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 one-off speeches.

I’ve generally seen two typical anti-patterns when attempting to improve alignment:

  1. Spreadsheets;
  2. One-off speeches.

Spreadsheets are a stereotypical example of an “information refrigerator”.

An “information radiator” is something that pushes information out without requiring significant effort on the part of the receiver, making it difficult to ignore.

An “information refrigerator” on the other hand, requires receivers to actively pull information, making it easier for information to be missed or forgotten about.

Information radiator vs information refrigerator

Spreadsheets (and frankly most tracking software) are a stereotypical example of an information refrigerator. It is theoretically possible that if everyone is actively visiting the spreadsheet that it acts as a de facto information radiator but I have never seen this play out in practice.

Is a table the optimal way to convey context?

The other issue with spreadsheets is assuming a table is the optimal way to convey context.

If you said it once, I bet they didn’t hear it, never mind understand it, nor accept it.

In our internal newsletter, Plan Do Flush, Alia sketched this model for stages of communication:

Transmitted → Received → Understood → Agreed → Converted to useful action

A one-off speech is most likely only going to accomplish the first stage of transmission. Transmission is insufficient for alignment.

If they’re not complaining that you’re communicating too much, you probably haven’t communicated it enough.

Three things that do work for alignment: catchball, rhythm, boundary objects.

There are three things that I think work for achieving and sustaining alignment to enable autonomy:

  1. Catchball;
  2. Rhythm (aka well-designed regular meetings);
  3. Boundary objects

“Catchball” means vertical and lateral back-and-forth dialogue.

Catchball is a metaphor used in the Toyota/Lean community describing how alignment should be like tossing a ball back-and-forth, not a one-way announcement. This back-and-forth dialogue should be more than one round and occurs both vertically (reporting lines) and laterally (dependent peers).

Vertical and lateral catchball

Large all-hands style meetings are designed to discourage back-and-forth; smaller sessions are designed to encourage back-and-forth.

Well-designed meetings are essential for facilitating alignment.

Well-designed meetings is a mundane, boring topic that is absolutely essential for facilitating alignment.

I’ve written before about designing better meetings but I think the key trade-off to consider for alignment is between having enough perspectives to detect problems while not having too much people to allow getting to depth in reasonable timeframes.

Boundary objects allow groups with different goals to coordinate.

I first learned of the phrase “boundary object” from Brian Marick:

“A term from the sociology of science, “boundary object” refers to an object (physical or mental) that allows groups with different goals to coordinate their actions.”

Brian Marick, “Business value as a boundary object”

A shared model, or boundary object, facilitates real versus fake alignment. This is what the “I’m glad we all agree” diagram is about.

I’m Glad We All Agree by Jeff Patton — Jeff Patton & Associates (jpattonassociates.com)

Shared models can be metaphors, flywheels, maps, diagrams, whatever helps detect misunderstanding to allow for reaching real alignment.

If the model is too simple, it can be misleading but if it’s too complex, it can be confusing, so there’s always a trade-off. Whatever works is the right model… and what works may change over time.



Jason Yip

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