Freedom to Act

Freedom to act, or in many cases “the lack of freedom” is a root cause of delay, apathy, and a general feeling of helplessness. Regardless of the position in the corporation, we see the “lack of empowerment” from the very top to the bottom of the reporting chain. This post is about a system we adapted called “Freedom Scale.” This originated from our best practice research into factors that drove speed — fast organizations empowered people with “freedom” to act quickly. Pushing power down the hierarchy increases speed to market.

There are five levels of Freedom. The lower the value, the faster decisions are made, actions taken, and the more people feel ownership in the outcome — it's a way to quantify empowerment. Lets start at the lowest level, in this case it’s five (5) “Wait until told.” This is a completely passive state, only reserved for Trainee’s, yet we’ve seen executive vice presidents “waiting to be told.” The more you wait, the less empowered you’ll be and the more you will stay at Level 5.

Level 4 is marginally better than Level 5. In this case the person is a little more proactive and “Asks what to do.” The more you ask, the more people will tell you what to do, you will find yourself quickly back to Level 5. Most of the time people disempower themselves because they continually “ask.” You also find this behavior when people are not trusted due to performance problems. The boss does not trust the subordinate, the subordinate does not feel trusted. Its a viscous cycle.

Level 3 moves one out of the “trainee” mode. In this case, you would “Recommend, and then take resulting action.” This does provide the manager with some degree of “before the fact control,” yet it encourages people to take action and not wait. Perhaps the best example of this from our best practice study was the concept of “UNIDIR.” On a very fast development project, people would sometimes start emails with the acronym “UNIDIR,” which stands for “Unless otherwise directed, I intend on…” We also called this behavior “default to action,” versus “default to delay and discuss.”

Level 2, “Act, but advise at once” provides leverage and growth to the individual being empowered/trusted to take actions. This provides the “boss” with “during the fact control” and is a more collaborative form of management. This is also much faster than Level 3, since there is no time waiting for the recommendation to be assessed and a decision made. Level 2 is “real-time” management. Often, we see different decisions/situations getting different levels of empowerment; for example a major strategic business decision such as an acquisition or the termination of a business unit might be Level 3, while technical product roadmap decisions may be granted a Level 1 or 2.

Level 1, “Act, routine reporting only” is the most mature/advanced freedom level. Experienced professionals have a hard time working below levels 1 or 2. The more you can push Level 1 behavior down into the organization, the more leverage you get from the combined experience of the people in the organization. Most subordinates, when asked what Freedom level they have, respond with levels that are greeter than their actual level of real empowerment. Same is true of the Boss, when asked about their people, they tend to state higher levels than are really granted.

We want to be empowered and to empower others, but want and reality are often different states of mind.

All five levels… The empowerment continuum

We also see people who have public freedom levels that are different from the degree of freedom they operate on privately with their boss. For example, the senior exec who publicly operated at Level 3 and appeared to others to defer to his boss, while in the background consistently functioned at level 1 and 2 — both permitted this, since it worked for them.Teams, like individuals can have Freedom Levels. Fast teams always operated at Level 1-2. The more they “took” level 1, the more empowerment they got. Confidence usually goes up with “Level 1” people, while it goes down then they are always asking what to do next. Why don’t people operate at Level 1 by default? Because it is risky, if you fail. The most mature cultures encouraged failure as a key element of learning (i.e., fail-fast) and focused on achieving many cycles-of-learning. You can’t have a Level 1 environment, without the requisite permission to “fail” and learn. This is often called the “empowerment continuum.”

Disempowerment cycle…Most people that complain of being “micro managed” suffer from the disempowerment trap. The more they “wait until told” the more they get “managed.” Since confidence is low at this point, the subordinate waits and “asks what to do” for fear of screwing something up. It is an endless cycle that few can climb out of. You don’t get any economy of scale when large numbers of people are stuck at Level 4 and 5. Again, we’ve seen executives with billion dollar budgets fall into the trap as the decisions they were dealing with expanded in scope and significance over time. As they expanded, they got nervous and started to voluntarily slide back down the empowerment continuum. They tended to regressed to 3, and then back down to 4, then finally to 5. They found they could pass the responsibility for a big decision back up the chain of command. However, the role of senior management is to hand the “hot potato” back and force subordinates to operate at or above Level 3 — and to “own” those decisions. Then of course, they would measure the hell out of the subordinate’s performance.

Freedom Levels 1-3 are experienced in fast cultures, on the other hand, Levels 4-5 are for trainees and/or slow environments where decision-making is centralized at the top or where the leader’s ego is so large that he wants to make all the decisions himself. The trick is to not disempower yourself, rather to “UNIDIR” your way up/to empowerment. The more you empower yourself, the more power you will get. Be willing to lose in order to win. What is your freedom level to act?