The Fruits of Autonomy, Purpose & Mastery

“The dreams and passions stored within hearts are powerful keys which can unlock a wealth of potential.”

– John C. Maxwell

The teams had been trained in the meaning of Agile and Agile practices. A guiding coalition of caring leaders was in place and clearing obstacles to the teams’ pursuit of business value. The teams had moved in to their beautiful new space encouraging collocated collaboration. And they had started to perform and deliver at a committable cadence.

Yet we had this nagging feeling it wasn’t going to be enough. Like the eternal flame that burns in front of Canada’s Parliament Building in Ottawa, we needed to figure out how to keep our flames of change ignited, stoked and burning bright. How do you do that?

The answer for us came back to our greatest assets – the individuals on our teams. It wasn’t enough just to focus on optimizing the performance of our teams as a single coordinated unit. We realized we needed to help each individual on those teams be personally challenged, growing and motivated.

As the individual goes, so goes the team. The chain is only as strong as the weakest link. No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. The list of tropes can go on and on but it became clear that we needed to balance a focus on team with a focus on the individual.

Having unlocked the potential of high performing Agile teams, we needed to unlock the latent dreams and passions of its individual members. We needed to stoke the motivational sparks of autonomy, purpose and mastery within each person. The individual sparks sustained and fueled the flames of change within our teams.

Don’t Tell Them What To Do

“It doesn’t make sense to hire good people and tell them what to do; we hire good people so they can tell us what to do.”

– Steve Jobs

Old habits do tend to die hard. Our new Agile teams were quick to throw up their hands at obstacles that seemed at first blush to be insurmountable or outside their scope of responsibility. And so these obstacles made their way to Management. Our newly enlightened servant leader managers were struggling with their new role and were only too willing to add value and offer help. This “help” came in the form of directive decision statements. A cycle of learned helplessness was looming. To break the cycle we focused on the following:

  • Stop telling them what to do for every obstacle that is raised. This won’t scale as the number of obstacles increase with each directive management provides. Start questioning and encouraging individuals on the team to trust their instincts and solve for themselves. Start with “Why do you feel this is an obstacle?” Disparity in the responses may lead to finding the one person that sees a solution.
  • Remove obstacles to learning. Each obstacle escalated beyond the team became an obstacle to learning for individuals on the team. One example involved dealing with a shortage of .Net developers and an abundance of front end developers. Fortunately one of the front end developers saw this as an opportunity to learn .Net development. The front-end developer realized a dream and the team dealt with an obstacle on its own.
  • Overcome pedestrian efforts of compliance. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it needs to continue that way. Teams usually have no problem questioning this for their own work. The challenge is questioning the compliance requirements foisted on them by the rest of the business. It’s often easier to simply comply. But what if the adverse impacts of not complying were no longer the case? What if not complying freed up capacity from one team member? Even if compliance is still necessary, could changing the way compliance is achieved benefit someone on the team?
  • Team harmony and coherence isn’t always a good thing. Find the devil‘s advocate or contrarian on the team and encourage healthy questioning and debate. This can help avoid groupthink and mob psychology when it comes to nominating the next obstacle for escalation.

Share Problems Not Solutions

“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

– Agile Manifesto Principles

As the individuals and teams learned to help themselves, we realized we could go further with this. Why stop at team obstacles? Why not get them engaged in solving obstacles affecting multiple teams and the business at large? Up to this point, the teams did not concern themselves with these obstacles nor were they invited to. Of course, news of these challenges trickled down the proverbial water cooler and town hall but it was always someone else’s problem wasn’t it? So the invitations went out…

