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Evolve autonomous leaders: Pawel Brodzinski

Michael Hunter


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

Pawel Brodzinski

Hello, thanks for having me.


I’m happy to have you here today.

I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.

Today I’m talking with Pawel Brodzinski.

Pawel is a seasoned leader, manager, and coach. He’s done pretty much every aspect of building software, both as the person doing the work and as the leader helping those people.

Pawel also writes, speaks, and lectures in service of helping organizational cultures to create exceptional workplaces. Because that’s what brings him the most fun.

I ran across Pawel on LinkedIn, where I am consistently impressed with his light yet forthright take on thorny topics like the right way to give kudos and salary transparency.

Welcome, Pawel.


Welcome everyone.


In your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish your goals, when did you first recognize this might be a valuable approach?


For me, it’s always a journey.

I don’t think there was ever a single epiphany moment for me in my journey as a leader.

It was always trying things, seeing what works, what doesn’t, sticking with the stuff that did work and getting rid of those that didn’t.

Each experiments and iterations always brings you further, either further as improving the organization that you lead, or further as in building up your knowledge as leaders, even if you try stuff that doesn’t work.

Then you figure out the next experiment, the next change, building on whatever you’ve built so far.

It’s the PDSA cycle: plan, do, study, act.

I don’t see that as this situation where you go somewhere, learn something, or get an epiphany from someone, and suddenly you start doing things differently.

My guiding principles for years were: giving people more transparency is better than less. Giving people more autonomy is better than less.

Today I would argue with my younger self that; my younger self would say that it’s always true. Today I would argue with my younger self that it’s not always true.

But, by far, in the vast majority of cases, it is.

It was something that kept me going for years, up to a point where I started actually asking myself, “If we kept doing that, what is the end game?”


Have you found an answer to that question yet?


Yes and no.

In the context, yes to a degree.

In general, no, not really.

I don’t know if there is a universal answer.

To stick with the context of Lunar Logic, where I work, when I’m describing the company, I often ask basically a conversation starter.

I would say that, “We have that thing called radical autonomy, which means that anyone can make any decision.”

To give you a flavor of that, an intern on the first day of their work can fire me.

Technically, my role is CEO (chief executive officer), even though I avoid that notion as much as possible.

This is how far we stretch the “radical” part of radical autonomy.

But it wouldn’t happen.

Not because it’s forbidden or someone would just tell you, “Stop it, you are doing a wrong thing.”

Because of the culture behind.

Even if we have those roles that are pushed to the extreme as much as you could, technically there’s not a single thing that I could do at a company that someone else couldn’t.

Anyone else couldn’t.

If we wanted to be more extreme, more radical on this account, we can’t.

This is a nice segue to explain the difference between authority and autonomy.

Authority is giving all the power that I have to you. So right now, you have all the power that I do.

Autonomy is whether you would use that power.

When you have a new person joining an organization, and obviously, our organizational culture is by all means unusual.

People are not used to acting in such an environment.

It takes time to actually learn that culture and then start using that culture to actually use the autonomy that you may have.

It’s the process that never ends, in a way.

I can think of an end game, as in anyone is actively making decisions all around the place about all sorts of stuff, but we are never going to get there.

Because life.

Because people change jobs, we hire people, people will be leaving, and these kind of things.

If you try to generalize that case and make it more contextless, education would be some sort of a goal.

But then it’s vague.

Because the actual solution, the actual techniques or practices that you would implement in an organization that is two thousand people would be different than in an organization that is two hundred, which is different than an organization that is twenty.

It’s easy to scale up the hierarchy, the structure that we build upon big organizations, bosses of bosses of bosses of bosses.

We have a few layers of management. But building an organization that’s built on distributed autonomy doesn’t scale up that easily.

You need to figure out different ways of scaling that up.

So, trying to figure out a more general answer in all sorts of different scenarios would be probably the answer, but it’s way less well defined and way more vague than I could give you when we stick to Lunar Logic and we are talking about our company.


