When we look back on the social evolution from command and control governments to more open governments, we correlate major changes with people. These people are leaders. Some actively seek leadership out, others find themselves leaders by happenstance.
But, like it or not, there are leaders.
Free American society looks back on our Franklins and Hamiltons and Jeffersons and Lincolns as people who drove specific change to decentralize power. Paradoxical? On the face maybe. Singular leaders arose to power for the sake of lessening the power of singular leaders.
But what we actually have here is a long term evolution toward complex and distributed society. In that complexity we find freedom. We find choices. But we also find more responsibility.
Freedom distributes responsibility amongst its population.
This is frightening. We used to rely on a central authority to set cultural norms, remove anomalous activities, and punish the offensive. We yearn to go back to the imagined days of safety of a Happy Days aesthetic. Full paternal control.
But in the end we are merely looking to avoid uncomfortable responsibility.
Why is it uncomfortable? Because as responsibility is decentralized it becomes harder and harder to figure out who actually takes possession of specific activities. Who punishes free riders? Who takes the yoke when no one else stands up?
We've lost a lot of the community aspects of our culture after enduring 50 years of suburban community alienation. But we're slowly finding our way back.
We find our way back through leaders. Leaders don't dictate, they are generally people who can communicate a vision and make clear what our (and their) responsibilities are. If we don't agree with that vision, that's fine - but it's another conversation.
Through the communication of a vision, leaders help a group establish its culture and help maintain it. They give the group coherence. The group then finds it very easy to understand individual responsibility and to discourage free riders.
When we examine it, it isn't the responsibility that is uncomfortable, it's the uncertainty surrounding that responsibility. We look at society as a whole and can identify so many needs, so many unfocused responsibilities. It's overwhelming.
Now pull this into the microcosm of a modern business.
Everyone is overworked. Everyone is at times dismayed at low-value activities they are forced to conduct. Everyone can identify several high-value activities that are not given time by their companies because of some institutional barrier.
In cases of Agile transition - where companies transition from a rigid management system to one that is more flexible and Agile - many companies choose to jump in with both feet. They expect, most often, to make the transition in a few months - after all people like freedom, don't they?
As our recent foreign policy shows us, freedom requires social infrastructure to support it. It requires trust. It requires leaders. People cannot make a transition from a rigid and authoritarian system to an open one over night.
This isn't because people are stupid. People with clear roles in an authoritarian system don't maintain those roles in the transition to an open system. There are a lot of roles to fill in "freedom" and people don't know which one(s) they should or can choose.
In this way, responsibility is sort of like a commodity. You possess it, you take it. But you have to know what to do with it. You can't just jump up and say "I'll be a doctor." It's not like musical chairs where when the authoritarian music stops everyone runs and sits on a convenient chair of responsibility.
In business, when people are used to specs, to hierarchy, to excessive documentation - an open organization is unsettling. Business previously was based on a chain-of-command that provided systematic ways to deal with conflict and to limit personal liability.
It had clear definitions of responsibility. Even if they were wasteful, they were clear.
A mature Agile organization also has clear definitions of responsibility. But getting to them is a process. This process should be measured to not shock the culture and make sure that there are enough leaders to supply vision and help staff define their new place in the freer workplace.
The history of social evolution inevitably points to more Agile workplaces. They are coming. They are good. They are freedom. They are necessary.
They require thoughtful leadership. They require a transition period. If staff is not comfortable with the transition, it will fail. As we've seen, Freedom without accepted leadership devolves into a desultory chaos. Thoughtful leadership and a coherent transition are foundations for real change.
Image: Wikimedia Commons