  • Share context not plans. Fait accompli plans prepared by a select few domain experts often look impressive, air-tight and intimidating. It’s only upon plan execution by the rest of the organization that questions abound as leaks start showing up in the dyke. We were nurturing an Agile environment, so why would we continue to build and implement business plans in a waterfall manner?  Share the ‘what’ and ‘why’. Let the ‘how’ emerge over time.
    • Share “The performance of our software deployments is unreliable leading to staff burnout, wasted effort and disgruntled customers” rather than “Our IT Ops team will be testing a continuous delivery tool and our deployments will only occur between midnight and 4 am”.
    • Share “This is the third client we’ve lost this year and we’re at risk of losing our Leader position in the Gartner Magic Quadrant and the Forrester Wave lists which will impact our next funding round” rather than “Our key performance objective this year is to refresh our entire platform”.
    • Share “The margins on our products and services are shrinking. Our R&D costs have doubled in the last year while our gross revenues have stayed flat” rather than “The restructuring of the IT organization will complete by Q4”.
  • (Don’t be afraid to) Ask for help. A former manager of mine used to say “If you plan the battle, you won’t battle the plan”. By sharing context, we opened the management kimono. Admitting we didn’t know it all was a relief. From there, asking for help brought all of us closer together to face the problems. We invited conversation and debate by asking and listening for individual thoughts and ideas. It revealed what we didn’t know. It also built endearing trust and collective ownership in the plans that emerged. When we learned that one of our QA analysts regretfully submitted her resignation in order to join her husband in Finland, we turned to the team for help and advice. Their simple response was “Why resign? Why not continue working remotely from Helsinki?” The team needed to alter their work hours to accommodate but they gladly did that to retain a valued teammate. We had shed our management mask of pride and were better for it.
  • Take risks. Often the excuse for not sharing the complete picture is the inability of the audience to handle sensitive information. That taking the risk to share sensitive information will cause panic and despair amongst the masses. That the masses wouldn’t be able to handle the truth. But contrary to what a misguided Colonel Jessup believed in the movie “A Few Good Men” (Reiner, 1992), leadership doesn’t have a monopoly on the profound understanding and desire needed to solve complex problems. One of the more sensitive situations we encountered was allowing the teams to deal with their own people performance problems. HR was understandably nervous. We trusted the team members’ discretion. They did not disappoint. They handled the problems in a judicious and caring way. Asking for help also conjures up the risk of appearing weak. Of not having all the answers. On the contrary it takes more courage and strength to break down and reach out for help. The real shame occurs when we fail to invite and leverage the wisdom of the crowd. Our president was an industry visionary. He was used to dictating our strategic direction. We had come to expect it from him. However in the face of growing market complexities, he realized his limitations and couldn’t do it any longer. Instead he held impromptu working sessions with anyone interested in having simple conversations about different aspects of the market.  He received a wealth of ideas and vetted strategic hypotheses in real-time.  In the process, people did not judge his limitations but rather applauded him for letting them help shape the future.

A couple of my favorite examples to illustrate the importance of individual autonomy and purpose follow.

Example 1: The Military Goes Agile?

The epitome of command and control for many is the military. If there was any institution that would be wary of relinquishing its top-down hierarchical structures and processes it would be the military. After all, we’re talking about life-and-death mission-critical situations that could ill afford freethinking autonomy or anarchy. Yet, there are examples from the US Military some dating back as far as 1989 with the introduction of the US Marine Corps’ Warfighting philosophy (Warfighting, 1989). These examples indicate a significant revolution in traditional military doctrine – a revolution that would cause Colonel Jessup another conniption.

  • “In order to support the fluid and chaotic nature of the battlefield, command must be decentralized. Subordinate leaders must use their own initiative to accomplish tasks which support their (commander’s) intent.” (Warfighting Cliff Notes, 1998, p. 10)
  • “Commander’s intent allows subordinates to use initiative and judgment. Subordinates can depart from the original plan when the situation demands it. All actions must be consistent with the intent. There are two parts to any mission: the task and its purpose. Of the two, the purpose, or intent, is more important.” (Warfighting Cliff Notes, 1998, p. 11)
  • “The challenge the Army faces today is not one of over-thinking situations; rather, it is the failure to think clearly in situations that require sound judgment at junior levels, and leadership’s hesitation to believe that juniors can or will think clearly.” (Vandergriff, 2010, p. 1)
  • “The most important capability needed for the Army Future Force may well be thinking Soldiers and junior leaders who seek after the ‘why’ of a situation, task or directive, to understand and make better use of the purpose behind it” (Vandergriff, 2010, p. 1)
  • “An organization of thinking individuals, working in unity of purpose with a strong understanding of intent, is more readily able to adapt to the unexpected realities of today’s mission sets.” (Vandergriff, 2010, p. 1)

Example 2: No More Signing Authorities

Another example comes from a Teal organization profiled in Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations” (Laloux, 2014). AES is a Fortune 200 global power company headquartered in the US with over 19,000 employees.   It used a decision-making process called the “advice process” that essentially allowed anyone in the company to make any decision regardless of dollar value impact.

  • The advice process was premised on the belief that the decision maker should be the person who noticed the issue or opportunity or the person most affected by the decision.
  • The only requirement for the process was that before making a decision, the person doing so must seek advice from all affected parties and people with expertise on the matter. The bigger the decision, the wider the net of advisors must be – including the CEO or the board of directors when necessary.
  • In one case, a financial analyst in AES used the advice process to make a $200M equity investment in Pakistan.

Expect To Be Surprised

“You know your employee is growing and performing well when what they do surprises you.”

