6. Freedom to act

Why it matters

Being clear about what really matters, setting appropriate boundaries and facilitating alignment are activities supported by structured tools and methods. Whilst essential to establish consistent practices, the differentiator is the culture organisational leaders promote through their actions, words and behaviour. Unless this culture supports people to make the best use of their freedom to act, organisational agility will be elusive.

How it works

Agile strategy thrives in a trusting and supportive environment where leaders and team members are prepared to decide and act independently in line with the intent as the situation changes. To do so they must be ready, willing and able to use their own spontaneous, independent judgement to adjust their actions to achieve the intended outcomes.

Clear intent gives them a framework for making decisions. The discipline of briefing and back briefing gives them clear boundaries within which they can and should exercise their judgement, a focus on what matters most, and clarity about their part in the plan. Ultimately, however, If they are to demonstrate adaptive behaviour, they will need support, both physical and moral.

Giving people the confidence to act is ultimately a task of leadership.

This form of intent-based leadership requires organisations to establish some common beliefs, expectations, language and behaviours. Everyone (but especially leaders) have a role to play:

Everyone must understand the intent.

Everyone is responsible for using the intent to guide their own actions and doing their best to fulfil it.

Everyone presumes they are free to decide/act unless told otherwise.

The presumption of freedom, within the boundaries defined in Practice 4, is essential but in practice requires leaders to take risks depending on the individual and the situation. For that reason, leaders should set appropriate, but not unduly restrictive, control mechanisms to encourage people to operate at the edge of their comfort zone, learn to expand it and develop as individuals.

In summary, the most important leader behaviours enabling people to make the best use of their freedom to act are:

  • Lead by explaining what to achieve and why (not how).
  • Think and relate what you are doing to what really matters two levels up, but only issue direction and tasks one level below you. Don’t do your managers’ jobs for them!
  • Take a decision that is about right – now, but keep the situation under close review if it’s changing fast.
  • Explain the rationale behind your own decisions and encourage people to question it.
  • Show junior staff you trust their judgement. Invite them to offer their opinion first to get honest views.
  • Always support your colleagues, treating other teams as you would your own team breeds trust.
  • Always act (and require other people to act) in line with intent.
  • Celebrate well-intentioned failure, using it as a learning experience.

In the world of agile strategy sins of omission (something someone should have done but didn’t) is worse than a sin of commission (something someone shouldn’t have done but did) provided they acted in line with intent.