Freedom and Responsibility in the Workplace
There are companies where people ignore rubbish on the floor in the office, leaving it for someone else to pick it up, and then there are companies where people in the office pick up the trash they see, as they would at home. We try hard to be the latter, a company where everyone feels a sense of responsibility to do the right thing and to help the company at every juncture.
Picking up the trash is, in this case, the metaphor for taking care of problems, small and large, and never thinking “that’s not my job.” We don’t actually have rules about picking up the real or metaphoric trash. We try to create a sense of ownership and involvement so this behaviour comes naturally.
Our goal is to inspire people more than manage them. We trust our teams to do what they do well and what they think is best for Ayata; giving them lots of freedom, power, and information in support of their decisions. In turn, this generates a sense of responsibility and self-discipline that drives us to do great work. We firmly believe that people thrive on being trusted, on freedom, and on being able to make a difference. So, we foster freedom and empowerment wherever we can, in whatever form we can.
Process over Freedom
In many organizations, there is an unhealthy emphasis on process and not much freedom. These organizations most likely did not start that way, but the managerial hand of process squeezed harder every time something went wrong. Specifically, many organisations have freedom and responsibility when they are small. Everyone knows each other, and everyone picks up the trash. As they grow, however, the business gets more complex, and sometimes the average talent and passion level goes down. As the informal, smooth-running organisation starts to break down, pockets of chaos emerge, and the general outcry is to “grow up”, to add traditional management and processes to reduce the chaos. As rules and procedures proliferate, the value system evolves into rule following.
If this standard management approach is done well, then the company becomes very efficient within its business model; the system is dummy-proofed, and creative thinkers are told to stop questioning the status quo. This kind of organisation is very specialised and well adapted to its specific business model. Eventually, however, over the next 10 to 100 years, the business model inevitably must change and most of these companies are unable to adapt.
To avoid the rigidity of over-specialisation, and avoid the chaos of growth, while retaining freedom, we work to be as simple a business as we can given our growth ambitions, and to keep employee excellence rising through careful selection of applicants. We work to have a company of self-disciplined people who discover and fix issues without being told to do so.
Some processes are about increased productivity, rather than error avoidance, and we like process that helps us get more done. One such process we do well is effective scheduled meetings. We have a regular cadence of many types of meetings; we start and end on time and have well-prepared agendas. We use these meetings to learn from each other and get more done, rather than to prevent errors or approve every little decision.
In general, freedom and rapid recovery is better than constantly trying to prevent error. We are in a creative business, not a safety-critical business. Our big threat over time is lack of innovation, so we should be relatively error tolerant. Rapid recovery is possible if people have solid judgment. The seduction is that error prevention just sounds so good, even if it is often ineffective. We are always on guard if too much error prevention hinders inventive, creative work.
You might think that such freedom would lead to the chaos. But we also don’t have a clothing policy, yet no one has come to work naked. you don’t need policies for everything. Most people understand the benefits of wearing clothes at work. And those who don’t probably shouldn’t be working for you!
We have a few important exceptions to our anti-rules pro-freedom philosophy. We are strict about ethical issues and safety issues. Harassment of employees or trading on insider information are strictly zero tolerance issues.
Highly Aligned, Loosely Coupled
We avoid excessive rigidity by being highly aligned and loosely coupled. We spend lots of time working on and debating strategy together, and then trust each other to execute on tactics without prior approvals. Often, two group working on the same goals won’t know of or have approval over their peer’s activities.
If, later, the activities don’t seem right then we have a candid discussion. We may find that the strategy was too vague, or the tactics weren’t aligned with the agreed strategy. And we discuss generally how we can do better in the future. The success of a ‘highly aligned, loosely coupled’ work environment is dependent upon the collaborative efforts of high-performance individuals and effective context.