For you, then, is autonomy a superset of authority? To have autonomy, you must also have authority? Or can you have autonomy and not have authority?


I love this question.

One of the quotes that I love is, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than to get permission.” That comes from Grace Hopper, I believe.

In my career, I put myself once in a situation when I was actually ignoring asking for permission, even if I knew I was kind of putting myself at risk, and then doing that even more.

I believe I accomplished a lot of things in that environment.

But then I went too far.

The end game for this kind of solution is you get fired.

But you can still play that if you are curious and if you are risk accepting in that context, you can play that game and you can sometimes push it pretty far, especially if you know what you are doing.

You can get the numbers to back you up because your part of the organization is doing well.

This is a scenario that comes at the cost of a risk, because if you are somewhere in the middle of the heierarchy, you basically put yourself at a risk because you are not playing by the rules of the game the whole organization follows.

I believe that we have way more autonomy that we tend to think.

The price is accepting the risk.


That maybe implies that we always have all the authority. There’s just a different level of risk depending how much authority other people believe we have.


I wouldn’t go as far.

Here’s an example.

One of my favorite examples to play with when talking about authority and autonomy is our salaries, whether they are transparent, who can decide on changes in salaries.

As a manager, depending on when you are in the structure, you may not even know what people in your team earn.

Now, you clearly cannot make decisions about changes of salaries.

So, no matter how hard you try, you don’t have autonomy in this area.

It is limited.

We probably have more autonomy that we believe we do, but it’s definitely not infinite.

If you cannot change someone’s salary, no matter how much you pretend you do, someone in HR (human resources) won’t sign the paperwork, it won’t happen.

On the other hand, there are stuff on the other end of spectrum, this is also an example that I use frequently.

What about accepting time off requests?

In so many, especially big organizations, when I’m an employee, I would file a time off request and then someone, a manager, has to approve it.

It’s plain stupid because it’s basically taking authority from people, both authority and autonomy.

I’m an adult person.

I can figure out when I can really go take my time off.

And before I do, I will make sure that someone else backs me up. There is someone who would take care of the loose strings that I may leave behind.

For that, what I was doing for years, actually, for tens of years, whenever I was set up in this kind of situation, I would tell my team, “You know what, I’m not approving any time off requests. I mean, I’m approving all of them without even reading them. If you just sent me such a request, it means that you took responsibility to tell me that it’s all fine. I don’t have to double check you on you, so it’s automatically accepted.”

Think of it as if there was basically software program accepting those. I still have to click on this.

This is the a way of giving people autonomy that they often wouldn’t think that they do have.


In your company then, do you have a list, maybe, somewhere that you hand to new employees that, “You have all the autonomy. Here’s where you have authority, total authority; here’s where you have partial authority and what that means, and here’s where you don’t have any authority, and why.”


That’s something that we probably could have been doing better than we do.

Part of my role at Lunar is I have a part in onboarding everyone who joins the company, and that would be this section.

“Here are all the rules that you have to know.”

It’s basically one pager.

It says, “This is the structure for our decision-making process. And these are the exceptions. And for the exceptions, read on.”

For example, one exception would be how we decide about salaries, because it’s one of those sensitive and interconnected set of decisions that we treat it as a special case.

Pretty much for everything else, there is this kind of meta process that you can make any decision that you want, even if you are not an expert in any specific area.

The process is that first you have to consult with people who are experts in the area, then you need to consult with people who will be affected by the decision, and then you are free to make any decision that you believe is right.

Which, by the way, means that you don’t have to incorporate all the feedback that you’ve gotten, especially that some of the feedback may be contradicting the other bit of feedback that you received,so sometimes it’s impossible.

Then the decision has to be made transparent.

This is an important part: we expect you to take responsibility for the consequences of the decision.

That’s it.

Then we would go through examples.

What happens when you want to take a day off?

