We see more and more organizations and leaders that want to give people more autonomy in their work – and of course we applaud that. If you want to give people more autonomy, questions soon arise: How do you start? Where can you give more autonomy, where should you be more careful? How can people make good decisions? And then it’s also a twofold theme: You can give autonomy, but people also have to take responsibility. That can be a challenge, especially if you were organized fairly hierarchically for a long time. It is best to approach this in small steps – and thus for prototyping. Here are our top 5 practices to start with:
1. Start gradually
When you want to give a person autonomy over a certain process or decision, do this in steps: Start with creating transparency about the topic. Give them all the relevant information, data and reasoning they need. Then give them some time to comprehend the topic, get familiar with the information and ask their questions. Once you hand over the authority, give them your full trust! Don’t check on them or control them, except if they come to you with questions.
2. Give direction
Okay, this one can be a tedious task but it is absolutely essential. If you want people to take their own decisions, and you want them to take them right, you have to provide guidance: What is it, that you all try to achieve? And what are the conditions that people have to take into account when deciding? In other words, you have to create absolute clarity about your team’s vision and the specific team objectives. Make sure, you do not formulate some lofty mission statement, but rather a very specific and understandable description of what you want to achieve and why.
3. Give away authority
Giving away decision making authority can be scary. What if people take decisions that you don’t agree with? What if they take a risk and something goes wrong? Well, let’s be clear: It is scary to give away authority because things can (and probably will) go wrong. And that is the whole point: Sharing responsibility with others and letting them learn how to handle it. In order to manage the risk that comes along with learning, we use the practice of “Waterline decisions”: Define, which decisions are reversible and carry only little risk. Those are decisions above the waterline: They will not sink your team or organization, if taken wrong. Start giving away authority on these first. The more experienced people become in decision making, the bigger and riskier decisions you can give them.
4. Support the decision process
Being asked to take (more) decisions yourself – and therefore taking on more responsibility – can also feel scary for people. So help them make good decisions. One helpful practice can be the advice process: When a decision has a certain impact, people are required to gather advice from at least one colleague, before taking the decision. That way decisions get better (hopefully) and people get a bit of reassurance, but they still take their own decision.
5. Where to start?
So you are ready to give more autonomy and want to know where to start? Here are three ideas:
Give the frontline employees a budget that they can spend however they see fit, as long as it helps them do their job and is in the interest of the company. You can also do this on a team level. Feeling bolder? How about giving people unlimited vacation days?
And one last thought: Why not decide together where to give more autonomy?