– Old management saying

As a leader, the most rewarding and sweetest aspect of any Agile transformation that I’ve been involved in is the individual and personal epiphanies that occur. Having shed the shackles of hierarchical protocol, people take to heart their newfound autonomy. They leverage the opportunity to master their craft. They crawl out from under the rock of repetitive, mindless doing. They start learning more so they can adapt the latest advances in the art and do better for themselves and the team.  But it doesn’t end there. The truly enlightened see a bigger picture beyond their personal mastery. They go several steps beyond to surprise.

  • Cross-skilling. They start learning and supporting what their teammates do by holding spontaneous cross-skilling sessions with their teammates. Our developers started contributing to test automation development led by a QA analyst who wanted to program. Our product owners learned the value of mental models for developing their market personas from our UX specialists. All team members learned from IT Operations to become proficient in interpreting data from IT Operation’s real user monitoring in production. Our Agile teams used the data to proactively mitigate production issues before IT Operations needed to get involved.
  • Business-speak. Their ears perk-up when business stakeholders visit or speak. They’re eager to learn the language of the business. Our QA analyst don’t just talk about test case plans and test execution stats – they add color commentary about what they’re hoping to achieve in terms of increased page impressions and improved visitor conversions on the website. Music to a marketer’s ears.
  • Cost of a sprint. They monetize the cost of a sprint. Seeing the resulting big dollar value does something to their sense of ownership. They use it to respectfully challenge the business stakeholders on whether or not a desired business priority will generate the best return for their sprint cost investment. They want to ensure their limited efforts are not wasted.
  • Duds to stars. Former ‘duds’ in the old waterfall system can thrive as ‘stars’ in the new adaptive system emerging from Agile. Individuals who did poorly under a regime of top-down managed plan and predict stability became the poster children for Agile ways of working and adapting to constant change.

Spark Innovation

“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

– Eric Hoffer

One of the vestiges of the old pre-Agile world was the predisposition to top-down innovation programs replete with Innovation Champions within dedicated Departments of Innovation. Many of these started with the best of intentions but failed miserably to hit the mark. Innovation can’t be planned any more than a miracle can be planned. You can’t “make it (innovation) so“. The best innovation emerges bottom-up and often from the fringe. Harvesting ideas from the impassioned masses will always trump the limited yield of academic top-down ideas. What we needed to do was support a culture of bottom-up innovation. This included a variety of initiatives that sparked innovation at the individual level.

  • Batch-of-one personal development and career plans. Each individual was unique in how they wanted to grow and develop. By encouraging ‘batch-of-one’ learning, it had the side-effect of generating more novel ideas to the same problem.
  • Communities of Practice. Getting together and collaborating with others who share a common passion is not new. What was new in our Agile adaptation was the rise of the more junior voices to overshadow the technically more senior voices. The junior voices were often uninhibited and led the way for new thinking and ideas. Fortunately, they just didn’t know any better.
  • Learning Sessions. We set aside time each week for independent or group learning. This was a commitment to each individual’s personal development plan. Inevitably, it became a source of new ideas resulting from new learnings.
  • Development Spikes & Hack-a-thons. A culture of experimentation and trial/error was a key innovation enabler. Development spikes allowed teams to spend part or all of a sprint researching and trying out solutions to problems. Hack-a-thons added competitive fun while developing new skills and product capabilities.
  • Lab Days. We designated a Lab Day (a cross between an Open Space and a Hack-a-thon) once a month to develop working software to solve the latest business problems. It was a great opportunity for the teams to gain more business context and for the business stakeholders to visualize new business solutions.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water…


At the end of the day, sowing the seeds of motivation by nurturing autonomy, purpose and mastery enabled us to sustain and grow our value to the business over time. Where the seeds took root, those individuals never looked back and thirsted for more. For the others, it became an individual litmus test of whether they would ultimately fit or not in our new Agile world. Working in an Agile environment is not for everyone. It shouldn’t be grudgingly tolerated as a condition of employment by those stuck in the past. It should be cherished as a privilege for those who are driven by the possibilities for personal transformation.

What’s more important to the success of Agile – the team or the individual?


Warfighting. (1989). U.S. Marine Corps.

Warfighting Cliff Notes. (1998). U.S. Marine Corps.

Laloux, F. (2014). “Reinventing Organizations”. Nelson Parker.

Reiner, R. (Director). (1992). A Few Good Men [Motion Picture].

Vandergriff, D. E. (2010). Today’s Training and Education (Development) Revolution: The Future is Now! The Land Warfare Papers.

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