RAMPS – Autonomy is Freedom to Move

Autonomy is a powerful factor in motivation, and the more creative & technical the work, the more likely autonomy is to figure largely in the maker’s motivational spectrum.

Here are three different ways I work when I am geeking out. Each of these is about equal in probability to be the one I use for any particular problem.

I will write a long essay in slack, driving my colleagues to comical exasperation at times, rubberducking in prose until I get to the excited slightly nervous place, usually with a short summation in steps. Then I go TDD it.

I will get together in pair or mob, and we’ll drive by the bazaar-like seat of our pants, TDD-ing code into place until we’re happy.

I will check out head and jump all over changing this and that until I figure out what to do, then toss that and TDD what I just figured out.

I take one of these approaches based on things like opportunity, size of starting fear, sense of pressure, and prolly other factors I am not even aware of. Oddly, it feels not so much like I choose it as that it chooses me.

The sense I have, that I am free to move in whatever way I see fit to "get’er done", that is my sense of autonomy. For some folks, that sense is their most important motivational cause, and the absence of it brings their productivity to a crawl.

Autonomy is virtually ignored in old school motivation theory. Freedom of action is never mentioned by folks like Taylor or Gilbreth. As jobs become more technical, more creative, and more collaborative, it has become much more visible.

As the nature of work has become a matter of workers interactively navigating complex adaptive systems — ecologies, really — processes that center their focus on mechanical/procedural uniformity fade into irrelevance.

What is needed isn’t a body and a rulebook, it’s a human who can use ongoing situational awareness to operate largely beyond mechanism. And the thing is, that gal who does that well? I guarantee you she got good at it because she enjoyed it. Take that away and you lose her.

Software development orgs want their makers’ best dope. The hardest part of autonomy the realization that you can’t get the good stuff without letting me off the leash, and when you let me off the leash there’s a possibility I’ll just wander off in the weeds and lay down.

I’ve gone off the leash and come in two days later with a solution that saved — not exaggerating for effect here — three quarters of a million dollars a year, about 10 times what I was being paid back then.

I’ve also gone off the leash and come back two days later smelling of skunk with a sheepish grin and nasty scratches all over the visible part of my body.

In that sense, autonomy can be viewed as a kind of securities fund: the more ROI you want, the higher the risk you gotta take. But that math wobbles quite a bit when we realize that autonomy has value as a motivating force.

Because my sense of autonomy & its importance are largely fixed inside me, not existing as a faucet my org can turn on or off, if I value autonomy very highly in my motivation spectrum — mine’s about a 7 — my org has to work with that.

Literally, "Play me or trade me."

A team full of folks whose need for autonomy, at whatever level the individuals need, isn’t being met is a team that isn’t helping the org. Balancing an org’s tolerance for volatility and the individual’s need for autonomy is a difficult proposition.

I will tell you that the first thing I do when a manager uses the "team lacks a sense of urgency" line on me is to look at autonomy. It’s not because it’s the most important thing for many people. It’s because it’s the most often ignored in considering motivation.

Notice, btw, the extent to which autonomy relates to the other factors. I can use well-tuned autonomy to further tune the supply and distribution for my individual demands for rhythm, mastery, purpose, and even safety.

A couple of sources for you think about exploring. Start with Dan Pink’s excellent Drive, it will familiarize you with the last 50 years of science on motivation, and will lead you to his primaries, too. (He covers three of the RAMPS items: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Consider also Sidney Dekker’s works, like A Field Gude To Human Error, where he patiently works through the need for autonomy in mixed systems of humans, machines, and procedures. Tho focus on safety systems rather than shipping more value faster, the case is the same.

Coming soon to a muse near you, what can we do about autonomy, at the org, the team, and the individual maker level? As before, I’ll throw out a handful of ideas and let you improve and adapt them.

Autonomy, one’s sense of freedom to do the work in whatever way gets it done, is historically very underplayed, but is a critical motivational factor for many people, especially when the expectation is of high creativity and high technicality.

Thanks for reading along, and have a lovely Tuesday, choc-a-bloc with free ranging motion on sunny fall day!


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