Here’s a little-known business fact: Post-It notes first came about because 3M was in favor of bootlegging.

Before 3M sends us a “cease and desist” letter, let’s clarify: not that kind of bootlegging. Rather than selling illegal alcohol during Prohibition, 3M’s gave its employees autonomy to work on their own company projects. Dubbed “bootlegging” on company time, 3M’s policy gave its employees carte blanche on these projects for about 15% of their total work time.

The Post-It note was partly the brainchild of 3M employee Spencer Silver, who worked on the concept for years—often in his 3M office. In one of the most famous case studies in favor of employee autonomy, 3M eventually unrolled Silver’s idea. The Post-It became part of office supply history.

But let’s face it, one case study does not support an entire argument. You could just as easily give employees autonomy and watch them abuse it—working on projects that go nowhere or using the time to slack off instead.

According to MIT’s Sloan Management Review, which uses “slack resources” as code for this autonomy…

Different types of employees respond in different ways to slack innovation programs; that different kinds of slack resources are better suited to certain types of employees than they are to others; and that different kinds of slack innovation programs produce different kinds of innovation.

In other words, it’s a tough balance to strike. But if you want an employee to come up with your version of a Post-It, it’s worth taking the time to figure out how much “slack” you should give your own team.

Rule Of Thumb: Give Employees 10-20% “Tinker Time”

3M wasn’t the only company that saw the value in giving employees time to tinker. Google long supported a “20%” rule—about in line with 3M’s 15%. According to co-founder Sergey Brin:

We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20 percent of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google.

Innovations we now or once associated with Google’s core services—Adsense, Gmail, and Google News—reportedly came out of this 20% rule. According to Inc’s report, Google continued this rule for decades.

Other examples abound. Hewlett-Packard long stuck to a similar 10-15% rule. BMW’s 12-cylinder engine and Pacific Tech’s graphing calculator also reportedly emerged from employee “bootlegging” initiatives.

Employees like roaming time, and it clearly delivers results. In fact, if you take nothing away from this article, simply giving your employees more autonomy might help you. Consider this Officevibe Pulse Survey, which found 20% of employees wanted more freedom in deciding how they work.

But is the employee autonomy formula really as simple as cutting out one-fifth of the week for side projects?

Finding The “Goldilocks Zone” Of Employee Autonomy

Your goal as a team manager should be to identify the “Goldilocks zone”—cutting just the right amount of slack to encourage innovation, but not so much that you lose track of why you built the team in the first place.

For starters: yes, some autonomy is a good thing, even in school. According to one study, letting each student choose the materials they used to create a collage created a significant boost in creativity.

But that study was from 1984. Is it really a good idea to maximize team member autonomy at all stages? Do you really want to sound like this?

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A more recent study divided teams into several groups and tested the various styles of autonomy each group had. One group, for example, was allowed to choose their teammates. Another was allowed to choose their ideas. One group was allowed to choose both. According to Harvard Business Review:

Interestingly, our analysis suggested that some — but not total — autonomy yielded the best results. …  Overall, the top performing teams were those who were assigned their teammates but allowed autonomy over their ideas, closely followed by those who were assigned ideas and allowed to choose their teams.

In other words, the type of autonomy you assign is just as important as how much autonomy you allow. If those results bear out in the real world, the manager should choose the teams. The teams should choose how they achieve their goals. 

One important note: there is no one-size-fits-all approach here. Spotify, for example, believes in letting people pick which teams they work in as well as the ideas they work on. Ditto GitHub. But the HBR study should give you a framework for where to start experimenting with more employee autonomy on your own team.

Encouraging “Entrepreneurial” Innovation—Without The Negative Side Effects

Ideally, your team would be full of entrepreneurial superstars—people who are destined for greatness in business. But take a look around at how the most independent-minded business figures actually behave. Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. 

Does anything about those people scream “team player” to you?

