Is autonomy in the workplace always good for innovation? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Tomasz Obloj, Professor of Strategy at HEC Paris, on Quora:

Autonomy is a mother of great inventions. At least one of them. Think of one such great invention: 3M's Post-It Notes. It was discovered by a scientist Art Fry, during so called off-time that the company allocated to its employees to pursue their own ideas. It is now practically common-place for organizations to use such institutionalized solutions to foster creativity.

At the same time excessive autonomy can also lead to lack of coordination, dispersion of attention, and wasted, repeated effort. Hence, the role of autonomy in promoting or inhibiting innovation crucially depends on factors such as the stage of the innovative process, size of the organization, modularity of work processes or interconnectedness of the value chain.

Google for example, similarly to 3M, used to have a famous 20% rule wherein all creative employees were allowed to spend 20% of their time on projects that they thought were most beneficial to Google. Gmail and AdSense are supposedly outcomes of this autonomy. As the company grew however, it seems that the rule became too difficult to mange and slowly fell out of favor. Some employees jokingly say that the 20% rule is actually the 120% rule.

Autonomy can also be counterproductive when the innovative process requires tight coordination across teams or functions. There, there is a great need for control, sharing, and planning processes - otherwise the (however great) pieces simply do not fit together. Yes, autonomy can generate brilliant ideas but (unless they are stand-alone products or services), at some point in time, they need to be integrated into a coherent whole.

All this said, autonomy is a powerful motivating and idea-generating engine. While it is not a sufficient condition for innovation, some autonomy certainly seems to be one of the necessary ones.

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Published on: Mar 1, 2018