Our Point of View

How Autonomy Supports Organizational Change


There are several different kinds of organizational change. There is planned change, where organizations decide to enter a new business, or exit an old business, or reorganize. There is unplanned change, where organizations need to respond to change: a competitive threat, an economic downturn, a supply chain disruption, or a sudden increase in costs. There is also a third type of change, often referred to as emergent change. Rather than a meticulously planned big bang change, with a clear demarcation of before and after, many organizations change incrementally, through a series of small changes or experiments, adapting to circumstances as they emerge.

Autonomy supports all three of these types of changes: planned, unplanned, and emergent. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Planned Change

Both research and experience indicate that autonomy improves acceptance of planned changes. A study of hospital employees found that increased levels of autonomy at work increased employees’ proactivity and increased support for organizational change. Executives with experience implementing change in organizations know that involving employees in the design and implementation of change makes them much more likely to be supportive of that change.

This makes sense. Employees fear the worst if they have no control or influence over change. In some cases, those fears are well founded, as the change impacts them negatively. If they have more autonomy, they may find alternate approaches to addressing the circumstances driving the need for change and support the change.

Unplanned Change

The fifth value of the Agile Marketing Manifesto is “Responding to change over following a static plan.” How well employees respond to change is influenced by their training, experience level, and autonomy to make decisions.

In 2017, the U.S. Navy experienced not just one but two tragic accidents where Navy ships collided with commercial vessels, resulting in the deaths of 27 sailors. The official inquiry determined that both accidents were avoidable. Looking further into the details of what happened revealed the following:

  • The crew and the commanding officer failed to respond effectively in a crisis (responding to unplanned change).
  • There was a lack of training and preparation.
  • In the case of the collision involving the ship John S. McCain, the commanding officer literally micro-managed the helmsman into a situation where the helmsman lost the ability to steer the ship.
  • In the case of the other ship, the Fitzgerald, the watch sailors saw the problem in time to correct the ship’s course, but because of delays associated with relaying the information, including to the commanding officer who had left the bridge for his quarters, action was not taken.

For organizations to respond quickly to unplanned change, teams need to have adequate training and preparation for difficult circumstances. They must also have autonomy to take action. The captain of the ship should not be required to act to avoid a collision.

Although this example involves the military, the same principles apply in business. If information has to travel up the chain of command and decisions travel back down the chain, action will be delayed. If only the CEO or his direct reports are trained and have experience in making critical decisions, action will be delayed. Autonomy helps organizations respond to unplanned change, but it requires training and providing employees with experience in high-level decision-making.

Emergent Change

Emergent change, while not suitable for all circumstances, may be the most effective approach to change. With emergent change, teams are encouraged to make small, easily reversible changes, and to test whether these changes improve the situation, as measured by agreed-upon business metrics. 

The changes may be initiated and the details specified by management, initiated by the teams, and the details controlled by the teams, or some combination. When the teams have the autonomy to control the details, this approach to change can be particularly effective.

Emergent change reduces the risk of large-scale failures and allows for more flexibility and responsiveness to organizational dynamics and customer needs. By focusing on emergent change, the organization fosters a culture of continuous learning and innovation. 

This approach is not only more sustainable but also encourages a deeper understanding and connection with the market, leading to more effective and successful marketing strategies.

Final Thoughts

Autonomy supports all three types of organizational change: planned, unplanned, and emergent. It works best when teams are trained and have the experience to make critical decisions independently. Emergent change is an approach that many organizations under-utilize, but when used well, it reduces risk, fosters a culture of continuous learning, and encourages change agents to pay more attention to organizational dynamics and customer needs.