Empowerment vs. Autonomy

There is much conversation in the Agile world and about the Agile world involving terms such as “Self-Management” and “Empowerment” and “Autonomy.”  Agreeing to the definition of each of these terms, and making a distinction between what they signify or don’t signify is vitally important to preventing the mistaken impression or misapplication of mandate, freedom, support, and guidance.  Or any mixture of the 4 concepts.

Empowerment is a throttle of conveying decision-making authority to an individual or group who is closer to the work than the centralized, elevated tier in an organization which otherwise exclusively retains this decision-making authority. Autonomy is the state of holding all the decision-making authority for oneself, and inescapably owning all the effects of wielding or failing to wield that same totality of authority. I am sole author and complete agent of my life. Therefore, I am autonomous.

Having the choice of multiple options, and an awareness of those options is needed for people to exercise their Freedom of Choice.  If a person is forced to choose at a certain time, or in a certain way, or externally deterred away from (or conversely, induced into) choosing a specific option by artificially imposing penalties (or rewards) that don’t naturally (automatically) arise from enacting an option, then the Freedom of Choice of the effected party is being eroded, if not completely destroyed.

Inviting people to chose real options, without interference from those who have the authority in an organization to deliver rewards or penalties, is a way to create real freedom, engagement, and learning.  Offering a goal or vision as leader, coupled by support and guidance with explicit guardrails which set a context within which the options of new freedom are offered, does NOT necessarily dilute or erode the Freedom of Choice, engagement or learning opportunity one could hope for.  Rather, such support and guardrails may serve to enhance and empower those who wish for more freedom and learning, but possibly do NOT wish for complete autonomy.  Having explicit goals, guardrails, a way to track progress, and the freedom to opt in or out of such an arrangement is what Jane McGonigal terms the definition of a “good game” in her book entitled, “Reality Is Broken.”

So, there’s a spectrum of independence, and generally speaking, it has been my experience that people who have had very little empowerment seldom if ever, choose to leap head-first into complete autonomy.  In fact, the very thought of it strikes most of them as shear terror.  Empathy alone compels most conscientious leaders to support the growth of their loyal followers (or employees) by offering a kind of “Safe Harbor” within bounds known as “Guardrails” which are explicitly listed to give peace of mind to those facing new options of behavior to choose from, unpressured or tacitly manipulated by the powers that be in the organization.

When an Agile practitioner such as myself refers to “Self-Management” I’m referring to a gradual, incremental transfer of decision-making authority from a central, elevated part of an organization, to a local (decentralized) part of the organization, usually at the boundary of the org, facing the customer and other stakeholders such as partners, government agencies, competitors and bad actors (such as hackers).

The biological analogy of this organizational design would be where the governing body of the organ(ization) is located inside the nucleus of a cell, and the workers along the cell wall are receiving support (in the form of nutrients and information) from that nucleus of the cell, without the encumbrance of elaborate sets of rules, demands for constant reports, or requests for permission to take whatever action occurs to the wall workers as expedient or needful to the survival of the cell, and possibly a greater organism to which the cell has allegiance.

The cell wall itself operates intelligently to take in that which is beneficial to the cell, and repel or attach that which threatens to do harm to the cell.  The wall, if damaged, will repair and rebuild itself as is practical or necessary.  It will ask for help, when it needs it.  There are promises or agreements (policies or Protocols) in place that have pre-arranged how this can happen.  In his book, “Thinking In Promises” Mark Burgess describes in great detail the benefits from persistence of the logic that arises from these agreements; expectations, predictability, workability and high performance at scaled levels of organizational complexity.

This empowers the worker located at the boundary of the organization, to make the most of the real-time information arriving at their work site, and further the interests of the organization, moment to moment, with whatever they believe is the best response.  Such “teamwork” is very hard to beat in competitive markets.  Especially, for less light-footed organizations with byzantine organizational hierarchies where gathering info, pooling consensus, reaching a decision, then disseminating action instructions takes a long time to happen.

This situation I’m describing is not just “business as usually” but everyone moving faster.   This is a new anatomy to an organization that has more connective tissue between nodes, and fewer points of failure with greater resilience and regenerating powers.  Failure to understand that subtle distinction will be the undoing of many a behemoth organizations, I believe.  Toys R Us, is just one recent example.  Countless others will follow.

I think our brethen in DEVO said it best in their song by the name, “Freedom of Choice”:

A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said, life was free
Sink, swim, go down with the ship
But use your freedom of choice”

I have a client who’s CEO announced in a company-wide all hands meeting, “Many people are complaining to me that they have too many meetings to attend.  If any one of you is in a meeting where you are not contributing, you have my permission to leave that meeting.”  This is what I mean by Empowering people.  It’s a concept that has been in wide circulation since the 1980s when Harrison Owen created his Open Space Technology (OST) and shared it with the world, open-source before that was “even a thing.”

In Open Space, there is a “Law of Mobility” or “Law of Two Feet” which both authorizes and concurrently requires the conference participants, if they are not learning, contributing to someone’s learning, or having fun, to go someplace else where they can.

And as if that weren’t enough, back in the 1990s Jim and Michele McCarthy began the proliferation of the most advanced social technologies to date; The Core Commitments and Core Protocols (CC|CP).  They published these in a book entitled, “Software For Your Head” along with releasing podcasts, supporting a community and offering training in the CC|CP called “Bootcamp” which is built on an experiential learning approach to becoming facile in honoring the agency, freedom and self-authoring behaviors of others while asserting the same for yourself, in service to creating value for your employer.

Jim and Michele also open sourced their social technology in 1 stroke of magnanimous genius and generosity to humankind.  Day to day, moment to moment, nothing I know of could foster a higher level of engagement, freedom, and empowerment than the CC|CP.  If you’ve experienced one, please do share it with me.

The Invitation Based Change (IBC) framework is one that serves as an Engagement Model for any type of organization, regardless of size, purview, industry, business model, or jurisdiction of operations, to leverage the benefits of agility in their organization to maximize the engagement of its members, thus becoming a thriving and dominant force in its domain.  This may instill fear in your competitors, employees, or even you personally, because it can strike at any moment.  The IBC framework can and will allay those fears by the people who utilize IBC.  Reach out to an IBC practitioner or coach if you’d like to know how.

Whether it’s OST, CC|CP, IBC, or OSA -anyone can use it, free of charge because they are all open source social technologies. There is no bar to entry with this stuff and it perfectly compliments whatever process, methodology, framework, work system, or business model that’s already working well for you right now.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Jon Jorgensen

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