The Role of Autonomy and Purpose in Supporting Organisational Change

In our book on agile business we talk about the need to bring together a dual focus on both customer experience and employee experience to support digital transformation and change. We frame the latter by drawing on Dan Pink’s excellent work from his book Drive, in which he describes the limitations of extrinsic motivators (like money) in the workplace and instead distills three key intrinsic elements (supported by extensive and relevant research, studies and examples) that really motivate people at work:

  1. Autonomy:- the ability to make a difference in the area that we are responsible for
  2. Mastery:- learning, progress and getting better at our work over time
  3. Purpose:- the feeling that what we’re doing is worthwhile

Intuitively that just makes a whole bunch of sense but what was striking for me when I first read that book was just how much these qualities characterise the cultures, practices and environment that I observe in the businesses that are making a success of introducing new ways of working that are more fit-for-purpose for a digital world.

Bruce Daisley interviews Dan in the latest episode of his excellent eatsleepworkrepeat podcast. Dan talks about the foundational principles expounded in the book but he also gives some great examples of organisations applying them, and discusses how his thinking has developed. In particular, he describes how we should think about purpose not only in terms of the grand, visionary purpose that a business might set out to establish a compelling direction (Purpose with a capital ‘P’) but also the importance of purpose (with a small ‘p’) in the sense of employees knowing and feeling that they are making a valuable daily contribution. He mentions how frequent, iterative feedback is essential in supporting this and how inadequate annual performance review processes are (I’ve written about this exact subject before now). It always surprises me just how poor and often demotivating many performance management processes can be in supporting change and momentum and how this can be a critical potential barrier to agility that really needs to be reinvented from the ground up. As Professor Paul Dolan talks about here, one of the key lessons from Behavioural Science research is that small things can create big change (and at very little cost)

Dan also talks a lot about autonomy (something that I spend a fair amount of focus on in consulting gigs), and how a key part of this is the space that leaders can create within teams to originate new value and nurture experimentation. In reality this is never easy given the pressure most people are under in teams to deliver against short-term priorities but there is a real role that leaders can play in setting the right expectations and wherever possible giving their people the cover and freedom they need to carve out time and space. It may not be 20% time, but just a bit of space can bring exceptional benefits.

Dan gives a lovely example of the value of doing this. Scientists Andrei Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the Nobel prize for Physics in 2010 for their creation of Graphene which has been described as the scientific find of the century. Graphene is the ‘wonder material’ comprised of a single layer of carbon atoms, and is the thinnest and strongest substance known to science (about 200 times stronger than the strongest Steel) that already has an almost limitless number of applications.

But the creation of Graphene didn’t come from a structured long-term research programme. It came from mucking about in the lab. Geim and Novoselov ran ‘Friday Night Experiments’, a small amount of free time on Friday afternoons when lab staff could work on scientific experiments not related to their day job. In one such session they were playing around with sticky Scotch tape, using it to peel off layers of graphite flakes until they were only a few atoms thick. They realised that they could actually use this method to get down to the thinnest possible layer, just one atom thick, and create a material with completely unique properties.

When they won their nobel prize, the Nobel committee noted the way in which the scientists used playfulness in the way that they work together. We need to create more space for playfulness in business. Without it, we might never come up with the breakthrough ideas and concepts that can not only enable creative leaps forwards, but can quite possibly save our business.

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Also published on Medium.