Thursday, July 1, 2010

The myth of autonomy debunked, what about the myth of initiative?

photo by r8r
We've all been conditioned into believing that only a small percentage of all people are able to work autonomously. The machine/control paradigm of management is founded in this belief. In order to make people productive apparently you need to tell them what to do and how to do it.

Classical hierarchical organizations work that way. The executive sets up goals and directions, managers translate them into concrete directives and actions and pass them to their employees. Employees execute these orders. The employee is seen as a mechanical piece, part of a complex mechanical system. The machine metaphor is clearly apparent here. He/she needs to execute the given tasks within the imposed constraints. Yes, there is feedback going from the employee to the manager, and up to the executive, but there is very little autonomy.

It turns out that human organizations behave quite differently from mechanical automata, especially when creativity is the goal of the game. First, an organization needs to win the cooperation of it's members. A mechanical piece has no consciousness, no free will. You put it into its place within the system and it turns the way it is supposed to. A human being has the choice to do a great job, or a crappy job. In order to gain the full cooperation, organizations must satisfy for the individual some fundamental psychological and material needs. The individual needs to perceive that his/her contribution is important, that he/she is part of something bigger-a form of spirituality. The individual needs to perceive that he/she is respected, valued, appreciated. The individual must also believe that his/her contribution is justly rewarded, etc. etc. Second, it is now well understood that the working environment and all the psychological needs of the individual affect creativity in a major way. Even if you gain the full cooperation of your employees, you are still not sure that the creative juices are flowing to the optimal capacity.

Google understood all this! Among all the successful companies, their employees have the greatest autonomy. On Google's campus you find cafes, bars, swimming pools, game rooms, parks, you name it. You can take your laptop and work from the swimming pool, and your boss is not going to be there to pass you the sunscreen. Google understood that they can get more from their employees if they only emphasize on the job that has to get done, and let the employee decide how to do it. And it works! The myth of autonomy was debunked.

But there is another myth. We are told that the great majority of us have no initiative. If we are not given directions we don't know what to do. We might be autonomous, i.e. able to organize ourselves once we know what has to be done, but the majority of us are apparently incapable of setting goals and directions. What about Linux? Who tells developers which directions they should take? This myth is about to be debunked as well.

I am not advocating that all human beings are autonomous and show initiative. But what is the real percentage? The opposition to my argument brings up statistics, scientific studies made on our actual society, showing only a very small percentage of driven individuals with initiative. But wait a second! There is something scientifically wrong here, the method could be good, but the conclusions are false. The logic used is flawed. We are talking about what us humans are capable of, about our potential, we are NOT describing our actual society. We've seen that before. A scientific study on black slaves on a plantation in South Carolina USA, at the beginning of the century, would most probably reveal that the majority of these individuals were submissive and dependent. Can we conclude that it is in the nature of a black person to be submissive and dependent? Of course NOT! We know that humans are malleable. Put a child into slavery and he/she will adopt a slave mentality. It is a matter of adaptation! You don't comply you die! It is about adaptation, it is a force rather than a weakness. This shows the capacity of all humans to thrive in harsh situations. But once slavery was abolished these same people rapidly acquired the skills to live in society. They become teachers, business man, scientists, doctors, and even presidents.

Our actual system has made us dependent! Our masters only need us to produce, not to be autonomous, not to show too much initiative. We have bee conditioned into being docile and dependent. The scientific data describing individuals only describe the actual system, NOT the our potential.

What is the percentage of autonomous individuals with initiative, potentially speaking, within a culture of freedom and self-determination? If YOU are not a such person you may want be become one, YOU CAN. 

By AllOfUs

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