What happens when you want to go for a conference?

What happens when you need a new laptop?

What happens when you want to change coding standards in your team?

We would go through a few of those examples.

But then it’s pretty much it.

Because what really matters to learn that part of our culture is, what happens through the next weeks or months or quarters, is to observe how other people are actually making those decisions.

You would see someone actually announcing a decision that, “I’m buying a new laptop for myself.”

Then there would be someone else organizing a trip for five people for a design workshop.

And then there would be this big discussion around experimental sales strategy involving going from premium events.

Only then you would see that people are actually; you’d notice who are making those decisions.

You would notice these are not people who are designated managers, if you will, but these are basically your colleagues, a developer, a designer.

Only then, most likely, you would try to decide about probably something uncontroversial for yourself to see how it goes.

Then, with each decision that ended up not being as scary as you thought it would be, it would just get easier.

People bringing specific set of experiences from their previous career or previous jobs would get up to speed faster.

People who are just out of university would take more time, because the whole education system that we have actually teaches us to basically follow orders from the first day of primary school.

We are just expected to do what we are told to do.

In a way, this process is unlearning everything that we learn in our education system, and sometimes in our careers as well.


If I were to paraphrase everything you just said, would I be accurate to say, everyone in your company has full autonomy and authority to do the right thing, and you have some guidance of what to do when the right thing isn’t clear.


I wish it was all true.

I don’t know how well we are doing in terms of giving guidance on what to do when doing the right thing isn’t clear.

Especially that sometimes there is no simple answer.

This kind of a system goes by an assumption that what you believe is the right thing may be different than what I believe is the right thing.

We don’t have defined actions how to solve those frictions.

We just assume two things.

One is that if there is this friction, it will be surfaced, because there is this part where you have to consult with all the people who are affected. So I will have a chance to share my voice that goes the opposite direction than what you would like to do.

The other thing is that if someone was attempting to do something harmful, there would be enough peer pressure to prevent that from happening. And so far, it was always true.


In those examples where someone was trying to do something harmful, were they willfully being harmful? Was that their intention, or was that an accidental side effect? They thought they were doing help, and factors they didn’t understand or weren’t aware of meant that they were actually doing harm?


I think the latter.

The most extreme cases that I can think of were the cases where individual, I don’t want to go as far to say selfish, but there was probably a bit of that, too; the individual interest for someone was more important than collective interest.

The way I tend to think about the company is, this is this a vehicle that sustains all of us.

If we damage that vehicle, everyone loses a bit.

But then an individual can gain more than the part of the damages that would come to them.

These were the most visible cases.

There was this one case, “I want 70% of a raise,” like literally 70% of a raise.

Just to be clear, it never happened in the history of the company, such a huge raise.

The argument was, “This is what the job market would pay me, and what should I do to get such a raise here?”

Actually, I like that answer.

The answer is that, well, you have to convince enough people at Lunar to go along with your opinion.

And that’s it.

It’s kind of nice because it’s a non-answer.

If you are looking for basically a checklist, “Do this, do that, do something else, and then boom, a raise.,” no.

You have to convince enough, twenty people, to believe that you are worth that much.

It’s difficult.

Then, given that it was difficult, the person would go, “So let’s change the salary system.”

There was so much peer pressure that it’s actually not a good move.

It’s not to say that the changes he would propose were actually bad.

It was, “You are trying to change a system that you didn’t even understand yet. So just wait for a while and then let’s get back to that discussion.”

It was always rather not the actively harmful thing, I don’t think we’ve seen that so far.

More like being oblivious to a broader context and to the culture where we actually care about this vehicle that we share, that sustains all of us.


The CEO role that you have, in most organizations, is the person that has the big vision and is driving the ultimate direction of the company, with help from everyone lower level.

At the beginning of the show you said you have that role, but you don’t think of yourself as CEO.

I’m guessing now, through this conversation, that you say this because there could be a situation where the rest of the company feels the right thing to do is completely opposite of what you feel is to do.

