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The Digital Freedom Challenge: Expanding Autonomy at Work


gary-hamel-polly-labarre-carol-rozwell-and-michele-zanini's picture

The Digital Freedom Challenge: Expanding Autonomy at Work

Over the last decade, digital, social, and mobile technologies have greatly expanded the scope of personal freedom—the freedom to connect with anyone anywhere in the world; the freedom to contribute and to make a real impact on the basis of merit rather than position; the freedom to create and express oneself; the freedom to choose what to buy, what to join, what to work on; and the freedom to challenge, to speak up, to push back, to rise up.

Thanks to digital technologies and social media, we have more choice than ever in our personal lives; but at work, not so much. To be sure, many companies have adopted “Enterprise 2.0” technology and tools to drive internal collaboration and engagement with external communities, but there’s little evidence that these new tools have significantly enlarged the scope of employee autonomy.

Get up and running with the Digital Freedom Cheatsheet

That’s no surprise. The broad majority of organizations operate according to bureaucratic practices and principles designed to maximize standardization, specialization, predictability, and efficiency. In other words, most of our organizations are designed for control—controlling people, controlling information and controlling budgets.  Control is important, but all too often the pursuit of alignment and conformance undermines the sort of innovation and engagement that drives success in the 21st century. In order to respond to the relentless waves of disruptive change, margin-crushing competition, the commodification of everything, and the ever-escalating number of sovereign customers, leaders must shift their focus from minimizing deviations to unleashing capabilities. At the same time, leaders must remake themselves by developing their capacity for authenticity, connectedness and transparency--what Gartner terms the "socially centered leader."

To build an organization that is adaptable, innovative and engaging, individuals need freedom. They must be able to pursue their passions, experiment with new ideas, ignore the hierarchy, make small bets, challenge conventional thinking, choose their work, and maybe even elect their own leaders.

Without freedom, there will be little initiative, creativity or passion. That’s why freedom can’t be a luxury; it can’t be a privilege doled out in tiny increments. Freedom is a right. Of course, with freedom comes responsibility.  But in practice, most organizations are long on accountability and short on autonomy. To build a company that can thrive in the creative economy, individuals need . .

  • The freedom to connect. All too often, a person’s sphere of collaboration and communication is defined by organizational silos and sharply defined roles. This isolates individuals and ideas. Sometimes the only way to connect with people outside of your particular sphere or silo is to try to push your idea up and over the momentum-killing chain of command.  Direct, transparent, person-to-person connection is the liberating power of social media.
  • The freedom to contribute. In too many organizations, an individual’s expertise is assumed—what a person has to give is closely linked with their formal title or level. As a result, people with a talent or passion that doesn’t align with their “day job” are, at best, denied the opportunity to contribute, and at worst, penalized for dabbling in other areas. And when employees are given the rare opportunity to contribute across organizational boundaries, they are often designated in an elite class of their own. There is so much hunger for greater voice and participation. The leaders who figure out how to unleash and harness it will win.
  • The freedom to create. Most organizations are structurally and culturally biased against risk-taking and deviation of any kind. Of course, that’s where most creativity comes from—asking questions, breaking the rules, trying new things. Few organizations have cultivated an appetite or the skills for improvisation and experimentation. Most have no process for metabolizing the inevitable failures (and rewarding the successes) that accompany the invention of the new. What’s more, too few organizations have designed in the slack (time, resources, mechanisms) required for exploring new directions. The result? Inertia, fear, and a narrow, prescribed field of vision. On the other hand, the organizations that lay out the welcome mat for the new, the different, the irregular—will be the ones that reap irregular rewards.
  • The freedom to choose. Job roles and tasks are often assigned from the top-down, and all-too-often limited to a narrowly-defined area of responsibility. For most employees, the scope of decision-making is severely restricted. Responsible adults who can select a mortgage or buy a new car over the weekend must obtain permission to procure a new desk chair (or schedule a holiday or try out a new technology). The most vibrant organizations are working to give individuals more choice over where they work, when they work, how they work, with whom they work, and what they work on.  In a few truly pioneering organizations, individuals even get to choose their workmates and their leaders.
  • The freedom to challenge.  Large organizations tend to make life uncomfortable for misfits and rabble-rousers. Dissent is hardly encouraged and usually squashed outright. Yet, it’s the people who ignore the rules, flout convention, and question constantly who invent the future. Social media is a haven for heretics of all kinds. Organizations must become more hospitable to dissent and deviance in order to stay tuned and adapt to all the changes in the environment. 

