like it. Take the following example, which I have experienced in the past.

A team I worked with had to write a lot of content, but there wasn’t a copywriter in the team. There was a copywriting team that different parts of the organisation had to brief work into, including giving deadlines. The copywriting team then did their best to meet all of these deadlines by sharing all these tasks amongst each other. I don’t like this system as it gives “project managers” the opportunity to make up deadlines and put unnecessary stress on the team. The copywriters don’t control their own work at all — they are just treated like a tool by the rest of the business to get what they want done.

So I pushed to get one of the writers out of the copywriting team and embed them within our team. We managed to get one writer dedicated to our team for 3 days a week. This sounded great; we didn’t really need someone full time. It meant we wouldn’t have to do any briefs, or make up any deadlines to get work done.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out very well at all.

I thought he’d want to be part of a team building a product. He didn’t. He saw it as no different to any other task he was given.

I thought he’d be happy to come and sit with our team. He refused. He wanted to stay with the other writers.

I thought he’d be happy that he didn’t have any deadlines. He wasn’t. He didn’t know how important his work was.

I thought he’d be happy that he could prioritise his own work. He wasn’t. He liked having someone tell him what to do.

I thought he’d like working at a steady pace. He didn’t. In fact, without a deadline he worked really slowly, leaving it to the last minute (that never came).

In hindsight, some of this looks obvious. But there are two key lessons that I have taken away from this experience

  1. You need to sell this way of working

It’s different. People often don’t like change. If you are not used to something, you won’t necessarily understand it straight away. It is probably made worse by the fact that many managers/employees have said that you have autonomy without really granting it; so when you actually see autonomy you don’t actually realise. If you’ve worked to deadlines all of your life, then a sudden change to an environment where you don’t have them will be somewhat confusing.

2. Not everyone is suited to this way of working

I love this way of working because I enjoy autonomy. But not everyone does. Whilst I feel it removes stress for me, it creates stress for other people. Having someone tell you what is most important and when it needs to be done removes that responsibility from you, a responsibility that is stressful for some people. If all you want to do is be a copywriter, then maybe all you want to do is write and not worry about managing your work.

I still fully believe that this autonomous way of working is superior. But in the future, I will spend the time to make sure new joiners are suited to this way of working, and that the way we work is explained to them clearly in advance.

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