Freedom and Accountability Go Hand-in-Hand

As I think back at the end of the year, I realize how much I have learned this year and how my perspective has changed or been enriched by my reading, training, and experiences this year.  Some things are even more important to me than before, though freedom, personal and civic, has always been important to me.  I have come to understand over the years just how important it is, and to have a clearer understanding of how freedom and accountability go hand-in-hand.

As children, many of us could hardly wait to grow up so that we could live by rules that accommodated our desires and what we perceived to be our needs.  Growing up has taught us that some of these inconvenient rules are there for a reason:  They are part of what governs or strives to balance the vagaries of the human system known as civilization.

We are at a time in history once again when many taboos are being challenged and successfully set aside, many social constructs are being reconstructed, and the many human systems which make up the largest human system, civilization itself, are being shifted, morphed, reconstructed, and reconstituted.  This tends to happen through iterations of social experimentation, and when doing social experiments, it’s wise to think ahead, look around, and pay attention as you go.

Agile teams, when they reach a certain level of skill, learn to do just that.  The planning process at the start of a sprint or iteration is an opportunity to agree to run one or more experiments, based on what was learned in the last sprint or hoped for in the team’s future, to improve execution and team happiness.  The retrospective process at the end of their sprints or iterations is designed to help them learn from the experiments they ran in the previous sprint as well as their overall experience and adjust how they will go forward as they pursue freedom and happiness—which, of course, includes delivering a high quality product so the business can keep paying everyone.

It is possible to change big human systems, such as governments, multinational organizations, and even civilization itself, one small bite at a time, and every human experience counts.  If that weren’t true, we’d have a King and Queen of the United States of America, virtually none of us would own the land or structure we live in, and the burden of breadwinning would still reside almost solely with men.

It seems to balance out that every freedom comes with related accountabilities, and as we step up for greater freedom we become more intimately acquainted with our natural accountabilities as sentient beings—much as happened to us when we finally “got to be grownups.”

Some people believe that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship.  They argue that we cannot count on people to make good decisions on their own behalf or with others in mind, in other words, that we don’t know what’s best for us.  But that kind of thinking seems to run counter to what others would call “the American experiment.”

To increase business agility and decrease the amount of time required to address a problem once it arises, the whole enterprise must be competent in making good decisions.  No longer can we wait for the central office or the manager sequestered in a conference room to make a decision.  The person who finds the problem needs to be able to resolve it.  This is not meant to equate to the kind of erratic decision making known as “shooting from the hip” (which, of course, some highly skilled gunslingers really could do well in the movies).  You can still do a quick check-in with colleagues to test your thinking, which is often wise unless, of course, the building really is on fire.

What used to be called corporate citizenship takes on new meaning in this context:  it becomes the kind of engaged citizen who was required to form a nation of self-governing people.  Such people needed to be multi-skilled because specialists weren’t always available where they were needed, and they needed to be able to spot and resolve ethical and social conundrums quickly and skillfully so as to preserve and expand the kind of civility that builds trust and ensure collaborative capacity.

Irresponsible, or unaccountable, assumption of freedom tends to have a natural outcome of varying levels of disaster for individuals, institutions, and communities of all forms and sizes.  Some things we do today, while they seem to bring greater freedom in the near term, suddenly pull us up short a few sprints or releases or years out.  As we go forward collectively seeking more freedom and transforming our civilization, let alone our work teams and organizations, it can be useful to consider what purpose the old structures performed, not so much as a means of preserving them but as a means of understanding what responsibilities come forward with us as we transform.

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