The truth is, we aren't very savvy when it comes to letting people contribute. For the most part, we box them into a role, draw a line around their turf, and ask them to turn off their imagination, get down to work, and churn.
The problem is, churn isn't good enough (anymore). Not for the organization. Certainly not for its employees. The imperative is to make progress possible. So let's rethink how contribution happens. Let's erase the lines.
Imagine a role half-determined by need, half-determined by inspiration. To balance efficiency and innovation, bring this equilibrium to every role (possible). This is the agile role. Some of your work is assigned, based on expertise (and hopefully interest), and the rest is sought, co-developed, and napkin-drawing turned project prototyping. It's alignment meets imagination. "Keeping the lights on" with "flow."
Time to look at your balance statement. Where are the bulk of your "costs?" If compensating employees isn't number one, it's probably not far from the top. Wake up. You're in the people business as much as any other.
Collaboration is increasingly necessary, yet increasingly difficult. The systems of organization, such as hierarchies and traditional roles, were not designed to be fundamentally collaborative. Yet they aren't value-less, and shouldn't disappear entirely.
They do need to be adapted. They need to be agile. If organizations hope to strike a sweet spot between the gains to be made from both efficiency and innovation, it is not sufficient to leave this challenge to the c-suite. For greater contribution and collaboration to be realized, this challenge has to be shared and distributed.
One solution to start to "crack the glass" on the problem of collaboration is to create agile roles. An agile role would be partly defined by current organizational needs. This enables alignment and contribution toward the strategic direction of the organization.
However, this role would also be defined by the imagination, inspiration, aspiration, and passion(s) of the individual. This enables a deeper engagement, sense of purpose, autonomy, and mastery than a role which is completely defined.
To walk the line between efficiency and innovation effectively, it has to be a shared responsibility, and a shared skill set. By creating roles with strategic alignment / focus built into them, and a component targeting "driving for the fringe", collaboration is envitably a pre-requisite for progress.
In other words, when you create roles where are one part known and one part unknown, you help to take care of what matters most in terms of current needs, but you also intentionally create room for growth, excitement, and the organizational capacity to change, proactively.
Greater sense of autonomy. When you have the freedom to determine part of your role, you feel empowered.
Greater sense of mastery. When you're doing what you love, you really soak up the experience. This speeds growth and development.
Greater sense of purpose. Working on projects that capture your imagination and fit with your aspirations help you to feel on top of the world.
Greater engagement. Being genuinely asked to be the change you want to see is an invitation to make a difference that (when sincere, and realizable) gets people excited. Autonomy, mastery, purpose. Yeps.
Not for everyone. An agile role is not for everyone. Some people want extremely predictable, stable, unchanging roles with a constant scope and limited disruption of normalcy. An agile role leans strongly toward the opposite. It would no doubt turn some people off.
Greater progress. When more people are more engaged and enabled to suceed, there's more progress. Continuous progress greatly increases the odds of survivability and value generation.
The shock of the possible. When people are encouraged toward their aspirations and passions, this unlocks unexpected connections.
Necessary alignment, but not more. Encourages appropriate focus on what matters now, strategically speaking, but not to a completely limiting, myopic, extent.
Attraction. As entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial spirit grow and generational work preferences shift, many more people want exciting, ambigous, intriguing challenges with the room to make a difference. Transparent fit with passion would be an excellent recruitment tool.
The good news is, most organizationals already (intentional or untentionally) live with this. The bad news is, most of it isn't a deliberate consequence of organizational systems, practices, or expectations.
More specifically, some challenges might be:
Focusing on less. An agile role requires that some percentage of the role is driven by passion and imagination. This means there is, practically speaking, time for that. It is a hugely difficult task for most organizations to not have a long list of "priority number one"'s.
Comfort with ambiguity. Agile roles would imply that the organization is consciously and deliberately willing to ensure it "goes where it has never gone." This means venturing into dis-comfort zones for many senior leaders and employees who may have a vested interest in the opposite.
Rethinking the purpose of organizational practice. Akin to the falling tree question, if someone has an agile role, but without the means to realize it...does it really make any difference? The answer is a clear no. To reap the value of an agile role, much chintz would likely need to be chucked. More plainly put, there would be many practices, policies, and norms to tackle, throw-out, or re-design from the perspective of enabling agility and agile roles.
Focus on what really matters. Start by asking the questions about purpose, value, and the two or three things each team or group of individuals really needs to nail. The goal is to not only stop less-valued activities, but reclaim time.
Communicate, communicate, and yes, communicate. Ensure people understand what an agile role is; what it means. how it is different than the current reality. Strive for choice. Let those interested be the first to pioneer would it might / could look like.
Facilitate connection. Make it easy for your pioneers (and others, but if you had to start somehwere...) to collaborate, see what eachother are thinking, interested by, are passionate about. Emotional contagion is powerful, and innovation benefits from unexpected connections. Help the "what-ifs" and "how-mights" have a party and keep in contact.
Start small, and make it a clear goal. Find volunteers, and think about what makes sense in terms of leadership / sponsorship incentive (e.g., perhaps it is financial, social, developmental, or time-based).
Experiment. Whether this means scenario planning, or running with a quick and dirty pilot, test the idea. Try to discover the boundaries, where it runs up against a wall, where it works really well - all the feedback, good, bad, and ugly to give a picture of what makes sense and what doesn't.
Be open, make changes. If you find a wall that doesn't absolutely need to be there, knock it down. In less extreme imagery, be open to changing organizational practices that don't serve the idea well.
To authors, entrepreneurs, colleagues, and friends who help to stretch boundaries and the way we think.