How can you fuel individual motivation, team velocity, and organization scale through your culture?
I regularly volunteer to coach new engineering managers, and during one session I was asked, ‘What is the most effective way of giving a team autonomy to execute while ensuring high velocity?’
This was a fascinating question for me because, after a decade of leading teams, I’d started correlating high-performing teams to those that had high degrees of autonomy. I had come a long way from when I first started as an engineering manager and used to assume that if you left engineers to their own devices, they’d probably be hacking away at a problem of their choice with seemingly little value to the business.
I now firmly believe engineers don’t lack motivation; I believe it is the systems that fail to create an environment for engineers to make magic. So, instead of looking at engineering productivity or team agility as an individual problem, I’ve found it useful to apply the systems-thinking lens to identify the set of interconnected elements, their relationships, and their function or purpose.
In this article, I’ll discuss why autonomy is important, and list out some of the key systems and feedback loops needed to drive autonomy and empower high-performing teams – building trust, delegating effectively, and regulating the flow of work and information.
Why is autonomy important?
Have you ever received feedback from your reports like, ‘I feel micromanaged’? Or perhaps, your team’s feeling ‘stuck’, due to rapid incoming unplanned work at the expense of planned execution? Or have you been worried that you can’t take a few days off because you feel that you’re propping the world up on your shoulders?
The theory of intrinsic motivation at an individual level talks about competence (the ability), autonomy (choice and independence to pursue interesting work), and purpose (why does it matter?). We’ll assume you have solved the hiring problem and built an inclusive team that has at least 5-8 highly skilled, capable engineers with the right domain expertise and career goals. The team is organized around a higher-order vision and mission, which represents the north star, the why. We’ll also assume that your management and leadership practices lean toward a healthy culture that provides the right blend of growth mindset, radical candor, and psychological safety for individuals to thrive – so competence and purpose are more or less solved.
Autonomous individuals make autonomous teams, which then create self-sustaining organizations; autonomy is key to leading motivated individuals, driving team agility, and scaling organizations. So, how does one build autonomy?
Building trust and transparency
Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship. As a manager or an organizational leader, it is especially crucial to take the time to build trust and provide psychological safety for your team(s). Here are some things I consciously adopt and practice.
Be honest, open, and kind
People prefer context, and the why, behind even the hardest or most unpalatable of decisions. Be able to join those dots, as best as possible, as repeatedly as necessary, and in as much detail as can be shared. For one of my teams, we had to decide on putting one of our supported systems on life support because we didn’t have the bandwidth to maintain or enhance it. It was something our team had worked on for 18+ months, but it hadn’t gained enough traction to warrant further engineering investment. Being able to share the challenges, constraints, and the rationale behind the decision helped the team accept the change and use it constructively when faced with new system choices and realized impact.
Give actionable, specific feedback for your team to reinforce and leverage their strengths, or to focus and improve on their areas of development.
Walk the talk
You want to model the behavior you want to see; for example, if you want to promote a healthy work-life balance, don’t send non-urgent emails or Slack messages outside established working hours for your team. Take regular time off, and stay off when you do. If designing a process or practice, create systems that incentivize good behavior and make it harder to do the wrong thing; for example, if you want engineers to care about efficient infrastructure usage, provide support to spin down or reclaim unused resources.
Be fair, consistent, and accountable
Of the six core needs important for humans, fairness, equality, and consistency list at the top of my own. I strive to create systems where resources are equitably distributed (e.g. consistent policy to award spot bonus, or take additional time off after an exhaustive on-call duty), decisions are fair and consistent, and access to opportunity is uniformly available. I’ve often found that organizational dissatisfaction or dissent stems from a perceived lack of consistency. So, building inclusive workplace policies and enforcing them through accountability go a long way toward fostering trust and transparency.
Delegating scope, leadership, and authority
As you transition from an individual contributor to a manager, or from a manager to a manager-of-managers, you go through a transition in your role. The first thing that comes with any transition is the acceptance of change and the knowledge that what got you here won’t get you to succeed in the new role – unless you shed, adapt, and evolve.
This is the point where it is hardest to delegate and give away your legos, but it is exactly what you need to do. Evaluate what things you own or drive on the urgent vs. important axes, and start delegating items in your urgent-but-not-important bucket. For me, this came in the form of handing over Sprint planning when I moved from individual contributor to engineering manager, and then handing over quarterly planning to our engineering managers when I moved into a manager-of-managers role
However, as you delegate scope and responsibility, you must also balance it with delegating leadership, sponsoring authority, and providing the right support and guardrails for your team to succeed.
