How your tech team can have autonomy without fear of messing up

Tech teams are happier, more engaged and more productive when given autonomy. Leaders must start seeing time wasted as a feature, not a bug.

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autonomy in tech teams

What I love about being in tech isn’t the technology, but that our mistakes are comparatively meaningless. I learned this binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy during UK’s first lockdown: If I were a surgeon, I would feel paralyzed by the finality of making mistakes.

This is not to say mistakes in tech are never dangerous. If you release tech that supports air traffic control or train signals that doesn’t work properly, we’re all in trouble. But for most tech teams, mistakes are reversible.

No matter how badly we mess up, no one wakes up with the wrong leg amputated or an airplane crashed into their bedroom. We fix, redo or scrap it. We create, invent and experiment without having to be diligent, cautious or controlled. We don’t have to be too careful.

So why do most of us approach working in tech like we’re dealing with live explosives? We have endless meetings to make sure everyone is ‘on the same page,’ layer after layer of management and decision by committee. We validate, hypothesize and debate. We rarely let anyone own a project from conception to production. That’s a waste. With autonomy, we could have much more fun and achieve much more.

Autonomy not adopted despite evidence

I shouldn’t need to make a case for giving employees autonomy – the evidence is vast. Take Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, which showed workers given more autonomy performed better and were more sensitive to failure.

The battle has moved beyond raising awareness, but we have a long way to go to achieve widespread autonomy in tech workplaces. What gives? Do we have a fundamental problem with our approach to management? If we all know we should be doing it, why is it still the exception rather than the rule?

Hierarchical management structures push managers towards caution. We’re responsible for our employees’ mistakes and find their mistakes embarrassing. We do everything we can to prevent them, which means limiting their autonomy. This way of working may protect us from what they may do wrong, but it also prevents us benefiting from what they may do right. We’ve designed our workplaces to ‘catch’ our worst people. Then we’re surprised our best don’t thrive.

Safety nets not safety rules

To free ourselves, we must start ignoring individual outcomes. We must stop trying to minimize losses and focus on maximizing wins. But what does that look like in practice?

Imagine you have a group on one side of a ravine. You must get them all to the other side. It would be natural to approach this with a ‘zero failure’ plan – tie everyone to ropes, give crystal clear instructions and get them across one at a time. You’d get everyone to the other side safely, but it would take forever and your most capable would get bored. Caution feels needed because the consequences of failure are severe: Falls mean death.

But what if, instead of ensuring no one fell, you made the consequences of falling irrelevant? If you added a safety net to catch people who fell, you could skip the caution because failure wouldn’t matter. You could let people find their way over and see what happens. Some would get across easily, some would ask for help and some would fall.

But the falling wouldn’t matter. Failures become attempts, and failed attempts would show you who needed your support without wasting your time helping those who didn’t need it.

At the end, you’d find everyone made it to the other side in less time with less frustration and less work from you. You’ve identified those who need help and those who can help others next time. You’ve created an environment where the most capable thrive but the least able are protected. All you had to do was add a safety net.

Perfect is the enemy of good

Using our ravine-crossing example, someone might say, “OK, that was fast, but some people fell. If you stopped that happening, we’d get faster.” But if you tried to stop anyone falling next time, you’d be back to micromanaging and over-caution. The adage ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ encapsulates how trying to eliminate failure often means lower quality results overall. Failed attempts aren’t bugs – they’re features.

When managers must constantly report to one another about what’s happening in their departments, it’s like reporting on the people who fell trying to get across the ravine.

Having to explain mistakes constantly makes us tend to try to prevent them. We lose sight of the only thing that matters: The overall outcome.

A year down the line, when we fail to hit our targets because we were too cautious, we don’t even feel embarrassed because, hey, we didn’t make any mistakes! From a productivity perspective, we become ‘penny wise but pound foolish.’

How confident are you?

A culture of autonomy means we stop asking each other to explain what we’re doing and why. Just give people specific targets and ask they reach them, then let them get on with it without reporting every attempt. When we give someone something to achieve – whether giving a manager a goal or a worker a task – the only update we should ask for is their confidence they can deliver – that’s our safety net.

How many status updates do you get from your staff? What if instead of all these, you asked how confident they were of achieving their goal? If the answer was over 70 percent, leave them to get on with it. That question catches people who’ve gone off track and lets everyone else move ahead without slowing down to explain.

Think of all the time you’d save. If the practice were spread across an organization, countless hours would be recovered. And the worst that could happen is some effort wasted on work that turned out not to be useful. It won’t be perfect, but perfect isn’t an option.

We’re emerging from a time during the pandemic when we’ve had to be constantly cautious in every area of our lives. If you manage a tech team, chances are, work is one place that doesn’t need that caution. That freedom is a fantastic perk, and what a waste not to take advantage of it. We’re lucky to have a job that lets us be so carefree.

Let’s let our people make mistakes, get stuff wrong and make a mess. After all, we’re not surgeons.

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About authors

Matt is the co-founder of DoThings and author of The Management Delusion. He’s a nomad who spends most of his time helping businesses remove wasteful and pointless management practices.