What you need to be autonomous

Zappos gave self-managing organizations and the whole concept of Holacracy a bad name.  But I wouldn’t throw away the baby with the bathwater.  Self-managing organizations and autonomous teams aren’t all bad or a recipe for disaster. There’s a lot to learn from this failed attempt to create a self-managing organization.

The biggest lesson by far, to me that is, is that the need for autonomy doesn’t replace the need for leadership. Human leadership.

Before everything else, an employee is a human being – with feelings, with highs, and with lows.  And people have a need for a strong leader who can help them achieve their goals.  They don’t want to be managed, but they do want to be led, with leadership replacing management.

You manage a system, you lead self-thinking people.  And they, in turn, choose to follow. Or not.

Like a beehive without the queen bee, an organization without a leader creates chaos.  It’s not the autonomy that is at fault, it’s the lack of shared vision and direction that is at fault.

In a beehive, most bees are required to be autonomous.  They leave the hive in search of nectar, without anyone telling them where to fly, or when to come back to the hive.  They know their role and they know when they are ready to return, all the while serving the queen bee.  They’re autonomous in their daily operations, yet when the queen bee dies, the first thing they do is to select a new one.  You can’t be autonomous without a leader, or without some rules.

Rules or no rules? That is the question!

Rules are often viewed as the reason why people are not responsible, pro-active or autonomous. You don’t have the authority to use a different tool, even though it’s costing the organization dearly in both money and time because it is not company policy. Also, you aren’t allowed to buy the extra memory for your computer, even though it means that you are wasting valuable time being unproductive because it’s not in this year’s budget. You end up losing out on making an offer to the new talent you’ve discovered because your recruitment process is too heavy and the rules stop you from bending it.

You’d rather lose out on the big gains than make small changes.

But rules aren’t all bad. Rules, actually make us feel safe, and without feeling safe, we can’t be fully productive. But they have to make sense, and they have to be questioned and adapted continuously.  They have to grow organically with the company.

Amateur or Master Chef?

When you’re new at cooking, following a recipe book guarantees that even an amateur is able to create the most delicious meals. You don’t have to know the science of cooking in order to create a masterpiece. All you need to do is follow the recipe step-by-step.

A master chef, on the other hand, not only knows the rules and the science of cooking intimately but has mastered all the technical skills too. On top of that, he has proven that he can work at high speed and in very stressful environments.

Similarly, processes and procedures are there to enable us to be more repeatable in our actions, producing the same high-quality results over and over — by choice, not by chance. Processes and procedures are intended to be standardized sets of lessons learned preventing us from making the same mistakes.

Having the right rules in place, therefore, makes us more productive. The problem rather lies how rules are being enforced. Rules enforced by top management is bound to be viewed as negative by employees, not feeling they are in control of their results.

Science has proven that people are happy when they feel they have control over a situation.  Thus, not involving employees to co-create their own rules, is stressful and demotivating.  The results?  A peaceful rebellion with people following the rules to a tee, and take no responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

For rules — and autonomy — to work, the people that will have to follow the rules need to participate in the creation of the rules.  You also need the following five critical skills to build an autonomous team:

1. Trust and respect

When you have people that trust and respect each other, it’s possible to allow them to make their own decisions, knowing that if it falls outside their comfort levels, they will ask for help.

2. Good communication skills

When teams don’t communicate effectively, it’s very hard to trust them, or for them to trust each other. Autonomy requires people to be able to express their needs, explain and defend their viewpoint, and give as well as receive feedback from colleagues.

3. Strong relationships

Relationships go hand in hand with communication. The communication enables discussions to take place, while the relationships make sure that you are talking to the right people, to get the right results.

For a team or organization to be autonomous, they need clearly defined relationships, with defined go-to people for different types of issues. That means that you need to know each team member’s strengths and weaknesses — both technically and personally.

You need to know who the go-to person is, and you also need to have the confidence to consult them. There needs to be defined authority and decision-making rules.

4. Clear vision and requirements

Without a target or goal to work towards, the relationships and communication don’t really help you get closer to it. An autonomous team needs to be very clear on what they are working towards. No ambiguity or disagreement.

5. High confidence, low arrogance

Confidence is the key to autonomy. Each team member needs to know what to do, who to ask for help or support, and how to do their work. When you don’t know all the answers, you need the confidence to ask for help, and the humility to offer help.

When you’ve made a mistake, you need the confidence to admit it and take ownership of the consequences. A functional team admits when they’re wrong and apologize.

In essence, when you have clarity of roles, respect, and trusting relationships, you have autonomy.


Autonomous teams do not mean everyone decides what they want to do, when.  It also doesn’t mean that you don’t need a leader.  Autonomy is much more complex than that, requiring shared values and strong leadership.

It’s not a methodology or system that can be implemented, as Zappo’s have proven.  The skills required to be autonomous can not be learned by attending a course or reading a book.  The skills required, among other things, are trust, respect, communication and humility.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.