Why aligned autonomy is an ongoing struggle

Jason Yip
4 min readMay 16, 2021

Autonomy, in a workplace context, is not about “I can do whatever I feel like” but rather “I feel free to act and fully engage to achieve a greater purpose.”

The Art of Action calls this “aligned autonomy”.

Two reasons aligned autonomy is difficult: air sandwich and politics.

Aligned autonomy is neither easy to obtain nor easy to sustain. I’ve generally seen two reasons for this:

  1. the air sandwich;
  2. politics (specifically, the ignoring of politics).

An Air Sandwich is vision and day-to-day action with nothing in the middle.

“An Air Sandwich is a strategy that has clear vision and future direction on the top layer, day-to-day action on the bottom, and virtually nothing in the middle…”

Nilofer Merchant, “Collaborative Strategy: A Q&A with Nilofer Merchant”

Air sandwich = nothing between vision and day-to-day

Air sandwiches occur because “We want X, you figure it out” doesn’t always work, especially in larger organisations. The gap between “We want X” and “how” can be too large for people to consistently cross, leading to confusion and competing efforts, that is, the opposite of alignment.

Politics is human; anything that’s human should be mentionable.

Many organisations like to say that there are “no politics” or at least that there shouldn’t be. I understand the sentiment and believe it is incorrect, factually and as a matter of useful intent.

Politics is inevitable in human systems because people are not, nor should they be treated as, clones. People have different perspectives and interests. It’s useful for everyone to be curious rather than assume bad faith. This is not equivalent to “no politics”.

As Mr. Rogers said: “Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

Dealing with politics makes alignment more manageable; ignoring politics makes alignment less manageable.

Two things that don’t work for alignment: spreadsheets and…

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Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl