“If we emphasize Autonomy, the Node Artifact, Autonomy as the core organizing principle, this will result in individuals, small groups and tribes, forming complex responsive flows e.g. through conversations and flexible ad hoc structures.” —John Kellden
In the triple operating system (Awareness>Alternatives>Action) work gets done by self-governing work teams with a degree of autonomy operating in temporary, negotiated hierarchies. Self-organizing teams are more flexible than hierarchical ones, but they require active and engaged members. One cannot cede power to the boss, because everyone is responsible for the boss they choose. Like democracy, self-organized teams require constant effort to work. Hierarchies work well when information flows mostly in one direction: down. They are good for command and control. Hierarchies can get things done efficiently. But hierarchies are useless to create, innovate, or change. Hierarchies in perpetual beta are optimal for creativity and to deal with complexity.
What is autonomy in the workplace? Employees are given different degrees of autonomy in terms of the decisions they are allowed to make within the confines of organizational power. Discretion for action is often accorded by virtue of one’s place in the hierarchy. Usually the higher one goes, the more autonomy one has.
One way to look at autonomy is the type of action people are allowed to take without permission. The self-governance maturity model shows five levels of autonomy:
- Where you work
- + How you get things done
- + What you work on
- + Who you will work with
- + Why you do the work in the first place
Each one builds on the other, so that people need to be able to decide for themselves where to work before they can be autonomous in how they work. The constraints of space and place must be released in order to find the best ways to get work done, such as the selection of the appropriate tools. Once people can decide where and how they work, they can make informed decisions on what they will work on, as nurses at Buurtzorg do. Given this autonomy, workers can then decide who they work with, as employees at Semco do. Finally, when business strategy is informed by the emergent activities of all employees with their customers and environment, the ‘why’ of work truly reflects the organization and is not imposed on the people doing the work. This is full autonomy, aligned with the principle of networked management:
It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more creative work can be fostered. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers, especially management.
Note: This post, like hierarchies in a self-governing organization, is in a state of perpetual beta.