The power of autonomy

A leader is best when people barely know they exist, when their work is done, their aim fulfilled,  the people will say, ‘We did it ourselves’.

Lao Tzu

True innovation can be hard to come by.

When it arrives it isn’t always recognised and even if it is it often depends on where it appeared as to where it will go.

Many systems are designed purely to meet standards to the letter. That’s great, it allows an organisation to eliminate some of the biggest risks, or at least some of the more obvious ones which is essential. It gets your house in order. But over standardising imports a bigger risk. It doesn’t encourage creativity and ownership can be limited to very small, specific and decontextualised areas of the system. In other words the owner of that element might focus on polishing the doorknob in the bedroom while the other parts of the house are being redecorated, remodelled, extended or even the whole house is being demolished!

The most creative leaders develop environments where their team can flourish through understanding of the bigger picture. If they don’t have that it’s like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. If they have the blueprints they can not only make their part of the house an exemplar of excellence but they can support the improvement of other parts too because they understand fully how their part connects. Beyond that they can also benefit from other input on their own part too, enhancing their learning.

So how is that done?

It begins with a vision that sets out what the nature of that system should be.

If it is currently just a bunch of folders packed full of lengthy wordy documents that people only refer to at induction or when something changes then there is plenty of work to be done.

With a wealth of different communication methods now available at low cost and with relatively easy access the options are limitless. It will mean relinquishing a certain amount of control, allowing your team to define what they would like to see, how they would like to function. It is also important to cater for a wide range of styles as we all use different types of intelligence to communicate. A great deal can be said with graphics but some will prefer prose. Others will enjoy the brevity of a tweet whilst some only respond to direct contact. What matters is consistency of your message, connectivity through your shared vision.

Ultimately the goal is to enhance the development options for your colleagues. Improving skills and engendering the confidence to act with them will lead to a new style of responsibility in which ownership means considering the wider impacts of changes being proposed, whether the change comes from the business leadership or from within the team.

Enhanced skills means career development and the enabling of talent to rise from your frontline teams to senior leadership and beyond.

All along the way this approach requires a challenge to ego. It means the polisher of the doorknob must be free from feeling the need to preserve their role, and for managers to not be fearful of the talent rising to meet them as equals. It means letting go of the illusion of control to allow others to find their place to lead.

And yes, it is an illusion of control.

An image comes to mind of entire buildings swept away by tsunami waters. No matter how perfect the machine you can be certain that things around it will change so always looking inwards is in itself a limiting factor. Encourage everyone who plays a part in your system to consider more than just their role and you may spot challenges looming on the horizon, at the very least you will be better prepared when you do take a hit.

Release the bonds and devolve responsibilities in a supported environment and you will not only see benefits to your systems which you couldn’t have achieved incrementally but you will also bring benefits to your long term continuity, business resilience and succession planning.

Give your team autonomy and under your leadership they really will have done it themselves.


Sandra Norval  is the Managing Director of Catalicity and developed the Towards A One Planet Railway Strategy during her time with Govia Thameslink Railway, a complete strategy for sustainability which supported development of individual competencies beyond the individual’s usual day job. The strategy was recognised with the Rail Innovation Award for Environmental Innovation in June 2016.

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