Let folks on your team know they have the permission to lead and a safe space to fail. Quite often, especially junior individual contributors, are the ones who need that slight nudge and the nod. They aren’t sure of what is acceptable, and whether they can speak up, share their thoughts, or take on stretch assignments. They need to hear that they can do it, that you’ve got their back, and that you trust them to be able to navigate the challenge. Acknowledge that it’ll get bumpy – but they can lean on you as they need help.
I was asked to lead a key project which spanned 7+ teams and over 80 engineers. However, I was not provided with the authority needed to make some fundamental changes to de-risk key integration issues. Over 3+ months, I strove to work with my peers and leadership to surface the issues and mitigate them. But I was unable to change the course as I lacked the agency to drive change, which greatly impacted my motivation. The project was also ultimately canceled after 2+ years. I’ve learned that delegating responsibility with due authority or sponsorship is absolutely crucial to set someone up for success.
Providing sponsorship and support
What does the individual contributor or team need? Is it training in project management or Sprint planning? Is it an additional headcount to deliver the roadmap? Is it organizational context into how existing systems work? Work with your report to discuss and evaluate what they might need to deliver the scope and drive impact. Know when to dive deeper and zoom in, or when to go broad and zoom out. There are some situations that might need your sponsorship to help endorse the gravity of the problem and the urgency in mobilizing the teams to solve it.
Once you delegate scope and authority, and provide the right resources, you want to also provide guardrails for your teams to operate autonomously. Prioritization, escalation, and decision-making frameworks help drive alignment, surface disagreements, and enable well-reasoned outcomes.
Set expectations and drive alignment
Work with your team(s), peers, and chain of management to align on the ‘what’ to build and deliver along your carved-out vision. If your organization does quarterly, half, or annual planning, evaluate how your team’s deliverables fit against the higher company or organizational priorities. Some urgent and important company priorities might have a ‘special bypass lane’ to mandate investment from all teams – e.g. core security, reliability, or performance changes needed to drive rigor and discipline. Using OKRs and the list of priorities, align on the stack ranked list in terms of what results are must-haves, nice-to-have, and will-not-have.
Unblock competing constraints
There will be times when a team might need to make an exception to fit in a new, unplanned-but-critical swim lane, as requested by another team. Establish routes to have those conversations directly and upfront to avoid late surprises. I love our go/unblock process at Stripe, which encourages the involved teams to first attempt solving locally, and then co-author a template doc requesting an escalation.
Why? What? When?
Each of us makes decisions on any given day – some big, some small, some reversible, some trapdoor. There are times we need to decide what to even decide. Here’s a list of decision-making frameworks I’ve often tapped into, in addition to the OODA loop. These help establish details around what decision needs to be made, why, by when, and by whom. Depending on the situation at hand, one might also share a list of possible alternatives and solutions, along with possible tradeoffs.
Regulating the flow of work and information
There are times when your team might be blocked due to unplanned work coming out of incidents or operational toil, creeping tech debt, or running too many projects in parallel. Or, there might be a constant churn in user asks, changing requirements, or higher-order priorities. At such times, it is especially difficult to promote autonomy due to hindered agility and constant thrash. I wrote an in-depth guide on debugging engineering velocity which discusses each of these in detail.
Are your collaboration tools for ideating, prototyping, and discussion laid out? Are they easily searchable? Are the rules of engagement published (e.g. typical response time for an email vs. Slack DM, a gavel block for all project briefs, etc.)? Establish effective channels for communication and collaboration, ensuring that the norms for healthy, inclusive human interactions are also duly published. Articulate the roles and responsibilities on the team through a RACI matrix to avoid confusion and set clear expectations.
As you get higher up in the management chain, there are more levels of abstraction and more chances for information to be lost across each. Tune your feedback loops for the flow of information to be high signal based on this critical vs. freshness framework. Constantly evaluate how much critical information you gather and how fresh it is. Possible sources to gather such information are through having regular 1:1s, skip-level 1:1s, AMAs, and office hours.
Fostering autonomy is fundamental to empowering high-performing teams; it fuels individual motivation, team velocity, and organization scale. Once you’ve built a highly capable team, share and repeat the vision and mission for your organization. Empower and leverage the team through:
- Trust and transparency. Be open and honest about decisions, kind and direct with feedback, and be consistent and accountable in modeling the behavior you seek.
- Delegating scope, leadership, and authority. Provide the right sponsorship, support, and guardrails through effective prioritization, decision, and escalation frameworks.
- Regulate the flow of work and information. Establish effective channels for communication and collaboration, facilitating healthy and tight feedback loops.
Autonomous teams are like an orchestra performing in full rhythm and synchrony. As a manager or manager-of-managers, create the systems and feedback loops to best facilitate that autonomy, reduce friction, and empower teams to work at their highest potential.