Control vs autonomy dilemma
A tale of every entrepreneur
We all know that one friend who is unhappy at work because their boss is a control freak. Actually, for most of us, such friends are more than just one. It has long been argued that for a resource to be the most productive, and feel happy, content and gratified in his/her work environment, he/she needs three things:
- Autonomy: Control over what needs to be done, and how and when it will be done.
- Growth: The feeling that while you are contributing to the growth of the business, the experience is contributing to your growth as a professional.
- Purpose: You see the work you do as a higher calling and not just as a paycheck.
In my experience, companies often mistake “growth” as a resource’s willingness, need and deep-seated desire to be part of an organization that is growing at a fast pace. That’s a misplaced notion, but let’s take about that some other time.
Companies do acknowledge the importance of “purpose”, and that is why you see companies spending a considerable amount of time crafting a compelling mission — an ambitious dream that they are chasing. Take Amazon, for example; it is the A to Z store — a place for you to find anything and everything under the sun. But today, let us look at what autonomy means to people, why is it important to offer autonomy, when and how much autonomy should be given and what are the pitfalls of not doing it, or doing it, but incorrectly.
GIVING AUTONOMY IS TOUGH
As countless founders will tell you, it is tough to give autonomy to their resources, and often, it is not because founders find it difficult to relinquish control, but because it can be tough to understand how to give autonomy to your employees while you are also driving the business towards a singular grand vision.
I won’t deny that “difficulty to relinquish control” is also a huge contributing factor, but often it is so because of that challenge in understanding how to deal with the whole autonomy scale.
Founders want their businesses to constantly move towards the grander vision, and as such different teams are working on different aspects of the business, and the founder tries to keep an eye on the bigger picture — how those different pieces come together and act in harmony to create a business that is as beautiful as a symphony.
It is a delicate, complicated process. One where the smallest errors could result in a series of different pieces that just don’t go well with one another. And as such, relinquishing that control often means trusting someone else with keeping an eye on part of that bigger picture, and that is where the challenge creeps in.
WHAT ARE THE TWO EXTREMES OF AUTONOMY?
The CEO, of one of the companies I worked with, was detail-oriented. He knew what were the different marketing strategies he wanted to execute, and he would detail them out to a T in neatly organized documents. That’s how I started working as well. He would tell me of the different things he expected to happen, what all he expected to be happening in those areas, and what was the roadmap they were supposed to follow. It was all there laid out for me the day I started. For a good few weeks, that was what I did. What was being expected out of me. What the documents were telling me to do.
This is 0% autonomy.
On the other hand, another business I worked with, even before I started working with them, we were discussing a problem area that was plaguing the business. One of the founders and I talked in detail about the problem, he walked me through the history of that problem and its impact, and what were the different things that had been tried to address that challenge, along with the results of those different experiments. Once I started, I was more or less given free rein. I was aware of the problem statement, and they expected me to try solving it — to as high a degree as possible. Progress was expected, but no formal expectations were defined. I did a bunch of experiments of different magnitude, and I had the complete liberty to do whatever I wanted to do. I would still need to run everything up the flagpole before it got executed, but ideas and plans of all shapes and sizes were welcome. I had complete access to whatever I needed.
While not 100% autonomy, this is as close to that as it gets.
The truth is, neither is a very healthy thing to do when you are starting a new relationship. And believe me when I tell you, when you take onboard a resource you consider crucial for your business, it is nothing short of a real relationship.
The sweet spot lies somewhere in between that 0% and 100%, and that sweet spot is what we are always struggling to find.
I believe that in the first company I talked about, the CEO and I had started to find the semblance of a sweet spot as we worked together, and that is when things started to move at a fast pace.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT FINDING THAT SWEET SPOT?
Take that first company for example. There were a number of perceptions employees had about the CEO, and one of them was that he is a control freak. To be honest, that is what my experience of the first couple of weeks could have resulted in me agreeing to that as well. But I wasn’t yet sold on it. And as I would later find out, it wasn’t true.
You need to step up to the moment to be given control.
Now, I wouldn’t like to speak for others, but if I had to venture a guess, I would say that most who thought of him as a control freak were the ones who followed those documents to the tee. They would get done with one piece of business, and they would be asked to do another piece for the company, and they would follow the same process again.
