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Everywhere in Chains, but Free: Constraints and Creativity

Chain Sculpture

Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau's famous declaration highlighted its time's brutal contrast between the lofty aspirations of the Enlightenment and the harsh reality on the ground. Today, personal liberty, autonomy and empowerment are considered touchstones of a modern workplace; organisations and companies, whatever the truth behind closed doors, market themselves to potential employees and the wider public as driving to unshackle staff from stuffy hierarchies and stifling process.

Nevertheless we can neither run an enterprise - commercial or social - as an anarchy or, beyond the most trivial scales, as a flat collective. Rules, written and unwritten, and roles, formal and fluid, arise naturally. In the absence of leadership, leaders emerge - for good or ill. Moreover, we acknowledge that some rules are necessary, and that these rules will have to be a compromise; no individual is likely to be completely satisfied, but everyone is able to consent so that the organisation functions.

Taking this together, one might expect that the optimal arrangement would be to keep rules, which are really best understood as constraints on individuals' freedom to act, to a minimum; surely in this way, by maximising the solution space in which people operate, they will have the best chance of being creative and thus productive. Yet this would be a mistake for at least two reasons.

The first of these you have probably heard of as "The Paradox of Choice": namely, when given too much freedom to choose between alternatives, we find this a burden rather than a blessing, and are less satisfied with our ultimate decision regardless of what it is. Since first reaching popular attention this has received considerable research and the current consensus is that it is a real phenomenon. Especially in a work environment, the freedom to choose between alternatives that have little practical effect creates soft costs that outweigh any marginal gains.

The second point, related but distinct, is that choice implies responsibility. Indeed, if an individual is not to be held accountable for their choice, then it is either a meaningless choice (in which case, see above) or a moral hazard (such as a trader insulated from the risks they take with the money of others). It is right that we expect responsible choices - which is why we should not burden conscientious people with unnecessary choice, for they will take their duty seriously and expend emotional and cognitive effort where it generates little return. For example: approved supplier shortlists have their disadvantages, as sardonically noted in the 1980's with the catchphrase "nobody got fired for buying IBM", but there is a benefit to liberating people from decisions where they can only see a large downside risk or endless interpersonal haggling.

It is no accident that I ended up using the word "liberating". The true paradox of choice is that by imposing constraints on low-value choices we free up cognitive resources to use on meaningful liberty - the freedom to innovate, to create, and to improvise. Brunel used chains to build bridges - so can we.

Vince Negri is process consultant at Beyond the Board Training.

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