Organizations that practice autonomy are self-organized, with teams operating with decentralized authority. Greater autonomy allows your team to do their best work, speeding up innovation and driving engagement.


How to build an Exponential Organization with autonomy

Exponential Organizations (ExOs) harness the ExO attribute, autonomy, to be more resilient, adaptive and scalable. In the increasingly dynamic and complex environments of the 21st century, these qualities often make the difference between success and extinction. 

Autonomy at work involves forming teams that are self-organizing and multi-disciplinary. These teams have the authority and accountability to make decisions and choose how to accomplish their goals. 

To successfully run an organization with autonomy, you’ll need a great deal of trust in your team, along with everyone sharing a clear purpose. You’ll exponentially increase innovation by giving team members the power to make decisions in the organization’s best interest regardless of their position level.

Here’s how to promote autonomy at work: 

    1. Create a Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP) that is compelling and inspirational
    2. Select team members who are self-starters and passionate about your MTP
    3. Put frameworks and tools in place that provides teams with a clear understanding of the level of autonomy and how to operate and exercise accountability
    4. Communicate effectively in a lateral and honest way
    5. Build transparent and data-driven dashboards to ensure everyone understands what is happening and how to improve

Different organizational styles that promote an autonomous work environment

Organizations can take on several different styles of “management” that work with autonomy, including: Lean/Agile, OKRs, Meritocracy, Holacracy, Black Ops/Edge Teams and Teal Organizations.

Lean and agile frameworks such as the scrum methodology provide enough autonomy to the scrum teams in getting work done in alignment with desired outcomes. 

Additionally, organizations can institute a “Team of Teams” network based on distributed decision authority to accomplish goals of almost any size in highly-fluid and complex environments. For example, to be effective against a distributed, adaptive network of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military moved from siloed command and control in favor of a “Team of Teams” approach.

In the rapidly changing environments we find ourselves in, it’s more important than ever to have autonomous teams of multi-disciplinary people who are passionate about their work and perform well with minimal supervision.

The shared goals framework from Andy Grove at Intel is practiced at Google, LinkedIn, Dropbox and others. Essentially, the company sets annual and quarterly goals. Teams and individuals then create their own Objectives & Key Results (OKRs), aligning with the company’s objective. But they do so all at once, in collaboration with each other.

Critical to a sense of autonomy in the workplace is that more than half of company objectives originate from individual OKRs—bringing inward wisdom from the edges of the organization. For example, what started as an individual OKR from an engineer frustrated with the state of mail clients became Gmail, now one of Google’s core strategic products.

Holacracy involves a fundamental change in decision authority. A constitution defines the decisions and governance of an organization. Roles are created around work, authority is distributed, and everyone is bound to one set of rules. The purpose and values focus on decisions and behavior. It’s easier to integrate structures like Holacracy in a startup than to change the structure of an existing organization.  

Teal organizations don’t follow common management principles but opt for self-managing teams, decentralized decision making and intuitive reasoning. They were first described in Frederic Laloux’s 2014 book, Reinventing Organizations, following three years of research into twelve pioneering organizations (Patagonia, Buurtzorg, WL Gore, AES, FAVI, BSO/Origin, ESBZ, Heiligenfeld, Morning Star, RHD, Sounds True and Sun Hydraulics). 

Teal organizations are characterized by self-management, wholeness, and a deeper sense of purpose.

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Examples of autonomy in action

Here are three examples of successful organizations that promote an autonomous work environment:

Buurtzorg is a pioneering health care organization in the Netherlands with 9,000 nurses and only 28 support staff. It’s a distributed network of nurse teams of 10-12 with local decision authority, caring for people in their neighborhoods. They save the Dutch social security system hundreds of millions of Euros each year and actively help competitors learn their methods and philosophy.

Since 1983, FAVI, the 400-person French automotive parts supplier, has operated in teams with no management layer or executive committee. It commands a 50% market share, hasn’t missed a shipping date in over 25 years, and with profit-sharing, each employee receives 16-17 months salary equivalent per year.

Valve is a privately-held 300-person game software and distribution platform company with no classic management structure. According to Forbes, the co-founder and CEO, Gabe Newell, owns just over 50% of the company and had a net worth of $5.5 bn in 2018.

More examples of autonomous organizations include MIT Media Lab, Pixar, Medium, Zappos and Morning Star Company.

The benefits of employee empowerment with autonomy

Encouraging autonomy in the workplace has several benefits. The most significant change you will notice comes from how your employees work. By putting faith in your team, you’ll change the entire business atmosphere, replacing a sense of hierarchy with trust.

An autonomous work environment feels less pressured. And, in turn, provides employees with more confidence, creating far-reaching positive benefits.

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Here are the major benefits of employee empowerment through autonomy:

  • Increased agility
  • More accountability at customer facing level
  • Faster reaction and learning times
  • Greater team engagement and motivation
  • Better morale and increased job satisfaction
  • Improved employee retention
  • Encourages creativity and innovation
  • Boost productivity
  • Develops leadership qualities in employees and promotes skill development

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Autonomy is the Future of Work

As company structures like decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) become more mainstream, the ability to use Blockchain and AI technology to augment autonomous teams will significantly change how we work. 

The Future of Work differs greatly from previous hierarchical command and control structures. Therefore, leveraging autonomy now, along with the other key ExO attributes, is a major step in the right direction.

To learn more about the other attributes, click here.