How 'radical autonomy' works at Wise
There are many different ways an organisation can run - but perhaps it’s useful to think about a scale. On the one end is a command-and-control organisation, orders are given from the top, almost like a factory. I’m telling you what to do and how to do it - now do it. At the other end of the scale is one of massive autonomy, a culture in which staff are given goals and left to their own devices in achieving them.
At Wise, we place ourselves far towards the autonomous end of this scale. Staff - ‘Wisers’ - are given a huge degree of independence and ownership over their work. This approach has been with us since our earliest days and we believe it has been critical to our success.
Autonomy can seem scary, some believe there lies a fine line between autonomy and anarchy. What’s to stop staff doing whatever they want? They could slack off, or they could create something destructive or ineffective. Partly, this is avoided through trust. But it also helps to have a common purpose. At Wise, we have a mission: ‘Money Without Borders’, which means money moving transparently, conveniently, instantly, and, eventually, for free across borders. This mission guides everything we do. In Wise’s earliest days, teams very specifically focused on each part of that mission. One team could build what they wanted, hire who they wanted, do what they wanted to make the product quicker. Another the same for convenience, another for transparency and another for price. All they had was a goal that fit our mission, and the freedom to pursue it. Today, that approach remains. We may have more teams than ten years ago, but each has very clear goals that link to our mission, and the autonomy to achieve them how they see fit.
Autonomy also relies on communication. Theoretically, there could be times when one team may want to develop a product that, for instance, makes Wise more convenient but also less transparent - compromising another team. Or two teams could end up focusing on similar work, without efficiently pooling resources. To aid communication, we have regular all Wise events during which teams share work and reflections - these range from fortnightly team calls to annual in-person get-togethers. Just as important, though, is Wisers taking the initiative to build their own networks.
For autonomy to really work you need people bought in. A mission helps, especially if it has a social purpose - it’s a UN Sustainable Development Goal to get international money transfer fees below 3%, for instance. But there’s also a more practical way of having people bought in: stock options. At Wise, every employee has stock. We believe this helps people feel bought into their work and achieving their goals. It also encourages long term thinking, which is why we do not offer commission or bonuses.
Hiring is important, too. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with such a culture. It’s best to be honest about candidates up front about what an autonomous culture entails and what it doesn’t - and be mindful, too, that lots of companies brag about ‘flat structures’ and the rest of it, even if they are really hierarchical and dictatorial, so you need to be specific and go beyond cliches.
It would be wrong to pretend that autonomy is without risk or downsides. If you need another team to support your work, you need to convince them of its worth. At times, it can be confusing working out what everyone else is doing and why they’re doing it. But these are small prices to pay, we think, for a culture that encourages innovation, independence and sustainable growth.
There is also a clear challenge to our culture: scale. We’ve tried to maintain the same principles we had when we were ten people, but today more than 3,300 people work at Wise. Can autonomy really last when we get to 5,000? 10,000? More? We don’t know.
History provides hope, too. In The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe writes about the early days and exponential growth of Intel, founded by Noyce. Noyce had worked at once successful start-ups that lost their culture as they grew. So, he set out to create ‘a permanent start-up operation’ - one with flat hierarchies, enormous autonomy for its teams and even stock options for all staff. Intel, as we know, became wildly successful and innovative and Noyce maintained its unique culture.
Today Wise moves more than £6 billion a month and we have been profitable for a number of years. This would have been made harder with a different culture. Autonomy is not a fix-all, it won’t solve every problem or realise every opportunity - but it can make a big difference.