Autonomy: The First Step to Cultivating an Agile Company

September 12, 2017
| ByMike Ryan

Speed, performance, agility—the three go hand-in-hand.

The best businesses are well aware that their customers hold them to two standards, to be fast and to be good. The smartest companies have also learned that being both requires an organization that is flexible, accommodating and agile.

Agility is more than a trendy aspiration. Businesses that are agile have far better financial and operating results than those who are not. They adapt to market forces or functional changes in ways that are swift, productive, profitable and cost-effective.

What “agile” companies have in common

Being “agile” is easier said than done. It requires management that’s more interested in leading (than “managing”) and workers who are willing (and motivated) to apply their own ideas to new challenges.

Companies who are considered highly agile are known for their collective focus, their clear visions, their engaged and committed workforces and their seamless ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Mostly though, they are known for creating autonomous workplaces where workers are encouraged to operate in an innovative and flexible manner.

So what then are the stepping stones to creating a truly agile business environment? The secret is in knowing that when it comes to the way any company operates, agility is a direct byproduct of worker autonomy.

The connection between autonomy and agility

In the workplace, “autonomy” means having the freedom to make decisions and apply measures that one thinks are best in certain situations. That doesn’t mean that organizations that encourage autonomy are operating without limitations. Quite the opposite; they still have their rules and protocols but within those boundaries they embolden employees to solve issues where and when they happen. These businesses have built cultures that encourage prudent risk taking by rewarding individual employee initiatives.

Employees who are free to make their own choices and decide how they go about their responsibilities are happier. They are more committed to their work, more productive and less likely to leave. In addition, they own issues and outcomes and can be expected to adjust their ways of working to fit the situation at hand. Simply stated, autonomous employees not only support an agile business model, they flourish in one.

Autonomy, local leadership and social recognition

Local leadership is essential in creating and maintaining a more autonomous workforce. Here, managers don’t “micro-manage” employee measures and methods. Instead they focus on coaching, mentoring and motivating the people on their teams to apply their talents. Frontline managers set objectives, of course, but here’s the difference: they encourage their workers to put their own ideas to work in pursuit of those goals.

Social recognition is a valuable resource for agile companies. How so? It provides local managers with the tools they need to encourage employees, reward their work and spotlight their accomplishments. It gives supervisors the means to acknowledge not simply what an employee has done, but how they have done it. In other words, it helps managers applaud an employee’s individual way of working. As others see this being held up for acclaim, they too are reminded that new ideas are welcomed and appreciated. Along the way a more authentically agile workplace begins to take shape.

How does HR fit in?

As businesses pursue pathways to organizational agility, no group is more valuable than HR teams. The best, most progressive human capital leaders pride themselves in being strategic partners to other business leaders. In these companies you will witness a keen emphasis on creating the cultural conditions that spawn agile operations. Here HR will use recognition to help create and celebrate autonomous, effective workforces, the first step in cultivating an authentically agile company.

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