Autonomy and Accountability: A Balancing Act That Fuels Innovation


Higher Demands for Innovation Today

Across industries today, businesses and brands are realizing the need to embrace an innovative mindset in order to compete. In today’s shifting times, agility has never had so much value. And brands who want to be positioned to thrive need to be able to move fast and smart enough to stay ahead of the competition.

This hinges on having motivated, inspired, and productive people behind you. Innovative businesses today are fueled by people who believe in their purpose, are given the freedom they need to experiment, take calculated risks, and work creatively in order to move things forward.

Out of Balance  

Because of the increased demand for innovation, creativity, and higher engagement from employees today, many businesses are embracing a less hierarchical approach – moving away from rigid organizational structures and towards a more flexible approach.

However, giving more freedom to employees can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Yes, increased autonomy can drive creativity and engagement. And yes, it can empower people to innovate and experiment. But unchecked autonomy can easily lead to inefficient methods of doing business, lack of clarity surrounding business goals and objectives, and even organizational mayhem.

The key is finding the perfect balance – giving people the freedom to feel empowered in their own work, while also building the guardrails, systems, and check-points that keep people accountable and moving towards common goals and objectives. You want to give people the optimal amount of freedom to drive productive behavior and business results. And this balance is a challenge for businesses today.

Embracing Autonomy, Maintaining Accountability

Here are some ways to find balance – driving business forward with clear direction and the freedom needed within it to fuel innovation forward.

1. Clarity of purpose

Clarity and alignment around purpose is key. Your people should understand your driving motivator of business and be able to stand behind it proudly. When future aspirations come into focus and purpose is strategically established, it’s easier to be smart about what goals and objectives really matter and who is going to get you there.

Purpose allows people the freedom to work in different ways and experiment and innovate autonomously with a clear future in mind – a future everyone is working towards. The workplace becomes open to different working styles, ways of learning, and methods of creating. And this diversity drives innovation and productive collaboration.

So be transparent about the purpose of assignments and how they relate to the larger purpose of the business in order to set clear expectations. Being transparent and clear will help people find productivity within freedom and flexibility – bringing your business closer to its larger vision.

2. Agile structure

It’s no longer enough for brands and businesses today to be innovative. They have to be fast – moving quickly, always innovating, and outpacing the speed of competition. Businesses who want to compete today need to be agile and this often means they need a more flexible structure. Think smaller teams, dynamic workplace cultures, and efficient collaboration. Teams have to be adaptable, dynamic, and willing to flex and shift. Working in cross functional ways is of great value.

And leaving outdated organizational structures behind means that leaders have to give up some control, which is hard. But empowering employees to self-organize, work cross functionally, and collaborate is one the best things you can do as a leader. Focus on alignment and fostering an agile mindset in order to help autonomous employees do the work your business needs.

3. Build a culture, make it personal

Like anything in business, how you want to be perceived from the outside must shine authentically from the inside out. Culture plays a large role in innovation. In order to fuel a constantly innovating business, you need to build a culture that values freedom, experimentation, and creativity. But it also needs to be a culture that values accountability, transparency, and trust. An experiment-friendly culture or a risk-taking culture only functions to your advantage if you have people who are going to get the job done no matter what. This means meeting deadlines, motivating towards goals and objectives, and striving towards a clear purpose.

Innovative cultures thrive not only when they focus on business goals and objectives, but personal development and growth. Creative, independent people are more motivated when they see their own goals connect to the goals of the business. When it’s personal, it’s more meaningful, and the balance between autonomy and accountability is more easily met and maintained.

Leading and Empowering

Part of the job of being a leader is figuring out the best way to utilize your people to find the best solutions to the right problems. Giving away control, yet working to establish systems that check expectations, keep people accountable, and establish clear goals and objectives is a hard balance to strike, but a necessary one nonetheless. Like anything, it takes practice and experimentation. Think about the best practices your business can follow in order to empower your employees to drive your business forward feeling autonomous and accountable for a future they have true stakes in.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco brand strategy and design agency.

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