I had the opportunity a while back to check back in with a company that had decided, a few years earlier, to try and raise the autonomy of its workforce.
Previously, there had been tight control over work: how it was to be done, frequent checking in mid-process or at the end of nearly every task in a project, and with little development of people beyond just fulfilling what they were being told to do.
The management team there had decided to try and raise their leverage and get more from their groups by increasing the freedom level of the organization.
When I arrived, I heard a mixed review on the change.
Yes, productivity had picked up, and some minor innovations had helped improve both the quality of work and its timeliness.
Counterbalancing that was a sense that things were constantly just about out of control: the managers were not satisfied that their departments weren’t constantly on the edge of chaos (with the inevitable poor performance and criticism that would follow).
I, on the other hand, were quite pleased at this turn of events.
I explained that that feeling of being on the edge of chaos (but not actually having slipped over it into repeated errors, omissions and other deficiencies) was actually a very good sign: it meant that new behaviours were emerging and a great deal of learning and growing was going on.
I asked if, for instance, the rate of new innovations was rising. It was; most of them had come fairly near the end of the period since my last visit.
I asked if the innovations were growing in complexity, tackling deeper issues. Yes, that was being observed, too.
I suggested to them that this was all a good sign: things weren’t falling apart, more work was being done, a bigger contribution was being made. Yes, things weren’t quite as predictable — but neither were their staff doing a lot of rework (a little less than before, actually) nor were they working extra hours to catch up (overtime was down and task completions on schedule was up by 22%).
What I said to these managers was that they were feeling the tension between their own perceived lack of autonomy — nothing had changed with their superiors, yet — and the autonomy their group was now working with. “This,”, I said, “is why you constantly feel that it’s all about to fall on the floor in a great mess. You’re changing in response to all this, too — but your change is blocked because you lack managers who are giving you the room to manoeuvre that you’ve given your teams. That’s what we have to work on next.”
I was prepared to come back and meet with their managers to try and extend the autonomy experiment upward, but I was told that wouldn’t be necessary. The managers are planning to carry that message themselves. Hurrah! New behaviours are emerging from these managers’ brush with the edge of order and chaos, exactly as complexity theory predicts.
So what’s the lesson here? Simply that small groups can change. They need to given room to grow. Then the fact that they are different starts to affect those all around them.
Let change come organically at first, and you’re less likely to have a crisis to clean up after — and the company as a whole will one day find that its culture has evolved, without even looking.