Responsibility, accoutability, autonomy, and competence

They need to be roughly proportionate. The ideal presented by business and self-improvement books and blogs aplenty is to have all of these at high levels, but that’s far from the whole story. The big deal here is alignment.

Competence is the hardest to adjust, so align based upon it

If an individual or a team has a relatively low level of subject competence, giving them high levels of responsibility, accountability, and autonomy is setting them up for a public failure. That doesn’t help anybody. These more junior folks benefit from some guidance and hand-holding–not as a judgment or micromanagement, but simply to help them grow. (Hence concerns about moving to all-remote workplaces and supporting junior staff members, though ultimately that’s addressable; future blog post to follow.)

For individuals, subject matter competence is the peg the rest of these elements need to align with; for teams, you can change the personnel mix to nudge things if needed.

You can bias these elements a little higher or lower depending on your sense of folks' drive and hunger, but let them know when you do so, or you risk having to repair after they fail.

Once you’ve got high competence, don’t skimp on an element.

  • High accountability without responsibility means being judged for others' actions without any control. It’s unfair.
  • Responsibility without accountability is free reign without feedback. Folks won’t have the information they need to grow and improve.
  • Autonomy without responsibility or accountability is unstructured without a mission. There are people that thrive in this, but if you’re not sure, they probably won’t.
  • Responsibility without autonomy is stifling and prevents folks from owning their decisions.

And so on.

Keep it proportional.

Measure or estimate competence, then set responsibility, accountability, and autonomy to fit. Your juniors will appreciate the guidance, and you’ll make space for your more experienced staff to fly.

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