Derek Neighbors

The more I learn, the less I know.

Personal Autonomy Versus Performance

By Derek Neighbors, Published on August 3, 2021

Something that’s been in my mind is the autonomy versus performance and how that plays out. There’s a quadrant and full autonomy is in one corner, and in this other corner is absolute strict rules, guidelines, process, procedure. Where does performance live? If we talk to most people, especially software creative world, it’s in full autonomy.

There’s some science around unlocking creativity in that box. Is the same thing as true for performance. Performance is about consistency and reliability, over a time span. Not a single moment. If you look at sports, say, Patrick Mahomes right now. I think he’s got a lot of autonomy on the field and it’s what gives him the creativity and the flexibility to do things that no quarterback has really done before.

It changing the game and changing the position because of that. But then what does it look like to be Tom Brady, who beat Mahomes in a Super Bowl with probably an inferior team? Who has been doing it for a couple decades now.

Is there that consistency? If you look at Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, Brady’s coach, and you start to ask yourself what makes their programs successful? What does it look like? They’re 100% all about a system. Inside that system, there are roles, and within those roles there are skills. There are fundamentals

Within those skills, within those fundamentals, that’s where magic lies. Look at Saban, who, loses his star players every two years, but yet has a pipeline and a production record that is insane[1]. Because that system, you look at the number of players he’s putting on professional teams because the coaches of those teams know that those players have a fundamental skill set, and a discipline to execute and perform.

Professional Players on NFL Rosters

If you just jump to basketball, looking at Allen Iverson, not a whole out of structure. Didn’t go to practice half the time, but who could ball and put up numbers. A great player. Easy to compared to Jordan, who early in his career looked a lot like that. Early Jordan was the guy that is gonna put up 60 points and there was no stopping him because you had no clue what he was gonna do.

Compare tha to championship Jordan. Six, time champion Jordan and the Bulls. Tex puts him in a triangle offense and limits him. Says This is what you gotta do. Can’t win these games on your own. You’ve gotta have the discipline to know when you can win the game and when you’ve gotta leverage your teammates to win a game. Jordan would he have just been how we talk about Alan Iverson if he wouldn’t have had the humility to say, okay, I’ll run the triangle, I’ll do this.

It makes me question some of the people that we think are great, that are fully autonomous, no system, no constraint. Would they be even more great? More magnificent with some level of constraint, and certainly those that aren’t great, could they be to a point where they look great with some of that discipline?

Look at Larry Bird. Phenomenal player, but if you look at so many people that look at the game, and I don’t think bird was that good because. He didn’t play with the same flair of greatness as somebody who’s completely unconstrained. He played with discipline and fundamentals. The guy could flat out, shoot, the guy could flat out pass, he could defend. He could do it all in a subtle way. Could he add flair to it? Yes, but it’s a little different. So today, autonomy versus performance. Where does it lie?

Parting Thought

“We say we are after autonomy, and yet we willingly hand ourselves over to the habits that tell us….more of me if all you need.” - Ryan Holiday

[1] Alabama record under Coach Saban is 189-27(.875) (194–27 on the field), 22 bowl game appearances with 16 victories, nine SEC West titles, eight SEC championships, and six national championships.