Autonomy works… if it’s supported by a mission

Today, autonomy is very ‘in’. Lots of businesses talk about their flat structures, few celebrate their hierarchies. Autonomy sounds good, but it is very difficult to get right, says Clara Nobre

Autonomy can work, but it requires something important: direction. Direction can sound like a top-down idea, a series of commands issued from high up and then filtered down through managers. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. A direction can be something unifying, a statement that says, ‘here’s where we want to get to’.

At our organisation –Wise – we call this our ‘mission’.

Here I lay out how we ‘do’ autonomy at Wise. It’s not a perfect system and it may not be right for you, but hopefully there are a few bits that spark some ideas or inspiration.

The mission

A real mission is one that is simple, understandable and allows everyone to understand what they are aiming for. A classic example is Tesla’s, ‘To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy’. It’s clear, it makes sense and it’s also inspiring. It can then be used as a guiding star for all employees’ work. ‘Does my project make sense? Well, is it getting the world closer to using sustainable energy?’ From that point, a lot of good ideas can come. Patagonia’s mission, ‘We’re in business to save the planet’, could sound overly worthy but its influence is clear: reducing waste aids the planet, so Patagonia operates an extensive clothes repair service.

It may be that missions are easiest to instil in young companies, which tend to be founded to solve something very specific. Wise was started to improve upon the expensive, slow, opaque international money transfers services provided by banks and traditional providers. So, our mission is ‘Money Without Borders’ – which means a world in which money moves instantly, transparently, conveniently and eventually, for free. If you’re a business that’s been going for centuries, it may be harder to define that one thing you’re trying to solve – but I don’t know, perhaps a strong heritage reinforces a sense of purpose.

At Wise, the mission allows for a huge degree of autonomy. This started in our earliest days when the mission was split up into a series of specific goals. One team made the product quicker, another more convenient and so on. They could hire who they wanted, code what they wanted, pursue what they wanted, so long as it helped achieve the goal and, ultimately, contributed to the mission.

This approach remains today, even as we number more than 3,000 staff across the world. Many ‘Wisers’ are still solely dedicated to making our product quicker, others to making it more convenient. Those who have a broader focus – such as the team I’m a part of, which builds our Wise Business product for small and medium sized businesses – still work to that core mission: making Wise as quick, transparent, convenient, and cheap as possible.

Culturally, autonomy removes hierarchies. At all levels, we’re encouraged to think independently about how we can help the business get closer to the mission. To aid this, every person is given stock options, which we believe promotes long-term thinking – however, we do not offer bonuses or commission, which can encourage the opposite.

By taking ownership of work, Wisers can accomplish some quite special things. A couple of years ago, a new starter was able to significantly improve the speed of our product in Ukraine in just two weeks, after identifying a problem and delving deep into the country’s regulations. In one quarter last year, we increased the proportion of payments that arrive instantly from 40% to 45% – a feat which might be harder in a more bureaucratic, less focused organisation.

We strongly believe that our autonomy is a competitive advantage. The industry we’re trying to disrupt is dominated by huge businesses. They have scale and history, but with that comes a certain way of operating.

Not without its challenges

This way of working is not without challenges. Start with hiring. Not every person wants to work in an organisation structured like this. It’s not uncommon for a manager to join from a more rigid, hierarchical organisation and complain that it’s hard to get staff to follow their lead. We’ve learned that we need to make our hiring process as honest and open as possible.

Another problem with autonomy is communication. Teams that work independently could end up working in silos, with opportunities for collaboration lost. To solve this, we host all-company meetings that see teams present their work and receive feedback. Yet the system does rely to some degree on teams building their network and talking to each other. There is also a tension between gaining useful feedback and ensuring that feedback doesn’t become stifling.

A more acute version of the communication problem is the risk of teams building products that dent other teams’ goals. For instance, an upgrade might make our product quicker, but what if it makes it more complicated to use? Avoiding this relies upon teams understanding each other’s priorities and, in simple terms, not wanting to annoy someone sitting opposite them.

We’ve learned a lot since we first started, but we have a long way to go. We’re barely a decade old and we’ve grown to 3,000 staff. Can the culture remain for another 10, 20, 30 years? Or be maintained when we have 7,000, 10,000, 20,000 staff? Today we have three main products – Wise for consumers, Wise Business and Wise Platform, which services larger businesses – but what if the number of products increases, will autonomy still be viable? We don’t know.

Nothing new

Autonomy may not suit every business. However, for a certain type – maybe one that’s young, seeking to change something and up against big, established competitors – it may work. We find that it encourages new thinking, quick action and empowerment. It’s not been perfect, yet we’ve learned a huge amount and it’s a culture we’re proud of.

But we’re not going to pretend it’s unique – or even new. In 1983, Tom Wolfe documented the early days of Silicon Valley and the growth of Intel, led by its founder Robert Noyce. In The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, he writes that: ‘Noyce decided to eliminate the notion of levels of management altogether.’

Noyce’s ideas were shaped by his time spent in the early years of Fairchild, a one-time pioneer in the semiconductor industry. Noyce adored Fairchild’s early, enterprising years during which there was ‘no sense of bosses and employees… only a common sense of struggle out on a frontier’. He regretted that Fairchild lost this spirit and became corporate, losing its edge.

Noyce wanted to create the ‘notion of a permanent start-up operation,’ one that remained enterprising in an increasingly competitive environment. Intel was divided into ‘strategic business segments’ that ‘were comparable to the major departments in an orthodox corporation, but they had far more autonomy… Each was run like a separate corporation.’

Staff were given stock to encourage long term thinking. In meetings, even the youngest and newest engineers were expected to challenge Noyce. There was no ‘social hierarchy at Intel, no executive suites, no pinstripe set, no reserved parking places’.

Intel became radically innovative and wildly successful, with its culture a huge reason for this.

So, while it may seem new and modern to talk about autonomy – it isn’t. And perhaps the success of a business-like Intel is the greatest testament to how it can work – it certainly gives me hope that, even as we grow, we’ll be able to keep what makes our organisation special intact.

As Head of Product for Wise Business, Clara Nobre manages Wise's dedicated product for small and medium- sized businesses.

Prior to joining Wise, Clara worked for Vodafone, Hive and Portugal Telecom. Wise Business allows users to pay employees, get paid and manage their cash flow overseas. Today, Wise moves £6bn GBP a month and has 3,000 employees worldwide. 

As Head of Product for Wise Business, Clara Nobre manages Wise’s dedicated product for small and medium- sized businesses.

Prior to joining Wise, Clara worked for Vodafone, Hive and Portugal Telecom. Wise Business allows users to pay employees, get paid and manage their cash flow overseas. Today, Wise moves £6bn GBP a month and has 3,000 employees worldwide. 

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