Unleashing freedom inside organizations is a tough challenge because it requires dismantling deeply-embedded management principles and practices. But it’s even tougher to expand autonomy without exploding the important efficiencies and discipline that are a product of control.

Thanks to digital technologies, we can imagine organizations that transcend the tradeoff between freedom and control—that are large but not bureaucratic, focused but not myopic, efficient but not inflexible, and disciplined but not disempowering. We believe that embracing and experimenting with emerging digital technologies and the powerful principles that power them—from openness to diversity to flexibility—will lead to new and infinitely more empowering management practices.

That’s why we’re launching the Digital Freedom Challenge. To unearth the most progressive case studies and bold ideas when it comes to how digital technologies and the principles that undergird them can help us to dramatically increase individual autonomy at work. What are you or your organization doing to expand the freedom to connect, contribute, choose, create, and challenge? Share your stories and bold ideas here—and earn a chance to join the ranks of the MIX’s celebrated management innovators.


Gary Hamel, Polly LaBarre, and Michele Zanini are the co-founders of the MIX (Management Innovation eXchange), which hosts a series of M-Prize Challenges for management innovation. Carol Rozwell is vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, and the architect of the Digital Freedom Challenge.


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maryann-farrugia's picture

Digital marketing is one of the powerful strategies today in order to attain more success in business. It builds more engagement and exposure and valuable information. There are many platforms such as blogging, video marketing etc. Check out Maryann Farrugia on WordPress.

jonathan-chambers_1's picture

I tend to look at this challenge from the perspective of how God gives autonomy to His creation. First of all God places Adam in the garden (ecosystem) and gives to him a purpose. Second, He sets boundaries to protect Adam in the garden. Lastly, God trusts Adam and leaves him to fulfill the purpose He assigns to Him. He doesn't give him strict rules as to how he should do that. He simply says to him tend to this garden, you are free to eat any of the fruits of the trees of this garden but of this specific tree do not eat.

1. Purpose
2. Boundaries
3. Trust

I believe these are the keys to this issue!

maryann-farrugia's picture

Welcome to the digital world, social media nowadays plays a huge part in our daily life, in business etc. With the use of these tools anyone can connect, interact, expose any sentiments or any business. In business, we have online marketing and we use social media to further expand the exposure of a business through online means such as tumblr (ie. maryann farrugia tumblr, facebook, instagram etc.

stephen-wagener's picture

Dear Garry, Polly, Michele and Carol your work has inspired me....

The business world often feels like the rugged island of Simple, surrounded by the raging Sea of Complexity, governed by King Schedule and the Queen of Urgency. Their firstborn Son, the Dark Prince of Finance, reigns supreme as the gatekeeper and fierce ruler of the business jungle. Time and money, the only measures of success.
The Process Monkey controls the rat race in Cubicle City. The miserable crew are slaves to procedure and, out of fear, do as they are told. The kingdom even provides fringe benefits; you can swim at the beach of control between the flags of strict regulation.

Understand these characters and you will get a better hold of your decisions and even laugh at some of the fickle nonsense in the business world.

In the twenty-first century, we find ourselves tossed by waves of change, from ripples of process amendment to a hurricane-force financial crisis. Mental flexibility and agile tools provide a fresh approach and new perspective to counteract the force of rigid business myths. As the Sea of Complexity continues to rise, more people will need to take swimming lessons. Flexibility, collaboration, and open innovation will soon be the new measures of success.

Enjoy this voyage of discovery. 'Adventures in the Sea of Complexity' has a happy ending.