In that situation, would you bow to the greater opinion and say, “I don’t agree, but this is what you’re all saying. So sure, let’s go and do and we’ll see what happens.”

How would that sort of a situation resolve itself?


There’s this idea stemming from teal organizations.

There’s this book called Reinventing Organizations from Frederick Laloux, and he basically described the concept of teal organizations.

There are three things around that.

One is self-management, which our way is distributing autonomy.

The other is wholeness, which is a whole other discussion.

The third is what he calls evolutionary purpose.

Evolutionary purpose is having everyone in an organization to have influence over what I call business identity.

(These are not Laloux’s words.)

Being able to influence what the organization is.

For years, I was trying to reset Lunar’s strategy as this collective effort.

This is my biggest failure, by far.

There is a long story behind.

I did a lot of activities and I invested a lot of effort into trying to figure out how to bring a group of thirty-something very diverse people to figure out what we all together really want Lunar to be.

We are in a fairly unique position.

Because we are a professional services organization, we can pretty much reinvent the organization to be whatever the hell we want.

We have this freedom.

If we’re a product company, the fate of the company is tied to the fate of the product, so we would not have complete freedom.

But we do, because we are selling professional services.

Because we had this diverse group of people, we had ideas all over the board.

And I had to answer the question that you asked me at one moment when we were discussing one particular strategy.

And I was like, “If we want Lunar to be this, I’m totally fine with that.”

That Lunar would reinvent itself, basically; I think it was becoming a product organization, I don’t remember exactly.

“I’m fine if Lunar becomes that, but don’t count me in.”

I had to actually do that exercise, do soul searching activity to say, would I fight it, or would I allow it and just look for the next thing in my career?

I decided that if people want the company to be this, I’m going to allow them the company to be this.

I’m just not going to be the part of that company in the longer run.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, and I was happy it didn’t come to that.

The actual answer is that there is, more than we think, there is a degree to which people who tend to be in power, they can actually stretch their personal vision, their personal strategies to include what others around wants to do.

My take on that is I want the parts of what is important to me to be included.

If that part is there, I’m fine. We can go more toward one direction or more toward the other.

I’m fine with that vision to be evolving over time.

Another story from Lunar is we had this huge conflict, and then a specific group of people out of that very diverse group, left the company.

It wasn’t just all around the board, but a specific group of people left the company.

Suddenly the balance, what we want to do, what we want the company to be, has changed.

I’m fine with that.

I was fine with one thing. Now we are doing the other thing, and I’m fine with that, too.


Do titles at your company, do they ever have any real meaning, or are they all just words on a business card?

Because every decision, anyone who cares about the decision, is going to be part of the decision, and everyone has to be satisfied, or enough people have to be satisfied, to build a consensus, or majority or whatever you decide is enough.


There are actually two things I hear in this question.

One is about the positions, and the other is about the decision-making process.

Let me start with the latter.

It’s not that majority has to be satisfied.

This is an important distinction between autonomy and democracy.

We are not looking for a majority vote.

If you are really convinced that something is the right call, you can go against the majority and that’s fine.

I just expect that you are taking responsibility of the outcomes and dealing with that.

Talking about positions, this was one of the early changes, when we were on this transformation, this was one of the early changes.

We used to have the “senior” title, senior developer, senior designer, senior whatever.

I noticed how much it was causing triggering discussions.

“Why her and not me? Why him and not the other person?”

At one point, we had this change, and from then on, we have only one rule regarding what your official position may be, and it is, “Whatever the hell you want. I don’t care.”

What’s the worst thing that can happen?

If you put over inflated title on your LinkedIn profile, what would happen?

Your colleagues would be laughing at you.

That’s it.

If you want to get a formal promotion, you can be changing your official titles every other month.

I’m fine with that.

It doesn’t change your position at the company.

We tend to think about what we’re providing to Lunar in terms of the roles.

