The Four Levels of Autonomy

Engineers crave explicit feedback and expectations, and yet it’s often hard to provide these when coaching on ownership and leadership. It’s frustrating for all involved - as managers, we want to provide goals but oftentimes struggle to go beyond “I want you to handle problems like I do.” To solve this, I’ve found the following tool super helpful for this - the Four Levels of Autonomy. I’ll outline them briefly and then explain how I use them.

From highest to lowest autonomy:

  1. Take action and inform later.
  2. Identify solutions with a recommendation for action.
  3. Identify problems.
  4. Wait for instructions (AKA “The Danger Zone”).

In general, I coach leaders to work at those top two tiers depending on the domain, its risks, and their expertise. In both cases, the individual is responsible for identifying opportunities, the top skill I need leaders to develop. It allows me to throw increasingly big problems at them without devoting significant time to getting into the details of their expertise.

The third tier, “Identify problems” is generally a good starting place for juniors or those learning a new role/domain. I’ll typically provide gentle coaching to get to that next step, identifying and recommending solutions, but it’s okay if that skill is still developing. Ultimately though, I want teammates to grow out of this level for two reasons. It requires an inordinate amount of time since their manager has to have most of the same context as the individual so that they can design solutions instead. It also robs the team of the creativity and insight that this person would otherwise bring by working on solutions.

The last tier, “Wait for instructions,” is a dangerous spot to be in for very long at any skill level. The challenge of waiting for instructions is that it requires another person to develop enough context and detail on their teammates’s responsibilities in order to provide detailed instructions and identify problems. It’s a colossal waste of time and is usually only acceptable at the very beginning of someone’s tenure.

Of course this framework doesn’t cover all leadership gaps and still varies on a case-by-case basis. Still it’s been a great way to take feedback like “I need you to take better ownership of problems” and distill that into specific outcomes which are or aren’t happening. If you end up using this framework, I’d love to hear how it goes.

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