Monday, January 16, 2012

Workplace Autonomy

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................"

Autonomy / Creativity / Efficiency and Productivity:
Got an email from Daniel Pink with a piece from the toolkit in his new book "Drive" -- the excerpted piece entitled: "Nine Ways to Improve Your Company, Office or Group" - dealing largely with the question of workplace motivation.  One interesting toolkit suggestion was to conduct a Workplace Autonomy Audit to help get an idea of how much autonomy the people in your organization really have.

Here's the excerpt:
"Ask everyone in your department or on your team to respond to these four questions with a numerical ranking (using a scale of  0 to 10, with 0 meaning"almost none" and 10 meaning a "huge amount".) 
1.  How much autonomy do you have over your tasks at work------your main responsibilities and what you do in a given day?
2.  How much autonomy do you have over your time at work------for instance, when you arrive, when you leave, and how you allocate your hours each day?
3.  How much autonomy do you have over your team at work ----- that is, to what extent are you able to choose the people with whom you typically collaborate?
4.  How much autonomy do you have over your technique at work ----- how you actually perform the main responsibilities of your job?

Make sure all responses are anonymous. Then tabulate the results. What's the employee average?  The figure will fall somewhereon a 40-point autonomy scale  (with 0 being a North Korean prison and 40 being Woodstock).  Compare that number to people's perceptions. Perhaps the boss thought everyone had plenty of freedom - but the audit showed an average autonomy rating of only 15. Also calculate separate results for task, time, team,and technique.  A healthy overall average can sometimes mask a problem in a particular area."

This, of course, presupposes that more autonomy is good - an increasingly embraced proposition in the matrix of organizational dynamic thinking.  From Google to our own creative sector --- new idea generation, the vaulted out-of-the-box thinking, happy, motivated employees and even increased productivity ---are all seen as directly linked to workplace autonomy.  So we obviously want to foster more autonomy and knowing how much our people really enjoy is a necessary precondition.

Having been an employee, the head of organizations both large and small and a "start-up" entrepreneur - I would generally come down on the side of more autonomy is good - too much structure, too much hierarchy, too much regulation and too much micromanagement stifle new ideas and cutting edge competitive awareness.  Moreover, more freedom, more autonomy, more encouragement of risk taking all help attract the best talent in the marketplace, and foster an ecosystem that nurtures idea generation.  And that environment increases loyalty and commitment to the organization and arguably both efficiency and productivity.

That said, I wonder if we are too blindly loyal to such concepts.  Is there not a danger in taking concepts such as workplace autonomy and applying them in blanket terms to all situations in any given sector?  Is not workplace autonomy both a plus and a minus given certain particular circumstances?  Should it not be applied differently in different situations?  What do we know of how it should be applied in those situations?  Is it more valuable in its outcome for those with more workplace experience, or is it more valuable to those not yet jaded by such experience?  Or does the level of workplace experience have any impact at all?  Even at Google must there not be some form to the governing autonomy?  Must it not exist within some constraints so as to give it form and make it meaningful?  After reading the Steven Jobs biography, it would seem Apple was a company wherein autonomy was cherished and promoted, but within very narrow perimeters of the vision enunciated by Jobs himself.  Autonomy was the tool, but not necessarily itself the driver.

I wonder where autonomy fits into the overall best practices for the nonprofit arts sector.  We are of course small businesses like many others, but we are also unique as are all those others.  In terms of applying organizational theories designed to improve our workplace environments, make our employees and our bosses happier and more productive, and help us address the challenges we face - we need to expend some efforts in tailoring and adapting valuable theories to our own sets of circumstances.

Thus if autonomy is seen as a value that is important to the organization, we need to understand how it best works for our organizations within our sector.  If autonomy is embraced, then the first implication is that we need to hire people who are comfortable being given more workplace autonomy.  Not all people are so comfortable, and thus giving those in that profile more freedom does not necessarily yield the desired outcomes.  Do we zero in on candidates for various open positions and seek out those who want and benefit from more autonomy?  Is it even on our radar screens in terms of job searches?

I suspect autonomy is such a powerful factor, that it works better if implemented in stages customized to employee needs and desires.  Autonomy being designated as a positive value doesn't necessarily mean that all structure is a negative.  (Reminds me of the line in Camus' The Rebel:  That "everything is permitted does not necessarily mean that nothing is forbidden." or words to that effect.)

We don't have to invent our own litany of organizational theories that will improve our workplaces; we can adapt those that others have designed.  But we do need to put some thought into those adaptations and individual applications so that they work for us.  However much (or little) autonomy you may want your organization to embrace, it may be of value to you to know how much actually exists right now.  And more importantly it may be something to talk about - as an organization.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

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