The phrase “disciplined freedom” may at first appear to champion a set of two inconsistent ideals. When people think of discipline, they usually think of rigidity, both in rules and structure. Freedom elicits thoughts of bountiful choice and independence – almost the exact opposite. However, there is a middle ground that exists between the two. Disciplined freedom works by taking the best aspects of its two components and merging them, wherein an employee is provided with explicit expectations and boundaries for a particular task, but is given the ability to complete it in whichever way he or she sees fit.
Allowing employees to find room for creative problem solving within established standards and procedures will bring about greater efficiencies and feelings of autonomy among workers. Disciplined freedom underscores the need for your employees or team members to follow company guidelines, but does not remove their creativity in searching for new paths, best practices, or iterations within the guidelines you have created. Leaders in any field of work can apply the practice of disciplined freedom and it has even been used as an operating practice in top military echelons, such as the Navy SEALs.
In an interesting real-world case study, a top ranking Navy SEAL introduced what appeared to be a more rigid and lengthy process for the way in which evidence was collected during chaotic, war-zone missions. Originally, soldiers in a platoon were able to search any room they wanted at will, whereas the new procedures mandated that each soldier was specifically assigned a room to carefully search. Soldiers first thought that this procedure would hamstring their abilities to do their job, but after test runs, they realized that this new process actually cut down the evidence sweep time from 45 minutes to under 20 – a huge improvement.
The basis for this improvement ultimately lied in disciplined freedom. While the choices of the soldiers were curtailed by restricting them to search only one room (discipline), they were still allowed to carry out their search independently, without supervision or micro-managed search protocols (freedom). The creator of the new process remarked that the stricter they were with the evidence collection procedure, the soldiers actually had more freedom to operate faster and efficiently within its confines because they knew exactly what they had to do, and they knew they were free to decide how best to do it.
When employees receive greater freedom within the borders of concepts or tasks, they will also invest more into them and feel more strongly about their outputs. Our new book Lifting People Up: The Power of Recognition talks through the logic behind disciplined freedom, “The roadmap should be defined, but there must be some flexibility for the drivers to take a variety of routes to reach their destinations. The more choices they make, the more entrenched they become in the project. By the end, team leaders and members are fully invested in their innovations, and speak about them with noticeable passion and gusto.” Disciplined Freedom inherently creates internal champions because employees are able to put their own personal fingerprint on a project or task and make it “theirs.”
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