culture

Want to increase autonomy in your organization? Consider a freedom / accountability swap


As you walk the halls of your organization and talk to fellow employees, do you ever hear complaints like these?

“I feel stuck because I can’t make decisions on my own.”

“I know what we need to do, but no one will listen.”

“I have little say in how I spend my time each day.”

“I’m waiting for someone to give me approval before I can proceed.”

Most of us know these feelings very well, and most of us have personal experience in what I would call a low autonomy organization like this one.

If autonomy in this sense refers to having the freedom to determine your own actions and behavior, a low autonomy organization is one where decisions are handed down from above and employees are expected to follow instructions, rules, or guidelines that limit their ability to think or make decisions for themselves. The end result is often a stifling bureaucracy where people are afraid or unwilling to take risks and managers wonder why nothing ever gets done.

Not only does this sort of environment sap morale and reduce efficiency and innovation, but it also makes it incredibly difficult for the organization to attract young, talented employees who have grown up in the freedom-based culture of the Internet and demand more autonomy than most organizations today are structured to provide.

But even if changing your overall top-down, bureaucratic corporate culture is beyond your control, you may be able to increase autonomy in your own corner of the organization through an informal process I refer to as The Freedom / Accountability Swap.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap

The Freedom / Accountability Swap is a simple, yet very powerful way for individual managers and employees in traditional control-based organizations to “think locally” and create islands of autonomy within their own teams by setting up freedom and accountability as a transaction to be negotiated.

The swap is not designed to reinvent the organization or management structure overnight, but instead is more of a stealth effort that allows you to build elements of a high autonomy culture without the core management philosophy of the organization being visibly threatened. In this sense, it is a relatively “safe” experiment for traditional organizations to try.

The hope is that if enough islands of autonomy are created within an organization, and the groups where autonomy is high are more passionate, motivated, and successful than those where autonomy is low, then the entire culture of the organization could become more autonomous over time.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap is based on a simple equation, born out of my experience working at open source technology leader Red Hat (you can read the full story here), that looks like this:

freedom + accountability = a culture of autonomy

In other words, in order to create a high autonomy culture, any increase in employee freedom must be matched by an increase in employee accountability for the actions and decisions they make with their new found freedom.

Give more freedom. Ask for more accountability in return. Simple!

So how would the Freedom/Accountability Swap work? Here’s one practical way to get started:

1. INITIATE THE SWAP Once a year, perhaps as part of an existing yearly performance or compensation review process, each employee and manager would schedule a meeting in which they would discuss that year’s Freedom/Accountability Swap (some organizations may want to do this conversation more often than 1x per year).

2. SHARE IMPRESSIONS Ahead of the meeting, both the employee and manager fill out a simple survey. An employee would report where they feel they have a lot of freedom and where they have little freedom. They would also report where they feel they are highly accountable for the results of their work and where they are less accountable. The manager would complete the same exercise, and employee and manager would share their answers with each other prior to the meeting.

3. MAP THE GAPS At the meeting, the manager and employee each share their impressions of where they see things differently when it comes to freedom and accountability. For example, are there projects, tasks, or deliverables where:

  • the employee thinks they don’t have enough freedom and the manager feels they are less accountable?
  • the manager thinks the employee has a lot of freedom, but the employee doesn’t agree?
  • the employee thinks they are highly accountable but the manager doesn’t agree?
  • the manager thinks they are highly accountable, but the employee doesn’t agree?
  • both sides perceptions of freedom and accountability match well?

As they have the conversation, they “map the gaps” on a sheet like the one below so they can see where to focus their discussion:

The conversation should not just focus on where there are perception gaps, but should also cover the places where freedom and accountability are already the highest. In places where both are high, what is the reason why the “swap” works better? In places where the employee perceives freedom as low and the manager perceives accountability as low, what could be done to grant more freedom to the employee and what could the manager ask for in return?

Be sure that accountability is looked at from both the manager’s perspective and the employee’s perspective. It is just as important to discuss whether the manager is being held accountable as it is the employee—accountability works both ways—this is at the heart of the “swap.”

4. THE SWAP At the end of the conversation, the manager and employee should analyze each key project, task, or deliverable they’ve discussed and come to an agreement about what each side can offer that will increase freedom AND accountability for both sides.

5. REVIEW Over the course of the year, the employee and manager can use the language they developed in the swap as part of an ongoing conversation. This language may make it easier to discuss freedom / accountability issues as they arise in daily work.

Some organizations may want to take the Freedom / Accountability Swap even further beyond individual manager and employee relationships. It could easily be modified to work as a tool to create better relationships between groups in an organization as well as within groups. Leaders representing each group could have a similar dialogue, resulting in a Freedom/Accountability swap that improved the working relationships between these teams and increased autonomy on both sides.

Sound interesting? If you get a chance to try out a Freedom / Accountability Swap in your organization, I’d love to hear how it goes.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap was originally designed by Chris Grams, Susanne Ramharter, Laurence Lock Lee, Josh Allan Dykstra, Aaron Anderson as a “management hack” for the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX). You can read the full hack here. This post was originally written for the Human Capital Institute and is published here.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is President & Partner of New Kind, where he builds sustainable brands, cultures, and communities in and around organizations. He is the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World and is the Community Guide on the Management Innovation Exchange (hackmanagement.com).

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