The Age of Autonomy

By Anthony Mathews



Like a lot of people who speak often, I have a few techniques that are reliable ways to get an audience engaged. On several subjects related to business and culture, none is more reliable than, "Who knows the name of the most successful airline in the world?" Whenever I ask that question, the chorus is generally emphatic – Southwest! This is simply because it is true. Southwest is the most consistently successful airline in the world. Of course, being the most successful airline in the world isn't all that impressive (sort of like being the best Islamic tap dancer perhaps?) but Southwest also is just a very good and successful business.

How, we wonder, can we explain an airline that effectively specializes in treating us badly (no assigned seats, no free food, no travel agents, no frills at all) being so successful in an industry in which bankruptcy is more common than profit?

Well, we could start by acknowledging that they tend to get where they are supposed to go on time and for a very reasonable price. We could also acknowledge that they have an excellent safety record and we could cite a host of other facts that would indicate a solid fundamental business model.  But other companies can claim almost all those factors as well. Why is Southwest so uniquely able to succeed where others can't?

The real answer is their employees.

Not that the people who work for Southwest are super-heroes of some kind. They do tend to be more lighthearted and fun to be around than others but that 's more a result than a cause, we think. The thing that makes Southwest employees a powerful force for success is that they are (each and every one) autonomous workers toward a common goal. Southwest employees are skilled and informed people who have the autonomy, authority and responsibility to solve problems.

And that is the magic ingredient that makes Southwest the financial envy of the rest of the industry and why their success is so difficult to duplicate. Creating a corporate culture that allows for and expects employees to act autonomously to solve problems is outside the experience of most business managers. We say our employees are our most significant resources but we treat them more like they are our tools.

I know a lot about tools. I started my adult life as an auto mechanic. Nothing is more important to a good mechanic than tools. I still have rolling tool boxes that contain well organized and comprehensive tools for the construction and repair of automobiles. I take very good care of them and if someone takes one or breaks one, I charge to its defense. I really care about my tools.

This is a good metaphor for how most of us treat our employees. We keep them polished, so to speak, and we take care of them. We really care about our employees. We use them carefully and then we put them away when they are done and go home safe in the knowledge that they will be there tomorrow to do exactly what we expect them to do exactly when we expect them to do it. But we don 't expect them to give us advice or do anything on their own any more than I expect my wrenches to know which nut needs tightening or which noise is an indication of something catastrophic about to happen.

That's just reality with my tools but for our employees it is wasting the most important feature they bring to the table, their independent understanding of their job and your common goal - their autonomous ability to contribute to your common vision and advance the cause of success. This may well be the hardest of the employee-ownership features to create but it is clearly pivotal, and it is the most rewarding, because it's the feature of your culture that turns your employees into real resources.

Autonomy is the difference between "resource" and "tool." Of resources, we expect the ability (in fact, the expectation) to think and act independently to get a job done. Of all the features of an ownership culture, this one is most at odds with a traditional corporate management style, but autonomy can be understood and cultured in our workplaces. And once it is, it is truly the most powerful resource we have for creating success.

Resources are autonomous. They bring independent information and skill to a problem, and we take their advice and consider it even more carefully than our own ideas. An autonomous person, though, in this context, is not independent. Independence indicates a lack of common purpose; autonomy, in this context, means independently applying skill and knowledge to a common purpose.

  • Autonomous is not the same as automaton. An automaton has to be carefully programed to do a range of activities on its own. It is not capable of independent thought and it can 't change direction on its own. Autonomous employees can and do when it is necessary.
  • Autonomous does not mean independent. Autonomous employee owners are working independently, they are working individually to apply the unique information and skills they have to the common goal. Independence indicates a lack of common purpose; autonomous, in this context, means independently applying skill and knowledge to a common purpose.
  • Autonomous does not mean unaccountable. In a truly autonomous work atmosphere, sharing of process and results is a constant, ongoing process. Accountability is in the very nature of autonomy. This is in stark contrast to typical annual reviews that traditional business models employ. Their approach has intervening evaluation only when big problems arise.

We should cultivate autonomy among our employees for a lot of good reasons:

  • The easiest place to fix a problem is where it is happening.
  • The easiest time to fix a problem is when it is happening.
  • The person most likely to understand a problem and fix it is the person closest to it.

If the overall goal is known and the individuals understand their role in achieving it, autonomous people take less managing. At the same time, adopting an attitude of fostered autonomy among our employees takes a real leap of faith.  But we think it is a leap well worth taking.

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