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Balance Autonomy and Accountability

Modern Decisionmaking

So many organizations are currently looking at new ways of getting work done. Startups who have grown past the bootstrapping phase are designing new goals, past “make money.” And enterprise-level firms are shifting focus toward analyzing risks and values, and building a long-lasting, resilient company.

A lot of these groups are looking to the tech industry for ideas: the tech industry is new, sexy, and its work is highly valued. So these organizations redesign.

One part of this redesign, that I’ve seen happen at nearly every organization I’ve worked with, is a transition of decision-making away from middle-management, to those who are actually working with the company’s users… that is, customers.

The transition, at its face, seems easy: instead of managers making Decision Y, now, customer service representatives do. However, a crucial part of the transition is building the right company culture: specifically, one where employees have autonomy: the privilege to determine their own solutions to their problems (within the framework of the organization’s processes.)

But autonomy needs balance.

Issues with Modernization

Among the senior executives I’ve worked with, I’ve heard the same sort of comment every single time they’ve transitioned to a more autonomous company culture:

We’ve embraced “modern” business practices. Our employees are “empowered.”

But I have no clue what’s going on. I feel scared to ask, “will we hit our launch date,” or “are we still on budget,” because when I do ask, I get told that’s not how these “modern” business practices work.

I feel stuck. If I demand answers, I’ll get vague metrics that don’t really help me. If I don’t, I’m left trying to make critical business decisions without the information I need.

The problem, as I see it, is that they accidentally removed accountability while they were increasing autonomy.


I can think of two examples I’ve experienced - though, since they’re anonymized, they may as well be fictional constructions.

Example One: Marketing Team

One organization empowered their marketing department by allowing employees to set up their own campaigns, that the company would then fund. Whoever proposed the campaign was in charge of allocating funds, and planning implementation. In a lot of ways, it worked really well for them: people were working on things they enjoyed working on, and with that feeling of autonomy, really invested themselves into creating their campaigns…

…Which almost never launched, because halfway through development, the campaign would run out of funding. Upper-management would absorb the project, and have to make decisions based on keeping costs down, not delivering a product.

The employees’ autonomy isn’t what caused these problems: it was the lack of accountability. By giving the marketing department the authority to develop their own campaigns, the company went from a model of centralized accountability, to no accountability.

The balance between the positions would be requiring the marketing department to, prior to receiving funding, provide the parameters they’ll be measuring as they develop the campaign. That sets up accountability, without taking any of the decision-making out of their hands.

Example Two: An Agile Corporation

Another organization was interested in embracing the Agile development method, to build employee “cells”: almost entirely autonomous groups of colleagues. Their goal was to attract the best talent they could.

They quickly removed the middle layers of their organization, getting rid of most of their management positions and integrating the roles into their new cells, who were also taught new methods for communicating and working together. Each cell had a facilitator, someone whose role it was to assist their team as-needed…

…And who ultimately had very little idea of what they needed to do for the company, rather than just their team. Team facilitators were able to say how much more work it’d take to finish their project, but then the “finished” project would turn out to have little relevance to the business’s operations as a whole.

Again, it wasn’t the small-team structure that caused these problems: it was the lack of accountability. Without a structure to communicate with about the company’s larger business, groups went from having a small team of managers who were accountable to the executives, to groups with a single manager who was only accountable to the others in their group.

(And for what it’s worth, what they implemented was not Agile.)

The Common Failure

These things happen for one reason: well-intentioned people making changes of which they don’t realize the implications. When the first organization let their marketing department guide their own campaigns, they didn’t realize that would mean guiding their goals and metrics, too. When the second organization got rid of middle-management, they didn’t realize that would mean eliminating the upward-flow of accountability.

(I specialize in helping senior executives plan for just these sorts of unexpected implications. If you would like to inquiry about such help send me an email.)

Autonomy refers simply to the style of an organization’s governance. It isn’t a form of governance itself: for that, you need accountability.


It’s important businesses of all sizes adapt to the dominate business culture, and these days, that means increasing autonomy. But it’s important to keep accountability in mind.

And if it wasn’t clear, “will we hit our launch date,” or “are we still on budget,” are perfectly fine questions to ask of your employees. If your company culture doesn’t let you ask those things, you need to change it. (Again.)

Editorial and License Information

My name is emsenn and I wrote this essay for the benefit of the commons. To the extent possible under law, I have waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to it. If you're viewing it on a remote server, you're encouraged to download your own copy. Essays like this are made possible with financial support from readers like you. Thank you. To read more of my work and to learn more about me, visit