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Autonomy is the only metrics

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William over at the Ideal Government asks:

Is there a simple way of measuring how ready people are to change? Is there a quick and easy psychometric test or something which checks whether people “get it” and can cope with the workload of change? Presumably when a huge, deep, long-lasting change happens different people play different roles, advocating change, visionary leadership, adopting it early, pointing out all the potential drawbacks, adjusting new processes so they really work, or resisting it until death or retirement. There are 101 ways to be unresponsive to people’s needs, waste money, destroy people’s trust in the integrity of public services. There’s every imaginable way to block change. But how many ways are there to start to get it right?

This is of interest to me. Finding such people within businesses is the hardest part of what I do. What follows once you find them is not easy either but it pales by comparison to the challenge of reaching out to those who are ready to change. In organisations they can be hidden, masked, downtrodden (literally). What distinguishes them is not their job, status or position but a mindset conducive to openness, curiosity, individuality, creativity and a strong dose of common sense topped with a sense of humour.

But why is it not those who have been appointed and tasked to change and innovate? Because this is what I think about system change from within…


… you can’t do it.

Processes are created within companies to streamline the various functions people are meant to perform. There is no room for innovation or change, after all the objective is to remove what is deemed unnecessary or duplicated. This is usually done by someone else, not the person subjected to the processes.

More importantly, you cannot design for innovation at the level of process. It is like being forced to prepare a meal in a kitchen where you cannot deviate from the recipe. Where the tools and ingredients are laid out in a precise order (not necessarily bad) and you have to follow it exactly (not always good). Any deviation is only diminishes the effectiveness of the whole set up. It is like a breakfast machine in cartoons or comedies – the character wakes up, presses buttons, pulls levers and voilà his coffee is poured, toast prepared and buttered. Then something goes wrong, the sequence is lost and the process breaks down, to much hilarity. The unwitting lesson is that the contraption meant to make life easier can turn on you just as easily. Here is one that takes this to a whole new level.

Not sure how long this clip will stay up, many have already been removed from YouTube. Just search “breakfast machine” and “family guy” and you are sure to find one.

To continue with the cooking analogy, the best chefs are those who can improvise with what they have, substitute ingredients, re-arrange recipes, try entirely new ways of preparing food. It is still important to have good tools, well arranged kitchen or tried & tested recipes but it is the person, with his experience, creativity and freedom to use it who makes or breaks the meal.

When it comes to change, the best a process can do is help incremental innovation (and that’s pushing hard the limits of my opinion on such matters). It is of no use when you need to be flexible facing unforeseen or infrequent circumstances. It is certainly of no use in times of major changes or tectonic shifts in markets and technology. This is when organisations need alternative ways of doing things, ways that are not of their ossified system.

In such times, the balance of ‘impact’ shifts towards the individual. By this I mean that the individual has a greater chance to change the system. It is when the individual must redefine the system, instead of being defined and constrained by it. Constrained because humans are more flexible and adaptive that the systems they build.

There are exceptions of course, the US Constitution, Open Source and, of course, the internet. It is not that these systems are somehow inherently more flexible, it is that they play their role at the appropriate level. They provide the framework or in other words the ‘lever’ and the ‘fulcrum’ through which individuals can move the earth. What matters is the individual’s decision and freedom to use them. In other words, the autonomy to act and have impact.

So even if you can’t change the system from within, you can bring the change from the outside. This can be done through people within organisations. I would argue that it can only be done by them. What they need first, however, is to have a clear understanding of why the change is necessary, what it means to them and applies to their job or life. They also need to learn to use the technology and tools to bypass the bottlenecks and to lay foundation to the alternatives.

But what about the management responsible for results and functioning of the business? There are ways to satisfy the executives but their main role in this is to let everyone exercise as much autonomy as they need to use their energy and time building new things rather than defending themselves against the old ones.

And who are those willing to take the risk? This is where William’s quest becomes relevant. The challenge for anyone looking to change the old ways is to:

  • avoid existing and mostly dysfunctional processes

  • connect to the outside where the shifts are being defined
  • bring the change inside and apply it to their sphere of influence
  • find people to set up a loose and cross-functional network of allies who end up building alternative ways

The first three apply to those who have had their OFM. The forth is the hardest and involves co-operation, conversations, reaching out and most of all willingness to face the stigma of a disruptor. There rarely is innovation without disruption…

Tomorrow, I’ll post a ‘typology’ of people within organisations from the perspective of inducing change.

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One Response to “Autonomy is the only metrics”

  1. salarybloke
    on Oct 3rd, 2007
    @ 22:46 pm

    Yes, I like this.
    Inside a large corporation processes are well-embedded, both formally (documented, designed) and informally (it was always like this) and you are right corporate ‘innovation’ often centres around tinkering with a process, rather than rethinking it.

    OK, so some questions that occur to me:

    - perhaps incremental process change is (almost always) the only type of change that is possible, so perhaps it’s rational to pursue it: idea#1 is a process tinker, worth $1,000 but 95% likely to succeed, while idea#2, altho it is worth $100,000 dollars only has a 0.1% chance of success…. (and a 70% chance of you being labelled a crazed trouble maker) so go for #1

    Perhaps your typology will talk about how to distinguish the troublemaker, the maverick, and the truly original?

    - in all the organisations that I have worked for, some processes are more sacrosanct than others. At some point in time, ideas to redesign the product-development process may be welcome, but the promotion process may be cast in stone. For no apparent reason. How does that happen? Is it random?

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