Why aligned autonomy is an ongoing struggle

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.

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

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.

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.

Information radiator vs information refrigerator

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:

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

Well-designed meetings are essential for facilitating alignment.

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

Boundary objects allow groups with different goals to coordinate.

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

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



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Jason Yip

Jason Yip


Staff Agile Coach at Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl