decentralization and stop signs

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“The great growling engine of change – technology.”

—-

Alvin Toffler

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While distributed leadership, or decentralized organizations, is crashing into the digital transformation discussion what is making me think the most is ‘freedom.’ Yes. At the core of both of these things is freedom. What do I mean? We can distribute decision-making, we can distribute data, but if when distributed people are not free to use than you either have not really distributed anything or you have not maximized your distribution (both are bad). I bring up ‘freedom’ because it is here that I find my struggle matches up with many people’s struggle: giving freedom and gaining freedom is scary. This matters because how you interpret and accept freedom is inextricably to the ultimate efficiency or effectiveness.

What really made me sit back & think about this was Niels Pflaeging/Silke Hermann’s new little handbook “OpenSpace Beta.” To me, at its core, it is about radical freedom. They may not say that nor any distributed leadership experts may not say that (they most typically discuss things thru ‘trust’), but it is all about freedom – giving & getting – and your attitude & beliefs with regard to.

I found myself debating with myself as I read the handbook.

I know “decentralized decision making within hierarchy” is an oxymoron. It is inherently impossible to decentralize in a hierarchy. You may distribute some decision making, but not decentralize & certainly not create a fully free, autonomous, organization. And, yet, I know that unfettered freedom is fraught with peril (and a significant # of people actually like a fairly well defined box in which to create & do.

I know my own behavior has had an uncomfortable relationship with giving, and gaining, freedom in self & managing others.

In my mind, effective ‘decentralization’ is most likely more like a matching service, i.e., “this autonomy matches this participant’s autonomy” rather than “freedom to do what you believe is right.

That may sound like semantics, but it is important semantics.

Its almost like I am suggesting decentralization protocols so that people maximize the freedom they want – maybe call it “personalized distributed decisionmaking.”

By the way. This doesn’t suggest people cannot grow into their freedom, but rather most people used to a centralized hierarchy will be most successful in accepting freedom in phases. Ok. Maybe not phases, but rather stages of self learning (what am I capable of, what do I like, what am I comfortable with, what scare me, when & how I should seek some assistance). We cannot ignore that many people, even those who want this idea, will have to feel their way thru the maze of freedom.

Some people will argue analysis will help the autonomous links in relationships, but I disagree. Decentralization is hard, no metric will be able to capture this correctly. Therefore, there is a large dose of “faith” in distributing freedom.

Now. This becomes an incredibly important discussion because recent research by Gary Hamel is showing exactly the opposite in the business world:

Bureaucracy is growing not shrinking… the average respondent (of Hamel’s study) works in an organization that has more than 6 management layers. In large organizations front line employees are buried under 8 or more layers of management.” Joost Minnaar

This means less real freedom and more management oversight (no matter what anyone may say otherwise).

To me, this is a reaction to autonomy. Huh? For every action there is a reaction. Organizations will inherently create more rules, protocols, institutional checkpoints (those can be layers) to balance out the freedom they give – freedom given, freedom corralled. It is foolish to ignore this. It is foolish to ignore the fact businesses like tidiness & freedom/autonomy feels very very untidy.

This “untidiness of autonomy” hit me as I read OpenSpace Beat because the organizational oncept espouses the idea of gaining traction where the traction raises their hands and then leverage the opt-in people to create the change. I inherently love this idea and scares the hell out of me at the same time. It is an incredibly untidy idea. Businesses inherently like tidiness and evenness & this has an untidy organizational change aspect and inherently can create some ragged edges in the organization as some adopt and some do not.

So.

I asked Niels about it:

 

Me: “Does OpenSpace Beta espouse the idea of gaining traction where the traction raises its hand, and then leveraging opt-in?”

 

Niels: The answer is YES. Even though it sounds brutally simple putting it that way!  😉  If you look at it, we certainly assume, and I am sure that EVERYONE WANTS BETA. The desire is everywhere, but it is hard for people to believe that Beta is possible in their own organizations, and that everyone wants to get engaged in the transformation.  I believe the main obstacle to transformation of organizations, today, is that it is hard to believe that “all others in my organization are Y people” and that all others “want the change and can be part of the change“. In short: It is hard to believe that transformation is possible at all, that change is fast & easy – when done the right way. So, in a way, one should assume that “the traction is there”, and then create the context for the traction to take hold. How that works is not so simple – and that is why we need an inviting, opt-in approach.

Therein lies the challenge in thinking about this untidiness.

Believing that freedom is as good for you as it is for someone else.

Believing that others will use freedom as well as you do.

Believing everyone deserves freedom.

Yeah. that sounds like it could take some soul searching .. and it should. Business, for decades & thru hierarchy, has always been built around selective freedoms – maybe ‘controlled freedom.’ That’s not full autonomy, that’s controlled autonomy (which is where my head was at 8 years ago when I wrote about Controlled Autonomy ). I now rethink that thinking. Maybe it is simply my evolution of belief in freedom and people. Maybe I needed distributed leadership people to help me evolve in my thinking.

Regardless.

Stop signs.

This is where I come to stop signs. Even Freedom needs some stop signs. Roads are built so people can make their own choices where and when to go somewhere. But even in the most rural areas you will find a stop sign in the middle of nowhere. It’s not set up to curb your freedom, but rather to put a check & balance on your freedom.

I think businesses need stop signs, not layers in a hierarchy. OpenSpace Beta offers principles (which I 100% advocate), but I also believe distributed leadership & autonomy needs stop signs. I would offer some but I tend to believe each organization, each management team, each self-organized team, needs to design stop signs for their own freedom organizational map. Does this mean I am chickening out by no offering some solutions? Maybe. Maybe I am not ready to build the map & stop signs myself. Maybe I need to evolve even more before not only fully accepting OpenSpace but maybe it’s my more pragmatic belief that stop signs erected can be stop signs pulled down and that as each company erects their freedom infrastructure part of the process is, well, looking at their stop signs.

In conclusion.

I encourage everyone to at least think about distributed leadership. OpenSpace, to me, is radical distributed decision making and radical freedom. But, returning to how I opened this piece, it is most likely the most radical way to maximize digital transformation AND your organization. And in that sentence one sees the true rewards (even if scared of giving radical freedom).

Choose wisely. But always remember freedom is scary – giving it & having it – and dealing with that fear is the path to success.

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Written by Bruce