I have been working with a few clients recently where the concept of “freedom within a framework” has become a common mantra within the organization, however, I’m not sure the concept or intent is really understood or effectively practiced.
I remember as a child that I would leave the house on my bike after breakfast to meet and play with my friends and not be seen again by my parents until dinner time. As a kid I had a great deal of freedom as long as I lived by the principles my parents espoused: no fighting, share your “stuff”, respect adults, be safe, have fun and don’t embarrass the family, just to name a few. I also had guidelines, the framework within which we could operate: don’t go beyond Pond and State St, no crossing the road, can’t be in a friend’s house if parents are not home, be home by 5:00pm and many more, some of which I didn’t always agree and even occasionally violated. Successful sports teams operate in a similar fashion. A professional basketball player is free to play his/her game based on their individual talent/skills but within in the rules of the game and the coach’s game plan. No professional basketball team is going to win playing “playground basketball”. These are obviously simplistic examples, particularly when compared with the challenge within large multi-billion dollar organizations like the ones I am working with now.
Freedom within these companies is basically allowing and trusting employees to think and operate independently within the value system and guiding principles of the organization and specifically on “behalf” of the organization. One misconception is that freedom is given. Not so; it needs to be earned. Koch Brother’s Market Based Management (MBM) system is based on our principles of democracy. There is significant freedom for Koch employees, but they must earn the right to that freedom, much like we earn certain rights within our democracy. Employees earn these rights by studying, understanding and exhibiting the values and principles of the organization with the best interests of the organization. The challenge is the degree of freedom. This often becomes a risk analysis proposition to set the foundation for the framework. The degree of freedom has to be appropriate to the risk. For example, one company I’m working with can be very quickly and very significantly affected by the smallest environmental regulatory miscue. Freedom is not thinking outside the box. It’s allowing people to operate freely within the box.
Here is the paradox. Boundless freedom will destroy itself without the framework. The framework provides the guidelines and the tools to operate freely within the box without the rigid and unyielding rules, policies, and procedures. Guidelines do not kill freedom, they actually nourish freedom when designed, communicated and executed well. There simply is no freedom in chaos. It’s important to recognize that the boundary of the box can expand as employees earn their rights, but this requires a consistent effort to help employees live and thrive within the framework.
The leadership challenge is to fertilize and cultivate freedom within a framework by committing time and resources to the employees’ so they understand and can practice their “rights” within the principles and guidelines of the organization. It requires constant intention and attention by leadership and can’t be neglected.