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Why Autonomy Matters for Your Project Team | LiquidPlanner

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Why Autonomy Matters for Your Project Team

project team

Ambitious teams aim high. With every new endeavor—whether it’s a job or a project—most of us assume high engagement levels. But somewhere along the line that engagement falls off and motivation wanes. A Gallup State of the Global Workplace reported that only 13% of employees consider themselves engaged. In other words, in a team of 15 people, only two are motivated by the work they’re doing.

If you’re managing a team, these are grim statistics. If you’re working on this team, also not great news. The general low-engagement issue runs much deeper than we might think at first glance. It touches the basic and universally common management paradigms that we build our organizations on.

One of the keys to solving this problem resides in giving team members more autonomy. Here, I’m going to look at how and why autonomy affects team engagement and affects projects.

Autonomy is a major driver of motivation

In his best-selling book, Drive, Daniel Pink identifies three factors responsible for high motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

When I give presentations at various Lean and Agile events I often ask a set of questions to see how frequently attendees work in environments where all three of these are satisfied. I end up pretty much validating the Gallop poll numbers. Most of the people present aren’t highly motivated by their work—despite the fact that this is a group that tends to think of themselves as being in an avant-garde area of project management.

More interestingly, autonomy seems to be the biggest killer of motivation and engagement. What it comes down to is this: Individuals working in organizations don’t have enough authority to make decisions that impact project work. Instead, most of us need to keep asking for permission. Without the authority to make our own calls, we can’t have autonomy in our actions.

The authority issue

There are many reasons for this lack of autonomy: company politics, management style and team organization to name a few. Even the educational system factors in.

There is, however, one management paradigm that perpetuates the lack of authority and autonomy: hierarchy. Organizations have been almost universally built on strict hierarchies, making them power-distribution structures. The higher up the ladder workers go, the more decisions they get to make. And since they’re kept accountable for their decisions, they probably won’t distribute authority and decision making through their team because they don’t want to lose control (or risk someone else making a bad decision that they’re held accountable for).

If hierarchies are used as a way to top-load decision making, they end up being a root cause for the autonomy gap. Let’s add to that the fact that hierarchical structures have been the default paradigm for many organizations. If we connect the dots we now clearly see why a lack of autonomy is such a widespread problem. (The good news is that a lot of companies are in the process of changing this.)

Make local changes

Very few of us have enough power to change a hierarchy in an organization. But there are options at a team level.

Basically, we can address the core issue in the context of our local area of influence—be it a project team or a functional team or whatever small chunk of an organization in which we have some sway. Instead of redesigning how the structure is organized, we can change the local rules for how things happen. It doesn’t have to be a formal change that gets approved by formal authorities. It’s enough that whatever the new rules are, they’re known and respected at all times.

Decision making

In knowledge organizations power is basically used to make decisions. Specific levels of management have specific prerogatives. A manager is kept accountable for all the decisions that they are supposed to make.

An interesting observation is that no one really pays attention to who actually makes the decision. What is important is that a decision is made and we know who is responsible for that decision (there’s a difference between having made the decision and being responsible for it.) Otherwise, we’d have a problem with indecisiveness or accountability (or both).

From that perspective, it’s enough for a manager to take a leap of faith in their team and let the team make some decisions in the name of the manager. In an extreme case, it can mean that the team makes most or even all the decisions. Of course, it’s not an easy change. If a power structure hasn’t changed it means that the manager is kept accountable for calls they didn’t personally make and might disagree with. It goes without saying that a high degree of trust between the manager and the team is a prerequisite for this kind of relationship.

At the same time, this process neatly addresses the authority issue and enables autonomy across the team. All that without changing the organizational structure or official rules.

project team decisions

The decision-making process

An interesting challenge in itself is how to structure the team’s decision-making process itself so it neither changes into anarchy nor turns into indecisive chaos.

On the one hand, we have a traditional hierarchical model that we want to change. On the other, we have a consensus-driven process that has its own pain points too. What often happens is people accept the status quo, pick the safest option or back whoever yells the loudest. Quite a risky strategy for a professional setup. Not to mention that it doesn’t really address the autonomy issue.

There is a third and better way: a collective decision-making process that enforces getting advice and yet leaves the authority to go against the stream when someone feels strongly about a specific call. There are organizations that use this tactic across the board even for the most serious decisions.  We use this process at my company, Lunar Logic—for everything from making strategic decisions to changing people salaries.

At the same time, exactly the same pattern can be used to make everyday project-related decisions when there’s much less at stake. In either case, it addresses the engagement problem and may be exactly the bit that will turn the fate of the next project.

In the world where the odds are against us, we shouldn’t pass on an opportunity to create autonomy, increase team engagement and improve the way we work on projects.

If you liked this article, and you’re looking to hone your project management skills, download our eBook, 5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager.

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