Beyond liberated companies. An investigation into autonomy and its constraints

This note presents the results of a study devised to improve our understanding of the different practices that aim to encourage employees to be more autonomous in professional communities.

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The 13/01/2020

While some firms declare being part of the “liberated company” movement, a great many more are interested in encouraging more autonomy and employee participation without following any particular model. In reality, many companies consider that they no longer have a choice. The phasing-out of Taylorism seems inevitable, with a separation of decision-making, design and operation that no longer corresponds to the needs of firms. Modern businesses need to be reactive, agile, fast-learning and inventive, capable of tailoring their products to match customer expectations as well as keeping in touch with the way developments happen in society. To succeed means breaking away from habits that stifle initiative, and mobilizing the individual and collective intelligence of staff, who become more involved because they share the company’s goals and find meaning in their work.

This note presents the results of a study devised to improve our understanding of the different practices that aim to encourage employees to be more autonomous in professional communities. The research involved studying ten organizations (family businesses, group subsidiaries, cooperatives, administrations, etc.) and included interviews with personnel from all levels.

The outcome is that the “unleashing of energies” or the “changing of mindsets” is no easy task: it requires taking a close look at stewardship and numerous parameters. Yet the most visible literature on these new types of organization devotes very little space to how to go about it: How do you introduce and establish autonomy? What difficulties are involved, and how do you deal with them? How do you adapt to the specific background and context of each organization? Just like medication, management methods involve their own instructions and dosage, with occasional unpleasant side effects and contraindications that are worth analyzing.

Our observations lead us to conclude that reinforcing autonomy in the workplace requires preparation and organization. You cannot expect spontaneous self-organization to result from a few simple conditions, such as managers having a more relaxed attitude, paying closer attention to employees’ concerns, or actively sharing their vision with staff, although these factors are obviously important. In any case, changing the way things work calls for very strong mobilization of forces and serious support. An important point is that this effort of “organizing” has little to do with planning, because the target might not be completely fixed, and numerous difficulties are bound to arise along the way. The process of reaching this vague horizon needs to be able to survive turbulence, trial and error, repetition, and the time required to adopt the shift. In some ways, the journey is more important than the destination. We might even go as far as to say that it is the type of journey that creates the destination. Which is why “turnkey” models often turn out to be fairly useless.

Although the means of change are wide ranging, we have succeeded in identifying several recurrent factors. The shift usually comes from an initiative made by the manager or by a very small team. The vast majority of companies that want to boost autonomy act on the following six areas, either all together or one by one.

  • A flattening of the hierarchy (reduction in the number of levels) to shorten the decision chain. It should however be noted that some companies prefer to maintain a horizontal, transversal structure alongside rather than instead of the traditional hierarchy.
  • The organizational design, with a focus on putting together small operating units (5 to 40 people) within which the autonomy of the team and of its members will operate.
  • The hierarchical distance, by reducing or eliminating markers of power that staff find irritating (e.g. parking spaces, restaurants, offices, business class travel, and access to information reserved to a select few).
  • The posture of managers, encouraged to become coaches, advisors or facilitators, reduce controls and trust their teams. This sometimes takes the form of a change in management titles (team leaders, coordinators, captains, mentors) and their appointment (election, coopting). A form of managerial coordination is still considered necessary, but without the taste and feel of traditional management.
  • The creation of areas to express opinions, dialogue or deliberate, so that employees can identify any tensions and debate problems, resolve them, suggest new ideas, or express a collective will. These areas (circles, units, working groups, workshops, etc.) are open to voluntary participation, and often involve people from different posts and levels. They encourage overlapping membership, the holding of concurrent posts and roles by the same individual, and a progressive building-up of denser relationships without barriers in the organization.
  • The intervention methods employed by support services (HR, purchasing department, IT), with a greater focus on providing assistance to operating units, by giving up some of their prerogatives or sharing decisions with teams (e.g. for recruitment).

The areas of autonomy generally concern the way that tasks are carried out and the construction of the organizational environment (the “how”). In the vast majority of cases we have examined – with the exception of cooperative enterprises – autonomy and participation have nothing to do with the “what” (company objectives and strategy), or the governance, or the manager as a person. On the other hand, the “why” (the company’s mission statement and contribution to society) is increasingly open to dialogue. Yet this exercise, while appreciated by employees concerned about the meaning of their work, has no direct consequence on the conditions of exercising their job.

The attributes of autonomy concern the power to decide without asking permission, provided staff have properly integrated the values and rules that govern the company. Employees will be all the more autonomous if these rules and values have been made clear, and will be all the more likely to accept these rules and values if they have contributed to establishing them (right to contribute to the drafting of rules) Individuals thus have a scope of decision-making and initiative, limited by the impact that their decisions might have on other people’s work and on the efficiency of the organization (primacy of the collective over the individual), although these limits often turn out to be rather blurred. The frequently used expression margin for error in particular presumes the construction of a caring environment in which the potentially negative consequences of an initiative (right to take the initiative) will not be sanctioned, at the risk of employees censoring themselves. The quality of the change is gauged by the treatment reserved to “dissidents”, in other words, those who do not want access to greater autonomy for whatever reason (right to withdraw, or at least to be heard). Encouraging autonomy does not mean obliging teams to become autonomous.

