You gotta have Rules if you want to be Free… The Blogpost.

You gotta have Rules if you want to be Free… The Blogpost.

This is a topic that I have been holding talks on lately, so I thought I would use this opportunity to post the major thoughts here – just a short recap of the lectures and things that came out of the different talks in different forums.

You might also want to check out this video that I put together – it is from my last presentation at the Manage Agile Conference in Berlin, November 2017.

Watch the Video

And the rest goes a little something like this:

Autonomy and self-organisation in the workplace is helping to give us a sense of purpose.

In this world of self-organisation, we have gone past what everyone knows as “people empowerment” to a world where collaboration, participation, creativity and general freedom to take responsibility are more important than “reporting lines” and “directives”.

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The idea of how we work with each other is continually evolving., and Management of today can be different – but not everything that is “new” and “different” is exactly what you need. We need to find out what works in which situation.


These days when many of us go to work, it is not only to earn a buck and pay bills. We spend so much of our day-to-day lives at work – so why shouldn’t work be something that helps us also reach our own personal goals?  Are we really there just to do what we are instructed to do, or is it better to have a sense of purpose?  Wouldn’t it be great if our work offered us the freedom to do that too? We’d be able to do more and create better products and services…

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But you know – it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Taylorism, Sociocracy, Holocracy, Management 3.0 or any of these great new ideas of how to create autonomous work environments. No matter what – they all have one thing in common, and that is that the success of theses models relies heavily and chiefly on a set of common rules and guidelines.

And so we find ourselves asking how much “freedom” in the working environment is really helpful, and what it means to be able to keep things “under control” without somehow forcing people to do things.

Without Rules, we’re just a bunch of people doing stuff. Somehow…

Did you know that they completely turned off all the traffic lights at Alexanderplein, one of Amsterdam’s business intersections? … That worked remarkably well – so well that there is now much less congestion and less incidents at this junction, and the city has decided to keep the lights off for good.

Why does this work?

Well, because people will self-organise where they need to, and they will find ways of coordinating themselves in such a way as to be part of a cohesive, efficient system –  even in such a complex environment as a busy intersection where you have Cars, Busses, Trams, Bicylces, Pedestrians all going in different directions, crossing their trajectories and negotiating dangerous turns.

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But don’t get too distracted by the fact  that  the obvious “rules” of having to obey traffic lights have been removed from this scenario.  The people interacting at this intersection have come up with other rules – be it a hand-signal, eye contact, or other systematic and universally understood rules of conduct.  And by the way – they are also adhering to the actual rules and legislation and guidelines that govern participation in public transportation, driving a motor vehicle or even personal conduct.

But for all the great Ideas that work,  there are as many misconceptions…

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We can’t treat our work environments like traffic intersections and roundabouts, so my call to you is to be sensible and use judgement and data to support your actions. Give directions and create  a set of rules and guidelines. Being agile, self-directed, or just plain “modern” has nothing to do with chaos.


So what does work?

Well, I don’t have the magic formula of answers to that question – and I don’t think any of us really do because things that work today may not work tomorrow, things that work in one environment may not work in another environment.

But I do want to list some of the things that have worked well, and that I believe are universally valid.

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  1. First, create the right environment
    It’s not rocket-science, and we’re not living and working in the primordial soup. There are emergent behaviours and structures, and then there are tried and true structures, practices and principles. Build the environment and be flexible enough to inspect and adapt.
  2. Be free – by all means. But don’t neglect structure, common rules, and yes – even boundaries
    It’s not a free for all, folks. We need to understand which behaviours are conducive to our cause, and basically what helps or hurts us. Give people a means of being able to check that their behaviours are in-line, and…
  3. Introduce instruments to help people work on improving those people-skills, and not just their technical expertise
    I mean, honestly – a beautiful new sports car that has a broken steering wheel and only goes in circles is not really all that great, is it?
  4. Take a clear stance!
    You can’t always do things that make everyone happy all of the time. Sometimes, you’re going to have to be a bit unpopular.
  5. Hold people accountable!
    We are at work together for a reason. Together is probably better than going it alone – and if we are underway together then we need to give people responsibility, and also count on them to be reliable and results-oriented.

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Finally, one of the things I can’t repeat enough:

Don’t make the mistake of believing you’ve got it all figured out. We are constantly redefining what it means to be open and free about how people go about their jobs, while at the same time not neglecting the fact that we do need structure, common rules, and yes – even boundaries.

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Regularly check your approach, engage in an active dialogue with others, share and learn.


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