A product leader was asking me how I approach management. Confidently, I answered, “I believe in autonomy. I try and translate the needs of the business to the team and then give them the autonomy to make the right decisions.” He nodded and asked me which decisions. I stumbled. I didn’t really have an answer. What does the right amount of autonomy look like?

Autonomy

Autonomy is a beautiful word. Autonomy means you’re not told what to do. You get to call the shots. It sounds like freedom. It rings of trust. It is ownership.

Autonomy is a wonderful tool for a manager. You’ve assembled a great team, and now you are able to entrust them to do the work. On top of that, you are building trust with your team. And your team is also able to stretch themselves and grow.

Through autonomy, you can build trust and give your team growth opportunities. What could go wrong?

Abandonment

When you turn the dial too far on autonomy, you have hit abandonment. You are asking everything of your team. They are tasked with finding the solution. They are asked to define the problem. They are setting the objectives and the timeline. And they are deciding what good looks like.

A manager’s job is to translate business goals for teams and individuals. Their job is also to share context and help team’s adjust their direction to better match the organization’s. Defining what good looks like, setting a timeline, setting objectives, and problem definition are all tools a manager can use to keep team’s impact high. By giving these all to the team, the manager is left with fewer tools to help the team increase their impact.

It’s tempting, as a manager, to give your team the opportunity to figure out and fully set their direction. Autonomy creates trust in the short-term. But in the long-term misguided autonomy can cause the most damage.

The Space Between

Like many tools in your manager’s toolbox, the trick is in how you dial in the autonomy. The trick is in identifying the space between autonomy and abandonment that works for your team in the moment. As you are deciding how to find the right spot between autonomy and abandonment, there are two considerations: what are the tactics available and what does the moment call for.

Tactics can differ from org to org and situation to situation. Typical notches on the dial include defining the solution, defining the problem, setting the key results, setting the objectives, establishing the framework and timeline, and defining what good looks like. At the start of the dial are your strongest options, and at the other end, your smallest.

With the options available, you need to determine what the moment calls for. Some questions to ask include: what experience does your team have here? And what are the organization and stakeholders’ expectations? The second question is mostly a matter of understanding how much of a learning experience can be afforded. The first is commonly referred to as Task Relevant Management. If your team has never seen this type of problem before, avoid abandonment and lean on stronger tactics. If your team is well-versed, provide more autonomy.

Wrap Up

Engineering is a game of tradeoffs. Autonomy has a sterling reputation, and it feels like a wonderful tool to deploy. But be wary of the the dark side of autonomy. Avoid abandonment, and you’ll build trust with your team not just in the short-term but also in the long-term.