The Role of Empowerment in Self-Organization

Intelligent control appears as uncontrol or freedom. And for that reason it is genuinely intelligent control. Unintelligent control appears as external domination. And for that reason it is really unintelligent control. Intelligent control exerts influence without appearing to do so. Unintelligent control tries to influence by making a show of force.
~Laozi, 600 BC

The industrial revolution brought about some great ideas on how to make people and machines incredibly efficient.  When we’re doing task work, repetitive work, or any type of work that is algorithmic (can be done by following a set of rules, even extremely complicated ones), then traditional management reigns.  When we’re doing knowledge work, creative work, or any type of work that is heuristic (cannot be done via algorithm, requires trial&error to produce learning and doing), then traditional management starts to break down.

Most of us do heuristic work.  Most of our managers use algorithmic management techniques.  This is incongruous.

The manager’s role in a complex, creative, heuristic environment is to foster self-organization.  One way to jump-start this is through serious empowerment.  From the start the word “empowerment” is bothersome, implying that by default we aren’t empowered.  I think the key to empowering your people is to realize that you have to do almost nothing.  They are empowered.  More than you know.  All you really have to do is get out of their way.  Let them make 98% of the decisions.*

*A well researched statistic I made up for the purposes of this blog post.

By letting go and getting out of their way, the heuristic work being done will flourish.  More ideas will be generated, more creative solutions will be sought after, more results will flow in.  Your bottom line will improve.  As a manager all you need to do is present the vision for your team.  What problem are you trying to solve, and how do you see it affecting your customers?  Let everyone around you take care of the rest.

Isn’t it funny that we had this figured out in 600BC?  Becoming agile is as much about unlearning the ways of the industrial revolution as it is about learning the ways of agile management.

The quote above and most of the ideas in this post can be credited to Chapter 6 of Management 3.0, by Jurgen Appelo.


Agile is a mindset, a state of being.

Scrum is a framework.

Neither are methodologies.

Methodology.  [meth-uh-dol-uh-jee]. noun.  A set or system of methods, principles, and rules for regulating a given discipline.