The Autonomy Ladder


The Autonomy Ladder

May 2, 2022

While there may be oddball, hyper-controlling bosses out there, most of us don’t want to lead an organization full of people who can’t make decision, solve problems, or initiate action. That’s especially true in high-growth start-ups. If employees need non-stop handholding, growth slows.

The Self-Generating Team

So, ideally, you want a team of people you can ask to solve a problem by taking the ball and running with it. Perhaps more importantly, you want them to have a deep enough connection to the vision to identify opportunities, diagnose problems and create initiatives with little supervision.

A team of self-starters, independent workers and confident creators accelerates the team and the organization’s scalability.

Every moment that you spend directly showing someone how to do something, or micro-managing their performance, you are burning through time you could spend on doing more valuable work. By the transitive property, we can see that your micromanagement (or even, just cautious delegation) costs progress. The faster and more effectively you can wean employees off your direct involvement the better for them, you, and the organization’s scalability.

You will only get that kind of team by cultivating your direct reports.

Like most disciplines, there is a logic to developing self-starting employees. I call this one the Autonomy Ladder.

Approaching the Ladder

When you first begin managing a new employee it’s a good idea to do a sort of “pre-test”. Delegate a project to them. Give a clear objective and the space to ask any questions they have about that objective. Then, ask them to come back with a plan, timeline, and any additional questions they need answer to before beginning. You will find out quickly how much direct management they need. Let’s assume they come back with something lacking. Maybe they miss the deadline to get it to you; or they develop an unclear slide deck that doesn’t capture the problem; or the project isn’t structured in a way that could be managed and measured.

That assessment gives you an indication of where they fall on the Autonomy Ladder.

The Rungs

1. Accountability

At this early level, you are working with your employee to develop the work hygiene to become a trustworthy team member. The focus should be on a high degree of clarity and reliability.  When someone’s reliability and clarity of thought is still this undeveloped, don’t let anything go. Ask for specific tasks to be completed and provide clear deadlines. It may sound like: “Glen, please pull the report on quarterly social media for the last three quarters. Have it to me by close of business on Tuesday.”

If Tuesday at 6 PM local time comes and goes without that report, pick up the phone (YES, the phone) and call. Whatever reason Glen gives for failing to deliver on time is irrelevant. The skill you need to work on here is clarity. He knew he was missing the deadline before he did. That was the time to communicate it.

A deadline demands a promise. If you can’t keep the promise, you communicate, explain, and make a new promise. The goal of Basic Accountability is mastery of that phenomenon.

2. Helping and Correction

Most new employees begin here. They are reliable. After all, they made it through school. But they don’t really know what it means to add value or to perform the kind of due diligence needed to design an initiative. This is the most demanding phase for managers because you need to be very hand-on. Employees in this stage of development have lots of questions –many of which they haven’t even discovered or can’t quite articulate. You will need to push them to think deeply about what you have asked them to do. Do they have all the information? Do they understand the assignment? Can they find answers to whatever questions they have without your guidance?

3. Management by Objective

Once your employee is reliable to make and keep promises and find answers to self-generated questions, you can work on the critical thinking necessary for her to thrive. Assign a project to achieve an objective and review it with them. The collaborative review of the objective and the plan is what matters. At this stage, employees often assume they understand the objective and don’t ask enough questions to ensure they fully grasp the problem to be solved; alternatively, they don’t do the critical thinking necessary and feel completely lost. Those are the things to assess as you review the plan. Does it demonstrate both critical thinking/legwork AND humility?

Provide feedback regarding those two areas. If you see over-confidence and lack of rigor, point it out along with the kinds of questions that he should be asking and researching.

Does he seem completely lost and unable to craft a plan for lack of clarity? Go to work on coaching him on trusting his own instincts, doing legwork, and using his peers as resources. Before you can take your hands off the project he needs to grasp all those criteria. Have him revise the project. By the time you do several rounds of this you will begin to receive plans that are well thought-through and ready to be executed with some minor tweaking along the way.

4. Problem-Solving and Principle

At this point you can not only assign an objective, but simply provide a problem for them to solve. They understand the principles and can apply them at will. Your reviews of projects or strategies are collaborations and focus on refinement, improvement, and resource allocation. Your employee is a partner and brings enough value that you needn’t manage her.  She thinks about the problem—even identifies problems– and brings them to you. Your goal here is simply to add value where you can and act as a resource for her as she manages the project’s execution and measurement.

Geometric Autonomy

The chart captures the geometry of this structure. An employee who is reliable provides some but limited value; they also provide some but limited organizational scalability., But an employee at level 4 massively contributes to the organization –and the organization becomes that much more scalable.

Just as a musician plays basic scales during every practice, as we build our own and our team’s skill as thinkers and team-members, we move between these levels. The rungs of the ladder are foundations for any member of a high-performing team. And each of us will have periodic lapses in basic reliability. Managing means moving people forward, up the ladder–but never losing sight of the fundamentals. If you embrace this model your team will grow as independent thinkers and businesspeople and will be better able to develop their own teams.