Navigating the Autonomy Landscape: A Comparative Look at Autonomy in Product Management

Navigating the challenges of autonomy at workplace

As I have grown in my career, I have experienced different forms of autonomy. One which comes quite close to micromanagement and another, which gives ample freedom. Juxtaposing the two type of autonomies, a lot of people would prefer ample freedom and complete autonomy. But is that the right option, just when you’re starting your career? Or is there an option that creates a balance in the spectrum of autonomy – where you get the right amount of guidance as well as independence? Let’s find out more in this blog, wherein I will share my learnings derived based on my experience handling different type of autonomy as well as talking to and observing other colleagues.

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The autonomy that you get from your manager

Early on when I started my career at my current organization, I had a manager who gave me incredible amount of freedom and autonomy. Let’s say, while preparing a strategic deck, she would step in only when I sought her inputs or if there were some (non)obvious gaps in what the leadership would want to see compared to what I would be presenting to them (there were quite a few layers between me and the leadership back then). Other than that, she would let me own the entire thing. Based on this experience, I got the accountability, responsibility and leverage.

Eventually, I progressed on the career ladder, moved to different teams and got a new manager. Let’s assume, I am preparing a strategic deck. Difference here being that the manager would definitely step in to review, and would suggest amendments based on the ideas that she possessed on how to present to the leadership. This often meant discarding everything that I had already done (after an initial round of discussion). That sometimes resulted in a bit of a friction between me & her.

Now this second management style might look like a rant, but it’s not! Because once I understood the pattern, I never expected to go independently with a deck and instead looped my manager early on from the inception stage to seek her inputs and frequent reviews. Lesson learnt: manage your manager to micromanage you!

While the first management style (the complete autonomy) might look like an absolute paradise to work at but there are blemishes in that apparent paradise. One major apparent issue with an infinite amount of autonomy is: you might not get to see the different and timely perspective, and therefore, you might continue to do tread on a (wrong) path that’s not helping your work/career.

Hence, this section is not intended to disparage or praise either of the management styles. Rather the intent is to showcase that there’s indeed a wide spectrum of autonomy and sometimes your experiences are shaped by where do you stand on that spectrum.

Now, let’s see how I handled “giving” autonomy to my reports. TL-DR: failed miserably initially and learnt eventually!

The autonomy that you give as a manager

An anecdote: I discussed an entire strategy with a senior team member, in depth, and believed he had understood what needs to be delivered. When we met a few days later, there was no deliverable from his side. But by then we were at the cusp of a deadline, and I had to spend several hours working and hand-holding him to execute the entire thing. But I kept wondering, what went wrong – we discussed the entire thing in depth.

When I was given a team to manage, I was pretty clear on how I want to lead them. Made my team clear (verbally) that I won’t micromanage, have 100% trust in them, believe that all of them are smart & hustlers, and I will only step in if I am asked for help.

However, the plan and ideology failed miserably! In the anecdote I shared above, I failed to understand that I, as a manager, am giving autonomy to my team in my head. But is my team acknowledging that autonomy or considering it as an act of dropping them in the middle of the ocean?! In a lot of cases, people tend to hesitate in asking for help – they feel that they have to figure out everything by themselves. The moment I realized this (because I had been in the same boat myself), I understood the working style of each member of my team and stepped in proactively at various stages of the project.

A similar disclaimer as I shared in the section above, the experience I shared above is not intended to question the competency of the folks who were in my team (who were pretty smart and individual subject matter experts). Rather the intent is to showcase that it’s easier to expect or question the (amount of) autonomy from your manager but when the tables have turned, you may find yourself questioning your own ethos!

Some Learnings and Thoughts

As a manager, it was my naivety to go with one single approach of “do not micromanage your team (members)“.

The learnings and thoughts as a manager are:

  1. Instead of flat ideology of “do not micromanage“, try gauging how autonomous your team members are. People have different types of task level maturity (exhibiting a certain level of maturity and experience in completing a task).
  2. There could be a few ways to gauge the autonomy of your team members. Start off with collaborating with the team members, giving inputs (or asking them if they need input) on how to do a particular task, nudge them to speak where they need more (or less) support during one-on-ones. You can obviously devise your own strategy, but hopefully you get the gist!

Since, every manager has a different set of experiences with their reportees. The learnings and thoughts as a reportee are:

  1. If you’re more of autonomous kind, and you have figured out that your manager likes to micromanage – the better way to handle the situation (instead of fretting) is to go and seek his/her inputs frequently. Keep your manager posted, loop him/her in communications.
  2. If you know that you need guidance and some form of help/handholding from your manager, and you feel that your manager is dropped you in the middle of the ocean to figure out things on your own – probably one way to handle the situation is to setup frequent 1:1s and ask for help/ask questions to seek clarity.

Bonus Section

I reached out with some of the questions to an ex-founder & colleague, batchmate, somebody who has a wealth of experience working in leading technology companies in multiple geographies and working with leadership. Meet Vaibhavi Desai.

What are the different management styles at FAANG, startup companies and how does these styles have an impact on the autonomy you get at your workplace?
How to bring alignment, communication, and manage your own manager?
How to tread the path of autonomy if you manage a team? Understand SBI (Situation – Behavior – Impact) and Sandwich feedback framework.

Do check out the other posts  that I have written related to product management, data science, and software engineering. Please consider subscribing to my blog and feel absolutely free to reach out.

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