According to one study, while “top management needs to encourage autonomous behaviors,” these behaviors aren’t without their downsides. For example, new ideas mean team managers have to pick which initiatives sound best. If you pick one employee’s idea over another’s, it can lead to hints of favoritism. The study recommends the following to mitigate these problems:

  • Employee investment. The study recommends stock options, but any way you can encourage employees to feel buy-in or engagement will help mitigate negative feelings when you select one initiative over another.
  • Passive monitoring. A good team manager knows when to let go—but without getting untethered from the team. Like an NFL referee dodging a football, you want to watch and regulate without affecting the play itself. A benefit to Trello’s Dashboard View, for example, is that you can stay up-to-date on team progress without involving yourself in every little detail of your team’s daily tasks.
  • Systematizing innovation. It’s not enough to say “go ahead—have some autonomy” and do nothing else. Employees might like that at first, but they need to know how that autonomy works. You need a system. Draft up a policy for evaluating new ideas, or create Trello labels to differentiate autonomous work from assigned work. You can also use Trello’s Table view to see which employees have ideas that haven’t been addressed yet.
  • Beware of giving away too much autonomy. In the Harvard Business Review study, randomly-selected teams outperformed self-selected teams. Why? “Prior research has shown that people tend to gravitate to their friends or to people who look similar to themselves,” said Harvard Business Review. “And we observed the same kind of pattern in teams that chose their own members.” In other words, don’t forget why a team manager exists in the first place: without your intervention, self-selection can sometimes become counterproductive.

How To Use Trello To Boost Team Autonomy

We’ve established that team autonomy can lead to great innovations—Gmail and Post-It Notes come to mind. But how will team autonomy look in your team, even if you don’t have the budget of a Google or a 3M?

First, Establish Your Clear Expectations

One survey found that most employees didn’t even know what their business’s goals were. Yikes. 

Autonomy works, but not if there’s no purpose for it. Even in loosely-defined “bootlegging” programs like 3M’s, there’s no doubt what the company is trying to do: build office supply products no one had ever used before. 

This one is easy to overlook because you can take it for granted. But without structure, employee autonomy tends to fall apart. 

Use OKRs—objectives and key results—to drive employee autonomy. Let employees choose how they get there while you define where “there” is in the first place. You can structure your project’s OKRs using Trello:

  • Create a list title to summarize each objective—e.g., “grow blog traffic”.
  • Create cards for individual key results under each objective—e.g., “publish three posts per week”.
  • Use Advanced Checklists and Custom Fields in each card to stay on track of how those blogs are coming along and to add context. 
  • Use Labels to color-code which key results have been achieved and which are in hiatus.

As a team manager, this lets you set the overarching goals and check their progress without diving too deep into the details. Meanwhile, you give your team members the autonomy to achieve those key results in whatever creative ways they see fit.

Adapt Your Policy Over Time

Too many team managers self-intimidate before they start granting employees autonomy. They think a new employee autonomy program is going to either be a disaster or prove that the team doesn’t need management at all. But remember to stick to your OKRs—hit those, and it won’t matter what your leadership strategy was.

For example, let’s say the above example doesn’t quite work out because the blogs aren’t turning out as you’d hoped. Maybe the SEO isn’t quite right; you want to push certain long-tail keywords to maximize your chances of getting picked up in the search engines. You might dial down into Trello’s Advanced Checklists to ensure that your team members can check off the requirements of these blogs—without doing their work for them.

Cut Your Employees Some Slack

Be honest: the ideal team is one that is self-managing, self-correcting, and self-running. But that’s not always realistic. You have to step in, define the objectives, and learn which styles of autonomy work best in your field.

The good news? When you learn to strike the right balance of autonomy using the tips above, you’ll inch closer to the dream of that self-running team that hums along like a well-oiled machine. Even better: you might just end up with the next Post-It Note.

How to strike the ideal balance of autonomy on your team (and how Trello can help)