Drive’s first key element: Autonomy


(this blog is part of on ongoing series on the book Drive, the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us)

The first element of “Drive” is autonomy. Research shows that individuals ultimately perform better in autonomous environments; companies with autonomous environments are more competitive. The thesis is that we are wired to be autonomous and while we want to be accountable to outcomes, we prize control over how we achieve those outcomes. This includes autonomy over task (what you do), time (when you do it), technique (how you do it) and team (who you do it with).

Few technology or consulting organizations I’ve worked with have embraced any of these elements of autonomy. Some of these elements would be easier for technology groups to take on, others are inherently easier for us consultancies. Overall, I think most organizations could make a huge leap forward on the autonomy front just by understanding it more so that general policies and individual managers support it.

Let’s start with task. This one is squishiest to me. Most of what the book talks about here is companies like 3M or Google who give their employees some allocation of time to work on whatever they like. We don’t have that formally built into our model at Thought Ensemble but we’ve talked about how to do it along the way. For now we’ve settled on our Thought meetings, which we informally rotate around and have people bring ideas to present to the rest of the group. Some of those have turned into new service offerings, or new ways of working at our clients. This one seems to be harder to implement in your typical technology organization, especially those that run at 100% allocation and have business executives fighting over where the technology people spend their time. That said, I’m sure a few hours could be carved out here or there and companies would be blown away by the ideas and productivity that could come from it.

Next is time. This one is harder to support as a consultancy than as a technology organization. In some ways we have total control of our time, in that we set our own meeting schedule and manage our individual calendars. We don’t have working hours. But all that said, we have clients around the world and we do what it takes to support them, often adapting to their schedule. Technology organizations could do a lot more here. It is amazing to me how many companies require regular working hours considering how few tech people are most productive during these hours. I understand the need for some meetings, and some overlapping of hours for collaboration, but tech people need to be given a lot more freedom over their time than they typically are.

As a sidenote on time, we have talked in the past about moving Thought Ensemble to a compensation model with several components, one based on delivery hours. Our thinking was less about incenting working more hours and more about allowing people to choose how much they wanted to work depending on individual preferences at any given time. We have largely abandoned that idea, and now after reading this I’m very hesitant about a compensation model that includes that kind of component, whatever the philosophy behind it! And it is pretty common these days in the consulting world.

Technique is next. This is the area businesses really need to question the level of specificity they give to how tasks get done. Coding standards and writing standards make sense if they really help with collaboration and overall productivity, but beyond that, this is an easy freedom to grant, in both consultancies and tech organizations.

Team is the most interesting, and as Pink admits in the book, the least developed of the four. I think most interesting is his point about how social networks and other collaboration increase people’s ability to be autonomous over who they work with. Historically in large consultancies a staffing coordinator assigned people to projects, but in the future, this arrangement may be more fluid as people pull together resources through a variety of networks. And what happens to those left behind? I love the idea of natural selection but there has to be a way to incent people or at least get rid of the low performers.

Overall, I think most organizations, even ours, could make some easy progress on the autonomy front. Just being aware of types of autonomy and watching for what makes each employee (since it is unique by person) have control over their outcomes can make a world of difference. Then there are some items that would require some discussion and planning, like allocating time to special projects or moving to a no hours policy. Going completely autonomous isn’t realistic, for us or any of our clients.

Autonomy was my favorite of the three elements, I could have gone on much longer, as I think there’s a lot here for companies to consider. My next couple blogs on Mastery and Purpose will be a little shorter.