Autonomy in Context

We strive to make SumUp a people-positive organisation by making the development and happiness of our people an important, continuing goal. A big part of that is giving our teams the autonomy to decide how best to accomplish our mission rather than managing them through top-down directives. Our goal is to provide everyone with the information to make good decisions rather than tell them what to make. We call this leading with context over control - based on the book, No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings.

An example of “context over control” at SumUp is how Josef, co-founder & CEO of Tiller, a French point-of-sale (POS) software company that became a part of SumUp in 2021, developed an audacious plan to double SumUp’s POS business within a year. He describes discussing his idea, which would make SumUp Europe’s largest POS provider, with Marc, co-founder and COO of SumUp:

At some point after the acquisitions of Tiller, I asked Marc how much sales and marketing budget we had to grow SumUp’s POS business over the next 12 months.

Marc asked, “Well - what is your ambition?”

I said I wanted to double our business in order to become the largest POS player (we were already the fastest growing) in Europe in 12 months - but that I thought it was going to be crazy expensive: €20 million or about four times the highest amount we ever spent before. I was nervous Marc was going to shut me off right then and there.

Instead he asked a follow up question: “Do you know how your crazy investment would compare to other marketing investments we make at SumUp, and do you know whether we have the cash for it?”

I said that I felt that for SumUp this would be one of the best ways to spend this money as it would allow us to own the European POS market within a year and that I knew that we could afford it from our recent funding round.

Marc: Well then you have your answer, you just made your own decision.

But autonomy is not just about giving people the freedom to do as they please. Adopting a “context over control” approach also means holding people accountable for their decisions in an effort to learn from both success and failure. A lot of responsibility is placed on SumUppers to follow a common decision-making framework, to take ownership of their decisions, and to foster accountability in their teams. We use enabling constraints that provide freedom to use judgment and encourage interaction. Interactions then remove uncertainties and foster autonomy without creating chaos.

A requirement for autonomy at scale based on context is continuous learning: as decision-making becomes progressively decentralised, the need for technical competence increases dramatically. We want SumUppers to approach every decision as a learning opportunity, empowering them to make smarter decisions tomorrow.