Freedom at work

Searching for freedom at work

August 23, 2013: 1:19 PM ET

Thanks to digital technologies and social media, we have more choice than ever in our personal lives; but at work, not so much. How can we spark a workplace revolution?

By Gary Hamel, Polly LaBarre, Carol Rozwell, Michele Zanini

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(TheMIX) -- Over the last decade, digital, social, and mobile technologies have greatly expanded the scope of personal freedom—the freedom to connect with anyone anywhere in the world; the freedom to contribute and to make a real impact on the basis of merit rather than position; the freedom to create and express oneself; the freedom to choose what to buy, what to join, what to work on; and the freedom to challenge, to speak up, to push back, to rise up.

Thanks to digital technologies and social media, we have more choice than ever in our personal lives; but at work, not so much. To be sure, many companies have adopted "Enterprise 2.0" technology and tools to encourage internal collaboration and engagement with outsiders, but there's little evidence that these new tools have expanded employee autonomy.

That's no surprise. The broad majority of organizations operate according to bureaucratic practices and principles designed to maximize standardization, specialization, predictability, and efficiency. In other words, most of our organizations are designed for control -- controlling people, controlling information and controlling budgets.

Control is important, but all too often the pursuit of alignment and conformity undermines the sort of innovation that leads to success in the 21st century. To respond to the relentless waves of change, margin-crushing competition, and the commodification of everything, leaders must shift their focus from minimizing deviations from the norm to unleashing their employees' capabilities. At the same time, leaders must become more authentic and transparent.

To build an organization that is adaptable, innovative, and engaging, individuals need freedom. They must be able to pursue their passions, experiment with new ideas, ignore the hierarchy, make small bets, challenge conventional thinking, choose their work, and maybe even elect their own leaders.

Without freedom at work, there will be little initiative, creativity, or passion. That's why freedom can't be a luxury; it can't be a privilege doled out in tiny increments. Freedom is a right. Of course, with freedom comes responsibility. But in practice, most organizations are long on accountability and short on autonomy. To build a company that can thrive in the creative economy, individuals need

The freedom to connect. All too often, a person's sphere of collaboration and communication is defined by organizational silos and sharply defined roles. This isolates individuals and ideas. Sometimes the only way to connect with people outside of your particular sphere is to try to push your idea up and over the momentum-killing chain of command. Social media offers direct, transparent, person-to-person connection.

The freedom to contribute. In too many organizations, an individual's expertise is assumed -- what a person has to give is closely linked with their formal title or level. As a result, people with a talent or passion that doesn't align with their "day job" are, at best, denied the opportunity to contribute, and at worst, penalized for dabbling in other areas. And when employees are given the rare opportunity to contribute across organizational boundaries, they are often designated in an elite class of their own. Many workers long to have a greater voice and participation at their organization. The leaders who figure out how to unleash and harness this energy will win.

The freedom to create. Most organizations are structurally and culturally biased against risk-taking. Of course, that's where most creativity comes from -- asking questions, breaking the rules, trying new things. Few organizations have cultivated an appetite or the skills for improvisation and experimentation. Most have no process for metabolizing the inevitable failures (and rewarding the successes) that accompany invention. What's more, too few organizations have designed in the slack (time, resources, mechanisms) required for exploring new directions. The result? Inertia, fear, and a narrow, prescribed field of vision. On the other hand, the organizations that lay out the welcome mat for the new, the different, the irregular will reap irregular rewards.

The freedom to choose. Job roles and tasks are often assigned from the top down and are all too often limited to a narrowly defined area of responsibility. Responsible adults who can select a mortgage or buy a new car over the weekend must obtain permission to procure a new desk chair (or schedule a holiday or try out a new technology). The most vibrant organizations are working to give individuals more choice over where they work, when they work, how they work, with whom they work, and what they work on. At a few pioneering organizations, individuals even get to choose their workmates and their leaders.

The freedom to challenge.  Large organizations tend to make life uncomfortable for misfits and rabble-rousers. Dissent is hardly encouraged and usually squashed outright. Yet, it's the people who ignore the rules, flout convention, and question constantly who invent the future. Organizations must become more hospitable to dissent and deviance to adapt to all the changes in the environment. 

Unleashing freedom inside organizations is a tough challenge because it requires dismantling deeply embedded management principles and practices. Thanks to digital technologies, we can imagine organizations that are large but not bureaucratic, focused but not myopic, efficient but not inflexible, and disciplined but not disempowering. We believe that embracing and experimenting with emerging digital technologies and the powerful principles that power them—from openness to diversity to flexibility—will lead to new and infinitely more empowering management practices.

That's why we're launching the Digital Freedom Challenge: To unearth the most progressive case studies and bold ideas on how digital technologies and the principles that undergird them can help us increase individual autonomy at work. What are you or your organization doing to expand the freedom to connect, contribute, choose, create, and challenge? Share your stories and bold ideas here and earn a chance to join the ranks of the MIX's celebrated management innovators.

Gary Hamel, Polly LaBarre, and Michele Zanini are the co-founders of the MIX (Management Innovation eXchange), which hosts a series of M-Prize Challenges for management innovation. Carol Rozwell is vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, and the architect of the Digital Freedom Challenge.

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