4 min read

Tips to realize vision by empowering autonomy

A few helpful tactics to encourage teams to work toward dreams with creativity and freedom

March 28, 2023

As a Software Engineering leader, casting “imagine a world” style visions for the department is an important part of my role.

I believe vision casting is a high-value leadership skill used to aim large groups of people at a specific, more ideal future.

However, determining a preferred future that puts an organization in an advantageous position is the easy part; realizing the vision is hard, and realization without disempowerment is harder.

This is why I believe great leaders ensure each of their team members do not feel like just another cog in a machine barreling toward a meaningless metric.

But how do they realize vision without discouraging individual contributors?

They empower Autonomy.

Be mindful of your seniority

When I became a Staff Engineer, one of my mentors taught me to stay mindful of an omnipresent force that can inadvertently diminish team autonomy.

This negative force is authority bias.

This form of bias occurs when someone is more likely to accept information or guidance from an authority figure without question.

So if a leader suggests a solution, there is a higher likelihood that someone will simply implement it without thinking too much about it.

This subconscious behavior makes it risky for leaders to ask for specific solutions because they can’t predict how team members will respond, and the more important a leader is perceived, the more likely they will get exactly what they ask for, often times, accompanied by unforeseen consequences.

So without jeopardizing vision, leaders must learn to be careful what they wish for while simultaneously channeling behavior toward a long term goal.

Don’t crash

Setting clear expectations is a tried and true way to encourage a team member to meet the basic responsibilities of their given role, but how do we encourage them to drive toward a dream with creativity and autonomy?

In Professor Dave Snowden’s talk Why is “theory based practice” a useful approach when transforming culture?, he states that “avoidance of failure is a more successful evolutionary strategy than imitation of success” with regards to steering behavior, and this is something we can tap into to aim teams at a vision while preserving their freedom.

Over a decade ago on a foggy, damp morning when I was in High School, I attended an outdoor assembly put on by the local police, fire, and emergency medical departments.

The parking lot had two smashed cars, fire, smoke, fake blood, and a deceased actor that appeared to be ejected from one of the vehicles for not wearing a seatbelt.

It was vivid, it painted a clear picture of something I should work hard to avoid, and I still remember it to this day.

If the demonstration only featured people who successfully put their seatbelts on instead of the one person who didn’t, I would have easily forgotten about it, but instead, avoidance of failure kept it in my head long after the demonstration was over.

This is because the brain recalls failure stories faster and more precisely than it does success stories, and leaders can use this phenomenon to set boundaries and give nudges instead of explicitly telling people what to do.

Direct travel with guardrails not railroads

Now that you are cautiously aware of authority bias and avoidance of failure, it’s time to talk about the main idea of this article.

A friend of mine once said “Build guardrails, not railroads”, and this was a phrase that resonated with me so immensely I had to politely interrupt him to praise it.

I feel it beautifully captures this idea of providing just enough guidance to give a sense of direction but not so much it eliminates flexibility.

With this mantra in mind and other lessons I’ve learned over the years, I have outlined the following tips I use to move teams toward vision while empowering autonomy and innovation:

  1. Remove your ego.
  2. Build trust and rapport with team members.
  3. Set clear vision of an ideal future.
  4. Set guard rails for what not to do.
  5. Avoid suggesting specific solutions too early.
  6. Nudge using avoidance phrasing.
  7. Ask thoughtful questions for inspiration.
  8. Reinforce actions that go in the right direction.

Each of these tips can be used individually, but their effect is compounded when they are used together.

No matter if you are a manager, CTO, or junior engineer, cast your vision, direct travel, and help the world realize more dreams.

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