Growing Adaptive Organizations

Step C1: Designing Operational Autonomy


The best way to absorb variety, i.e. to deal with challenges and surprises is done locally. Interventions should be an exception and occur only when the unit cannot deal with the situation by itself.


The essence is organizational balance: of ensuring that the bits which are charged with overseeing the Operational units can do their job properly.

The first element of generating this balance is to give each Operational unit as much autonomy as the organization can handle, without degenerating into separate and isolated parts.


C1.1 Mission Statements

Negotiate clear mission statements for each Operational unit. These should be as brief as possible and agreed by both the organization as a whole and the department which it concerns.

C1.2 Allocate Resources

Allocate the necessary resources to ensure that each department has enough money and personnel to carry out its mission. Again these must be negotiated as above.

C1.3 Define Monitoring Methods

Define a method to enable the departments to demonstrate that they are carrying out their mission. In some cases it may be continuously obvious, in others structured accountability systems may be needed, such as performance indicators or an OKR process.

C1.4 Agree Limits of Autonomy

Agree the limits to autonomy. The possibility of a department threatening the viability of the entire organization must be considered, and thus the conditions on which autonomy is forfeit need to be agreed. Assuming that accountability has been satisfactorily worked out, then it should be straightforward to say “you are autonomous, unless the following occurs …”

C1.5 Agree Intervention RulesIf the limits to autonomy are passed then intervention becomes necessary. Once the limits have been agreed, the way that this is carried out must be negotiated. It may involve a new co-ordinator, a rescue package, or a new team.

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