Flight Levels and Aligned Autonomy

Flight Levels is a thinking model for organizational improvement. As Klaus Leopold says, it “helps you find out where in an organization you have to do what in order to achieve the results that you want.” Flight Levels is effective at that because it stresses the idea of leverage and coherence across the multiple strata and teams of an organization.

In doing so, it provides a way to model and marry strategy development and strategy deployment, effectively fostering a way for leadership at every level to take root and flourish. I’ve spoken about this connection previously, but, until now, I hadn’t fully connected the dots between how Flight Levels can be combined with the “aligned autonomy” matrix to provide a useful way to visualize where an organization is and how Flight Levels can help create a path toward aligned autonomy.

Aligned autonomy is the idea that, rather than the conventional view that alignment and autonomy are opposites, they are actually separate concerns. The insight is credited to the 19th-century Prussian military leader Helmuth Von Moltke and popularized in modern times by Stephen Bungay, who wrote in The Art of Action that

… there is no choice to make (between alignment and autonomy). Far from it, [Von Moltke] demands high autonomy and high alignment at one and the same time. He breaks the compromise. He realizes quite simply that the more alignment you have, the more autonomy you can grant. The one enables the other. Instead of seeing of them as the end-points of a single line, he thinks about them as defining two dimensions.

More recently, Henrik Kniberg, in his inimitably accessible style, expanded on the concept by describing the organizational culture types of each quadrant:

In the organizations with which I have worked, the elements of the Flight Levels tend to manifest themselves in particular ways that align to these quadrants:

Let’s take each one in turn.


This quadrant is where highest-level leaders make little to no distinction between “what and why” and “how.” This is the realm of top-down decision-making, going too far into detail about implementation and often handcuffing the people doing the work from making better decisions about execution because of a misguided centralized authority. Meanwhile, because of this obsession with the “how,” these leaders are often derelict in their duty to work “up a level” in strategy, where their contributions are most needed. As a result, these are leader-follower organizations, in which people are trained not to take action and have to ask permission for any decision of importance.

We might depict their Flight Levels as overlapping or compressed at one level; that is, people who should be developing and evolving strategy are too concerned with the day-to-day operations of teams. To use the flight metaphor, these are people who who be flying at the airplane level but can’t remove themselves from the butterfly-level details. Or, as Bungay explains: “Far from overcoming it, a mass of instructions actually creates more friction in the form of noise, and confuses subordinates because the situation may demand one thing and the instructions say another… trying to get results by directly taking charge of things at lower levels in the organizational hierarchy is dysfunctional.”

Von Moltke saw the same behavior in the military:

In any case, a leader who believes that he can make a positive difference through continual personal interventions is usually deluding himself. He thereby takes over things other people are supposed to be doing, effectively dispensing with their efforts, and multiplies his own tasks to such an extent that he can no longer carry them all out.

The demands made on a senior commander are severe enough as it is. It is far more important that the person at the top retains a clear picture of the overall situation than whether some particular thing is done this way or that.

These organizations find it difficult to scale effectively, because their leadership’s inattention to strategy and intrusive concern with implementation details creates a passive leader-follower culture.

The challenge for these organizations then is to use Flight Levels to encourage higher-level leaders to begin to distinguish between the “what and why” and “how,” and focus on setting “directionally correct” strategy while trusting teams and Level 2 Coordination to execute.


In this quadrant, the concerns of operations, coordination and strategy are variously overlapping, disconnected and/or non-existent. Here we observe:

  • Rampant and invisible WIP
  • Low employee engagement
  • No clear org vision/strategy
  • Siloed, undiscoverable tools
  • Tribal, network-based knowledge
  • Busy but unproductive people
  • Redundant, unshared work

Work in these organizations is perhaps best described by Barry O’Reilly when he says that “When people lack clarity they will optimize for what is in their control, output that is attainable to them but not necessarily the outcomes you want to produce.” To the extent that any measurements exist, activity-based metrics reign here.

The challenge for these organizations is perhaps to simply acknowledge the possible existence of Flight Levels and their relationship to each other. The simple but daunting task of making work visible is a necessary first step.


This is the realm of disconnected teams. They have broad autonomy but little awareness of their relationship to strategy and often of their relationship to each other and the wider end-to-end value stream. In some cases, they do have their own Level 3 Strategy, but they are not unified to a common organizational strategy; they function more as warring fiefdoms under a single name. Sometimes, this organizational culture is the outcome of growth, as we might see in the progress of a startup to a scale-up, in which leadership hasn’t commensurately matured with the new needs of the organization. But it can also occur in the context of a bloated Authoritarian-Conformist organization, whose strictures are too unwieldy to control and where leaders with some authority attempt to break free, making their own plans because it’s the only way they can get work done (e.g,. grey market of tools). In both cases, the work is disconnected from strategy. The organization lacks an ability to see itself from the 30,000-foot view.

People in these organizations generally make lots of decisions on their own, until the decision is somehow related to understanding strategy. Since leadership either keeps strategy closely held or, as is more often the case, doesn’t really have a strategy, this can cause tension, frustration and disengagement, as connection with higher-level purpose is missing. This often extends into career development, as well.

The challenge for organizations in this quadrant is to instantiate Level 2 Coordination and Level 3 Strategy. Starting points can be to identify desired organizational outcomes (Level 3), shift attention to end-to-end metrics (Level 2), make work visible and to use yokoten (lateral deployment) to create awareness.


This is the Leader-Leader ideal, which is fostered by clear delineation of concerns at the operational, coordination and strategy levels of Flight Levels. The lightweight but comprehensive modeling of these concerns in Flight Levels provides enough separation of “what and why” from the “how” for people to act autonomously but aligned toward the organization’s desired outcomes:

  • Intent is expressed in Level 3 Strategy in terms of what to achieve and why.
  • Autonomy in Level 1 Operational gives freedom of the actions taken in order to realize the intent; in other words, about what to do and how.

The “just-enough” strategy ensures that empowered teams and individuals are working on the right things, not merely working on things the right way. As one neutral observer of Von Moltke’s manifestation of the Innovative-Collaboration organization noted:

Every German subordinate commander felt himself to be part of a unified whole; in taking action, each one of them therefore had the interests of the whole at the forefront of his mind; none hesitated in deciding what to do, not a man waited to be told or even reminded.

— Art of Action


It’s important to note that many organizations aren’t monolithically characterizable in one single quadrant, nor do they always manifest in one quadrant over time. That is, certain groups in an organization may be Entrepreneurial-Chaotic, while others are Authoritarian-Conformist. Or while they may generally be Authoritarian-Conformist, they have moments when they exhibit Entrepreneurial-Chaotic.

As a result, it’s helpful to pay attention to those specific behaviors and move in the general direction toward aligned autonomy using Flight Levels, realizing the the organization may change in fits and starts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s