Complex systems – be they organisations or economies – work best with ‘big what, little how’ type arrangements. That is, clear boundary conditions and guardrails to govern the overall direction of adaptation and mitigate risks, but allowing individual agents freedom within this to innovate and adapt within this to achieve their goals. This combination solves the ‘knowledge problem’ while at the same time limiting the excesses, inefficiencies and chaos of pure freedom.
Balancing autonomy and accountability. An essential counterweight to autonomy is strict accountability for results, and for the actions and behaviors that deliver those results. A company has to establish a strategy and a purpose that provide context for employees’ actions. It has to put the strategy into practice with measurable objectives, consistent measurement of progress toward those goals, feedback systems to monitor activities along the way, and appropriate consequences for reaching or failing to reach the goals. At their best, companies realize that not everything is easily measurable, or should be measured, and that constant temperature taking and micromanagement are inefficient and demoralizing. They establish transparent boundary conditions and clear expectations. Employees and teams know they will be held accountable, and they know where the guardrails are. They understand the objectives, and they have a great deal of freedom in determining how to reach them within those guardrails. Clarity of purpose and what we call high-resolution strategies, which give people a clear view of where they’re headed, provide the compass that can guide the choices that teams and individuals make when working autonomously.