Almost everyone would be fulfilling more than a single role.

Some of those roles would be acted upon only occasionally.

Some others would be the main thing that you are doing.

If you’re a software developer, your main role would be a software developer, front end developer, let’s say.

But every now and then you would be leading a product discovery workshop.

Or you would be an HR person because you’ve just taken responsibility for recruitment process for the next internships.

That’s fine.

It allows you to step in and step out of roles very flexibly, which creates so much space for leadership.

There are so many companies that are saying, “We don’t have enough leaders.”

We have plenty.

Anyone can be a leader.

You can try how it feels to be a leader, even in small context.

If you tried that, a, you learned something and b, you may be ready to take another step.

And you don’t have to demote a manager or something. There are opportunities to step into those roles.

Also, we can run very lean, because we don’t need to have an HR manager.

We are basically juggling our HR role across a few people.

Whoever has capabilities, they are taking responsibility for that role.

That’s another thing, and that’s kind of nice.

That removed so much unnecessary friction, because my title is not as inflated as yours.

It also created so many opportunities, which is even more important for people to reinvent themselves.


You’ve made it really easy, and even required, almost, definitely encouraged, for people to do what lights them up and divest everything else to someone else who would love to do that.

You really encourage and support your people in focusing on what they love doing and leaving everything else to someone else.

Whatever I don’t love doing, someone else in the company probably does.

And if it turns out that no one wants to do that, you all have a conversation about why do we need this, since no one wants to do it.

Or someone’s going to pick it up because they see, “Well, it needs to get done. So I’ll take care of that.”


To a degree.

We encourage people to do what we call “Lunar Stuff,” which is those things that needs to be taken care of.

But if no one else does something, it falls on my desk.

That’s my title, my official title of Chief Cook and Bottle Washer.

Whatever no one really wants to do, I will wash the bottles, or find someone who will do that with me, or for me.

I consider myself as a backup plan for any role that isn’t taken care of.

This is probably the most important role for me as Lunar.


I can tell you really care about your company and your people and you’re happy with the role you have and what you have built and are building.


The short answer is yes.

It’s a journey.

On occasions, it’s extremely tiring.

On occasions, it’s frustrating beyond imagination.

And yes, I do have days where I wake up and I don’t want to get to work.

But then every now and then I would end up at a conference and I would have the presentation about Lunar, sharing bits and pieces about our culture, and then I see myself being super engaged, telling people all around, because some of the stuff that I’m sharing is radical.

It’s always good conversation starter.

I see myself how energized and passionate I am talking about Lunar.

The only thing I need is to get some distance to look at the whole thing that we are doing from the outside every now and then.

And then what keeps him going?

Every job has those less-than-fun moments.

Seeing the outcome, the big picture, that’s what makes me absolutely happy and passionate and willing to go for another ten years at least, probably more.


This has been a great conversation today, Pawel. What else should I ask you?


I don’t know. You were touching all sorts of stuff that I typically love to share of autonomy, transparency. So I guess that’s pretty much it.


What is the best way for our audience to connect with you if they’d like to learn more about your approach and how you make this all work?


These days? I would say LinkedIn. A few years back I would say email; these days I would say LinkedIn. Both are fine, probably. I recently am more active on LinkedIn.


Okay, and I’ll have those links in the show notes.

What would you like to leave our audience with today?


Try stuff.

Do things.

See what works, see what doesn’t.

Keep the stuff that does; leave the stuff that doesn’t.

Don’t believe that we have recipes, because we don’t, most of the time we don’t.

Context matters.

It’s not always that one method or the other would magically fix all the problems that we’re facing, because they won’t.

But we will learn in the process.



Thank you Pawel, for being with us today.


Thank you, Michael. Thank you for having me.


You’re welcome.

Thank you, audience for joining us today.

Please let Pawel and me know how your experiments with radical autonomy go and how we can help you further those along.


Have a great day.

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