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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Autonomy and Authority

Autonomy and Authority post image

These days I speak extensively about how we designed Lunar Logic as an organization. After all, going through a transition from a traditional management model to a situation where company has no managers at all is quite an achievement. One of the pillars of managerless organizational design is autonomy.

After all, decisions won’t just make themselves. Someone has to call the shots. Once we got rid of managers, who would normally make almost all decisions, we need everyone else to embrace decision making. For that to happen, we need to distribute autonomy.

Interestingly enough, when Don Reinertsen, who I respect a lot, talks about decentralizing control he uses somewhat different wording.

Decentralizing control requires decentralizing both the authority to make decisions and the information required to make these decisions correctly.

Don Reinertsen

Authority refers to a formal power to make a decision. However, I tend to make a clear distinction between authority and autonomy. Ultimately, as a manger, I can give my team authority to make a decision. However, at the same time I can instantiate fear or pressure on decision-makers so before they actually make their call they would ask me what I think about the topic and go with my advice. This mean that even if authority was distributed autonomy is not there.

Corollary to that, I may not have formal authority but I can feel courageous enough to make a decision. If that is an acceptable part of an organizational culture it means that I may have autonomy without authority. By the way the latter case is interesting as it pictures the attitude I’m very fond of: ask forgiveness rather than get a permission.

I’m not going to fundamentally disagree with Don Reinertsen, though. As a matter of fact, we are on the same page as he follows up with his train of thought.

To enable lower organizational levels to make decisions, we need to give them authority, information, and practice. Without practice and the freedom to fail upon occasion, they will not take control of these decisions.

Don Reinertsen

In the first quote Don is talking about prerequisites to decentralize control. In the second he focuses on enabling it. He adds a crucial part: people need to practice. This, as a consequence, means that occasionally they will fail, a.k.a. make bad decisions.

And that’s exactly what autonomy is in its core.

In vast majority of cases autonomy is derived from authority. It doesn’t work the other way around, though. In fact, situation of having formal authority but no real autonomy to make a decision is fairly common. It is also the worst thing we can do if we want people to feel more accountable for an organization they’re with.

Not only do they realize that the power they got is virtual but once it happens they’re not even back to square one. It’s worse. They got burned. So they’re not jumping on that autonomy bandwagon again when they are asked to get more involved in decision making.

That’s, by the way, another case that portraits that cultural change are not safe to fail.

Long story short, don’t confuse authority with autonomy. If you really care about your organization take care of distributing both, not only the former.

in: culture

2 comments… add one

  • Paul December 6, 2017, 10:19 pm

    Grace Hopper is so often misquoted, and with that common error the quotation makes little sense. It is not easier to ask forgiveness than permission. It’s in fact much easier to ask permission than forgiveness. But what she said was that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to GET permission. What I love about Lunar Logic is that you’ve created an environment in which the reverse is true. Only in Lunar is it actually easier to get permission than forgiveness.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 7, 2017, 2:54 am

    @Paul – You are right about the Grace Hopper’s quote and I typically include the actual quote. I adjusted the wording to reflect the original better.

    You made me thinking with your comment that at Lunar it’s easier to get permission than to ask forgiveness. I never looked at it this way.

    On one hand I don’t disagree with the statement. On the other “getting permission” rubs me in the wrong way. It may be my bias but it suggests to me that there is some kind of approval stage, even if informal.

    What is close to my heart is the idea of (bounded) autonomy, where everyone knows that (within given constraints) there is approval that one has to go through. I mean other than one happening in one’s head to justify the call.

    Anyway, thanks for food for thought.

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