In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink shares that there are three essentials: Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery. Autonomy, the ability to make decisions for ourselves, is central to feeling in control and satisfied with our work (and life!) experience.

Every leader is afraid that with too much rope, a team might trip over the slack. What is the fine line of enough freedom to make decisions and too much where teams work beyond their scope?

I’m glad you asked.

High performing teams need strong boundaries

In holacracy, (an organisational framework that has a flat hierarchy and is built on autonomous teams), responsibilities form the essence of interactions and decisions. Let’s take the principle and apply it to teams in general, in or outside of a holacracy.

Team members need to know:

  • The organisational purpose: the difference the organisation is trying to make.

  • Their own individual purpose as it relates to the organisation’s purpose.

  • What is expected of them in terms of outcomes, contributions, work habits, contribution.

  • What they expect of others in their roles.

This last point is where holacracy teaches us an important insight: knowing what we can expect from our team members is not often part of the team conversation. Too often we simply focus on our own little patch. And then get shirty when someone steps on our toes, or fails to deliver something we need.

It’s a case of unclear expectations.

When team members know what is expected of them, AND what they can expect from their peers, we start to build a systemic understanding of how our roles affect each other.  This is a secret of minimising team conflict!

Top 10 Tips for Building Team Autonomy

High Performing Team Tip 1

Get team members to explain to one another what they can expect from each other.

High Performing Team Tip 2

Create a Collaboration Handbook with your team. This could be a spreadsheet or a document that outlines how each team member:

  • Prefers to work (in silence, with music, secluded, in open space, in a coffee shop)

  • Morning/afternoon/evening/night for top energy

  • How meetings work best for them (with visuals, written briefs beforehand, auditory summary)

  • Pet peeves

  • How they like to be treated with respect

  • Their learning style

  • Their behaviour profile (or other psychometric profile your team uses)

High Performing Team Tip 3

Develop a clear decision-making process the team can use on their own, without you. Holacracy uses a consultative approach where someone presents a ‘tension’ (essentially a gap between where the team is and where they want it to be). They come with suggestions, present it to the team. There is a round of questions, a round of reactions, a round of challenges until all objections are dealt with, or more work needs to be done.

High Performing Team Tip 4

Set the boundaries. What kinds of decisions can they make? For example, they might be able to change project workflow, or drop a particular idea because it’s cumbersome or not working. Be clear on what decisions are beyond their scope: hiring/firing, any decisions that go beyond their financial remit, etc.

High Performing Team Tip 5

Be clear on when you want to be notified about issues

Include what kind of issues, and how you would like to be notified. Give examples of what is acceptable, and what is not. For example, it’s ok to know about glitches in the project after they are resolved providing there is no impact on budget or deadline. It is not ok to find out that the project will miss its deadline just days out from said deadline.

High Performing Team Tip 6

Be clear on the measures of progress

Ideally you and the team have completed a Results Map and developed clear measures to see how the team is progressing towards key results. You will have a clear reporting framework and schedule that you and the team can consult to see if you are on track, or not.

High Performing Team Tip 7

Develop your team’s leadership skills

The ones that are most important are:

  • Observation, interpretation, and intervention skills

  • Environmental scanning

  • Systems thinking

  • Creative thinking

  • Decision-making

  • Scenario planning

  • Facilitation

  • Problem solving.

High Performing Team Tip 8

Ask for feedback.

Ask the team how you can help them get the work done. What do they need from you? More information? Guidance? Ideas? Sponsorship? As a leader, you need to be a resource to them.

High Performing Team Tip 9

Give feedback.

Let them know how they are doing. Catch them doing something right. This tip, from The One Minute Manager, has stood the test of time. People feel good when they are told they are doing well, and will repeat that behaviour as a result.

High Performing Team Tip 10

Embrace radical transparency

In his fabulous book, Team of Teams, General McChrystal identifies that when we give teams autonomy and the ability to make decisions, we need to also make sure they’ve got enough of the big picture to do so. Your job as a leader is to help your team see as much of the dynamics of the organisation inside and outside it, so they can see the repercussions of action, and inaction, across other teams and the organisation as a whole.

This is one of the reasons why systems thinking is so useful: it helps us to see how our behaviour affects others, and how others affect us. When we change one part of the system, the whole is affected.

Only by being radically transparent about the issues, opportunities, and insights from all the areas of the business can we move forward in building more independent, high performing teams.

And here is a bonus tip: building autonomous teams requires a redefinition of leadership. Instead of being a commander, McChrystal suggests we see leaders as gardeners. We tend. We look to shape the environment for success, so our garden, our crops, can flourish. In the end, we helped, but it’s the plants that did the work.

It’s humility in leadership that will help us get out of our teams’ way. Let’s work on that.