If you want to be given control and autonomy, you need to demonstrate that you are someone that should be given autonomy. If I am given a plan, and there are components to it I disagree with, there is no way I am doing that unless you convince me of why they should be included. Likewise, if I see missing components on the action plan, you can bet I am going to fight for it. Let us discuss the merits of the ones I don’t agree with, and the ones I am championing for. More often than not, we would end up with an entirely new gameplan altogether. The original playbook gets tossed out the window.
Why that matters?
Because this lets you understand each other’s wavelength better. See how you think, what is it that the other person is focussed on, why he is thinking of doing what he is suggesting. It helps you understand each other’s working frequency. And as you get more and more in sync, you slowly start becoming a proxy for your business leader, and that is when the process of autonomous behavior begins.
WHY GIVING ANATOMY IS CRUCIAL
Do you know what is the biggest contribution of entrepreneurs? They create entrepreneurs! And that is what this whole anatomy debate is about.
No matter which way you look at it, creating entrepreneurs is beneficial in every manner.
No matter what I have done, I have always worked towards a point where I am able to make myself redundant in the organization.
That is the way to growth. You foster talent, you hold their hands, you help them see what is what, you help in the process of refining and molding and evolving their thought process. You should always work towards the point where you are no longer needed, and it is then that you take off the training wheels and let them run free.
You look at any successful organization and a common pattern will emerge. Within each business, you will find multiple micro-businesses, each with their own business leader, their own CEO, their own entrepreneurs.
This helps those micro-businesses grow individually while working in a direction that is aligned to the overall growth of the larger enterprise. And in creating these series of entrepreneurs, you are able to free up your bandwidth and mind space to tackle bigger problems. Problems that will help you take your business to 100x of what it currently is. And you will be able to do it all because there is an army of entrepreneurs each leading their own mini-armies, all contributing to your growth, collectively fueling the growth of your business.
BUT…GRANTING AUTONOMY TOO SOON IS ALSO A MISTAKE
That 100x dream can be enticing, isn’t it? But make no mistake, if you take off the training wheels prematurely, it does more harm to the business than good. You will end up with a living breathing organism within your company that is unable to function on its own, unable to breathe without life support. And before you realize it, you would be consumed with undoing the damage this premature move did.
In one of my first roles after I exited from my first startup, I was expected to build a micro-business. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had absolute autonomy, and when the moment to shine came, I crashed and burned. Maybe I didn’t realize what was expected off of me, or maybe we were unable to have a good line of communication between us. It doesn’t matter what led to the crash, but “enduring those 15 mins” was a devastating experience. There was a lot of faith that had been put in my abilities, and I had completely let go of a tremendous opportunity because I didn’t realize in time what the business needed me to be.
It was a lost opportunity, it was a learning moment. If you can avoid it, you should.
WHAT DO I PERSONALLY HANDLE GIVING AUTONOMY?
I have already mentioned what the goal is — to make myself redundant in any process I am currently involved in. So how do I do that?
Well, it depends on how ready do I think the other person is. And if he isn’t, what all do I need to do to get him/her ready, and what is the ideal timeframe for that, what are the right evaluation parameters. For different businesses, and for different stages of the business, the answer to these questions will change, but the essence will remain the same.
It all starts with aligning people with your thoughts. The business opportunity, vision, scope, and how does the business get from here to that grand pedestal. What do you think needs to be done as a short term strategy, and what would be the long term strategies in place. And what are your reasons behind suggesting these roadmaps.
Autonomy starts with forging an inclusive workplace environment. A place where you give people a platform to come up with their views on what is best for the business. It starts with giving people the freedom to follow their gut, with some support, some accountability, and a safety net to fall back on. Autonomy starts with you helping them fail, and learn from it. And it all happens because they know you have their back and are there to help them learn better and faster than they can on their own.
The process of ceding control starts when you start thinking on these lines:
- Are you pushing decision-making as far down the rabbit hole as you can?
- Would it create a chaos if you pushed it further down the organization? What do you need to do to get to a point where the bottom can be pushed down bit further?
- Can you add levels of autonomy in their current working methodology, and gradually keep on adding more layers to it? How would you go about doing that?
- If you are unavailable for a few days/weeks, how would your business function in your absence? How do you improve that?
Always remember, two heads are indeed better than one. And while you mustn’t have too many captains manning the ship, you can have a small fleet of vessels with their own leaders. Trying to make every decision yourself will only stifle the creativity and innovation in your business, and it will be detrimental to the pace at which you can execute stuff. So have a grandiose plan for an autonomous structure. Understand where the company is, where the different teams reporting to you are, and where you would like them to be in time. Then start working towards that goal.