Article: John Rosling – The Autonomy Imperative.

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The Autonomy Imperative.

There is a universally acknowledged truth in organisational behavior. Autonomy creates motivation. Motivated people excel and create extraordinary results. Businesses full of motivated people thrive, grow and create exponential value.

Yet most large organisations seem to do everything in their considerable power to suppress autonomy. Heirachy replaces freedom. Fear replaces trust. Control replaces autonomy. Motivation dies.

And in the long term the businesses risks dying too.

To quote the Responsive Organisation: “Most organisations still rely on a way of working designed over 100 years ago for the challenges and opportunities of the industrial age. Hierarchical systems of command and control drive efficiency and predictability at the expense of free information flow, rapid learning, and adaptability”.

The commercial argument for autonomy is clear. To quote Dan Pink: “organisations that have found inventive, sometimes radical, ways to boost autonomy are outperforming their competitors.”

One such organisation is Netflix whose CEO Reed Hastings is crystal clear about the positive impact of creating autonomy and freedom. “Responsible people’ he says “thrive on freedom and are worthy of freedom. Our model is to increase employee freedom as we grow rather than limit it.”

Closer to home, Ajaz Ahmed who has built AKQA to be a global brand with a half billion valuation agrees; find and attract people that share the same values, and give them the freedom to unleash their imagination and do the best work of their lives. Hire good people who share your values, provide clarity in what needs to be done, trust them and give them independence to do their jobs”.

The power of autonomy is equally recognised outside of the business world. Commodore Jerry Kyd who commands aircraft carriers for a living is clear that “empowerment and delegation should be instinctive in any vibrant, agile organisation. People who feel they can make a difference and are trusted and valued will always go the extra mile for you. The trouble is there is a great temptation by leaders to ‘keep control’ because they want to control outcomes.  But this is false economy in the long run because you will de-motivate and reduce moral; empower and delegate against clear aims and let them get on with it. The results can be startling. In the military we call this ‘Mission Command.”

To thrive – perhaps survive – the one thing large organisations need to do is to free their people’s talent to do their best work. It’s that simple. It’s also the one thing most large organisations seem to find hardest to do. To return to Dan Pink “human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

And if they can’t achieve more and enrich their lives in your organisation the best of them will simply move to one where they can.


John Rosling is author of ‘The Secrets of the Seven Alchemists’ (Harriman House 2014), CEO of Contexis, a serial entrepreneur, speaker and lecturer on entrepreneurship with a passion for helping corporates think more entrepreneurially (and transform how they connect with SME customers and partners). He started his career in Unilever and Diageo.