Autonomy and Acceptable Failures: The Need for Doctrine

Autonomy, especially in and around U.S. businesses, is a tricky concept. Autonomy is valued very highly in our culture, but the challenge of finding a way to hand off acceptable amounts of control takes a lot more work than most leaders or employees realize. Few companies have the patience or budget for mistakes which occur when a more-autonomous goes wrong, so they choose not to grant autonomy in the first place, or revoke it at the first sign of trouble. Understandably, the constant conflict of employees who need autonomy and leaders who need accountability plagues most organizations. 

The challenge is that the risk of a big mistake looms large for the leader or colleague under pressure from boards and coworkers, and appears to be bigger than the risk of not innovating or being caught up in micromanaging people who the leader does not trust.

Mark Bonchek describes the missing link in the leadership stack (what we at Causeit call the progression from long-term executive vision down to short-term implementation plans)—he calls it doctrine:

…the key to doctrine is that it sits in between strategy and plans. It is more specific than the strategy, but also more versatile than plans, or rules. Think of it as heuristics, or guidelines: the purpose of doctrine is to enable an individual to know what to do in a situation that’s consistent with the strategy and achieves the objectives of a plan, but with flexibility, with autonomy, for the individual, in the circumstance.
— Mark Bonchek on Doctrine

It's the lack of acceptable room for improvisation—and, thus, control of possible mistakes—that is missing from the understanding of both the employee and the leader, or between colleagues. It's often only criticism of a mistake that such doctrine—the guidelines for what is deemed acceptable—are articulated. Often this is because the person who feels their trust in delegation or sharing of responsibility was violated did not even know their own, explicit guidelines for their work until it became clear that the boundaries or intent of those guidelines weren't honored. But how could they be? They weren't articulated! In the tight-budget environment of corporate cutbacks, startups with limited funding or the average small business, the prevailing thought is that the first mistake must be the last mistake—or never happen at all.

In order to effectively delegate or share responsibility, and to provide sufficient autonomy to permit both creative insight and deep learning, doctrine has to be discovered and articulated. Failures complement more deliberate, intentional efforts to surface doctrine, because they provide the opportunity for leaders and the organization at large to examine the gap between their articulated doctrine and what needed to be in place to prevent the failure which happened anyway. Big failures, such as a stock market crashes or safety violations often prompt rules, rather than guidelines, and tend to result in rushed processes to 'prevent that disaster from ever happening again.' Ideally, though, the creation and revision of doctrine happens before, during and after failures occur, and prevents larger failures from happening in the first place. 

Future explorations: 

  • Using apprenticeship and mentorship to surface and transfer doctrine