Alignment over Autonomy: why this is important and how to get there as team leaders

Hannah Stampke
May 4, 2022

“Hire good people and get out of their way so they have autonomy to do the work” - how many times have you, as a leader, said that, or heard it from somebody else?

Many leaders believe that autonomy is the magic word to high-performance. Let the teamwork bottoms up and be creative in their work. If you bad mouth autonomy, it’s likely that you’ll be burnt at the stake.

What if we told you that leaders should never “get out of the way”? That leaders should, instead, promote alignment in a way that people can successfully work autonomously?

Many people find that autonomy comes naturally and that’s completely understandable! We have been trained for our entire lives to be autonomous. Look at the education system: we are trained to research and work, for the majority of time, solo.

As a leader entering a team, or vice-versa, you have to align and collaborate before implementing team autonomy. It is easy to go off and get things done, but employees will miss out on alignment and collaborative planning. This is an essential trait, among others, to build high-performing teams.

Ben Smit, Co-Founder and CEO at Teamgage recently interviewed Jean-Michel Lemieux on this exact topic! Watch the full interview here:

Sole autonomy at work doesn’t make sense in a team environment

Often, people tie autonomy to self-worth. But just because you can go and get things done alone, it doesn’t mean you are being as efficient as possible.

Sole autonomy doesn’t make sense, especially in a team environment. Autonomy and alignment are two sides of the same sword, and teams must balance on the blade.  

It’s difficult to get this balance right; some focus too much on collaborating and end up wasting time talking things through for eons, others run to autonomy without getting the information they actually require.

Employees need to recognise the alignment and efficiency of coming to the team and then returning to autonomy. Autonomous time is way more productive when you have meaningful meetings and collaboration.

Why is it hard to implement high alignment with autonomous teams

Alignment, unlike autonomy, is a lot harder to implement as we haven’t focused on learning these skills. We can all remember how difficult group projects in school were. We lack natural training in alignment.

Another aspect that makes alignment difficult is that alignment cannot be measured, only discovered. Some leaders see this as a liability that should be approached with caution- don’t fall into that trap. The journey towards alignment should be seen as an opportunity, not a risk.

Too much alignment is also not good

Many leaders (new leaders especially) lack confidence to make decisions, leading to too many options and a lack of vision. Lack of decision-making means that leaders feel it necessary to explore all options. This makes the team stagnant and is known as too much alignment.

New leaders are often overwhelmed, and there’s so much that can make or break a leader. Leaders should create a culture of yearning for clarity. They need to know that they have permission to re-align the team if they get off track. Just because someone suggests something it doesn’t mean you have to do it. Acknowledge the idea and move on. It can always be revisited at another time.

How can team leaders promote alignment?

If alignment exists within a company and their teams, it’s normally superficial. Superficial alignment is just as bad as not aligning. So how do you deep dive into it and make sure your team members are aligned?

1. Shape the what and the how

Leaders need to shape the what and the how to nurture alignment. The how broadens the understanding of the what, therefore it is vital to be discussed at a team level. Many leaders believe that talking about the how with teams is taboo. Another trap! Engage with your teams, don’t just leave them to wade through this alone.

There’s lot of essential conversations and decisions hiding in the how. These hidden gems are usually fundamental changes to the team and project. Don’t blame a team if they do something unexpected. That’s on the leader for not leading essential discussions!

Going deep into alignment will flow into efficient team autonomy. If everyone leaves a meeting knowing what the goal is and what they need to do, then you have high alignment which will lead into high-performance team autonomy.

2. Discover alignment through questions

Just because people nod and smile, it doesn’t mean they get it.

To support teams and get conversations that lead to alignment flowing, use the following questions. Meet with the team and ask them once a week:

  • Where are we going and why? – does your team know that
  • What other directions could we be taking, and how would we know? What are the first 5 steps
  • Should we be eliminating any of them?
  • How do we get there?
  • Are we sure? Let’s go build it  
  • What do we not know? That we should move slowly on
  • Are we looking far enough ahead?
  • How do we know If we are moving in the right direction?

Leaders can also ask these questions one-on-one to check that individuals are aligned. This is an extremely efficient way to understand if everyone’s on the same page.

3. Create clarity to avoid disagreement

Conflict within teams is nerve-racking but inevitable. It’s normally about the direction in which the team or project is moving. Two opposing ideas will clash, creating stagnancy and tension. The best way to deal with this is to create clarity by exploring the options. Look at them in detail, only then can you decide which option is best.

Clarity is great to have, but hard to get. If the options are explored but the correct path is still shrouded in fog, a leader must pick one to keep the flow going. Sometimes, you just have to disagree and commit.

At the end of the journey, you can meet with the team and evaluate the outcomes. Did it work? What didn’t work?

Ultimately, the goal is to identify if you would use that method again or try the other option next time. Failure is essential for learning, so don’t shy away from decision making due to fear, instead create an environment where people feel that it’s safe to fail.

4. Don't jump onto the micromanagement wagon

When trying to promote alignment, many leaders jump straight onto the micromanagement wagon. They follow and scrutinise all employees’ tasks, smothering teams and creativity. These leaders usually don’t mean any harm, they are just trying to control outcomes in the only way they know how.

Micromanagers often don’t know how to have aligned conversations and communicate as a team. Leaders must focus on embedding themselves in their team and ensure employees understand the level of support and collaboration the leader can offer.

Once alignment exists within a team, autonomy will flow. Leaders should gauge productivity from the progress and goals that employees and teams are achieving. If a team is meeting their milestones, they are obviously doing the work. This works on an individual level too, so try not to smother your people and choke their passion and productivity.

Jean-Michel Lemieux

Former CTO / VP of Engineering at Shopify and Atlassian

Jean-Michel worked in tech for 27 years, building software and then building teams and companies. He is a software developer and have built and led teams of 1 to 3,000. He was a founding member on the Eclipse platform and open source team, and then led the engineering orgs at Atlassian and Shopify.

Jean-Michel is currently writing “Building from the right side”, a book to help increase technical leadership creativity and confidence."

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