There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Introducing the Autonomy Index

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Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, outlines the three key components of motivation as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. We have language to describe levels of Mastery, and even to discuss commitment to Purpose, but in my years studying leadership and management I’ve not yet found a good way to speak more precisely about Autonomy. Saying that Autonomy is, to paraphrase Pink, ‘the desire to direct our own work’, doesn’t give a leader or a team any hints about how to actually be autonomous; it’s much more than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ topic.

Note: in researching for this post I found that some work has been done around articulating kinds of human autonomy, but at too high an abstraction level to be used as a viable tool in the workplace. If any reader knows of other existing sources that cover similar ground as I do below, please let me know.

There was a point during this past year’s program, at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, at UT Austin, where I was discussing Autonomy with our then Director. Warren wanted to empower the current Game Director, but didn’t have the confidence to give them full autonomy. I proposed we could think about levels of autonomy, instead of it just being a black or white concept, and Warren found it a useful way to think about the issue. I’ve thought more about the issue since then, and today am introducing my solution, something I’m calling the Autonomy Index.

The Autonomy Index is a framework intended to address the discussion of autonomy, by helping break it apart into a number of specific and separate pieces. This post will introduce the framework itself and its elements, then a later post will discuss examples of how the framework might be used, and why understanding autonomy with more nuance can be an important tool for every leader.

There are six elements of the Autonomy Index: Identification, Research, Options, Decision, Execution and Accountability. These are each discussed in more detail below.

Each element can be scored on a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 being ‘the employee is in complete control’ and 0 being ‘the employee has no control whatsoever’. By adding up the six numbers a final number is determined, which becomes the aggregate Autonomy Index, ranging from 0 (no autonomy over any part) to 6 (complete autonomy over every part). No value is ‘better’ than others, but all parties in a discussion being aligned about the same level of autonomy, using the elements of the index, is critically important.

  1. Identification – Identification is about choosing the focus of an effort. It is often a problem to be solved, a challenge to be addressed, or an opportunity to be exploited. Someone who has complete control of what the focus of their effort is scores a 1 and someone with no control or input scores a 0.
  2. Research – Research is all of the effort to understand the specifics of a problem space, the fact-finding that goes into making sure that whatever has been identified is sufficiently understood. This effort may be very small, if someone already has high awareness of the identified area, or much more involved, if someone has a lot to learn. The Research element is scored based on who is doing the Research for a given focus area, with a 1 being the employee is doing all of the Research and a 0 being all of the Research is being done for them (independent of how much Research is involved).
  3. Options – once the Research has been collected someone must determine the set of possible actions for further consideration (and not every possible option). The Options element is scored based on who is determining the options, with a 1 being the employee completely determines the options and a 0 being the options are being completely proscribed to the employee.
  4. Decision – with the Options made clear a Decision must be made, being the choice of which of the Options to pursue (or which combination of elements from various options, which is essentially an unstated by still valid Option). This element is scored a 1 when the employee makes the final Decision on their own, and is 0 when the Decision is made for the employee without their involvement.
  5. Execution – having made a Decision someone must now do the work to intact the Decision, this is Execution. If the employee executes the work on their own, of their own accord, it is scored with a 1, and if the employee isn’t involved in the work at all this element is scored with a 0.
  6. Accountability – the Accountability element is about who judges the quality and effectiveness of the outcome of the Execution. If the employee alone will judge the outcome this element scores a 1, if the employee is completely uninvolved in judging the outcome this element scores a 0.

A note about the first element, Identification: An important part of Identification is being clear about what level of abstraction is appropriate. Most of us, most of the time, are working within a problem space that has been defined for us by an employer, whether it’s an executive level abstraction like ‘run a profitable business’ or the more operationally defined abstraction level like ‘deliver X number of finished assets in a given period’. Getting agreement about what level of abstraction someone is allowed to operate at is part of Identification.

It is likely that within each option the score will be between 0 and 1, and not just 0 or 1. A manager and a direct report brain storming a set of options might be scored as .5 for Options if they both were equally involved. A manager asking an employee to recommend an Option, and be involved in the Decision, but that Decision is still being made by the manager, might score a .25 for the Decision element, but might be .5 if the manager and the individual contributor are making the decision together. As the Autonomy Index is a new tool there are as yet no best practices around scoring each element, but I do expect some clear patterns to emerge.

The final number isn’t nearly as interesting as the conversation the Autonomy Index provokes. A manager and their direct report, or team members working together, being closely aligned about the kinds and degree of autonomy for any given effort, can only improve the chances of success.

In a future post I will discuss examples of how the Autonomy Index might be used at work, and why understanding autonomy with more nuance can be an important tool for every leader. Until then, I welcome your questions and comments.


Written by joshuahoward

June 6, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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