Nurturing High-Performing, Autonomous Teams

It’s not about group think. It’s about encouraging individuals with opportunities to do better and be better.

I’m going to start this where everyone starts every discussion on autonomous teams – aka, Pink’s Framework – and then I’m going to pivot into some seemingly paradoxical positions. I’m giving you the heads up because I don’t want you to think, well, I’ve heard all of this before just because we’re covering familiar ground at the jump.

Of course, we all want high-performing teams. And every high-performing team is autonomous… at least, every long-term, high-performing team is autonomous. I’ve talked a little about autonomy as it relates to successful corporate culture, retention, and self-esteem but I think it’s important to address it, not just as Pink does, but as an essential component in the nurturing of human capital.

In his well-known book, Drive, Daniel Pink proposes a new motivational model for today’s most creative, innovative, and successful workplaces.

Pink’s framework focuses on enabling people to become intrinsically motivated. According to him, to build an intrinsically motivated team, you need to focus on three key factors:

  1. Autonomy – people are trusted and encouraged to take ownership of their own work and skill development.
  2. Mastery – people see no limits to their potential and are given the tools that they need to continue to improve their skills.
  3. Purpose – people are encouraged to use their skills to achieve a “greater” purpose – for instance, getting involved in a “good cause” that they’re passionate about.

Making the change to being a culture that focuses on intrinsic motivation can be daunting, particularly for organizations that are built on traditional reward and punishment (carrot and stick) models. But, Pink argues that – over time, and with practice – this type of behavior can be learned.

First, let’s talk about autonomy. There is a high correlation between a lack of empowerment and poor performance. A team needs to be able to manage their own workload day-to-day, be able to make technical decisions and, if necessary, make changes to the way they work. Teams perform best when they are given a clear, commercially focused brief, and then empowered to figure out the best way to deliver by themselves.

A team can only be truly autonomous when it is fully empowered to make its own decisions. Such teams are self-directed and are fully responsible for determining how to solve problems within the constraints defined by the business. But if there are constraints placed upon the team by the business, is the team truly autonomous?

High performing teams need strong boundaries. In every team, the responsibilities form the essence of interactions and decisions. For instance, all team members need to know:

  • The organizational purpose: the difference their company is trying to make.
  • Their own individual purpose as it relates to the organization’s purpose.
  • What is expected of them in terms of outcome and contribution.
  • What they expect of others in their roles.

This last point is probably the most important when it comes to minimizing conflict within the team, yet knowing what we can expect from our team members is an often overlooked part of the team conversation. It’s too easy to focus on our own little area of expertise and then get irritated when someone steps on our toes, or fails to deliver something we need.

It’s a case of unclear expectations.

When team members know what is expected of them AND what they can expect from their peers, we start to build a systemic understanding of how our roles interact in a more symbiotic fashion.

High performing teams must be competent. David Marquet is a well-known leadership guru and retired nuclear submarine commander.  In his book, Turn the Ship Around, he defines leadership, as embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organization, by decoupling it from the personality of the leader. He shares an example where he took command of the worst ship in the fleet and turned it into the best in just under 1 year.  Not just the best that ship had ever done, but the best the entire fleet had ever seen.  He did this by creating an environment of thinking, acting, and collaborative decision-makers with the authority to actually make decisions.

Marquet says that the worst mistake we can make as leaders is to create an environment full of people who are trained to just follow our orders because we simply cannot afford to have people who are willing to follow us into disastrous situations.  With change occurring at such a rapid rate, having staff who are designed to do what they are told is a deadly combination that organizations cannot risk.

Marquet shares that this change is not difficult to make, but it will feel wrong. We were not taught as leaders to relinquish control, but it is the best thing we can do.  It will take lots of practice and intent, but by doing so you will create an environment that breeds and achieves greatness.  The best thing you can do is move the authority to where the information actually lives. If autonomy is desired shifting the psychological ownership to them will be hugely powerful! As a leader, make sure that your teams have the technical competency required and then you provide them with the clarity of your intent and the outcomes needed to be achieved and then get out of their way.

This leads perfectly into mastery, which Pink has defined as the desire to improve combined with the environment and tools with which to do so. If you’re motivated by mastery, you see your potential as unlimited, and you’ll constantly seek to evolve your skills through learning and practice.

Yet, there is a subtle danger in language like this which may lead to inauthentic enthusiasm – sometimes work is (and should be) allowed to feel like work. As in, it can be hard, unfamiliar, and tedious. When team members feel pressured into displaying excitement about all aspects of their responsibilities, this added pretense can lead to more burn out.

Mastery is only possible when failure is allowed. Failing, and learning from our failures, allows us to learn in more complex ways than we would by simply reading something and committing it to memory. Failure also allows us to become more resilient as we learn to deal not only the failure itself, but the sudden change of direction. Change management is a highly valuable skill, and the risk associated with poor change management is high. You are much more resistant to change if you don’t have a lot of experience with failure. Failure makes you adept at changing course, trying new things, and getting back up.

It is crucial for organizations to create a safe space for team members to experience failure, while still moving forward. Strong, autonomous teams will form a force field of protection to help absorb the fallout from failure, as well. Having team members who can come alongside a struggling team member to come up with better solutions is a key component of creating true mastery.

This type of thinking acknowledges that there is something bigger here than the organization’s objectives in creating the team. It is a nod to a greater purpose. Interestingly enough, while purpose can be shared, it must also be distinctly individual.

Purpose is only effective when it is individual, not team-based. Team members who believe that they’re working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hardworking, productive and engaged. So, encouraging them to find purpose in and outside of their work – for instance, by connecting their personal goals to organizational targets using OKRs  or OGSMs  – can help win not only their minds, but also their hearts.

This is where the individual must be free to determine their own purpose, as opposed to it being a company-wide mission statement of some kind. Yes, it’s important that the organization have its own stated purposes and missions, but to be a true intrinsically motivating factor, it must be something that is near and dear to each and every individual.

It’s not about group think. It’s about encouraging individuals with opportunities to do better and be better. And, at the end of the day, doing better and being better is what makes a team high-performing.

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