At the instrumentation level all organizations work by trial and error to find their own way to adapt management tools in order to generate or establish new ways of working, with several recurring features. The organization develops more flexibility regarding on-site presence and teleworking, standby timetables are drawn up at team level, numerous items of expenditure can be made without prior authorization, sales initiatives can be delegated at bottom level, and meetings follow a structure that encourages inhibited and low-grade staff to express their opinion. Teams have more leeway to recruit, assessments put the focus on peer feedback (360°). Horizontal mobility is encouraged, leading to more versatile, skilled staff, without climbing up the managerial ladder, which is more difficult in a flattened hierarchy. Training is widely available, including in fields far removed from job tasks, such as facilitation techniques and personal development.

The dynamics of change are often based on the more or less collective construction of a shared project for the company. The credibility of the management team partly comes across in how they manage trust, whether they pay close attention to individual expectations, and in particular their management style, which is often thrown off balance by the loss of prerogatives. Credibility also involves the capacity to associate personnel representative bodies and to avoid organizational hypocrisy, by clarifying from the start what is open to dialogue and what is not (blue zones vs. red zones), at least at the moment. The pace of change – a dramatic shift or by experimentation/trial and error – depends on several factors, including how adventurous the manager is, his or her convictions about the nature of the dialogue to put in place, the maturity of the social entity, the size of the company, and how urgently change is required.

The obstacles to overcome are numerous. Difficulties can emerge when the director under estimates – or sometimes overestimates – the constraints of collective action, i.e. coordinating action, capitalizing on knowledge, respecting legal obligations and regulations, security enforcement, governance expectations, major strategic shifts, etc. In the face of complex productions and stakes, it is not always judicious or efficient to transform a company into a network of independent teams. Companies should therefore position their autonomy cursor depending on the nature of their activity. In the operational management of change, recurrent difficulties occur, such as directors who find it hard to let go in spite of their intentions and statements, those who communicate too much with the risk of disappointing, managers insufficiently supported in their change of posture and whose behavior creates an obstacle, the increase in psychosocial risks when employees lose their bearings and over-invest, unanticipated staff turnover caused by the change, or transparency and social control that poison the atmosphere, etc.

For anyone who wants to introduce more subsidiarity in the way they operate and develop autonomy in their organization, this study concludes with a list of ten check points designed to anticipate and avoid the most common pitfalls.

  1. Rather than imitating a model, the key is to remain consistent. While the solutions are unique and small adjustments frequent, it is important to maintain consistent principles.
  2. Management commitment is necessary but not enough. Commitment from management is not sufficient to create the conditions in which an organization is capable of operating. Some processes of coordination, capacity-building, security, reliability and strategic agility are not spontaneously ensured by employees’ autonomous actions, however responsible and well-intentioned they are.
  3. Managers must be clear about their capacities, expectations and the importance that they intend to lend to dialogue. They must know roughly what they expect from the change in their company, be aware of how tolerant they are of uncertainty and upheaval, and even possible challenging of their own practices and authority.
  4. Making the red and blue zones of the approach clear is essential to ensure credibility. Rather than claiming that everyone has the same decision-making power in the organization, it is important to clearly indicate the red zones (i.e. not open to dialogue) and the decisions that the director will continue to take, otherwise a sincere desire to encourage participation could be seen as hypocritical manipulation.
  5. It may be preferable to work by experimentation. With the exception of small organizations (start-ups), following our observations, we recommend local experiments in volunteer units, which allow for feedback and adjustments, rather than a dramatic shift for the whole organization and a “forced passage”.
  6. Management and staff need support in the move towards autonomy. An attitude of “do as you like, we trust you to get it right” can be intimidating if staff have the impression that they lack the means to do what is expected of them, or if the expectations are too ambiguous. Making resources and training available will reduce any anxiety.
  7. Tolerance of dissidents is an indicator of the quality of the change. It is important to think about how to deal with people who are unenthusiastic about being more autonomous. It can be a good idea to establish guarantors of employee rights who are independent from the management.
  8. Transparency needs to be handled with care. It may reduce individual freedom, be oppressive, and damage the company atmosphere.
  9. External communication is a double-edged sword. In view of the expectations, rather than creating impatience or worries with over-emphatic communication about the shift, a discreet approach may be preferable.
  10. Evaluating progress is useful. Rather than mistakenly thinking that the change is a success and that employees see it positively, it is worth defining a set of targets or success criteria at the outset, or even setting up a barometer of employee and customer satisfaction.

Lastly, do not forget that creating deep, long-lasting change in a company takes time, that everyone moves at a different pace, and that trust, both in oneself and amongst staff, is built on experience. Attentiveness and patience are key, while both sticking to the goal in mind and adapting to the feedback from the field.

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