Autonomy comes from clear goals and support

The Overlap #33

The Overlap is a newsletter somewhere between product development and organizational development. It comes out every other Wednesday.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on how autonomy requires two things: clear goals and actual support.

Let’s imagine two teams.

Team A

Team A is asked to redesign their company’s marketing site. When this team asks the Head of Product what goals are driving this effort, they’re told that “the CEO just doesn’t like the way it currently looks.” The company is a B2B product with a classic sales flow: prospective customers have to share their email for a sales development rep to schedule a call with them. But some growth marketing consultant told the CEO to go B2C, and the CEO loved it. More users!

When the team asks the Head of Product for clarity on how they imagine the site will support the CEO’s desire to go B2C, they say, “I don’t know. Just go figure it out. You have autonomy.”

Team B

Team B is asked by their Head of Product to rethink the way their company sends notifications to their paid users. Paid users are dissatisfied from getting way too many notifications: it takes them time to filter through their notifications and find the ones they need to take action on. This team’s product manager says to this team, “We have the freedom to reimagine this, so long that we improve retention by 5%. I have a few ideas, and so does our VP of Design. But I’d love for all of us to collaborate on the initial discovery.”

Which team would you rather work on?

I’d prefer Team B.

Both teams have some degree of autonomy. But Team B has three things over Team A:

  1. A clearer goal: “Improve retention by 5%” is much clearer than “The CEO doesn’t like the way the site looks.”

  2. Research to back their goal. “Their customers are dissatisfied from getting way too many notifications.”

  3. Support from the PM and VP of Design. “I have a few ideas, and so does our VP of design…”

While Team A has autonomy, their goal behind redoing the site is unclear. And, they don’t have organizational support.

Tips for product managers & leaders

As product managers (and leaders), it’s our job to:

  1. Frame the goal. Make sure your team has a clear understanding of it. Don’t just share it in a call and then dip.

  2. Communicate how that goal serves the org’s larger goals. Always help your team understand the larger goals driving their efforts. It’s motivating to know when you’re making a larger impact.

  3. Offer support. Support isn’t micromanagement. It also isn’t even assigning tasks. It’s offering help and asking them if they’re willing to take you up on it.

  4. Scale your support. Realistically, you won’t have time to support every team. Learn to scale your ways of supporting others by creating defaults.

  5. Remind them that they have full say in how to achieve the goal. Even when your team is autonomous in theory, they benefit from you reiterating their autonomy.

Hone your instinct around offering support. Some teams can thrive off of very little support, others require a bit more guidance. If you don’t know if this team needs support, just ask. “Would you all like support in achieving this goal? How could I be most supportive?”

Tips for teams on asking for support

If you’re not in a position of authority, you still have a locus of control over getting the support you need. Some tips:

  1. Be clear with yourself about the kind of support you need. The last thing a manager wants to be told is “hey, we need support.” That doesn’t give them much to work off of. What kind of support do you need? Staffing, financial, political, emotional?

  2. Ask for that support! Once you’re clear with the kind of support you need, ask for it!

  3. Ask about the higher-level goal driving your team’s effort. Because there’s so much going on in their heads, it’s easy for leaders to forget to share context. Good leaders love to share context and be helpful. If you don’t quite understand the higher-level goal, ask “can you help me understand the higher-level goal driving this effort?”

  4. Talk with your PdM/manager about where your team has autonomy. If you’re unclear whether you’re team is “allowed” to make certain decisions, share that. “Where do you see us being autonomous? What kinds of decisions would we still need to run by you? Here are some of my thoughts…” Make it a collaborative conversation.

As you embark on any of the four tips above, be specific, firm, and generous. PdMs and leaders are doing the best they can. They can’t always read minds, but they do appreciate good questions.

Autonomy requires clear goals and support

Think about it: when you learned how to drive when you were younger, were you told to “learn how to drive” with 0 instruction and no car? Autonomy can’t be fostered without clear goals and support.

Focus on clarifying your team’s goals and offering support. From there, autonomy will flourish.


What I’m Reading

  1. The Case for Slacking Off at Work. Does your team/org have a “slacklog”? We’re trying to do this at our company — I’d love to hear your experience doing this!

  2. There’s always a tension between clarity and adaptability. Nitzan puts this well here.

  3. Try to reflect on your strategy every month (instead of every quarter/year). The shorter the reflection cycles, the faster you’ll adapt.

  4. Businesses tend to construe “UX design” (and “agile”) in ways that benefit them. As a change agent, it’s often in your best interest to not call yourself “the UX guy.” Instead, just introduce the damn practices that UX preaches. As Lebron James says, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.”

See you in two weeks,

–tim