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So you want Autonomy?


February 11, 2019

An effective manager will be developing their employees. One of the key aims of this development will be to enable each employee to achieve a level of autonomy so that they are able to:

  • spot what needs to be done for themselves in line with established vision and goals
  • take proactive action
  • find their own ways to produce effective outputs and results
  • avoid having to constantly ask for permission to proceed from their manager
  • free the manager from constant interruptions, monitoring and updates
  • perform well when the manager is not available
  • work remotely from their manager and/or colleagues

For some of our team members the drive to achieve a high level of autonomy is a really strong motivator. In his book ‘Drive’, Daniel H. Pink identifies Autonomy (along with ‘Mastery’ and ‘Purpose’) as one of the key motivators people have at work. People seem to crave a level of certain level of autonomy.

However, for others, autonomy is less appealing than the reassurance of taking direction and instruction. For them, the perceived ‘risk’ of mistakes and ‘failures’ is reduced because they leave responsibility with their manager. However, our job as managers is to continuously prompt, encourage and, occasionally, push team members along the route towards autonomy.

Autonomy – A Journey and a Destination

So, autonomy is both a journey and a destination.

The global motor industry is working on the premise that we, its customers, are also demanding that our vehicles are autonomous too. The development of automatic and autonomous vehicles is reaching increasing maturity. Governments are identifying the legislation and definitions required to provide safe, trustworthy and consistent parameters within which we’ll be operating as road users and hirers/owners of the future vehicles. In the UK, the Automated and Electric Vehicle Bill defines an Automated Vehicle as: “A vehicle that is designed or adapted to be capable, in at least some circumstances or situations, of safely driving itself, i.e. that it is operating in a mode in which it is not being controlled, and does not need to be monitored, by an individual”.

With a focus our autonomy and returning to the world of people development, “what if we replaced the word ‘vehicle’ with the word ‘employee’?”

Autonomous Vehicles and Autonomous Employees!

There are parallels between the world of autonomous vehicles and the world we need to develop with autonomous employees. The list below highlights these similarities. It lists the UK’s Association of British Insurers’ (ABI) 10 criteria required for a truly automated vehicle. With each item I’ve translated the criteria for our roles as developers of autonomous employees:

The 10 key features and performance criteria required of a truly automated vehicle – and a truly autonomous employee!:


1. (Vehicle): clearly describes automated capability

1. (Employee): the managers and employee can clearly describe the capability and competence required for autonomy

Law Abiding:

2. (Vehicle) complies with UK traffic laws and the Highway Code

2. (Employee) complies with legal, organisational and process frameworks – while looking for and suggesting continuous improvements

Location Specific:

3. (Vehicle) functionality is limited to specific types of roads or areas via geo-fencing

3. (Employee) the employee has clear boundaries for their activities guided by their role and responsibilities

Clear Handover:

4. (Vehicle) transfer of driving control follows a clear ‘offer and confirm’ process

4. (Employee) the manager provides a through, structured and clear handover and development approach to delegation and development

Safe Operation:

5. (Vehicle) Safe driving: vehicle can manage all reasonably expected situations by itself

5. (Employee) ‘Safe’ working: the employee can manage all reasonably expected situations by themselves

Unanticipated Behaviour:

6. (Vehicle) adequate and appropriate notice must be given if the vehicle needs to unexpectedly hand back driving control

6. (Employee) adequate and appropriate notice must be given if the employee needs to unexpectedly hand back driving control. The employee can’t dump the task back on their manager.

Safe Stop:

7. (Vehicle) vehicle executes an appropriate ‘safe stop’ if unable to continue or the driver does not take back control

7. (Employee) the employee knows when and how to ask for help

Emergency Intervention:

8. (Vehicle) can avoid or prevent an accident by responding to an emergency

8. (Employee) can avoid or prevent an accident by responding to an emergency or the unexpected at work

Back-up Systems:

9. (Vehicle) safeguards step in if any systems fail

9. (Employee) the manager provides safeguards steps for the employee in if any ‘systems fail’ i.e. the manager retains accountability

Data gathering:

10. (Vehicle) Accident data: record and report what systems were in use at the time of an accident

10. (Employee) Learning data: the employee records and reports what actions were taken and what learning has taken place in the course of performing the role (reflective practice)

It’s a manager’s role to both drive, co-pilot, navigate and plan the route with and for an employee so that they achieve effective levels of autonomy.

Bon voyage!

Rob McWilliam is Executive Development Director, at Change Formation and works with managers, teams and organisations so that they develop, perform and achieve. Contact Rob to discuss how to develop the routes to increasing autonomy in your organisation.

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