Kill the Hierarchy! - Autonomy

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how a flatter organisational structure enables employee autonomy. Employees are trusted and given the autonomy to self-manage and deliver on the organisational mission and goal.

For an organisation to survive and thrive in a world of constant and uncertain change, the organisation has to be one in which leadership is important, but MORE important is a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom reign over hierarchical boundaries. This enables innovation, creativity, experimentation, rapid decision-making, agility and employee ownership, engagement and influence. There is widespread autonomy and everyone leads.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to!

The ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model shown the diagram below, illustrates the changes needed to move to a flatter structure, and it is these changes that we shall be exploring in this series of posts.



I love Tracy Maylett’s description of an organisation without employee autonomy. Writing for Entrepreneur, he says:

“Without it your workforce may become the “land of the working dead,” roaming endlessly in zombie-like fashion, waiting to be told what to do next.  Not an enjoyable workplace for employees nor managers, by any stretch”.

So what is autonomy?

Autonomy is about giving employees the right to do the work they want, how they want and when they want.

It's about management getting out of the way and letting employees get on with their job.

Autonomy could be choosing which projects to work on, who to work with, when to work and how to get the job done.

In an organisation with employee autonomy, the focus is on what gets done (outcomes) as opposed to how it gets done.

Autonomy is directly linked to employee engagement and motivation. It increases feelings of ownership and loyalty.

This means that talent is both retained and attracted. Increased employee engagement leads to increased productivity and profitability.

Autonomy can also be applied to teams. An autonomous team is one that is self-managing with little or no direction from a manager. When team members work well together, they can build on each other's strengths, and can compensate for other's weaknesses.

This sort of environment has a direct impact on increasing job satisfaction.

But autonomy does not mean that there is outright anarchy.


Organisations have principles or guardrails.


The guardrails are like barriers at the side of the road that help keep drivers safe and keep them on the road. Guardrails keep everyone aligned to the organisation’s goals and objectives. They are the parameters within which employees can operate without unnecessary interference.

The US military call this ‘doctrine’ – the mechanism for managing the fog of war, pushing decision-making closer to the ground, while providing the lines to guide decision-making and action.

At Gumroad, the successful platform that enables creators to sell products directly to consumers, a focus on a bias towards action, ownership and a flat organisation, are baked into each of its core values (principles).

First Round Review listed these values:

Move Fast.

Move quickly. Do not lag. Once a decision is made, execute on it as fast as possible. Ship quickly. Save words. Instead, implement and measure. Perfect is the enemy of good.


Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Nothing is sacred, everything is in a state of change. As individuals we should look to place ourselves in a position where we are learning and getting better every day.

Align yourself.

Constantly put yourself in a place where the best thing for you is the best thing for everyone else that you work with and for.

Be open and transparent.

Simplify your relationships. Lose the filter. Talk openly about what you care about and the problems you are dealing with. Get feedback to get better.

Stay focused.

Is the thing you are working on right now the most valuable thing you could be doing? A corollary to this: trust others to execute on their objectives so that you can stay focused on your own.


Have fun. Don’t regret. Don’t think too hard. Be optimistic. Assume the best. Things will work out — how could they not?

If all Gumroad employees follow to these principles, the organisation is in good hands!

Autonomy and flat structure

About 20% of the world’s websites are now on the WordPress platform – making it one of the most important internet companies.  Automattic, the firm behind WordPress, employs a couple hundred people, who all work remotely, with a highly autonomous flat management structure. 

The successful development platform, GitHub, is another highly successful firm with a similar structure. It has no middle managers, employees are beholden to no one, and are encouraged to define their roles in ways that make sense to them. They have autonomy.

At W.L. Gore, the American multinational manufacturing company, all decision-making is done through self-managing teams of 8-12 people: hiring, pay, which projects to work on, everything. Gore has more than 10,000 employees with basically three levels in their organisational hierarchy.

At Morning Star, the worlds leading tomato ingredient processor, the notion of empowerment assumes that authority trickles down -that power gets bestowed from above, as and when the powerful see fit. In an organization built on the principles of self-management and autonomy, employees aren’t given power by the higher-ups -they simply have it.

The Ritz-Carlton is famous for its high levels of customer satisfaction achieved through its excellent customer service, which is underpinned by employee autonomy.


The Ritz-Carlton has for many years given staff  $2,000 of discretion per employee per guest that can be used to solve any customer complaint in the manner the employee feels is appropriate. There is no recourse to a higher authority for approval.

The Ritz-Carlton employees are known as the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ritz and have the autonomy to make decisions, craft special moments and resolve customer issues.

Valve Corporation, the leading video game developer and digital distribution system, is one of the best-known examples of a large organisation that operates on a flat hierarchical structure. It doesn't assign permanent managerial staff but rather rotates leaders on a per-project, per-team basis. It doesn't create permanent departments but allows employees the autonomy to work where they want, on what they want and when they want. With an estimated worth of $2-4 billion, Valve is considered one of the most successful organisations within its industry. CEO Gabe Newell claims that the company is more profitable per employee than either Google or Apple.

And did I mention Google? 

Google has one aspirational mission statement:

“Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

Google has one goal:

“Develop services that improve the lives of as many people as possible. Not just for some. For everyone”

Employees are trusted and given the autonomy to self-manage and deliver on that mission and goal.

And yes, there are principles (which include guardrails):

1.     Innovation comes from anywhere

2.     Focus on the user

3.     Aim to be ten times better

4.     Bet on technical insights

5.     Ship and iterate

6.     Give employees 20% time

7.     Default to open processes

8.     Fail well

9.     Have a mission that matters

Think of “Focus on the user”, “Ship and iterate” and “Fail well” as guardrails. It is ok to ship early rather than waiting until something is perfect. Customers will help you make it ‘better’ through their feedback. It is ok to do this, as long as you are focused on the user.

There is no stigma attached to failure. In fact Google treats failure like a badge of honour. If employees don't fail enough they are not trying enough!

In short

The companies I have mentioned in this post would not be the successes that they are without giving employees autonomy.

Autonomy = +choice = +engagement = +retention = +motivation = +innovation = +productivity = +profitability = +++success.

Now that’s an equation I want.

Coming up!

Upcoming posts in this series entitled ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ will continue to explore how we flatten the hierarchy in order to achieve rapid and decentralised decision-making, employee engagement, high levels of collaboration, widespread autonomy, trust and respect, and an environment in which everyone leads.

 More posts on their way over the coming weeks and months, exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

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 Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.

Karen FerrisComment