Alignment and Autonomy – a Contradiction in Terms?

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Alignment and Autonomy – a Contradiction in Terms?

flock_of_birdsBirds do it; fish do it; most companies wish they could do it. Let’s do it, let’s find a way…

…to achieve both alignment and autonomy in the workplace.

Birds do it through team work and co-ordination. Each bird is able to act independently whilst ensuring the group behaves cohesively; their purpose being to find food and avoid attacks. Notably in this scenario, no-one is a leader and everyone is a team member, all pulling together towards a joint objective.

When we share a common purpose in business, great things can happen; we know this. So, why is it a continual challenge to align people to business objectives? And why have alignment and autonomy largely been viewed as mutually exclusive?

For one, the drive to deliver in a particular way comes from the leader; who has a clear intention and a strong sense of how that is to be achieved. The plans which emanate from that are taken as fixed instructions for people to follow. Clearly there is no room for autonomy in that scenario.

On the other hand, we all know people who like to do their own thing (I am one of them) and we can be seen as having no regard for the actions of the wider team! Whilst a high need for autonomy implies a lack of alignment that isn’t always true and certainly doesn’t have to be the case. High alignment and high autonomy can be mutually reinforcing.

The key to making this possible is to differentiate between the ‘why’ and the ‘how to’; because when we have a clear purpose, the methodology can take care of itself.

Clear communication from the top about the collective purpose is paramount and of course, that shouldn’t be a one-time event. Nevertheless, once people are clear on business objectives and the conditions for success, you can empower people to make decisions about how best to fulfil that purpose.

Where I have seen this approach fall down is either due to a lack of consistency – leaders articulate the vision once and don’t follow up; or employees act independently without adhering to the company’s key principles for decision-making. Again, these may not have been formally agreed or communicated.

Whilst employees typically act with the best of intentions, mistakes are still made that can potentially cripple a business. When that happens, I would invite you to review the situation before coming down hard on the individual. Whilst they may be responsible, it’s equally likely they’re missing a nugget of information, which would have enabled them to make a better decision.

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